Dog Days

Apr. 24th, 2008 09:38 am

Fandom: SGA

Series: Highschool Heroes

Characters: Eventual John/Rodney, Teyla/Carson, Ronon/Weir, ensemble

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: Whump, language

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta: sherriaisling, how did you get so awesome?

Summary: Where Rodney acclimates to his new surroundings, and everyone else tries to find him.

Author's Note: Sophomore Slump is over, and when I write Big Damn Cliffhangers, I do feel obligated to follow them up quickly. So. Here's the first part of the sequel.

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There's a soft, repetitive beeping sound on the edges of his hearing. Every few moments there is a beep and then the hiss of machinery, and Rodney wonders if something is broken. He reaches out for the machines he can hear all around him, and startles when he can't feel them.

Adrenaline and fear have him jerking into a sitting position, and Rodney yelps, pain lashing out through his bones. He feels seared under his skin, like his bones are made of razors and fire, cutting him to pieces. There are white blankets around his waist and he digs his fingers into them, holding on, breathing through his mouth, fast and shallow, until the agony edges back down to something he can handle.

Rodney's mind feels fuzzy, thick, and for a long time he stares around the room without comprehending. Almost everything in the unfamiliar room is gray. The walls, the ceiling, the floor, the equipment sitting around his bed. The sheets are white, and so is the loose shift that he's wearing, that feels itchy and uncomfortable against his skin.

There are I.V.s in the back of his hand, a blood pressure monitor around his index finger, and a gray bracelet around his wrist. Rodney moves his hand slowly, turning his wrist over so he can read the tiny black print across the bracelet. The only thing on it is the number 493, small, exact, and completely unhelpful.

There are three bags of clear liquid hanging on the I.V. stand, dripping down into his veins. There's machinery in a half-circle around his bed and he reaches out to it again, waiting for the feeling of pressure against his fingertips, the buzz in the back of his skull that's never far away. He gets nothing, and fear makes his stomach twist up.

Hospital rooms he knows. They're all the same, smelling like sick people and antiseptics. Most are the same dull colors, filled up with variations of a few machines. Rodney is used to hospital rooms. They stopped being strange or intimidating long ago. But this is the first time in five years he's been unable to reach out and touch all the pieces of himself that aren't contained in his skin.

The beeping is going faster now, his heart rate shooting up, pounding loud against his ears. He's alone and afraid, disoriented and detached. All of Rodney's short-term memories are scrambled together, the tearing pressure that had been trying to fit all the school's engines inside his head, moving a million different pieces in different directions and making them do what he wanted. Clinging on to John's back even though each jarring motion was agony. The blue sky all around them, big and perfect.

Rodney makes himself shift, one leg off the side of the bed and then the other, feet flat on the ground, ignoring the jags of pain shooting up through his ankles. The I.V. stand is helpfully on wheels and he leverages himself up, holding onto it and gasping. The floor is cold under his bare feet, icy and concrete rough, and Rodney's feet are flirting with numbness by the time he makes it to the door.

The knob doesn't turn when Rodney pulls on it, and for a moment he just stares blankly down at it, before trying again. It doesn't open and Rodney has never, ever, been locked in a hospital room before. He draws back a step, feeling small and alone, confused by what's going on and not sure he wants to understand.

And then he remembers John, crumpling to the ground with his eyes rolling back into his head. Rodney's knees go weak, leaving him sliding down to the floor, trying to hold himself up on the stand and not quite managing it. He remembers screaming, the cold bite of a needle against the side of his neck, and he reaches unthinkingly for the site of remembered pain.

Rodney's fingers stumble over cool metal and he shivers, poking at the thin band around his neck. It's loose enough to move freely, light enough that he had barely felt it against his skin. It's cold as ice and Rodney pushes it aside, looking for the wound from the needle and finding a band-aid with his fingertips.

The cold is creeping into his legs, and he's surprised to find that it actually feels good, or at least less bad. It's not enough to distract him from the fact that he's sitting on the floor of a room he's never seen before, locked in, unable to feel any of the machines around him. It's not enough to make up for the fact the last time he had seen John the other boy had been sprawled on his back in the grass, dead for all Rodney knew.

That hits like a blow, physically painful and nauseating. Rodney pushes it away because he can't believe it. John is indestructible, and if Rodney walked out of that mess alive then obviously John did as well. Rodney clings to that, pulling himself back to his feet and leaning his weight against the door. It is, not surprisingly, cold.

Rodney grits his teeth, and makes himself knock. Every bone in his hand and arm think it's a horrible idea, and respond with a wave of pain that has him yelping and nearly folding up again. When the spots behind his eyes fade, the door is still frustratingly not open, and Rodney clears his throat. Knocking again doesn't really seem worth it.

His mouth is dry, his throat rough, but talking doesn't hurt all that much. Rodney slouches against the wall, and makes his voice as loud as he can get it, "Hello? John? Is—is there anyone out there? Hello?" He leaves his ear pressed up against the wall, straining for any answering sounds. There isn't anything.

Rodney sighs, eying his stand and considering how difficult it would be to use it to leverage the door open, when there's a soft sound from the other side of the door. Rodney thinks it might be squeaky shoes, and he spins back to the door, ignoring the pain, shouting, "Hello! Is someone there?"

There's a pause, then the jingle of metal on metal and Rodney steps back automatically when the door starts to swing open. A short blond woman pokes her head into the room, and Rodney shifts uncomfortably, flushing when her eyes widen and she exclaims, "Oh, dear!"

The woman is in the room in seconds, abandoning a cart out in the corridor and closing the door. Rodney says, "Can you—"

She cuts him off, mouth thinned out in displeasure, pointing at his bed. Rodney doesn't move and she reaches out, grabbing his arm. Spots swim up behind Rodney's eyes, pain flaring where she pushes his skin against bone, and he feels his stomach lurch. And then she's pushing him down onto the bed, shifting her grip to take his pulse and saying, "We didn't expect you to be awake for another day at the least."

Rodney blinks, holding onto the stand with his free hand for dear life. The woman is wearing a long white coat, her hair pulled back into a severe bun, and Rodney can't help but thinking that she doesn't look like any doctor he's had before. He says, when he doesn't feel like he's about to gag anymore, "What?"

The woman holds a finger up, reaching for a clipboard at the end of his bed and humming at something she reads on it. When she speaks she sounds distracted, "Your last overload episode you were unconscious for several hours, and you manipulated a much larger component this time. You shouldn't be awake yet." She shifts, pressing her fingers into the side of his neck and demanding with a distracted air, "How are you feeling? Thinking clearly? Any memory loss?"

Rodney stares at her, tries to squirm away from her fingers. He wonders if everything in this place is cold, and says, "Where am I?"

The woman looks directly at him for the first time, blue eyes that stare right through him. Rodney doesn't realize that's what she's actually doing until her expression relaxes marginally and she says, "That's impressive. Most people take longer to adapt to the strain of overload level events. Your pantothenic acid levels are much higher than I would have expected." She frowns, reaches out and adjusts the feed on one of his I.V.s.

Rodney tries again, "Who are you? What's going on?"

For a moment he thinks she's going to ignore him again, but then she sighs. "I'm Doctor Perna. I'm afraid that explaining the program is rather beyond my pay grade. We really weren't expecting you to be ready for orientation for another day, but I'll see if I can get someone up to get you settled. Until then I'm going to get you some milk. You're going to need to drink it all, do you understand?"

And because Rodney doesn't know what else to do, alone in a way he hasn't been in five years, in a way he thought he was never going to have to be again, he nods. The milk is too warm and he's used to drinking half-percent instead of whole at the Sheppards. He chokes it down anyway.

Perna drops off a shirt and pants with the milk, gray clothing that Rodney carefully pulls on after she unhooks his I.V.s. The pants are loose and the fabric is thin enough that Rodney shivers. The socks are thicker, and Rodney curls his toes up, sits in his bed and stares at Perna—now ignoring him like he doesn't exist. His fingers keep finding their way to the collar, turning it over and over, unable to find a latch or any flaw at all in it's cold, smooth surface.

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Rodney is still playing with the collar when the door opens again.

And this man he recognizes. Rodney jerks, pushing his body off the side of the bed and scrambling backwards until the wall is at his back, his shoulder blades flaring into agony at the abuse. Colonel Ellis watches him, expression indifferent and expectant and all Rodney can see is the man stepping up behind John and John collapsing.

The man is still in military fatigues, same shaved head and mustache, though the split lower lip is new, and Rodney tries to reach out to the machines automatically for protection. But he can't touch them, can't even feel them, and the empty space inside of him hurts worse than the pain of moving.

Ellis stares at him for a long moment before turning his attention to Perna. Rodney watches the doctor hand the man a sheet of paper, watches the man sign and feels something in his stomach twist. He thinks he might be sick. Before that can happen Ellis is turning back towards the door, snapping, "Let's go, McKay."

Rodney makes himself let go of his collar, only to find his fingers tracing along the edges of it seconds later. He stares between Ellis and Perna, heart pounding too loud in his ears. Ellis' voice is whip-snap sharp, "Believe me, you don't want us to have to do this the hard way."

A shiver climbs up Rodney's spine and he makes himself move, skin crawling when Ellis sneers at him and precedes him out the door. Stepping over the threshold feels like stepping up to the gallows, and Rodney sways, reaching out to brace a hand against the wall, and Ellis makes an impatient sound. Rodney, panting because it hurts, everything fucking hurts, makes himself ask, "What's going on?"

Ellis scowls, jerking his head to the side and walking. Rodney winces but follows him, not sure what's happening here, or how to stop it from happening. The hallways are all as gray as the room he was in, and the huge numbers painted on the walls are in intervals that make no sense to Rodney. The fluorescent lighting is making him a little dizzy and the floor is cold even through his socks.

At first Rodney thinks that Ellis is not going to answer him, but then they step into a corridor labeled A-4 and the man clears his throat. "You should have already been told something about our program, unless your teachers were even more incompetent than I'm giving them credit for."

Rodney shivers, and has a feeling it has nothing to do with the freezing metal under his feet. He hadn't wanted to believe. It was so much easier to hold onto the denial, that this really was a hospital, that his parents had swept in and taken him back to Canada where they couldn't get him. He feels ill, numb and empty inside, his voice sounds hollow, "They counted me and John saving the school as my third strike?" It's almost enough to make him want to laugh. Or maybe cry.

Ellis doesn't shrug, leading Rodney through corridor after corridor, into an elevator. The man finally speaks, "We have reports from at least three bystanders saying that you created a bomb that killed two of your fellow students. That kind of behavior is what our program was set up to control."

Rodney stares at the door of the elevator. They're going down, not up, and Rodney watches the lights flash lower and lower. He feels rubbed raw inside, like someone tore out all the things that where supposed to be in him and left nothing in their place. He wants to be surprised, or indignant, or anything. But he'd known this was going to happen, sooner or later. For five years it had been hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Rodney swallows, "John?"

The doors slide open and Ellis steps out. Rodney follows him and the man answers, "Your little friend is safe and sound back in his home." Rodney has to close his eyes, stupid giddy relief filling up the empty spaces in his chest. Worry about John has been his constant companion for so long, since Jeannie drew her picture of him lying bloody on the floor of the cafeteria. Feeling it lift is a burst of sweet emotion, and Rodney holds onto it as tightly as he can. John survived. He's safe.

Ellis continues, "This is a great opportunity we've presented to you. The training we're going to give you is better than anything money can buy and the control you'll gain is going to give you the ability to live among normal people. We only accept applicants who we think have...potential."

Rodney is barely hearing the words. He's feared this for what feels like his whole life, one of his worst nightmares, always hovering right on the edge of his mind. And now it's happened. In a way, it's a relief.

Ellis, who doesn't apparently need any feedback, is continuing, "Many of your fellow applicants have doubled or tripled their abilities under our tutelage, and learned how to use them for the benefit of their fellow man instead of the wanton destruction there lack of control had resulted in. It keeps them out of the prisons, where so many of them would otherwise end up in. We hope we can do the same for you, Rodney."

Rodney stares down at the bracelet around his wrist, wondering vaguely what they did with his medical warning bracelet. The numbers on it aren't raised enough for him to feel, but he runs his thumb over them anyway. It feels a lot heavier than a piece of rubber should.

There's a pause, then another elevator that they step into. This one is smaller, smells like antiseptic so strongly that Rodney's sinuses burn. Ellis says, words careful and tight, "Many of the applicants that complete the program go on to have successful careers in the government or military, so you see we're offering you a future, safety, stability, a fulfilling life."

Rodney slides his fingers over the collar around his neck. It's still icy cold, like his body heat doesn't touch it. On his wrist is a bracelet that doesn't even has his name on it, just a number. Something in his chest flares hot, anger or indignant, still distant and sour but growing hotter by the moment. Rodney scowls, turns angry eyes on Ellis, "And you get all the soldiers you want, huh? Already trained just the way you want them."

The elevator opens, and Ellis smiles, stiff, "That's a very cynical way of looking at it, Rodney."

Rodney's own smile feels broken, pain and anger and fear turning it into something that feels ugly on his face. He tells himself to keep his mouth shut, but while he'd almost learned to do that, John had come along and ruined all his careful work. Rodney snaps, "You know, I think I'd rather stand trial. How about we do that?"

Ellis sighs, "We both know that's not how the protective act works." Rodney glares, exhaustion and pain battling with the anger and indignation and starting to win. Each step hurts more, and when Ellis stops it's a relief. Rodney braces one hand against the wall, swallowing air, hating the way he feels shaky, the way his skin is crawling.

Ellis presses a code into the keypad beside the door they've stopped beside. The door slides open and Rodney tries to reach for it, hissing with brand new hurt when he can't feel anything. Ellis says, "Someone will be by to pick you up in the morning. You will go with them to breakfast and then to your classes, are we understood?"

Rodney stares up at him, holding the man's eyes and pouring all of the disgust and anger that he can into the stare. Stepping around Ellis into the room is one of the hardest things Rodney has ever done, but he's not going to make them throw him in. He plants his feet inside the door, says, voice so cold he barely recognizes it as his own, "I'm going to get out of here."

Ellis smiles, and it is a horrible thing. "No, you're not." The door closes.

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The light in the room is dim, a line of pale yellow around the base of the walls. It's a tiny room, holding only a cot and a tiny cabinet, a mirror set into one wall, covered with plastic. That's it. Rodney turns in a circle, wrapping his arms up over his head, pain flaring up and shooting down his spine. He wants to cry, or scream, but he's sure there's a camera here somewhere and he doesn't want to give them the satisfaction of watching him fall apart.

Breathing through the pain never works as well as people say it should, but it's all that he has. He waits until his stomach doesn't feel so tight, until the spots behind his eyes fade, and then steps into the room. The mirror catches his attention and he braces his hands on the wall on either side of it, staring at himself.

His hair is gone. It's startling, nothing but a shadow that looks almost blue over his skull. Rodney hadn't even noticed, and he raises a shaking hand up, rubbing the prickly short hairs. The curls had been something new for him in the first place. He'd always kept his hair short but John liked playing with it, so Rodney had just let it grow. It's all gone now.

Rodney squeezes his eyes shut, shoulders hitching, clenching his fists because the pain distracts him. He makes himself look again. There's a cut on his cheek, covered by a butterfly bandage. His right eye is red, startlingly dark against his skin. He barely recognizes himself.

The pain has exhausted him, and the image of himself, unfamiliar and alien, has drained what energy he had left. Rodney shudders, stepping backwards into the cot, letting himself sink down onto it. The fabric is rough, but it doesn't seem to matter. Rodney buries his face against the pillow, rolling onto his side and pulling the blanket clumsily over his body. He doesn't want to close his eyes, afraid of the dark that is bound to be behind them, but exhaustion wins.

He falls asleep cold.

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Rodney wakes up to someone pounding on the door. For a half second, disoriented, he thinks it's Mrs. Sheppard. He reaches for John, wondering why he's so cold, and his fingers run into the wall. Pain races up his arm, but it's already duller than it had been when he fell asleep.

Rodney blinks, and everything floods in, the last day slamming down on him like a hammer. Rodney screws his eyes shut, bites his bottom lip and wants to just sink into the cot. The person outside pounds on the door again and Rodney lets out a shaky breath, pulls himself up and out of the cot.

The door opens just as he pushes to his feet, a soldier stepping half into the room and then drawing up short. The man, not much older than Rodney, looks surprised, even though he's got a hand on the holster by his waist. Rodney glares at him, snaps, "Yes?"

The soldier clears his throat, steps back out of the room, "I'm going to be your escort while you're enrolled in the program." There's an expectant pause, and the man shifts his weight from foot to foot, "If you'd come with me? I'll take you to the head and mess hall."

Rodney thinks about arguing, but his stomach rumbles. The soldier smiles, just a quick twist of his mouth in one corner. Rodney scowls at him and steps out of the room, squinting against the brighter light in the hallway. The soldier stares at him for a moment and then nods his head down the hall.

The head turns out to be a huge bathroom, full of other kids Rodney's age, younger, older, and soldiers. Rodney hesitates inside the door, and his soldier nudges his shoulder pointedly. Rodney glares at him, but steps forward. It's slightly disturbing when the soldier follows him through the room, standing outside the toilet stall and the shower, but there's nothing Rodney can do about it.

He keeps his head down. He hurts, and he's stiff from lying in the cold room all night. The last time this had happened, John had slept curled up close to him, his body warmth soothing the pain in Rodney's bones. He pushes the thought away, because it hurts worse to think about what he can't have.

Rodney only realizes he's zoned out, water running over his hands, when the soldier pats at his shoulder. Rodney jerks, pain and fear making him move to the side, bumping into a taller boy who snarls at him and pushes him back. Rodney catches glasses and angry eyes and then he's on the ground, pain lancing up through his body, vicious and intense. He grits his teeth closed against it.

"Step back, Kavanagh." There are hands on his arms, pulling him to his feet and Rodney almost gags. For a moment there's only pain, and then there is a hand on his chin, the soldier waving a hand in front of his eyes and continuing, "McKay, focus."

Rodney blinks, the room swimming into focus. The soldier looks almost worried and Rodney pushes even the thought aside, because at the most it's a good act. He shrugs away from the other man, mumbling, "Stop touching me. It hurts."

The soldier jerks his hands away, and Rodney bends over, braces his hands on his knees and lets himself catch his breath. When he straightens, everyone but the soldier is carefully not looking at him, and Rodney frowns at him. Rodney tries to make his voice sharp, and isn't sure if he manages, "I'd like to eat now."

The soldier nods, and Rodney wonders why he doesn't have a name tag on. Then again, he doesn't particularly want to know the man's name. It's enough that the soldier leads him to the mess hall. That's all that he really wants, and it's the best he has a feeling he's going to get.

The mess hall is gray, just like everything else, kids sitting at gray tables eating off of gray trays. There's a line of food along one wall, more soldiers behind it, and Rodney shifts, uncomfortable and afraid but hungry. He grits his teeth, making himself limp over to the food line and grab a tray, then moves through the line, feeling the soldier shadowing his movements.

There is a big pitcher of orange juice at the end of the line, between the milk and the water. Rodney freezes, staring at it, reaching automatically for the medical alert bracelet that isn't there. All that's there is the rubber bracelet, the number. Rodney shudders and reaches for the orange juice.

The soldier at his shoulder intercepts the movement, grabbing the milk instead, and Rodney glares up at him. The man smiles, stiff and forced, and Rodney wants to scream. The man says, setting a full glass of milk on Rodney's tray, through his smile, "I've been briefed on your nutritional needs."

"How lucky for me." Rodney thinks about upending the tray, but there are four soldiers right here, and a dozen more stationed around the room by the other kids. Rodney knows futility when he sees it, so instead he moves to an empty table and sinks down into a plastic chair that proves to be as cold and uncomfortable as everything else in this place has been.

