It feels like it's been longer than forty-six days since the last full moon.
The routine stands. John pilots a jumper to the mainland, setting it down in a glade that's an ocean away from the two Athosian settlements, and from the acres of crop fields set up by Earthers. Botanists with specialized degrees had turned into agriculturalists, working the arable land and figuring out how to maximize the harvest. No one had wanted to call themselves Lantean after what happened to Dr. Weir during trade negotiations on M9O.
He joins his team as they strip out of their civvies and wrap up in homespun blankets. Ronon divvies up all of the weapons, hiding them in the hollow spaces under the bench cushions, and then snapping padlocks into place. They'll never make the mistake of returning to the city unarmed again. Teyla dials Atlantis when they're almost ready to leave. John gives command over to Bates, crooking an eyebrow at Rodney when Bates tells them to have fun.
Outside, it's cool and breezy, and the last curls of orange and plum on the horizon are dissolving into the clear, dark sky of night. The moon's coming up fast. John can feel it.
Ronon turns a predatory grin on all of them, then drops his blanket at the foot of the jumper ramp and runs, naked, into the trees.
"Show off," Rodney mutters. He's fixing the last of the wiring for the outer button that John hopes they'll never have to press. It's a just in case thing, hooked up so that just in case something unexpected happens, it can be pressed with a nose or a paw, headbutted or flopped on. Bates had doubted that the button would work – "You said it yourself, Major, you're incapable of rational thought" – and then Teyla solved the problem with the idea of scent-marking.
Even if John can't call the button by name, it still smells like Bates and Atlantis, like a place he knows he belongs, where the rest of his pack lives, and he's sworn to protect them, no matter how much he'd like to stay four-legged instead of two.
They've tested it to good results. The rear door opens, they tumble inside and then up against a matching button set at the base of the bulkhead doors that sends an alert to the city's control room. The hatch closes, as a precaution, in case they're fleeing from a fire, or a flood. So theoretically it's a good system – more than theoretically, since it's Rodney's design – but four wolves in the back of a jumper for a few hours? Yeah, pass. Which isn't to say that a chunk of their time isn't spent laid out and snoring, piled together in a heap of warmth and fur, but that's by choice. It's easy to imagine the mischief his team would get up to in the enclosed space, lacking opposable thumbs but possessing claws and sharp teeth.
They had tried to stay on Atlantis during a change, once, in one of the abandoned observation rooms. Ford and Ronon had clashed, tempers short, the frustration of being denied the hunt taken out on each other. Rodney paced the entire time, nose to the baseboards, traversing the perimeter of the room until it made John dizzy to watch. Teyla had taken it the worst, though, mewling and crying, sounding so broken that John had attacked the doors. He'd almost made it out. Bates and Beckett had stunned them all, and losing days to sedation had messed up their heads. "Never again," John had sworn.
Rodney tucks away the last of his tools and hides the bag in the cranny by the door. "We're good," he says, and they move out of the way as the ramp closes up.
John scans the field. Ronon's long gone; they'll catch up with him later, and he'll have blood on his breath. Teyla's standing out in the open, hips moving side to side as she sways, staring up at the sky. As though she feels his gaze upon her, she half-turns, arching a knowing look over her shoulder at the pair of them, and then looks up again, shaking her hair out, loosening her body.
Not long now, and John leans against Rodney, anticipation raising the hairs on his arms and legs and then rippling down his back.
"Is there anyplace in particular you want to go tonight?" Rodney asks, and it'll happen soon, because John's having trouble parsing the words.
John shakes his head. Soon there will be dirt under the pads of his feet. Soon he'll be able to see into the shadows. Soon there will be sniffs of rich loam and rotting leaves and terrified prey as he lopes along. He'll sight the tips of ears and tails peeking above the tall grass as they weave their way through it. Soon he'll be surrounded by the familiar smell of pack. Soon, soon.
He's always the first one to shift, from human to wolf and back again, and they don't know why. Maybe it has to do with the gene; maybe it's because he was the first one into the circle on P6K; maybe it's because he wants it so badly at first, but still knows when it's time to let go, until the next time. Ronon would probably never change back if John didn't smack his nose and pull his fur until exasperation wins out, and more often than not he'll shift with his teeth still firm around John's forearm.
John gets to have this for three days out of every forty-nine, to be wild, to run with his pack. There'll be wind against his cheeks, whisking through his ruff. Strength in his body and fire in his belly. Birds to snap his jaws at, spotted pigs to chase, trees to mark, bones to gnaw, flat rocks to sprawl out on, ones that were made for soaking up sunshine. Even Rodney likes to tussle in wolf-form; rough, meaningless growls spilling from his chest as they wrestle over a piece of hide. Then there are the sounds that his pack makes when they sing, ranging from joyful yips to songs of mourning, and it's as close to holy as John Sheppard's ever going to get, so he takes it, holds on with both hands.
He's shuddering now, bent double, with Rodney's hand pressing between his shoulder blades.
"You're okay, you're okay," Rodney's murmuring, and John lets the blanket fall away, kneeling down, arching back against Rodney's hand.
Lifting his head, John catches Teyla's eye because this is one of her favorite parts. It's not that she likes to see him in pain. It's that she's usually the last to shift, and she'll sit by the river until she does. She likes to walk through the woods with two wolves running laps around her, acting the part of sentries and barking to announce her. Sometimes Rodney wanders off, but John stays, waiting, and she'll croon to him and scratch behind his ears until his eyelids dip low with satisfaction.
He has no idea what they look like as wolves, knows only what they smell like, how their bodies feel pushed up against his, and what their fur tastes like under his tongue. He knows how they sound when they sleep: Rodney's gusty sighs, Teyla's delicate snores, and Ronon's staggered breaths interspersed with whimpers, his feet scrabbling as he runs.
After the mission on P6K, John had typed up his AAR with the unvarnished truth, because the only place the reports go is into files on the intranet. It's not something he wants kept a secret. They'd tried to, at first, but then Ford had gotten stuck changing back. Beckett said it was because of his genes, he wasn't native and the ATA treatment hadn't worked. Ford was John's pack, and he was John's responsibility.
He hadn't known what to expect when he'd limped back to the team's common room. They'd tackled him, held him down, and he thought they were angry until they rubbed their faces against his jaw, hands clutching at his clothes, and he admitted that he wanted their touch. He needed their forgiveness.
The first burst of pain is always a surprise, but he sinks into it, letting it center him.
John's ready to run. Soonsoonsoon - now.