Junior Jumble

Fandom: SGA

Series: Highschool Heroes

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

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: Language, whump, pre-slash

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta: sherriaisling. God, I can't thank you enough.

Summary: The one with the protestors and the new school year.

Author's Note: You know what I need? I need Harvey Dent's coin, because sometimes I just can't decide what I want to post. I'd prefer not to get his face out of the deal, though.

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The first day of school does not start out promisingly.

Rodney has had nightmares for a long time, but not like the ones he has now. He wakes John up every night, jerking and crying out, no words, just tormented sounds torn from his throat. Sometimes he screams. He's always cold when John wakes him up, shivering, with gooseflesh raised up and down his arms.

The night before school is a screaming night. John wakes up with his heart pounding, Rodney's voice trailing off into a high, tight whine beside him. The hair on the back of John's neck is standing up, and he shifts, half sitting, pulling Rodney up and shaking him.

Rodney wakes up shouting, his eyes snapping open, arms flailing out, John's alarm clock going to pieces with a crack. John can feel the other boy's heart racing, just like he can feel the cold sweat breaking out across Rodney's skin. He pulls Rodney closer, whispering even though he's sure that his parents have already been woken up, "It's okay, it's okay, you're safe now."

Rodney laughs, sharp and shaky, gripping at John's arm and shirt. John is still getting used to sleeping with the closet light on, because Rodney doesn't like the dark, not anymore, but he appreciates it for being able to see Rodney's expression, wild eyed and distant.

"Hey," John catches Rodney's chin, making Rodney look up at him, "you're safe. I promise." For a long moment Rodney stares, then he relaxes all at once, nodding wearily and exhaling slowly. John frowns, "How do you get so cold?"

Rodney shrugs, burying his face against John's side now. His voice is muffled when he speaks, "I'm sorry." Before John can open his mouth to point out that Rodney has nothing to be sorry for, Rodney is continuing, "I didn't—I don't mean to keep waking you. You could wear earplugs, or I could—I mean, I fell asleep on your couch before. I could—"

The thing is, John knows he means it. John bites his tongue to keep a curse in his throat, sliding back down to the bed, pillowing his head on his arm and blinking across at Rodney. The dark circles under his eyes haven't gone away, nor has the haunted look in them. John reaches out without thinking, cupping Rodney's neck, squirming forward until his forehead is resting against Rodney's.

Rodney is looking at him, going cross-eyed, and John says, "I don't mind, okay?" Which is kind of a lie, because he hates the nightmares, just like he hates the way Rodney tends to stand with his chin down and his arms crossed now, watching everyone out of the corners of his eyes, just like he hates the way Rodney picks at his food, just like he hates the way Rodney rubs at his wrist, where he draws those damn numbers, or at his neck, when he thinks no one is looking. But John doesn't mind this, making sure Rodney is okay, trying to make it better even though he has a feeling he's not doing the greatest job of that.

It must be good enough though, because Rodney nods again, twisting and mumbling, "I'm cold." John lets the other boy push into his space, pulling the covers up around them like a giant cocoon, even though John is uncomfortably warm already. Behind him, he can hear his alarm reassembling itself with soft, smooth clicks.

Rodney falls back asleep with a soft sigh, and wakes John up again two hours later.

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When Rodney had taken John out beneath the stars and told him what it had been like under the mountain, John had hoped that it would lessen the nightmares. It hadn't. But now John can imagine what Rodney is seeing when he thrashes around. Now John understands why Rodney hates the dark, why small spaces make him nervous, why he never asks for seconds when they're eating.

John had thought about telling his parents, but Rodney doesn't seem particularly interested in anyone else knowing, not even Teyla, so John keeps it to himself. His father shoots him a worried look when Rodney pushes his eggs around without eating more than a few bites, and his mother pulls him aside, frowning when she tells him that Rodney's eating habits, not exactly healthy for anyone, are even worse for him.

John has no idea how to get Rodney to eat more, but accepts that he's going to have to figure something out. Just not right at this moment, when it's time for them to be heading out. John watches Rodney awkwardly stand by his mother for a long moment before reaching out and squeezing her wrist, and then heading for the door. John frowns, following him out.

It is something of a surprise to find a long, black car waiting for them instead of a school bus. Rodney hesitates on the front steps, and John squeezes his elbow, saying, "Wait here," before crossing the yard. The front passenger door opens before John reaches it, O'Neill stepping out of the car, nodding at him, and opening the rear door. Rodney, apparently not staying on the porch, reaches out and grabs John's hand

O'Neill smiles, saying, "Morning, boys. Want a ride?"

John hesitates, but Rodney is snapping, voice sharp and edged with razors, "You know what I can do with a car?" John isn't sure if it's a challenge or a threat. He does know that Rodney's new willingness to use his powers for whatever he wants probably hadn't been what the people who took him had intended.

O'Neill's smile doesn't fade, "I know. I'm not looking to hurt you or your friend, son. I just have some business at your school, and you're part of it. If you want to wait for the bus you can. I'll talk to you later." Rodney is squeezing the hell out of John's hand, and for anyone else it would be painful, but then he gives a shaky nod and slides into the car. John follows. Of course he does.

The seats are nice leather, they creak when John sits. He winces, Rodney flashing him a weak smile. O'Neill says, once the car is moving, his driver silent and not introduced, "Technically the check ups on the re-integrated kids aren't my responsibility, but this entire thing has been so fucked—excuse me, mishandled—that I took over."

John has no clue what to say to that, so he says nothing. Rodney is similarly silent, though John thinks for a different reason. Rodney is gripping his knees, his knuckles white, breathing fast and shallow. John shifts, wrapping an arm around his shoulder, asking, "Can we open the windows? Please?"

After a moment, they do, warm, moist air whipping through the car. It's brighter with the tinted glass down, and much more open. Rodney relaxes, just a little, flashing John a grateful look. John smiles back, and O'Neill is saying, voice softer, "Is he okay?"

"He's sitting right here," Rodney sounds waspish, crossing his arms even as he leans into John. "And, yes, I'm great, thanks very much for asking." John doesn't point out that this would feel a lot more truthful if Rodney wasn't currently attempting to make himself as small as possible. O'Neill's expression says he knows it too, but thankfully the man keeps his mouth shut.

The rest of the drive is quiet, right up until they turn down a dirt road that John doesn't remember ever passing, and his breath escapes in a surprised stutter.

It's actually a bit eerie how closely they remade the school, with the notable exception of it not being airborne. John twists to look over his shoulder, no sign of the gravel road behind them, and Rodney says, "That's very clever. You know the cloak doesn't reach high enough? One of the corners of the flight tower is disrupting the coverage."

To his credit, O'Neill doesn't bother with asking how Rodney knows, just frowns and nods. The driver pulls up to the drop off area, idling behind a bus as John slides out of the car. There are already kids milling around everywhere, most of them familiar, a few new faces. John reaches out, without thinking, to grab Rodney as a crowd of excited girls pushes past them.

O'Neill nods at them again, "I have an appointment with the new principal, if you'll excuse me." He turns, walking up the front steps, and John exchanges a quick glance with Rodney, taking more pleasure than he's sure he should in the knowledge that Landry got sacked. Or quit. John prefers to believe he was fired.

There's no sign of Teyla or Carson out here that John can see, so they follow O'Neill into the school. They've duplicated the inside of the school as well. It's disorienting, because the last time John saw these halls they were filling up with water. He shakes himself when Rodney squeezes his hand, looking up just in time to spot Mr. Jackson hurrying down the corridor, his head down, reading something.

The returning students automatically make space for him, pulling the newer kids to the side, but no one makes to pull O'Neill aside. John watches the man step forward, waiting for the inevitable collision, and grinning when Rodney laughs.

The two men end up on the floor, blinking at each other. Mr. Jackson's glasses are crooked, and O'Neill just looks confused at first, before he starts laughing, finally managing to say, "You can do what?"

And that's about when someone steps up behind John and grabs Rodney.

Afterwards, John is willing to admit that while tightening his own grip on Rodney and pulling him to the side was probably okay, balling his hand in the grabby stranger's shirt and lifting him off his feet was probably an overreaction. The taller boy looks surprised, and familiar, and Rodney says, "Ronon! John, put Ronon down."

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After the summer they've had, it feels utterly bizarre to be in a classroom again. John can barely make himself concentrate, especially because Rodney is apparently finding it less bizarre and more disturbing. Rodney has been pale since they sat down at their desks, fidgeting constantly and not paying attention, tapping his pencil against his desk instead of doing any kind of work at all.

Rodney's new friend had been assigned to the side-kick classes, which makes next to no sense to John. Rodney had scowled, grumbled something about offensive abilities, and Ronon had just looked confused as to why he wasn't allowed to go to class with them. They'd almost been late because Rodney had insisted upon finding Teyla and handing Ronon off to her, which had taken much longer than it should have when Ronon had spotted Elizabeth walking the other way down the corridor and frozen, staring after her with an unreadable expression.

That had been the last time John had seen Rodney look anything close to relaxed. Rodney is bouncing one leg constantly, his hand up by his neck, his thumb rubbing back and forth across one patch of skin that's already turned red from the friction.

John is in the middle of wondering if he should do something, and what that something should be, when Ms. Carter accidentally drops the remote for the projector she'd been using. Everyone else in the room jumps, but Rodney goes frighteningly still, back snapping ramrod straight, eyes jerking to the front of the room. Rodney's hands are balled up in his lap, his expressions shifting too quickly for John to track, settling on something that looks like fear.

John says, "Shit," just as Rodney jerks again, his hands coming up, palms pressed over his eyes. Rodney is making a tight sound in the back of his throat, the one he makes before he starts screaming at night, and John breaks his chair getting out of it.

Around them the class has fallen silent, John ignores them, pulling Rodney, limp and unresisting, out of his chair. Rodney's skin has gone cold again, and John curses, an arm around Rodney's shoulder, the other under his knees, lifting him and heading for the door.

Ms. Carter's mouth is hanging open when John adjusts his hold on Rodney, just long enough to open the door. He doesn't stick around to see if she's going to protest, murmuring comforting words that he doesn't really hear to Rodney as he heads down the hall. The best part about the school being an exact duplication of the old one is that John knows the way outside without having to even think about it.

Rodney's making horrible sounds, the heels of his hands still over his eyes, his fingers curled up against his forehead. John is running by the time he reaches the front doors, only pausing when they're out under open air. John says, "Hey, hey, it's fine, Rodney—" and Rodney thrashes against him all at once, flying arms and kicking legs, hiccupping on what might be the beginnings of a scream.

John holds him, shushing him, and Rodney stills with a shudder, breathing hard, his face turned against John's shoulder. John says, "It's okay," feeling absolutely useless because it's obviously not, but Rodney nods anyway. "You want to go—" John doesn't bother finishing the question, because Rodney is violently shaking his head. "Okay, okay, we'll stay here, then."

It's not really a surprise when other kids run out, some shaking, some openly sobbing, and some just staring at nothing. John feels sick, and horrible, because none of them have anyone to tell them it's okay, and they should. Eventually the teachers come out, and an older man, who John doesn't recognize, walking from student to student and quietly talking to them.

When the older man steps up to John and Rodney, John stiffens, Rodney responding to the change by making a tiny sound, curling up more. The man, bald, with sharp, intelligent eyes, says, "I presume you're John Sheppard? And Rodney McKay?" John scowls at him, but nods.

The man looks off to the side for a moment, sighs sadly, then turns back, "I'm George Hammond. We haven't had a chance to meet yet, but I've replaced Mr. Landry. I must admit, this is not what I expected." The man sighs again, reaches out like he intends to pat Rodney's shoulder, and John twists away, scowling. One side of Hammond's mouth curls up, "I have no idea what they were thinking sending these kids back to school, but we do the best we can with what we're given. Can you take care of him?"

John raises his eyebrows, and Hammond nods. "Good. You do that. I'd like to talk to you both later, but for now I have some other things to take care of. We're sending you all home." John nods. He stands while shushing Rodney again, and carries Rodney onto the bus, holds him the way home.

His parents are both at work, and John settles them in the living room. He goes to set Rodney down, to get a blanket, but Rodney squirms, grabbing him and protesting. Rodney's voice is very small, "Please stay," and John nods, sinking down onto the couch.

Rodney curls up against him and John rubs a hand up and down his back. John closes his eyes, not sure how to make this better, and Rodney says, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—" his voice breaks off and John shushes him, rocking him absently back and forth.

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George Hammond comes by after dinner, when they've finally gotten Rodney settled down again. Hammond asks to talk to Rodney alone, which isn't going to happen. John and Rodney sit on the couch and John begins the discussion glaring daggers at the man while he and Rodney talk.

Hammond says that he was in the military for years, which does not endear him to John. He also says that he was a prisoner of war, and by the time he's done telling Rodney what happened to him, John is torn between being horrified and ill. Rodney is leaning against John, listening, and when Hammond finally falls silent he clears his throat, "How do you make the nightmares stop?"

There's a long pause, where Hammond looks down at his knees, before finally sighing, "Sometimes they don't."

Rodney shivers, and John rubs a circle over his shoulders. They all sit quietly for a long time, and then Hammond continues, "There are other things we need to discuss, regarding your schooling. You, too, John." Which is how John finds out that the school signed all the kids of age up for driver's ed courses with the local giftless high schools.

John is still trying to absorb the thought of going to drivers ed, it seems too unimportant to be real, when his mother runs into the room on the phone, demanding, "Turn on the television, right now."

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On the news stations, all the news stations, there is coverage of a bunch of protests across the country. At first John doesn't understand why they're watching it, because people are always protesting something, and he's more concerned with Rodney right now, anyway.

And then he reads what's on the signs they're waving around, and sits up a little straighter. The news anchor is trying to explain how the protests are in response to the rumor of a government facility that had been kidnapping powered children to use as weapons. She's quick to point out that it's nothing more than a rumor, that the group has not been able to provide any sources for their claim, but that nonetheless they've sprung up coast to coast.

Most of the signs are loud, angry things: demands for constitutional freedoms, for a change to the Protective Act, for action of some kind. The other signs are more worrisome, and John feels Rodney shudder when the camera pans across one that reads 'Don't Make Us Give You Something To Be AFRIAD OF.' Somehow the misspelling doesn't make it amusing.

John's mother asks the room in general, "Who are these people?"

Hammond shakes his head, and John's father comes down the stairs scowling. Rodney is watching the news with his head cocked to the side, expression tense and distant. John watches the protestors yelling at cameramen, watches them shove at the police, and feels a tingle in his bones.

The news show that's on goes off, replaced immediately by the next one. There are more scenes from the protestors, and then the anchor pops up, looking seriously out at everyone, introducing his guest as the driving force of the G.E.N.I.I. protestors.

Acastus Kolya is full of fire and brimstone. He says that the gifted people are tired of being manipulated for the government's personal usage. That they want equal rights and the complete cessation of the policies of the Protective Act. John stares, feeling Rodney go steadily tenser beside him.

The anchor finally manages to get a handle on the interview, asking for an explanation for the threatening slant of some of the signs. Kolya smiles, sending a chill down John's spine for some reason, and says that some anger is understandable in the circumstances, that anyone would react the same way to their children being taken and threatened.

Rodney stands up stiffly in the middle of Kolya going into another speech, stumbling out of the room. John follows without thinking about it, finds Rodney in the kitchen, in front of the sink, splashing water on his face. John braces a hand on his shoulder, surprised to find him shaking. "Rodney?"

Rodney shakes his head, reaching back and fisting a hand in John's shirt, his fingers wet. John doesn't protest, and after a long moment Rodney shuts the water off, wiping at his face. Rodney slumps, sighing, "I want this day to be over."

John nods, and takes him upstairs.

John isn't tired yet, but Rodney falls asleep almost immediately, his expression still twisted and tense. John stares at the back of his neck, turning things over in his head. He can more than see the appeal of the protests, because they're right. The people that took Rodney deserve to be punished, and the laws have to be changed before other people are taken. No one else seems to be doing anything.

When John finally falls asleep, he's still thinking about it. He wakes up to Rodney screaming, thrashing in the sheets, begging someone that John can't fight to stop, to please, please stop. John wakes him up, holds him, and sees the appeal of what Kolya is proposing.

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Rodney freaks out in school three times in the first week, twice more in class, once in the cafeteria. Teyla helps with the incident in the cafeteria, rubbing her hand back over Rodney's head, whispering softly to him until he relaxes with a final, shaky breath. John says, "Thank you," because he worries so much that he's not giving Rodney everything that he needs.

John hopes and prays that there won't be any Save the Citizen, but apparently God isn't paying attention, because there is. Rodney's eyes are distant when he suits up, his expression blank. John tries to get him to focus, to blink, but Rodney moves like a sleepwalker.

By the time their opponents, two people that John had picked randomly, are ready John has decided to throw the match. Anything to get Rodney out of here as soon as possible. Across from them, the other kids look nervous, hesitant, before one of them takes a deep breath and bellows.

The force of the boy's breath knocks John backwards, yelping in surprise. John lands rolling, pushing himself to his feet, and finds Rodney looking at him, head cocked to the side, expression shifting from eerily empty to angry.

Rodney doesn't even look at their opponents, just waves one hand almost absently, and John hears the screams, sounding more like fear than pain, before he realizes what happened. John runs up to Rodney, grabbing him and looking past him to the other two boys, who are both on the ground, obviously trying to stay as still as possible to avoid the clicking, whirling machines crouched over their faces.

There is no machine involved in the challenge, so John wonders for a half second where Rodney got the tech to build them. Then he notices the looks on the faces of the people in the closest seats, and wonders how many cell phones Rodney just manipulated.

One of the boys is making a high, terrified noise, and John watches Rodney narrow his eyes, reaching out and catching Rodney's wrist. John says, "Rodney, stop, it's okay," and for a half second he doesn't think he's going to get through.

Rodney shakes himself, swaying side to side, and across the room Rodney's machines crawl away from the other boys, clicking their way across to the citizens and pulling them down. Rodney sags, and John catches him, supporting Rodney when he wraps his arms around his head.

Rodney is babbling, "I thought you were hurt, I thought you were hurt, I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"

John rocks him back and forth, "Sh, I'm fine, everyone is fine, okay?" Rodney is shaking his head and John looks around, worriedly, for Teyla, because Rodney is trembling. The other kids are still looking uncomfortable, but John couldn't care less.

Rodney whispers, "I'm scared, John," and John holds him, keeping to himself that he's scared too.

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They make it through the weekend without Rodney freaking out again, though with plenty of nightmares.

Ronon and his mother both come over on Saturday, Ronon sitting close beside Rodney, just like he does in the cafeteria at school. John glares at him, keeping an arm around Rodney's shoulders just in case the other boy gets any ideas, and then feeling guilty for what he's doing.

Ronon hasn't said more than a handful of words all week, and he's still quiet. When he does talk, it's to Rodney, and the sentences rarely seem to be complete. His mother disappears into the kitchen with John's father, and John spends an afternoon feeling like the odd man out, especially when Rodney cocks his head to the side, motioning at the tiny silver stud in Ronon's ear, asking, "Did it hurt?"

That gets a grunt from Ronon, followed by a shrug before he finally speaks, "Numbed it with ice first."

Rodney nods. He's still looking at the piercing, his expression going distant. When he finally speaks, he sounds distracted, "What do you need to do another one?" And that's how John finds himself standing awkwardly by as Ronon splashes rubbing alcohol all over Rodney's ear, the skin already turning red from the cold of the ice cube.

John is fairly certain that they're using earrings his mother doesn't actually wear anymore. He's more preoccupied, however, with worry about the sewing needle that Ronon is about to stab into Rodney. John threads his fingers together behind his head, wincing when the boy takes a deep breath and does it.

Removing the needle and sliding the earring in is a clumsy movement that ends nevertheless with a tiny silver ball resting against Rodney's red, agitated skin. Ronon says, "There," with a satisfied nod, and Rodney just blinks, silent when he walks down the hall to the bathroom.

Rodney just stares into the mirror for a long time before tilting his head to the side and poking at the piercing. He says, finally, "Let's put the other one in above it."

It's dark when Ronon and his mother finally leave, Ronon rubbing his hand over Rodney's head before heading for the door. John scowls at the other boy, surprised when Ronon looks over his shoulder and smirks. Before John can consider what that might mean, Ronon's mother is stepping forward, grabbing Rodney, and pulling him into a hug.

Rodney waves his arms for a moment before, carefully, patting at her back, making panicked eyes at John. The hug goes on for a long moment before she pulls back, cupping Rodney's face in her hands and saying, "Thank you."

When they leave, Rodney stares after them, his arms crossed tightly over his chest until John touches his shoulder. They go back in the living room, but Rodney is quiet the rest of the night, absently destroying and rebuilding the remote, over and over again. John just stares at the way the studs in his ear catch and reflect the light.

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John listens to the news when he can, most of it full of reports on further protests by the G.E.N.I.I. Rodney gets uncomfortable whenever he finds it on, and so John doesn't get to listen as much as he wants to.

John is getting better at anticipating Rodney's freak-outs, getting him out of the classroom or cafeteria before he starts really panicking. He feels horrible for the other kids who were in the program, the ones who don't have anyone looking out for them when the bad memories swim up. Teyla and Carson take turns looking after Ronon, at least.

Wednesday is the first day of their driver's ed. It's weird, to be back in a regular high school again, even though they do only stay in the cafeteria. He, Rodney, and Dean are the only people John really knows, the rest of the kids from Sky High John hadn't ever really met.

Rodney doesn't pay any more attention to this class than he does to any other. John spends his time worrying about Rodney losing it, because they've managed to make the cafeteria a classroom, combining Rodney's two biggest problems spots into one big, giant issue. Besides, he's pretty sure that Rodney can explain everything about cars better than these people ever could.

The normal kids watch them, expressions varying between interested, curious, fearful, and angry. John keeps an arm around Rodney, even though none of the normal kids come anywhere near their table. John sees no reason to risk it. Rodney manages to keep it together through the entire class, making it out to the sidewalk before he starts shaking, breathing fast and shallow.

John ignores the kids moving all around them, wrapping himself around Rodney and just holding him until he stops trembling. Rodney says, speaking the words against John's shirt, "I hate this. I hate this so much." He sounds miserable, and John leans his cheek against Rodney's head, the hair there still prickly.

John says what he always says, the soothing words that he worries are never going to help, until Rodney is breathing steady enough to move. He hates this too, this uselessness that he can't shake, his own inability to make things right.

When Rodney falls asleep that night, John goes on the computer, looking for information on the G.E.N.I.I.

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Time passes like that. They have a burst of good news that Friday, when Hammond discontinues Save the Citizen indefinitely. It's enough to make John want to give the man a medal, and Rodney's relief is so obvious it hurts. John barely hears the rest of his speech, about setting up a program for getting the older kids to tutor the younger ones, not even when Hammond calls he and Rodney into his office to ask if they want to be part of it, when he's done setting it up. Rodney frowns for a long time, before finally agreeing with a smile. John wishes everything else were going that well.

By the end of the fourth week of school, John is aware that Rodney is going to freak before Rodney is. He's also aware that Rodney's friend Ronon is weirdly fixated on Elizabeth. The first few times the boy sprinted ahead to open a door for her, it was kind of funny. After that it gets kind of awkward, especially because Elizabeth is dating some giftless boy, from a college upstate, who drives down to pick her up every Friday after school. Still, John would rather Ronon fixate on Elizabeth than Rodney.

Driver's ed continues to be a trial, but they do the best they can.

And then there's the G.E.N.I.I.

John steals what time he can to follow them. They're holding protests almost nonstop, bringing all kinds of attention to the cause. There's a lot of what they say that appeals to John, deep in his chest, to the thick anger that's looking for an outlet. He understands the need to strike out at someone, and he can think of plenty of people who deserve it.

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The driver's ed course is almost over when Rodney has a nightmare while John is at the computer. John hears him scream from downstairs, cursing and taking the stairs three at a time. By the time he slides into the room, Rodney is bowing up on the mattress, the sound he's making terrible.