Rodney pulls his knees up, wraps an arm around them and eats quickly. The food doesn't really have a taste, watery eggs and cardboard-y sausage, toast that is both soggy and burnt. Rodney swallows and doesn't think about pancakes or watching John attempt to cook them. When his breath comes out in a shuddering rush, his eyes burning, it's a surprise.

The fork bounces off his plate when Rodney drops it to slap his hand over his mouth. He worries about what sounds might escape, squeezing his eyes shut against the threat of tears. Food is probably the last thing that he should be getting upset about. Especially John's lopsided pancakes. It's stupid. They're all he wants.

There's a soft touch against his shoulder, but Rodney shrugs it off, makes himself open his eyes and ignore the tightness in his throat. He feels like he might gag on the milk but he drinks it anyway. If nothing else it'll make him feel better, and at this point it's all he thinks he'll be able to force down.

The soldier is offering Rodney his fork, and Rodney makes himself take it after a moment. He knows what John could do with a plastic fork, but he isn't John. Rodney pokes at the eggs, trying to make his mind blank and empty, numb the way he'd briefly managed to be yesterday. It doesn't work.

Across the room one of the other kids stands up, and Rodney focuses on the boy, desperate for anything to distract him from himself. The other boy is big, easily one of the tallest people Rodney's ever seen, and skinny as a rail. Rodney tracks him across the room, watches him walk back up to the food line, a soldier two steps behind him. Around the room everyone else has gone still, stopped eating, all of them watching. Rodney is holding his breath, and doesn't know why.

The other boy slams his tray down, reaches for the eggs and Rodney watches the soldier guarding the boy grab his arm. There's a whispered conversation that Rodney can't hear, even by straining his ears, but its tone is warning and tight. And the boy dumps a spoonful of eggs onto his plate with a defiant look.

It's odd, because Rodney smells the electricity before he realizes what happened. There's a web of blue energy arcing across the tall boy's frame, his limbs jerking as he collapses towards the ground. The soldier standing beside him is holding the blaster they all wear strapped to their hips.

The soldier makes a face, still pointing the weapon at the tall boy, who is snarling on the floor and trying to push to his feet. The soldier snaps, "Just stay down, Dex." The other boy doesn't answer, just spits on the floor and keeps trying to push himself up though it obviously hurts.

Rodney doesn't think. He knows that he should, that he always ends up getting himself in trouble when he does things without thinking. Getting into Sumner's face about Teyla had gotten him beaten up for almost a year once upon a time. Attacking the Wraith boys for hurting John had reminded everyone what he was capable of. It's not his business. It's not his problem.

Rodney shouts, "Hey!" and pushes clumsily to his feet.

There's a pause, the boy on the floor twisting his head around to look at Rodney, expression confused, hurt. And the biggest problem with doing things without thinking them out is that you always run out of plan before you're done. Rodney can't really square his shoulders, not with the pain trying to crumple him into a ball, but he gets his chin up as high as he can, and pushes ahead, "Leave him alone."

The taller boy's eyes go wide, almost hilariously surprised. Rodney would be offended, but the soldier that had shot the taller boy is sneering, "Get a hold of your charge, Richardson," and leveling his weapon on the other boy again. Rodney jerks forward, watching the tall boy's body jerk, and then there's electricity dancing across Rodney's skin.

Rodney gasps, knees buckling in relief. It's almost like going home, and he tips his face up to the ceiling, eyes wide open and unseeing. Sparks dance across his fingers and sink into his skin and Rodney lets them flow out into the floor beneath him. There's a part of him that wonders why this works when nothing else does, but it's too much of a relief for him to be able to care.

From somewhere distant and unimportant someone yells, "Fuck! His eyes!" and Rodney blinks. He tries to focus, dizzy from the burst of electricity, from trying to manage it and channel it down to something harmless, from learning that he's not completely broken, that whatever they've done to him isn't complete.

Rodney has time to register that the tall boy is unconscious and being dragged from the room, and then there's a sharp burst of pain against the back of his head. The world tilts alarmingly, and Rodney falls down into blackness and warmth.

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Rodney wakes up on his cot, a splintering headache bouncing around inside his skull. He blinks up at the ceiling and a voice that's becoming uncomfortably familiar says, "Interesting how there's nothing on record about you being dual-phasic."

Rodney groans, each word grating in his ears. He squints in the direction of Ellis' voice, finds the man leaning against his door, arms crossed, expression sour. Speaking doesn't really seem to be worth the effort, and Ellis continues after a moment, "Any other surprises you'd like to share?"

"No." Rodney's voice cracks around the word and he winces again, reaches up and rubs at his aching head. There's a new bracelet around his wrist, beneath the first, bright angry red. Rodney blinks at it blearily, reaching out and spinning it around. No numbers. No words.

Ellis says, "It's a warning. Multiple phasics rarely only have two powers. It would make it easier on all of us if you just told us what you can do so we could get your restraint properly formatted." Rodney blinks at him, not tracking, and Ellis motions to the collar around Rodney's neck.

Rodney just shakes his head, hurting and tired. He'd never thought about the two abilities as separate. And if he has others then he has absolutely no intention of sharing them with anyone here. Ellis sighs, managing to sound disappointed and impatient. The man says, "Have it your way. You've been removed from the class schedule for today by Doctor Perna's orders. But you will be there tomorrow. And that trick you pulled? Won't work again."

Ellis taps the side of his neck, flashing an ugly smile, and Rodney reaches up, wraps his fingers around the collar. It doesn't feel any different, which isn't reassuring. Ellis is still smirking when he steps out of the room, the door closing behind him.

Rodney lays in the almost-dark, nursing a splitting headache, freezing cold again. He curls his arms up over his head, draws his legs up and puts his back to the door. He's pretty sure that as long as he bites his lip to keep the sobs inside his chest, no one will be able to tell he's crying.

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John and his parents stay at the lake until everyone else is gone, trying to find Rodney, where he's been taken. John feels numb, the anger transmuted to an almost dreamy distance, disjointedly watching his mother yell at people and his father take people off to the side and talk with them very quietly and intensely.

And just like that all the reporters and emergency personnel are gone. They're the last ones left, the car sitting in the middle of an empty field, the grass smashed down from all the traffic earlier. There are boats out on the lake, divers jumping in to investigate the crashed school, and news helicopters circling. John stands at the edge of the surf and watches them, his hands balled up into absent fists, hair whipping around his face.

John doesn't realize that his father has stepped up to him until there's an arm wrapped around his shoulders. John blinks, turning to look up at his father, the stiff line of his jaw, the stubble covering his cheeks. John looks for words but can't find any. His father finally says, "Your mother is getting the car started."

John nods, watching the beams of light from the helicopters crisscross the dark surface of the lake. Behind them John can hear the car engine, and he drops his chin, staring down at his feet. His shoes are seared, and John squeezes his eyes closed. His father continues, "We need to get home. I'm going to call Patrick."

The randomness of the statement has John looking up, blinking in confusion. He thinks about asking why his dad needs to call his uncle, but it seems distant and unimportant. John just shrugs, and they stand in silence another moment before his father squeezes his shoulders and turns him towards the car.

The soft earth sucks at John's shoes when they walk across the field. The car is a little stuffy and smells like burnt coffee. John huddles against the door, his forehead resting against the window, and watches the stars. The radio stays off the entire drive home, his parents silent in the front seat. John's hands stay balled up in his lap.

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Teyla is on the porch when they pull into the driveway. John barely recognizes her at first, her hair wild and her expression stricken. John opens his door, careful not to break it, and Teyla unfolds up off the steps, her feet bare, her cheeks wet. Carson is standing by the door, looking miserable and lost.

John steps towards her, mouth open around words he doesn't know how to say, and then she's there. She pounds her fists against his chest and John lets her, his own arms limp by his sides. She's not saying anything, breath hitching when she pulls back and makes to hit him in the face.

John catches her wrist, because if she hits a bone she's going to end up breaking her hand. She yanks against his hold, eyes wild, and then she's shifting towards him, throwing her free arm around his neck and holding onto him tight. John can't move, just stands there feeling her cheek wet against his neck, and she says, voice rough, "I have lost him, I reach for him and there is nothing."

John raises a hand carefully, rubs a circle across her shoulders. She makes a choking sound and John turns his face into her hair, wraps his other arm around her and holds on. The world feels like it's slipped loose of its axis, spinning through space too fast, directionless. John doesn't mean to talk, but the words are there anyway, "They took him away from me, Teyla. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Teyla goes stiff, her voice breathy, "He is not...he lives?" She sounds disbelieving, and all John can do is nod, because he has to believe that, believe that wherever they took Rodney he's alive. To believe anything else is to step over the edge that he's dancing along, and John is terrified of what's on the other side. He doesn't want to find out. Teyla laughs, high and sweet, choking off.

Carson is standing on the steps now, watching them, and John motions the other boy forward, shrugs out of Teyla's grip. She looks better, and when Carson wraps an arm around her shoulders she does not collapse into him, instead wiping at her eyes.

Behind John, his parents step out of the car. John turns to look at them, really look at them for the first time since this happened. His mother still looks furious, her mouth turned down the way it only gets when she's really angry. His father is exhausted, angry in his own way, obvious in the tension in his shoulders.

John's mother clears her throat, voice tightly controlled when she says, "Why don't you all come inside? I'll make...I'll make something. Regan has some calls he needs to make." They form a silent procession into the house, into the kitchen, where his mother makes hot chocolate.

John wraps his fingers around the hot mug, staring at nothing in particular and smiling because the first time Rodney had drank their hot chocolate he'd went into paroxysms of joy. He'd drank so much he hadn't been hungry for dinner, content to curl up against John on the couch and sleep when the sugar left him crashed out while the rest of them watched a movie.

Teyla reaches out, curls her fingers around John's wrist, and when he looks up she is smiling as well, small and pained. John wonders briefly if he should be annoyed that she's sliding along his thoughts, but it seems stupid.

In the upstairs office, John's father is yelling, and John tilts his head to the side. He's not sure he's ever heard his father raise his voice, and it's startling. At the counter his mother winces, sits down her cup and exits the kitchen, her footsteps loud up the stairs.

They sit in silence. John even drinks some of his hot chocolate, not tasting it. His mind is drifting, disjointed by exhaustion and loss, dancing over memories and half baked rescue plans. Teyla interrupts him, voice sharp, "No."

John looks up, blinks at her and frowns, "What? At least I'd be—"

Teyla is frowning, her expression set and hard, "And how would you be able to help him if you were incarcerated beside him? Do you believe that to be what he wanted? I can tell you it is not. He worried—he worries constantly about you."

John winces, sucking in a breath to try to dull the bite of pain. The idea of attacking people, any people, enough to get the government to decide he was a threat had been brief. But even now there's an appeal to it, to finding Rodney even if it was as a cellmate. Teyla's voice is sharp, "I will not allow you to, John. Can you not respect his wish for you to be safe?"

John doesn't remember standing, but he's on his feet, and his cup is shattered against the far wall, the dry wall dented from the impact. Teyla stares up at him, all knowing dark eyes, and John makes himself relax his fists, take a step back.

They lapse back into silence, John unable to sit back down. Above them his father isn't yelling anymore. The house is silent, still, and John wanders over to the fridge, yanks open the freezer and riffles around for the blueberry ice cream. Rodney eats right out of the carton and John grabs a spoon, sinks down to the floor and curls up around it. It tastes horrible. He eats it anyway, and when he can't eat anymore he just pokes at it until it melts.

Outside the window the sun is coming up. John feels his stomach clench, because this time yesterday he was waking up in a warm bed, Rodney curled up next to him. This time yesterday, his forehead had been pressed against the back of Rodney's shoulders, and he'd been rubbing his fingers up and down the sheets along the line of Rodney's back, wishing he was brave enough to inch forward against skin. He'd been happy.

John drops his forehead to his knees, and then jerks to his feet. Teyla startles from where she'd been slouched at the table, blinking dazedly and John blurts, "Jeannie."

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Part Two

Rodney passes a week on autopilot. He knows he shouldn't, that he should be trying to figure out how to get out of here, because that's important. But he hurts, his body demands the chance to rest and heal itself. And he feels like he is missing pieces of himself, the aching emptiness where they should be worse than the physical pain.

It's easier to just drift, at least for a little while.

The program is more than happy to plan every minute of his day, to direct him from room to room, and Rodney just lets them. The classes drag on for hours on end, and Rodney sits in the chair that he's led to and lets his mind drift to the gray space where he doesn't have to think or feel or worry.

He isn't the only kid there, but none of the others try to talk to him. None of them try to talk at all. No one asks the teachers questions, instead they sit in their uncomfortable chairs and stare forward. Rodney stares with them. At the end of each day, he can barely remember what the teachers even look like, a tall man with a tan and black goatee, a woman with hair that's more purple than red, a man who Rodney remembers only by his golden lipstick. Their voices are nothing but background noise, a mumble that Rodney could listen to, but chooses not to.

The soldier who follows him around looks miserable, the few times Rodney notices him. He even tries to apologize, the words humming through Rodney's head, ignored like everything else. Eventually the man stops trying to talk to him, and that's a relief. There's always a part of Rodney that is tempted to answer, to beg and scream to be let out of this place.

At the end of the week he's escorted to a different room, and he can hear the buzzing coming from it all the way down the hall. Sitting down in yet another uncomfortable chair to get his head shaved is just one more thing his body does. Rodney feels disconnected, unable to be fully amused by his masked barber or bothered by the shiver brought on at the cold touch of her gloved fingers on his neck.

Rodney itches the rest of the day but keeps his hands folded in his lap. Compared to the pain in his bones, only now fading away, it's inconsequential. Compared to the gaping hole where the constant movement, the humming and buzzing of anything mechanical anywhere near him, has been for the last five years, it's nothing.

Rodney had been normal until he was ten years old, when his body decided to manifest early. Rodney thinks it was desperation on his part, the need to fill up the empty spot inside with his waiting gift. He'd woken up on his tenth birthday to every alarm in the house going off, his bedroom light exploding, the cars in the street outside honking, and Rodney had laughed because he was touching all of it.

He had reached out to it, to all of it, and it had reached back, danced over the pads of his fingers and sung across his nerves, greeting and loving him. He had been clumsy and fumble-fingered, not knowing how things were supposed to work yet, but it had loved him anyway. He'd sat in the middle of his bed, eyes closed and watching the movement behind his eyelids, changing and moving things, frowning when something didn't fit, grinning when it did.

Jeannie had startled him, one small hand on his shoulder, and Rodney had pulled her up onto his bed, talking a thousand miles a minute, trying to let her see what he could, feel what he could. She'd just stared, her hair tangled all around her head, so Rodney had reached out for the alarm clock, forming rudimentary legs so it could walk across to them, giving it arms so it could hug Jeannie's ankle.

There had never been much laughter in their house, not that Rodney can remember, but they'd laughed that morning. Jeannie had wanted to play with everything he could make and Rodney had made her whatever she wanted, using his hands to keep track of the noise in his head, to translate what he wanted into motion and life.

When their parents had gotten back—and Rodney hadn't even realized they'd been gone—Rodney had wanted to show them too. He still isn't sure how they got Jeannie out of his room so quickly, his sister still clutching the purring alarm clock. He still isn't sure why he thought his father might have been happy, but then he had been young and stupid, thinking of nothing more than showing his father what he could do.

The yelling has faded over the years. Rodney can't remember the words anymore, just the current of anger and, when his father had stepped towards him, fear. Rodney's father had gone to the floor, clutching his arm and tearing at the watch around his wrist. Blood was everywhere and Rodney hadn't meant it, hadn't meant it at all.

His father had needed a dozen stitches, and when Rodney had tried to apologize he'd flinched away. They'd told him he was going to go stay with his grandparents for a while and that had been it. Rodney can't remember saying more than a handful of words to them since, not even while living with them for the next three years until they could finally send him away, across the border to a school where he didn't know anyone, to an apartment that was always empty.

Rodney had filled the apartment up with electronics, wall to wall, because the hum and buzz kept his mind busy. He'd taken Teyla there once, and she hadn't acted like it was weird. He'd been so relieved that he'd locked himself in the bathroom so she wouldn't see him shaking. When he came out she'd made popcorn and asked him to make her something pretty.

Teyla had never cared that he was dangerous. She even wore the amulet he made her every day, and everything Sumner and the Wraith brothers had done to him had been a small price to pay for that, for a friend, for someone who trusted him.

And then there had been John.

John, who thought what Rodney could do was cool. John, who could do almost all the math Rodney could, who Rodney didn't have to worry about hurting if he ever had an accident. John had a family, and he hadn't minded when Rodney stole some of his space. His parents had let Rodney play with their washer and drier, freezer and dishwasher.

It had been like a dream. And he'd woke up to this, back in his room at nine years old, alone and empty inside. He wishes they'd just kill him instead of making him live torn in half.

Rodney drifts, lost and hurting, and counts the days that he's been broken on the insides of his eyelids.

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Rodney sits by himself in the mess hall because he doesn't want to look at anyone else, much less talk to them. Some of the other kids sit together, some of them even whisper to each other or their guards. Rodney takes note, distantly curious as to how they can manage any sort of normal behavior at all. Maybe for them it isn't the way it is for him.

Rodney sits by himself, so when someone bumps into his side he assumes it's someone leaving the room. He doesn't look up, busy making patterns with his runny eggs, twisting the bacon down into a frown and contemplating squeezing an entire bottle of ketchup over the whole mess.

His shoulder is knocked again, and for a half second Rodney waits for John to say something. John, he's noticed, has issues with other people touching Rodney. But John isn't here, and the reminder aches, kills what little appetite Rodney had.

"Hey." There's a lot of sharpness in the whisper, and Rodney blinks. Anger and impatience are emotions he's good at dealing with. They're familiar. Rodney pokes at the eggs again, turning his head to the side just far enough to look up at the boy who's standing over him.

Something about the glasses seems familiar, but Rodney isn't sure. He doesn't particularly care enough to pursue the thought. The boy has just one bracelet and Rodney tilts his head, trying to read the number on it. The boy squeezes Rodney's shoulder hard enough to bring the fading ache of pain back to the surface of Rodney's skin. Rodney says, soft, distant, "Ow."

The boy sneers, "Jesus, are you slow?" Somewhere in Rodney's chest there's a short flare of anger, because he's willing to bet he's smart enough to make this boy look like a poorly trained dog. It really doesn't seem worth fighting about, though. Rodney just wants to be left alone to lick his wounds for a while, but the boy digs his thumb down against Rodney's collar bone and says, "Give me that."

Rodney stares up at him, unimpressed by the non-specific order. He's seen better bullying from Sumner on a bad day. Rodney winces, hissing in surprise at the twist of pain in his chest, because Sumner is dead. Jeannie drew him dead and Rodney saw him shriveled up on the floor, too late to save him.

Over his head, Rodney's soldier is saying, "Go back to your table, Applicant."

The other boy makes an impatient sound, letting go of Rodney's shoulder and saying, "He's not eating it anyway." And then there's a hand on his food tray and Rodney startles. He's not hungry, not really, but it's his food. Rodney grabs the other corner of the tray and holds on, glaring up at the boy. The boy is still sneering, "What's wrong with you?"

Rodney says nothing, his jaw clenched shut. There's too much wrong with him for him to put into words, mountains and mountains wrong with him, and it's none of this boy's business. Rodney holds on, glaring, and the other boy rolls his eyes and shoves the tray hard enough to upend it. The glass goes skidding across the floor and the tray flips in midair, landing with a crash that is nothing like a gunshot. That's what Rodney hears anyway, shuddering, slapping a hand over his mouth and half-rising, not sure where he thinks he's going.

