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No Rest At All In Freedom

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Incubation

by pandionpandeus

There's no mercy in a live wire
No rest at all in freedom
Of the choices we are given it's no choice at all

Let Him Fly -- Patty Griffin

 

"God, this galaxy," Rodney muttered as he sank into the copilot's seat. He was tired and angry and maybe a little scared, and it made him even more tactless than usual. "Why the hell did we even come back here?"

"Doc," Lorne said, after shooting an apologetic glance over his shoulder at Teyla and Ronon.

"S'okay," Ronon said. "We're used to it."

"Huh? Oh, sorry, sorry." Rodney took a deep breath. "It's just...I can't believe I was bored back on Earth."

"You did mention it a time or two," Teyla said. Before Rodney could apologize again, she leaned forward and rested a hand on his shoulder. "We understand, Rodney."

"We'll find him, Doc."

You don't know that! Rodney wanted to yell. Lorne was an okay guy and fairly good to have around in a crisis, but Rodney would rather not have the crisis at all, thank you very much. Plus, that whole steady confidence thing sounded better coming from John.

Of course if John were here, it wouldn't need saying.

John had been missing for three weeks now, and Rodney did his best not to think about the things John had told him after John's trip to the distant future. This isn't then. We won't go to pieces without him; we're better equipped and staffed and Woolsey's on our side and....

And maybe they'd find him. Rodney stared hard at the ugly, cobbled together improvements he'd made to Jumper One's sensor systems and tried to feel confident.

Yeah, that's me. Super confident.

So far today, they'd spent over twelve hours scanning over a half a dozen planets that might be close to M95-305. It wasn't ideal, but until an actual ship came out from Earth, it was the best they could do. Once again Rodney cursed the circumstances--the Hammond and the Apollo were out in the far reaches of the Milky Way, and the Daedalus' engines were in the middle of an major overhaul. The SGC had promised to send the Apollo as soon as possible, but the soonest would be another three weeks. Rodney wasn't sure John had another three weeks.

This trip had turned out to be a bust. They hadn't found anything, and Rodney wasn't sure his sensor improvement even worked, that it would find John's transmitter. Actually, it was looking for both transmitters: the one too many people know about, and the other one, the real one.

After they debriefed Woolsey, Rodney sat by himself in the mess hall, eating because he had to and not because he was hungry. It was late, and after he finished--whatever it was he had for dinner--he knew he should head to his room and sleep. But while he could force himself to eat even when he didn't feel hungry, he wasn't so good at forcing himself to sleep. So he headed to the jumper bay instead, planning on checking on the sensor upgrade one more time.

"I thought I'd find you here."

Rodney almost banged his head on the console he was lying under. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

"I'm sorry," Jennifer said. "You should get some sleep."

"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen."

"Rodney," she began.

"Jennifer...just don't, okay? I can't take any more empty encouragement."

"I know. I was going to ask if you really think you can do anything more to that." She nodded at the console. "Or are you just going to screw it up because you're too tired and upset to know what you're doing?"

Rodney opened his mouth to argue with her and then shut it again, his shoulders slumping. "Can you be less perceptive, please?"

"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen."

Rodney couldn't help chuckling. He'd never been fond of the whole "we can still be friends" thing, but he had to admit that they got along better now than they had when they were dating.

"I can give you something," she said. "Something mild," she added when he glared at her. "Just enough to maybe slow the hamster wheel in your head down a little."

"You know I'm not going to take you up on that."

"I had to offer." She paused and gave him a serious look. "Rodney, don't make me ground you."

She would do it, too. Unlike Carson, who Rodney had been able to talk into all kinds of things, Jennifer was a hard-ass. "No stims?"

"Ha ha," she said, crossing her arms across her chest. "You know, it's weird how you want speed but won't let me give you something to help you sleep."

"Not really. Speed helps me work and downers make me feel stupid." He had to pause and yawn. "Fine, you win."

"Don't sit up with your tablet," she said when they reached his door a few minutes later. "I mean it. Even if you can't sleep, just lie there and listen to music or something."

"Okay, okay," Rodney muttered. "And...um, thanks."

Knowing Jennifer was right didn't make it any easier to settle down in bed without his tablet. Rodney had to tell himself more than once that there was absolutely nothing he could do from here and that even catching up on his journal reading would be a bad thing. With a sigh, he rolled to the other side of the bed and poked at the iPod sitting in its dock on top of the nightstand. Turning the lights down, Rodney lay in the dark and listened to Johnny Cash, eventually falling asleep to "When I'm Gray."

* * *

They went out four more times in the next week and found nothing. Each time, Rodney felt just a little more desperate, and by their fifth attempt, he was a wreck. He was long past snapping and bitching at people; now he just stared at the sensor array for hours, uncharacteristically silent. He ate when Ronon or Teyla put power bars or MREs in front of him, but he didn't taste it.

They were running out of time; Woolsey was already talking about scaling back the search efforts until the Apollo arrived, and the fact that Rodney understood why didn't make it any easier to accept. Even as he mentally marshaled his arguments, he could imagine Woolsey knocking them down again until Rodney was left with the only one that mattered.

If anyone else was lost, John wouldn't leave them behind.

"Rodney," Teyla said softly. "It has been twelve hours...."

"No," Rodney said flatly.

"Doc," Lorne began.

"Exhausted Marines aren't going to be much help when we find him," Ronon said.

Frowning, Rodney looked at Ronon and then back at the closed hatch. He was pretty sure Sergeant Lee's team would argue that fact with Ronon, and he was just about to say so when his console pinged. Rodney turned back to the panel so fast he damn near gave himself whiplash.

"Okay, no," he muttered, checking the readings carefully. "Calm down...might just be a blip...."

Then it pinged again, a different noise, and he brought up the HUD.

"Is that...." Teyla began, looking at the two points of light on the screen--blue and green, they overlapped one another.

"I think," Rodney said. "Gimme a minute...." A few more adjustments and he had coordinates. "Okay, obviously they haven't been removed or we wouldn't get a signal. That's the good news."

"And the bad news?" Lorne asked, looking at the display. "Oh, right, never mind."

"It's not necessarily bad news; we're just too far away to get life-signs. He's there," he added, hoping he sounded as sure of himself as John would in this situation.

"How far away?" Ronon asked.

"Another hour, maybe an hour and a half," Rodney said, as the HUD lit up and showed a path to a planet they couldn't see yet.

"Mind flying for a while, Doc? I should talk to the guys."

Lorne left the hatch open so Teyla and Ronon could be involved in the discussion. Rodney didn't pay much attention; they had no idea what things would be like on the ground once they got to the planet, and he was bad enough in these situations without worrying about it in advance. Not to mention that this was really the military equivalent of make-work. Turning his attention to the controls, he had to smile a little wryly; Lorne having him drive was make-work too.

If Rodney had thought their earlier searches had been grueling, this was absolutely horrible. The jumper could only go so fast, and that wasn't nearly fast enough for Rodney. Or for anyone else, he reminded himself. Lorne had left the hatch open, and when Rodney looked back he could see Lee and her squad doing all the carefully casual stuff soldiers always did before a fight.

In fact, Rodney thought with a faint grimace, an observer who didn't know any of them would think that Rodney was the only one who was nervous. He could tell, though; Teyla was breathing extremely evenly and Ronon's hand was resting lightly on the butt of his gun. Even Lorne's fingers were tight on the controls of the jumper and he was staring intently at his sensors.

Probably wishing the same thing I am: that this thing would go faster.

Rodney closed his eyes and tried to steady his own breathing, but all he could remember was watching, helpless, as John's captors dragged him through the gate. Damn the fucking gene, he thought, not for the first time. If people weren't kidnapping Rodney for the sake of his brain and engineering abilities, they were grabbing John because he just happened to turn something on or light something up.

This time it had been the latter. The Esnarians of M95-305 had been friendly enough when the team had first met them. They'd been interested in trading, but just wary enough not to trip anyone's paranoia. But when the team had entered the town hall to begin negotiations, a bell had sounded and John had been bathed in green light from above. So had Rodney, but John's light was stronger, and no one seemed to want to grab Rodney.

Well, no one had wanted to kidnap him. Grabbing him, on the other hand....

He and the rest of the team had been restrained as soon as it became obvious that the Esnarians were planning on keeping John. Disarmed and bound, Rodney, Ronon and Teyla had been unable to do anything but watch as several heavily armed Esnarians dialed the gate and took John through it. After that, they apparently had no use for the rest of the team. Keeping them under heavy guard, they'd let Rodney dial the gate and had even thrown their weapons through the wormhole before letting the team go. Rodney would have traded them all, even Ronon's awesome gun, for John.

He'll be alive. He has to be.

"There," Lorne said, his voice sounding loud in the enclosed space of the jumper. "There's the planet."

Rodney leaned forward and started trying to pinpoint John's location. He could manipulate the sensors with his mind, as could Lorne, but even after six years spent working with Ancient technology, he still preferred to use actual physical controls for some things. "Okay, stop," he said. "Go into geosynchronous orbit; we're right above his location."

Behind him, Ronon leaned forward, staring at the HUD. "Why are his transmitter signals faint like that? The other life signs are brighter."

"I'm not," Rodney began, fingers already busy as he tried to pinpoint John's position. "Oh, okay."

"Doc?"

"He's underground," Rodney said. "See?" The HUD rotated the section of the planet they were above by ninety degrees. Rodney pointed to a clump of yellow life signs. "These life signs are all on the surface of the planet. Sheppard's transmitters are linked to this life sign." He made it glow pure white. "It looks like he's pretty far beneath the surface."

"Easy for the Daedalus," Lorne said. "For us, not so much."

"Can you determine how many life signs there are on the surface?" Teyla asked.

"Hang on...damn. Looks like there are at least 25 of them right on top of him; it's hard to tell."

"We need to get closer," Lorne said. "See what kind of terrain we're looking at."

"At least it's night," Ronon said. "That's something."

Rodney opened his mouth to snap at Ronon for pointing out the obvious, but then thought better of it; they were all on edge, and being a dick wouldn't help John. Instead, he manned the sensors as Lorne maneuvered the jumper down until they were hovering over a big stone building.

"I think you can land it on the roof," he said. "It doesn't look like there's any...no, wait, there's tech here, but it's not in the building."

"Can I land it or not?" Lorne looked annoyed.

"Sorry," Rodney said. "There are energy readings, but they're down where Sheppard is, not in this building. The nearest life sign is at least two floors down, and there's nothing that can detect us."

Lorne set the jumper down so lightly Rodney barely felt it. Behind him, he heard movement: Sergeant Lee was standing between Ronon and Teyla's seats looking at the HUD.

"Okay," Lorne said. "What are we looking at?"

Rodney split the display, leaving the top down view of the building on the right and pulling up a sideways view on the left.

"The building has five floors." He tapping a few buttons and numbers appeared on each floor. "The fifth floor, right below us, is made up of a bunch of small rooms off a central corridor. None of the rooms show any energy signatures or life signs. There's a staircase to the fourth floor here, but it's pretty narrow. I'm guessing this is storage space, maybe like an attic."

"Is there a way down from the roof to the fifth floor?" Lee asked.