John throws himself on the bed, grabbing Rodney's wrists, covering the numbers drawn on his skin, pulling Rodney up against his chest. Rodney's eyes snap open, he shouts, "—John!" into the dark room. John shushes him, his heart thundering, hating that apparently he's showing up in Rodney's nightmares now.

Rodney is saying, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," wrapping an arm around John's neck, pressing his face up against John's throat, then, after a pause, pulling back. "Where were you?" Rodney is frowning, patting at the bed where John usually sleeps.

"Um." John shifts, then shrugs, "Downstairs. Look, I know you don't like the protest things, but they—"

Rodney goes stiff, shrinking back into himself. He doesn't look angry, more afraid, and that's worse, more than enough to cut John's voice off. When Rodney speaks, his voice sounds like it's coming from far away, "You can't. Don't listen to them."

John bites his lip, because he doesn't want to argue with Rodney about this. He doesn't even know why Rodney doesn't agree with this, after everything that's happened to Rodney, he'd figured that Rodney would be the one pushing for it. He starts, carefully, "Rodney, I don't—"

"No." Rodney is shaking his head, climbing off the bed and pacing in a small, angry circle, his arms crossed tight. When he stops, he's scowling, pointing a finger at John, "No. I can't—you can't do that to me. They're—they're out there drawing attention to themselves. What do you think is going to happen to them? Do you think that they're just going to let them keep making noise? Do you?"

John opens his mouth, but Rodney doesn't let him even start, "They'll take you away. They'll hurt you. I can't, I can't—" Rodney's voice cuts off, he turns on his heel and stomps out of the room, down the hall. John curses, stumbling after Rodney.

Rodney doesn't close the door to the bathroom, just turns the light on, paces around the tiny room, turns the light off again, and darts back out. John catches him by the arm and Rodney covers his face with his free hand, voice tight, "Nothing can happen to you, okay?"

"Okay," John is willing to agree to pretty much anything at this point, if there's a chance of Rodney calming down. "Okay," John pulls on his arm and Rodney curls into him, breathing fast and shaky. "I promise nothing bad is going to happen. To anyone."

He knows he has no right to promise that, but it makes Rodney relax, and so he doesn't regret it.

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The driving instructor takes John and Rodney out at the same time for expediencies sake. The man comes to pick them up one Saturday morning, and John is worried immediately, because the car is the smallest space Rodney has been in since he got back, and John's seeing this not ending well at all.

John's worry turns out to be slightly misplaced, but still necessary. Rodney is, honestly, the worst driver that John has ever seen. He jerks and stops, constantly adjusting the steering, the gas, the brakes. The instructor is gripping the sides of his seat, face gone completely white, and the only reason John isn't fearing for his life is that he knows he's indestructible.

Rodney slams on the brakes in the middle of the street for no apparent reason, and they are spared certain death only because there are no other cars on the road.

John lets his breath out slowly, and then reaches forward, squeezing Rodney's shoulder from the back seat. They're not supposed to touch each other, but Rodney needs something. Rodney blurts, into the thick air of the car, "I'm sorry! It's, look, do you have any idea how many parts there are moving in the engine? I can't keep track of all of them and concentrate on everything you want me to as well."

John turns his head, just enough to see the skids that Rodney somehow managed to lay on the asphalt. He says, "Yeah," and then, "Well, do you have to concentrate on both?"

There's a pause, during which John can almost hear Rodney thinking. When Rodney speaks his voice is low, distracted, "Oh." When the car moves forward again, it's smooth, controlled movement. The engine purrs, Rodney leaning his head back, his hands resting on his thighs.

The instructor looks panicked, but John can't help smiling, shifting forward in the seat so that he can look at Rodney's expression. Rodney's eyes are closed, his mouth turned up in the corner. It's the most relaxed that John has seen him look since he came back.

Rodney reaches back blindly and John catches his hand, squeezing his fingers. Rodney breaks into a huge grin, sounding gleeful, "This is...amazing," he takes a turn smoothly, merging into traffic, changing lanes. "I can feel them all."

They cruise down the highway until the instructor quietly suggests that their time is over. Rodney gets out of the car bouncing on the balls of his feet, stretching his hands up to the sky. John watches him, smiling as Rodney spins in a small circle.

The instructor clears his throat, still looking a little shaken, "So you kids are gifted, hm?"

John nods his head absently, watching Rodney kneel beside the car, running his hands up over the hood, crooning softly to it. The instructor is watching as well, looking a mix between unsure and worried. The man finally manages, "I hope you're not involved with that bad news the protestors are up to now."

Rodney looks up, blue eyes finding John, and John smiles, "We're not." And he doesn't even think about asking what bad news the man means. It doesn't matter, because Rodney is smiling at him, standing up and walking away from the car with one final fond pat to the hood.

hr

After that it's just a matter of getting their required driving hours in. It takes another weekend, but then they're done, and in possession of brand new driver's permits. John's parents decide that this is a celebratory occasion, and let Rodney drive them to the restaurant.

John is impressed that neither of them even seems to freak out when Rodney drives with his eyes closed and his hands nowhere near the wheel.

Dinner is Italian, Rodney picking his way around a plate of lasagna and shredding two bread rolls. The restaurant is suitably spacious and bright, and Rodney goes through the entire meal smiling and laughing. John is happy, content, finding himself smiling across at Rodney, poking at his own food in distraction.

They spend way too much time over their meals, the wait staff giving them restrained dirty looks when they finally leave. John's mother is giggling, leaning into his father, and John would be embarrassed if he were paying them any attention. He's more interested in watching Rodney, who looks completely relaxed for the first time in a long time.

John gets to drive home, and he's bouncing the keys excitedly as they cross the parking lot. They parked in the back of the lot, because Rodney had been worried about damaging someone else's car. Rodney kicks a rock across the pavement, laughing breathlessly, cutting off when someone steps on the rock.

John frowns, looking at the group of teenagers sitting all over the pick-up truck. The red-headed girl who stepped on the rock kicks it back at Rodney, tilting her head to the side and smirking, her voice sharp, "I know you."

Rodney bristles, "I don't think so."

Behind him, John can hear his parents, their laughter fading. There's a chill running up John's spine, worry souring his gut for no reason that he can think of. The girl's smile gets uglier, and she takes a step towards them, "Yes, I do. You were in that place. I saw you there. I heard you were the one who brought the whole thing down."

"I think we should go," Rodney's voice is flat, tense. John nods, reaching for his parents and Rodney, feeling the hair all along the back of his neck standing up on end. Rodney is flexing his fingers, fists opening and closing.

"What're you doing hanging around with these deadends?" The term is unfamiliar to John, but he catches the gist of it in the way the girl is looking at his parents. John scowls, taking a half step towards the group, only now realizing that there are at least a dozen of them. The girl is continuing, "I figured you'd be one of the first to join the cause, with all the crap they put you through. They're all bastards. They deserve what's coming to them, right, guys?"

There's an echo of agreement from the other's sitting on the truck, all of them now sliding to their feet. Rodney opens his mouth, but the girl talks over him, "Isn't that right? You're all the same. Leftovers. Evolutionary garbage. Trash. And we know what to do with trash."

John grabs his parents and pushes them towards the car, shouting, "Get out of here!" because there's nothing but threat in the way these kids are moving. Rodney drops the take-out containers, squaring his shoulders, his expression going to the same scary, blank, empty place that it had in the arena.

One of the other kids laughs, harsh and bitter, throwing his hands up, and the ground jumps beneath them. John stumbles, the ground jumping again, and Rodney smirks, the expression something sharp beneath the harsh streetlights.

The teenagers all charge at once, John crouching and wondering how he's going to protect his family from all of them. Then a semi truck picks up two of them, and John has time to realize that this shouldn't surprise him anymore before it's tossing them aside. Rodney has his hands up, his head tilted back.

One of the kids jumps over John's head, landing in a low crouch, jumping again and landing over his father. John's mother yells, kicking at the boy, while John's father raises an arm to block the blow the boy is throwing. John growls, tackling the boy and rolling across the asphalt with him, punching him hard enough to break his nose and cheek bone, not hard enough to kill him.

Around him, metal is screaming, he can smell fire, taste electricity. There's a flash of bright blue light and someone screams. John jerks back to his feet just in time to get kicked in the chest by the red haired girl. Her eyes go comically wide when John doesn't budge, gravity dragging her back to the ground where she hisses at him.

John reaches down, grabbing the scruff of her neck and drawing his fist back. He doesn't like hitting girls, but he's learned to deal with it. Half the teenagers are already on the ground, the rest moving towards John's parents, and John shouts, wordless.

A golden blur drops out of the sky, hitting hard enough to bounce the cars in the parking lot, resolving itself into Ms. Carter. Ms. Carter is frowning, her hands up in fists, her eyes glowing blue. Everyone goes still, the kids suddenly deciding that they have much better things to do.

The girl in John's hold squirms, her friends sprinting away, and John lets her go when Rodney sways, going to his knees. John catches him before he can collapse completely. Rodney's nose is bleeding, his eyes dazed, but he doesn't wince at John's touch. John is pretty sure he didn't burn himself out.

Ms. Carter says, "Is he okay?"

And before John can answer, Rodney is coughing, snapping, "What the hell was that?"

hr

They end up meeting back at their house, Ms. Carter declining a ride and beating them there anyway. They all get settled in the kitchen, Rodney holding a wad of tissue to his nose, his eyes still distant. John stays close to him, worried that he might collapse again.

The adults are all quiet for a long moment before Ms. Carter sets down her cup of coffee, saying, "I'm very sorry you had to put up with that. We didn't realize that there was a group in town." John blinks, unsure what she's talking about.

Rodney frowns down at his bloody tissue, "Who were they? I—that girl was in the program. I saw her there."

Ms. Carter hesitates, picking up her coffee cup again, turning it over in her hands. She sighs, "Kolya is claiming that he doesn't approve of the 'new tactics'," she makes the quotation marks with her fingers with a sour face, "that his group is using, but then he turns around and says that it's what people deserve."

John blinks, "Wait, those were the protestors?"

Ms. Carter smiles, but it doesn't look at all happy, "They're branching out."

hr

Part Two

Hammond's mentoring program, when he gets it set up, turns out to be more of a part time job than anything else. Every school night they stay three hours after, congregating out on the lawn when it's nice weather, in the former arena when it's not. It's a lot of time, but they get paid, and Rodney frowns and says he'd do it even if they didn't.

Technically, they're all supposed to work one on one, but John isn't letting Rodney out of his reach, and, besides, he's not completely sure what he's supposed to be teaching the bubbly girl who's been assigned to his supervision. Whereas Rodney has some very clear views on what he's doing.

John hesitates, the girl tense beside him, watching Rodney twist the arm of the boy he's supposed to be teaching up behind his back, his knee shoved into the small of the boy's back. Rodney's eyes are flat, his voice distant, when he says, "You want to tell me what you did wrong, or should I?"

The boy on the ground squirms around, blinking his eyes rapidly, his voice a croak, "I don't—"

Rodney shifts back to his feet quickly, scowling, "Why would you just stand there? You let me hit you. Why?" John feels something in his stomach loosen up, though not by much, when the younger boy pushes up to his knees and then stands. The boy resettles his glasses across the bridge of his nose.

When the boy speaks, he has a softly accented voice, the words just a little bit awkward, "I was charging my powers, yes? Like you said I should." The boy is rubbing at his arm, but he seems more worried about getting the grass off his skin than any injury. John figures that's for the best, especially with the way everyone else had been watching them.

Rodney snorts, crossing his arms, "And, what, you think that someone trying to hurt you is just going to stand there and let you take your sweet time?" Rodney's voice is dripping scorn, his hand coming up to rub at his neck, a habit that's become familiar since they got him back. He snaps, "They won't. Believe me."

The boy scowls back at him, "What would you have me do, then? The charging takes time, there is nothing I can do about it."

Rodney sighs, rolling his eyes, voice going slow and condescending, "You know what I do?" The boy looks briefly uncomfortable, before nodding slowly. "When I knocked you down, did you see anything mechanical involved? We're more than just what we can do. You can't forget that."

There's a pause, where Rodney suddenly looks tired, and John forgets about the girl he's supposed to be teaching completely. He steps up beside Rodney instead, resting a hand on Rodney's back, worried about him having a panic attack here.

The younger boy interrupts John's thoughts, sounding confused when he asks, "What is it that you want me to do?" The boy is frowning, but he doesn't look angry, mostly just curious. And John is surprised to find that the girl he's supposed to be looking after is listening as well, tilting her head to the side, her eyes on Rodney.

Rodney looks up, frowning, his eyes flat, cold as his voice, "Whatever you have to do, that's the point."

hr

By the time John and Rodney get back from school, John's parents have usually already eaten. John's mom is usually at work, actually, on the night shift for the next few months. They always leave leftovers out, but it doesn't take John long to figure out that Rodney eats more if John has some part in cooking the food. John has no idea why that is, and he doesn't care. It's enough that it works.

John makes hamburgers with macaroni and cheese and frozen peas, and takes Rodney's plate out of his hands to fill it. Rodney gives John an odd look when he hands it back full, but John just shrugs. It's taken a few months, but John has gotten a system down for getting Rodney to eat.

They eat in the living room, Rodney watching television while John watches him. Rodney still picks at his food, but he eats it, hesitating as he gets towards the halfway point, shooting John a sideways look. John pretends he doesn't notice, listening to Rodney tapping his fork on the side of his plate before the other boy swallows and continues eating.

John wishes there was something more he could do, hating the useless feeling that never really goes away.

Rodney licks his lips when he's done, one lone pea rolling around his plate. He sounds drowsy when he says, "You're a good cook," and John feels his face warm. No one else really eats his cooking to give him a second opinion, but no one else's would matter as much as Rodney's, anyway.

And then Rodney is curling up against him, pillowing his head on John's shoulder and wrapping an arm around his waist, settling in with a sigh. John smiles, can't not, letting one hand rest on Rodney's hip, feeling sleepy and warm himself, content with a full belly and Rodney pressed close and safe against him.

On the television there's some game show that John isn't really watching, and he thinks about turning it off. Rodney is well on his way to falling asleep by the sound of his breathing. He still gets worn out quickly, his body no closer to complete recovery than his mind.

John is absently rubbing his thumb back and forth across Rodney's side and Rodney hums, hitching himself closer. John knows they didn't used to touch this much. He can remember being unsure if it was okay to sling an arm across Rodney's shoulders, he can remember worrying about letting his knee rest against Rodney's when they sat beside each other.

Rodney came back to them starved for touch, and that, at least, John is more than capable of providing. Unfortunately, so are plenty of other people. John knows that he has no real right to feel jealous when Teyla gives Rodney a hug, when Ronon rubs his hand back over Rodney's head, or when Ms. Carter pats him on the shoulder, but he does anyway. John much prefers this.

Rodney's voice is sleepy, his breath puffing against John's neck, "I used to think about this. In there. I would think about your couch and watching movies with you." Something in his inflection changes, "I think I forgot, in the end. I'm sorry."

John says, "It's okay," hating how trite it is, but having nothing better to answer him with. John has finally stopped wishing that this would just end, that Rodney would wake up one morning without the weight dragging his shoulders down and the shadows in his eyes. They're not going to go away, and wishing that they would is just a waste of energy that John could put to better use.

Rodney shifts against him again, opening his mouth, but before he can speak the television programming jumps. It's shifting to a special news report, and John hears Rodney's mouth click shut as he sits up. John doesn't even see the reporters face, staring instead at the video clip playing on the left half of the screen.

"Holy shit, is that..." John trails off, mouth falling open, something cold as ice filling up his gut. The camera work is jerky, a home video, the same thirty second loop playing again and again. There isn't much to see, just some pretty girl waving at the camera, motioning at the huge brick building behind her, opening her mouth and then screaming when an explosion throws the scene into something right out of a nightmare.

There's a roar of fire and light, bricks spinning by the camera, people screaming on the street around them, and then the camera is tumbling down, recording the blacktop as a man yells for someone named Christina. John gapes at the screen, reaching automatically for Rodney, adrenaline and fear burning through his body. He repeats, numbly, "Holy shit."

The audio to the video shuts off, the reporter on the right side of the screen clearing her throat, her wide eyes the only visible sign that she's effected by the carnage. John barely hears the words, waiting for the punch line, waiting for something to pop up and make this nothing more than a commercial made in really bad taste.

Rodney says, "Oh, God," and John feels sick, because that's like confirmation that this is really happening. The video is still playing, over and over, somehow even more disconcerting without sound to accompany it. It's a thrown together series of images without context that make John's skin crawl.

And then Rodney is jerking to his feet, hurrying towards the computer, and John follows him, shouting for his father.

hr

There's more information online. The building had been bombed from the inside, no one seems to know how yet. It had been a police station in upstate New York, special in no way from any of the thousands of other police stations, except that it is no longer there.

There had been a dozen people inside when the explosion went off. Rescue workers pull three critically injured police officers from the rubble. John feels sick as Rodney clicks through the pictures, the sheets over the bodies they pull out later, the ones who were either too close to the center of the blast or likewise unlucky.

At first the news reports that they have no suspects for who planned the attack, but that doesn't last.

They find a boy in the heart of the rubble, uninjured and smiling, his clothes shredded. Rodney jerks away from the computer when pictures of the boy load, though John doesn't recognize him. Rodney storms out of the room, and as much as John feels compelled to stay, to read and find out what the hell is going on, he can't.

He follows Rodney out to the backyard, where Rodney goes to his knees, and then falls forward onto his hands. John curses, dropping beside him, wrapping an arm around him and pulling him close. Rodney is trembling, but his voice is all naked rage, "That fucker, that motherfucker, he's no better than they are, no better than them at all."

John feels his skin prick from the venom in Rodney's voice, makes himself ask, "Who? What's going on?" Because it's not exactly a surprise to find Rodney putting things together faster than him. That's just how Rodney's brain works, and John just wants to be filled in.

Rodney spits, his hands balled up into fists, "Kolya. That bastard. Using us just like weapons."

hr

Even if John didn't want to believe, he has no choice. It's all over the news by the end of the night. The G.E.N.I.I. are claiming responsibility for the bombing, unapologetic in the video they release, yelling that it's exactly what the corrupt system deserves, a taste of its own medicine.

John feels something numb and cold settle in his chest, listening to the men and women on screen cheering the deaths of nine people, hailing the boy who walked in with explosives tied across his diamond hard skin as a hero.

One of the women pushes to the front of the crowd, looking into the camera, her expression set and serious when she says that they know now that the government has no intention of listening to them, and that they will keep fighting until they enact the change that their people deserve.

When John can't take it anymore, he clicks the television off, looking across at Rodney. Rodney is pale, both of his hands balled up in his lap, breathing sharp and shallow. John reaches out carefully, touching Rodney's shoulder, surprised when the other boy makes a gasping sound and unfolds in a flurry of motion.

John ends up with Rodney's hands balled in his shirt at his shoulders, Rodney's face inches from his, Rodney's eyes wild. Rodney says, "Promise me, promise me you won't go near them, promise me that nothing—" Rodney cuts himself off with a pained look.

John has a feeling he knows where this was going, anyway. He reaches up carefully, wrapping his fingers around Rodney's wrists, just holding him there, "Nothing bad is going to happen. I promise. Not to me. Not to you. Nothing, okay?"

John makes himself hold Rodney's gaze, the other boy's eyes huge and so blue, scared. John, feeling Rodney's pulse racing, slides his hands up and down Rodney's arms, repeating, "I promise." And Rodney drops his head forward, a shudder racing through his body, tugging on John's shirt, making a strange, tight sound in the back of his throat.

John wraps an arm around Rodney's back, because it seems like the thing to do, and Rodney makes the sound again. Rodney slumping forward, crawling into John's lap, hadn't been the response that John was anticipating.

Rodney curls up there, his head tucked under John's chin, one arm tucked between their bodies, clinging onto John. It's so blatantly a demand for comfort that John can't do anything but hold him, painfully aware that he can't stay like this very long without giving Rodney a whole lot to think about that he really doesn't need to have to deal with right now.

Standing is the quickest solution. John jerks to his feet, bringing Rodney with him, though he's not sure what to do now. Rodney mumbles, "I want to see the stars," and John laughs, half-breathless with relief. He'll contemplate some other time how Rodney always knows when John is looking for some direction.

Outside, the stars are hidden by clouds, but they lay out in the grass anyway, staring up at the dark clouds, edged gray by the silver light of the moon.

hr

School the next day is tense, the students keeping their heads down for the most part. John feels an ache in his bones all day, like there's a storm building somewhere, though he can't see where. He keeps expecting Rodney to have an attack, keeping himself focused more on the other boy than anything else clear through to lunch.

Their table is silent, in keeping with the greater silence of the rest of the cafeteria. Carson is oddly absent, but John doesn't know how to ask where he is, and so he just eats his food, cutting a look towards Rodney every few seconds.

John is just starting to think that lunch is going to end in the same tense silence that it started when a boy who he doesn't recognize stands up in the middle of the room, throwing his tray to the floor. The boy has limp brown hair, and is scowling when he says, "What the hell is wrong with all of you?"

Rodney goes tense beside John and John reaches out automatically, resting a hand on his shoulder. When no one answers the unfamiliar boy, he laughs hoarsely, stepping up onto his seat and shouting, "You act like something horrible happened. Do they have you trained so well?"

John has a flash of the video from the previous night, but with the station his father works in blowing up instead, and feels anger rise in his gut. John jerks to his feet, but before he can speak Elizabeth is saying, her voice calm and icy, "Nine people are dead. Their families are missing husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. How much more horrible do you want?"

The boy sneers, the expression twisting his face up into something ugly. It matches his voice nicely, "Yeah, well, what would you care? You fuck one. When they chain us all up you'll probably get a nice golden cage."

John can't see Elizabeth's face, she hasn't stood up, but the air temperature takes a swift downward plunge. Her voice is sharp, edged with icy pleasantness, "You don't know anything."

"I know that they deserve what they get." There's nothing but anger on the boy's face, and he kicks at the kids who are trying to pull him back down into his seat. "I know that they've done worse to us. To plenty of us here, they've done worse. We're not doing anything they didn't do to us first."

"And all that means is that you're the exact same as they are." Rodney's voice is sharp, scornful, disgusted. He stands slowly, head tilting to the side, "Congratulations." There's so much tension in the room that John can barely breathe, standing beside Rodney, just in case anyone decides that he'd make a nice target.

The unfamiliar boy snorts, stepping up onto his table, pointing angrily at Rodney, "I know about you. Sora says they made you their little toy. You must have liked it. Your boyfriend certainly seems to appreciate it. What'd they do, break you in for him?"

Rodney's expression closes off almost as soon as he starts speaking, his eyes just going blank, and John has the presence of mind to push Rodney towards Ronon and Teyla before he's moving. The asshole's eyes go wide when John goes over the top of his table, the little bastard trying to get down and away, but John is running on pure fury and there's no way he's letting the other boy go anywhere.

John has him on the ground in seconds, his hand around the boy's throat, his fist pulled back, blood pounding. When John throws the punch, he buries his hand to the wrist in the floor, and the boy slowly tilts his head to the side, blinking at John's arm, his expression going blank and terrified. John growls, "Say it again."

The boy just stares up at him, eyes wide, mouth working soundlessly. John bares his teeth at the boy, lifting him and thumping him down to the ground again before shifting up and away from him. John grimaces, watching the boy curl up on himself, and looks up to find everyone in the cafeteria staring at him with identical shocked expressions.

John drags the back of his hand across his nose, making a face and wiping the plaster off on his pants. When John steps forward they all step back to make a path for him and he scowls at them. Rodney is still staring at nothing when John gets back to him, Teyla's expression worried, one of her hands braced on Rodney's forehead.

When John steps up to them, Ronon takes a deep breath, then grabs Teyla and pulls her sharply away. John ignores them both, lifting Rodney, who is tense and tight, and heading for the door. There's a tree out near the edge of school property that Rodney likes to sit under when he has an attack so John takes him there, sits under the boughs and holds Rodney.