More angry words are going on over his head, but Rodney can't make them make sense. He tries to step back, ends up tangling his legs in his chair and going down. He's going to be sick, he can feel it. There's a scream somewhere in his throat and he swallows desperately around the nausea and the panic. The boy standing over him snorts on a laugh, says, "Spaz," and reaches for the piece of bacon lying sad and forgotten in the middle of the table.

Rodney's never seen anyone move as fast as the other boy who steps up to the table. One minute he's god knows where, the next instant the newcomer is holding the wrist of the boy with the glasses, glaring at him. Rodney recognizes the new boy, after a half second, as the tall boy from his first day. He's kind of hard to forget.

The tall boy doesn't say anything, just bears his teeth. Glasses doesn't stick around, squirming out of the other boy's hold and stepping back, holding his hands up. Rodney slumps back against the ground, exhaling shakily and letting his heart rate slow down. He closes his eyes and tries to find the gray space, but it's full of color now, blood red and blue sky and John's dark hair.

Someone touches his hand and Rodney jerks, eyes flying open. It's just his soldier, kneeling beside him with a worried look. Rodney wonders if they get in trouble if their applicants are damaged. The man smiles when Rodney looks at him, offers him a hand which Rodney ignores, pushing to his feet and mumbling, "I'm fine."

The soldier's eyes go comically wide. Rodney has kept his silence since that first day, but the shapeless place he's hid in is gone now. Rodney bends to grab his chair, searching for the man's name, sure that he heard it once. He repeats, "Richardson, I'm fine," because the man is still kneeling, looking confused.

The tall boy is sitting at Rodney's table, digging into his own tray of food. Rodney hesitates for a moment before sitting back down, watching the boy eat. There's no conversation, but that's fine. The quiet has shape and purpose now, thoughts that Rodney has to order, ones he can deal with and ones that he can't.

Richardson disappears for a moment and comes back with a refilled glass of milk. Rodney drinks it absently, frowning down at his hands, letting himself remember the school, the smell of blood and the burn of trying to control too much at one time. The mangled, destroyed bodies of the Wraith brothers, the pieces of them that he had left behind.

Jeannie hadn't drawn that. Rodney is glad.

By the time Rodney is done with his milk it's almost time for the first class of the day and Rodney pushes to his feet, turns to look at Richardson and says, "Hold on a minute." The boy with the glasses is sitting across the room and Rodney watches him look up, color draining out of his cheeks when Rodney braces his hands on his table, leaning in.

Rodney says, "I know you." He remembers the bathroom and ending up on the floor, almost passing out from the pain. The boy shifts in his seat and Rodney leans further forward, says into the boy's ear, "Thank you." And leans back.

The boy's mouth is hanging open when Rodney turns to walk away. The tall boy falls into step beside Rodney when he heads for the door, and Rodney smiles up at him just because he can. He's going to get out of here. It's just a matter of time.

hr

Classes are a lot longer now that Rodney is mentally present for them. The teachers still don't have names, but Rodney isn't concerned. They wear bracelets as well, as do some of the soldiers. None of them wear collars, though.

Most of what they're teaching Rodney already knows. The only way he could manage any control over his power was to know exactly what he was doing, so Rodney had been studying nonstop since he manifested. Understanding how something works is always more complicated than it seems, and Rodney has more knowledge bouncing around inside his skull than anyone seems to realize.

Rodney has to admit that they do an admirable job of getting things right. And they actually teach math and science, which is new. Rodney had wondered how they were supposed to get any kind of education on the curriculum offered by his school, then stopped worrying about it and made his own. He has to get out just to make sure that John, Teyla and Carson don't let their brains rot away without him there to motivate them.

The last class of the day is always a propaganda piece, complete with videos of happy powered people working for the betterment of others. Rodney pays attention, making note of the company lines, because he's never been very good at lying and he might someday have to make an effort.

Watching everything keeps his mind busy. Sooner or later someone is going to slip and Rodney fully intends to exploit it. He's smarter than these people and he knows he can beat them, powers or none. After all, during sixty-six percent of all the Save the Citizens he and John had won last year he hadn't used his powers. It's just a matter of time.

The tall boy eats with him now. Sometimes Rodney talks to him, but the other boy is silent. Rodney doesn't mind, it just feels good to be nice to someone, to say good morning and good bye. And the boy always grunts in what Rodney thinks might be appreciation when Rodney shares his food. His appetite still hasn't returned, and Rodney has gotten tired of waiting for it.

Richardson still looks surprised every time Rodney talks to him, which Rodney thinks might be a problem. He's not sure how to get the soldier to relax, but he thinks that it would probably make any escape attempt easier. He talks more in an attempt to acclimate the man to it, and eventually Richardson talks back.

Rodney doesn't really care about the other man's family, his sister or dog, but it's nice to listen to him talk about them anyway. Rodney wonders, sometimes, if the Sheppards ever thought about getting a dog. He thinks he'd like one, or maybe a cat.

Three weeks into his stay, Rodney looks up and smiles when the tall boy sits down beside him. He automatically deposits his sausage onto the other boy's plate, asking, "Sleep well?" without really expecting an answer. Manners are important.

It's a surprise when the boy grunts, shifts in his chair and says, "Ronon." Rodney blinks across at him, and the boy rubs a hand over his head, continuing, "My name. It's Ronon. Three seven eight."

Rodney offers his hand, habit, and after a long moment Ronon shakes it. Ronon is apparently on a roll now that he's started, because he says, "Your name is Rodney. Four nine three." Ronon twists Rodney's hand, nods down at his bracelet.

Rodney swallows, "I just go by Rodney." Ronon grunts, releases his arm and digs into his food.

Ronon doesn't speak again until he's done eating, when he braces both hands on the table and looks over at Rodney, "Thank you." Rodney blinks, shrugs and Ronon huffs, "I like you. Don't let them fuck you up." Rodney isn't sure how to take that, but manages a smile at last and wonders how he's going to get Ronon out of here with him.

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Ronon starts sharing random information after that. Rodney wonders how long it's been since the other boy talked to anyone, because he's really not very good at it. Rodney isn't exactly a world class orator himself, but they make due.

Ronon says one day, eating his mashed potatoes with his fingers, "What year is it?"

For a second Rodney has to think about it, thrown by the oddity of the question. He finally shrugs, "Two thousand and twelve. It's July, I think." Which means he missed Teyla's birthday. Last year he'd at least been able to call her from his grandparent's house.

Ronon grunts, swallows, and says, "Two years." Rodney waits, because Ronon generally finishes his thoughts, it just takes him a minute, "Since I came here." Rodney freezes, weight settling in his stomach. He tries to imagine two years in this place and shudders, looking around at the bleak gray everything, all the guns and unfriendly faces.

Rodney says, because he means it, "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault." Ronon doesn't even sound upset about it. It's just a fact that he's sharing, just like he told Rodney about his mother trying to keep him away from the government. Just like he proclaimed his favorite color to be blue or that all the guards are scared of him because be put one in intensive care once.

Rodney wants to tell him that they're going to get out, that everything is going to be okay, but Richardson is standing over his shoulder, just like he always is. Instead, Rodney begins the delicate process of dumping his peas onto Ronon's plate. He's halfway done when Ronon jumps subjects completely, "They're going to take you soon."

Rodney shivers, not sure if it's the words or the calmly knowing tone they're delivered in that makes his skin crawl. He sets his spoon down, folding his arms across his chest because his fingers are suddenly icy cold. Rodney says, trying to imitate Ronon's tone, "What?"

"Usually they do it sooner. You were hurt." Sometimes Ronon says things that he doesn't realize require explanations, so Rodney nudges him in the side to prompt him to elaborate. "They want to see what you can do. Test you." Ronon shrugs, and goes silent. Rodney swallows, and wishes he hadn't asked.

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John thinks, for a half second, sitting on his kitchen floor, that it will really be that easy. Jeannie McKay sees things, things that come true at least part of the time, because their school is sitting on the bottom of a lake just like she said it would. She might not know where Rodney is, but John doesn't see why she shouldn't be able to tell where he'll be.

It would be a lot easier to find her if John had any idea what Rodney's parent's names were. Or even what town they lived in. Canada is distressingly huge, and there are more McKays than John ever realized. His first impulse is to go knock on all of their doors in order, but even he can see that wouldn't be the most efficient use of his time, no matter how satisfying it would be to be doing something.

They're left tearing through newspapers, looking for mentions of Rodney's super hero parents, looking for mentions of Rodney or Jeannie. John is slowly losing his mind, wishing he'd never suggested this plan, but unable to think of something better.

He knows his uncle is doing something, his father gets in enough arguments over the phone to let John know that they're trying to work together, but it's not exactly satisfying. His uncle Patrick has always been a cold, distant figure, wearing expensive suits to their holiday dinners and flanked by his picture perfect family. John doesn't feel like counting on him to get Rodney back.

So John looks. Teyla and Carson work with him, though Carson spends a lot of time sleeping. John isn't sure if using the other boy to keep them awake is really fair, but John doesn't want to think about trying to sleep, shies away from the thought because it turns his stomach. He hasn't even been able to look at his bed since he got back.

John's mother works beside them, and John loves her for it. Loves that she calls up family after family, racking up what is bound to be the biggest phone bill ever and asking over and over again for Jeannie McKay. She goes to work looking tired and comes back looking worse, and John wishes Rodney were here because he'd always been able to make her smile.

On the third day, there are funerals for Sumner and Ford.

Teyla tells him they're going and John doesn't want to, doesn't want to stop until he's found Rodney, but she is unmovable about it. John showers, gets dressed, and is ready by the time Teyla's uncle swings by to pick them up.

Halling is silent on this trip, all of his energy and noise contained. Teyla, John, and Carson all sit in the back seat, Teyla holding both their hands, so much strength in her small fingers. They go to Ford's funeral first, and John sits in the hard pew and thanks God that it isn't Rodney in the coffin. Teyla holds his hand and John balls his free hand in the pocket of his suit, not sure what he's trying to keep contained but knowing that he has to.

Ford—Aiden—has an open casket. John doesn't want to go look in, doesn't want to have to see the dead boy's face, but Teyla drags him resolutely forward. There are an older man and woman standing by the coffin, weeping, and John watches them to avoid looking down into the coffin, at the smooth still face of the boy that he barely even knew.

Teyla stands very still for a long moment, and John wonders if she's going to cry again, but she doesn't.

Carson does, looking sick and exhausted, his hands balled up into fists. John wonders how bad it was on the buses, how many people had been hurt, how many Carson tried to save. He wonders how many more coffins there would be going into the ground without the other boy. He can't make himself ask.

Sumner has a closed casket, a picture of him sitting beside it. John can't stop seeing the other boy's withered face in his head, not even when Ms. Carter gets up and says the boy saved her life, not even when Elizabeth gets up and doesn't manage to say anything, just stares at the coffin for a long moment before carefully making her way back to her seat. She isn't crying, but looks pale and fragile as china.

John doesn't think to ask about Dean until the ride home, forcing the words through his tight throat. Rodney had been sure that the three boys all died, and for a half second John thinks maybe they missed that funeral, and feels sick with himself.

Teyla laughs, the sound tight and sad, and hiccups around, "They believe he is going to make it." And John laughs with her, breathless and with not a hint of amusement, because at least one of them lived, at least they got one of them out.

Halling drops John off, and Teyla promises to be back in the morning, says she has to go see her family, to assure them that she's alright. John watches them go, feeling alone, profoundly and terribly by himself. The feeling has been there since Rodney was torn away from him, but he'd been doing his best to cover it over, to keep it pushed to the side.

John's mother and father are both sitting on the living room floor, papers spread out between them. His mother is arguing with someone over the phone, his father rubbing the back of her neck, and John watches them for a moment, emotions so complicated that he can't even begin to sort them out.

John pulls himself up to his room and stares at his bed. The sheets are still messed up, tangled where Rodney had lain. John lets out a shaky breath, sits on the edge of the bed and carefully lifts up the blankets, kicking his shoes off and sliding under the sheets.

John sleeps with his face buried in Rodney's pillow.

When John wakes up, his mother is sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking his hair. John blinks across at the far wall, feeling her warmth against his side, listening to her breathe. John doesn't realize he's crying, stupid hot tears that he can't seem to stop, until she curls over him, murmuring, "Oh, baby, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry."

John's throat is too tight to talk. He doesn't know what he'd say anyway.

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Teyla and Carson both show up in the morning, as good as their word, and they go back to work. They're past worrying about having no place to start, just looking and looking and looking. Days fall away like that, a week. Two. Three. John thinks that maybe he has never realized how great Teyla and Carson were until they keep looking with him, never giving up.

They've called more McKays than John even knew existed, and have even gotten a few Jeannies, but none that drew the future. John dreams about walls of text when he sleeps, endless addresses and phone numbers, and that's okay because otherwise he dreams about Rodney, screaming for help and being torn away from him. The nightmares leave him shaking and angry, and John throws all that energy into his search.

He's scrolling through old newspaper articles in some small town website, bouncing his leg and biting his lower lip, when he pauses. At first John can't figure out what's caught his attention. Most of the page is dominated by a guy holding up a giant fish.

John blinks at the screen and then curses breathlessly, standing up automatically. Across the room Teyla looks up, on phone call duty and making an inquisitive noise. John can't talk, motioning at the screen, reading the tiny article over and over. There isn't much, just a paragraph about Rodney McKay winning a spelling bee in his county, and beside it a picture of a grinning young boy hugging a shiny award.

John would know that smile anywhere, even smaller and younger. He rubs his thumb over the screen, and Teyla leans over his shoulder, looking at the picture and making a wordless sound of joy. Carson pushes in beside John's elbow, looking and then throwing himself at the door, shouting down the stairs, "John found him! Mrs. Sheppard! Mr. Sheppard! John found him!"

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John's mother is saying, "If you find the exact address call immediately, okay?" and kissing his father, fast and hard. John feels like laughing, caught up in the energy that's torn through the house over the last two days. He's clutching a backpack, his mother's bag slung over his shoulder, vibrating inside his skin.

Beside him, Teyla looks similarly exuberant, bouncing up onto her toes and kissing John on the cheek before grabbing both sides of his face and telling him, "Find him for us, John." And John wants to tell her that he will, of course he will, but he's too busy smiling.

John's mother is saying, "I wish you were coming," and pulling the car door open, pausing to squeeze her husband's hand. John runs around to the other side, yanking the door open and clambering inside, impatient to be at the airport already, to be doing something. He has to sit on his hands, feeling like he's going to fly apart, constantly having to remind himself to breathe.

His mother slides into the car and for a second they just look at each other, then she smiles and spins her wheels out of the driveway. John knows that she's using vacation time she doesn't really have to do this. He also knows that she didn't even consider not going, that they got a town name and she decided that they were going there, that it didn't matter that they didn't know if Rodney still lived there.

John looks across at his mother and loves her. They speed all the way to the airport, and John fails completely to sit still the entire flight.

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John is assigned navigation duties, a map and a list of the McKays in town. There are a dozen of them and his mother's grip on the driving wheel of the rental car is white knuckled. The first two aren't home and John circles them to come back to. The fourth is a guy who works nights, seemingly confused, but flirting with John's mother once he wakes up enough to get a look at her.

By the time they reach the fifth house, some of John's manic joy is fading. There's a sour twist in his stomach, an aching worry that maybe Rodney's family doesn't live anywhere near here anymore. His mother reaches out, pats at his shoulder, and John takes a deep breath.

There's a nice car in the driveway of the fifth house, which John chooses to take as a good sign. The windows are open, and John can hear a televised laugh track, the jokes in French. John follows his mother up the walk, and then knocks on the door because he can't stop himself. He's bouncing on the balls of his feet, listening to someone stir inside the house, and then the door is open.

John blinks at the woman, his mother introducing herself, the same spiel they've used at the last four houses. John doesn't hear it, because this woman has Rodney's eyes, Rodney's pale skin, and her curls might be blond but they're Rodney's, too.

John grabs his mother's arm, squeezes once and says, "That's his mom," before he's ducking past the woman. Rodney's mother tries to catch his arm but John just shoulders past her. He's run into exactly one person who's been able to stop him, and Mrs. McKay is not Ms. Carter.

His mother is saying something, but John isn't paying attention, ducking his head into a living room, kitchen, dining room, and not finding anyone. He takes the stairs two at a time, breath caught in his chest, hearing his mother, low and angry, "—been wanting to meet you."

John pauses in the landing for the second floor, and then starts yanking doors open. A bathroom, a huge bedroom, a locked door that he ignores for a moment, and then a smaller bedroom. John goes still, breathing hard, staring into the pink room, focusing on the girl sitting on the floor near the far wall.

John feels uncomfortable suddenly, wiping his hands on his pants and taking a careful step into the room. All he can see are her thick blond curls, a silvery shirt and jeans. She's got a can of paint on the ground beside her, absently drumming her fingers on the side of it.

John steps further into the room, the soft carpet swallowing the sound of his footsteps, trying to circle close enough to see her face, to see if she looks like Rodney. He can't seem to find his voice, his throat tight, his heart thundering.

Jeannie says, voice lofty and distracted, "Are you mad at him?"

John frowns, shifting back on his heels, still trying to get a look at the girl's face. She's leaning forward, her thick blond curls falling in a curtain between her and the rest of the world and, after a moment, John gives up trying to make eye contact. He says, trying to keep track of what's happening, "What?"

Jeannie sighs, long suffering, running a finger around the edge of her can of paint. For a moment John thinks she's not going to answer but then she says, "I hate him. He left me here, he knew what they were like and he left me here. They don't even talk to me anymore. They used to. When he was here. They liked me, because I wasn't him."

There's something hurt in her voice, pain thick under the almost detached hate. John stares at her, this girl in her expensive jeans and silver studded belt, in her messy room. It's hard to see any of Rodney in her, suddenly, but John can hear him in the hurt in her voice, the one thing that is identical between the siblings. Jeannie continues, dipping one finger down into the gray paint, "And now he left you, too. Do you hate him?"

"There's a difference between leaving and being taken." John can still hear Rodney screaming in his head, pleading with him. It sours John's stomach, his failure to protect Rodney weighing down his shoulders. The only people John hates are the ones that took Rodney away.

John takes a breath to try to get back on track, but Jeannie cuts him off.

She shrugs, curls bouncing across her shoulders, "Gone is gone. They used to be happy once, you know. Then he messed everything up. It's all his fault they argue now. If he was going to leave, he should have left before he made them hate each other. They get divorced in two years, you know? Of course you don't. But I know. They sign the papers and Momma cuts her hair. I've drawn it."

John feels sickly fascinated by the bile in her voice, the acidic bitterness. He wonders how much of it is her dealing with her precog abilities. He wonders how much of it is a product of growing up in a family like this. He wonders if this is what would have happened to Rodney, if his parents hadn't hated him for something that he couldn't control.

Changing the subject is all John can think to do, "Have you drawn Rodney? Where he is now? I need to know."

That gets him another shrug from Jeannie. She sighs, waving a hand in a gesture that is almost identical to Rodney, motioning towards her desk. She says, still distracted, "I can't find him. I keep trying to see where he ran away to. But I just get that. Every time."

That's apparently all the explanation she's going to provide. John steps over the clothes strewn across her floor, crossing to her desk. There are pages scattered all over it, all of them covered in gray. Some of it looks like pencil lead, some crayons, some paint, all of them formless gray.

There's no reason for gray to be so chilling, but John feels something icy cold and heavy as lead filling up his gut. John riffles through the pages, gathering them up, smoothing the edges, feeling more lost and defeated than he had before, because he'd been counting on her, counting on her being able to find Rodney.

Jeannie says, softly, "So you don't hate him?"

John startles, realizes he's lost track of this bizarre conversation. He sets the papers down on her desk, rubbing his hands on his pants, feeling like he touched something dirty and not knowing why. He smiles, remembering Rodney's crooked smile, bright blue eyes, "No, not even a little bit."