"Yeah, here," Rodney said. "It's like the fifth floor staircase, steep and narrow. Moving right along...

"The fourth floor has bigger rooms and a wider hall but it's pretty much the same setup; a bunch of rooms and a corridor. There are a few small energy signatures, probably low tech lighting of some kind, and there are two life signs, here, in a room near the end of one corridor." Two red dots came up on the HUD.

"There's a staircase here, too, it's wider; two people could walk down it abreast." The staircase appeared on the schematic of the building, and Rodney leaned forward to tap the third floor.

"Floor three is where it gets tricky. There are two intersecting corridors here as well, but there are only four big rooms. Two of those rooms have large concentrations of life signs." He adjusted the top down view until it was showing the third floor. "Here," a bunch of red dots appeared in one room, "and here." More red dots appeared.

"Barracks," Lorne said.

"Yeah," Lee said. "Too bad we can't tell if they're asleep or awake."

"Can you make it bigger?" Ronon asked. When Rodney did, Ronon leaned forward and looked at the screen. "I'm guessing asleep. Look how evenly they're spaced out here...like they're in bunks. And they're not moving."

"Right," Lee said as Lorne nodded. "That makes it easier. Go in silent with stunners and we're good."

Rodney waited, but everyone looked at him again.

"Okay, floor two. Single corridor and several big rooms and five life signs. Three in this room right by the stairwell and two way over here at the end of the corridor." The life signs appeared on the HUD. "And now, floor one. It has one big room with a smaller room behind that, and an even smaller one behind that. At a guess, this is a mess hall or assembly room; the second room is a kitchen with a pantry or storeroom behind that. There's a big set of double doors leading to the outside from the main room, and then a much smaller door leading out the back.

"There are six life forms here. Two at the back door, one in that middle room, and then three at the main door. As you can see," he added as the life signs appeared on the display. "Everyone but the guy in that middle room is moving."

"And the Colonel?"

"There's a switchback staircase that starts in the main room," Rodney said, marking it in blue. "It goes down for the equivalent of three of the building's floors, and then there's a big space with some really confusing energy readings. I have no idea what I'm looking at here, but it's definitely much more complicated and more high-tech than anything in the rest of the building. And Sheppard?" A bright white dot appeared. "Is in the middle of all that."

Done, he took a deep breath and leaned back.

"Okay," Sergeant Lee said, looking at Lorne. "Major, do we want to question these guys? Or just go in and extract the Colonel?"

"They took him for his gene," Ronon said. "We already know that."

"We do not know why they wanted the Colonel's gene, nor do we know if these are Esnarians or allies of theirs." Teyla frowned a little. "If there are other people on other planets looking for gene carriers, we should know."

"Yeah," Lorne said. "Mr. Woolsey made the same point." He turned to the HUD and brought up the schematic of the fourth floor. "These two here aren't in the barracks; they might be officers. If we're careful, we can get in and have a little chat with them without anyone else in the building knowing any better."

"Sounds good," Lee said. She looked at Rodney, holding out a tablet. "Can you load the schematics of each room on this for me, Doctor McKay?"

Rodney wanted to laugh. Lee seemed like a good enough sort for a Marine, but she'd come to them from the SGC when they returned to Pegasus and hadn't learned to call him "Doc" yet.

Once Lee had her tablet back, everyone except Rodney crowded into the back of the jumper. While Lee went over her plans, Rodney sat back in his seat and buried his face in his hands. He was tired, but more than that, he was scared. Over the years, he'd learned to roll with it, but carrying on while terrified was a lot easier when John was with him. It wasn't that he didn't trust Lorne and Lee and her people, but still: it wasn't the same. At least Ronon and Teyla were here.

He caught his name and leaned toward the hatch. "I missed that. Who's turn is it to Rodneysit?"

Lee looked a little shocked, but Teyla just smiled at him. "I will be with you, Rodney."

"I feel better already," he said, and it wasn't just a joke.

And then the Marines were grabbing weapons and night vision goggles and checking their ammo. Rodney checked that his tablet was secure on his back and his life signs detector was in the proper pocket on his vest before pulling his 9mil out and checking the magazine. On a mission like this, he wouldn't bother with a P-90, although it made him feel safer to see Teyla clipping hers to the front of her vest.

"Ready?" Lee murmured. There was a rumble of assent from everyone, and she keyed the back hatch open.

It was cold outside and there was a brisk breeze. After being stuck in a jumper with twelve other people for twelve hours, the chill air felt good and refreshing. It was almost as good as a cup of coffee for clearing the cobwebs out of his head. Drawing his gun, he followed after the main group, Teyla at his side keeping one hand on her arm to guide him. As much as he hated not being able to see, he couldn't use either his tablet or any of his other equipment while wearing night vision goggles.

The trap door at the top of the staircase was locked, a big primitive lock that one of the Marines was able to pick without any real effort. And then they were going down the staircase, which was a lot narrower and steeper than Rodney had imagined. At least, he thought as he carefully made his way down, there were handrails.

Once they reached the fifth floor and the Marines had ascertained that it was empty, there was a pause while one of the Marines--Mendez, Rodney remembered; he'd taken the gene therapy--checked a life signs detector. Doing his best to hide it, Rodney checked his as well. It wasn't that he didn't trust Mendez...no, actually, he didn't trust anyone other than himself to operate Ancient tech when so much depended on it.

Well, maybe John.

Once they'd reached the fourth floor, things got better. As Rodney had guessed, there was some lighting--what looked like oil lamps set in mirrored niches in the walls. Around him, people started removing their night vision goggles. Mendez checked his life signs detector and then pointed down the hall to where Rodney had seen the first life signs. From what Rodney could tell from his own detector, the people hadn't moved out of the room. He hoped they'd stay that way.

As always when he was on missions like this, Rodney was sure he was making more noise walking than everyone else put together. He had no idea how someone like Ronon or Mendez--who had to have something like twenty pounds on Ronon--could move so quietly. At least Rodney had gotten a little better with practice; no one was glaring over their shoulders at him. Still, he was glad to see that the five life signs down on the third floor weren't moving. Maybe he hadn't been as loud as he thought.

While Ronon and one of the Marines positioned themselves on either side of the occupied room, Rodney waited out in the hall with everyone else. He was just thinking how they'd lucked out because the room was as far from the stairwell as you could get, when Ronon and the Marine went through the doors. The last thing Rodney excepted to hear was high pitched squealing; judging by what he could see of people's faces in the light that came out of the room, he wasn't the only one who was totally surprised.

A second later, everything was quiet and they all waited for a long moment, Rodney and Mendez's eyes glued to their life signs detectors. No one in the floors below stirred, and Rodney breathed a sigh of relief. Lee and Lorne stepped into the room, and Rodney could hear the low murmur of voices before Lorne stepped out a few minutes later.

"Well, that was weird," he said very quietly. "Looks like a couple of soldiers came up here to, um...get some privacy."

"Do they know anything about...?" Rodney began.

"No," Lorne interrupted. "They say they don't and I don't think they're lying; they're just low level foot soldiers. We were right about the third floor being barracks. Those girls said everyone was asleep when they snuck out."

"Two girls?" Rodney stared at Lorne. "When did this mission turn into a porno?"

"Doc," Lorne muttered, and Teyla hit Rodney on the back of his head.

"Sorry, sorry," Rodney muttered. "Nerves...." He glanced back at the doors to the room. "So what are we going to do with them?"

As if in answer to his question, he heard the faint whine of Ronon's gun, and then everyone backed out of the room. Lee shut the door and stepped over to Lorne. "Okay, they'll be out for a while." She looked around and then gestured to the staircase.

"Stunners only on the third floor, Ladies and Gentlemen," she said, her voice low. "Keep it quick and keep it quiet."

No one had given Rodney a stunner, so he slid his gun back into its holster, his hand lingering on it. Part of him, the really nasty, vindictive part that bothered even him sometimes, wanted to protest leaving the two soldiers alive. Whether they knew about John or not, they were part of the force holding him captive. Gritting his teeth, he pulled his hand away and turned to follow everyone else down the stairs.

From Rodney's place in the hallway, the sound of the Marines stunning the soldiers in the barracks sounded like thunder, like a whole army was attacking. Gripping his life signs detector until his knuckles were white, he stared at it, his eyes fixed on the dots right below him. If anyone was going to hear them, it would be the three people in the room by the stairwell. Next to him, Teyla watched the life signs detector as well.

Amazingly, the life signs hadn't moved when the Marines, Lorne and Ronon rejoined Rodney and Teyla. "Everything okay?" Rodney asked, as quietly as he could.

"Went off like clockwork," Lee said.

"Too bad." Ronon scowled. "These assholes have had Sheppard for weeks and all we're doing is stunning them."

"No kidding," Rodney muttered. To his surprise, Lee looked at him, clearly shocked, and he couldn't help wonder how long she'd been with the SGC. Even if she didn't know about John and Rodney--and to be fair, DADT or not, they were still pretty discreet--she should know about the bonds formed between gate teams. Apparently her world was still divided into civilians and soldiers.

Oh, well, Rodney thought with a mental shrug. She'll figure it out.

"How do you want to handle the next floor?" Lorne asked. "Eventually we're going to have to stop stunning people and get some answers."

"Yes, sir." Lee turned to Rodney." Are the life signs on the next floor still in the same place?"

"Yeah," Rodney said, tilting his life signs detector so she could see it.

"Okay," Lee said. "Hooper and Griffith, as soon as we're down the stairs, I want you to go deal with the two at the end of the hall. Don't stun them, just keep them quiet."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Hopefully we'll be able to talk to these other guys without them making a fuss, but in case we don't, Mendez, you and Rolch take the top of the stairs." As Mendez nodded, Lee continued. "Everyone else, with me."

As they made their way down the stairs, Rodney couldn't help worrying--things had gone way too well. He'd never met any group of people more superstitious than soldiers, so he wasn't about to say anything, but he was still sure that this was going to blow up in their faces any minute now.

Instead, it continued to go perfectly smoothly. They all pushed into what looked like an office or library, startling the hell out of three people sitting around a table. "Don't make a sound," Lee snapped, her P90 trained on the guy with the most red braid on his black uniform. He seemed to think about saying something, but then looked at all the weapons trained on him and nodded instead.

Lee looked over at Lorne. "All yours, sir."

"You know why we're here, don't you?" Lorne asked quietly. The guy stared back at Lorne for a long moment and there was something off about his expression, as if he was more confused than scared or angry.

"The man asked you a question," Ronon said. He'd been standing on one side of the room with Teyla and Rodney, but now he took a step forward. "You're going to answer it eventually. How many fingers you have left after is up to you."

"But," the man said, looking at his two companions and then back at Lorne. "But...he's The One."

Rodney resisted the urge to sigh. Of course he is. He's always The One in fucking capital letters. I'm gonna give him so much shit about this....

"He's our commander," Lorne said. "Which kind of makes him our One. And we want him back."

"You can't take him back. He's...." The guy trailed off, that same look of incomprehension on his face. "You can't."

"Religious fanatic, maybe?" Rodney whispered to Teyla.

"I believe so," she said. Stepping forward, she addressed the man. "What do you mean by The One?"