It's a long time before Rodney relaxes, the tension finally draining out of him with one long, terrible sob.

Rodney hasn't cried since he came back. Not even when he wakes up screaming. Not when he freaks out. Not that night beneath the stars when he told John about the tiny, dark room, waking up cold and alone, being chained to the floor and used like a thing.

He cries now. There's no sound with it after the first sob, just his shoulders shaking, tears running down his face and dripping onto John's shoulder and chest. John croons to him, wordless, rocking him back and forth, his eyes squeezed shut tight as he can get them.

It goes on for a long time, until the fabric of John's shirt is sticking to his skin, until his throat is aching, his chest so tight it hurts to breathe. Rodney finally stills, sniffling, breathing fast and shallow. His voice is hoarse, rough, when he says, "John?"

John says, "Sh, I'm right here." And feels Rodney relax.

hr

Teyla comes over with Ronon on the weekend, upset and trying to hide it, and John can see that there is going to be a problem with all of them wanting to sit beside Rodney. He adjusts accordingly, pulling Rodney's legs over his lap and letting the others settle on either side of them.

Teyla sighs, tilting her head back against the couch, saying up to the ceiling, "Carson's parents have removed him from the school." She sounds miserable, and John doesn't blame her. She and Carson have been near inseparable since they met last year.

Rodney shifts around, one of his arms going around the back of John's neck, when he asks, "What? Why? Is he okay?"

Teyla sighs again, smoothing a hand down the front of her skirt, "They are worried he will be a target for a further attack." She pauses, "They wanted to remove him after the attack last year, but he convinced them to allow him to remain. They feel they can no longer take the chance."

Rodney is frowning, "So, what? They just think he'll be safer in a normal school?"

"No. They have hired him a tutor." Teyla sounds abjectly miserable, still smoothing at her skirt, "They will not allow him to meet with me. They say that I attract trouble." She makes a face, her nose scrunching up, and it's the first time John has seen her look irritated. Usually, when she's not looking calm, she's looking furious.

Rodney snorts, "That's bullshit." John nods. Comparatively, he's pretty sure that Rodney is the one in their group who attracts trouble, though the rest of them are usually around when the trouble arrives. But Rodney definitely has the tendency to be the focus point.

Still, that doesn't really help Teyla. John offers, "That sucks." Which doesn't really help either, but does get her to nod, and to stop fiddling with her skirt.

Ronon, breaking his typical silence and leaning forward, offers, "We could kill them for you." John eyes the other boy, because, well, sometimes he doesn't know whether or not Ronon is serious when he says things like that. Ronon was in that place a lot longer than Rodney, and John knows how much it changed Rodney, as much as Rodney tries to hide it. When no one says anything, the taller boy shrugs, leaning back against the couch.

They all sit in silence for a long moment, and then Rodney shrugs, "Well, we'll just have to sneak him out."

See. Trouble.

hr

Carson's parents have a huge house. It is actually, John thinks, a mansion. Teyla parks her uncle's car a block away, and stays in to keep the engine running when Rodney pops the back door open and crawls out. The initial plan had suggested that Rodney go solo, but John had ignored that suggestion entirely, since it was obviously stupid. He follows Rodney out.

There's a wall around the place, with a security gate in the front. Rodney places one hand against the gate, tilting his head to the side, and two seconds later it's sliding open. John hisses, as they creep into the lawn, "What are they, movie stars or something?"

Rodney shrugs, frowning as he turns off the lights around them, reaching out and catching John's hand in the gathering dark. His voice is an answering whisper, "His father is a diplomat, I think Teyla said. I don't know." And John wonders distantly if they're in fact managing to break international laws here, but it's too late to turn around.

They pause in front of the gigantic stone house, Rodney staring up at it before pointing at a second story window and saying, "That one." Rodney makes a face, "He's looking at porn." John muffles a laugh with his hand, before motioning impatiently for Rodney to climb on his back.

Rodney makes another face about climbing onto John's back, but then does it anyway. John is not leaving him alone in the middle of night in a strange place. It's just not going to happen. John pulls himself carefully up the wall, thanking the builders for using the natural look.

Carson's blinds are down, and John taps on the window, wondering what they must look like from the road. For a long moment there's no response from inside the room, and then Carson is yanking the blinds up, blinking out at them with a completely pole-axed expression. Rodney waves from John's back.

Carson fumbles getting the window open, finally managing, demanding, "What are you doing here?"

"We're rescuing you. Come on." Rodney sounds happy, almost giddy, and this is worth it just for that. It's been a long time since John has heard him sound like that, and if scheming to let Teyla get her hands on Carson for a few hours is all it takes to get that, then John will break in every night.

For a long moment Carson just stares at them, but then he shakes his head, mumbling something about insane friends under his breath. He puts his hands on his hips, frowning, "And how am I supposed to get down, then?"

John grins, Rodney reaching over his shoulder to hand Carson the knotted rope they made. The other boy sighs heavily, then takes the rope, wandering back into his room to secure it on something and then tossing it out the window. John flashes him another smile before crawling down himself, so that he can catch Carson if he falls.

Carson manages to scale down the wall without any unfortunate accidents, and then they're taking off across the lawn. John runs hand in hand with Rodney, listening to the other boy laugh when they make it through the gate, feeling something in his chest go tight.

Teyla breaks into a huge smile when she sees Carson, leaning out the window to kiss him, the two of them lingering for a long moment over the kiss. John rolls his eyes, clambering into the back of the car, pulling Rodney in after him.

They drive to the park, and then leave Carson and Teyla in the car in favor of wandering around. They end up on the merry-go-round somehow, John spinning the thing while Rodney laughs with delight and Ronon clings to the railings with grim determination.

By the time they get home, the sun is just starting to make the sky gray. They don't quite make it upstairs, collapsing onto the couch, Rodney appropriating John as a body pillow, cuddling up with him and falling asleep within minutes.

John stays awake as long as he can, watching Rodney sleep, running his hand back over Rodney's hair. When Rodney frowns in his sleep, whimpering, John leans forward, kissing his forehead and shushing him, and Rodney falls back into a deeper sleep without waking.

In the morning John makes pancakes, deforming a few just to make Rodney smile.

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Time passes in a tumble of long days after school and weekends spent liberating Carson for a few hours. John ends up with a paycheck he's not sure what to do with, and Rodney won't say a word about what he's doing with his, just grins whenever John asks. Most of it gets saved for lack of knowing how to spend it.

John is fairly certain that they might be pissing off some of the other older students, because the younger kids keep making their way over to Rodney's little corner of the school yard. John doesn't particularly like it himself, because it's the only time that Rodney still goes cold and distant, but Rodney refuses to consider stopping.

Not that Rodney is a bad teacher. He's good, if irritable and abrupt. But he's perfectly willing to explain what they need to do, and his margins for error are almost nonexistent. John goes with it, because he agrees that the younger kids need to know how to protect themselves, and because, well, it's what Rodney wants to do. That's reason enough all on its own.

The boy who Rodney had been initially mentoring, Radek Z-something-or-the-other, ends up having a surprisingly vicious streak. John half-thinks that he got it from Rodney, because a lot of the other kids are developing a similar attitude. And Rodney manages to get all of them to stop relying on their powers, mostly by forbidding them from using them unless it's absolutely necessary.

They get clever and sneaky, and John is impressed. Compared to the fighting they did in Save the Citizen last year, this is a whole new league. He's not sure if that should worry him or not. The fact that most of the kids seem to think Rodney is brilliant reassures him.

One of the teachers is always assigned to be out watching them, but usually it's Mr. Jackson, who doesn't really do the whole watching thing very well. Sometimes the entire teaching staff shows up, though, and John is always sure that they're going to say something about the training, but they never do.

Sometimes Ms. Carter even comes over to be used as a test subject, since their attacks stand only a microscopic chance of doing her harm. The first time Radek, a girl named Miko, and some other boy with spiky brown hair manage to make her stumble, she looks nakedly impressed.

If nothing else, the classes foster a sort of closeness between the kids who had been under the mountain with Rodney and the rest of the school. The kids who had been in the program are better fighters, not least because they all have a degree of the vicious pragmatism that Rodney is full of. They mingle with the others, forming smaller subsets of teaching. John notices when the kids who weren't taken start clustering around their traumatized schoolmates, escorting them someplace quiet when they freak out.

There aren't anymore fights in the cafeteria. In fact, most of the kids give John and Rodney a wide berth, and for some reason the teachers don't completely patch the hole that John put in the floor. It stays there, like a reminder. John approves.

Fall passes to winter with no more attacks, and John starts to relax.

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The G.E.N.I.I. blow up another police station on Thanksgiving morning. They picked a bigger city this time, and instead of a dozen, there are almost forty people trapped inside. All thoughts of turkey and mashed potatoes get abandoned, in favor of horror and disbelief.

In the end, five people make it out alive, and even they're critically injured. John sits with Rodney's legs over his lap, his parents curled up beside them, sick to his stomach. People are already calling it the Thanksgiving Day Massacre all over the television.

There's a tape claiming credit for the attack within hours, more laughing and cheering, people declaring that they will keep the attacks up until there is reform. And John kind of wonders exactly how they think killing people is going to make the public at large think they don't deserve to be locked up, but he doesn't know how to vocalize the thought.

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The next morning the President makes a speech, sitting in his office, looking dour and serious. John holds onto Rodney when the man says that they're doing all they can to catch those responsibly for the attacks, and that there should be no retaliatory action taken about the gifted communities in the country, who are just as horrified by the events as everyone else.

The President says that they already have leads on the whereabouts of several high ranking members of the terrorist cell, and John feels something icy crawl up his throat. The President says that, sadly, until further notice, gifted people are to stay in their homes after nine in the evening, and any gatherings of three or more not related by blood must be monitored by a normal person, under penalty of arrest.

Rodney leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, letting his head hang down. His voice sounds choked, "Oh, God. It's going to be all fucked up." And John can only nod, rubbing his hand up and down Rodney's back. Because this, he understands, is exactly what Kolya and his merry band of crazy assholes had been hoping for, more ammunition for their cause.

John's father clicks the television off, looking ill himself. John's mother hisses, pale and tense, "This is going to get ugly." No one has an appetite.

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There's a stranger in their classroom on Monday morning. The man is in plainclothes, looking uncomfortable to be there. John can't tell if the man is wearing a gun or not, but he rearranges Rodney's position in the room anyway, putting himself between the man and Rodney.

There are a half-dozen other kids from the program in the class, and they all look wane and drawn. John can see the line of sweat that breaks out across Rodney's forehead, and when Rodney snaps a pencil, John curses. It's all the warning he gets before Rodney shudders, whining in the back of his throat.

John grabs him, distantly aware that two of the other taken kids are tensing up as well, being attended to by their classmates. When John heads for the door, Rodney jerking in his arms, the man there tries to stop him, or at least puts a hand on John's arm.

Afterwards, John doesn't remember moving, but the man is blinking up at him from the floor, expression shocked. John doesn't have time to make sure his feelings haven't been hurt, pushing the door open, taking Rodney somewhere he can breathe.

John is not surprised when most of the kids from under the mountain end up out on the front lawn. He has all the proof he needs of how bad this must be for them curled up in his arms, trembling. John whispers into Rodney's ear, "I'm not going to let anything happen to you, do you understand? Nothing. Not ever."

Rodney nods, raggedly, holding onto John's shirt.

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The next morning there's a response from the G.E.N.I.I. plastered all over everything.

Rodney grips John's hand hard, reading the reports on the internet, because at least that way they didn't have to listen to the goddamn reporters analyzing the hell out of everything. There's no disguising the nakedly threatening language in the message, there's no way to put any kind of positive spin on it at all. The G.E.N.I.I. have never gone for subtle.

The message says that the G.E.N.I.I. have instituted their own curfew. That any deadends they catch in their areas will be handled. There is no mention of what the punishment is going to be, and somehow that makes it worse.

Rodney looks sick when he pushes away from the computer, turning his face against John's stomach, holding on. John tries to tell him things are going to be okay, but the words catch in his throat, a lie that he can't quite make himself vocalize.

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In the kitchen, a half hour later, John is making lunches for them, because Rodney flat out refuses to eat the school food. He doesn't complain. He just won't eat it. John is frowning over a piece of bread, trying to make the news make sense, the increasingly desperate actions of both sides of the equation. When his father leans a hip against the counter beside him, John mumbles a distracted good morning.

John hadn't been expecting, "You need to rethink your trips out on the weekend." His father's voice is keyed low, soft, and with Rodney talking to John's mother across the room it's obviously for John's ears only.

John feels himself flush, color staining into his cheeks, because he hadn't realized that his parents even knew. He opens his mouth, not to protest, because that would be kind of stupid, trying to think of an excuse or somehow to explain that he had to do it. His father presses on, "Look, you wouldn't be teenagers if you weren't trying to sneak out. That's fine. We trust you. But you can't right now."

"It's important," John sets the sandwich down, frowning and trying to keep his own voice modulated. There is no reason to worry Rodney with this.

John's father sighs, cutting a quick look over his shoulder and then leaning closer to John, his voice dropping even lower, "I have no doubt that it is. But what do you think is going to happen to Rodney if they put him in a cage again? Is it worth it?"

Something as cold as ice settles into John's stomach at the words, he hears himself make a hoarse sound. When John looks up, Rodney is watching him, gaze concerned, and John manages a weak smile.

John is not looking forward to explaining to Rodney that they can't bust Carson out anymore.

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Part Three

The night before they're going to fly out to California for Christmas break, Rodney is tense and quiet. John waits for him to say what's bothering him, shoving clothes into his bag, wondering if anyone will recognize him after the two years spent away.

They'd only found out for sure that they could go a week and a half earlier, when O'Neill had supplied them with official papers saying that he and Rodney were allowed on the plane. Any of the goodwill or agreement that John had once felt for the G.E.N.I.I. is long gone now, because all they've caused is trouble. The laws had been strict enough, the people scared enough, before everyone started worrying about being a target of Protest Action.

The watchers haven't disappeared from the school, though they have to stand outside the classrooms now. The curfew still stands. John wonders, sometimes, if this is what their entire lives will be. Simultaneously feared and fearful, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Rodney keeps his silence as they pack, afterwards curling up around a book while John plays video games. The silence between them is, for once, not comfortable, heavy with whatever it is Rodney isn't saying. John gets his ass kicked all over the place by the A.I., until his eyes are blurring and he's too tired to go on.

By now, there is nothing at all odd about crawling into bed beside Rodney, wrapping an arm over his waist, threading their fingers together, huddling close but not too close. John worries, constantly, about where that particular line is, but so far he thinks he's managed not to cross it. Rodney needs a friend, not someone asking for even more from him, and John will be damned if he can't be that friend.

Which doesn't mean that it's not hard to resist all the other things he wants. The soft light from the closet means that John can see the curve of Rodney's neck, the glint of his earrings, the way his hair is finally long enough to have just a hint of a curl. It makes John ache, and he squeezes his eyes shut, biting his lower lip.

Rodney is silent so long that John is sure he must have fallen asleep, whatever had been bothering him going unspoken, but finally he shifts around. When Rodney speaks his voice is whisper soft, his hand twisting around where John is holding it, "Are you sure I should come?"

John startles, confused, because it hadn't even crossed his mind that there was an option. Of course Rodney should come. He frowns, "I—"

Rodney talks over him, words tumbling fast, like he can't stop them now that he's started, "It's just that they're your family, and I don't want to cause any trouble. I mean. They're all normal, right? I might, uh, scare them. Make things weird, you know?"

John pushes himself up onto one elbow, blinking down at Rodney. Rodney is staring at the wall, his mouth turned down harshly in the corner. John tells himself sternly that there is no reason for his heart to be racing, and makes an effort to keep his voice steady, "Rodney, everything is going to be fine."

Rodney makes a face, twisting around on the bed, looking up at John instead of the wall. "I don't want to mess things up for you. What if they don't like me? Or, I mean, you have cousins, right? Little ones? What if I scare them?"

There had been a time when John hadn't believed that Rodney could scare anyone but the terminally stupid. The time Rodney spent under the mountain changed that, put a darkness in him that never really goes away, no matter how many lights they leave on. Once John wouldn't have thought Rodney would hurt anyone. Now he thinks that Rodney wouldn't hurt anyone if they didn't piss him off first.

Still, John finds himself rolling his eyes, resting his chin on Rodney's shoulder, "The only thing that would mess things up would be if you weren't there. Beside, I hate my cousins. They're all whiny brats. Terrorize them all you want."

Rodney laughs, smile crooking up, eyes catching the light. John feels something warm spread through his chest, and he presses his mouth against Rodney's shoulder, shivering. Rodney's expression shifts to something softer, and John feels warmth rush down his spine, and Rodney says, "Well, as long as I have your permission."

John doesn't mean for his voice to sound the way it does when he says, "Anything you want to do is fine with me." For a long moment Rodney just stares at him, and then he smiles even softer, reaching up and running his fingers back through John's hair.

It takes John a long, long time to fall asleep.

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Rodney fidgets all the way through the airport, and onto the plane. Last time they had rode on a plane he'd still been exhausted, functioning on autopilot from the time he spent caged. Now he's wake and aware, his chin tucked down close to his chest, shoulders curling over. John keeps a hand on Rodney, glaring at anyone that looks their way.

On the plane he gives Rodney the window seat, hoping that being able to see out into the open air will keep him from panicking from the tight space. There's no place for John to take him if he freaks out up here, and John doesn't want any of these people to see him fall apart.

He's surprised when, instead of looking out the window, Rodney curls towards him, pressing his face up against John's shoulder. Rodney's hands are trembling, barely noticeable, when he reaches for John's. John's chest aches, he keeps his eyes open, keeping watch.

John doesn't let him go, Rodney doesn't have an attack.

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John's grandparent's house looks different than he remembers. Smaller. It was the biggest thing he remembers knowing for a long time, if not in physical size then in importance. Now his room back home feels bigger, the four walls that are his and Rodney's.

Still. It's familiar, and there is a part of him that missed it. His parents park the rental at one end of the long horseshoe driveway, and John carries the majority of the luggage, Rodney staying close behind him. John's parents go first, his mother frowning before smoothing her expression into something happier when his father knocks.

There are voices from inside, everyone else already there, a ragged noise of footsteps and high pitched shouting. One of John's cousins, beaming up from beneath a mop of blond hair, throws the front door open, shouting, "They're here!"

John's grandmother shouts from inside the house, her voice as big as it ever was, "Well tell them to come in!"

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The family is spread out throughout most of the downstairs of the house, too many to congregate in one room. John hesitates, walking slowly through the halls, Rodney's hand clenched in the back of his shirt. He can't get Rodney to walk beside him no matter how much he pulls on him, the other boy shrinking in on himself.

John doesn't like that, at all, and he stops, letting his parents move past him. John turns to the other boy, Rodney resolutely staring down at the floor, flinching at a clash of laughter from further in the house. John eases a little closer, reaching out, cupping Rodney's neck, keying his voice low, "Hey, you okay?"

Rodney shrugs, flicking his eyes up and then down again. He says, soft, "I'm fine."

John opens his mouth around the reassurances that have become second nature over the last few months, and someone grips his shoulder. John flinches, shoving the hand away automatically, pushing Rodney towards the wall, blocking him off.

It takes John a long moment to realize that he's glaring into his uncle's eyes. John blinks, making himself relax, letting out a long breath. His uncle is watching him with sharp eyes, smiling when he says, "How are you doing, John? And your friend?"

John doesn't like that he has to remind himself to relax, that things are fine, safe, and normal. He shrugs, trying on a smile of his own, hating how awkward it feels, "I'm fine. Rodney, this is my Uncle Patrick. He—"

Rodney frowns, stepping forward his chin up now, his eyes flat and chilly when he extends a hand, interrupting, "You're the one who found General O'Neill." John watches them shake hands, finding himself holding his breath. Rodney's voice is razor sharp, "Took you long enough."

Uncle Patrick smiles wide, letting go of Rodney's hand, "He was a difficult man to get a hold of." Rodney just hums, sliding his hands into his pockets. Then he smiles, finally, and John exhales carefully. They go to introduce Rodney to the rest of the family.

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The rest of the day passes in a blur of family and food. John's head is spinning by the end of it, and he can only imagine how overwhelmed Rodney must be. Still, Rodney handles the whole day better than John had dared to hope. Mostly because John's younger cousins all converge on Rodney within minutes, dragging him off to play with them.

John follows. He can't really remember the last time he was more than five feet away from Rodney. John spends the day coloring pictures and giving piggyback rides, watching Rodney slowly relax. The kids pile on Rodney's lap, alternately demanding that he play cars with them or one of a dozen different board games.

John and Rodney even end up sitting at the kid's table, which two years ago would have pissed John off. Now he spends the entire meal smiling and laughing, watching his younger cousins gaze adoringly up at Rodney, constantly clamoring for his attention.

By the time they get ready for bed, Rodney is laughing softly to himself, smiling. John nudges his shoulder, Rodney elbowing him back, trying to brush his teeth. John says, "You didn't say you liked kids." And Rodney rolls his eyes.

It's only after Rodney spits that he speaks, "I like you, don't I?"

John shoves at his shoulder again, grinning, moving him out of the way so that John can brush his teeth. When John is done Rodney is leaning against the wall watching him, and John rubs a hand back through his hair, grinning sheepishly. Rodney says, "I'm tired."

John nods, reaching out for his hand, leading him down the hall. As big as the house is, there still aren't enough rooms for everyone. John is more than used to sharing with Rodney by now, but it's odd to know that Dave is going to be there as well.

Dave is, in fact, already in the room. Dave is taller than John remembers, two years older than John, looking dour and serious. Dave smiles, bright and friendly, nodding to Rodney, then John, "I set up two air mattresses for you."

John has time to frown, because two air mattresses is one more than they need, and then Rodney is saying, "Well aren't you helpful." There's a moment where Rodney and Dave just stare at each other. Dave looks away first, his expression going stiff and uncomfortable.

Dave coughs into his hand, settling on the bed, and John exchanges a look with Rodney. Rodney smiles, grabbing the blankets off of one of the air mattresses, shoving the thing aside, and spreading the blankets out on the soft, thick carpeting. Rodney eases down carefully, blinking up at John expectantly.

Before John joins him he opens the closet door, turning on the light, ignoring Dave's soft noise of protest. The floor isn't the most comfortable surface John has ever slept on, but having Rodney to curl up to makes up for a lot. John settles beside him, grabbing the blankets off of the other mattress and pulling the covers over them.

Rodney is warm and familiar, and John curls up close behind him. Rodney's hair is long enough now for John to nose into it, and he does, closing his eyes and settling with a sigh. He hears Dave shift around on the bed, but ignores him, keeping his eyes closed, his focus on listening to Rodney breathe.

They usually talk before falling asleep, but it's not the same with Dave in the room. John flattens his hand on Rodney's stomach, warm and full and relieved that the evening went well, that his younger cousins are so fond of Rodney.

John dreams sweet things, and wakes up to Rodney tensing up, whimpering and thrashing. In the bed above them Dave hisses, "What's going on? Is something wrong?" his voice tense and worried. John can hear him moving around.

John grunts, "Shut up," drawing Rodney closer, rocking him back and forth. Rodney is gasping, waking up from the nightmare, tense and shaking, gripping at John's shirt and shoulders. John wraps a hand around Rodney's neck, pulling him close, "It's okay, it's okay, you're fine."

Dave is still moving around, "What's happening? Is someone hurt?"

"Shut up!" John hisses the words, lifting his head long enough to shoot a disgusted look in the general direction of the bed. Rodney is trembling, but it's passing, fading to stillness, to the rough panting of his breath against John's neck. John lowers his voice again, "You're fine. I've got you."

Rodney lets out a shuddery breath, trying to curl up into a ball. There is a sharp edge of panic in his voice, "Where are we? Where are we? John? What's going on?"