The girl hums, reaches up and drags her finger down the wall, leaving a long smear of gray paint behind. She says, "I hoped so. There's something for you in the top drawer." She's smearing more paint over the wall, random splashes of paint, no method that John can see to her madness.

John watches her for another long moment before turning back to the desk, pulling the top drawer open and then freezing. He reaches in without thinking, grabbing the picture and holding it, blinking dumbly down at it. His own likeness is embossed on the paper, his eyes hard and angry, staring at a man who John has never seen before.

The other man is wearing a military uniform, has gray hair and care lines around his mouth and in the corners of his eyes. John can't tell what rank the man is, though he's sure that his mother or father could. He's more fascinated by the man's name badge, O'Neill proud and clear on the man's left breast.

John almost rubs his finger over the page before catching himself, pulling back. It feels like he shouldn't touch it, like it's important. John lets out a shaky breath, because this is something, is more than he had, even if it isn't exactly what he came here for. He says, "Thank you."

Jeannie snorts, and John jerks to look at her. Her voice is sad, all the hate drained out of it, "Just bring him back. Please. I—I—" she cuts off, like she can't think of anymore words. John nods even though she's not looking at him, stepping around her, back towards the door.

In the doorway he looks back. She's got both hands in the paint, swaying side to side as she smears the gray across her wall. John says, "I'll find him." And she says nothing, just continues covering her pink wall with gray, her hair hanging over her face.

John hopes, a twist of pity aching in his chest, that she gets away from her parents, that she finds some love and happiness, somewhere. He goes back downstairs.

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John comes down the stairs in time to see his mother haul off and slug Mrs. McKay. John freezes, Mrs. McKay gasping and stumbling backwards, hand over her jaw and mouth. John watches his mother shake out her hand, toss her hair over her shoulder and say, "Don't you ever talk like that in front of me again."

Mrs. McKay's hair frizzes out, and John can smell electricity on the air. He takes the last few steps, sliding in front of his mother just in case, pushing the picture he got from Jeannie into her hands. His mother says, "Is this it?"

John nods, still watching Mrs. McKay, who has straightened, looking at the blood on her fingertips with a surprised expression. His mother sucks on her knuckles for just a moment, and then pushes John towards the door, pausing half across the threshold to turn back to Mrs. McKay, to say, "You know, I think I feel sorry for you."

Mrs. McKay doesn't say a word, and John's mother shakes her head before walking down to the car. John hears the door to the house slam right before they get in the car, and his mother hesitates, "Is the girl okay? Does she need help?"

John looks at the upstairs window. Jeannie needs something but John has no idea what it is. He shakes his head, "I think she's okay." He thinks that she's too far gone in her own head to care about her parents. He thinks that all his worry is tied up in Rodney right now.

John's mother sighs, backing out of the drive way and waving the picture around. She says, heading back towards the airport, "So I suppose we have to find this guy now, huh?" John can only nod, staring at the picture and wondering who the hell O'Neill is.

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Part Three

Rodney really wishes that Ronon had never said anything about the testing, because now the thought is stuck in his head, waiting for him whenever he closes his eyes. He spends two days holding his breath, having nightmares about being strapped into a giant chair and having needles pushed into his eyes. He has no idea where that particular fear came from, but that doesn't make it any less horrifying.

This time his nightmare is interrupted in the middle of his spine bowing up, of a scream being torn from his throat. Rodney wakes up curled in a ball, covered with a sheen of cold sweat, his thin blanket kicked to the floor and the door to his room sliding open.

Richardson leans into the room, saying, "I heard—"

Rodney doesn't want to know what he heard. The nightmares are bad enough without knowing that other people can hear him screaming. Rodney cuts him off, "I'm fine," and the lie tastes sour on his tongue, bitter as citrus. He has the vague idea that if he says it often enough it might become truth. "Is it—is it time to get up?"

For a moment, the soldier just watches him, and Rodney wraps his arms tighter around his chest, wishing he hadn't kicked the blanket off because he would have liked to be able to curl up in it. Richardson is shifting, voice uncomfortable, "Yeah," and then after the man takes a breath, "Today is going to be a little different."

And Rodney feels the bottom drop out of his stomach.

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Rodney talks when he's nervous. He also talks when he's upset, happy, sad, afraid, or sleepy. But right now he is definitely talking because he's nervous—if only because he's holding the fear at bay with everything he has, "How's Binky?"

They're walking down a corridor he hasn't been in before, and Rodney wants to make a run back to the head. He's turning his bracelets around and around his wrist, wondering if Richardson can hear how loudly his heart is pounding, trying desperately to distract himself from the dread crawling up his spine.

When Richardson doesn't answer after a long moment—the man is always willing to talk about his dog—Rodney turns his head to look at him. Richardson looks glum, mouth thin and tight, and Rodney is not reassured at all by this. He licks his lips, looking for words, and not finding them. Trying to tell himself that he's making this worse than it is doesn't help.

And then they're stopping beside a huge door. Richardson is punching a code that Rodney distractedly tries to memorize into the keypad. Rodney tries to be amused by the overdone hissing when the hydraulic doors slide open, half expecting a cloud of smoke to billow out.

Instead, he gets an irritated looking man wearing the same style white coat that Perna had, with thick glasses and a sour expression. The man says, "That will be all, Lieutenant." And before Rodney can jerk back, the man is reaching up, snapping a hook over Rodney's collar and yanking him forward with a long pole. Rodney grabs for it, trying to steady himself, and the door slams closed behind them. Rodney asks, "What are you doing?"

He doesn't expect an explanation, not from these people, so he isn't really disappointed when the man just says, "We know how dangerous technopaths are here, Applicant, so those guards are all carrying live ammunition instead of the stunners. Please, don't make us hurt you."

Rodney goes still, heart settling firmly in his throat. He doesn't even want to dare a look around the room, but he can see guards on the edges of his vision. These people are all insane, and comforting himself with the fact that killing him would be a waste of their time and money doesn't ease the pressure in his chest.

Before Rodney can speak again, mouth opening around words that he doesn't have planned, the man is continuing, "Come with me." It's not exactly an option, because the man is dragging him forward, pulling at the collar around his neck so Rodney has no choice but to stumble after him.

They go through another door, white and inches thick, into a cavernous white room. Rodney is still trying to adjust to the brightness when the man shoves him down into a chair in the middle of the room. The chair, at least, is gray. The fact that it's comfortingly familiar sends a chill up Rodney's spine.

There's a low table in front of him, a keyboard, mouse, telephone, and VCR lined up on the surface. Rodney eyes them while the man bends down, latching the other end of the pole to a hook on the floor. The pole is too short to allow Rodney to sit comfortably back, he leans with his elbows on his knees, watching the man hurry back out of the room.

Rodney licks his lips, reaching up for the collar, for the latch that hooks it to the pole. The metal is smooth, flawless, and Rodney frowns, poking at it as the radio in the room crackles to life. A voice he doesn't recognize comes through, female and blandly friendly, "We're going to do some base line tests today, understood." It's not a question.

Rodney looks up. The wall before him is made of glass, and through it he can see white coated people hurrying around. There are computers everywhere, manned by busy people. Rodney considers grabbing the phone and hurling it at the glass. He's willing to bet that the glass is every bit as thick as the door, so he keeps his hands to himself.

The voice goes on, "We are going to ask you to manipulate the keyboard into the smallest shape you can manage." Rodney opens his mouth to inform her that unless they give him a hammer he's not going to be manipulating anything and the words die in his throat.

The room swims out of focus, pushed aside for more important things. Rodney gasps, slumping sideways in the chair, eyes sliding shut so that he can better concentrate on what's going on. There's a pulse of warmth through his body, familiar and loving, a breath of life after suffocating for so long.

Rodney is on the floor, not sure how that happened, the collar twisted so that it's biting at his neck. Behind his eyes he can see everything, the keyboard on the table, the computers in the room beyond, the locking mechanisms on the doors to every room in this place. Rodney lets out a shuddering breath and follows the elevator shafts up, up to thick blast doors and a fence and beyond that cars speeding down a highway.

It's too much after being cut off for so long, and Rodney can feel himself shaking, not even trying to manipulate anything. He revels in it, lets it soak down into his bones, easing the edges of his fingers out against the cold floor, feeling the huge generators beneath him, the pulse of electricity in the walls all around him.

There's a voice, grating at the edges of Rodney's hearing, sharp and unhappy, "—only going to ask you one more time."

The words snap Rodney back into his own body, even if he's not really hitting on what they mean. He's in a room on his knees with a collar around his neck, and there are people watching him, testing him, hurting him. And they've given him back himself.

Rodney's hands ball up into fists without any input from his brain, then flatten again when he stretches his fingers out to the pulse of the world. There are computers, in that room behind the glass, massive things set up to record every move he makes, to analyze and poke and prod. Rodney wonders, while saying hello and getting acquainted, if they're really this stupid.

And then the anger renders everything else moot.

The VCR sprouts legs and starts crawling towards him, dragging the telephone along, and Rodney leans his body away from the pole as far as it'll go, reaching out beyond this little room. Someone is yelling, harsh angry words, but Rodney is too busy destroying their computers, forcing the thick door open by sliding along the edges of its machinery, to care.

Rodney covers his face, wrapping his arms around his head and squeezing his eyes shut, shaping the VCR as he wants it around the base of the pole. There's a countdown running inside his head, seconds draining away like dust and someone yells, right on the edge of Rodney's hearing, "Fuck! Fuck! There, I've got ahead of him, there!"

Everything shuts down with a terrible finality that is enough to drag a scream from Rodney's throat. His arms and legs jerk, the feeling that he was just cut in half burning through his skin. Rodney is breathing fast and shallow, wondering if this is what shock feels like, when a huge boot steps into his field of vision.

Rodney stares at the shine off the leather, feeling his body shake and jerk, uncoordinated. He feels like a puppet with its strings cut. He feels lost in his own head, the quicksilver slide of what he had now just out of reach, a hollow place in his chest.

Somewhere above him, Colonel Ellis says, "That was a mistake, Applicant," and then there's just pain.

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Rodney wakes up in the dark, on the cold hard floor. His breath comes out in a shudder, his teeth chattering together, and Rodney groans. His head is pounding and he still feels raw around the edges, torn asunder. He clears his throat, "Hello?"

There's no answer. He hadn't really expected one. The dark doesn't brighten, the air doesn't warm, and the empty place inside his chest doesn't stop bleeding him dry. Rodney shifts up onto his knees, swaying in the middle of a room that he can't see.

Rodney is shivering, wrapping his arms awkwardly around himself, turning his face against his shoulder and breathing against his skin. For a long moment he stays like that, getting impatient when nothing changes.

The floor is rough under his fingers, concrete like all the other floors here. Rodney runs his fingers across it carefully, squinting into the dark, moving slowly. When his fingers run into a wall, hard enough to make him curse, he pauses again, then feels his way to his feet. He leans against the wall and laughs, biting his lip against the too high sound, wrapping his arms around his chest again.

The lights still don't come on, and standing against the wall is no more interesting than sitting in the middle of the floor. Rodney takes a deep breath and turns to face the wall, hands spread across its surface. He moves to the right for no real reason, slow and careful incase a pit decides to open at his feet. Within two steps he's ran into a corner.

Rodney is moving faster now, pushing aside the sick feeling in his gut as paranoia. He moves to the next wall, counting his steps, up to five before he's in another corner. Rodney's breathe catches there, and he presses his forehead into the curve, balling his fists up against his chest. He hisses, under his breath, "Shit."

The last two walls don't really have to be checked, but Rodney does it anyway, on the off chance that there's a door that will open. There's not. He can feel the outline of the door, but there's no knob on this side. There is a raised panel beside it, screwed into the wall. Rodney runs his thumb absently over the head of the screws, leaning his forehead against the cool wall. He makes himself move on.

Turns out there's a blanket balled up in one corner, and a bucket, that Rodney finds by knocking over, in another. There's also a drain in the middle of the floor, big and square, which Rodney tugs on it without any expectation of being able to remove it.

And that's it. Rodney turns in a circle in the middle of the tiny cell, wondering how long they're going to keep him in here.

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Rodney is curled up in one of the corners, the blanket pulled as tight as he can get it over his shoulders, when there's a sound from the door. He looks up in time to be blinded by the strip of light that shines in, throwing an arm over his eye and shouting.

There's a metallic clatter, and then the light disappears. Rodney hesitates, his body sore and stiff from sitting in the same position so long, and then makes himself carefully cross the floor. There's a tray in front of the door, a plate of food that he accidentally sticks his fingers in and a glass of water. Rodney eats with his back pressed up against the door, keeping his eyes closed because that makes it easier to imagine that there would be light if they were open.

He stays there after he's done, his mind twisting and turning aimlessly, pretending he's in a field somewhere, anywhere but in this cage. He's not sure if he sleeps or if the nightmares are simply his mind supplying fears that he really doesn't need.

Whichever they are, Rodney startles out of them to something digging into his lower back. He scrambles to the side and a slit at the bottom of the door opens, a tray sliding in. Rodney, squinting at the spots behind his eyes caused by the sudden light after all the dark, makes a grab for the arm he can see through the slit.

It slams closed before he makes it, a loud click of finality. Rodney eats, slowly because he's hungry, so hungry, and cold, too. The food doesn't really improve either of those things, but it's at least something to distract him.

When the food is gone there's nothing but the blackness again, crushing him down mercilessly. Rodney draws his knees up, braces his arms across them and hides his face. No matter how hard he tries to convince himself that he is in John's backyard, watching clouds drift by, he can't quite manage it.

Rodney drifts, sinking down into himself until he barely even feels the cold, until his thoughts are coming slow and thick. He can see John's smile, and that's enough, he holds onto that. John is not here, he is somewhere safe, and Rodney hopes to God that he's smiling.

This time, when Rodney sleeps, he sinks to somewhere beyond any kind of dreams at all.

Rodney wakes up to light that burns, and it's all around him. Rodney squeezes his eyes closed, hissing at the pain, trying to curl up tighter into his protective ball, but there are hands on his shoulders, fingers curling up against his skin. Rodney tries to squirm away, but the other person is stronger, pulling him to his feet, causing Rodney to flail a hand out to brace against the wall, to try to find his balance while keeping his eyes screwed shut. A voice says, "He's all yours."

The hands push him into someone else and Rodney trips, dizzy. Hands catch at his elbow, around his back, holding him up. Rodney manages to get his eyes open to slits, stares at green fatigues before he's being pulled along, his legs working automatically. There's silence for a moment, and then a voice in his ear, "Can you walk on your own?"

Rodney blinks, hissing at the burn of the light and trying to steady himself. His knees feel a little shaky, but it's not enough to make him collapse. After a moment, he pushes the hands away, squints up at Richardson, who is frowning very impressively. Rodney says, his throat dry and rough, "Ow."

Richardson's expression does something that looks painful, and there's a hand back on Rodney's elbow, pulling him along. Rodney starts to protest but it doesn't seem worth it, not with Richardson hustling him along. Richardson pulls him into an elevator and Rodney reaches out, bracing his hands on the wall and letting his forehead rest against it.

The silence is thicker than Rodney is used to, like there are words that are just waiting to be spoken. Rodney is dizzy, hungry, and exhausted, and all he can think to say to fill the silence is, "How's Binky?"

Richardson makes a sound that really isn't very much like a laugh, and then the doors are sliding open. The soldier says, "You're supposed to be in your quarters, but the head is on the way." Like that's an explanation or something, and then he's pulling Rodney along again. Rodney has to admit, stepping into the head, that a shower does seem like a really good idea.

The water is hot across his shoulders, and he feels covered in grime. The heat soothes the ache in his muscles, and Rodney scrubs until his skin is pink, never really feeling any cleaner. By the time he steps out, he's steadier on his feet and the light isn't burning his eyes anymore.

Rodney still can't think of words on his way back to his room, just reveling in being able to walk and see where he's going. Richardson hesitates outside Rodney's door and Rodney looks up at him, disoriented and tired past the telling of it.

After a long moment, the soldier sighs, reaching out and pushing Rodney back into the room with a hand on the middle of his chest. Richardson says, "Get some rest, kid," and steps back. The miniature chocolate bar that he had pressed against Rodney's chest falls and Rodney catches it, turning it over in his hands before shrugging and popping it into his mouth.

The sweetness on his tongue follows him down into dreams.

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Rodney is still feeling disjointed at breakfast the next morning, pushing his food around aimlessly when Ronon sits down beside him. Rodney looks up at him, trying for a smile that feels jagged and wrong, "Good morning."

Ronon stares at him for a long moment, head cocked to the side. Ronon has huge hands, and he reaches out, rubbing his palm over Rodney's head, fingers curling around his neck. Rodney shifts, not sure where this is going, and Ronon says, "Three days is a long time."

"What?" Rodney feels like he's missing something, absently moving the food he doesn't want onto Ronon's plate because habit steadies him. Ronon takes his hand away and Rodney regrets the loss. He's used to people touching him now, finding that he misses waking up to John curled up behind him, misses Mrs. Sheppard messing up his hair and Mr. Sheppard patting his shoulder for whatever reason the man could come up with.

Ronon grunts, shoveling food into his mouth, "Usually they only put us in solitary for a day. Maybe two if we fight each other. Three is a long time." Rodney goes still, digesting that information, feeling a chill walking up and down his spine. Ronon continues, "What'd you do?"

Rodney shrugs, waving a hand absently, grinning helplessly when he remembers, "Not what they wanted."

That gets another snort from Ronon, "Yeah." And then, soft and hesitant, the first time Rodney has ever heard Ronon sound like that, "What do you do?" Rodney pauses, looking down at his wrist, the bands around it, and then shrugging.

He doesn't want to lose Ronon's friendship, but he's never lied about what he can do. He clears his throat and tilts his chin up, "Technopath," and waits for Ronon to get up and walk away, steeling himself against that hurt.

But Ronon just grunts, reaching over and taking one of Rodney's pieces of toast, before saying, "Not me." Rodney's breath catches in his throat, the surprise that he always feels when someone doesn't mind what he is momentarily getting the better of him. He thinks he should be getting used to it by now, but that first response from his parents is always there, remembered fear and disbelief.

Ronon fills up the silence, talking with his mouth full, "I can—this bacon? I could tell you what it was made out of. And how you were feeling. I could hear your hair grow." Rodney turns this over in his head, picking absently at his food.

Rodney isn't entirely sure he understands, but it doesn't matter. He nudges Ronon in the side with his elbow, and says, "You still can." And Ronon just shrugs, but Rodney believes. This is just a cage, and cages can always be escaped.

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Rodney almost hopes that they won't try to test him again, that they'll be afraid. He's already decided that if they do it again he'll fight. He'll be better prepared, be ready to get the collar off and the door open. But there's a creeping suspicion in his head that he wouldn't win, that he'd end up back in that black hole, and that scares the hell out of him.

Rodney doesn't remember being afraid of small places or the dark, before.

Richardson escorts him to the room again before Rodney is ready, though, really, he's not sure he ever would have been. They've gotten everything straightened and put back together and Rodney stares at it blankly, feeling an ache in his stomach. While he's distracted, they hook him to the pole again, dragging him into the white room, chaining him to the floor.

There's belligerence in his chest, which Rodney hadn't really expected. Anger and fury arching through him when he looks up at the doctors behind the window, clenching his hands into fists, waiting for them to turn the collar off, grinding his teeth together.

And then they drag Ronon into the room.

Rodney startles, straightening as much as he can, and before he can open his mouth two soldiers are pushing Ronon to his knees, each of them bracing a gun barrel against the side of his head. Rodney snaps, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" and he would wonder why it was so much easier to get angry on other people's behalf, but he doesn't have time for it right now.