"You were there. You saw the light and heard the bell."

"Yes, but we are not from your world. We do not understand."

"It is said that the One will user in a new Era. One of peace and prosperity, where all are safe and no one needs to be afraid." He gestured to a book lectern that had a big, elaborate looking book chained to it. "It is written that as The One is changed, so shall He change the universe."

"Changed?" Rodney blurted out. "What the fuck have you done to him?" He tried to push past Teyla, but she put a hand on his arm.

"He is changed," the man said. "If you are his friends, you should be happy. As indeed, all should be happy. We are at the beginning of a new Era."

Lorne looked over at Teyla. "I'm not sure we're going to get anywhere here."

"We do seem to be talking at cross-purposes, Major."

"Okay," Lorne said. "Will you take us to the Colonel, please?"

"Of course not! He has not revealed Himself yet!" As if he'd finally realized their intent, the guy stood up, hand on the hilt of the elaborate sword he was wearing. "You cannot...."

"Oh, watch us," Lee muttered. "Stunners, sir?"

"Yes, Sergeant."

Stunning the three guys took a second, and then Rodney was heading for the door. "McKay," Lorne said. "Wait."

"Wait? These assholes are...."

"Rodney," Teyla said. "We need a plan."

"Come up with one quick. They could have done anything to him."

"Yeah," Ronon said. "But getting our asses killed won't help him any."

"Fine. So what's the plan?"

The plan was actually pretty simple. Teyla slipped down the hall to check on Hooper and Griffin and their captives. After a few moments that seemed to last forever, she returned with the Marines.

"The two down the hall were two younger officers," she said. "We left them stunned because they knew nothing."

"All right," Lee said. "Let's take the ground floor. Try to use stunners, but be careful; we don't know if they have projectile weapons. And Doctor McKay? Please...."

"I know, I know," Rodney said. "Stay in the back."

"We'll get him back, sir," she said.

"We better," Rodney muttered.

Things got a little messy on the ground floor. The guards, it turned out, did have projectile weapons--crude firearms that weren't very accurate. Hooper took a bullet to his thigh, but that was the only Lantean casualty, and after a few confused moments of stunner bolts and P90 fire, the fight was over.

"You okay, Hoops?" Lee asked, crouching down next to Hooper.

"Yeah," he said as Griffin knelt next to him and started looking his leg over. "Hurts like a sonuvabitch but I'm pretty sure it's just muscle."

"Griffin, stay with him."

"Sarge," Hooper said. "I'm okay. The colonel might need Griff more than I do."

"Is he really all right?" Lee asked.

Griffin pulled his knife out and slit the leg of Hooper's pants before he checked the wound. It didn't look too bad to Rodney, and he couldn't help wondering when he'd gone from almost passing out when he saw blood to someone who could make an educated guess about an injury.

"It tore a bit of a hole in his leg," Griffin said, pulling a field bandage out of his kit. "He'll need stitches, but as long as he stays still until we can get him to the jumper, he'll be good."

"Rolch?"

"Sarge?"

"Stay with him." Lee turned to Rodney. "So, where's this stair?"

The trapdoor over the stair was locked, but Ronon's gun took care of the lock easily. Rodney wanted to be the first down the stairs, but he knew better; just because there were no life signs aside from John's down in the cellar or basement or whatever it was that was down there didn't mean it was safe.

The stair was narrow and the shaft it was cut into was small; Rodney concentrated on his life signs detector and fought to keep his claustrophobia at bay. As they went further down, the stone that made up the walls changed from the dark gray of the building above to light brown. The stone looked older and the stairs showed signs of wear. Trading his life signs detector for a scanner, Rodney checked the energy signatures from the room below. They were still unfamiliar; maybe once they got down there, he'd recognize the hardware. He hated dealing with new tech in tense situations.

Finally they reached the bottom of the stairs. "All clear," Lee said.

"Jesus Christ," someone muttered.

"Let me through," Rodney said, pushing past people.

The room was more like a cave than a building. It was filled with thick, ropy vines and several dead looking tree trunks, but Rodney hardly noticed anything. His attention was on a series of organic looking pods in the middle of the room. They were green and were supported by more of those ropy vines.

And there, in the front pod, was John, naked and curled up, floating in some kind of pale green liquid.

Changed, the guy upstairs had said. Rodney didn't even know what he'd expected, but this wasn't it. For a moment, he was frozen, taking in the sweep of the black wings floating just behind John in the pod. Changed.

"Is he...can we get him out of there?" Lorne asked. "He's breathing that stuff; do you think he can breathe air?"

Rodney was moving forward, scanner in hand, when the vines began to pull away from the pod, startling him so much he almost dropped the scanner. John started moving, slowly at first and then his hands were pressing against the inside of the pod with increasing urgency.

"We've got to get him," Rodney began, but the pod was already splitting. It peeled open like a banana--four sections detaching from the top--and the strange looking liquid drained out of it in a rush.

Without the support of the pod or the liquid, John sagged forward, and Rodney and Ronon almost collided as they both moved to support him. Ronon got there first, catching John just before he hit the ground.

"John?" Rodney said, as John coughed and gasped.

"'Scuse me, Doc." Griffin pushed past Rodney to thump down on his knees next to John and Ronon. Taking a shaky breath, Rodney stepped back and watched as Griffin wiped John face off with a field bandage and then reached down to take his pulse. "Colonel?"

"Huh?" John's voice was rough and when he coughed again, he sounded like a pneumonia patient. "Gah," he added, turning his head and spitting.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked. "You with us?"

"Think so." He pulled away from Ronon and sat on the damp ground. The wings spread behind him, stretching out and up as if he were getting ready to fly.

Tearing his gaze away from the wings, Rodney looked at John. He'd taken the field bandage from Griffin and was mopping his face with it, utterly unconcerned that he seemed to have acquired a set of black, leathery bat wings. Even as they fluttered behind him, he stretched his arms--both motions looked totally unconscious.

"John," Rodney said and then trailed off. He hated feeling so helpless, but he had absolutely no idea what to say here.

John turned and grinned at him. "Hey, Rodney. Knew you'd come for me."

"John," Rodney said again and this time the words just came out. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. They brought me here and then I just changed."

Rodney frowned. John sounded so casual, like he'd just gotten back from a beer run to the store.

"Colonel? Can you turn your head, please?" Griffin had pulled out his mini flashlight and now he used it to check John's eyes. "Sir, are you feeling dizzy? Unsteady? Confused?"

"Stoned?" John added. Griffin nodded. "Yeah, that one," John said.

"Anyone have a sample case on them?"

Rodney dug in one of his tac vest pockets and pulled an empty tube. Griffin took it and collected a sample of fluid from the bottom of the pod.

"We really should get him back to Atlantis," he said.

"My thoughts exactly," Lorne said. "I'll go up first and bring the jumper around to the front door while you guys get the colonel up the stairs."

"Stop off and get that book," Rodney said. "The big bible thing."

"Will do, Doc."

"Mendez, you're with the Major," Lee said.

"Has anyone seen my pants?"

"I will look for them, John," Teyla said as Mendez and Lorne started up the stairs.

Both Lee and Rodney helped Teyla search the room, but there was nothing except vines, tree trunks and pods. "No controls," Rodney said. "No power source, although I'm getting readings that indicate one. Below us, maybe."

As he looked around the room again, this time trying to find another trap door and staircase, Teyla dug into her pack. "We brought clothes for you," she said, handing John a pair of pants.

"Oh, hey, thanks!" John tried to get to his feet and stumbled a little until Ronon moved in and steadied him. "You too. You know, thanks."

"Sure," Ronon said, staring at the wings. They stretched and even flapped a little as John tried to stay on his feet, but when Ronon helped John into his pants, the wings moved out of his way.

As much as Rodney didn't want to acknowledge it, they were clearly a part of John.

"We're going to have to come back," he said to Teyla.

"You believe there are controls for the pods buried under us in addition to a power source?"

"Yeah. All this stuff looks organic, more like Wraith technology than Ancient, but there has to be some way to program those pods."

"Perhaps the book will give us a clue."

"Yeah, as long as we can read it." Rodney wasn't actually too worried about that; most Pegasus languages were derivatives of Ancient.

"Okay," Lee said, interrupting Rodney's train of thought. "If you're ready to go, Colonel?"

"Sure, sure." John waved a hand. "Carry on and all that stuff."

Getting John up the stairs wasn't as hard as Rodney had expected. For all that he was still loopy from whatever drugs had been in that stuff he'd been floating in, John was fairly steady on his feet. He kept his wings folded up against his back for the most part, although he managed to hit Ronon in the face at least twice by the time they made it up to the top of the stairs.

Lorne not only landed the jumper right outside the building, he'd also gotten Hooper settled in back. "You got the book?" Rodney asked him as everyone piled into the jumper.

"Yes, Doc, I got the book."

"Oh, hey, can I drive?"

"No," Rodney said. "That would be a really bad idea."

"You never let me have any fun. Well, I mean, you do but...."

"You may have my seat, John," Teyla said as Ronon hustled John into the jumper.

"Thanks, Teyla," Rodney murmured.

"Please, McKay," Lorne said once everyone was settled and the hatch between the front and rear of the jumper was closed. "Tell me there's a gate on this planet."

"Yup," John said. "Brought me through it...huh...what's going on?"

"Long story," Ronon said.

"Yeah, I guess...fuck, my head is killing me."

"I found the gate," Rodney said, feeding the coordinates into Loren's console. "Hang in there, John. We'll be home in a minute."

When John didn't answer, Rodney looked back at him. John was sitting on the edge of his seat, head buried in his hands. His wings were furled around him, and Rodney couldn't help staring. They gleamed dully in the low light and Rodney realized they weren't exactly smooth but slightly textured. There were hooks at the highest point of each wing, and each supporting bone ended in a sharp point. As much as they disturbed the fuck out of Rodney, he had to admit that they suited John in a weird, kind of horrible, way.

"We're in luck; they're not even guarding the gate." Lorne dialed Atlantis quickly. "Atlantis, this is Major Lorne. We've got the colonel, but he's...um, a little under the weather. We also have an injury."

"Understood, Major," Woolsey replied.

* * *

Dead tired and wrung out, Rodney still got to his feet when Jennifer came out into the main part of the infirmary. "Well?" he asked before Woolsey could say anything. Behind him, Ronon and Teyla and Lee waited as well.

"Private Hooper will be fine," she said. "I've dug the bullet out of him, stitched him up and he's resting comfortably." She paused and then took a deep breath.

"The colonel is sleeping; once the effects of the drugs in his system wore off, he all but passed out. He's fine," she added quickly. "But his body has been through a lot; he'll probably spend the next couple of days sleeping."

"And...?"

"The wings were not surgically attached. Somehow, he grew them; this was a change in his DNA."

"Like when he turned into a bug?" Ronon asked.

"To a certain extent. And before you ask--I can't reverse it. This is a much more complicated transformation than the colonel's experience with the retrovirus. He's essentially grown another set of limbs."

"Can they be amputated?"

Jennifer stared at Rodney. "He hasn't even talked about the wings, let alone asked me to remove them."

"That's not what I...."