John rocks him, smoothing a hand down Rodney's back, his shirt damp with a cold sweat, "We're in California. At my grandparent's house, remember? It's okay." Rodney's heart is racing, just starting to slow down.

Rodney still sounds half-asleep, disoriented, "California? We...flew. That's right, right?" He's curling up against John now, tucking himself in close, the way he does when the nightmare is particularly bad. John holds him as tightly as he dares, pulling the blankets up higher, still rocking them absently back and forth.

John keeps his voice low, smooth, soft, "That's right. Come on, go back to sleep. I've got you. I'm not going to let anything happen to you." Rodney makes a soft sound, curling one of his arms around John, fisting his hand in John's shirt between his shoulder blades. He sinks down into dreams slowly, his body going limp and pliant while John cradles him.

There's movement from the bed again. John turns his gaze up to find Dave leaning over the side, his expression worried. Dave asks, again, "Is he okay?"

John hesitates, feeling Rodney's slow and steady breathing, the heaviness of his trust a weight that John is more than happy to carry. When John speaks, he chooses the words carefully, "He's fine. Look, Dave, he doesn't—the dreams. They're private. You can't—"

John thinks Dave smiles, it's hard to tell in the near-dark, "Relax. I won't say a word."

The other boy sounds sincere, and John wants to believe him. Life is making him a paranoid bastard, and he says, "If you do, I'll have to kick your ass." Dave laughs it off, like it might be a joke, and John closes his eyes, because he knows that it's not.

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The next day is more of the same, though the hours they spend running around his grandparents big yard is new. John's younger cousins insist on playing tag and hide-and-seek over and over again, and Rodney rolls his eyes and calls them juvenile and then plays anyway.

Somewhere around lunch the kids figure out that John is strong, and he spends a small eternity with a half dozen tiny bodies clinging to him. Rodney laughs every time he looks at John, and so John makes no serious effort to get rid of his hangers on.

By the time his grandparents decide that they're taking everyone into town for dinner, John is tired and his face aches from smiling so much. He thinks about protesting, but arguing with his grandparents is kind of like trying to convince the sun not to shine, so they trudge inside to clean up.

There are over two dozen of them in all, and they all go out. His grandparents don't believe in things like reservations, and John watches the staff at the restaurant they choose scramble around. He imagines that they're probably being called nasty names, then gets distracted by one of his smallest nieces climbing him like a tree, settling on his shoulders and grabbing handfuls of his hair.

John starts to frown, and gets distracted by movement to his side. When he looks Rodney is trying to smother his laughter behind a hand, looking like he's about to fall over. John rolls his eyes, reaching up and keeping a hand on his niece's leg just to make sure she doesn't tumble backwards, messing up Rodney's hair with his other hand.

Rodney just looks up at him with bright eyes, his cheeks stained red from laughing, and John finds himself grinning helplessly back. John goes through the meal in a giddy daze, barely even tasting the food. Rodney keeps laughing softly to himself, and John isn't sure he's ever heard a better sound.

Time slips away unnoticed, until his mother appears behind their chairs, leaning down and keeping her voice low when she says, "We're going to head back to the house early, come on." There's something unhappy in her voice and John doesn't have to look at his watch to know that they're getting close to the curfew. He meets Rodney's eyes, making a face, and then other boy frowns, standing up. In truth, it's almost a relief. John has a feeling he ate way too much.

His grandparents are protesting loudly, but John's father is handling them. John snags Rodney's hand and sneaks out to the lobby with his mother, because otherwise they'll never get out. It's a minute or two before John's father joins them, looking the closest to harried he gets.

John looks away when his mother kisses his father, the two of them laughing after a moment at some private amusement. When he looks to the side he finds Rodney watching him, expression sharp and curious, and shrugs, not sure what Rodney is looking for.

And then they're leaving, the night air cool and damp, not nearly as cold as it is back home. Rodney shivers anyway, more sensitive to cold than John is. John wraps an arm around his shoulders, with the vague intention of sharing body heat, realizing that they're mirroring his parent's. After a moment he shrugs, and decides that it's no big deal.

It's windy, anyway, rain just staring to fall, big, heavy drops, and he figures Rodney probably appreciates John's steadiness. They had to park a block away from the restaurant, which had been frighteningly full when they arrived, and the wind, accompanied by stinging rain drops, batters them as they walk down the sidewalk.

There's a light on the way, and they wait for the pedestrian crossing sign to change with a half dozen other people, all huddled into their coats against the heavy rain. Above their heads the traffic lights swing back and forth, squeaking.

The light changes, they start across, the rain coming down even harder. John barely even hears the squeal of tires at first, and when he does the echo of the rain and wind confuse its direction momentarily. And then someone shouts, and John jerks his head up.

There are a mess of words in John's head, all at once, hydroplaning and the driver's ed teacher saying that roads are always the slipperiest right when it first starts raining. And then the fact that there's a semi-truck careening across the intersection makes everything else kind of unimportant.

Rodney is throwing a hand up, everyone else is scattering. John hears metal scream on metal, looking down at Rodney's pale upturned face, seconds passing like years. The semi jackknifes, wheels remaking themselves, the man behind the wheel screaming something John can't hear through the glass.

John curses, turning his back to it, making a decision in the split second that he's been given, going to his knees, forcing Rodney down, curling over him. He doesn't have time to absorb that his parents are right beside them, that there's a crowd of people around, that the semi is going to hit all of them.

Metal screams, echoed by a woman, and then there's silence.

John finds that he was holding his breath, and carefully releases it, cracking one eye open, then the other. Rodney is blinking up at him, his blue eyes huge and surprised, rain slicking his hair close to his head. John opens his mouth, looking for words, and someone shouts, "Holy shit!"

John stands shakily, drawing Rodney up with him, turning. The semi is in a tangled shape across the intersection, stopped just inches from crouching people in some places. The trucker is crawling out of the misshapen cab, the front wheels up on the sidewalk, the fender pressed against one of the light poles.

John has a split second to take that in, and then the metal pole is giving with a long, terrible sound, collapsing towards them. John shouts, people scrambling and ducking, and pushes Rodney to the side. He catches the pole with one hand an inch away from his face, breathing hard, his heart racing.

For a long moment no one moves, standing there in the rain, waiting for something else to go wrong. People are sobbing in the middle of the road, the trucker is getting sick, John's parents are heading towards them. John shakes himself, carefully setting the light pole down to the ground.

John's mother is shouting, "Are you okay?" and grabbing for him, looking at his hands even though they have to know he's fine. Rodney is on his feet again, looking back and forth between the semi and the light pole with a shocked expression. John reaches out for him, and Rodney meets him halfway, his hand cold and wet.

Someone yells, voice loud in the wake of everything else, "Someone call the police—"

John thinks they might have said more, but that's all he hears. He sees Rodney's eyes go wide, that same fear that Rodney wakes up with in his eyes flooding the other boy's expression now. And really, there's no choice to grabbing him at all, to turning without a word and running full out.

For the first few steps Rodney stumbles along beside him, before finding his feet. John can hear his parents yelling, but doesn't stop. There's nothing they can do, not if someone got it into their heads to take Rodney away again, and John won't let that happen.

John knows this town, not as well as he used to, but the memories are there. He keeps a firm grip on Rodney's hand, dodging down a side street, his legs working. The pavement is slick and it's just a matter of when they slip and fall, but he dares not slow down.

There are people in the way, and John dodges around them when he can, shoving them to the side the rest of the time. They cut across an intersection, people laying on their horns, John denting the hell out of a Hummer that would have hit them. John barely notices. It's all unimportant.

Beside him Rodney is breathing fast, but keeping up. He has a deathgrip on John's hand, one that John knows he's returning. John leads them through the heart of the city, running, his heart in his throat, until they make it to the park.

As far as John knows, the thing had been constructed as a place for the people that worked all day to come to see some nature on their lunch hours. John had liked it because there was a skate park in the back. He pulls Rodney down the now empty paths, no one but them here in the rain, to the beaten down amphitheatre in the heart of the park.

Rodney is shivering when they stop, soaked to the bone, his teeth chattering. John says, "It's going to be okay," breathless, grabbing Rodney and lifting him towards the roof. After a half-second Rodney catches on, squirming around, hauling himself up onto the slick shingles.

John makes sure he's stable before pulling himself up, the roof rough under his hands. It's been a long time since he was up here. He hopes that no one got around to repairing the hole into the amphitheatre itself. He reaches for Rodney in the dark, finding his hand and pulling him along the steep edge of the roof, working more from memory than sight, praying he doesn't slip.

The hole is still there, the wall where the roof rises to the next level. John pushes Rodney through first, following a second later. There's not much space beyond, it's just a cut off corner, an accident in the building. But it's less damp, and it's hidden from the outside.

John takes a moment to catch his breath, huddled in the tight space with Rodney. He'd come here by himself, a few times, and it had been crowded with just one person. He's bigger now, and with Rodney here there's barely enough room to breathe. It's the best that John could think of on short notice. He says into the darkness, "Are you okay?"

Rodney nods, it's impossible not to feel it in the cramped space. John says, "Good, good," more for the comfort of hearing himself speak than anything else. A half-second later Rodney is moving, forcing his way closer to John, shivering violently, breathing raggedly.

John wraps his arms around the other boy, holding him close, babbling, "We'll wait for the rain to stop, or, well, to stop some and then we'll go to my grandparent's house, okay? It's a long walk but I can carry you. Then we can go home. It'll be okay." John is pretty sure that it will be, anyway. They'll go home, no one will know about the semi or the light there. Everything will be fine.

Rodney nods again, still shaking hard. John rocks him back and forth, petting at his hair, rubbing a hand up and down his back. He murmurs in the stillness of their hiding place, nonsense words and promises. He's not going to let anything happen to Rodney. Not ever again.

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John thinks he sleeps. When he wakes up the rain isn't falling anymore, though the world is still dark outside the hole. Rodney is curled up against him, not shaking anymore, breathing slow and deep. John nudges him gently, hating to wake him, keeping his voice low when he says, "Come on, we've got to go."

Rodney wakes up almost silently, mumbling something sleepily against John's throat before attempting to stretch. There really isn't room for it, and John gets an elbow to the ribs, which he ignores. They manage to squeeze their way out of the hole, John feeling his way down the roof, and then rolling his eyes and just sliding down the side.

Rodney shouts, "John!" sounding worried. John stands, wincing at the mud now covering his pants.

John says, trying to keep his own voice quiet, "I'm fine. Come on. Slide down, I'll catch you." For a moment there is no movement from the roof, and then muffled cursing as Rodney slides down. John squints against the dark, moving more on sound than anything else to grab Rodney when he comes off the roof.

For a half second Rodney is still in his arms, and then he cuffs the side of John's head, his voice oddly tight, "Don't do that! I thought—" he cuts himself off, squirming around until John sets him down. John reaches out of his hand, relieved when Rodney squeezes his fingers.

"It's okay. I'm not going to leave you." Rodney makes a soft sound at John's words, all the confirmation John needs that he'd nailed what had been worrying Rodney. It hurts, just briefly, that Rodney still thinks John might abandon him, but it's not like John can blame him. John failed him once. He knows he doesn't deserve blind trust. John clears his throat, "Let's go. Tell me when you get tired, okay?"

Rodney squeezes John's hand again in answer, and that has to be good enough. John finds their way back to the path carefully, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. It's not completely black, there are clouds covering large portions of the sky, but right now the moon is shining through clearly.

They settle into a pace that's almost a run, because there's an itch down his spine, a need to get Rodney somewhere safe, not in the open, and no matter how often he tells himself to calm down he can't quite manage it. He readjusts his grip on Rodney's hand, and pulls him through the dark night.

hr

Rodney stumbles a long time later. John has no way of tracking the miles they've come, but he knows where they are, and the sky is just starting to turn gray. There are more cars on the street, and John's stomach is tight and sour with fear.

John kneels in front of Rodney expectantly, and it's a testament to how tired Rodney must be that he just climbs onto John's back without protesting. John lets him get comfortable, feeling the other boy's soft breath against the side of his neck, Rodney's head heavy on his shoulder. John hooks his arms under Rodney's legs, not the most comfortable position, but he doesn't want Rodney to fall asleep and fall off.

John keeps cutting across streets, keeping his head down, trying to think invisible thoughts, his heart lodged somewhere in his throat. He's praying for the sun not to come up, not yet, for the gray light of pre-dawn to last as long as possible, for the concealment it's offering them. John walks faster, afraid to run now that there are so many more people around, afraid of the attention it would draw.

By the time they reach the outskirts of town John is exhausted. He keeps going, one foot in front of the other, concentrating on Rodney breathing, jumping every time a car passes them. His grandparents had arrived early in the area, and their house is close to the city limits.

John keeps walking, dawn bringing color back to the world all around him, wishing that there were trees, that there was anything to offer him some cover. The grandparent's development rises like a miracle, and John lets out a shaky laugh, cutting across huge lawns, scaling fences, making his way in a daze.

By the time his grandparent's house comes into sight, John is almost giddy with relief. He runs the rest of the way, Rodney clinging tighter to his shoulders, his legs tightening around John's waist.

There is a car idling by the curb, and as John approaches the door flings open. For a half second John panics, imagining the police or the military or even the G.E.N.I.I., before realizing that it's the rental car they got from the airport.

And then his mother is throwing herself out of the car, his father lunging out of the passenger side. They both look horrible, dark circles under their eyes, expressions wrecked with worry. John stumbles when they reach him, not sure who's hugging him, who's grabbing his head and shaking him back and forth.

His mother says, her voice breaking around what's either laughter or sobs, "What the hell were you thinking?"

His father's voice is muffled, "Do you have any idea how worried we were?"

John fights conflicting instincts to let them just hold him and to rush everyone to the car where they can leave. He feels Rodney trying to slide off his back, and releases the other boy's legs, grabbing for him when he stumbles. John finds himself staring up into his parent's wrecked expressions, and says, wondering why it isn't obvious, "I had to. They were going to call the police. We have to leave. We have to go back home."

For a long moment no one says a thing, and then John's mother laughs, though it isn't a happy sound. She wraps both arms around him, squeezing him, shaking her head back and forth. His father says, voice a rasp, "For the accident, John. Just for the accident. Not for you two."

John says, "Oh," absorbing that. He's not sure if he believes that, one-hundred percent. And he knows that he wouldn't have taken the chance, if he'd even been aware at the time that was an option. He opens his mouth, and closes it, not sure what else to say.

His mother laughs again, releasing him, grabbing his father's hand and nodding her head towards the house, "Come on, lets get you two something to eat, you look like you're about to fall over." The two of them start for the house, talking softly to each other. John takes a shaky breath and waits for the panic to fade away.

"John," Rodney's voice is barely a whisper. John looks at him, shaking himself out of the daze that he'd settled into. And then he freezes, holding his breath, staring at Rodney's expression. John doesn't have words to describe it, the way Rodney is looking at him, but then he doesn't have to because Rodney is shifting closer, wrapping his arms around John's neck, hugging him hard.

John reaches back automatically, holding Rodney, still reeling from the other boy's expression. Trust he's seen from Rodney before, but nothing like that. It makes his stomach ache, his heart feel like it's stuttering in his chest.

Rodney pulls back just a little after a moment, his head cocked to the side, his expression still serious and calm, radiating something that John can't name. Rodney's voice is quiet, "I—" he falls silent with a upward turn of his lips, rubbing his thumb down the back of John's neck, his chin tilting up, just a little.

John feels his breath catch, hears himself make a soft sound. Because Rodney is safe. They're both safe. No one is coming to get them. The drain of worry and fear leaves a space behind inside his chest, and the way Rodney is looking at him is filling it up with all kinds of other things.

John leans forward, pausing when Rodney's eyelids drop, and from the house someone shouts, "You two get in here right now! Do you know how worried your parents were?"

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They spend most of the day in a haze, catching short naps when they can. They fall asleep on the couch, Rodney curled into the corner, John sprawled across his lap, and wake up to the insistence of five-year olds that they come play right this minute.

John listens to Rodney laugh, still half asleep, and smiles.

That night is the first night in ages that Rodney sleeps through without waking once. John blinks awake to the morning sun in his eyes, on his back, Rodney curled up against his side, still breathing slow and deep. John turns his head to the side, grinning so wide his face aches.

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The next three days are somewhat less exciting than the previous. Then it's a mess of people getting ready to leave, and preparing for Christmas Eve dinner. John gets recruited when his father lets it slip that John has been learning to cook, and John spends more time than he likes stuck in the kitchen with no way to keep an eye on Rodney, who is banished for having no cooking skills whatsoever.

When John finally escapes, covered with flour and the smell of potatoes ground into his skin since he was the only one who could peel and cut them with absolutely no risk of cutting himself, he finds Rodney in one of the living rooms. John's cousins are all gathered around Rodney, their expressions rapt, completely silent for maybe the first time John remembers.

Rodney is silent as well, concentrating on something in front of him that John can't see. John creeps forward as quietly as he can, settling on the outside of the circle of kids, watching. Rodney apparently commandeered an alarm clock that no one was using, and is making it dance.

John watches the pieces reassemble themselves, changing from a cat to a rose, listening to his cousins gasp and giggle with delight. One of them lets out a delighted squeal when Rodney changes it into a car, changing to thrilled laughter when the car speeds around in a circle.

The kids scatter, squealing, when Rodney charges them with the car, chasing them around the room as they scream with delight. Rodney looks up after a moment, startling when he sees John, his expression going sheepish. John grins, "Having fun?"

Rodney shrugs, his cool ruined by the way he smiles huge when one of the kids runs by, hands over her head, the car right on her heels. Rodney says, laughing to himself, "Someone told me to keep them busy. Big lady? Red hair?"

John nods, "Aunt Julie." Rodney hums, though John doubts he'll remember the name later. They spend the rest of the afternoon amusing the kids, which is surprisingly easy, especially after one of the boys liberates his mother's blow drier and produces it for Rodney to work with.

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Somehow John and Rodney end up sitting at the grown-ups table for the first time for dinner. John isn't really sure what prompted the change, but he thinks he really prefers the kids. They're better conversation. And they don't make Rodney shift around nervously all the time.

Still, there's nothing for it. He eats, watching Rodney pick at his food, though he manages to convince Rodney to eat seconds of the potatoes he slaved over. Rodney rolls his eyes at John's tales of horror from the kitchen, but then pours gravy over everything and eats.

John is just grinning, pleased with himself, when his uncle Frederick sets his wine glass down and turns his attention to them. John only has vague memories of the blond haired man, as being loud and opinionated. He seems to remember some arguments between his uncle and his mother, but they're fuzzy and indistinct.

The man says, loudly, "What kind of boy are you raising, Regan?"

There's a small wash of silence, before everyone starts talking again, louder than before. John's father is sitting across the table from them, and John watches him frown, his mother grimacing and poking viciously at the turkey on her plate.

John watches his father open his mouth, and finds himself unsurprised when Rodney interrupts, "And what's that supposed to mean?" Rodney is leaning back in his chair, his voice sharp, his eyes narrowing, and John feels something flip in his stomach. He's seen that expression on Rodney's face before. Usually right before someone starts screaming.

Uncle Frederick focuses on Rodney with equally sharp eyes, his mouth crooking up into a smile that is just barely managing not to be ugly. John wonders if his uncle is drunk. And then the man is speaking, "All I'm saying is, you've got to wonder about a boy that spends all day in the kitchen. I always knew you wanted a daughter, I just never thought you'd be that desperate to—"

Frederick cuts off gasping, his eyes going wide. John jerks, wondering if he's choking on something, the man's big hand coming up to press against his chest. Around him people are moving, pounding on his shoulders. Rodney's voice cuts through the noise, sharp as a knife, "Did you know that your pacemaker is controlled by a computer? It reads the beats of your heart and decides when you need an electric shock, which it then delivers."

John watches Frederick gape open mouthed at Rodney, who is still leaning back in his chair, his fingers fanned out across the tablecloth. Rodney has his head cocked to the side, a half-smile on his lips. His eyes are almost startlingly blue. "Usually, of course, the shocks barely have any juice. Did you ever wonder how much power the lithium battery actually has?"

Frederick is gripping at his chest now, the table fallen silent around him, save for someone screaming for the phone to call 911. Rodney leans forward slowly, dropping his voice to something low and razor edged, "I could take it out for you, if you're scared."

Frederick slides out of his chair, other aunts and uncles trying to gentle his fall to the ground. John feels his breath escape in a rush, reaching out and grabbing Rodney's wrist. For a long moment Rodney doesn't look at him, and when he does his eyes are flat and distant. John swallows hard, tries to keep his voice steady, "It's okay, you don't have to."

Seconds tick past, John can hear Frederick jerking around, and then Rodney blinks, and emotion comes back to his features. Frederick gasps, and Rodney calmly takes another bite of his potatoes. He says, still holding John's gaze, "If you say so."

After that, dinner ends fairly quickly, especially when the EMTs arrive to take Frederick away.

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They fly home the next day, no one mentioning the previous night's dinner. John doesn't wonder if Rodney would have killed Frederick or not, because he already knows the answer. He's not sure how he feels about that, but he's working on accepting it.

Things are oddly tense in the airport when they get home, though John can't figure out why. When his mother turns on the radio in their car, it all becomes clear pretty damn fast. John's mother says, "Oh my God." And John hates that this has become almost routine.

At home there are pictures to go with the words, five college kids strung up from an oak tree in Washington D.C. They're stripped naked, and the news blurs out their bodies, but somehow that just makes it worse. Dogs or something got at one of them, and John feels sick.

The only question, really, is if they're normal or gifted, and John isn't sure which would be worse. Some things are so horrible it makes no difference. The kids turn out to be normal, five friends that were unfortunate enough to wander through one of the areas that the G.E.N.I.I. had decided would be gifted-only.

No one gives out presents.

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Part Four

The car that Rodney got John turns out to be the gift that keeps giving. Rodney insists on working on it as soon as the snow melts off, moving the junker into the garage and jumping into the project with contagious intensity. John knows he isn't contributing much, but he's fairly certain he knows what most of the tools are called now, and his retrieval skills are excellent.

Mostly, though, he just watches.

The garage is unheated, and they always start out in coats. It never lasts. Rodney strips off his coat first, and then he's pushing his sleeves up, and then he's wiping at sweat beading on his forehead, his shirt clinging to his back. Every weekend, and some weeknights. John is pretty sure he's going to end up dead, but also that it'll be worth it.

Rodney is under the car now, his legs bent, one knee torn out of his jeans. John is staring, listening to the sound of Rodney's voice as he rants about rusted out oil tanks and fuel lines that are crumbling. In John's head, car repair had never been this kind of fascinating. Obviously he'd been horribly mistaken.

Rodney snapping his fingers jerks John out of his thoughts. One of Rodney's hands is stretched down, his dirty, greasy fingers making grabbing motions down by his hip. By the tone of Rodney's voice, John figures he's repeating himself, "Gimme the three-sixteenths. And a pan. I think there's fucking transmission fluid drained down into here somehow."

Thankfully, John's body is capable of operating on autopilot. He grabs the wrench and a pan, kneeling beside Rodney's legs and handing them over. Rodney grabs them, and then says, sounding distracted, "Do you want to get under here and see?"

Which is how John ends up on his back under the car, not quite pressed up against Rodney's side to give the other boy room to work. Rodney has his tongue caught between his teeth, reaching up into the engine to do something with the wrench that John can't really see. Not that John is looking.

A half second later Rodney curses, twisting his head to the side to look at John, ordering, "Here, reach over here and twist this for me. Not too hard, okay? You know, doing this by hand is harder than I anticipated? John?" John shakes himself, swallowing with his dry throat.

John says, "Yeah, but it's nice," because he doesn't want to lose the opportunity to watch Rodney working on the car. He reaches up, towards where Rodney is holding the wrench, sliding his fingers up the back of Rodney's wrist, finding the wrench, his fingers curling over Rodney's.