Ellis steps into the room behind Ronon, a smug smile playing at the corners of his mouth, "We thought it best to have an insurance policy. You're going to do as our brilliant scientists say or your friend here is going to die."

Rodney gapes at him, nursing anger and sheer horror. Ronon tilts his head up, sneering, "They won't do it." And he sounds so sure, but Rodney can still see the kids in the school cafeteria, holes in their bodies from bullets, and his stomach lurches. He covers his mouth, swallowing around the bile while Ronon repeats, "They won't do it."

Rodney squeezes his eyes shut, and when the walls come down, when the world opens up beautiful and pure to him, he does exactly what they tell him to do. He can't make himself look at Ronon, unwilling to see the possible disgust, the acknowledgement of his weakness.

They make him work for hours, make him take machines apart and put them back together, so far below the level that he's used to working at that it's almost funny. Rodney doesn't mention that this is child's play, that this is what he learned when he was ten and eleven. They can make him do whatever they want, but he's not going to make it easy.

When they're done, Ellis smirks at him and Rodney feels sick, hanging his head down between his knees and trying not to throw up. He hears them drag Ronon, snarling, out of the room, listening to his blood pound behind his ears. There's a hand on his shoulder, and Richardson's voice, very low, "You okay, kid?"

Rodney manages a nod, and then the doctors are there, unhooking his collar from the pole. Rodney feels numb all the way back to his room, used and dirty, because no one has ever, ever made him use what he can do for nothing but their own amusement before. He feels sick, even just knowing that there's a mirror in the room with him.

Rodney doesn't manage to sleep until he gets up and wrestles the sheet over the reflective surface, so he doesn't have to see himself. The next morning Ronon does not eat with him, but they keep dragging him in when they test Rodney anyway, putting a gun against his head, and Rodney does whatever they ask him to do, because he wouldn't be the cause of more death.

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Ellis doesn't usually come to Rodney's work sessions, so being led into the room to find him there waiting settles like lead in Rodney's stomach. Rodney's hands sweat and a chill climbs his spine, he's dizzy when they push him down into the chair, when they chain him to the floor. Ellis' presence bodes nothing good, never once has.

Rodney doesn't look when they drag Ronon in, because it hurts to see the caged anger in the other boy's face. He can't even blame him. Rodney knows he's being a coward, but he can't help himself. He can't make himself try to destroy the guns, because he isn't sure if he could make it before they put a bullet in Ronon's head.

Instead of focusing on Ronon, Rodney looks at the gigantic machine set up in the middle of the room. There are a dozen circles, all forming a sphere, and Rodney startles when they push Ronon into it, when they force him to his knees and chain his hands to the machine. Rodney can see where this is going, feeling his heart trip in his chest, "No, oh God, no."

Ellis sounds like he's smirking, "We have the feeling that you might be holding back, Applicant. That ends today." Rodney swallows, his lungs burning, eyes riveted to Ronon when the machine hums to life, starting to spin. Rodney can see it changing already, can read the danger in the lines of it even with his power capped. Ellis says, voice barely audible above the machine, "Save him or he dies," and power rushes into Rodney.

Rodney wants to drift in it, the way he always does, just take a moment to reacquaint himself with what it feels like to be whole, but he doesn't have time. The machine is spinning so fast he can barely see the individual circles, so Rodney closes his eyes. He doesn't need to see it with his eyes, anyway. They're not the important part.

Touching the machine is briefly overwhelming, because it's big, complicated, thousands of moving parts. Rodney sinks into it, distantly feeling his hands moving, turning and waving, following the constantly shifting pathways of the machine. Ronon is in the middle of it, helpless. Rodney grits his teeth, twisting and pulling and manipulating and unsure why it's not getting better, why the machine isn't just listening to what he wants it to do. He's never had one fight against him before.

Rodney pushes harder, wrapping his mind around the machine, gritting his teeth against the pain. He's dealt with bigger machines than this before—he flew the goddamn school—but this is tearing his mind apart. It's changing, evolving constantly, like it has a mind of its own.

Rodney hears a sound, something heavy hitting the floor, and is aware of an uncomfortable pressure on his neck, but only distantly. There's too much, spikes forming and stabbing for Ronon, circles trying to clench closed around his head, whipping around fast enough to take pieces out of the other boy.

Someone is yelling, anger or pain, Rodney can't tell. He half thinks he hears his own name, but he's preoccupied, busy. There's fire lancing up his spine, the start of an overload, and Rodney pushes the distraction aside because he doesn't have time for it right now.

There's the taste of salt in his mouth, gray edging into his mind. Rodney grunts, reaching for something, anything, John. He pushes faster, harder, dancing ahead of the machine, anticipating what it'll do next on probability and mindless guessing.

Pain spreads up Rodney's neck, speeds down his throat and hits his stomach like an explosion. He can feel his legs jerking, heels drumming on the floor, but it doesn't matter because there. He pulls the machine apart, feeling it trying to draw itself back together, but he's hit a weak point and exploits it mercilessly.

Metal screams and something goes spinning by over his head. Rodney hears it hit the glass with a crash that echoes across the room. He can smell smoke, and someone is roaring. Rodney coughs, tipping himself onto his side to try to swallow more air, head spinning, the world tilting alarmingly, back and forth.

Someone kneels beside him, the pole unhooked from his collar as they cut him in half all over again. Hands roll him onto his back and Rodney blinks up at Ellis' face, licking at his bloody lips and listening to his breath rattle in his chest. It hurts so badly that it's almost circled around to numbness.

Ellis says, grinning, "That's what we were looking for." The man looks up, turning to look at something over his shoulder, "How'd he do, Hermiod?" And then, after a pause, "Hermiod?" Ellis is jerking to his feet and there are panicked voices everywhere and Rodney chokes on a laugh, wild and insane, right before unconsciousness swallows him up.

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The first time Rodney wakes up, he's staring up at Perna's face, hurting so badly he can't even think. She pushes a needle into the I.V. feeding into Rodney's arm and the pain fades right before the rest of the world does. Rodney sinks down into fever dreams.

The second time Rodney wakes up, he's on his cot, a bandage over the inside of his elbow, his entire body a mess of pain. Rodney blinks up at the ceiling, trying to decide if rolling onto his side is worth it, and then decides that it isn't. He drifts off, tangled thoughts chasing each other back and forth through his head. All he knows is that Ronon didn't die.

The third time Rodney wakes up, it's too someone knocking on his door. Rodney can't make himself move, and after a moment Richardson pushes the door open and steps into the room. Rodney hears the soldier curse, and then hands are pulling him to his feet. Rodney blinks up at him, dizzy and lost in the pain, and Richardson says, "Shit, kid, you know you almost killed the other technopath?"

All Rodney can do is blink because he doesn't even know what that means. For a long moment his room is silent, then Richardson shakes himself, pulling Rodney towards the door and down the hall and Rodney chokes with each step but keeps going, because what else is there to do.

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Rodney stumbles on his way into the mess hall, even with Richardson's hand on his elbow. His body aches and he almost goes down, but then there is an arm around his ribs, holding him up. Pain flares from the point of contact. Rodney gasps, knees dipping, and Ronon says, "Come here."

It turns out to be not so much a suggestion as a statement of what Ronon is going to do. Rodney gets dragged across the room, deposited in his chair before Ronon disappears with a last touch on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney stares at the table, hurting too much to think, to do anything but breathe, and a tray of food appears in front of him.

Rodney looks down at it dumbly, and Ronon settles beside him, his thigh warm against Rodney's. There's silence for a long moment, and then Ronon grunts, "Eat." Rodney thinks about it, and decides that it really isn't worth the effort.

Ronon grunts, shifting in his seat and grabbing Rodney's plate. Rodney doesn't mind, someone should eat it. He just wants to sleep, just wants to lie down and curl into a ball. "Got to eat," and there are fingers on his chin, tilting it to the side.

Rodney blinks dazedly at Ronon, the other boy frowning, expression tight. Rodney mumbles, his throat still feeling raw, and God, that means he was screaming again, "Not hungry. You have it." He's just glad that Ronon is talking to him again, that the other boy has forgiven him for not being strong enough.

There's an impatient sound from Ronon, and then a fork bumping into Rodney's bottom lip. He frowns, but opens his mouth anyway, chewing the eggs and swallowing automatically. Ronon says, "Good," and does it again and again, and Rodney reaches out and wraps his fingers in Ronon's pants because he needs to hang onto something.

He says, when he can talk again, "I'll get you out of here. I promise."

And Ronon says, "Sh," and helps Rodney to his classes, keeping him upright and steady, keeping him from falling. Rodney leans on him, hurting and exhausted, and can't help but smiling when Ronon grabs him as soon as he steps into the mess hall the next day.

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John expects his uncle to just show up with O'Neill the next day, but really he shouldn't be surprised when that doesn't happen. So far none of this is happening like he expected, like he told himself it would. Instead time keeps slipping by, more frustrated phone calls, and John knows he shouldn't pick up the phone to listen but he has to.

His uncle is saying, "—have to understand that he's not in the country right now, Regan."

John holds his breath, hearing his father say, "I know. I know, you said that. This is important." That gets an impatient huff from his uncle and John hangs up the phone, wrapping his arms over his head and cursing up to the ceiling, under his breath.

He's going crazy with the waiting, every day without Rodney is years long, is killing him a little bit. His mind is more than capable of supplying a thousand situations for Rodney to be in, and he knows, bone deep, that he should be with Rodney. But he can't be.

Teyla decides that they need to keep busy and doesn't give John an option as to whether or not he feels the same way. She drags them out to the hospital, to see Dean, who is lost in the hospital bed, his skin shades too pale, machines beeping all around him. The doctors say that Dean is in a coma, his body healing from the bullet wounds to his chest and abdomen. John stares at the boy, sick with worry.

Katie always smiles when they show up. She looks almost as bad as Dean, dark circles under her eyes, her hair fading. John wonders if she's not getting enough sun, if she needs it to be healthy. He tells himself that's why he offers to sit with Dean for a few hours every few days, and has to look away when she smiles up at him, when she goes to take a break.

John sits mute beside the bed, watching the machines that are keeping Dean alive. He'd never really spoken much to the boy; the few times Dean and Katie had eaten with them Rodney had done most of the talking. Rodney always did most of their talking.

John stares at Dean and hopes he doesn't die, tries not to think about Rodney for a few hours. He doesn't manage it, but when Katie finally comes back, her hair a brighter shade of red and her skin almost glowing, John manages an awkward smile for her on the way to the door.

The soft, joyful sound that she makes when John is halfway down the hall is almost enough to make him turn around. But her joy is not his, will never be his, and so instead he steps into the elevator and goes home. Teyla is back the next morning to keep him busy.

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John goes to Sumner's grave on his own.

He has nightmares now, more than he can keep track of, and some of them feature Sumner, dying because John couldn't save him. John crouches in front of the grave, not really reading it, just dragging his eyes over the smooth stone, looking at the flowers placed on the freshly turned earth.

"Where's Rodney?" John looks up slowly at the voice, finds himself blinking up at Elizabeth Weir. She looks pale, bruised eyes and her thin arms crossed over her chest. The black shirt she's wearing looks out of place on her, and John just shrugs. She shifts, continuing, "I just—I haven't seen him. I know he doesn't—he doesn't live around here, right? Did he go home for the summer?"

John can only stare at her, wondering if there are even words in the English language to describe what's happened. She shifts, kneeling beside him, and her expression shifts to something gentle, "You must miss him, I know you two were—you must miss him. But it's almost fall, I mean, school starts in a week and a half."

John chokes on a laugh trying to be a scream, dragging his hand back through his hair. It doesn't feel that long sometimes. It took them a month to find Jeannie, and it's been almost as long since then, waiting for General O'Neill to come back from wherever he's gone. It seems like an impossibly long time since he's seen Rodney.

Elizabeth's eyes go wide and she reaches out for him, putting a hand on his shoulder. John shakes her off, not meanly, just—she doesn't know. Elizabeth says, carefully, "Is he okay?" And John reminds himself that he's sitting on her boyfriend's grave.

He says, surprised by how flat his voice is, "I don't know." And that's all there is to it, he doesn't know. Somewhere Rodney is out there, by himself, and John doesn't know if he's okay. He and Elizabeth sit side by side for a long time, the world passing by around them, and John thinks that really, she isn't so bad.

When he finally stands up, because the sun is going down and his parents worry now if he's out too late, like he might disappear into thin air too, he says, "I'm sorry." Elizabeth doesn't say anything, but he hopes that she knows that he means it. He thinks she does.

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John gets back to his house, to find a long, black car in the driveway. John freezes, staring at it, and feeling his heart jack hammer. His bike gets abandoned in the front yard when John runs up to the door, throwing it open and almost tripping over his feet in his rush to get inside.

His parents are standing in the living room, talking to a man in a military uniform. John fixates on the man's gray hair, the insignia on his arm, and feels his breath catch. John says, "O'Neill? Are you—that's who you are, right?"

The man turns to look at him with a half-smile, and John grabs the doorframe, making himself remember not to squeeze it too hard only after the wood creaks warningly. O'Neill has friendly eyes and a nice voice when he says, "You must be John. Your parents were just explaining your situation."

John boggles at him, pinching himself to make sure he's not dreaming. O'Neill smiles, and John throws a hand up, "Hold on," and takes off down the hall. John calls over his shoulder, "I have to call Teyla." Because John has discovered that he doesn't trust anyone, none of these people, and Teyla will know if O'Neill is lying or telling the truth.

Teyla answers on the second ring and all John has to say is, "Get over here," before he hears her make an affirmative sound. John slams the phone down and runs back to the living room. Everyone is watching him, and he rubs a hand over the back of his neck, asking, "Where's Rodney?"

O'Neill exchanges a look with his parents, "Your folks were just telling me the circumstances behind Mr. McKay's situation." And John holds his breath, because that doesn't sound as promising as he'd hoped, but then O'Neill is continuing, "Don't worry, son, we're going to get everything straightened out."

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Teyla arrives just as O'Neill is leaving, his brow furrowed, his mouth set and hard. John had watched the man grow steadily more upset, and felt a tiny thrill of vindication. By the time John had explained what happened in the school, what Rodney had done, O'Neill had been scowling fiercely.

Still, John is relieved when Halling squeals to a stop in front of their house and Teyla jumps out of the car. John gestures frantically to O'Neill, reversing out of the driveway already, and Teyla's eyes go wide. John is to her by the time she bows her head, concentrating on the other man's thoughts.

John steadies her when she draws back and blinks. She grabs his arms as O'Neill's car takes off down the road, blurting, "Cheyenne Mountain. Rodney is at Cheyenne Mountain."

John twists over his shoulder to look at his parents, watching them exchange a glance. And then they're both moving and John laughs, giddy and not daring to believe. Teyla says, "We must get Carson, we might need him."

And John doesn't want to think about needing Carson, but he has to admit that she's right. That as much as he wants to believe they're going to find Rodney safe and sound, maybe a little scared, there's a better chance that he's going to be...not. A shiver climbs John's spine and he nods.

The rest of it is just technicalities. They know where Rodney is. Nothing else matters.

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Part Four

Pain traps Rodney in his own head, dimming what's going on around him to a background hum that he has to concentrate to pay attention to. Ronon and Richardson move him around for a week, keeping him from just curling up in a ball and dying, and if Rodney were all there he'd thank them.

But he has more important things to think about, and nothing else to do with his time. He has to get out of here, there's no more time for him to spare, not if they're going to keep throwing Ronon into death machines. Sooner or later Rodney knows they'll come up with something he can't beat, and he won't let that happen.

It's hard to sleep with the constant ache in his bones, and so Rodney plans at night as well, staring up at his dark ceiling and tapping a rhythm out on his stomach, adapting, changing, discarding plans. There isn't much they have on their side, just Rodney's brain and Ronon's history in this place, really, but that'll have to be enough.

The days blur together and stretch on indefinitely, until Rodney wakes up and takes a breath without feeling like his chest is on fire. Richardson frowns when Rodney meets him at the door, and Rodney nods, managing to walk down the hall without stumbling or slouching.

Rodney goes through his morning routine quickly, thoughts tumbling around his head, a thousand ifs ands or buts that could go wrong. The plan is hardly foolproof, and he doubts that he'll get a second chance to try it. He should wait, plan longer, figure out something better. But he's run out of time, patience, and willingness to be kept here.

Richardson asks, on the way to the mess hall, "Feeling better today?"

There's a tension, a tiredness, to the man's face that Rodney is sure wasn't there when he first came here. The dark shadows under his eyes make him look exhausted. Rodney wonders what will happen to the soldier after he's gone, if Richardson will get in trouble for what Rodney is gong to do. It won't change anything, because Rodney has to get out of here, but he hopes that they leave Richardson out of it.

Rodney smiles, because he feels almost giddy, though that might just be his nerves, "Great." Richardson stares at him for a moment, eyebrows raised, and Rodney stares back, wondering if his eyes look as crazy as he feels. If they do, then it doesn't concern Richardson, because he just shrugs and looks away.

Ronon is there the instant they step into the mess hall, like an overprotective beanpole, one big hand on Rodney's elbow, leading him to their table. Rodney sits, frowning down at his hands, before balling them up into fists. This is, really, kind of remarkably stupid. Hopefully they won't expect it at all.

Ronon sets Rodney's tray down, and Rodney stretches back to his feet. Ronon is much taller than he is, which makes this awkward. More awkward. Rodney frowns for a moment, hesitating just long enough to look around the room, surprised when a red-headed girl catches his eye and smirks at him. Rodney shakes himself, motioning Ronon close, saying into his ear, "Don't actually break me, okay?"

That gets a grunt from Ronon that Rodney ignores, taking a deep breath and a half step back. Ronon is still slouching down, frowning. Rodney closes his eyes, listening to his heart thunder, and punches Ronon in the nose.

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The guards that drag them apart are screaming things that Rodney can't hear over the ringing in his ears. His mouth tastes like blood and the entire left side of his face is on fire. It takes two men to pull Ronon off of him, the taller boy snarling and thrashing, blood slicking down his chin, eyes wild.

Rodney is dizzy, the world jerking in and out of focus, and he really just wants to stay down, but this only works if he follows it through to the end. Rodney grunts, pushing up off the floor and making to throw himself at Ronon again.

Guards catch him by his arms and the back of his shirt, forcing him to his knees and twisting one arm behind his back, pulling until pain dances razor edged through Rodney's shoulder. Ronon is kicking and growling, his knuckles bloody, and it takes everything Rodney has not to grin, high on adrenaline and giddy because it's working, thank God it's working.

It's been maybe thirty seconds since he threw the first punch and he struggles against the hands holding him back, just for appearances sake. He can smell electricity on the air for just a heartbeat, and then his mind is shorting out and he's going to the ground, the world flashing brilliant white before bleeding out to black.

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Rodney wakes up in the cold and dark and laughs, just for a split second, until his face starts aching. The floor is hard and familiar under him, the inky blackness exactly where he'd been hoping to end up. Rodney twists to the side, spitting the taste of blood out of his mouth, laughing one last time, a shaky tumble of amusement that echoes through the cell.

One quick circuit of the cell and he has the bucket in one hand, settling back onto his haunches beside the door, near the little panel screwed into the wall next to it. The screws are still there, raised against his fingertips. Rodney braces the bucket against the wall, up on the edge of its lip, catching his tongue between his teeth and concentrating.

Everything is math and physics, when you get right down to it. That's why Rodney spends so much time studying them, why he insists that the others pay attention to what they should be learning, because the world makes so much more sense when you know the equations that explain why things happen the way they do. Rodney shifts his weight, settles his heel over the side of the bucket, and exhales slowly.

The impact jars up through his leg, makes the bottom of his foot hurt from the pressure of bone against metal. But the bucket gives, caving in, and Rodney stomps on it again, flattening one edge along the bottom, making it as thin as he can.