"Doctor McKay," Woolsey began.

"Rodney," Teyla said at the same time.

"What?!"

"Rodney! Keep your voice down!" Jennifer's voice was sharp. "I know you're worried about him, but until we know more, all we can do is study the cause and wait for him to wake up."

"Speaking of the cause, Doctor Keller," Wolsey said. "I've turned the book Major Lorne brought back from M09-873 over to the linguists, with instructions to contact you if they find anything that might help the colonel."

"Thanks for doing my job for me," Rodney snapped, glaring at Woolsey.

"My apologies. Under the circumstances, I assumed you would prefer...."

"No, it's okay," Rodney said, waving off the apology. "Sorry, I just...."

"We are all tired," Teyla said, resting a hand on Rodney's arm.

"I was about to suggest that all of you get some sleep," Jennifer said. "II know how you guys are, so I'll let you sort out who stays and who sleeps. But then I want two of you in bed as soon as possible."

Rodney exchanged glances with Ronon and Teyla and then Teyla turned to Jennifer. "Perhaps we could all look in on John before Ronon and I return to our quarters."

"Of course." Jennifer led the way to the isolation rooms. "There's no medical reason to keep him isolated, but I thought he'd appreciate the privacy."

"Good call," Ronon said.

John was sleeping on his side, his wings folded tightly against his back. He was shirtless and the covers were only pulled up to his waist. If Rodney ignored the wings, John looked like he had any number of times when Rodney had sat next to him in the night, watching him sleep. But Rodney couldn't ignore the wings; they were there, clinging like malignant creatures to John's back.

"Let us know if he wakes up," Ronon said, clapping a hand on Rodney's back.

"Yeah, of course," Rodney said.

Before Teyla left, she reached up for Rodney's shoulders. When he lowered his forehead to touch hers, she murmured, "We found him, and that is a good thing."

"What she said." Jennifer watched Teyla leave and then turned to Rodney. "If I bring another bed in, will you try to sleep a little?"

"I guess." Rodney ran a hand through his hair. "Sorry about earlier."

"It's okay; I know you're worried about him."

"I know you've only started in on the research, but if we can figure out how to program those pods like the one we found him in, do you think we can reverse it?"

"Given that both you and he have had your DNA altered and recovered from it, I wouldn't rule it out. But...." She shook her head. "But you have to be prepared to accept that this is permanent."

"No," he said. "Not yet."

"Okay." She slid her arm around his waist and gave him a quick sideways hug. "Want me to have someone get you a sandwich?"

"Yeah, that'd be great."

He'd just had enough time to send off an email to the linguistics department, insisting that they send him a copy of everything they got from the book, when Marie came in with a tray. Behind her was an orderly; he wheeled a bed in and then ducked out again while Rodney was looking over the tray.

"No coffee?"

Marie gave him a look. "No coffee."

"You're all heartless around here."

"That's us."

"Yeah, well...thanks, Marie."

Rodney turned the lights in the isolation room as low as he could before starting in on his food. He was suddenly ravenous and, as he worked his way through a sandwich, some not-quite-carrots and a couple of nut butter cookies, he was kind of surprised he hadn't passed out halfway through the rescue effort. He remembered thinking that things were going too easily, and indeed they had, up to a point. He would have been fine with a much harder rescue if they'd found John unchanged.

"Stupid fucking religious wackjobs," he muttered. He supposed it wasn't surprising; with an enemy like the Wraith always hanging over your head, the hope that someone magical would come along and fix things was pretty powerful. And, of course, expecting that person to have a link to the Ancients also made some kind of sense.

But this....

Rodney glanced at the window and then reached out and rested a hand on John's ankle. "Why did it have to be you? I'm so fucking tired of the way the universe knocks you around. Can't things just go your way once in a while? Can't we get a fucking break?"

He supposed the months on Earth had been their break, but so much had happened in that time that, in spite of the three week vacation that taken in the middle of their stay, it hadn't felt like much of one. And anyway, Earth...felt weird now.

"If we'd stayed there, with the SGC," he began and then paused. They knew the risk. They'd always known the risk, John more than anyone. And yet, they'd come back here because....

Because we're meant to be on Atlantis, John had said, one night while they were on Earth. They'd been skiing all day and then, as they sat in the hot tub in their rented cabin, Rodney had bitched about Earth being too much to deal with. When John answered, Rodney had splashed him and told him to quit with the New Age crap, but John had been right.

Rodney stood up and, after another glance at the window, bent down and kissed John's forehead. "We'll fix this, I promise."

As he settled on the other bed, Rodney watched John and wondered if he could get used to it...to them. The wings. What about John? Could he deal with it if they couldn't reverse the process? Would he want them amputated? Just before he fell asleep, Rodney found himself wondering one more thing.

Could John fly now?

* * *

Rodney woke with a start at the sound of movement. The room was still dim, and he blinked his eyes before looking over at John's bed. John was sitting up, his wings spread a little so he wasn't sitting on them, and he was rubbing his eyes. Rodney had teased John about that before--he insisted that it made John look adorable--and now he let out a deep breath. He'd been so worried he wouldn't see John again, wouldn't be able to tease him with all the little in-jokes and half insults collected over the last six years.

"Hey," he said softly, trying to fight down a burst of retroactive panic.

John paused and looked over at Rodney. "Hey. You freaking out?"

"That's not the weird thing," Rodney said. He slid off his bed and walked over to John. After checking the window, he reached out and took John's hand, twining their fingers together. If John's eye rubbing was his cute thing, Rodney linking their hands together was Rodney's. John looked down at their hands and then smiled a little. "I freak out all the time. No, the weird thing is that you're not."

"I...." John shifted slightly, his wings adjusting automatically to his movement. "You know how you're not really aware of your arms unless someone mentions them? And how they're part of you, and you don't think about them?"

"So it didn't just give you the wings; it's like you've always had them." Rodney scowled and pulled his hand away from John's so he could pace a little. "It messed with your head."

"Yeah," John said. Something in his voice made Rodney look at him closely; John's eyes were narrowed and his lips thin.

"We're going back," Rodney said. "I'll find the controls to the pods and we can fix you. Or maybe the book...." He paused, as a sudden, kind of terrifying thought occurred to him. "Um...."

"What? What book are you talking about?"

"Do you have...I don't know, any thoughts about being some kind of religious savior?"

"What? No." John stared at him. "Is that what this is about?"

"Yeah. You're the One--capital O. You're supposed to usher in a new Era--capital E."

"Huh?" John stared off into the distance. "I don't even know what that means."

"Good. Hopefully it's harder to indoctrinate someone than it is to give them muscle memory."

"I hope so." John sighed. "There's a...what, a bible?"

"Yeah, the linguists have it right now." Rodney wasn't sure what else to say. How did you make conversation with--how did you reassure-- someone who might be brainwashed? "Um...are you hungry?"

John shook his head, smiling just a little. "Rodney?"

"What?"

"Don't ever change."

"I...yeah."

John held out a hand, and Rodney took it, letting John pull him in close. They stood there a little awkwardly, and then John slid off the bed. "Now that I think about it, I am kind of hungry. Also? I have to take a leak."

"I'll see if you can have a moment to eat before Jennifer and her trained vampires come in and start working you over."

"Hey," John said as Rodney opened the door. "Thanks."

"Well, yeah. It was my turn, after all."

* * *

Rodney wasn't surprised when Ronon asked him for a couple of John's black, long-sleeved shirts; he'd learned years ago that Ronon was surprisingly good with a needle. What Ronon came up with--something that looked a little like a halter top--covered John's chest and arms and went as high as possible on his back. He needed help buttoning the buttons in the back, but Rodney could tell he felt a little better now that he wasn't wandering around shirtless.

"At least we won't have people fainting in the halls at the sight of your manly chest," he said to John on their way to the conference room.

"Rodney," John said, rolling his eyes. "I don't think people are looking at my chest." His wings were pulled in tight against his back and his expression dared anyone to say anything.

It didn't keep people from welcoming John back, and Rodney noticed that the people who did have a hard time looking at John were new. John undoubtedly noticed it too, but all he did was nod.

"Colonel," Woolsey said. "Again, I'd like to welcome you back."

"Thanks," John said. He looked around the table and then smiled a little. "And thanks, whoever got me a decent chair." Someone had brought in an armless chair from the mess hall and now John turned it around and straddled it. As he settled in, his wings relaxed a little and some the tension went out of his shoulders.

"Doctor Keller?" Woolsey said, turning to look at her.

Jennifer didn't even bother looking down at her tablet. "I could list all the tests we've run in the last week, but the bottom line is...." She paused and glanced at John, who nodded.

"As I've already discussed with the colonel, there's nothing I can do here to reverse the process. As for amputation--in light of the alterations to his physiology, it's just not possible. I've written up a full report of the changes made to the colonel's body, but the short version is that he'd be completely unbalanced without the wings."

She sighed and fidgeted with her tablet. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do."

Even though he'd been expecting it, Rodney still brought his hand down hard on the table. "Nothing?"

"Didn't you hear me? Unless you have some medical tech hidden away, no. Nothing." She shot John an apologetic look and he shrugged.

"Not your fault."

"No, it's not." Woolsey turned to Rodney. "Doctor McKay?"

"Yeah, okay." Rodney took a deep breath. "The Book of the Bright Way turns out to be written in a dialect that's very close to Ancient, so we were able to create a quick and dirty translation program."

"We?" John asked, raising an eyebrow.

"All right, fine," Rodney said. "The linguistics department. Who, I should note, work for me, so I can use the managerial 'we.'" He glanced down at his tablet. "Unfortunately, the section that deals with the prophecy of the One is a little like the Christian Bible's Book of Revelation--it's at the end and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Tapping a few keys, he continued. "I've sent you all the full translation, but basically it breaks done to what that clown on M09-873 told us. If the faithful stay true through all adversities, a descendant of the Ancestors will come one day. He will be taken to the Stronghold of Those Who Went Before and will be Changed so he can usher in a new Era."

"Those Who Went Before?" Teyla rested her hands on the table. "They differentiate between them and the Ancestors?"

"Yes. The Ancients are aspects of...well, the closest translation is The Great Being, who seems to be a distant, formless, genderless creator figure. The Ancients were created first and they are closest to the...oh, look, there's a summary at the beginning of the translation I sent you.

"Bottom line is, Those Who Went Before were the people who started this religion and wrote the Book. Although Dr. Whatshername...the Brit, says that the section that concerns us was written maybe as late as one thousand years after the rest of the book."

"That would explain why the technology you found on M09-873 wasn't Ancient," Woolsey said.

"Right," Rodney said. "From the looks of it, it could either be a completely unknown technology or it could be a combination of Wraith technology with an unknown technology. Either way...look, it's painfully obvious to everyone in this room that we need to go back to M09-873."

"And I have to go with them," John said, his wings moving a little restlessly.

Woolsey frowned. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

They'd tested John as much as they could, mostly by reading untranslated passages from the book to him. But there wasn't much they could do; he didn't feel any different, but then again, he moved like he'd always had wings. More disturbingly, he seemed to almost forget about them unless something--like walking the hallways where people could see him--reminded him.