Rodney chooses then to grin at him, pressed together all close and tight, John half stretched over him. Rodney says, "It's really nice," and John's brain whites out, his arm twisting the wrench automatically.

Rodney's eyes go wide, and he curses again, fumbling with the pan, shoving at John's shoulder, and they both get splattered with dark red liquid anyway. After a moment the fluid stops draining, most of it in the pan, and Rodney laughs, twisting around, out from under the car.

By the time John extricates himself, Rodney is mopping at his skin with a rag. John leans back against the bumper, watching, and Rodney turns to look at him. Rodney rolls his eyes, tossing another rag at John's head and scrubbing across the bridge of his nose.

John wipes only absently at his own face, thoroughly distracted. After a long moment Rodney throws the rag into the official garage rag bucket, rubbing his still dirty hands together and declaring, "And that means it's time to call it quits for tonight. C'mon, make me cookies."

It's the first time in ages that John can remember Rodney asking for food, and John finds himself grinning, pushing to his feet. Rodney is already turning for the door and John catches his arm, holding him back. Rodney frowns up at him, blue eyes confused, and John stutters through, "You have—right here, let me just—"

There's a smear of whatever-that-was across Rodney's cheekbone, and John licks his thumb, wiping it away. Rodney's skin warms under John's touch, heat flaring up, and John drops his hand, blinking rapidly, looking away.

Rodney pokes him in the ribs, "Tollhouse chocolate chips wait for no man, John."

hr

Rodney has nightmares less, now. The relief of that hasn't really faded yet. Every time John wakes up from a night of unbroken sleep, on his back with Rodney sprawled against his side, is a fresh burst of wonder. The dark circles under Rodney's eyes finally go away, his hair is just long enough to fall into his eyes, and John is pretty sure he's not as bony as he was.

It's so tempting to think that everything is fine, but John isn't an idiot. Rodney still wakes up screaming some nights, and he still freaks out in class every now and then. Rodney still draws the numbers on his wrist, re-inking them several times a day. And, well, John still can't stand to have Rodney out of his sight without worry souring his gut.

They avoid the news reports about the G.E.N.I.I. as much as possible, more bombings by the protestors, raids by the government, a media shit storm. The curfew stands, and the death toll keeps getting higher. Bitter experience tells John that it's just going to get worse.

They don't mention Carson much, because Teyla gets sad when they do. John feels horrible for both of them. Mostly, though, he has other things to worry about.

There haven't been any other anti-normal attacks in their town since that night in the restaurant parking lot all those months ago, but that doesn't stop John from worrying. There's no way for him to be with his parents all the time, not when they're at work, not when he and Rodney are at school.

A tight knot of worry takes up residence in his gut and never really goes away. Each time there's a news report of the horrible things done to a normal person, John gets new fodder for the fear inside his head. The first time John has a major nightmare about it, crying out, watching his parents die over and over again, Rodney wakes him.

John wakes up gasping, and Rodney is there, solid and real beside him in the bed. John grabs for him, holding on, feeling Rodney rocking him back and forth, smoothing his hair back and cradling him. Minutes pass before John's breathing slows, before he can relax his grip on Rodney's arms.

Rodney says, "Are you okay? Talk to me." He sounds worried, and John flops down onto the mattress, trying to even his heart rate out, trying to block the images of his parents, bloody and broken, from his mind.

And John means to say he's fine, not to worry, but that's not what comes out of his mouth. He doesn't recognize his own voice, "They killed mom—dad. They killed—I couldn't stop them, I tried but I couldn't and I watched them die, oh, God," John's stomach turns, he thinks he might be sick, and then Rodney is there, leaning over him, one hand on John's cheek, making John look at him.

Rodney's voice is low, intense, "Look at me. No one is dead. John!" John lets out a shuddering breath, making himself focus on Rodney, feeling some of the fear leech out of his chest, "No one is dead. No one is going to die. I won't let that happen, okay? You know I won't."

A shiver climbs John's spine, staring up into Rodney's eyes. There is nothing but truth in Rodney's expression, in the set of his mouth. John expects Rodney's eyes to be flat, but they're not, and that's startling. This is Rodney, hard and dangerous, and still himself. This is new.

Rodney continues, "I will never let that happen." And John believes him because it's kind of impossible not to. John doesn't know how far he'd go, to protect his parents, to protect Rodney. But there's no question for Rodney. John knows. There are two bodies in a graveyard that say Rodney will do anything.

And that was before the people under the mountain messed his head all up.

John has a feeling that he should not be comforted, that maybe he should be afraid. But he can't be, pulling Rodney down, clinging to him for the comfort he offers, reassured. Rodney is still petting John's hair when John falls back asleep.

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A week later Rodney fidgets over breakfast, the first time he's done that for a while, and John reaches out to touch him. Rodney smiles at him, looking startled, and then exhaling heavily before reaching into his pocket and putting two small, metallic, ovals on the table.

John's father pauses in the middle of taking a drink of coffee, reaching out and poking one of the devices with one finger. And Rodney blurts, "They're for you. Well. Not both of them. One for each of you. They're, um, shields."

Everyone is staring at Rodney, even John had no idea he was doing this. Rodney flushes under the attention, ducking his head and plowing on, "This button turns them on. There's—they have limited power sources, but they should, I think, form a six foot sphere around you. For about three minutes. I'm sorry. That's all the power I could give them without making them potentially explosive."

John's mother reaches out, then, palming one. She looks tired, just home from work, but she turns the device over in her fingers anyway, examining it. She says, "Rodney—"

"Hopefully you won't have to use them. But, um, John—we'd—really feel better if you kept them close. Just in, just in case, okay?" Rodney is jittering in his seat and John squeezes his shoulders, feeling emotion rise thick in his chest. Rodney flashes him a grateful look, adding almost absently, "They work, I promise. People can't know you have them, though, I'd—" Rodney cuts himself off, making a face, brushing his thumb across the numbers on his wrist.

John watches his mother duck her head, rubbing her hand across her eyes quickly before she's stepping around the table to grip Rodney's shoulders and then hug him. John watches Rodney wave his arms for a moment, before he's hugging her back.

John's mother says, her expression drawn tight with emotion, "Thank you, Rodney. We'll keep them close, okay?"

Rodney nods against her shoulder, and after a long moment she releases him. Rodney is keeping his head down and John wraps an arm around his shoulder. His father reaches out as well, ruffling Rodney's hair, face lit up with pride. John feels a burst of warmth in his own chest, and below it, a wellspring of relief so powerful it makes him shiver.

John waits until they're crossing the lawn to the bus, leaning his mouth close to Rodney's ear, whispering, "Thank you."

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School reflects the rising tension, just like everything else does. There are more and more screaming fights, and with the ability to back up their tempers, they're getting physical more often than not. John sticks close to Rodney, glaring furiously at anyone that he thinks might even try to start trouble.

He keeps forgetting that, finally, Rodney isn't the focus of their scorn. Luckily, there are plenty of people that are happy to remind him.

One day a boy sits down beside Teyla at their table, because John always makes sure that Rodney is blocked off. John vaguely recognizes the boy, just from passing him in the hallways. There's a thrum of worry up his spine, he feels himself scowl.

A half second later the boy proves the John's ill feeling is deserved, smirking and saying, "Word is both your parents are real people, McKay." The boy has sharp eyes, a cruel smile, and John dislikes him a little more with each passing moment.

Rodney sighs, John can hear him rolling his eyes, "Go away."

"Aw, don't be like that. Doesn't it bother you? Hanging around with these jokers? I mean, a first-generation? He's probably not even genetically disposed. His mom was probably on something when she—" The boy cuts off when John growls at him, rising out of his seat.

Teyla says, her voice calm, "It would probably be in your best interests to leave now." Sometimes John wonders how she deals with them. Neither he, Rodney, or Ronon are very good at containing their tempers. He wonders if that makes losing Carson, who had been her partner in being reasonable, even worse.

The boy stands up, raising his hands, but still smiling ugly. He runs his mouth, "I'm just saying, seems you should be keeping to your own kind. It's such a disappointment, you and Weir both hanging around with deadends and accidents. Though, at least you're not fuc—"

John is already on his feet, and Rodney is bristling with anger, but it's Ronon that grabs the boy. John has time to curse, and then Ronon is unloading on the smaller boy, expression furious and terrible. Rodney shouts, "John!" and John curses again, scrambling over the table, grabbing one of Ronon's arms and then the other, dragging him off and back.

Ronon thrashes in John's hold, growling, "Don't talk about her," and really, John is pretty sure that this crush of Ronon's is getting a bit out of control. The boy that Ronon beat is scrambling back, wiping at his bleeding nose and mouth, pushing to his feet.

The boy opens his mouth again, and John snaps, "I will let him go, I swear to God," and the boy reconsiders, pushing his way to the exit instead.

For a moment there's silence, and then John takes a deep breath and lets Ronon go. The taller boy shakes out his shoulders, snarling, and stalking off towards the exit opposite of where their aggravator had disappeared through. John lets out a tense breath.

Teyla is frowning when John sits down again, her voice wondering, "I am starting to believe that we do, in fact, attract trouble." John laughs.

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Later that night, John and Rodney are curled up on the couch, watching dinosaurs eat stupid scientists. They'd worked on the car earlier, and Rodney had showered again, smells now like soap, his hair wet and soaking the shoulder of John's shirt.

John is tired, letting his cheek rest against the top of Rodney's head, blinking sleepily at the television. Someone onscreen screams while being bitten in half by a giant plastic dinosaur. Rodney jumps, and John grins, growling and grabbing Rodney's sides, tickling him.

Rodney shouts, laughing, trying to twist away from John's hands. John grins, resisting Rodney's efforts to escape, wrapping one arm around Rodney's chest to hold him, tickling his sides and stomach. Rodney tosses his head back, pulling at John's arms, squirming and kicking, throwing his weight sideways.

John pulls back, tipping himself sideways, holding Rodney to him. Rodney elbows him in the ribs, shaking with laughter, writhing around, and John abruptly realizes that this was not the best idea he ever had. He's beginning to think that his body is trying to screw up his determination to not take advantage of Rodney's need for care and affection.

John goes abruptly still, his hands on Rodney's hips, aware of the press of Rodney against him. Warmth floods his stomach, and John lifts Rodney, pushing them both back to a sitting position, trying very hard not to panic about the way their legs are tangled together, the way Rodney's cheeks are flushed from laughter, his eyes bright.

"You jerk," Rodney is still half-laughing, flopping back against the opposite arm of the couch, breathing hard. He leaves his legs thrown over John's, and John finds himself rubbing one of Rodney's ankles, just because it's there.

Rodney opens his mouth, most likely to complain again, and the phone ringing interrupts him. Rodney frowns, twisting around, his shirt pulling up over his skin when he stretches to reach for it. John stares, and really, he should be used to seeing Rodney's skin. He's not.

John barely hears Rodney's side of the conversation, until Rodney nudges him in the ribs with a foot, saying, "Ronon's managed to bribe his way into Elizabeth's house tomorrow night—yes, I know it's a party, I was getting to that, shut up. Anyway. He wants backup."

John frowns, his knee-jerk reaction to refuse immediately. He says, trying to keep his voice level, "How late?"

"After curfew. Hold on, Ronon," Rodney covers the mouthpiece of the phone, straightening up and meeting John's eyes, "He helped me get out of that place. If he needs me to do this, I will." There's nothing but stubbornness in Rodney's expression, and John feels something unpleasant twist in his stomach. "Are you coming?"

John nods, tense, because it's the only thing he can do, no matter how much the idea of Rodney being out there, breaking a law, no matter how stupid it is, makes him sick to his stomach. Rodney flashes him a tight smile, like he knows how bad an idea this is, removing his hand from the mouthpiece, "We'll be there."

Panic fills up John's chest, and settles there heavy as a lead weight.

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The next day is long, John fidgeting and uncomfortable. It doesn't help that Rodney wakes him up with nightmares three times. John can't find anyway to take that as anything but a bad sign. By the time they're sneaking out of the house he feels sick to his stomach.

It's nine-thirty, John's father is snoring on the couch, his mother at work. John pulls on his coat, nerves making him twitchy. Rodney touches his elbow, looking up at him through his eyelashes, eyes serious when he says, "You don't have to—"

"I'm not leaving you alone." John doesn't mean for his voice to be so sharp, but worry and a hot line of anger at Ronon for making them do this gets it there anyway. He grimaces when Rodney blinks, looking startled, taking a deep breath and lowering his voice, "Let's just do this, okay?"

Rodney slides his hand down John's arm, grabbing his hand, smiling crookedly, "It'll be okay." And John nods, though he doesn't really believe it. They close the door with a whisper, Rodney's hand still caught in his when they sprint across the yard to Teyla's waiting car, Ronon raising one hand in greeting from the passenger seat. They both tumble into the backseat, Teyla twisting to look at them, smiling tightly.

Teyla says, her dark eyes worried, "Are we still going?" And when Rodney nods, she bites her lip, and twists back around, pulling off down the street.

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Elizabeth's house is big. Not as big as Carson's, but still impressive. Every light in the house is on, the street lined with cars, music blaring out into the night. Ronon is out the door like a shot, heading across the lawn, but Rodney hesitates, looking suddenly small and pale.

John puts a hand on Rodney's knee, nodding to Teyla when she meets his eyes in the rearview mirror. She slides out of the car, sprinting after Ronon, who is already up to the porch. John says, soft, "Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

Rodney turns to look at John in the dark car, his eyes catching the light from the house. When Rodney nods, it's a jerky gesture, his voice hoarse, "Yeah." Rodney laughs, shaky, "Don't have a lot of choice, you know? Come on."

The night air is chilly when Rodney opens the door and steps out. John follows him, sticking close, almost plastered to Rodney's back by the time they walk through the open front door. Inside the music is louder, mingled with laughter and shouts and the movie on the television in the background. John can smell pizza, and smoke. It takes him a moment to realize that it's cigarette smoke, that the house isn't burning down.

Teyla and Ronon are nowhere to be found, and John finds himself curling his fingers into Rodney's back belt loop. When he realizes what he's done he startles, almost jerking away, but Rodney apparently hasn't noticed that John is about an inch away from groping him, and John doesn't want to draw attention to it.

Rodney sinks back against John, ducking his head and wincing, raising one hand to his head. John is about to call the entire thing off, to haul Rodney out of here, complaints be damned, when Rodney clenches his fists and lets out a long breath. Rodney grits out, "Okay. Let's find them."

Moving through the crowd is hard, especially because there's an itch in John's knuckles to hit everyone that bumps into Rodney. He can feel his hackles raising, every time a laughing girl brushes against them, or a boy trips into their path. John finds himself glaring at everyone, not liking the pound of the music, not sure if he can hear it if Rodney starts whimpering.

They find Ronon and Teyla in the kitchen, which is less crowded, thank God. Elizabeth is by the counter, mixing something in a blender and directing a boy to get a tray of tiny Jellos out of the fridge. Ronon is staring at her, trying to be subtle about it, and not really succeeding. Teyla looks flustered, one hand up by her temple, her eyes dazed.

Rodney pulls John over to them, and Teyla flashes them a tight smile. She opens her mouth to speak, but is interrupted by Elizabeth, who sounds happy and surprised, "Oh, you made it! I wasn't sure if you'd—I'm glad you came."

She's beaming, and John thinks it might be the first time he's ever seen her with that expression. The fact that she's aiming her smile at Ronon is slightly surprising. John looks between the two of them, wondering how he missed that perhaps Ronon's big crush wasn't so unrequited.

That's when the boy that had been pulling Jello out of the fridge wraps an arm around Elizabeth's waist, smirking at them when he says, "You must be from Liz's school." He wiggles his fingers, either ignoring or not seeing the way Elizabeth's eyes narrow at the nickname, "Let me be the first to welcome some more representatives of our genetic superiors."

John frowns at the older boy, watching Rodney cross his arms, but it's Elizabeth that speaks, her voice sharp, "Simon!"

The boy—Simon—rolls his eyes, "I'm just joking. Here, as a gesture of my goodwill," and then he's offering the tray of tiny Jellos to them. John hesitates, but Rodney is making an impatient sound, grabbing one and tipping it into his mouth.

A half second later Rodney swallows, making a face, and Ronon sniffs, his nose crinkling up when he says, "Alcohol in those." Simon laughs, still offering out the tray with an expectant look and John frowns.

John tilts his head down, so he can ask against Rodney's ear, "What's it taste like?" Because he's had drinks out of his parent's beers every now and then, when they weren't paying attention, but he doesn't think that actually counts as alcohol.

Rodney shrugs, reaching for the tray again and grabbing two of the Jellos, handing one to John, saying, "Try it," and eating another. John pokes his, and then curiosity gets the best of him. It's...Jello-y. And burns in the back of his throat, after he swallows. He coughs.

Simon laughs again, and Ronon and Teyla both take one of the Jellos before the older boy disappears out into the main room. Elizabeth stays by the blender, and John doubts that Ronon will be going anywhere she's not. John leans his shoulders back against the wall, because he has no desire to be here in the first place, pulling Rodney back against his chest, wrapping an arm around his waist and dropping his chin onto Rodney's shoulder.

His stomach feels warm. It's, surprisingly, kind of nice.

Elizabeth is saying, "I'm sorry about that. He's had too much to drink. Jello shots are kind of a little much to start on, aren't they? There's beer in the fridge." For a moment no one moves, and then Ronon is crossing the room, carefully pulling out silver cans and returning with them.

Ronon tosses them theirs, and John frowns, trying to figure out how to open his without leaving go of Rodney. Rodney solves the problem by taking the can from John and opening it, laughing when it bubbles up through the top, spilling down over his fingers.

Rodney fumbles handing the can back to John, and then raises his hand to his mouth, licking his skin. John takes a long drink of the beer to keep himself from watching. It makes him cough again, bubbles in the back of his throat and a bitter taste that makes him grimace. It's not as bitter or dark as the beer his parent's drink, and colder than John usually gets it. He decides that it's not that bad.

Rodney pops his open, but then doesn't drink it, just holding it in his hands, leaning his head back against John's shoulder. Ronon makes his way slowly across the room, until he's standing beside Elizabeth, talking to her in a soft voice that John can't hear. Teyla stays beside them, making a face every time she takes a swallow of her beer.

When John makes to take another drink and finds the can empty, Rodney hands his over mutely. John feels warmer now, like his body temperature has skyrocketed in the twenty minutes they've been standing in Elizabeth's kitchen. He wraps his arm more snuggly around Rodney's waist, speaking hopefully loud enough to be heard over the music, "You okay?"

Rodney shrugs, shoulders moving against John's chest, and that makes John's stomach tighten, makes him widen his stance just a little, even though he knows he shouldn't. "Just. Warm. I don't know." Rodney grabs for his beer again, tilting his head back against John's shoulder, swallowing right where John can watch his throat work.

John is fairly certain that it's bad that he's finding that as fascinating as he is.

And then Rodney is shaking the empty can, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, closing his eyes and humming. John wonders, absently, what exactly was in the Jello, and then Teyla is giggling and pressing another can into John's hand.

John drinks, absently appreciating that it doesn't burn so much anymore. He hands the can to Rodney, feeling all the warmth in his blood segue to heat when Rodney's lips close where John's had been. Between that and the fact that Rodney is leaning back against him, John feels like someone just ran electricity through him, because fuck, this is a huge mistake.

When a dozen other kids pour into the room, giggling and shoving at each other, shouting for Grey Goose and more things than John can keep track of, he's surprised to be relieved. Because Rodney stiffens up, wincing, running a hand up over his face.

John can feel the shiver that runs up Rodney's back, and seizes the opportunity to push off the wall, leaning close to Rodney's ear to say, "Let's get some air, okay?" Rodney just nods, eyes squeezed shut, and John leads him out the door beside Elizabeth's fridge, which, thankfully, opens out into a huge, empty, backyard.

John leans Rodney up against the wall, surprised by how clumsy he feels when he brushes Rodney's hair out of his face, asking, "Hey, you okay?"

Rodney cracks his eyes open, shrugs, then drops his head forward onto John's shoulder again. His voice is slightly slurred, the way he sounds sometimes when nightmares wake him and he's still mostly asleep, "Headache."

John nods, because while he doesn't have one himself, he can see how the noise would do that. He says, "Let's sit down," and then pulls Rodney out to the grass without waiting for agreement. There's cold dew on the grass, John can feel is soaking into the seat of his pants, but that's okay, because Rodney sinks down beside him, curling up against him, warm and loose against John's side.

It's a cloudless night, the stars sharp and bright, and John tilts his head up, watching them. It's easy to find the ram, now that he knows that's Rodney's sign, and John stares at it. He asks, after a long time, feeling Rodney's warm breath against his neck, "What did you always wonder? About the ram, I mean. You said you always wondered but then you cut yourself off."

Rodney stirs with a groggy sound. John wonders if he had fallen asleep, and then feels like an ass for waking him. John feels kind of hyper himself, and beneath that, angry, though he isn't sure why. The anger fades a little more when Rodney squirms around, finally saying, "Oh—the stars. I just. Well. I mean, rams never get a happy ending, you know? They're always ending up as sacrificial lambs or scapegoats or, you know, blood to be smeared on someone's door or something. I just. I used to think that's why bad things happened to me."

John feels like someone kicked him in the stomach, looking desperately for words and unable to find them. Rodney continues, like he hasn't just said the most terrifying thing John has ever heard, "I know it's stupid. But I was little, and grandpa could never read me, not like he did everyone else. He said I was tangled. I don't know. You believe stupid things when you're little."

John stares mutely up at the stars, feeling cold inside his chest, not sure why the words are hitting him so hard. They're stupid, just like Rodney said. But John can't shake the chill. Rodney goes on, softer, "I think, though, that it really won't be so bad if that's what happens. Sometimes there has to be a trade. A balance, you know? I could do that. For the right person, I'd do that. Just not the door thing. I don't want to be smeared on someone's door, okay?"

"None of that is going to happen." John's voice is hoarse, he's surprised by the sound of it. Rodney shrugs against him, and then falls silent again, breathing slow and even, like he wasn't just talking about dying. John's throat is too tight to say anything else, so he just stares down at the ground, because the stars have lost all their appeal.

No son of a bitch is going to take Rodney away from him, certainly not because of some balls of gas millions of miles away.

hr

John doesn't know how long they've been sitting out there when Teyla stumbles out to find them. He does know that his head has cleared, and that his mouth is very dry. Teyla sinks down beside them on the grass, giggling into her hand. John watches her, bemused, and she finally manages to force out, "It's—Ronon. He's sick. Can you?" She makes a gesture that John interprets to be, 'go get him and put him in the car'.

That's about the best thing that John's heard, or interpreted, all night. He nudges Rodney's shoulder, murmuring, "Come on, we've got to get Ronon so we can go." Rodney stirs slowly, mumbling something and then blinking, his eyes disoriented.

Rodney mumbles, "John?"

"Yeah, come on, get up." John pushes to his feet, swaying a little. Rodney grumbles, pulling himself up, using John for handholds. Rodney is warm, relaxed, and John has to wrap an arm around Rodney's waist, supporting his weight.

Teyla is giggling, her hands up over her mouth, and John grabs her elbow as well, tugging her forward. Rodney is leaning his head against John's shoulder, and it's difficult to get them all through the door, but they make it.

It's harder to move through the crowd, which seems to have grown in the time they were outside. Teyla pulls on his arm when they're almost through the kitchen, giggling through, "Ronon is down here," and John shakes his head.

"I'm taking Rodney out to the car first," because he won't leave Rodney in here by himself, not when he's sleepy and soft like this. John keeps moving, shoving and shouldering his way forward, until finally the front door is looming before them. John pulls them all out into the fresh air, exhaling in relief.

Rodney presses his face against John's neck, murmuring, "You smell good," his breath warm and ticklish. John shivers, tilting his head down, distracted, pressing an absent kiss to Rodney's forehead, only realizing afterwards that he probably shouldn't.