When he's done, the bucket is distorted, awkwardly shaped. Rodney twists it around in his hands, ignoring the smell and running a finger over the edge he's made. It's mostly flat and smooth, and it would be perfect if it weren't still connected to the rest of the bucket, but he's making do with what he has. He prays this works, because plan B is his fingernails, and just the thought of that sends a shiver up his spine.

Rodney finds the screws again. There's a thick layer of dust over then, and he wipes it off on his pants, experimentally pushing at each one. One of them is a little loose already, shifting back and forth at the touch of his finger, and Rodney slides the bucket into place carefully, working on touch alone, wishing he could see what the hell he was trying to do.

The bucket is not a very good screwdriver. Rodney fits it into place and then leans his weight against it, turning it before reaching back for the screw to make sure the damn thing didn't slip out of place. It's slow going, and more often than not the bucket slips out of groove. Rodney curses, reaching for the screw, but it changes to a laugh when he finds that he can twist it with his fingers now.

Rodney's hand hurts, because apparently people's faces are harder than he'd been led to believe. He hadn't even been trying to hurt Ronon and his knuckles ache. Rodney pushes the thoughts aside, working the screw loose as quickly as he can and then sticking it in the corner of his mouth. He isn't sure if he's going to need it or not, but he doesn't want to have to try to find it in the gloom if he does.

One down, and Rodney is pretty sure that if he gets the other top corner off he'll be able to pull the panel back without having to remove them all. The next nail is harder to get started, not already loose, and Rodney curses at it, the bucket jumping out of its groove and sliding across the wall.

Rodney slaps the flat of his hand on the wall in frustration, nearly jumping out of his skin when the hatch at the bottom of the door opens and someone slides a tray through. The thought of stopping to eat makes him hesitate, but he is hungry, getting dangerously close to dizzy.

The food is bland, but he doesn't really taste it anyway, eating as quickly as possible, wondering how much time he has left. Ronon had said they usually got two days for fighting, but Rodney isn't really sure how often they bring food. He does know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they're not going to respond well to the panel being half off the wall if he doesn't finish before they come to let him out.

Rodney swallows the last bite without chewing, because chewing hurts quite a bit at the moment, then pushes the tray to the side. It's too thick to use on the screws and they unhelpfully did not include a spoon or fork for his escape efforts. Rodney goes back to the panel and bucket.

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When the screw finally does come loose, it gives up all at once. One twist from the bucket and Rodney can spin it between his fingers. He holds his breath, backing it out as quickly as possible, waiting for it to get hung up on a crooked thread or something, but it doesn't.

The panel does not immediately fall away from the wall the way Rodney had been hoping. He is not surprised. Working the edge of the bucket between the wall and the panel gets Rodney's fingers pinched more times than he likes to think about, but he manages. He leaves the bucket there, pinned between wall and panel, then stumbles his way over to the blanket.

The blanket is not particularly thick, but Rodney is willing to bet it was made to last. He doubts that they'd want to keep replacing the damn things. Rodney shifts the screws from one side of his mouth to the other, nervous movement while he works the corner of the blanket down beside the bucket, managing to pull it out the side.

There's sweat running down the side of Rodney's face, which he thinks is kind of strange in the cold room. He wipes it away absently, reaching for the tray by his feet and dumping the glass and plate off of it. The tray requires more wrestling and cursing to get between the panel and wall, even with the bucket already holding it out. Rodney manages. He doesn't have any choice.

That opens a nice space all across the top of the panel, and Rodney resists crowing in victory, working the blanket down, pulling and tugging until it's sticking out both sides of the panel. The panel is thin, Rodney has already managed to move it, but he prays that the blanket is sturdy enough to do what he needs it to do.

Rodney winds his hands into either side of the blanket, braces a foot against the wall, and strains backwards. He spits the screws out after a moment, when he starts worrying about breaking his teeth on them. His shoulders and arms burn, he can feel the strain all down his back and across his chest. He gets his other foot on the wall, pulling and hissing, "C'mon, c'mon," trying not to hear the soft groans of the fabric.

The panel gives with a suddenness that surprises the hell out of Rodney. He has time for a cut off shout and then he's flat on the ground, still holding onto the blanket, his back aching. Rodney shakes himself when he gets his breath back, twisting carefully to his feet. The back of his head had cracked on the hard floor, and he winces when he rubs a hand over it.

There's no time for it right now. Rodney stumbles back to the wall, hands out and reaching. His fingers slide over the panel, twisted away from the wall. The right side of it is bent completely out, the left not so much, but it's enough for Rodney to get behind it. He laughs, breathless and giddy, reaching and finding wires.

Rodney can't help but bounce back and forth on the balls of his feet. Relief is singing through him, thick and joyful, and he tries to shove it down because he's still in this cell. He bites his bottom lip until his smile fades, making himself concentrate.

Two thick bundles of wires, three individual lines, and a cluster to the side bound together with electrical tape. Rodney closes his eyes, even though it's already dark, and makes himself think. His parents had never understood why Rodney read half the books he did, books on construction and blueprints. Rodney had given up trying to explain that he could only make things do what he wanted if he knew how they were doing it.

Rodney walks his fingers across the bundles, ignoring the pounding in the back of his head, the ache from his split lip, everything but this. There's an electrical cap holding four wires together, two the same width, two skinnier and Rodney thinks yes.

The wires are all live, and Rodney takes a half second to worry about this before remembering that he doesn't have time to care. He unscrews the cap, tosses it aside and picks carefully at the electrical tape, his breath catching in his chest, waiting for the burn of electrocution, waiting for this to end in sparks and burnt flesh.

The wires come apart and a hum of sound right on the edge of Rodney's hearing fades to nothing with a final click. Rodney giggles, slaps a hand over his mouth, and steps away from the wall. He trips over his plate but it doesn't matter.

Rodney braces his hands on the door and shoves, ending up falling out into hallway. The light is bright enough to hurt, and Rodney blinks dumbly for a moment, on his hands and knees. Behind him the door is wide open. Rodney looks up at the camera set up at the end of the hall and knows he doesn't have time to bask in the glow of victory.

The walls are lined with doors, and Rodney starts pounding on them, one after another, yelling, "Ronon?" because he's taking Ronon out of here with him, and that's just the way it is. At the third door down someone bangs back, Ronon's muffled voice coming through the door, shaping Rodney's name.

Rodney doesn't bother explaining, just pulls the keypad off the wall, running on so much adrenaline that he doesn't even think about what he's doing. Wires spill out into his hands and Rodney finds the bundle he needs, the four wires, and pulls them apart.

The door beeps at him happily, and then it's swinging open. Rodney stands, staring in at Ronon, who is crouched, squinting up at him. Ronon is holding his tray like a weapon and Rodney grins at him, wild and too wide, asking, "You coming?"

For just a half second Ronon hesitates, and then he's throwing himself out of the cell, grunting, "How'd you do that?"

Rodney laughs, can't seem to stop laughing, and he wonders if maybe that should worry him. Then he grabs Ronon's wrist, saying, "I'm a genius, that's how. Wave to the nice people on the camera." Rodney drags the taller boy down the hall.

Rodney remembers things, it's one of the reasons he learns so fast. He knows the path that Richardson used to take him back to his room, and they follow that for a while, until the first elevator, because right now Rodney is pretty sure elevators are not his friends.

Rodney's plans are jumping up and down behind his eyes, tumbling over each other as Rodney skids to a stop in front of the emergency stairway. Finding it is a small miracle because he'd been briefly worried that they only had elevators here. And then he's running up the stairs, Ronon a half step behind him.

"Do you know where the labs are?" Rodney is breathless, his heart beating impossibly fast. He feels like he might explode, like he might pass out, but keeps pulling himself up the steps anyway. His legs feel like rubber, burning, hurting. It's not really a surprise when Ronon pulls past him, the boy's longer legs eating up the stairs like they're nothing.

Ronon just grunts in answer, but he reaches back to grab Rodney's arm, to drag him forward. Ronon's skin is very warm, and Rodney has to move even faster to keep up with him. Somewhere below them a door slams open and Ronon rumbles, yanking Rodney along.

They go up three levels before Ronon goes barreling through a door. Sweat is sliding down Rodney's back, he can feel his pulse beating against his skin from his scalp to the bottom of his feet. He just wants to take a break, but Ronon is still pulling him, and Rodney takes a half second to be grateful he busted the other boy out.

There are alarms going off somewhere in the facility, Rodney can hear them on the edges of his hearing. Somewhere behind them the doors to the stairway burst open again, and Ronon puts his shoulder down and throws himself into a room off the hallway, yanking Rodney in behind him.

They're in a smaller hallway, narrow and cramped, Ronon leading him along it. There are a bunch of smaller doors set along the hall, and Ronon is counting under his breath. Rodney opens his mouth to ask what he's doing, but before he can Ronon is reaching out, opening one of the doors and shoving Rodney through.

Rodney freezes, staring at the lab. It's empty now, the computers all sleeping, and the clock on the wall says it's three in the morning. For a moment Rodney can't move, remembering pain and fear, then Ronon is dragging a cabinet across the floor, blocking the door and demanding, "What now?"

Rodney shakes himself, diving for the computers. Information scrolls at his fingertips and he skims through it, moving back and forth between stations, looking for what he needs. The program to take the collars off has to be here somewhere.

Something bangs against the main doors, and they start to open. Rodney curses, Ronon grabs a chair, and people are yelling, "On the floor! Get on the floor right now!"

Ronon growls something wordless and furious. Rodney's fingers fly, and there, yes there. He turns, stretching a hand out to the soldiers pouring into the room, his power flooding back into him, filling him up. One of them is pointing a stunner at Rodney, and Rodney grins, watching the man's finger tighten on the trigger.

The blaster comes apart in the man's hands. The soldier blinks down at his feet and Rodney brings his hands up, taking apart the blasters, the collars, the computers in the room. Destroying things is always easier than putting them together, and Rodney is so angry, angry enough to just lash out blindly.

Something explodes behind him and Rodney can distantly hear people screaming, panicking. Rodney sinks down into himself, reaching up absently to pull the dead collar off of his neck, tossing it to the side. He can feel everything from here, and he brings it all down, breaking, destroying, changing.

Rodney gets lost in it, and then there are hands on his shoulders, shaking him. Rodney blinks dazedly, focusing after a long moment on Ronon. The other boy's expression is tight, his eyes wide, his fingers digging into Rodney's shoulders. Ronon says, "We have to get out of here."

Rodney hesitates, because he wants to stay, to destroy, wants to break all of this, but Ronon is right. Rodney nods, wiping at his bleeding nose, trying to ignore the sting in his bones from using so much of his powers so soon after a burnout. Ronon grunts, grabbing Rodney's wrist again and yanking on his arm. The guards are still standing there, looking lost and confused, and Ronon jerks at them. Rodney snorts when they jump.

Ronon pauses out in the corridor, tilting his face up and taking a deep breath. Rodney stares at him, puzzled, and Ronon sighs, the corners of his lips tilting up into a smile. When Ronon opens his eyes they are bright like Rodney has never seen them, and the taller boy says, "This way."

There's no time for Rodney to respond. Ronon is pulling him along and all Rodney can do is concentrate on keeping his legs moving fast enough. There's so much that he still needs to do, so he works as they move. His heart is pounding, but that fades as he sinks down into the world around him.

It's only the work of a moment to open the doors to all the cages in this place, to jam all the elevators, to turn on the sprinklers and to open the way in front of them. Rodney can feel blood sliding down his chin, and is dimly aware that he's handling this better than he usually does.

He still hurts, pain lancing up through his legs with each step, but he's still moving. There's a part of him that wants to sit down, but Ronon keeps him moving, and he appreciates that again. Rodney trusts the other boy to keep them going, to get them out, letting his mind drift to more important things.

There are screams, gleeful and panicked, rising around them now. Rodney can smell smoke and taste electricity, can feel the beat of something huge moving. It might be the world itself, for all he knows, shifting on its axis.

Ronon jerks them into another stairway, Rodney faltering for the first few steps. His body aches, exhaustion doubled by the use of his powers, his lips tasting of blood. Ronon pauses, turning to look at Rodney and speaking with such utter conviction that it makes Rodney shiver, "There is fresh air up here. It's not much farther."

Rodney grits his teeth and nods. The stairs are agony, going on for an impossibly long time, but Ronon never lets go of him. They come out in a huge tunnel, big enough that the scale of it makes Rodney dizzy. One end goes to blackness, the other to the faded light of the early morning sky.

There are soldiers all around them and Rodney reaches out to them, changing the guns in their hands while Ronon resumes dragging him forward. There is a gate ahead of them, huge, with barb wire atop it. Rodney slides along it and it opens for him.

Above them there is a roar of sound, air buffeting them, and Rodney goes to his knees. There's a helicopter circling overhead and Ronon roars at the sky, trying to force Rodney back to his feet. Rodney stays down, because helicopters are complicated things, so many, many pieces for him to manipulate, especially if he doesn't want to crash it inadvertently.

On the other side of the open gates, a car skids to a stop, rubber squealing against the blacktop. The brightness of the headlights burn Rodney's eyes and he turns his face away, hearing Ronon yowl with what sounds like pain above him, flinching to the side.

Somewhere a car door slams open and Ronon grunts, falling to his knees. Rodney tips his face up to the sky, and the helicopter whines, drops and then catches itself, settles in stutter-drops onto the ground before the blades droop and then fall off.

That relieves some of the pressure in Rodney's head, but there's still so much he's controlling. The car has stopped, so he leaves it untouched, his heart pounding in his ears. He hurts, the pressure all crushing down on him at the same time. He sways, aware that Ronon is breathing hard beside him, wondering if the other boy is okay. He can't ask, his throat hurts too much.

Someone is running towards him, feet slapping on the ground and Rodney whips his head up, breath catching in his throat. "Rodney!" Rodney laughs, chokes on the pressure in his chest and struggles to push to his feet because that's John, that's John's voice.

Rodney has his hands braced on his knees, but that's as far as he gets. Arms catch around him and all the words in Rodney's throat get tangled together. John is warm and solid, familiar, lifting Rodney like he weighs nothing, cradling him like he's something fragile. John is the only person who touches him like that, who knows how to hold without hurting him when he feels broken to a thousand pieces under his skin.

Rodney's arms are shaking, so he wraps them around John's neck, clinging to him. John is yelling something, words that Rodney can't keep up with, that he doesn't even care about, too busy burying his face against John's neck and letting himself believe that this is really happening, that this isn't a cruel dream.

John says, softer, after a moment, "God, Rodney, hold on," and then he's sinking to his knees. John keeps an arm around his shoulders, holding him close, his free hand tracing the curve of Rodney's shaved head, his fingers wiping through the blood on Rodney's chin. John twists, shouting, "Carson! He's hurt!"

Everything outside of John is fading to unimportance. Rodney closes his eyes and breathes in the scent of him, winding his fingers into John's shirt and soaking him in. Rodney says, feeling sleepy, the adrenaline all burnt away now, "I wanna go home."

John is rocking him back and forth, his hand curled around the back of Rodney's neck, holding him close and tight. There are other people running up, from both directions now, but Rodney doesn't really care. There are soft hands, brushing across his knee and head. Teyla's soft voice, careful, "Rodney, your friend is...unwell."

Rodney shifts, letting his head roll against John's shoulder. Ronon is on his hands and knees, breathing hard, and Rodney reaches for him. "Ronon?" The other boy looks up, squinting, expression a tightly controlled grimace.

The tall boy grits out, "A lot to take in. All at once. Need a—need a minute."

Rodney nods, because he understands that. He blinks up at the people standing over them, Teyla and Carson, John's parents. There's pressure in his chest, warmth spreading out through his gut, and he shifts closer to John because it's so much, all these emotions building inside him. He feels overwhelmed.

And then Ellis is shouting, "You are all in violation of—"

Rodney doesn't recall getting to his feet, but he's there, John standing behind him. His mind is already reaching out, taking Ellis' weapon away from him, crumpling it up and making it crawl up his arm just to watch the man try to bat it away. Rodney is, despite himself, impressed when the man keeps coming, righteous anger flashing across his face.

Ellis is growling, "This isn't really our traditional recruitment method, but I suppose it works." There's a sneer on his face, and for a split second all Rodney can see is John in one of those gray rooms. It burns through him, fear and anger rising behind his eyes. Ellis is continuing, "I'm going to—"

That's all the further he gets. Rodney hits him hard, punching up into his smug face, which hurts like a son of a bitch. Ellis' head snaps to the side, his hands coming up to cover the blood slicking down his skin, and Rodney yanks the rubber bracelets off his wrist, throwing them on the ground. Rodney barely recognizes his own voice, ragged and flat with anger, "You don't touch John, not ever."

"Rodney," John's voice is soft, hands catching at Rodney's shoulders and turning him. Rodney is shaking, his body trembling, and he goes willingly when John pulls him close. There is someone else shouting, an angry man demanding to know who's in charge, and Ellis yelling back, but it's like trying to listen through water.

Rodney slumps against John, feeling careful fingers on his hand, a rush of relief when Carson fixes whatever Rodney broke, and then blessed darkness.

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Rodney wakes up slowly. He's warm, and he revels in that for a long moment. There's a soft touch, up and down his back, comforting and gentle, and Rodney arches into it, a happy sound falling off his lips. John says, "Hey, sleepy head," and keeps rubbing his back.

Rodney doesn't open his eyes until he feels like it, feeling something like rested for the first time in what might be forever. He's staring at John's leg, his head pillowed in John's lap. Rodney stretches, his arms momentarily caught in the blanket spread over him before he manages to squirm out of its hold.

"Where are we?" Rodney has disjointed memories of his escape, but most of it is so drenched in panic that it doesn't make a lot of cohesive sense. He settles on his back, blinks up at John and reaches up to push John's hair out of his face. He still feels half asleep, lost in that place where everything is fuzzy and warm, and sees no reason to not stay there as long as possible.

John shifts his attention to Rodney's hand, tracing his thumb back and forth over Rodney's knuckles. He looks tired, but happy, and Rodney smiles up at him because he's feeling more than a little gleeful himself. John says, soft, "Colorado, we had to, uh, wait for a while. There's paperwork and stuff."

Rodney blinks, "I was in Colorado?" It seems kind of strange. Colorado is not the state that he had associated with secret government projects.

John smiles, nods, "It was an Air Force base." Rodney just stares, not sure what he's supposed to say to that. John keeps touching him, careful and tender, but his expression is shutting down, sad and broken, "I'm so sorry I let them take you. I tried—I tried so hard to find you, I'm sorry."

His voice is as sad as his expression, and Rodney twists, pulling himself up. John won't look at him, suddenly, and Rodney grabs both sides of his face, saying, "Hey, there was nothing you could have done. And you did find me, you didn't have to do that."

"Yes I did," John's eyes are sparking emotion, his grip on Rodney's wrist momentarily tightening. "Never think I didn't." There's nothing but seriousness in his voice, and Rodney nods, surprised by the outburst. John blinks, looking away, clearing his throat.

They could talk about this for hours, Rodney is sure. But there's so much he just never wants to think about again, and none of it matters. John found him, and that's the important thing. John found him and he's not in a cage anymore. That's all he wants.

Rodney shifts, leaning his head against John's shoulder and sliding his legs over John's lap. John makes a soft sound, wrapping an arm around Rodney's shoulders, leaning his cheek against Rodney's head and just holding him. Rodney drifts, thinks he might even fall asleep again, and when he wakes up there's a man standing in front of them saying, "—is he?"

John says, quietly, like he's trying not to wake Rodney up, "I think he'll be okay." Rodney shifts, rubbing at his eyes, blinking at the man in the uniform in front of him. It's instinct to stiffen his back, to flinch away, and John is on his feet, between Rodney and the man. John says, voice low, "Rodney?"