It bothered Rodney that no one wanted to trust John. Oh, he understood it, but if it had been him, he'd have been hurt. John seemed to take it well; he was still living in the isolation unit, but he said it was by choice. At least they'd moved him into a bigger room and given him a real bed and curtains for the window. Rodney knew that it bothered him, though, to be this thoroughly grounded.

"Until I face some of these people, we won't know if I've been compromised."

Jennifer nodded. "The colonel is right. We're not looking at the kind of conditioning where someone says 'tomato' to him and he tries to take over the City. The real test will be when he faces the faithful who believe he's some kind of savior."

"Jesus H. Me," John muttered, flexing his wings a little.

Both Jennifer and Rodney snickered and even Woolsey smiled just a little.

"Very well. As Doctor McKay says, the next logical step is returning to M09-873. Doctor, after you and Colonel Sheppard come up with a list of the necessary personnel, we can plan the mission."

"Will do," John said.

As everyone stood up, Teyla looked at John for a long moment, but she waited until the four of them were alone in the conference room before speaking.

"John, I believe we should have a team dinner."

"Later," John said. "When there aren't as many people...."

"I did not mean in the mess hall. Torren and Kanaan are visiting Athos Three for a few days, so we can meet in my quarters."

"You're not cooking, are you?"

"Rodney!" John said.

"What? Teyla's the one who told us she was a lousy cook."

"It is all right, Rodney. Perhaps you and Ronon could go to the kitchens and get food for all of us?"

"Ooo, yeah!" Rodney bounced on his toes a little. "All we have to do is tell them it's for Sheppard. Between that and Ronon's ability to intimidate, we should easily get at least two desserts for everyone."

For once, Rodney's plan worked like a charm.

"Dinner for four, desserts for eight," he said, wheeling a cart into Teyla's quarters. "Ronon didn't even have to loom very much."

"I don't loom, McKay. I just stand around."

"From down here," Rodney said, putting his hand near his forehead, "it looks like looming."

Ronon rolled his eyes and helped Rodney set up the food on Teyla's table.

Dinner wasn't anything special--just meat loaf and tava beans--but it was nice to eat with John again. Ever since they'd rescued him, he'd been eating in the infirmary as part of his attempt to stay out of the public eye. Rodney was pretty sure Teyla had more in mind than just a team dinner, so he did his best to keep the conversation light until she was ready to explain.

It was actually John who brought it up. Peeling the paper off his cupcake, he looked at Teyla. "It's not that I don't appreciate being somewhere other than the infirmary, but I get the feeling this is more than just dinner with the team." He had that wary look he got whenever a situation arose where he might have to talk about himself, and his wings twitched and rustled a little.

"Wow," Rodney said, before Teyla could say anything. "We really need to play some poker before you lose those."

"That is actually what I wanted to talk about."

"Poker?" Ronon asked.

"No," Teyla said with exaggerated patience. She turned to John. "John, during all of this, has anyone asked you if you wish to get rid of your wings?"

"Of course he," Rodney began.

"Shut up, McKay." Ronon grabbed Rodney's arm and Rodney bit his lip.

"No," John said, ignoring Ronon and Rodney. "No one's asked."

"Well, then, I am asking." Teyla locked eyes with John and John was the first to look away.

"That's a hell of a question."

"Yes, it is."

John got up and moved across the room to stand in front of the full-length mirror hanging on the wall. He stared at the mirror for a long time and then stepped back a few paces and spread out his wings.

"Oh," Rodney said, his voice soft. All this time, a whole week, much of it spent with John, and he hadn't seen this. And now that he could see it, could see the wings--John's wings--arching up and out from John's smooth, long back, it took his breath away. The wings suited John perfectly, black and sleek and dangerous-looking and....

"They are beautiful." As she so often did, Teyla was able to say what Rodney could only think.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked. "Can you fly?"

"Yes," John said automatically. "Um...I think so? I haven't actually tried it yet."

Rodney, who'd been so sure John felt that growing wings was on par with him turning into a bug, found himself saying, "You should."

John turned, folding his wings down to their usual resting place. He gave Rodney a long look and then nodded. "Yeah, okay. Only...I want to do it now, without an audience."

"But what if...." Rodney began and then fell silent when John raised an eyebrow. "Right. Do you need a ledge or can you take off from the ground?"

"Huh." John frowned a little. "I'm not sure."

"How about that place on the West Pier?" Ronon asked. "The one we run by in the mornings."

"Right, with the ledge and the five foot drop." John pushed up his sleeves. "Let's go."

"That's a five foot drop?" Rodney said a few moments later. "Looks longer than that."

"It might be," John said. "But the point is, we've jumped off it without breaking anything. You guys wanna give me some room?"

"Hang on," Ronon said, and proved John's point about the ledge by jumping off it and down onto the walkway below.

"You don't think I can do it?"

"Yeah, I think you can, but this'll keep McKay from hyperventilating."

"Very funny," Rodney tried, but really, he was more interested in watching John than being snippy with Ronon.

John rolled his eyes and then stepped forward, his feet inches from the edge of the ledge. Taking a deep breath, he spread his wings out and then up. When he brought them down, they created a serious draft, but John didn't go anywhere. "Huh...no, that's not right."

"Are you," Teyla began.

Before she could finish whatever she was about to say, John jumped off the ledge, his wings high again.

It was high summer; the days were long and there was still light in the sky, so they could see John clearly as he swept his wings downward and then....

He flew.

He flew like he'd been doing it all his life, his body straight but not rigid and his arms hanging loosely by his sides. Somehow, with them actually in motion, his wings looked bigger than they had in Teyla's quarters; Rodney couldn't help wondering what John's wingspan was. But mostly, he just watched as John soared high and then glided down, his wings spread out to catch a draft. He let himself get near the water and then, with several strong flaps of his wings, he rose up again, flying high above them.

"Wow," Rodney said, not taking his eyes off John as he flew ever higher. "He looks...amazing."

"Yeah," Ronon said, his voice hushed and a little solemn. "He really does."

When John came back down, he came down fast, head first and his wings tucked in close to his body like he was diving. Rodney tensed, all but braced for the inevitable crash, and then stared as John pulled up, stretched his wings out and came to a rather abrupt stop, right in front of them. He hovered for a moment, wings flapping steadily while he remained still and Rodney caught his breath.

"All you need," he called out, "is a flaming sword!"

John grinned, and he looked so happy, so pleased with himself, that Rodney couldn't help smiling back.

"I dunno," John said as he finally came to land next to Ronon. "I always thought the saints had feathered wings. Maybe I'm from somewhere hotter than Heaven."

He sounded a little winded, but not overly breathless, and he didn't look tired. In fact, he looked exhilarated and happy, and Rodney wanted to kiss him in the worst way. He hadn't, he realized as John and Ronon headed for the nearby stairs. He hadn't kissed John once since they got back from M09-873, unless that kiss on John's forehead counted. God, they'd hardly even touched aside from a couple instances of hand-holding.

In fact, given the way Rodney had acted since then, John probably thought Rodney hated the wings. Jesus, what if he thinks that's why I'm pushing so hard to get him changed back?

"You looked like you were enjoying yourself," Teyla said, as John and Ronon joined them again.

"It was pretty awesome," John said.

"Feeling better?" Ronon asked.

"Yeah, I think I am." But John's smile was fading a little, and he looked at Rodney almost nervously.

"You looked...you looked fantastic out there." Rodney felt his face get hot. "I mean, I was worried and all because you hadn't tried it before and then you went pretty high and that dive you did at the end scared the fuck out of me, but, yeah...."

"C'mon, Teyla," Ronon said. "I think we're in the way here."

Rodney's face got even hotter; Ronon had never been that overt about acknowledging their relationship before. So he looked at his feet and the ocean and the ledge below him as Ronon and Teyla said good night and left.

"They're okay with it, you know."

"Yeah, it's just...." Rodney shrugged, not wanting to explain that even after seven months, the fact that John wanted him still surprised him. Even weirder and unbelievable was that the fact that Ronon and Teyla approved. John was looking at him, his brow scrunched up and Rodney knew he didn't really get it. John had his own insecurities, but he never seemed to worry about whether Rodney was in it for the long haul or not.

"I don't hate them...the wings," Rodney said, eager to change the subject. "I just thought that...I thought you probably did."

John sat down on the ledge and patted the decking next to him. "Sorry I don't have any beer."

"It's okay," Rodney said, settling down on the deck..

"I don't...I don't hate the wings themselves." John was quiet for a long moment and Rodney forced himself to wait. Talking about anything emotional with John was like trying to navigate a field full of land mines. As much as Rodney wanted to fill the silence with nervous babble, he'd learned not to.

"It's...it was done to me. And it's not just that they made my body grow a pair of wings...it's that they...." He shook his head. "I can't...what did you say the other day? They messed with my head."

"That's why I've been trying to come up with ways to get rid of them. I thought they'd be a constant reminder." Rodney sighed and reached out for John's hand. "I should have asked...or at least told you why I've been so pushy."

"I've been thinking about something Kate once said." John slid his fingers between Rodney's and held on tightly. "After one of those times with the Replicators...that a mental...that someone messing with your head was like someone messing with your body."

Kate had said the pretty much same thing to Rodney, which made it easier to figure out what John was saying. "You know how I am, always wanting to fix things. But this...I don't know how. Can you tell me what you need from me?"

"I don't know. Just...I don't know." He glanced down at their hands and loosened his grip on Rodney's fingers. "God, I suck at this. Just, be here, okay?"

"Hey," Rodney said. He pulled his hand away from John's and then slid his arm around John's waist. "Always." It was hard to just leave it at that and not make some kind of smart-assed, sarcastic comment. He almost asked John if John wanted him to bomb the crap out of both Esnar and M09-873, but no, John didn't need to deal with Rodney's anger issues on top of his own stuff.

Huh...I guess I can learn.

John leaned in closer, and Rodney couldn't help noticing that he smelled a little different. The wings, it seemed, had their own scent--leathery and a little like pepper or something spicy. It was weird, but not unpleasant, and it certainly didn't turn Rodney off. The problem was that Rodney wasn't sure if he was supposed to be turned on or not. Actually, he was turned on-- they frequently hung around and made out on one of the distant piers before heading back to one of their rooms to have sex, and so this felt very familiar. So, the real question was: did John want him to be turned on?

"I'm not sure if you want me to touch you or not," Rodney finally said. "I...I'm sorry, but you're going to have to tell me what you want, what's good and what doesn't work."

"I wasn't sure if you wanted...."

"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said, pulling back and turning his head so he could meet John's eyes. "Of course I want. That's not a problem."

"Oh," John said, smiling just a little. "Okay, then...." He turned and reached for Rodney's face, his hands holding Rodney in place. Rodney relaxed a little, but when John's mouth met his, he held back, letting John decide how this was going to go.

John kissed him like he was starving for it and Rodney sighed happily and kissed John back just as hard. All those weeks spent worrying about John, wondering if he'd ever see him again, ever be able to kiss him again, seemed to vanish as John kept on kissing the hell out of him, his hand moving down to grip Rodney's arm. Moving even closer, they kissed and then took turns going after each other's hot spots--John kissing his way down Rodney's neck before Rodney took control and nibbled on the sharp point of John's ear.