They make their way down to the car, and John pulls the door open, letting Rodney sink down into the front passenger seat, because Teyla is obviously in no shape to be driving. Teyla apparently agrees, because she crawls into the backseat, curling up in the corner, still laughing.

John starts to step back, not looking forward to having to find Ronon, and Rodney grabs handfuls of John's shirt, clinging to him. Rodney is leaning his head against the seat, his eyes soft and warm, his mouth curved up into a smile. John feels his breath catch. He opens his mouth, but can't think of anything to say, so he just strokes his thumb down Rodney's cheek, before stepping back. This time Rodney lets him go.

John pushes his way back into the house, searching for Ronon, who shouldn't be hard to find. It takes John longer than he likes to find Ronon, sprawled out on the floor of an upstairs bathroom. John grimaces at the smell, cursing, and stepping into the room.

Ronon is flat on his back, eyes closed, his shirt stained with something that John doesn't want to think about. John sighs, kneeling, grabbing the other boy and hauling him up, throwing Ronon over his shoulder as gently as he can.

The boy groans, and John pats his leg, turning and trudging back out of the bathroom. Ronon twitches but doesn't try to dislodge himself when John walks down the stairs. It's easier to fit though the crowd with Ronon slung over his shoulder, because some people move aside.

John sighs with relief again when he's finally outside, and then stiffens, because there's a boy by the car that John did not leave there. John sprints across the lawn, ignoring the miserable sound that Ronon makes, all the protective impulses in his head going off.

The strange boy has a hand braced on the hood, standing in front of Rodney, his head ducked down. John catches the end of the boy's sentence, "—you at one of these things before, sweetness."

Rodney sounds irritated, which sends a burst of warmth through John's chest, "That's because I've never been to one of 'these things' before." Rodney infuses an extra edge of sharpness to his voice, "Dickweed." And then John is there, catching the guy's shoulder and spinning him around.

The stranger grins at John, a cigarette hanging in the corner of his mouth. John can't see much of his face, he doesn't really care. The guy says, "Hey, buddy, what's—"

John shoves the boy backwards, sliding Ronon off of his shoulder and scowling. He's furious, and not exactly sure why. Something about the way the boy had been standing, about the tone of his voice when he'd spoken to Rodney, fans a flame of hot anger in John's chest.

The guy raises his hands, still running his mouth, "Woah, I was just saying hello, man."

"Well now you're saying goodbye." John's voice is so low that he barely recognizes it. He takes another step forward, squaring his shoulders, his hands balled up into fists. The smiles falls off the boy's face, he stumbles back.

"Okay, chill. I didn't realize he was taken. Honest mistake." The guy waves his hands again, walking backward, then turning and taking off across the lawn. John lets out a shaky breath, exhaling slowly, the thrum of his blood in his veins burning hot, mixing with a deep pulse of satisfaction.

John turns, shaking himself, finding Rodney helping Ronon into the backseat of the car. John walks back to him, reaching him just as Rodney closes the backdoor. Rodney wipes his hands together, pushing a hand back through his hair, grinning up at John. John leans close to him, hands resting on the roof of the car on either side of Rodney's shoulders, his heart still racing when he says, "Did he bother you?"

Rodney blinks at him, tilting his head to the side, moonlight catching in his earrings. Rodney says, "Yes. Thanks for getting rid of him." John feels himself smile, a pulse of warmth in his chest, not examining too closely why this makes him so happy. Rodney goes on after a second, frowning, "We can't take Ronon home yet, his mom will freak out."

John nods, patting the hood of the car and rocking back. "What do you wanna do?" Because John doesn't want to stay here, and he's sure Rodney has a plan. Rodney always has plans.

"Coffee. That's what we need. Teyla said you can drive the car. Somewhere with fast food. They'll be open." Rodney sinks down into his car, and John closes his door, walking around, climbing in the driver's seat. John turns the engine on, and pulls out.

hr

They end up in a McDonald's drive thru, where John ends up ordering tons of coffee and then parking in the back of the lot. They have to wake Ronon and Teyla up to get them to drink coffee, because apparently while John and Rodney had been dozing on the lawn, they'd been drinking lots of beer and those Jello things.

John only remembers after Rodney drinks his first cup that caffeine makes Rodney insanely hyper. Rodney is sitting in the seat, vibrating, while Ronon and Teyla sprawl out in the back, groaning and sucking down coffee.

Rodney has his feet up on the dashboard, his legs bouncing, and John says, "You wanna take a walk while they...do their thing?" Rodney flashes him a bright grin instead of answering, yanking his door open and springing out of the car. John scrambles to follow him, leaving Ronon and Teyla with the last few cups of coffee.

Rodney comes around the car, taking John's hand and squeezing, laughing up to the sky. John grins himself, and he thinks he should be worried walking down the street at two in the morning, but he isn't. He's too happy for that, it feels good to hold Rodney's hand, here under the flashing traffic lights, in the quiet.

They walk a few blocks before Rodney drops his head onto John's shoulder, and John smiles, turning his head, pressing a kiss into Rodney's hair. He braces himself for a protest, but Rodney just swings their joined hands, before saying, "I'm glad you came with me."

"I'm always going to come with you. Wherever you go." John squeezes his hand, rubbing his cheek against Rodney's hair, content and happy.

They lapse into silence again, comfortable. John thinks they should probably turn around, but he doesn't want to. They walk past a laundry mat, open even now, nestled between a bunch of other businesses, and Rodney startles, drawing to a stop.

John frowns, "What is it?" staring at the laundry mat, because it looks pretty normal to him. There's only one person in it, a woman with her back to them.

Rodney is scowling, "There's something, it's—" he waves his free hand, cocking his head to the side, like he's concentrating, stepping out into the street without even looking. John curses, following him, grateful that there isn't any traffic, "—it's busy. There's, I can't feel the edges, I—"

And that's when the laundry mat explodes.

hr

John feels a burst of heat across his back, automatically shoving Rodney down, curling over him. Rodney yells against his throat, and John wraps his arms around Rodney's head, trying to block him completely from the explosion.

Something hard ricochets off John's back, another off the back of his head. There's light, painfully bright, all around them, and then it fades. John lets out his breath, turning to look over his shoulder. There's nothing but wreckage where the laundry mat was, and it's burning. Rodney says, "Fuck," his voice tight and miserable.

John says, "We gotta go," and pulls Rodney to his feet. There's nothing they can do for that poor woman, and he doesn't want to be here when the cops arrive. They run all the way back to the car. It's jarring to find Ronon and Teyla still laughing when they get back.

hr

Teyla and Ronon get serious pretty damn quickly when Rodney explains what happened. John is too busy trying to concentrate on driving, and not freaking out, to help with the explanation. It's not like they know much anyway.

They end up dropping Ronon off, watching him lope across to his house and let himself in though one of the side windows. They have to leave the car at Teyla's house, and John finds himself walking through the early morning air again, holding Rodney's hand, his blood still burning with adrenaline.

John makes himself ask, when Teyla's house has been swallowed by the gloom behind them, "You felt something right before it—right before the explosion."

Rodney nods, staring straight forward, his brow drawn tight with thought, his mouth turned down harshly. John guides him along, watching the stars start to fade above them. When Rodney speaks he sounds distracted, "Yeah. It was—she was a technopath, I think. I could feel what she was trying to do. But it was like there were a bunch of people trying to do it, not just one. It was," he waves a hand, a sharp, frustrated, gesture, "it was very complicated. I think I startled her. That's why..." Rodney trails off, wincing.

John feels himself grimace, "I guess it doesn't make much sense to set off a bomb in the middle of the night."

"No. No, not really." Rodney looks at him, and John tries a smile that doesn't fit right on his lips. By the time their house comes into view they've long since lapsed into silence. John feels way too wound up to sleep, and is frankly a little worried about what he'd see in his dreams.

When Rodney leads him mutely to the garage, flicking on the light and shrugging out of his coat, John exhales shakily in relief.

hr

Part Five

The laundry mat bombing is all over the news for a week. There's a memorial for Stacy-Ann McClain, the sole victim and possible perpetrator, though the police have no proof. She'd been the mother of three, doing errands on her way home from a late shift. As far as anyone knew, she hadn't been gifted.

John reads all the articles over Rodney's shoulder, turning it over in his head. Rodney says, turning the screen off and twisting in the chair to look at John, looking stubborn and upset, "I felt it. I'm not crazy, there was someone there manipulating the tech."

"I believe you," the words are automatic, but no less true for being so. John had been there, too, had seen the confusion on Rodney's face, and the flash of recognition in the other boy's eyes. He's far more ready to believe Rodney about feeling someone doing what he does than the idiot newscasters. John continues, "She might have been in hiding. Kept it a secret, you know?"

Rodney says, "Yeah," but with a distant expression, his mind obviously somewhere else. In any case, no one seems sure if they should be blaming the G.E.N.I.I., one of the groups that have sprung up in opposition to them, or just random violence, and so everyone sort of gets blamed in a blanket response.

There's talk of stricter curfews, and check-ins for all gifted people, but the laws get tangled up in red tape. The G.E.N.I.I. release a tape a few days later claiming the attack for their own, but even they sound like they're not sure. Their threats are oddly subdued.

And just like that, everything comes to a lull. No bombings, no attacks, no raids. The news seems almost empty, the sick little headcount that some of the major networks kept running in the corner of the screen stalling, waiting for the dam to burst again.

hr

Teyla and Ronon help out with the car, now, sometimes. John thinks it's just an excuse to stay out in the garage, which has become their place. He doesn't mind really, because neither of them actually make very much of an effort to touch the car, just lounging around as the days get warmer and longer, drinking soda and munching on candy. They all listen to the radio, and Rodney gradually turns the twisted up hunk of potential into an actual vehicle.

Rodney right now has one knee braced on the front-passenger seat, leaning forward and down, doing something under the dashboard. His jeans aren't as loose as they were at the beginning of the year, and his shirt is hanging forward. John's mouth is dry, and he has a feeling that the drink in his hand is getting warm while he ignores it.

Teyla is talking about Carson, who is, apparently, allowed to call her now. She's sprawled out the hood of the car, swinging her legs back and forth as she talks, her hair pulled up in a messy ponytail. John is only catching a few words every now and again, but he gathers it has something to do with the prom and Carson wanting Teyla to go even though he can't.

The tiny little hole at the corner of one of Rodney's pockets is really captivating most of John's attention. Rodney shifts further forward, cursing inventively at the wires he's working with, each 'fuck' dropped in his irritated voice making John squirm.

A loud snort startles John enough to make him look up. He blinks, shaking himself out of the daze he'd settled into. He looks across to find Ronon watching him, the taller boy standing by the basketball hoop them never got around to hanging up, messing with the net. Ronon is smirking, tilts his head to the side when he sees John looking, tapping the side of his nose with a finger.

John feels himself blush, wondering exactly what Ronon can smell and then deciding he doesn't want to know. John takes a big gulp of his soda, trying to not look at Rodney's butt again and failing pretty much immediately.

Teyla finally finishes her story, letting her chin rest on her forearms. She looks serious and sad, and John feels another twist of guilt that they don't go get Carson on the weekends anymore. But he doesn't dare risk it, especially not after the laundry mat, and Rodney hasn't pushed the issue, thank God.

In the car Rodney shifts around, popping his head up, blinking at the rest of them. There's a smear of dirt or grease over the bridge of his nose, and he's holding a flashlight between his teeth, shifting it to the side to ask, "What about you, Ronon? How goes the wooing of our resident ice queen?"

Ronon rolls his eyes, and John thinks that Rodney is probably the only one that could get away with saying anything even remotely negative about Elizabeth. John fights down a burst of jealousy, irritation that the other two boys are so close, and Ronon shoots him another look, raising his eyebrows.

It's really not fair what his nose can pick up.

Rodney, not immediately met with an answer, slides back down again, his voice muffled when he continues, "Have you tried reading her poetry? Or bringing her wild flowers? Girls are supposed to like that, right? Teyla, do girls like that?"

Teyla sighs, blowing a strand of her hair out of her face, "I found it very nice when Carson wrote me poetry, though he would not read it aloud." And there's that stab of guilt again. John frowns, scuffing his toe against the cement floor, wondering if there's any way to make the escape work.

Rodney makes a triumphant sound, though John isn't sure if it has to do with the poetry or the car, blurting, "There you go, write her some poetry."

That gets a small smile from Ronon, the tall boy still picking at the netting on the hoop. When he speaks his voice is quiet, the words short and clipped off, "Not much good at that." And that, at least, John can understand. He doesn't get how people can come up with words describing the people they care about. Sometimes John tries in his own head, but it always ends up a jumbled mess.

In any case, John's always seen one major flaw in Ronon's pursuit of Elizabeth, besides the fact that she seems perfectly content with her present boyfriend. He clears his throat, setting his soda down and wandering over to look over Rodney's shoulder, "Isn't it kind of pointless, anyway? I mean, she graduates this year. Won't she probably move away?"

Ronon shrugs, "She's going to college upstate. That's only two hours away. Shorter if Rodney shares his flight belts."

John frowns, a twist of possessive jealousy rising before he beats it back. He likes having the only flight belt. And he's not sure he trusts Ronon to not tell anyone about it if he had one. Before John can say anything about it, Rodney is mumbling out of the corner of his mouth, "Can't. Still haven't figured out the heat distribution problems. All flight duties stay with John."

John smiles over the hood at Ronon, bouncing up onto his toes. He's had a hell of a lot of reasons to be grateful for his indestructibility already, but his favorite is the fact that it allows him to test drive pretty much anything Rodney wants to try to make. That probably makes him Rodney's guinea pig, but John doesn't really mind.

Then John frowns, tracking back over the conversation and blurting, "What? Why's she going to college?"

Teyla squirms around to look at him on the hood, her eyebrows raised, and Ronon rumbles, "She wants to be President," but none of that compares to Rodney jerking. John has a half second to take in Rodney's wide eyes, and then Rodney is pushing at him, forcing John away from the car and crawling out.

Rodney pokes him in the chest, hard, demanding, "What's that supposed to mean?"

John blinks, surprised, not sure what to make of the frightening intensity on Rodney's face. He shrugs one shoulder, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, where the hair is prickly. He says, carefully, "I just mean, well, what's the point? We're going to be doing stuff after school, right? Isn't that what we said? We don't need to go to college for that..."

Rodney looks like John just hit him, and John feels his words just dry up. He reaches out, and Rodney jerks back, looking betrayed, wrapping his arms tight around his chest. John feels his heart race, opening his mouth to take it back, to explain that he was mistaken, anything to make Rodney not look like that anymore. Rodney cuts him off, voice tight, "Are you serious?"

Not anymore. John shakes his head, "No, no, I was joking." John feels like he's panicking, his heart in his throat, breathing way too fast. Seeing Rodney look at him like that, like he's hurt, like John hurt him, is like something out of one of John's nightmares. "It was just a bad joke."

Rodney's shoulders are still all drawn up. John can feel Teyla and Ronon watching them, and slouches, "Rodney, I'm sorry. Please," and he can hear the pleading tone in his own voice.

For a half second more Rodney just stares at him, then he relaxes, shoulders dropping, reaching one hand out to John. John curses, stomach tight and tense, reaching for Rodney and hugging him. John's heart is still racing, the pressure in the back of his throat building.

He doesn't even hear Teyla and Ronon leave.

hr

John tries to not think about the conversation in the garage again, because it makes his stomach hurt and fear well up in his throat. He does his best to forget all about it, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he's suddenly planning to go to college. It's probably not as big of a change as it feels, because apparently Rodney had already decided they were both going, he'd just assumed that John already knew.

A week later, John thinks he's mostly managed to put it out of his mind. Which makes the bottom drop out of his stomach all over again when Rodney drags him into their room with a bunch of papers clutched to his chest. Rodney says, "Sit down," and John sits, trying not to feel sick at the stubborn expression on Rodney's face, the slight worry lingering around the corners of his eyes.

Rodney paces for a moment, back and forth, before shoving the papers into John's hands, and then blurting, "I wanted to get the evidence, so that you could see, so you wouldn't think I was making it up when I told you." John opens his mouth to point out that whatever it is, he will take Rodney's word, that Rodney's word is all he's ever needed, but Rodney is talking over him, "I should have shown you this earlier, I just wasn't thinking."

John blinks, and Rodney gestures at the papers, so John flips through them. There are a bunch of articles, statistics blurring across the pages, and John looks up at Rodney, waiting for explanation.

It's not a long wait. Rodney waves a hand around, staring down at the ground, talking fast, "It's all from accredited sources, legitimate, you know? They started them when we started showing up, years ago, and they just kept doing it, keeping track of the people like us."

Rodney pauses, cutting a quick look at John, then coming to a stop in front of John, kneeling, his hands resting on John's knees. He says, words tumbling over each other, "When people like us first started showing up, everything was pretty much the same as it was for normal people, no one knew they were supposed to act different, so they didn't."

Rodney expression is radiating earnestness, his eyes so blue, "And then, every year, the percentages of deaths changed. It's—it's getting drastic, John. They hide it in a bunch of babble but the fact is we die. People like us. More and more of them."

John feels his stomach twist, wondering if this is what Rodney was thinking about in the garage, worrying about John dying. It makes him feel even worse for ever mentioning his stupid idea. He says, "Rodney," reaching out and sliding his hands over Rodney's. Rodney shakes his head, his jaw clenching, turning his hands to grip at John's.

"The ones of us that go to college, which is, you know, a smaller amount each year, we have almost double the chance to live past twenty. Almost double, John. Seventy-one percent of the kids that don't go to college die within two years of graduating high school. I can't—I—please, we have to go, please, I can't—I can't lose you."

John pushes off the bed, pulling Rodney close, holding him so tight that he worries he might be hurting Rodney. The papers crumple between them, and Rodney makes a hoarse sound. John just holds him, feeling his heart race, hurting in his chest.

"It's okay, Rodney. That's not going to happen, okay?" John can barely get his voice above a whisper, rocking back and forth. Rodney nods against John's shoulder, his arms coming up around John's back, fisting in John's shirt, fingers tangling.

Rodney shakes in his arms, and for a half second John thinks he's crying, but then there's laugher, shaky and sweet against John's neck. Rodney says, "Good, because I've already got most of your application filled out, I know it's early, but you have to be prepared and so I was getting it ready and—"

John laughs, turning his mouth against Rodney's hair, kissing the soft strands where Rodney can't feel it. He says, "Never leave me, okay? Never." And Rodney nods against him throat again. John feels the pressure in his gut ease, relief singing sweet through his veins.

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The kids that they're teaching become noticeably distracted the closer to the prom it gets, even though most of them aren't going. They whisper and giggle amongst themselves, spreading rumors about the older kids, and generally not paying any attention to what they're supposed to be doing.

John does his best to ignore it, though every time one of the kids runs past yelling about a new couple hooking up, he can't help but looking at Rodney. Rodney, who seems completely unaware of the entire thing, not least because John scowls whenever one of the girls linger around them too long. He has no intention of any of them getting their hands on Rodney, especially not when they're wearing pretty dresses and expecting Rodney to pin flowers up right near their breasts.

John is aware that he's kind of being a bastard, and that maybe Rodney wants to take one of the girls out, but he can't help himself. Teyla has already let them know that they have to go with her, since her boyfriend won't be attending, and Ronon's been sulking for a week since Elizabeth told him gently that she was going with Simon.

The fact that Ronon managed to ask the person he wanted, when John can't make himself, just makes John feel more like chickenshit. He's fidgeting with his shirt, watching Rodney talk with one of the few kids still making an effort to pay attention.

When O'Neill steps up beside him, John doesn't realize it until the man says, "How's he doing?"

John startles, blinking up at the man and then shrugging, "Fine." He doesn't want to go into specifics, because it's not anyone's business but his and Rodney's. And really, for the most part, Rodney is okay now. The nightmares are getting worse again, and it had taken John a while to realize that might have something to do with the days tripping their way towards summer.

O'Neill nods, bending down to pull up a piece of grass, tying it into a knot. He sounds distracted, "Heard you're building yourself a car."

"Rodney is, really. I just get tools." John isn't really sure where this conversation is going. They've never had very much to say to each other, and half the time when they'd spoken, John had been angry with him, angry with the whole world.

"Also heard you've had some run-ins with the protestors." O'Neill is looking up at the sky, and John frowns, wishing Rodney would come over here, and at the same time hoping that he stays away, where he doesn't have to hear this.

John shrugs, "Hasn't everyone?"

O'Neill sighs, dropping the grass he'd been fiddling with, folding his hands behind his back. John wonders absently why the man is even at their school, but before he can ask, O'Neill is saying, "There's a fight coming, son. We're all gonna have to pick a side."

John clenches his fists, his gaze zeroing in on Rodney and staying there. He barely hears himself speak, the words shooting directly from his gut to his mouth, "I picked my side a long time ago." Just because it's not one of the two that everyone thinks he has to choose between doesn't make it less of a valid choice.

"Yeah, I kind of figured that," O'Neill smiles, just a quick twist of his lips that John catches out of the corner of his eye. "You take care of him." John isn't sure if it's a question or not, but he nods anyway. Taking care of Rodney is pretty much his major goal in life right now.

And now Rodney is looking up, blinking up at John and then frowning when he looks at O'Neill. Rodney stands, wiping his hands on his pants, then crossing his arms as he moves towards them. He wraps his arm around John's waist when he reaches them, scowling at O'Neill, snapping, "What are you doing here?"

O'Neill raises his eyebrows, shaking his head, "Hello to you too, Mister McKay. We were just talking about the protestors." Rodney's face goes blank, expression going cool and flat. If O'Neill notices the change he doesn't mention it, "And how they're going to be trouble."

"They're already trouble." Rodney's voice is sharp, and John can feel how tense he's gone. Rodney goes on, vicious, "It's that Kolya bastard. He's the one they all listen to. He's the one pretending he's a king, sacrificing pawns left and right."

That makes O'Neill cough, and when he manages to stop he's frowning, "You're more right than you know." And when John and Rodney just stare at him, O'Neill shrugs, "He's not even gifted, as near as we can tell. He's just looking for a fight, God knows why."

For a moment all John can do is stare, trying to wrap his mind around that. He's already lost all respect for the G.E.N.I.I., but to learn that even what had first appealed to him was a lie hits like a punch in the gut. He pulls Rodney closer automatically.

Rodney, who is scowling, voice sharp as a knife, "Well, why should we limit the exploitation of gifted kids to just gifted adults?" The bitterness in his voice makes John flinch. Sometimes he wants to pretend that the world isn't an ugly place, but it keeps proving him wrong.

O'Neill opens his mouth, but before he gets a chance to speak Mister Jackson is running up. The man looks windblown, his cheeks flushed from the slightly chilly air. He comes to a stop beside O'Neill, nodding at John and Rodney and then saying, "I'm sorry, they needed me to stay late for some last minute adjustments to the lighting, I was going to call but I forgot."

John stares, O'Neill nodding at them and then turning, taking Mister Jackson by the elbow and walking with him away, saying, "So what did they have you doing, Daniel?"

When they're halfway across the lawn Rodney shifts, saying, "Huh, I wasn't expecting that." John just shakes his head, because he's not even completely sure what that is, to know if he expected it or not. Rodney nudges him in the side, "Do you want to go straight home or swing by the rental place to get some tuxes for the thing first?"

John chokes, blinking at Rodney, who is just looking at him expectantly. Finally John shrugs, "Tuxes, I guess."

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Their whole group ends up meeting up at John's house the afternoon before the prom, which John thinks will be the only prom in history to end before eight-thirty. The house feels crowded and busy and John is pretty much sure that this is a horrible idea, especially because he saw his father running around with a camera earlier, smirking and looking like he was about to burst into cackling laughter at any moment.

There's nothing to be done about it. Teyla shows up looking gorgeous, wearing a blue dress that they'd helped her pick out, thankfully without any run-ins with giant mutated bears this time. She's got her hair all knotted up, in a way that looks painful to John, and Ronon pins her corsage on.