Rodney pulls himself to his feet, fingers tangled in John's shirt, heart jack hammering, "Don't let him take me, please." He trusts John, trusts that John will keep him safe, because John found him. He reaches out, sliding his mind into the mechanical devices around him, calling them in case he needs them.

"It's okay, he's not going to take you, Rodney. He, look, he helped me find you. It's going to be okay." John half turns, curling his arms around Rodney, still keeping himself between Rodney and the man. Rodney peeks at him over John's shoulder, salt and pepper hair, kind eyes, a half smile. The man nods his head in greeting, hands held out to the side.

The man says, "My name is Jack O'Neill, I'm not here to hurt you."

Rodney hesitates, sliding closer to John, not even sure why he's doing it, just that it makes him feel better. John squeezes him, holding him tight, and Rodney manages to say, "You could be lying." Rodney can vaguely remember being able to trust people once. Now he can't seem to remember how to do it, not with anyone but those he holds closest.

Jack O'Neill takes a half step back, smoothes his hands down his pants, "I could be. But I'm not. Would you like to call your mind-skipping friend in here just to make sure?" Rodney stiffens, because no one is supposed to know what Teyla can do, and O'Neill smiles, "You're not the only one with a gift, Rodney."

John circles his hand on Rodney's back, says, "Your sister drew me talking to him," like that explains everything. Rodney frowns, wondering when John saw his sister, but more concerned right now with the man in front of him.

"What do you want, then? I won't let you do anything to John." He's killed already, for John. He'll do it again if they make him, though even the thought of it makes him ill. There are a thousand things he could use in this room.

O'Neill walks slowly around them, kneeling down when he's beside Rodney, and saying, "I want you to tell me what happened so I can determine the proper disciplinary actions for those involved in this abomination. And then I want you to sign some papers, so that you can go home with your guardians." O'Neill pauses, long enough for John to squeeze Rodney's shoulders, "Is that alright with you?"

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John doesn't talk much to Rodney's friend Ronon, but Rodney seems sad when the boy leaves with his mother. The woman had shown up late on the day Rodney had escaped, as tall as her son, and long limbed but with skin shades darker. She'd grabbed Ronon close and held onto him tightly while John had watched Rodney walk stiffly out of the room, his expression tightly controlled.

When John follows Rodney, he finds him with his hands braced against a wall, his head hanging down. John hesitates, but only for a second, before stepping forward and wrapping a hand around Rodney's shoulder. Rodney leans into his touch and John feels his heart break a little more, pulling Rodney close and having to squeeze his eyes shut when Rodney just melts against him.

Rodney says, his voice tiny against John's shoulder, "Did you see—did you see my parents?"

John grimaces, glad that Rodney can't see his expression. They'd signed the paperwork earlier that made John's parents Rodney's legal guardians, but even that had left Rodney staring blankly into space, his eyes reflecting naked hurt. No one had mentioned that the only reason O'Neill could assign the guardianship was because Rodney's parents had already given their rights up. No one had to.

John thinks about lying, but this is Rodney, and it doesn't feel right. Instead he says, carefully, "I saw your mother."

"So they knew. That I was here." It's not a question, Rodney's voice breaking around the words. John wonders how he'd feel if he knew his parents had left him in that place, willingly left him there. He holds Rodney tighter, wishing he could wash this all away, make it somehow better. He doesn't know how, but he wishes he could.

Rodney curls up against him, buries his face against John's chest and shudders hard. John rocks him back and forth. He whispers, into Rodney's ear, where they took away his hair, his beautiful curls, "Let me take you home, okay?"

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The car ride home is cramped, but John can't say that he minds very much. He gets Rodney to sit against the window, then curls up around him, using the excuse of tight space to hold onto him as closely as possible. It's a quiet ride, and Rodney, exhausted, so close to burnout that it nearly doesn't matter, falls asleep.

John's parents let Teyla and Carson out at Teyla's house. Teyla hesitates, looking at Rodney, reaching out and brushing her fingers across his brow. Her smile is small, delicate, and she grabs John's wrist, settles his hand over Rodney's heart. Her voice is very soft, "His mind is—it is in much pain. You must take care of him."

John can feel Rodney's heart racing even in sleep, the muted nightmares that have been plaguing him all day. It's easy to pull him closer, to cradle him, to promise, "I will. You know I will." Teyla smiles and steps back.

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Rodney doesn't stir, not when John scoops him up, not when John carries him upstairs. John forgets to say goodnight to his parents, wishing that Rodney had changed out of the gray uniform of that prison. He's not going to wake Rodney up now, so he just settles Rodney on the bed.

The weight that Rodney's lost is painfully obvious, and John frowns, shifting back to kick his shoes off. Rodney stirs then, reaching for him sleepily, making a soft sound. John stills, catching Rodney's hand and squeezing. Rodney mumbles, squirming around on the mattress, "Missed you."

John strokes his thumb across the back of Rodney's hand, sitting on the bed and smiling down at him. He says, "I missed you, too." One side of Rodney's mouth curls up, his eyes still closed. Rodney shifts, turning onto his side, facing the wall and sighing.

John hesitates a moment before sliding down, staring across at Rodney's back. He's still seeing Rodney running out of that tunnel, going to his knees. He's still seeing Rodney struggling to his feet and punching Ellis in the mouth. It's like one long nightmare, and he hardly dares to believe that it's over.

Rodney stirs after a moment, saying while still looking at the wall, "Could you—would you—I—" Rodney cuts himself off with a harsh exhale, reaching back and grabbing John's wrist. That's enough. John hadn't been sure if Rodney would still want this, if he'd need space, if he wouldn't want to be touched.

The relief that Rodney still wants it is almost overwhelming. John curls up behind him, squeezes his eyes shut and just holds Rodney. He can feel his hands shaking and he doesn't know why, overwhelmed by finally having Rodney back, or by seeing him hurt and knowing it's his fault. John should never have let Rodney be taken, and he has no idea how Rodney can stand to be around him at all.

Rodney's hands find his, their fingers twining together, and John bites his bottom lip around the pain in his chest. John's voice is so quiet that even he can barely hear it, but it's all he can force out of his throat, "I'm so sorry, God, I'm so sorry. I promise I'm not ever going to let anything happen to you again. I swear."

John knows Rodney has no reason to believe him. But Rodney relaxes against him with a soft, content sound, like that's all he needed to hear. John feels Rodney fall asleep again, his breathing going slow and even, trusting in John's arms.

John holds him closer, and stays awake all night, listening to Rodney breathe, feeling his heartbeat.

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Part Five

Rodney wakes up warm.

For a long time the warmth is all Rodney really registers, still mostly asleep. Everything else, the softness of an actual mattress beneath him, the smell of coffee, creeps in slowly. When Rodney cracks his eyes open, he's staring at John's bedroom wall. The poster that hangs over his bed has come half undone while Rodney was away and is slumping sadly down.

Rodney closes his eyes again and waits for the slow, sweet, contentment in his chest to settle. He can feel John breathing against the back of his neck, John's heavy arm wrapped over his side, their hands still tangled together. Rodney had apparently kicked the blankets off at some point, and he squirms his legs around, tucking his feet back up under the comforter.

John makes a sleepy, thick sound, squeezing Rodney and shifting around, dragging his cheek against Rodney's neck and settling there with a hum. Rodney feels kind of guilty about this, always has, because it doesn't seem fair to use John as a security blanket. But John doesn't seem to mind, and while it doesn't keep the nightmares away, Rodney much prefers waking up feeling safe to the alternative.

Outside the room Rodney can hear people moving around, muted voices from downstairs that dance in and out of his hearing. He wonders, absently, what time it is, how late they got in the previous night, if this is all a dream.

"I can hear you thinking," John's breath is warm against his skin, the words rough with sleep, or maybe it's just the way John's voice has changed a little bit since Rodney was taken. The words don't sound like a complaint, in fact Rodney can feel John smiling, and it's kind of strange to feel John's lips against his skin. It makes him want things he shouldn't.

Rodney feels himself blush, squirming away from John's hold before he does something stupid. John makes a protesting sound but lets him go, twisting over onto his stomach and blinking up at Rodney with one eye. John is still smiling and Rodney finds himself matching the expression helplessly.

John's expression fades after a long moment, when he walks his hand across the blankets and tugs at Rodney's gray pants. There are splatters of blood on the cloth and it smells wrong, feels dirty against Rodney's skin suddenly. Rodney shudders, "I want to shower."

It's kind of a surprise when John slides out of bed after Rodney, watching Rodney gather up his clothes, and Rodney has to stand still for just a moment, holding his jeans and shirt and trying hard not to cry. He manages, because this is good, this is all good, and tears don't factor into this at all.

John follows Rodney down the hall, his head down and his arms crossed. Rodney hesitates in the doorway to the bathroom, wondering if John needs to go in first, but John just sits down against the wall. Rodney looks at him for a second, and John tilts his head up, smiling.

Rodney smiles back, and it feels more natural, less painful this time, like he's getting used to using those muscles again. The bathroom is achingly familiar, and Rodney avoids looking in the mirror, fidgeting around, not sure what he's stalling for. In the end he cracks the door, blocking it with a roll of toilet paper, before he gets in the shower.

The hot water feels good, and Rodney gasps, hard drops beating down on the top of his head and shoulders. His skin tingles, burns with it and it hurts. Rodney braces his hands against the wall, bowing his head and letting the water run like fire across his skin.

Rodney watches his skin turn pink, tilting his face up and letting the water run over his skin. He doesn't really need shampoo at this point but he uses it anyway, because he likes the way it smells. He scrubs at his pink skin until it flushes closer to red, and then makes himself put the rag down. The water is running cold around him, and Rodney is shivering when he steps out.

The towels smell like fabric softener and Rodney dries off with two of them just because he can. His toothbrush is still there, and he bites his lip hard at the sight of it, not sure if the emotion in his chest is sadness or joy. He pulls his clothes on quickly, finally making himself look in the mirror. It's easier when the glass is all fogged up. He looks blurry and indistinct. If he squints, he can see himself in the stranger in the mirror.

John, still sitting on the floor when Rodney steps out of the bathroom, pushes to his feet and runs a hand back through his hair. John is staring at him and Rodney shifts, ducking his head because he's terrified that John will decide he doesn't want him around anymore.

John says, "I'm so glad you're back," and there's nothing but sincerity in his voice. Rodney hiccups, waves his hands, because his throat is too tight to talk. John leans in before Rodney can move, hugging him hard and tight for a long moment before stepping back, clearing his throat and saying, "I need to shower, do you—"

Rodney blurts, "I'll wait," before even thinking about it. John nods, a bunch of times, before stepping into the bathroom. He doesn't even bother blocking the door. Rodney leans back against the wall, closes his eyes and feels bad about using all the hot water. John doesn't complain.

In the kitchen, John's father is making breakfast. John follows Rodney over to the table, and then leans against the back of his chair. John's mother brings over a cup of hot chocolate and they're all so quiet Rodney isn't quite sure what to do. He drinks the chocolate and leans his head back against John's stomach, taking a deep breath. Rodney says, because it's true, "That smells delicious."

John laughs, and sounds completely delighted.

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John waits until after Rodney is done eating, and his appetite is still small, he wonders if his stomach shrunk or something, to ask if he should call Teyla and Carson. Rodney only has sketchy memories of them being at the mountain, the touch of Teyla's mind against his and the tingle from Carson healing his hand. He thinks that maybe he hasn't been in his right mind the last few days.

There's a part of him that wants to call Teyla over right away, but he hesitates. He shivers at just the thought of what she'd see in his head, the last two months all laid out, not yet dimmed by time. Rodney doesn't want her to have to see that, doesn't want her to see how desperate he was by the end.

And there are things he needs to do first, before anything else. Rodney says, staring down at his hands to keep his nerve, "I want to see the others first." And sometimes he wonders if John is a mind-reader too, because he doesn't have to say anything more than that.

John says, leaning his shoulder against Rodney's, "We can walk, or do you want dad to drive us?" The idea of walking sounds good, because it's been so long since he could stretch his legs, look up at the sky or down at the Earth. He doesn't even ask if John is coming with him. It would be a stupid question.

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The graveyard is quiet, Rodney thinks that's as it should be. The grass is going a little brown from the late summer heat, but there are flowers in front of most of the headstones, and they add an almost disturbing splash of color. Some of the graves are also adorned with balloons or stuffed animals, and Rodney walks between them carefully.

The sun feels good on his shoulders, uncomfortably hot really, but he doesn't mind. He's finally starting to feel warm in his bones, to forget the ache of cold, and that makes it worth it. John leads, a step in front of him, silent now, the way he had been the walk through town. Rodney is quiet too, listening to the world moving around him, the beat of his own pulse, his memories.

They come to Aiden Ford's grave first, and Rodney stares down at the smooth gray stone for a long time. The boy had been fourteen, and the injustice of it sits thick and sour in Rodney's stomach. Rodney clears his throat, but his voice still breaks around, "How—how did he die?"

John shifts, reaching out and winding an arm around Rodney's waist, tilting his face up to the sky when he says, "Shot in, uh, shot in the chest. They said he didn't, that he didn't feel any pain, or anything. That it was quick." Rodney wonders if that's supposed to make it better.

After a long moment Rodney nods, because that's all he can manage, and nudges at John's shoulder. Walking side by side through the graves is awkward, but John has apparently decided that he isn't going to let go. They manage.

Sumner's grave is set off to the side, in a family plot, two spaces saved between his and his grandparent's graves. Rodney clears his throat but no words will come. He can still see the boy's face, drained dry of life, eyes huge and terrified, because Rodney had been too slow, too stupid to stop his murder.

John says, his thumb rubbing up and down Rodney's side, "The blast, um. His powers were still working, I mean, it didn't hurt him. He made it to the hospital." John trails off, Rodney waits, because obviously they didn't pull off a miracle on the operating table, "They couldn't—they tried to—his skin, they couldn't give him an I.V., or anything. They tried."

Rodney has to look away, digging his nails into his palm, trying to swallow back the burn in his throat. He chokes on, "Oh, God," unable to keep it in, wondering if he's going to be sick. At least Aiden's death had been painless, at least he hadn't suffered. Rodney squeezes his eyes shut, taking a deep breath, "Okay. Okay. Take me to Dean."

John hesitates, and Rodney wonders what horrible way Dean died in. He braces himself for it, and John says, soft, "Uh, actually I think he's at the beach with Katie. But he should be back in a few days, I guess." Rodney blinks, frowning, turning to look up at John. He looks serious, frowning himself, and Rodney feels himself shudder. John's expression shifts to alarm, "Rodney? Are you okay?"

"He lived," Rodney can hear the wonder in his own voice, embarrassed by it. One out of three is hardly good odds, but then John had walked out of it alive as well. He laughs, not amused, just needing some kind of outlet for the pressure in his chest. "I can't believe it."

John tightens his hold around Rodney's waist, voice gentle, "Yeah, he lived." Rodney tilts his face up to the sky, biting his lip, then turns, pressing his face up against John's shoulder, breathing through his mouth until the burn in his chest fades. John rubs across his shoulders, asking, "You ready to go home?"

Rodney shakes his head, his stomach giving a vicious, sharp twist, "Not yet. I have—are they buried here, too?"

John is quiet for a long time. Rodney can hear his heart pounding, feel the sudden tension in his hold. For a moment Rodney thinks he just won't answer, but then John exhales heavily, "Yeah. Yeah, they are. Come on." Rodney keeps his head tilted against John's shoulder, hands balled in the other boy's shirt as they make their way to the far corner of the graveyard.

The two graves are nearly identical, the only differences their first and middle names. Rodney tries to remember if he knew they were twins, but can't recall. There's an angel engraved in each stone and for a half second Rodney can only stare at the wings, feeling like he was punched hard in the face.

The emotions in Rodney's head are a mess, he has no idea what he's supposed to be feeling, what he actually is. Everything is all tangled up, the anger and fear that he'd carried around for these boys for so long, the sharp edged hatred that he'd felt for them when they hurt John.

He wants to just hate them, so badly that it hurts. It would be so much easier if he could just hate them. But he can still see what was left of them spread across the cafeteria floor, one leg lying in a pool of dark blood, pieces missing out of their chests, eyes staring up blank and unseeing.

Rodney's stomach lurches and the world tilts alarmingly. When Rodney comes back to himself his legs are limp, John is holding him, and he can taste vomit in his mouth. Rodney's ears are ringing, and he scrambles at what he can reach of John, seeing their dead, dead faces, gagging again.

Dizziness has Rodney briefly sure that he's about to fall over, but John has him, John always has him, rubbing a hand up and down his spine, saying, voice close to panic, "—okay? God, Rodney, talk to me, please, tell me what's wrong."

Rodney shakes his head, which feels like it weighs roughly two tons, feeling wretched. He chokes out, "I threw up in a graveyard," faint and disbelieving. It seems like that's something that just shouldn't happen. Wrong. His stomach is still roiling, the taste in his mouth sour and burning.

John laughs, it sounds breathless, "You sure did. Are you okay?"

Rodney coughs, making a face and spitting, because it's not like he can desecrate the graveyard more than he already has, and his mouth tastes bad. There are a lot of things he is, but 'okay' is not one of them. He's not sure it ever will be again. He says, "I killed them."

John's sharp inhale is audible, and he takes a half step back, dragging Rodney away from the twin graves. For a half second Rodney is sure that John is going to do something stupid like claim that Rodney didn't kill anyone, but instead John is sinking to his knees, pulling Rodney against him and wrapping around him, saying, "How many people would they have killed if you hadn't?"

"I don't know." Rodney had tried to do the math, but the variables kept coming out wrong. There was no way to tell exactly where the school would have landed, or how many students would have made it out to the buses. Rodney had been torn somewhere between a few dozen or two hundred. "But—"

"They would have killed me." John's voice is flat and tense, and Rodney feels his stomach lurch again, biting his lip desperately against the urge to be ill. Because that's all that really matters, that they would have killed John, and there was no way Rodney could let them do that. If it had been anyone else, maybe Rodney would have taken the extra few seconds to figure out a way to stop them that didn't end up with them six feet under the ground.

But it was John.

They sit there for a long time, until Rodney feels steadier. He had hoped, disjointedly, that he'd come away feeling like he'd made his peace, but he still feels tangled up and ill, sick with himself. He says, feeling John's chest rise and fall under his cheek, "I'd like to go home now."

John says, "Yeah, yeah okay."

hr

It's not until that night, getting ready for bed, that Rodney catches himself rubbing his thumb back and forth over the inside of his left wrist. He wonders if he'd been doing it all day, looking at the bare skin, the sweep of his finger across it.

It feels naked. Bare. Wrong. Rodney shudders, knowing it's just exhaustion and stress messing with his mind, reaching out anyway, grabbing a pen off John's desk and pulling the cap off. The blue ink stains his skin, the three numbers crooked and shaky.

John leans over Rodney's shoulder, reaching around and tracing one finger across the four-nine-three inked on Rodney's skin. He sounds curious, "What's that mean?"

Rodney doesn't know the words to explain. He's not sure he even understands himself. He feels better, knowing the numbers are there, reassurance that it all really happened. Rodney says, "It's nothing. It doesn't matter." And John doesn't push the issue.

In the morning, Rodney redraws it in black ink, straight this time.

hr

Two days pass before Rodney finally manages to get all of his memories of his escape slotted into place. Teyla and Carson both come over, and for a half second Rodney thinks that things will be awkward, that he won't know how to be around them, but Teyla just smiles and hugs him, saying, "We have missed you," and everything is okay.

On the third morning, Rodney wakes up to John humming against his shoulder, rubbing his thumb back and forth across Rodney's stomach. He can feel John's hair against his skin, John's warmth sinking into him and filling him up. For a long moment Rodney just revels in it.