"Fuck," John muttered, shivering hard. Rodney just chuckled and kissed John again, fighting a little for control.

He was utterly unprepared for the soft brush of something across his back. Both of John's hands were on him already, one cradling the back of his head and one holding his bicep, which meant that that was one of John's wings touching him. Rodney made a noise that was most certainly not a squeak, and he accidentally bit John's lip.

"Sorry, sorry," John muttered, pulling back. His expression may have been vaguely apologetic, but his wings were pulled in close to his back, the edges furled, just a little, around his shoulders.

"No no no," Rodney said. "It's okay, it just startled me."

John looked unconvinced, and Rodney took a deep breath. "Look, I'm not expecting anything at all, but maybe we should go back to my room, or yours, if you'd rather. Because--only if it's okay with you, of course--maybe I can look at them? I mean, I'm sort of getting used to them, but I haven't wanted to stare because, well, you know. I just don't want you to think that I'm put off, because I'm really really not, it's just that I was a little startled and maybe if...."

"You gonna breathe at some point?" John was smiling, though, and he leaned in to give Rodney a quick kiss. "C'mon," he said, standing up and offering a hand down to Rodney. "I'd hate to startle you and have to explain why you fell off this ledge."

"Okay, yeah. Because that would be really bad."

John and Ronon's ledge was pretty far from the rest of the city, and Rodney's room was right next to a transporter, so they didn't see anyone in the halls. Once they were inside, however, Rodney felt a little awkward. "Um, sorry," he said. "It's even messier than usual in here, I've...."

"You've been busy," John said. "You know, rescuing me? I don't mind a little mess."

"True, I did have other things on my mind." Rodney looked at his mini-fridge. "You want a beer?"

"Yeah."

When Rodney turned around, beers in hand, John had an armful of dirty clothes he'd pulled off the couch.

"You should let me get that...."

"Rodney?" John said over his shoulder as he headed toward the bathroom. "I'm not injured, you know."

"Well, okay, then. You wanna make my bed and clean off my desk while you're at it?"

"I dunno. Do you have a little French maid's outfit tucked in a drawer somewhere?" John was leaning in the doorway, his arms across his chest. From where Rodney was standing, he couldn't see John's back, and it was weird, because John looked like he always did--baggy BDUs, half laced boots and a black shirt.

And he had wings.

"If you're okay with it," John said, holding out a hand for a beer. "You can take my shirt off."

Rodney handed the bottle to John and set his own down on his desk. When he walked up to John, John started to turn around, but Rodney put his hand on John's arm to stop him. "If this gets weird, stop me, okay?"

John nodded, and Rodney leaned up a little to kiss him. They stayed like that for a moment, just kissing, and then Rodney pulled away.

"Right, then. Turn around?"

Ronon had cut a deep vee in the back of John's shirt and then added three buttons at the waist to close the shirt. As Rodney pulled the buttons free of the surprisingly well done buttonholes, he leaned in a little, breathing in deeply. "They, um...they have a smell," he said.

"Yeah," John said. "It's like I'm constantly wearing dusty leather. Take some getting used to."

Once he got the bottom buttons undone, Rodney stepped back. Ronon had added a band of heavy fabric to the collar of John's shirt, and it was closed with a button as well. "Did you want me to get the top...oh, okay, then," he added when John reached up and undid the collar himself.

"Do you want to...um, stand or...."

"Relax," John said, grabbing the extra chair Rodney had liberated from the mess years ago. It was the one John usually sat in when they played chess, and now John flipped it around and straddled it. "Go ahead," he said. "Look all you want."

"Wow," Rodney said as John spread his wings a little. "They're so big."

"That's what all the boys say," John said with a laugh.

"Dork." Rodney smacked him on the shoulder and went back to looking at his wings. "Seriously, though, has anyone measured your wingspan?"

"Not yet." John looked over his shoulder. "I haven't really let anyone get too close. Keller scanned me and took some skin samples, but that's it."

"I like how they're not smooth," Rodney said. "They look sort of textured."

"Yeah, like pebbled leather."

"Can I...?" Rodney held out a cautious hand.

"Go ahead, but be careful where they meet my back. It's kind of ticklish."

"Like your knees and the insides of your elbows? Interesting." Rodney reached out and ran his hand gently over the main bone of John's right wing. "It's like an arm, right?"

"Yeah, sort of. Where you have your hand now? That bone that goes up to the high point is the forearm on a bat."

"Really?" Rodney traced the sharp hook at highest point of John's wing. "Oh, so this is covered in skin. I thought it might be like a bird's claw or something. So it's like, what, a thumb and these supporting bones are fingers?"

"That's what they call them on bats, but they don't really feel like my fingers." John fanned one wing out and then curled it around himself. "They're pretty flexible, though."

"The skin's pretty thin." Rodney slid his hand along the pebbled skin of the wing. "Thin but tough too. It feels like it would take a lot to tear it...."

"Oh God," John said with a full body shiver.

Rodney pulled his hand back quickly. "I'm sorry, are you ticklish there or sensitive or...I'm not going to try to tear it or anything...."

"No, it's just itchy," John said. "I can sort of scratch from the underside with my opposite hand, but it's not the same."

"Do you want me to scratch it?" Rodney leaned in and peered at the patch he'd been touching. "Oh, hey, it looks a little dry. Like those rough patches I get on my elbows in the winter."

Before John could say anything, Rodney was struck by a sudden memory. "Okay," he said. "You have to promise to never ever tell Jeannie, but when she was younger? When I was still at home? She had these books about dragons, and there was a whole thing where their wings got dry, patchy skin, and their riders oiled them."

"The Pern books?" John snickered.

"Hey, if you know the name, then...."

"Dave's au pair had them, okay? I might have read a couple."

"Ha! You can't exactly give me a hard time, then."

John opened his mouth to reply, but just then Rodney carefully scratched at the rough spot and he moaned a little instead. "God, that feels good."

"Do you think lotion would help?" Between the mess from using dry erase markers all the time and the dirt he picked up working with Ancient tech and fixing things, Rodney washed his hands almost as much as a doctor did. He always had a couple bottles of lotion kicking around his quarters.

"Couldn't hurt."

Rodney grabbed the bottle of lotion off his desk and then wheeled his chair over behind John. "You gonna be okay holding your wing out like that? Will it get tired?"

"No. Remember, the muscles in my back are different now."

"Right."

Rodney settled down behind him and pumped some lotion into his hand. "Let me know if this stings or anything," he said as he carefully smoothed lotion over the rough patch on John's right wing.

"Stings?"

"Supposedly this stuff is hypo-allergenic, but you never know."

"Actually, it feels really good."

"It looks better." Rodney ran his fingers over the spot, and John hummed a little. "You itchy anywhere else?"

"Yeah, a little further out...down near the second finger...."

"Okay, yeah, I can see it."

"Mmmmmm...."

"That must have been a real pain; I hate it when I can't reach an itchy spot."

There were three more patchy spots on John's right wing, and then Rodney moved over to the left one. "How have you been showering?" he asked.

"I can't really soap them...I'm just using both shower heads and moving around a lot."

"Huh, I wonder if you should be using soap on them or not?"

"Saddle soap, maybe...oh, fuck, that feels good." John shivered and his right wing fluttered a little.

Rodney bit his lip and finished the patch. "Anywhere else?" he asked, his voice sounding strange in his own ears.

"No," John said. "Um...this is weird."

"Yeah," Rodney said, as he rolled his chair around. John's face was flushed and he was biting his lower lip. "Are you...um...do you want...?"

"I don't know." John buried his face in his hands. "I haven't really let anyone touch them...I didn't know...but...."

"But?"

"But it kinda turned me on when you first started touching them and I didn't stop you."

"And it's weird."

"Yeah...no one even really looks at them." John finally looked up, his brows furrowed. Rodney had seen this expression before; John was trying to talk about his feelings and finding it hard going. This happened all the time, and Rodney knew that if he said anything, John would let him talk all night.

"And you know how I feel about people...getting in my space...so it's not that I want anyone touching them."

Rodney nodded.

"But the way everyone acts...it's like I'm a freak, you know?"

"You're not," Rodney said, resisting the urge to say more. John wasn't done.

"I'm not? I have fucking wings, Rodney!" John stood up almost knocking his chair over. "And now it turns out that not only are they there, but they're fucking erogenous zones. And it feels...it feels normal, like when you bite my ears or lick the back of my neck."

And now that John was done, Rodney stared at him almost helplessly. "I...I don't know what to say."

"You really don't think I'm a freak?" John crossed his arms across his chest and stared at Rodney.

"No. I don't." Rodney took a deep breath. "Do you?"

"You ever think of being a shrink?"

"No," Rodney replied without really thinking about it. "You're the only person I pay that much attention to."

"Oh." John reached back and rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry. This...right now, tonight, didn't quite go down the way I thought it would."

"It's okay. Like I said, I didn't expect anything. You've only been home a week, and...it's a lot to get used to."

"Do you think they're hot? The wings, I mean."

"That's a loaded question."

"I know."

"Earlier? When we were at Teyla's and you spread them out? I couldn't help thinking how much they suited you. And...look, I don't know if you want to hear this, but when Teyla said they were beautiful? I totally agree. And then when you flew...I've never seen anything like it." The tips of John's ears were red, but he didn't look angry or upset.

"So, yes," Rodney continued. "I think they're hot. Remember, though, I thought you were hot before you had them."

"God," John muttered. "I wasn't trying to...."

"Hey. This is me. I don't exactly give a lot of empty compliments."

"You're usually not this patient with people either." John crossed the room and took Rodney's hands, pulling him up out of his chair. "Thanks," he said, putting his hands on Rodney's hips. "Just...thanks."

"Yeah well...don't let it get around, okay?" Rodney said, as he leaned in and rested his head on John's shoulder.

"Wouldn't dream of it."

They stayed like that for a long moment, and then John pulled back a little. "I should probably go. I need to let whoever's on duty in the infirmary know that I'm moving back into my room."

"Good thing you got a bigger room with a bigger bed while we were on Earth."

John laughed and kissed him. "I seem to remember you saying that before."

 

* * *

Rodney went to breakfast early. After John left, he'd been kind of wound up, but he hadn't been sure if jerking off thinking of John's wings was a good thing or not. So instead, he'd read a bunch of reports from his various department heads and had weird dreams of the botany department planting wing trees all over the city. He woke up earlier than usual, thought of going back to sleep and then figured it wasn't worth trying.

He'd barely sat down at the team's table when Jennifer stomped up, put her tray down with unusual force and dropped into the chair opposite him. "What were you thinking?"

"What did I do?" She looked more angry than worried and Rodney figured that if something had happened to John she wouldn't tell him in the middle of breakfast.

"The minute he suggested flying, you should have called me. He could have strained something!"

"He didn't want me to call you."

"Oh, so you suggested it, then?"

"Not exactly. We could tell he didn't want anyone else involved."

"That's all well and good, but...."

"Jennifer, listen to me." Rodney lowered his voice and leaned forward. "Stop treating him like an invalid or a science project. "

"And if he'd hurt himself?"