Ronon looks like a guy in a suit. John doesn't pay him very much attention, except to tug on Rodney whenever Rodney looks at him for longer than a moment or two. Because John hasn't really stopped looking at Rodney since he put the tux on.

John had no idea that blue was an option for tux colors, and the dark blue jacket with light blue shirt does funny things to John's stomach. He can't seem to stop himself from touching the fabric, smoothing a hand down that line of Rodney's arm and compulsively straightening the other boy's tie, his fingers brushing Rodney's neck each time he does. It kind of makes him wish he'd chosen something but the standard black and white for himself. But only kind of.

And then his father is pushing into the room, camera at the ready, and John starts plotting escape.

Unfortunately, his every effort is thwarted. He starts regretting the digital camera almost immediately, because his father doesn't even have to stop to change film. There are pictures of the four of them together, of each of them individually, of them paired up in every imaginable configuration.

John holds on to Rodney when they finally get a picture together, barely even noticing the flashes. He's sure that the pictures won't turn out, which is the best he can get to self defense at this point, because his mother is very particular about what she puts on her walls.

Still, it's a relief when the camera finally gets put away, his father ushering them all to the door. His father leans in the doorway, reaching out to grab John's wrist before John can hurry down to Teyla's car, saying, "I wish your mother didn't have to work today."

John shrugs, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, watching Rodney reach for Ronon's tie, yanking the knot out and retying it. It makes John frown, and he barely remembers to say, "Well, there are plenty of pictures, anyway."

His father snorts, smiling, and then says, "Have fun. Don't get in any trouble."

John just looks at him, because he's fairly sure that his parents are aware of Rodney's trouble attracting properties. Everyone else seems to be. Then it doesn't matter, because his father is stepping back and John can take Rodney's hand and glare at Ronon.

Teyla rolls her eyes and laughs at all of them, leading the way down to her car. Rodney is saying happily, as they clamber into the backseat, "I bet Teyla gets to be the only girl there with three dates. You realize you've pretty much got your own harem now, right?"

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The arena has been decorated heavily. John blinks against the dim lights, keeping his hand on Rodney's back, feeling an automatic squirm of dislike at the crowd. There's music playing, loud, and that makes John uneasy too.

Ronon nods at all of them when they step through the entrance, and then tilts his head up, taking a deep breath. His eyes go half-mast for a moment, and then he smiles, setting off across the crowded floor. John rolls his eyes. Compared to his own crush, he supposes that Ronon's isn't that bad.

Teyla surveys the room, and then declares, with a grin that just looks a little bit too tight to be completely honest, "I wish to dance," and stares at them expectantly.

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John is certain that he's going to go crazy. He's stalking around the edges of the dance floor, keeping pace with Rodney and Teyla, who seem to be practicing the turn-and-sway dance. Teyla and Rodney match, and that irritates John for no good reason, watching them talk to each other, Teyla's arms up around Rodney's neck.

He knows he's getting weird looks from some of the other kids, but at this point John no longer cares what they think of him. It had been alright when there were fast songs, when they could just sort of stand around each other, Teyla happily moving to the music while Rodney bopped along awkwardly and John sort of swayed side to side. John is going to kill whoever turned on the slow ballad.

The flickering, soft light from above is not improving his mood. He continues pacing, keeping his eyes on his friends, on Rodney, exhaling shakily with relief when the music finally stops. Another fast song comes on, and John makes to move towards them, but they reach him first.

Rodney bumps into John's side, laughing softly. Teyla is laughing louder, a few pieces of her hair coming out of the elaborate knot work. Rodney leans into John, mouth moving close to John's ear when he says, "Teyla wants to sit down for a while, rest, you know?"

John nods, moving them over to an empty table. Teyla slides into her seat gracefully, her skin flushed with a slight sheen of sweet. Rodney just plops down, bracing his arms on the table and then letting his head rest forward. John rubs the back of his neck, the hair there tangling around his fingers, feels Rodney push back into the pressure, and makes himself move away to sit down himself.

He says, "Anyone know where Ronon is?" and then has to repeat himself shouting, because the music is so loud. Rodney just waves a hand, but Teyla nods her head to the side. John looks, finding Ronon by virtue of the boy being taller than pretty much everyone else, standing along the wall, his eyes riveted to the dance floor. John snorts, shaking his head.

Teyla flashes him a disapproving look, somehow manages to make herself heard without appearing to shout, "I think he is very sweet."

John opens his mouth to point out that it's kind of obsessive behavior, and Rodney tilts his head to the side, smiling softly, "Yeah. He is. I mean," Rodney waves one of his hands, "displaying completely terrible taste, for sure. But sweet." John snaps his mouth shut, frowning.

They lapse into silence, because it's pretty much impossible to have a conversation anyway. John lets his mind drift, listening to the beat of the music, watching the couples swaying out on the dance floor. He wonders what Rodney would say if John asked him to go out there without Teyla.

Before John can gather his courage, a boy that John only barely recognizes is stepping up to their table. He's short, spiky brown hair, blue eyes, completely ignoring John and Rodney in favor of smiling down at Teyla and then leaning down to shout, "Do you want to, um, dance? For awhile?"

Teyla looks startled, blinking across at the boy, and then she smiles, huge and radiant. She offers him her hand, and John watches them stand. He reaches out to nudge the boy's ankle, and when he's sure he has the stranger's attention, he narrows his eyes, scowling pointedly.

The boy's eyes widen, and he swallows heavily, but then turns, following Teyla back to the dance floor. John watches them for a moment, before turning back to the table. Rodney is still sprawled out across it, his eyes closed, one side of his mouth turned down.

John watches him, leaning back in his chair, letting his mind drift. Rodney's hair is a little damp with sweat, curled up tighter than usual. He looks like he's thinking, or dreaming. John smiles, cocking his head to the side, feeling a slow curl of warmth in his stomach.

When Rodney winces, raising a hand to his head and rubbing at his temple, John tenses up. John slides out of his chair, rubbing a hand across Rodney's shoulders, leaning close so he doesn't have to shout as loudly, "You okay?"

Rodney just shrugs, but he feels tense beneath John's hand, and his expression hasn't smoothed out. John wonders if it's the crowd, or the noise bothering him. It doesn't really matter. He tugs on Rodney's arm, saying, "Come on, I want to go outside for a few minutes."

Rodney stumbles when John pulls him up, rubbing hard at his forehead. John frowns, curling his arm around Rodney's shoulders, pulling him towards one of the side doors. Outside the air is chilly, the sun setting. With the door closed behind them, John can still hear the music, but it's no longer so overwhelming.

There's railing along the path, and Rodney leans against it, tilting his face up to the sky and rubbing at the back of his neck. John leans beside him, curling his hands around the cool metal, his mind still throbbing with the beat of the music.

After a moment Rodney sighs, kicking his shoes off and tugging his tie loose. Warmth shoots through John again, and he grips the railing harder, toeing off his own shoes. He feels warm, suddenly, even though the air out here is so much cooler than the air inside.

He lets himself shift sideways, until his shoulder is pressing up against Rodney's. Rodney hums, leaning into the touch, slouching down to rest his head on John's shoulder. He says, voice soft, "Thanks. For coming out here, I mean. The noise..." Rodney trails off.

John picks up the slack, resisting the urge to shrug, "The music sucked anyway. And it's not like I was dancing." He tilts his head a little to the side, just enough to feel Rodney's hair against his cheek. He closes his eyes, soaking it in.

When Rodney moves, standing straighter, meeting John's eyes, John blinks, startled. Rodney looks serious, suddenly, and sounds it when he says, "Did you want to dance?" And John sucks in a quick breath, surprised as hell to find that butterflies in the stomach actually happen. All he can manage is a jerky nod.

That gets a smile from Rodney in any case, the boy reaching for John's hand and pulling him away from the railing. Rodney pauses for a half second, just looking at John, and then he's shifting forward, one of his arms winding around John's neck, his other over John's ribs, curling up to grip John's shoulder.

John shivers, full bodied, biting his bottom lip hard and wrapping an arm around Rodney's waist, his other hand over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney hums, so close that John can feel the vibration, shifting just a little closer, swaying side to side.

John's lips part, all his breath squeezing out of his lungs. He shifts, slow, back and forth. He doesn't think that really, this is dancing. But it's close enough. And he likes how Rodney feels in his arms, for once not just for comfort or reassurance, but because they want to.

It's natural to pull Rodney just a little closer, and they both laugh when Rodney steps on his foot. John looks across at him, and finds Rodney staring at him, expression soft and open. John shivers, which seems odd considering how hot he feels, hears himself saying, "Rodney, I—"

And that's when the doors to the arena burst open.

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The music is, oddly, the least loud noise that floods out. Mostly it's the yelling, jeers and catcalls, and John is pushing Rodney towards the wall, stepping in front of him. The crowd pushes through the door in a rush, shouting kids, voices all raised in anger, pushing one boy to the ground in front of them.

It takes John a second to recognize Simon, one side of his face already slick with blood, the boy trying to get back to his feet. And then they're shoving Elizabeth out as well, the air temperature taking a drastic plunge and one of the kids yelling, "—what we think of this shit! He doesn't belong here! And neither do you, you traitor slut."

John doesn't see who said it, but he has a fairly good idea when one of the boys collapses to his knees, clawing at his throat, breath escaping his nose in a stream of steam. Someone yells, "You bitch!" and there's a clap like thunder and Ronon is shoving through the crowd, picking some kid up and just hurling them to the side.

It takes seconds, two or three at most. And John is seeing the parking lot with his parents all over again, every news segment they've ran about gifted people killing normals. His stomach goes cold as ice, and Elizabeth wipes blood off her face with her torn dress and twists her head over her shoulder to yell, "Run! Get out of here!" and all hell breaks loose.

The crowd lunges forward en masse, and there's only about two dozen of them, John thinks, which is still way too many. John can hear racial slurs and there are bursts of fire, and the smell of electricity and Rodney is yelling in his ear, "Get her boyfriend! He's defenseless!" And then, when John hesitates, "John, I'll be fine! Do it!"

John does it. He grabs Simon by the back of the neck, hauling him to his feet and then pushing him down again when a fireball breaks across John's back. He shouts, the flames licking across his cheeks, "Stay behind me!" and curses when another fireball goes by over his head.

John looks over his shoulder, shielding the quivering boy with his body. Elizabeth's hands are surrounded by huge hunks of ice, that she's currently using to smash the hell out of everyone that steps close to her. Ronon is being dragged to the ground, his face twisted up with fury and there's a roar of growing rapidly closer, which resolves itself into a car skidding to a stop an inch away from John's face.

The door opens without John touching it, and he straightens, blinking at the empty seat. Rodney shouts across the distance separating them, "Get him in!" and John lifts Simon by the seat of his pants and his hair, manhandling him into the car and that's when Miss Carter shows up, in a blaze of golden light.

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Everyone freezes when Miss Carter shows up, because they all know what she can do. In the pause Rodney punches the kid closest to him, and Ronon comes bounding across the distance to John. Miss Carter is snapping, "Someone want to tell me what the hell is going on?" and Ronon is yanking Simon back out of the car and slugging him hard across the jaw.

John yells, "Holy fuck!" grabbing Ronon and pulling him off, the taller boy struggling against him. John shouts, "He's the one we're protecting here, remember?" Even though John has no conscious recollection of making that decision. It had kind of just happened.

Ronon growls, "Didn't do it for that. Can smell a woman on him. Not Elizabeth's smell." And somewhere Elizabeth is demanding an explanation and Miss Carter is trying to be heard above the sudden mayhem and Rodney is there, wrapping his hand around John's elbow and holding on.

John looks across at him, and laughs. He's not sure what else to do, really.

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Part Six

The cops get called for the fight, and the paramedics. John sits beside Rodney on the hood of Teyla's car, holding Rodney's left hand in both of his, frowning at Rodney's reddened knuckles. He asks, "What, are you secretly a southpaw?"

Rodney shrugs, watching the paramedics that are working on Ronon, stitching up the ragged cut over the other boy's eyebrow. He sounds distracted when he says, "I don't know. Ronon's mom is going to be so pissed off."

John sighs, "Yeah." Teyla is finally making her way over to them, the boy that had asked her to dance earlier following behind her, his jacket over her shoulders. "Are you sure that you don't want someone to look at your hand?"

"I'm fine," Rodney sounds sweetly exasperated, nudging John in the shoulder again. And John knows he's being a worry wart, but he can't help it where Rodney is concerned. Teyla leans against the fender, sighing heavily, her friend nodding at them with a tight smile.

Another cruiser pulls up, and John ignores it, watching Ronon bat away the medic's hands, grumbling and pushing his way over to them. His hair is still a little shiny with blood, and his bottom lip is split. John wonders if all his friend's are going to constantly be throwing themselves into harm's way, and how he's supposed to stop them from doing so.

And then the cop from the cruiser is walking towards them and John finds himself staring at his father. John opens his mouth to say hello, which seems silly considering the circumstances, and then his father is there, grabbing John's shoulders and squeezing hard, his voice low and rough, "Jesus Christ, you okay? Are you all okay?"

Before John can answer his father is grabbing Rodney, looking at him hard, then exhaling heavily. It's Teyla that speaks, voice calm and smooth, "We are all fine, Mister Sheppard. We did not mean to worry you."

John father looks at her, rubbing his hand over his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut for just a moment. John stares at him, watching his father take a deep breath and steady himself. John opens his mouth, but he doesn't have any words to say, not sure if he should be comforting or looking for comfort. His father says, "Have you all given your statements?" And when they nod, "Good. Go on home, okay?"

And they do. John's relieved, because he's not used to seeing his father look scared.

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They drop Ronon off at his house, but Teyla comes home with them. She changes into one of John's old shirts and pants, and they go out to the garage to mostly not work on the car. They're silent, and that's a surprise, because usually if Rodney doesn't have anything to say, then Teyla does.

John sits on the cool concrete floor, legs sprawled out, head tilted back against the wall. Rodney is pacing back and forth in front of the car, and then puts his hands on his hips, exhaling harshly before stomping over to John and making himself comfortable in John's lap. Teyla, lying on her back, tossing a ball up and catching it over and over again, doesn't so much as look their way.

John finally has to break the silence, wrapping his arms loosely around Rodney, "So, does anyone know what the hell that was?"

Rodney shrugs, "That was a bunch of drunk, bigoted assholes deciding that they wanted perpetrating a hate crime to be part of their high school experience." There's bite in his voice, and John winces. "Our generation just can't decide who it wants to hate, I guess."

John wants it to not be true, but he has a sick feeling that the fact that it's horrible doesn't make it less correct. He wants to believe that maybe it's just the gifted people acting like this, but he's seen all the news reports, the normal people in South Dakota that had lynched a half-dozen gifted people for no reason at all before they were caught.

Across from them, Teyla rolls onto her side, looking sick, "There was so much anger." She shudders, squeezing her eyes shut, "Anger and fear in all of their minds."

They lapse back into silence, John holding Rodney tighter, hiding his face against Rodney's hair. He didn't need Teyla to tell them how angry and scared everyone had been, but knowing that it hadn't just been a surface emotion makes it even worse.

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Tensions at school reach whole new levels the last month of school, which John hadn't even thought was possible. People break off into groups, sticking close together, and John is only a little surprised when Elizabeth ends up part of theirs.

She looks rough the first few days after the prom, and Teyla tells the rest of them that she'd broken up with her boyfriend, apparently because Ronon had been right. Oddly, Ronon backs way off when she attaches herself to them, though he's still insanely polite to her.

The cafeteria, which John has learned is a pretty accurate gage of emotions in the school, ends up with a split down the middle, kids sympathetic to the protestors on one side, everyone else on the other. It makes John nervous how evenly divided they are.

The teachers are every bit as nervous, and John catches O'Neill wandering around the grounds with Mister Jackson what seems like every other day. The whole world is holding its breath, but it feels especially tense here, like they're the knife edge that everyone else is balancing on. John is willing to admit that it might just feel like that because this is where he, and everyone he cares about, is.

By the time the last day of school rolls around, John is exhausted and worn out. Rodney is back to having nightmares every night, screaming and thrashing around, and John hasn't slept the whole night through for a month. He tries to be upset about that, but Rodney is sleeping even less than he is, so he can't really manage to feel sorry for himself.

John wants to skip the last day, but when he mentions it Rodney just looks at him like he's insane. John quickly lets the subject drop, worried about Rodney pulling out statistics that prove that people that skip the last day of school before summer vacation are ten times more likely to end up dead in a dumpster somewhere.

They make it through the day, finally. Each hour seems to drag, and by the time they're finally moving towards the exit, John is itchy with wanting to be home. He has a sour feeling in his stomach, though he can't figure out why, because they're going home, everything went fine.

When they step out of the front doors, John wonders why he even bothers trying to be optimistic.

The protestors are in front of the school, complete with signs and, oddly, tables set off to one side with a bunch of little booklets on them. They're chanting, ugly hateful words that John blocks out, feeling himself stiffen up, because he can't ignore the pictures on their signs, normal people wearing collars, crawling around on their knees.

And if that wasn't enough, some of their classmates are over at the tables, talking to the protestors, taking the papers offered them, nodding, smiling ugly. Teyla puts a hand on John's back, and he looks down at her, only then becoming aware of how hard he's squeezing Rodney's hand. Teyla says, "Let us just go," and John nods, because this isn't something they should be getting mixed up in. He takes a deep breath and makes himself relax his grip on Rodney's hand.

John keeps his head down when they walk down the steps, trying to ignore the ugliness, and someone yells, "They're not really even people, they don't have souls!" John winces, disgust making his chest ache, and it shouldn't really be a surprise when Rodney pulls away from him. It is anyway.

John tries to grab him, but Rodney is twisting away, radiating anger as he stomps up to the tables. John shouts, something wordless, hurrying after Rodney, because he's walking into a crowd of angry people, and John doubts it's to agree with them.

A half second later, Rodney is knocking the closest table over, people stumbling off into silence and gaping at him. Rodney says into the startled quiet, moving to the next table, shoving it over, "How many of you even believe in God? Show of hands, come on. No? So, what then, you're just assuming that along with the rest of our freak parade we all evolved souls, too?"

Rodney is moving towards the last table, and a woman grabs him, her smile tight and fake, her voice sickly sweet when she says, "I know that this can be hard for you to hear, sweetie. Are your parents...non-gifteds?"

And then John is there, grabbing the woman's wrist, growling, "Get your hands off him," and squeezing until she gasps and releases. There's a hot line of anger running up John's spine, and he pushes the woman away, fighting down the urge to hit her.

Rodney is saying, voice hot and angry, "My parents? My parents are both genetic mutations," and when the woman smiles wider, opening her mouth, he continues, "And they gave me to the fucking government program that had all your panties in a wad a few months ago. They left me there. And I wouldn't wish what they did to me there on anyone. Not even you, you moronic inbred sow."

Now the woman looks angry, trying to speak again, but Rodney is on a roll, and there's no stopping him, his face red, "And you want to know who saved me? Two normal people. And their son, who happens to be gifted. They're more family than I ever had, and if you think I'm going to stand here and listen to your bullshit then you're even more of a brain dead idiot than you look."

For a moment no one moves, a perfect moment of stillness, and then someone, a man that John can't even see, yells, "Traitor!" and someone throws a bolt of lightning. John moves without having to think about it, stepping in front of Rodney, raising his eyebrows at the perpetrators.

Rodney rests a hand on John's shoulder before the electricity completely dissipates, and John hears him suck in a breath. John turns to look at him, panicking, but Rodney doesn't look hurt. He looks cold, one side of his mouth turned up, his eyes brighter than they usually are. Rodney says, raising one hand, palm up, "Oh, you really shouldn't have done that."

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After that, things move too fast for John to accurately keep track. He doesn't realize that it's not just he, Rodney, and Teyla standing against the protestors until Teyla's little friend from the prom steps up beside John's elbow. John twists to look over his shoulder, blinking at the kids standing behind them, looking scared and angry and completely out of their depth.

And then there's another flash of lightening, thunder rumbling along the horizon and the smell of ozone in the air. Someone yells, one of the protestors charging, getting bigger with each step he takes, skin turning gray and coarse as stone.

The stone-man swings a fist at Rodney, who ducks, and John growls, stepping up and wrapping both his arms around the man's huge appendage, dipping his knees, twisting and lifting. The stone-man goes over John's shoulder, hitting the ground so hard it shakes beneath John's feet, and he turns back to find that the entire situation has gone all to hell.

Something small and angrily hissing jumps on top of John's head. He curses, grabbing it absently and throwing it to the side, shouting, "Rodney!" because he can't see the other boy. A bolt of insanely hot air goes by John's face, and behind him someone screams. It doesn't sound like Rodney, Teyla, or Ronon, which means that at the moment it's beyond the scope of his concern.

A giant, hairy, woman steps into John's field of vision and he snarls, grabbing one of her legs and twisting it out from under her. She curses him with a voice like boulders grinding together, but John is already scrambling over her, absorbing a punch to the head, something sharp glancing off his shoulder and tearing his shirt.

John shoulders his way through a tight group, laying out a boy that grabs him, and finds himself with an almost clear view of Teyla. There's a woman with long, thin silver cords for arms, all of them wrapped around Teyla's neck, and John grits his teeth, pushing towards them. Before he gets there, Teyla is reaching out, bracing her palm on the woman's forehead, her feet kicking in the air as she's lifted.

And then the woman screams, collapsing down, and John runs, knocking people out of the way. He catches Teyla right before she hits the ground, setting her down. She's choking, sucking in air desperately, and John shakes his shoulders, shouts into her face, "Where's Rodney?"

Teyla shakes her head, her hands up by her throat, and John clenches his jaw up, wondering where the hell Miss Carter and the other teachers are. Someone shoves him hard from behind and John braces himself, twists, and punches down without looking. He hears the boy scream, someone John just barely recognizes collapsing to the ground.

Something dark passes over John's head and he's just looking up, raising his fists, when Teyla's friend lands in front of them. For a moment John is distracted by the boy's huge, gleaming wings. Then the boy is grabbing Teyla, flapping his gigantic wings and lifting off the ground. John gapes up at him, and then goes to his knees, pain arching up from the soles of his feet to his scalp.

John tries to scream, mind blank and empty with agony, falling sideways, feeling his body jerking. John spasms, his body wracked with pain like acid poured inside his skin, his eyes stuck wide open, though the sensory input he's getting doesn't make any sense.

There's a foot, in front of his face, wearing, oddly, a canvas sneaker. It shifts in and out of focus when John's world splinters apart, and John tries to reach for it, vaguely intending to grab and pull. He can't make it, pain making each movement feel like all the bones in his body are broken.

And then there's a wet smack of sound, and a body falling to the ground in front of John. The pain disappears like a switch being flipped, and John gags, wrapping his arms around his ribs, dizzy. And then there are warm, familiar hands pushing John's hair back, Rodney cradling his head and blurting, "John! John, are you okay?"

John manages to nod, grabbing Rodney, pushing himself up to his knees. Rodney helps him stand, blood sliding down one side of his face, his eyes still oddly light. There's a boy collapsed on the ground, body limp and unconscious, part of the railing from the steps of the school lying beside him. Rodney bends, grabbing the railing, palming it and continuing, "You're okay, right?"

John ignores the question, "What happened to you?" And before Rodney can answer John feels all the hair on his body stand up, electricity dancing across the air. John shouts, "Fuck!" and tries to pull Rodney somewhere safe, but the lightning smashes into them before he can move.

Everything in John goes cold, anticipating the smell of burnt skin, fury rising hot and terrible in his chest, right below the sickening sense of failure. And then the lightning is dissipating, and John is looking down at Rodney in his arms, dreading what he's going to see.

Rodney blinks up at him, blue eyes electric bright, putting off so much light that John squints, eyes watering. Rodney reaches up, fingers brushing John's cheek, sparks dancing between their skin. Rodney says, voice distant, "Shut your eyes, John."