John shifts, pushing up on an elbow and then startling, "You're awake." He sounds surprised and Rodney blinks up at him, too sleepy to figure out why it's a surprise that he woke up in the morning. It's what he typically does. John pats Rodney's stomach, blinking rapidly and shifting up into a sitting position.

Rodney stretches out, twists and butts his head against John's hip. He feels starved for touch, after the two months he spent under the mountain, and John is more than willing to indulge him, so Rodney doesn't feel guilty. John is already reaching out, rubbing his fingers down the back of Rodney's neck, soft and gentle.

Rodney lets his eyes slip closed, just concentrating on this for a long moment, letting everything else slip away. But his mind is already getting noisy, and he lets go of the easy glow of morning, saying, "You talked to my sister."

John's fingers jerk, then settle again, he sounds tense, "Yes."

"Was she okay?" Jeannie had always been okay, before, but Rodney can't help but worry now. Things had been different last time he'd been to visit, his parents even more distant than they usually were, Jeannie barely connecting with the outside world, lost in her scribbles. Rodney had assured himself that she'd be fine, but some reassurances would be nice.

The hesitation has Rodney pushing his head up, a sharp thrill of worry in his stomach, "John, is my sister okay?" John looks away, grimacing, and Rodney is off the bed, grabbing his shoes and then remembering that he needs pants.

"Rodney," John is following him across the room and Rodney looks up at him, his heart pounding hard in his chest. John makes another face, slouching and holding the sheets around his waist, "I—look, she wasn't hurt, or anything. She was just, uh, scared, I think. For you."

Rodney blinks, feeling his stomach clench. Jeannie had always been strong and self-sufficient, and the thought of her scared is utterly disturbing. Rodney tugs his pants on, "I have to go see her." It's not open for debate, his sister is not okay, no matter what John says.

John catches him on the way to the door, and Rodney looks up at him, waiting. John says, soft and low, "Just wait a minute, okay? We'll all go, if you just wait." Rodney makes himself take a deep breath, making his brain slow down, leaning into John's touch.

"Okay, okay, sure."

hr

Rodney doesn't like planes, which doesn't make a lot of sense. It's just that he can feel all the different parts moving, and he can feel the strain on all of them, understands it in a way that other people really don't. He holds onto John's hand and tries not to focus on everything he can feel moving.

John's parents are whispering to each other in the seats in front of them and Rodney buries his face against John's shoulder, humming under his breath. John rubs his thumb back and forth across Rodney's knuckles, and after a while the millions of moving parts fade, and Rodney drifts into something almost like sleep, safe against John.

The car ride passes in a blur, John sitting in the middle of the backseat, pressed up against Rodney's side. John's mother is driving, her expression grim and tense, her husband resting his hand on her thigh. Rodney wonders how he's supposed to say 'thank you' for all they've done for him. It feels too big for him to properly express.

When they pull into his driveway, for a long moment all Rodney can do is stare at his house. It doesn't feel like coming home, not like waking up in John's bed had. His parent's car is in the driveway, the one that they use for their secret identities, and Rodney takes a deep breath before sliding out of the rental.

John follows him up the walkway, John's parents behind them. Rodney has the brief idea that he's bringing back-up and smiles, though he doesn't feel amused. It feels odd to ring his parent's doorbell, not that they'd ever trusted him with a key. Usually his grandparents brought him here.

Rodney's mother opens the door while on the phone, and Rodney watches her eyes go wide, watches her drop the phone. It's instinct to reach out to it, and she makes a soft, horrified sound when the headset lands on its feet and crawls up the wall to shoulder level.

She asks, "What are you doing here?"

Rodney cocks his head to the side, looking at her. He can remember thinking how pretty she was, and she still is, cold and delicate, the same way ice is. She looks like a stranger, and Rodney says, "I'm just here to talk to Jeannie," stepping around her. She draws back from him, giving him space like she might catch technopathy from him.

John asks, "Rodney?" and Rodney pauses on the steps, looking over his shoulder. His father is stepping in from the living room, his glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose, wearing his familiar scowl, looking unsure of whom he should be directing it at.

Rodney feels numb, suddenly, exhausted like he's ran a marathon. He says, "I'll be right down," and walks up the stairs. Below him there is yelling, but Rodney barely even hears it. The second story is quiet, the sounds all feel muted. Jeannie's door is open.

Her room is gray, floor to ceiling. Rodney pauses in the doorway, looking at the walls, the splatters of paint across the carpet. Jeannie is sitting in one corner, her furniture all pushed into the middle of the room, a dozen cans of paint open around her, all with brushes sticking out of them. She is painting something blue over the gray.

Rodney kneels beside her, reaches out and grabs her wrist. Her arms are covered in paint up to the elbows, and Rodney frowns, pushing her hair out of her face. She blinks, rolling her head to look at him. Her eyes are slightly unfocused and Rodney winces, "Jesus, Jeannie, here, get up, let me get you cleaned up."

Jeannie startles, shakes herself hard and jerks away from him. Her mouth twists down viciously, "What are you doing here?"

Rodney blinks, reaching for her again, and she bats his hands away. "Jeannie?" There's something wrong here, and his heart is in his throat. If his parents have done something to her he doesn't know what he's going to do, but there are a million bloody possibilities streamlining themselves behind his eyes. He shifts up onto his knees, "What's wrong?"

For a second she just stares at him, and then she's snarling, shoving at him, "You shouldn't have come here, you had no right to come back here. Go away!" She tips him back and Rodney catches at her wrists, one of the cans of paint spilling, paint splashing across both of them.

"No one wants you here! Not mom! Not dad! Not me!" The words are enough to knock Rodney's breath out of his chest. Jeannie thumps her fist down hard on his shoulder, but Rodney barely feels it, staring up at her in disbelief.

"Jeannie?" He feels like his brain is stuck in a loop. He and Jeannie haven't been close for a long time, not since his parents decided that he was dangerous. But they were once, and he'd kind of always assumed that they would be again, someday.

She looks wild, her golden curls in a mess around her head, her cheeks flushed and her eyes flashing. She balls her hands in his shirt, shaking him, "You left. You don't just get to decide to come back. I've seen what you choose, and it's not us."

Rodney tries to reach out to her again, but she's moving to block him before he even starts the movement. He huffs impatiently, "I don't understand, I—"

Jeannie slaps him, hard across his cheek, and Rodney stares up at her, mute with shock. She taps his cheek, rubs her thumb soft over his stinging skin, the anger all draining out of her in a rush, "No, no you don't. You shouldn't have come here. This isn't your place. This isn't my place, either. This is...this is no one's place. I'm going to Saint Angelica's in a week."

Rodney frowns, "They're sending you to boarding school?"

"I'm sending me to boarding school." Jeannie sighs, shifting to the side and reaching for her paint again. She resumes drawing patterns on the wall and Rodney watches her, frowning at the light blue sweep, because he recognizes the color, the pattern, from somewhere.

Rodney carefully pushes up, his cheek still stinging. "Are they being okay to you? Because, I think I, uh, might have some pull with the US government for a while." Jeannie sighs, shifting brushes smoothly, painting the color of skin across the wall.

"It's fine. Look, there are—there are three people downstairs that want to take you home and take care of you. You're just being stupid coming back here." Rodney frowns, watching her paint, watching her form what he thinks is a leg. Those look like toes.

"Jeannie—"

She sighs again, throws her brush down and reaches for him, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. There's no violence in the movement, just a sort of frustrated aggravation, "He came to find you. He always comes to find you. I know, okay? Go down and go home with him, trust me."

Rodney frowns, reaching out and tucking her hair behind her ear, and this time she lets him. There's paint smeared across her cheek and Rodney wipes at it absently. He says, because he feels like she should know, "I never wanted to leave, you know that, right?"

Jeannie matches his expression, her head cocking to the side, "No, I don't think I do yet. But someday I will. I wear a white dress and you have a suit. You look good in blue, big brother." That doesn't actually make a lot of sense, and he wonders what she sees in her head, if the future is a screaming, noisy thing in her mind. "Go home, now."

There's nothing else to say, really. Rodney pushes to his feet and she grabs her brush again, humming under her breath and dipping it into the black paint. Rodney hesitates for a half second, but he can hear the yelling from downstairs again, and she is okay, or at least as close to okay as it's possible to be in this house. He's relieved, deep in his chest, that she's leaving here. Going to school had turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Rodney. He hopes it's the same for her. She calls out when he's in the doorway, "Don't go through the door on the right, he's hiding behind it."

There are no doors to the right except for the bathroom. Rodney avoids it, just in case.

Downstairs has fallen silent now, and the fifth stair from the bottom creaks loudly, the way it always does. John twists his head around from where he'd been standing on the bottom step, and Rodney tries to smile because John looks upset.

Rodney stares at his parents, standing off to one side. They don't look angry, really. Just confused, with the occasional nervous look at the phone which Rodney realizes he hadn't really given any directions besides 'crawl around'. He concentrates, and it skitters off towards the kitchen to hang itself up.

The Sheppards are standing by the door, and Mrs. Sheppard at least looks furious, color high in her cheeks. Rodney hopes, absently, that his parents didn't say anything really offensive, but doubts it. They don't mean it, they just don't think before they talk. They've never had to.

John asks, "Everything okay?" and Rodney nods, because it's as close to okay as things get here. John reaches out a hand and Rodney takes it, warm and strong, and threads his fingers through John's. He likes the way that feels, even if it does make John's eyes go wide, like he might be surprised.

The silence feels like it shouldn't be stirred anymore than it has to be, so Rodney just starts for the door. The Sheppards open it, step through, and Rodney follows because there's nothing else for him here, if there was ever anything in the first place.

His father jerks forward as John is pulling the door closed, saying, "Now, listen—"

"It's okay. I'm not coming back." Rodney watches his father's mouth work, open and close, swallow. There's a new scar above his eyebrow, and Rodney wonders absently what it's from. His father is rubbing at his arm, where once upon a time Rodney had been afraid and lashed out without thinking. Rodney says, "You never had to be afraid of me," and then pulls on John's hand, because he doesn't want to be here anymore.

Rodney falls asleep again in the car, his hand warm against John's, and wonders if he's ever going to stop being tired. He only wakes up in bits and snatches, John carrying him through the airport, the rumble of the plane, John's bed and the blue of his sheets wrinkling up when he balls his fingers up in them.

Rodney dreams of monsters, hiding in his closet with hungry mouths and bloody hands, but it's okay because when he wakes up John is there, shushing him softly.

hr

The doorbell ringing wakes Rodney up, and for a blurry half-second he assumes it must be Teyla. But it can't be, because Teyla always greets him mind-to-mind, just a pulse against the always present link they share. She hadn't said much about why she wanted to have a more permanent connection with him, just that it made it easier for her to resist drifting if she had an anchor. Rodney figures sooner or later she'll switch to Carson, but she hasn't changed it yet.

There's no touch of her mind against his now, and Rodney pushes at John, who mumbles sleepily and clings tighter instead of letting go. Rodney reaches back to push at John, who grunts, throws a leg over Rodney's thighs, and then settles again. Apparently Rodney is not the only one who's tired.

Downstairs there are footsteps and the door opening, voices and then someone pounding up the stairs, which would be John's mother, because she's noisiest. Rodney pushes at John again when his mother knocks, and this time John jerks, mumbling, "Blueberries," and then rolling off to the side before sitting up.

Rodney looks at him for a moment, smiling helplessly at John's messy hair and sleepy eyes. He thinks about asking just how blueberries featured in John's dream, but then John's mother is opening the door, looking confused but not worried, when she says, "There's a man downstairs to see you, Rodney."

hr

A man turns out to be Richardson, who looks a lot different in blue jeans and a t-shirt. Rodney stares at him for a long moment, shifting his weight back and forth, and Richardson clears his throat, running a hand back over his head and saying, "Hey, kid."

John is making unhappy faces off to the side, and John's mother is holding the phone, looking like she'd like nothing better than to call the police. Rodney sighs, fidgeting with the hem of his own shirt, trying to figure out what to say and finally settling on, "I don't know your first name."

Richardson blinks, looking surprised, and then smiling, "Tom. Tommy. My mother calls me Thomas." Tommy shoves his hands in his pockets, making a face, then continuing, "General O'Neill told me where you were. I just wanted to—look, could we, I don't know, walk around the block or something?"

John opens his mouth, and Rodney nudges him in the side, talking over him, "We can do that. John comes along." John relaxes, just a little, and Tommy frowns, but then nods. They all stare at each other for a moment, before Rodney rolls his eyes, grabbing his shoes.

Outside the sun is barely up, and John and Tommy shake hands while Rodney finishes tying his shoes. Rodney can see John squeeze and watches Tommy wince and would be irritated except he can't really blame John for being angry. They walk in silence, Rodney wishing he had some idea what Tommy was here for, because that would make it easier to get this over with.

Tommy says, finally, "They shut the entire program down, you know?" And Rodney shakes his head, because he hadn't. O'Neill had said a lot about high level reviews and his general disapproval of the program, but Rodney had been in pain and exhausted and not paying a lot of attention. "Yeah, everyone's getting reassigned, the appl—the kids are mostly going back to their families."

Rodney nods, not sure what else is expected of him. There's a feeling that might be relief in his chest, but he isn't sure. The memories of that place are still too raw, and as much as he feels like yelling them up into the sky, he doesn't really think that would be the best idea. When the silence stretches again, he makes himself break it, "Where are you going?"

Tommy shrugs, saying, "Not sure yet. General O'Neill offered me a spot on a special team of his. I'll probably take it." He pauses, stopping and tilting his face up to the sky, and Rodney waits, feeling John shifting impatiently beside him. "But I don't think I'm going to stay in after my four years are done."

"Okay," Rodney has no idea what else to say. He's not even sure why Tommy is telling him this in the first place. The man is just standing, looking at Rodney now, and Rodney tilts his chin up, meets the scrutiny with a frown. He's surprised when Tommy smiles, more surprised when the expression fades, turning into a wince.

"I wanted to apologize. That's why I came here. I know—"

Rodney can't do this. He puts a hand up, taking a step back. He doesn't want to have to remember the things that Tommy has to be sorry for, not here, not with him. John is touching him, a comforting hand on his side, even as he growls, "Can't you people just leave him alone? Rodney, hey, you okay? You, whatever your name is—go away."

Rodney makes himself take a deep breath, "No, it's okay. It's okay, just wait." He makes himself look at Tommy, who looks abjectly miserable, expression tormented, dark circles under his eyes. Rodney wonders if he's having trouble sleeping as well, and hears himself say, "It's okay. It wasn't—" he can't make himself say that, the words catch in his throat, and so he changes them to, "—you had orders. I forgive you."

The surprising thing is that it's the truth. Rodney thinks maybe he just doesn't have energy to be furious with the man right now, but there's no hate for him in Rodney's chest. He'd seemed like a mostly decent person, stuck in a horrible position. And he'd given Rodney chocolate, which had to count for something. And he'd come all this way to apologize.

Tommy sighs, it sounds like relief. "Jesus, you're—" he cuts himself off with a hoarse laugh, looking off into the distance, then back at Rodney. "You know, I didn't expect you to forgive me." Rodney shifts, uncomfortable, not about to take it back, and the man snorts on another laugh. "You're something else, kid."

Rodney, officially tired of this conversation, turns stiffly and starts back towards the house. He wants to restart this day, and preferably spend more of it sleeping. After a half second he feels John's hand settle on his back, and Tommy draws alongside him, walking with his hands stuffed in his pockets. It's a quiet walk back to the house, and Rodney hesitates beside the man's car.

There doesn't seem to be a proper thing to say here, and Rodney momentarily flounders before settling on, "Well, goodbye."

Tommy leans his hip against his car, one side of his mouth curling up. Rodney freezes when the man reaches out, when he pats Rodney's shoulder, hand big and warm. John makes a low sound behind him, his fingers curling in Rodney's shirt, and Tommy says, "How about so long, instead? I've got three years left on my contract. Maybe I'll see how life is treating you after I get out."

Tommy's got a questioning look in his eyes and Rodney just shrugs, because three years is a long time, and maybe by then he'll be dealing with this better. Tommy smiles again, squeezing his shoulder and then stepping back. Rodney shakes himself, turns, and walks back to the house without watching him drive away.

Rodney has no appetite for breakfast.

hr

John wakes up to Rodney shaking his shoulder. The inside of his room is pitch black, and John blinks groggily, mumbling, "What is it?" wondering why Rodney decided to wake him up. It had been a long day, full of the weird silences that Rodney seemed to carry around now, and that soldier showing up in the morning.

Rodney's uncomfortable shifting is almost audible, his voice a whisper, "I want to go look at the stars." That's it. There's no further explanation. John rubs at his eyes and rolls out of the bed, because he's not about to let Rodney go out by himself. The lights come on and John winces, squinting against them. Rodney is wearing a thin t-shirt, boxers and loose socks, his arms crossed tight over his chest. John frowns and wonders if he was having nightmares again. Rodney says, after a moment, "Are you coming?"

"Yeah, hold on," John wipes at his eyes again, then wrestles the blanket off the bed, balling it up under his arm. Rodney frowns at him and John shrugs, not feeling awake enough to explain that the grass is kind of dry and prickly, and if they're going to be star watching he wants Rodney to be comfortable.

Maybe it all shows on his face anyway, because after a moment Rodney smiles, brief and fleeting, before stepping out of the room. John follows him down to the backdoor and out across the lawn. Rodney stops in the middle of the grass, tilting his face up to the sky, cloudless, the stars standing like pinpricks of light in the inky night, the moon a thin sliver. John spreads the blanket out, flops down, and pulls on Rodney's ankle.

For a moment Rodney doesn't move, and then he steps onto the blanket, sinking to the ground with a distracted look on his face. John's breath stutters when Rodney decides to use his stomach as a pillow, and his hand comes up automatically to run over the short, prickly hairs on Rodney's head. Rodney squirms around for a long moment before apparently deciding he's comfortable, and sighing.

John forgets that they're supposed to be looking at the stars, craning his neck up so he can see Rodney, the starlight silvering his profile, making his eyes shine. Rodney points up at the stars after a long moment, his voice quiet and soft in the night air, "My grandpa can read signs in the stars, you know? That's my sign. The ram. I always wondered—" Rodney cuts himself off, curling his hand up close to his chest.

John rubs his thumb back and forth over the curve of Rodney's head, just absent touch. The air around them is warm, even in the early hours of the morning, thick and humid. John feels hyper-aware, like his skin is tingling, electrified everywhere he's touching Rodney. His throat is too tight to speak, almost too tight to breathe.

Rodney takes a deep breath, holds it, then lets it slide out. John watches his chest rise and fall, watches Rodney reach up and throw his arm across his face. When Rodney speaks, his voice is soft, distant, "There are things I want to tell you. But they're bad things. I don't know if you—I—"

The way Rodney's voice breaks has John curling up, touching him, stroking a hand down his arm. Rodney is still hiding his face so John slides his fingers over Rodney's forehead, saying, "Hey, hey, you can tell me anything, okay? Anything at all."

For a long time Rodney is silent, and then he twists, pressing his face against John's stomach and balling both hands in John's shirt. Around them the birds are just starting to chirp, the stars dimming as the edge of the horizon stains pink.

Rodney lets out a shuddery breath, his voice muffled, "It's hard to say." John curls over him, rubbing his back, giving him time. When the words come, they come all at once, pouring out of Rodney into the still air around them. John listens, holding him, rubbing his back.

Around them the world is coming slowly to life, but John doesn't notice. He's somewhere else, in the cold under a mountain, afraid and alone. When the words trail off Rodney squirms around, pulls himself into John's lap and wraps his arms around John's neck.

They watch the sunrise.

::go to 'Jigsaw' —>::

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