Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest—
Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Caged Skylark
Rodney and Ronon are arguing over whether the scars from Rodney’s highschool chemistry lab should count as battle scars—Rodney asserting quite loudly that he’d spent the year fighting the idiocies of his so-called ‘teacher’, and trying to keep from being blown up by his pothead classmates. Ronon seems bemused but refuses to concede the point. Teyla had early on made a few attempts to smooth things over, but is now simply pretending not to laugh at them, skin crinkled at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth, luminous in the firelight.
In a few minutes, John will step in and distract Rodney with his own scars and the story of when he’d stabbed himself in the foot with a pitchfork and of the time he’d ripped open his arm trying to climb down a plum tree one-handed while cradling a basket of fruit. He has other scars, real ones with too much history behind them, scars that don’t look like scars, but they have no place here.
For now, John sits quietly, with nothing to guard his back except the empty night, and watches the way Rodney’s hands move and how Ronon has (marvel of marvels!) momentarily forgotten that they’re on an unfamiliar planet. He would be cold, but the fire gives off enough heat that he can ignore the chill breeze trickling down between his shoulder blades.
Above him, the sky spreads black and clear and impossibly deep, with nothing to hem it in, full of stars and flying sparks from the fire.
In the city, where he had an apartment—or rather, where Deb had an apartment—the sky never reached anything darker than a grim twilight, too clogged with skyscrapers and streetlights to even approach true night.
He only really noticed this when he was back home on his first leave, sand still stuck in the treads of his boots, feeling rubbed raw by the desert in more ways than he could ever express. In comparison to the endless, sun-blasted expanse of sand, the city seemed shut in, hazy and not quite real—despite the unmistakable patina of time and use that coated everything. But it held Deb and was therefore home, and so he would forgive it anything.
Deb had wanted to have it done as soon as he got back on his first leave, and he’d been both too exhausted and too thrilled at seeing her again to protest. After all, while she was the one who had thought of it, researched it, and scrounged up the money to pay for it, the whole thing was actually for him. To complain about being jet-lagged seemed rather unappreciative.
So he walked the emptying streets with her at twilight, hobbled by fatigue and feeling nearly claustrophobic in the face of all the buildings. It was almost a relief to step inside the tattoo parlor, despite its shuttered windows and dim lights and faint aura of defiance.
While Deb bargained, begged, and bribed, he studied the designs covering the walls, and tried to ignore the odd blend of eagerness and anxiety that seemed to pervade the room. He wasn’t nervous—the actual pain of the procedure couldn’t be any worse than the ribbing he’d receive from his fellow pilots should they notice what he was about to have done. But for Deb, he was willing even to ignore the superstition that said the way to guarantee a crash was to plan for one. She had decided to give him wings, and he’d never once considered refusing the gift.
The needle stung like he’d always imagined a scorpion might, and that was exacerbated by the magic being bound into ink and skin, but he closed his eyes and focused only on how Deb’s fingers were digging into his wrist. When it was done and he looked up again, she was staring at him, looking oddly possessive. But she smiled when he said her name and later laughed at the stories he told of camp life, so he told himself he’d imagined it, and simply enjoyed his remaining time with her.
And when the bandages came off one night, a little while before he had to go back, she laid her fingers across his back as though hoping to catch at feathers instead of skin.
Ronon’s wound Rodney up into near-incoherence, so John decides to step in before something—or someone—explodes.
“You know, I think Ronon’s right,” he drawls, knowing it will irritate Rodney into a momentary, spluttering silence. And when it does, he begins unlacing his left boot. “A little acid burn isn’t particularly impressive. You need something more like this.” He pulls off the boot and accompanying sock, ignoring Rodney’s accusation of smelly feet (which is a scurrilous lie, and will be payed for, later), and arches his foot to display four puckered scars, two on top, two on bottom. “That’s from when I stuck myself with a pitchfork.”
“A pitchfork?” John can’t help but grin at the incredulous note in Rodney’s voice.
“Spent most of my summers helping out on my grandfather’s farm.” For some reason they’re all staring at him with as much disbelief as if he’d just announced that he’s the Lord High Executioner, so he shrugs and pulls his boot back on. Just for that, he won’t show them the scar from when he’d been bitten by an ill-tempered horse. Pity, because it’s pretty spectacular.
He’s got plenty of others to share, though.
Once he’d returned to base, it was as if nothing had changed. He ate the same crappy food, flew the same sort of flights across the same pieces of desert, had the same good-natured arguments with his buddies, got the same chatty, oddly impersonal letters from Deb. At times it seemed the he’d only imagined the wings, only dreamed what had been done to his skin. The one time he found a feather in his bed, he told himself to stop being silly, but shoved it in a pocket anyway.