"He's a grown man. It's his risk to take." Rodney pinched his nose, sure everyone around them thought they were having an ex-girlfriend/ex-boyfriend kind of argument. "Look, I was really worried about it, but...he's John, okay? He doesn't want people staring at him. He wanted to do this for the first time with people he...with the team."

There was a long silence, during which Rodney picked at his toast. He knew she'd heard the word he'd bit back, and finally he had to say something.

"It's not...it's not that he doesn't trust you. It's just...."

"I know, I know. It's the team." She sighed. "You guys aren't the only ones who worry, you know."

"True, but...."

The mess hall was still fairly empty, but Rodney could still hear it when everyone in the room got really quiet. "See," he said, not even turning around to see why. "How do you think it feels to have everyone staring at you like that? He's only walking into the room; imagine the reaction if he'd flown up to this balcony we're on."

"Okay, you've made your point."

"Have I? Not only is he not an invalid or a science project, he's also not something from a circus...."

"Rodney," she snapped. "I"m not stupid, I got it the the first time."

And now it was sounding like an older argument; Rodney breathed a sigh of relief when John slid into place next to Jennifer.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey yourself," Rodney said.

"Good morning, Colonel."

John looked at Rodney and then turned to Jennifer. "I really don't want to get in the middle of this, but if it's about my little experiment yesterday evening...." He shrugged and drank some coffee. "If you're going to blame someone, blame me. It was my call."

"So I've been told," she said. "I'm sorry, Rodney."

"It's okay," Rodney said. "I'm sorry, too. I know you're not stupid."

"Doc, I'm not at all sore, but if you want to take a look at my back I can come by later."

"No, no need. Just be careful, okay?" She stood up and then picked up her tray. "I'll see you guys later."

"See ya," Rodney said.

"You okay?" John asked after Jennifer was out of earshot.

"Yeah. Same old, same old. I make it clear that you and the team come first and then I insult her intelligence and, surprise, she gets mad at me." He paused to eat some toast. "To be fair, she's worried about you."

"Yeah, well...." John shrugged and sipped his coffee. "Isn't everyone."

"About that," Rodney began, and then paused as Ronon sat down next to him. "Morning."

"Hey," Ronon said.

"Hey," John replied.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "You two...."

"You were saying about Keller?" John asked.

"No, I was saying that of course people worry about you. It's not necessarily a bad thing, you know."

"Yeah, well...."

"I hate to agree with McKay, but he's right."

"Thank you for that enthusiastic endorsement," Rodney said, scowling at Ronon.

John ignored them while he ate his oatmeal. "You know," he said after a moment. "I don't want people standing there staring at me, but could you maybe take some video? For people to see, if they wanted to?"

"Of you flying? Sure. We need to figure out who we need for the mission to M09-873, but maybe this afternoon?"

* * *

"Are you sure three jumpers will be enough tomorrow?" Rodney asked as the team headed out to the West Pier later that afternoon.

"For the fourth time, yes." John reached out and smacked the back of Rodney's head.

"Hey, careful with the genius!" Rodney shifted his bag to his other shoulder. "Or at the very least, his equipment."

"Same old, same old," Ronon said.

"Admit it," Rodney said. "You missed our clever repartee."

"We missed John very much," Teyla said, her lips twitching just a little.

"No one appreciates me at all," Rodney muttered. Ronon was right, though, he thought as he bit back a smile. This did sound like the beginning of a mission.

"Okay," he said once they'd reached the right spot. "Let me get this set up."

With Ronon's help, Rodney set up three different cameras on the walls and balconies around the ledge. "I should have pretty good coverage, so don't worry about it. Just do your thing...have fun."

John nodded, and turned his back to Rodney. "Get my shirt?"

"Oh, um...sure." As Rodney unbuttoned John's shirt, he did his best to keep his touch light and impersonal. It wasn't easy; he'd always liked the lines of John's back and the nape of his long neck. The wings still looked weird, all black leather against John's skin, but not as weird as they'd looked a week ago. Strange, the things you could get used to.

"Thanks," John murmured, leaving his shirt in Rodney's hands, before turning toward the ocean.

This time, John actually climbed up onto the balcony on the lower ledge, and as Rodney picked up the his fourth camera, he had to force himself not to shout some kind of warning. The reason for the precarious position became clear when John posed like a diver and then launched himself out and down.

"Fuck!" Rodney leaned against the balcony and tried to follow John with the camera. It wasn't easy; John was moving fast and Rodney's heart was pounding, sure John was going to end up in the ocean. John didn't, but he waited until the very last moment before he spread his wings, picked up an updraft and glided along the surface of the water before soaring back up.

John stayed in the air much longer than he had the day before. It took Rodney a little while before he figured out that John wasn't just goofing around. He was actually experimenting, seeing how long he could glide without flapping his wings, how fast he could go and how he could work with the air currents. It was pretty clear he was also testing his stamina, but Rodney didn't mind as much as he probably should. It was easy to forget his concerns about, well, anything, as he watched John fly.

He looked even better than he had the day before. Part of it was the lack of shirt, but he also seemed, somehow, to look more confident, more comfortable.

More free, Rodney thought. When they were still stuck on Earth and everyone was getting frustrated and irritable, John had started taking a jumper out almost every day.

"It's...it's easier up here," he'd said one day when Rodney was his only passenger. "No bullshit, just sky."

Now, as Rodney watched John wheel and dive, he wondered how John felt out there. As much as he knew that John enjoyed the intricacies of flying jumpers and 302s and other aircraft, this was pure flying, nothing but John and the sky. No bullshit.

Finally, after a half an hour, John landed neatly next to Rodney. He was breathing a lot harder than he had been after flying the day before, and he looked grateful when Ronon held out a water bottle.

"Thanks, buddy."

"How are you feeling?" Teyla asked.

"A little tired, but not too sore. I probably could have stayed out for another twenty minutes, maybe half an hour. I didn't want to push it with the mission tomorrow."

"Do we have a mission tomorrow?" Rodney asked, turning away from his cameras to look at John. "Or...."

John looked away. "Yes," he said after a long moment. "We have a mission tomorrow."

No one said anything until Rodney had his cameras packed away.

"John," Teyla began.

"No," John said, his voice sharp. "I'm sorry," he added after a second. "I just...I just don't want to talk about it." He turned on his heel and walked away, heading for the transporter.

Ronon took a step after him, but Teyla stopped him with a hand on his arm at the same time Rodney said, "let him go."

"I feel like we shouldn't have encouraged him to fly."

"Don't be stupid," Rodney snapped. "Even if we'd told him not to, he'd have done it anyway."

"Especially if we told him not to," Teyla said.

"Yeah, I guess." Ronon watched as Rodney stuffed John's shirt into his equipment bag. "Thing is, if he has to make a decision, it's just gonna make it harder."

"He's already made his decision," Rodney said. "I just hope I can give him that option."

* * *

Rodney was still in front of his computer editing the video when his door chimed. It was John, of course, and he had a tray in his hand.

"An early breakfast is one thing," he said as Rodney went to clear off his desk. "I didn't feel like facing the dinner crowd, so I called down to the mess and sounded pathetic or something."

"You couldn't sound pathetic if you tried."

"Then I guess it was the 'or something,'" John said with a shrug.

He didn't seem at all interested in talking, so Rodney picked a department at random and started bitching about the amount of time they were wasting. It got them through the sandwiches and the cookies and the two beers apiece and then, finally, John looked over at Rodney's computer and asked in a unconvincingly casual voice, "Were you working on the video?"

"Yeah." Rodney pulled his laptop over and cued up the video he'd been messing with. "I already did the...well, let's call it the scientific version. The one for Jennifer and the biologists and so on. Now I'm just dicking around."

"What, are you going to set it to music?"

"I was thinking Ride of the Valkyries."

"Funny," John said with a snort.

"Seriously, though, no music. I just didn't know if you'd...well...."

"If I'd what?"

"If you'd want it. After tomorrow."

John sighed and finished his beer. "I don't know." He got up and headed to Rodney's fridge. "You want another?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Today...it was...I dunno if I can even explain."

"You don't have to explain," Rodney said. "I invented a whole new math in what? Eighteen hours?" It was his turn to look away; over three years later and he could still remember how it felt to know so much.

"You did it again," John said. When Rodney frowned at him, he continued. "The other you, the one who set up the hologram Rodney. You don't need to be in the middle of ascending to be brilliant."

"And you can fly a 302," Rodney said.

"Okay, I get your point."

"Although...there are some pretty high mountains on that one big island at the beginning of the archipelago west of us. I could build you a hang gliding rig." Rodney shrugged. "It wouldn't be the same, but...."

"That might be fun. Think Ronon and Amelia would be interested?"

"The Adrenaline Twins? You'd have to tie them down to keep them away from it. Nothing helps build a relationship like a mutual love of risking your lives."

"Like us?"

"No," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "I go out of my way to keep from risking my life, thank you very much."

"Uh huh...." John came around behind Rodney. "You wanna show me the video?"

"Sure."

John watched it in silence, one hand resting on Rodney's shoulder. It wasn't the best video--Rodney had only had control over one of the cameras,--but it wasn't awful, either, and he was fairly proud of his editing job.

"Wow," John said softly, when it was over.

"My thoughts exactly."

"I didn't think about it. When I was out there flying. I didn't...." He sighed. "You know how I said that when I'm walking or sitting or whatever and they feel natural, like I've always had them? But somewhere in the back of my head, I know I haven't?"

"And you didn't feel that when you were flying?"

"Right." His hand tightened a little on Rodney's shoulder and Rodney reached up to cover it with his own hand. "It was just...just flying. And it hasn't been as bad since then. I mean, I still know that I haven't always had wings, but I'm getting used to the fact that I do now."

"Is that better or worse?"

"I don't know."

Rodney almost jumped when John grabbed the back of his chair and spun him around. "Jesus! Warn a guy!"

John leaned in. "I discovered something else about flying today."

"Oh?" Rodney said, although given the way John was looking at him, he had a pretty good idea of just what John had learned.

"Yeah," John said. He leaned in and kissed Rodney hard, one hand on the back of Rodney's neck. Rodney closed his eyes and leaned up a little; even if it didn't go anywhere tonight, he wasn't about to miss a chance to get some quality kissing in. John's lips were warm and insistent against Rodney's, and when his tongue pushed inside Rodney's mouth, Rodney moaned.

"It's a turn-on," John said when he pulled back a little. "Flying...it's really hot."

John clearly hadn't showered; he smelled like sweat and dusty leather and Rodney wanted him. And if flying was a turn on for John, watching him had been a turn on for Rodney. "It is," he mumbled. "You're hot when you fly."

John leaned in for another kiss and Rodney slid a hand up his arm. Hoping he wasn't making a huge mistake, he reached behind John's arm and ran his hand across the top of John's wing. "Fuck," John groaned into Rodney's mouth. "Rodney."

"Tell me what you want," Rodney said, his voice rough. He stroked John's wing a little harder, letting his fingers trail along the leathery skin.

"That." John dropped down to his knees and rested his head on Rodney's thigh. He spread his wings up and out a little before curling them forward so Rodney could reach them easily. "Just this once," he said.