Listening to Rodney is reflex. John shuts his eyes, and even then the flare of insanely bright light makes him hiss. People are screaming, and something is burning. Rodney says, voice ever quieter, "Okay, you can look again now."

John opens his eyes. Nothing looks that different except that all the grass around them is burnt and dead. The fighting is still going on, though the teachers are running out now, and John expects it to all just stop. But instead they're just absorbed into the fight, and John feels another sharp bite of fear.

John says, "We need to get out of here." Because this is no where near anything resembling a controlled situation. This entire afternoon has gone to shit, and he just wants to get Rodney out of here. But Rodney is shaking his head, clutching John's arm and squeezing his eyes shut, hand shaking by his waist.

The fight is breaking down into smaller units. Rodney pulls John towards one of them and John just goes with it, even though it makes his stomach hurt, even though it goes against his every instinct. Now that the groups are smaller it's easier to change the balance.

John's world devolves into smacking the shit out of people, knocking them down hard enough to make sure they don't get up, keeping a hand on Rodney. Rodney, who directs which group they move towards next and shouts things John doesn't really hear to the people they help, thinning the crowd down.

And then Miss Carter is slugging one man in the jaw, tossing another onto the roof of the school, putting a third in a headlock and shouting, "Alright, that is enough!" And that's when the police come roaring in, and Rodney sags against John, heaving a sigh.

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John thinks that really, having the police have to come to the school twice in a month is pretty embarrassing, especially considering the amount of students that end up carted away to jail. And the amount that are being loaded into ambulances, to be rushed to the hospital. John sits on the steps and watches.

John is considering dragging Rodney over to the ambulances, never mind Rodney's insistence that he's fine. Rodney is bleeding from a head wound and John saw him get electrocuted and John feels fairly certain that he should be checked out. Teyla and her friend are there, Ronon and Elizabeth sitting on their other side, all of them bloody and bruised except for John. He hates that.

When Miss Carter and Mister Jackson come over, John looks up at them wearily. He feels exhausted, physically and emotionally worn out, just wants to go home and sleep. Ms. Carter kneels in front of them, rubbing her forehead when she says, "They're saying you started this clusterfuck."

Rodney shrugs, lying sideways across one of the steps, an arm thrown over his eyes, "We didn't bring them here. We didn't start handing out that bullshit propaganda." John rubs Rodney's legs, thrown over his own, too tired to add anything to the argument.

Miss Carter nods, sighing heavily, but it's Mister Jackson that speaks, "They're pretty beat up, Sam. I think we should probably take them to the nurse, before we make them answer questions." For a half second John thinks she's going to protest, but then she nods, wearily, and waves them all into the school.

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John stands beside Rodney when the school nurse places her hand on his forehead and hums. For a half second Rodney's skin goes almost translucent, bones and organs visible right through his skin, before that passes. Rodney sways, and John steadies him, relieved when Rodney blinks up at him.

Teyla is already better, waiting off to the side. Ronon is waiting something less than patiently for his turn, Elizabeth hovering by his shoulder, keeping pressure on his head wound. John pulls Rodney down off the examination table, lifting him even though Rodney is fine now, because the weight of the other boy in his arms reassures him.

The nurse moves on to the others that need attention, and Miss Carter steps back over to them, looking irritated and tired. John glares at her, because he's not in the mood, and she sighs, tugging a hand back through her tangled hair, speaking carefully, "Look, you have to understand that people are going to say things you don't like, that's part of having free speech, you can't just—"

Rodney cuts her off, mouth twisting down, "They threw a bolt of lightning at us. I don't think that they were looking for a friendly discussion of our differing views." John looks down at his clothes at the mention of the lightning. The fabric is charred, and he picks at it.

Miss Carter sighs, rubbing her forehead some more, "You overturned their tables—"

"They deserved it!" Rodney jerks in John's hold, and John holds him tighter automatically. He can feel Rodney's heart racing, the angry, too fast in and out of his breath. "Idiots like that shouldn't be here. They shouldn't be anywhere."

For a moment Miss Carter is silent, her expression going tight and restrained, before she says, voice quite, "We don't get to decide that, Rodney."

"Well maybe we should." Rodney snaps the words, fast and sharp as the blade of a knife, and John can't help but agreeing with him. So far all the people that are supposed to be deciding are doing a horrible job of it, fucking things up left and right. John is pretty sure that they could do better, easily.

Miss Carter winces, looking aside. When she opens her mouth, still staring at the far wall, a younger boy bursts into the room before she can speak. The boy is breathing hard, one hand braced against the wall, his face flushed bright red when he blurts, "They're attacking the police station!"

For a moment everyone just stares at the boy, and then John demands, "What?" jerking to his feet. He waits for the kid to say it's a joke, albeit a very bad one. Or to explain that he means a police station somewhere far away from here.

The kid swallows a deep breath, his words all tumbling together, "The G.E.N.I.I., they're attacking the police station. They said they're coming to get their people because they're being held illegally and that this is the last straw and Kolya's there and everything." No one in the room moves, and the boy reaches up to pull on his ear, his eyes going distant before clearing, "They're calling in the Army, there are reports of weapons fire and Kolya is saying that they're not going to take hostages, because this is in response to an act of war."

John feels numb, dizzy, managing to choke out, "My dad." His whole world feels suddenly off balance, and he starts for the door without thinking, because he has to go, has to get to the police station and find his father.

Miss Carter steps in front of him, hands raised, saying, "Wait, you need to let the proper authorities—" And that's when Teyla steps up, raising her fingers to press against the side of Miss Carter's head. Miss Carter makes a soft sound, eyes rolling up, and then collapses to the floor.

Teyla says, smiling small and tight, gesturing towards the door, "Let us go find your father."

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Teyla rides the bus to school, and so they don't have her car to pile into. John isn't even thinking about that, running towards the parking lot, Rodney's hand in his, Teyla and her friend behind them, Ronon and Elizabeth in front.

They're running between cars, and then John stops, staring at the monster huge truck beside him. He looks across at Rodney, finds the other boy smirking, and smiles back, wide and sharp with the rush of adrenaline in his veins. John tears the driver's door off, lifting Rodney into the cab, along with Teyla, raising his eyebrows at the others.

Elizabeth says, "We'll take my car," and she, Ronon, and Teyla's friend keep going. John just shrugs, pulling himself into the truck, the engine roaring to life as he settles behind the wheel. Rodney looks across at him, eyes wide and bright, reaching over to put the truck into drive and advising, "Drive it like you stole it."

John does.

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By the time they make it to the police station, Teyla is clinging to her seatbelt, and Rodney is clinging to John. John doesn't even remember half the roads they've driven on, the steering wheel broken in his hands. Around the police station there are barricades and a shit load of humvees. John doesn't touch the brakes, gritting out, "Hold on."

Rodney curses, bracing himself as best he can, one hand stretched out towards the windshield, moving the humvees out of their way. The truck plows through the barricades, one hitting the windshield hard enough to make the glass crack.

John slams the gas pedal down to the floor, taking his hands off what's left of the wheel, twisting sideways and wrapping around Rodney, reaching past him to hold on to Teyla. When they slam into the police station, the truck goes right through the wall in a shower of masonry and dust, stopping when the back wheels get hung up on part of the wall.

John coughs, asking, "Everyone okay?" as he shifts up, bracing his hands on the windshield and pushing out. Most of the glass stays together, sliding down to the hood of the truck, but a few pieces rain down on them. John shakes his hair out, crawling out onto the hood and reaching back for Rodney.

Rodney and Teyla are both nodding, looking a little shaken but uninjured. John pulls Rodney out, helping him slide down to the ground, then grabbing for Teyla. They're standing in someone's office, which is a huge mess now. It's also, thankfully, empty.

"Where to?" John directs the question to Teyla, who frowns, raising one hand to her temple, her expression twisting up in concentration.

When she opens her eyes she looks dazed, and John reaches out automatically to steady her. She says, voice soft, "I will lead," and then she's pushing away from him, leading them out into the hallway. John reaches out to grab Rodney's hand, following her.

And immediately pushing Rodney down when bullets start shooting by over their head. John curses, pushing Rodney against the wall, curling over him and Rodney fists one hand in John's shirt, the other reaching out. The gunfire stops with a loud bang and a scream, and Teyla is pulling on John's arm, her voice desperate, "Come on, hurry!"

John pushes up, Rodney rising with him. There are bullet holes all over the walls, char marks and smears of blood on the floor, walls, ceiling. There are bodies, limp and broken, police officers and soldiers and kids. John swallows hard, trying to make himself not look.

They come to a corner, Teyla starting around, and John reaches out to grab her, hissing, "Let me go first," because he's much less likely to end up in bloody pieces than she is. She nods, shifting back, and John looks around before waving them forward, his stomach tight and sour.

Halfway down the corridor, and John thinks they're moving towards the holding cells in the back, Teyla freezes, cocking her head to the side. Before John can speak, the floor jumps beneath them, the wall all along their right side cracking and splitting. Teyla shouts, "Run!" and follows her own advice.

John curses, the ceiling collapsing above them, pushing Rodney in front of him, stumbling over the heaving floor. Teyla has to catch herself on the wall when they go around a corner, and there's a man kneeling there, his eyes closed in concentration, his hands braced on the ground. John growls, and kicks him, hard enough to lay the man out, flat on his back.

In front of them are the cells, full of police officers lined up against the back wall, five people arrayed in front of them. One of the women raises her hand, fire captured in the palm of her hand, dancing across her viciously sharp expression, and John yells, throwing himself at her.

They go to the ground, John grabbing her hair, slamming her head into the ground, restraining himself with everything he has not to split her skull wide open. Someone grabs his shoulder and then lets go with a gurgling shout.

John pushes back to his feet to find Teyla jumping onto some man's back, reaching her hand up to grab at his face, Rodney ducking under a punch. John growls, throws himself at the man that took a swing at Rodney, driving him into the wall and backhanding the man hard enough to feel bones break beneath his hand. The fifth one, a woman, runs for the door and Rodney lunges for her, grabbing her arm, and being pulled forward for a half second before Teyla steps up and wraps her fingers around the woman's jaw.

John is breathing hard, his lungs on fire, furious and afraid. He turns to face the police officers, and meets a punch with his face. John blinks in surprise, hearing the man that punched him cursing, hearing someone yell, "Get them! They're just kids!"

And his father's voice, "What do you think they're doing here? They're my sons, and their friend. They just saved your life, Helms." John makes a sound he doesn't hear, lunging forward, grabbing his father and holding him before pushing him back, looking at him for injuries.

There a cut along his jaw, and he's holding his left arm funny. John hugs him again, exhaling hard with relief, because he'd though—he'd thought this was all his nightmares coming true. His father cups the back of his head, rubbing John's back, saying softly, "Hey, it's fine, John. I had the shield Rodney made. They wouldn't have been able to hurt me."

John nods, his throat too tight to speak, and Teyla says, "We must go, there are more of them coming." John pulls back, grabbing his father and tugging him towards the door, just wanting to be out of here, to get his family somewhere safe.

One of the other officers snaps, "Are we really just listening to them?"

It's Rodney that answers, words fast and impatient, "Do whatever you want. We just came for Mister Sheppard," And then he's heading for the entrance, following Teyla out. John follows them, still pulling his father along, aware that after a moment the other officers follow them.

They meet more of the protestors in the hall, stray groups that they handle as they come upon them. Teyla leads, one hand always up by her temple, John keeping a hand on his father, trying to calm the dizzying fear in his gut.

Teyla pauses, tilting her head up, hissing and jerking her hand away from her face. Rodney reaches for her, steadying her against the wall, and she mumbles, "Hate. So much hate," sounding weak and quivery. John has never heard her sound like that before.

Rodney's expression goes still, "Who is it? Teyla! Who is it?"

Teyla shakes her head, running her fingers up into her hair, bending down to breathe deeper. When she speaks, she still sounds half breathless, "It is Kolya. He is...so angry. So hateful. Do not make me look into him again."

"Where is he?" Rodney's voice is flat, icy, reminds John that Rodney has disliked that man from the very beginning. And anymore, when Rodney dislikes someone, he has his own way of showing it.

For a moment Teyla doesn't answer, and then she raises a hand, pointing down one of the halls, her expression still twisted up with pain. Rodney says, "Get them out," and then turns, sprinting the direction she pointed without even pausing.

John shouts his name, letting go of his father, sprinting after Rodney. When he catches Rodney the other boy has his head down, his shoulders stiff, his hands balled up into fists. John grabs Rodney's arm, spinning him around, demanding, "What are you doing?"

"Go back," Rodney isn't looking up, hair hanging in his face, dirty with blood and sweat. Rodney's voice sounds like it did when he talked to his parents, when he talks to O'Neill. Not angry. Empty and hollow, like he's somewhere besides his own head. "Go back with Teyla and your dad. Make sure they're safe."

John shakes him, shifting a hand to Rodney's chin and making him look up. Rodney keeps his eyes stubbornly down and John crowds him against the wall, words dragging like gravel along his throat, "You know better than that, Rodney. Talk to me."

When Rodney finally looks up, John almost wishes he hadn't. Rodney stares at him, eyes flat as his voice when he says, "I'm going to kill him. He needs to die and no one else will do it. He tried to hurt your dad, and I'm going to kill him. Go back."

John opens his mouth, shuts it again, swallows. Speaking is hard, because he feels like all the air has been sucked out of his lungs, "No. No, we got dad, we should just go." He pulls on Rodney's arm, holding Rodney's gaze.

Rodney says, "I have to—" and there's an explosion, loud enough to make John's ears ring, his body moving instantaneously, pushing Rodney against the wall and covering his body. John shakes his head, shifting back as the rubble settles, twisting to look over his shoulder at the group stepping through the hole in the wall behind them.

John doesn't recognize most of them, but the tall man in the center he knows. Kolya is smirking, waving the kids around him forward, his voice booming, "Have you come to join our cause, my children?" And John feels sick at just the thought of it.

Rodney snaps, "Fuck you," which pretty much covers John's view of the matter as well, and makes Kolya laugh. John feels Rodney shift, bracing his hands on the wall at his back, tilting his face up to the ceiling. John turns, standing in front of Rodney, cracking his neck side to side and balling his hands into fists.

Kolya says, "Are you sure this is advisable, boy?" and John jerks his chin up, waving the tall man forward, because he'll be goddamned if he's going to make Rodney kill someone again. Kolya booms out another laugh, and then snaps his mouth shut, jerking his head forward, and the kids around him lunge for John.

The world dissolves into deflecting blows and striking out. There's one girl who sticks to John like glue, and he has to deal with her trying to climb up onto his shoulders while beating the other's off, his mind shutting down to nothing but this.

When the wall behind him comes apart John dares a look, watching a giant robot pulling the ceiling off, tossing it aside. Rodney is on his knees, eyes rolled up in his head, tracing patterns with his hands, the robot leaning forward and around its legs cops and soldiers flooding forward.

And with them, familiar faces. Elizabeth runs up, looking a complete mess, and furious. She points at John as she runs up, stepping past him to slam a fist of ice into one of the kid's faces. There's a rush of cold against John's skin, and then the girl grappling with John's hair squawks, and falls off of him. She looks disturbingly ice cube like lying on the ground by his feet, but John hardly cares.

The G.E.N.I.I. look panicked, seriously outnumbered now, and John expects them to run, bracing to chase them. When Teyla and his father run up from the opposite direction he looks to the side, distracted, and only realizes afterwards how fucking stupid that was.

Kolya might not be gifted, but he moves fast, big body brushing John's as he reaches past to grab Rodney, jerking him upright. John shouts, jerking forward, and Kolya is pressing the barrel of a gun against the side of Rodney's head, his other hand wrapped around Rodney's throat, holding Rodney's feet off the ground.

John pulls up short, growling, the robot above him going completely still as Rodney's eyes flutter open. Rodney jerks, his hands coming up only then to pull at Kolya's arms, kicking at the big man's legs. Around them everyone has gone still, watching Kolya slowly back up. John grinds out, "Let him go."

That gets a cold smile from Kolya, his voice mocking, "Now why would I do that, boy? I will release him when you all put down your weapons and release my compatriots." And then he deliberately tightens his grip on Rodney's throat, and John jerks forward a step, unable to stop himself.

John's father steps up, grabbing John's arm, and John isn't sure if the gesture is meant as restraint or comfort. He doesn't care. At some point in the fight apparently his father found a sidearm, and John reaches down, grabbing it and pointing it at Kolya though he has no idea how to shoot. The gun feels weird and awkward in his hands, the metal skin warm and smooth. John's father shouts something John doesn't hear, trying to pull John's arm down.

John repeats, taking another step closer, his heart pounding so hard it hurts, "Let him go."

Rodney's mouth is moving, but no sound is coming out, and John has to concentrate not to squeeze the gun hard enough to break it. The sight of the barrel pressing against Rodney's curls is killing him. Kolya sneers at him, "Put your toy down, boy. The safety isn't even off."

For all John knows the man is right, but it could be a lie, and John wouldn't know how to tell if it was the truth anyway. He doesn't drop his aim, taking another step forward when Kolya takes one back, his stomach going cold as ice when Rodney's eyes roll up again, his hands stopping their desperate scramble at Kolya's arm. And then he watches Kolya's watch move, rising slowly off his wrist, moving with stunning deliberation up the man's sleeve, slow and careful.

Kolya must feel some of the shift of weight anyway, because he starts to look down and John yells, desperate to keep his attention now, "Let him go or I'm going to kill you."

The bastard laughs again, throwing his head back this time, stepping over some rubble. When he speaks he's openly mocking, "I have seen killers, and you are not one. It's not in you to pull that trigger." And John scowls, because if he wasn't terrified he'd hit Rodney, he would have already pulled it.

Kolya's watch is crawling across his shoulder on six legs, the glass popping off the face, metal moving around and shaping, stretching up in a way that reminds John suddenly and viscerally of a scorpion. John makes himself talk, "Really? And what about all the people behind me? None of them have it in them either?"

Kolya shrugs, and shakes Rodney, maybe for emphasis, maybe just because he's a bastard. And that's when the watch rears up, and lunges forward, stabbing into the man's neck, deep and vicious. Kolya screams, dropping Rodney and the gun, slapping his hands up to his neck, grabbing the watch and hurling it away, a trail of blood following it.

The man curses, kicks Rodney, hard enough to rip a scream from Rodney's throat, and then he's turning, running. John jerks forward, dropping to his knees beside Rodney, throwing the gun away like it's burning him. Rodney is coughing, huge wracking coughs, when John grabs him up, his throat angry red.

People are running past them, yelling as they chase the fleeing G.E.N.I.I. leader, but John couldn't care less. He pulls Rodney close, burying his face against Rodney's throat, shaking with fear and excess adrenaline. He feels dizzy, barely hearing himself babble against Rodney's skin, "Oh God, oh God, don't ever do that to me again, don't ever do that to me again, I thought—"

Rodney squirms around in his hold, his arms wrapping around John's back, his voice muffled against John's shoulder when he says, "It's okay, John, it's okay now, I'm okay." And John chokes on a laugh trying to be a sob, rocking Rodney back and forth, closing his teeth around Rodney's shirt and clenching his jaw and his eyes shut.

Then Rodney says, "Oh, oh, hey look," sounding awed and surprised.

John, wondering what horrible thing is happening now, looks up in time to watch Elizabeth run up to Ronon, jump into his arms, and crush their mouths together. Rodney starts laughing, high and sweet, and John joins him, unable to stop once he starts.

When John's father rushes up, wrapping his arms around both of them and holding them tight, John is still laughing, though it makes his throat hurt. When his mother shows up, pushing and shoving her way through the crowd, still dressed in her scrubs, John has trailed off, though his breath is still hitching. They sit there in the ruined hall, just holding on to each other.

John never wants to move again.

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Epilogue

John says, "We're going to be late," while ducking back into his room and trying to struggle into his suit jacket. He pauses at the sight of Rodney, still sitting on the side of the bed, elbows on his knees, head bowed forward, shirt open and unbuttoned. "Rodney, buddy, come on, we gotta get ready."

Rodney looks up, blinking slowly at John, and well, the nightmares had been bad, so bad for the last week, but John had hoped Rodney was getting some sleep. By the size of the dark circles under his eyes and the way that Rodney isn't quite focusing, it's looking like John was mistaken. Again. Rodney says, blinking again, "Huh?"

"Okay, here, stand up, okay?" Getting Rodney standing is not a problem, but keeping him upright is, especially because he seems to want to sway forward into John, looking sleepy in a big way. John finally manages to get him turned, pulling Rodney's back against his chest and reaching around him to hurriedly do up his buttons.

That makes his fingers brush against Rodney's warm skin, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it, and by the time John is done his palms are sweating and he's having trouble keeping his breathing steady. He says, flustered, "Stay here for a sec," stepping away to grab Rodney's jacket and then attempting to wrestle it onto Rodney's arms.

Luckily, Rodney had managed to get his pants and shoes on before he apparently ran out of energy. John does what he can to make sure the suit looks straight, and makes a flash decision not to include the tie. He says, "There, all ready. C'mon."

Rodney just blinks at him, and John smiles, affection welling up in his chest, bending and picking Rodney up. It's probably going to wrinkle his clothes, but he doesn't want to risk Rodney tripping and hurting himself on the way out to the car.

Rodney curls up against him automatically, snuggling against John's neck, his voice soft and sleepy, "I'm sorry he got away."

John pauses, craning his neck to try to look at Rodney's face. He can't manage it, and so he brushes a kiss to the top of Rodney's head instead, saying, "Don't worry about it. It wasn't your fault." John still doesn't understand how Kolya escaped, not with the amount of people swarming the area looking for him, but no one had found hide nor hair of him. "He's probably dead, anyway. I mean. He didn't show up in any of the hospitals and he was bleeding hard."

Rodney shrugs then, his nose pressing against John's neck, "I panicked. I didn't mean it. I was trying to get him in the windpipe and I missed." Rodney sounds eerily calm, and almost clinically detached. It reminds John of the fight, a bright flash of noise and light memories before he manages to force them down.

"I'm glad you did. You shouldn't—it's not your job to kill people like him, Rodney." John doesn't want Rodney to have to kill more people, and certainly not for him, not for his family. He knows that it bothers Rodney, can remember Rodney shaking in his arms, freaking out in the cemetery.

Rodney says nothing, and John isn't sure if that's disagreement or if Rodney has just fallen asleep. From downstairs his mother yells for them to hurry up again, and John steps sideways out the door, thundering down the stairs.

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They hold the service for those that died in the attack in a huge non-denominational church. All the newspapers are describing it different ways, but John can't help but thinking of it as a pre-funeral for the four cops and the three kids that had died.

It's too crowded when they get there, not late by some miracle, to try to find any of the others. They end up standing in the back of the room, Rodney leaning against him, his head on John's shoulder, John's parents on either side of them.

The service, what parts John can make himself pay attention to, is nice. John rubs his hand up and down Rodney's side. The other boy is managing to stay awake now, which is a relief. John isn't sure he'd have the heart to wake him.

John catches a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye as the service is winding to a close. John looks around automatically, tightening his arm around Rodney's waist, and curses, loud enough to make the woman in front of him turn and scowl at him.

John doesn't care, because he recognizes the profile of the tall man moving towards the door, with the stark white bandage against his neck. Rodney grabs him, making a soft, questioning sound. John pushes Rodney towards his father, applause erupting all around them, and Kolya pushes the doors open.

There are way too many people in front of John. He pushes one man against the back wall, grabbing a toddler and shoving it into a woman's arms. John still isn't making the kind of progress he needs to be. He scowls, pulling himself up onto the back of the pew in front of him, trying to balance on the thin edge and ending up falling back off.

By the time he finally makes it to the door, people streaming out around him, all dour and serious, Kolya is nowhere to be found. John grits his teeth, pounding the brick wall beside his head and wincing when the mortar cracks and one of the bricks shift.

Then John has to wrestle his way back in, against the crowd, trying to find Rodney.

::go to 'January Fifth' —>::

::back to index::


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