Three weeks before John’s next leave, his engine died while he was a long way up and an even longer way off from base camp, and when he jumped, there was a long, heart-stopping moment where his parachute failed to open. Then there was an explosion of feathers and John suddenly had wings for as long as he needed them, and it turned out Deb’s time and money had been well spent after all.
The memory of wind rushing past his face was almost worth the broken arm and twisted ankle he got during his clumsy landing, and the subsequent long, painful, sunburnt trek across the desert scrub.
Almost, but not quite.
When he finally made it back to camp, they wrapped his ankle, splinted his arm, slapped some lotion on the sunburn, and sent him home with two weeks leave and the option of an honorable discharge. Never once did he consider accepting it, not until he was back in Deb’s—their—apartment, Deb’s fingers folded around his, a lack of understanding in her eyes.
“But this means you can stay, right? You’re done?” And it was a demand for him to confirm something she was already sure of.
He thought of it, of leaving the endless skies and finding some other job somewhere, settling down to the kind of life it seemed Deb wanted. If it would make her happy, he could trade in the thrill of jet engines and planes that could do nearly anything—perhaps become a flight instructor. It wouldn’t be the same, would be limited in ways Deb could never fathom, but it would suffice. As long as he had Deb and some small piece of the sky, he could be happy.
But that wasn’t what she meant. When she said “done”, she meant done with flying, not just the military. And when he stared at her, stunned, unable to image such a life, she jerked away from him as if he’d struck her—accused him of never considering how terrified she was of him crashing, of losing him to his foolish obsession with flight. Why did he think she’d made him get those wings? It had been the only way she’d been able to get any sleep at night.
Well, he’d thought she’d done it because she loved him, wanted him to be safe, not because she was suffering from insomnia. Apparently he’d been wrong. And just who was she calling obsessed, anyhow? At least he didn’t make himself miserable worrying about things that were statistically highly unlikely to happen.
He ended up locked out of the apartment he helped pay for, duffle bag at his feet, Deb’s wedding ring square in the palm of his hand, ears ringing with the promise of divorce papers.
If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn he was still in freefall.
The next day, while they’re tramping through forest in search of the source of a power signal Rodney swears is in this direction, John gets a load of the local equivalent of itching powder down his back.
Twelve seconds later, pack, vest, and shirt are in a pile at his feet, and he’s trying to convince himself that ripping the skin off his back is a bad idea. Everyone stares at him as if he’s mad until he manages to grit out an explanation, at which point both Rodney and Ronon start sniggering.
Teyla, on the other hand, perhaps noticing how he’s practically shaking with the effort of controlling himself, gets out canteen and cloth. When she begins wiping off his back, the relief is almost instantaneous, and he can almost forgive the other two for laughing.
Almost, but not quite.
They return to the gate after John points out that he’s pretty much a sitting duck with his hands full of the now-contaminated pack, shirt, and vest. And with a bit of prodding, Rodney admits that it’s a pretty weak power signal, anyway, so John doesn’t feel particularly guilty for calling the mission off a bit early. Although he does feel pretty silly without a shirt on.
By the time they reach the gate, Rodney and Ronon have resumed their argument from the night before, and appear to have forgotten that anything’s out of the ordinary, walking through the gate without a single glance at John. John, on the other hand, is more aware of his state of undress than he’d thought was possible, and ends up standing motionless before the gate for a long moment. He knows that if he hesitates any longer, the people in the gate room will assume something’s gone wrong, but he can’t help it.
He carries more history on his back than he’s willing to share—not just the wings Deb had once sought to cage him with, but those are the most likely to catch someone’s eye. It seems a minor miracle that none of his teammates have noticed them yet.
“Is something wrong, John?” He shakes his head in silence, unable to admit to Teyla his ridiculous fears. “I am sure Doctor McKay has already told everyone of your misfortune. There seems little point in delaying any further.”
“True,” he acknowledges, and forces himself to take a step toward the gate. And he would have taken another and been back in Atlantis, if Teyla hadn’t touched his shoulder.
“John— ” It is Teyla’s turn to hesitate. “I do not wish to embarrass you, but while we’re here, alone—” She places a finger on his naked shoulder blade, where he still feels the memory of feathers sometimes. “These tattoos are beautiful. Do they have any particular meaning?”
He thinks of Deb, and her clutching fingers, and then thinks of Teyla and of the city and people that lie on the other end of the gate, and shakes his head again.
“No. They don’t mean anything.”