If John's moans were anything to go by, the most sensitive spots on his wings seemed to be the skin right around his bones and Rodney experimented a little before he found the perfect way to touch that skin. He bracketed the bones of John's wing fingers with two of his own fingers and then moved slowly down the the wing from the top to each tip.

"God...oh, fuck, that's good...more, do it more," John muttered, his voice muffled by Rodney's thigh. When Rodney managed to do both wings at once, John shuddered hard, his wings trembling under Rodney's touch.

Rodney had always liked touching John--he was all slim lines and lean muscles--and this was no different. On the one hand, the wings still struck Rodney as weird, because, well...wings. On the other hand, not only did they feel good under his fingers, there was also the memory of watching John use them to fly. Maybe it was wrong to be turned on by the whole thing, but he wasn't the only one getting off on it, which made it a little more acceptable as far as Rodney was concerned.

Like John said: just this once.

"Wait," John said, sitting back on his heels. "Gimme a moment."

Sure he'd done something wrong, Rodney lifted his hands from John's wings only to stare down in surprise as John reached for Rodney's fly. "You don't...."

"I know," John interrupted. "But I want to."

Rodney was hardly going to argue with him; John loved giving head and he was really good at it. If sucking Rodney off while Rodney played with his wings worked for John, Rodney was more than happy to oblige. "Fuck, that's good," he muttered as John's slick hot mouth moved down on his cock.

He waited until John had set up a pretty steady rhythm before he reached out for John's wings. "Wings," he warned, and then went back to tracing the bones that lay underneath the pebbled black skin of John's wings. John moaned, and Rodney had to grit his teeth to keep from coming right then and there. It wasn't easy, keeping his touch light on John's wings while John's mouth was winding him up higher and higher, but Rodney did his best.

For a few minutes they managed a pretty hot feedback loop--Rodney stroked John's wings, John moaned and sucked hard, and Rodney fought to keep from coming by paying attention to John's wings. It couldn't last forever, though, and when John's tongue found just the right spot, Rodney finally had to just rest his hands flat against John's wings for fear of hurting him. He came hard, his head flung back against the back of his chair as his vision grayed out just a little.

"Fuck...goddamn, John," he gasped, still shivering from the aftershocks as John slowly lifted his head. "What do you want me...."

"Back to my wings...please...." John's sounded desperate and Rodney moved forward as quickly as he could, sweeping his fingers across John's wings. They fluttered a little as John fumbled with his pants, but Rodney kept his fingers steady as he traced the thin bones and rough skin. Once John finally freed his cock and started stroking it roughly, Rodney leaned even closer. He steadied John's left wing and then, very carefully, bit the ridge of leather covered bone at the top of John's wing.

As John came with a shout that echoed around the room, his wings spread out behind him, stretching to their full length. Rodney slid off his chair and knelt in front of John, reaching to pull him close. "John," he said softly as John shuddered in his arms. "John...." And then, John's wings relaxed, going still against his body while John rested his head on Rodney's shoulder.

"I was so fucking scared," Rodney said. He twisted a little until they were both sitting down, John still leaning against Rodney. "While you were gone, I mean. I tried to be confident, but there were nights when I was sure I'd never see you again. I...God, John, I missed you so much."

"I was fine until they brought me to the pod." John's voice was low and a little shaky; Rodney had to strain to hear him. "When they put me in and that slimy stuff started filling the pod...."

He trailed off, and Rodney pulled him in just a little closer. "Then, when I realized that somehow I could breathe that stuff, I had just enough time to be sure...to know you'd get me out of this. And then...the next thing I remember was you guys pulling me out of that pod."

Rodney waited for more, but John was apparently done talking about it, and Rodney knew better than to push. "You're pretty funny when you're stoned."

"Thanks for not saying 'cute.'" John shook his head. "I'm not sure I remember this right, but did I almost out us in front of Lee?"

"You were probably going there, but Teyla managed to interrupt you, and we got you into the cockpit and shut the door." Rodney remembered Lorne's slightly desperate question about the gate and found he could laugh about it now. "I think Lorne was afraid you'd say something, although it's not like he doesn't know, so I don't know what he was so worried about."

"Trust me," John said with a faint snort. "No one wants to think of their commanding officer having sex. I mean, do you want to think about your boss...."

"My boss? Gah. No, I really don't."

"My point exactly."

"The difference is, Lorne's boss is incredibly hot. Mine...not so much." Rodney squirmed a little, and John pulled back. "Sorry, but my butt's getting numb. You want to take this over to the bed? I'll get you something to clean up with."

"I should probably take a shower." John got to his feet and then gave Rodney a hand up.

"Do you want me to...would you like some company?" Rodney asked as he pulled his pants and shorts all the way off and kicked them aside. "It's okay. I mean, it's okay if you want privacy or you need a lot of room or...."

"Rodney? Breathe," John said. He dealt with his own pants and then turned his back to Rodney. "And yeah, I think I'd like a little help washing up."

"Okay," Rodney said, as he unbuttoned John's shirt.

Like most of the senior staff, Rodney had switched quarters while Atlantis was stuck on Earth. His new rooms had an even bigger bathtub than his old one and the shower was sized to match--two people could fit in it comfortably. When one of those people had wings, Rodney learned, it was a much tighter fit.

"Be careful," Rodney snapped as John tried to turn around. "You'll put my eye out."

"Bitch bitch bitch...."

"That's how you know it's me," Rodney said. He ran a hand along the top of John's left wing. "I'm still not sure it's a good idea to soap them up, but do you want me to use the handheld thingie on them? Or are they too sensitive."

"That'd be great," John said. "Here, let me...." Rodney flattened himself against the wall of the shower as John turned around and then knelt down. "This should make it easier."

"I'm going to have to touch them, if that's okay."

"Yeah."

Rodney unhooked the handheld shower nozzle and started in on John's left wing. The leathery skin wasn't as slick as he expected; in fact, it felt almost rubbery as he smoothed his wet hands over it. "Okay?" he asked.

"Feels good," John said, flexing his wings a little as the water sluiced over them. "You're getting spots I can't get on my own."

"Still itchy?"

"Yeah. It might be the flying; it's been worse this evening."

"Makes sense, all that air drying them out." Rodney tapped the top of John's left wing. "Done. Bring up the other one? Thanks." As he rinsed off the other wing, he could see John's shoulders relaxing a little. "Want me to do the lotion thing later?"

"Only if you're up for more sex. No pun intended."

"Bullshit. You totally intended that pun." Rodney paused to smack John on the back of the head. "And please, when am I not interested in sex?"

"Okay," John said, but he sounded tentative and his shoulders tensed up again.

"What?"

"It's just...nothing, really."

And wasn't this just typical, Rodney thought with a frown. He could admit, if only to himself, that he loved John, but there were times when John's inability to talk about himself drove Rodney nuts. He sighed and kept working on John's wing. If John didn't want to talk, pushing him never worked.

"Okay, done. No wait, stay down there for a sec?" He grabbed the bottle of shampoo John kept in Rodney's shower. "Lean back a little?"

"You don't have to," John began and then went silent as Rodney ran water over his hair.

"I know that." Once Rodney got John's hair nice and lathered up, he started in on John's scalp. "But maybe I want to."

Rodney took his time, massaging John's scalp with the slow, steady motion John liked. For all that John hated to be touched outside the bedroom, once John got intimate with someone, he became positively touchy-feelie. Now, as Rodney rinsed his hair and worked a second handful of shampoo into it, he started relaxing again.

"Better?"

"Mmmmm...yeah."

"I swear," Rodney said, sliding his fingers down to scratch behind John's ear. "You're like a cat."

"Because cats love showers." John tilted his head to give Rodney better access to his ear and his wings flexed a little.

"Lean back. Maybe you're a rare Mongolian Water Cat."

"There's no such thing. Is there?"

"No." When Rodney washed his own hair, he used cheap shampoo and didn't bother with conditioner. John, on the other hand, spent ridiculous amounts of money on hair products, buying the good stuff in bulk every time he went back to Earth. Of course, if I had hair like John's, I'd spend money on it, too, Rodney thought as he worked conditioner into John's hair.

Finally, Rodney finished; he'd have spent a few more minutes on it, but he figured John's knees were starting to hurt. "Okay," he said. "Lemme rinse myself off and then I'll step out to give you a little more room."

"You might want to go into the bedroom. I'm going to get your bathroom kind of wet when I'm done," John said.

"Oh?"

"The only way I've found to dry them off is to flap them."

"Of course."

By the time John came out of the bathroom, Rodney had put a loose pair of pajama bottoms on. John, on the other hand, hadn't even bothered with a towel; Rodney stared at him as he walked over to the bed. "You are ridiculously attractive."

John rolled his eyes and sat down next to Rodney. "So," he said.

"I know you said you were okay with me working on your wings," Rodney said. "But I kind of got the impression you're not all that into it."

"No, it's not that...." John ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more than usual. "You're really into the wings, and it feels great, but...."

"But?" Rodney frowned a little. "No, wait, do you think I'm too into them?"

"I know, it sounds...."

"No, I get it. And I'm not going to lie and say that I don't find them hot, but...you know how I like to touch you? Well, this is just...there's more of you to touch, but it's still you, okay?" Rodney's face went hot, but he ignored the feeling and kept his eyes on John.

"Like my hair?" John asked with a smile.

"No, your hair's an actual fetish. You start going bald and I'm gonna kick your ass out into the hall."

"The comeback is so easy I won't even bother," John said, reaching up to brush a hand across Rodney's forehead.

"I'm generous that way."

"So, you wanna fool around?"

"You're so subtle." Rodney got up and grabbed the lotion off his desk. "Lie down on your stomach and let me....scratch your itch."

"Just for that, I should say no."

"Oh, please, you're just pissed off because you didn't think of it first."

John had settled on the far right side of the bed, and now he stretched out his left wing so most of it rested on the bed. It gleamed dully, and Rodney could actually see the patchy places where the skin was dried out. Even fresh from the shower, John's wings still smelled like leather, and Rodney was seriously tempted to lean down and nuzzle that soft skin.

He managed to resist the urge, and really, running his slick hands all over John's wings was almost as good. Rodney kept it light, but John still sighed happily and even squirmed just a little. When Rodney asked, "good?" John turned and smiled at him.

"Okay, why don't you roll over," Rodney suggested when he'd finished with the outside of John's left wing. "I'll do the underside of your other wing and then you can switch sides of the bed."

John rolled over and gave Rodney a sheepish look when Rodney noticed his erection. "Told you it would lead to sex."

"Yeah, well," Rodney said, shifting a little on his knees. "Me, too."

This time, John watched while Rodney rubbed lotion into the dry spots on his wing. "Wow," he said, his voice a little rough. "That almost looks as good as it feels."

"Yeah?" Rodney had reached the last dry spot, a patch toward the tip of John's wing. "Sit up and curl your wing up so you can touch this part...right, like that." He pumped a dollop of lotion onto John's fingers. "Go ahead."

John's eyebrows scrunched together a little as he tried to steady his wing. Reaching up, Rodney rested a hand on the outside of the wing, bracing it so John could rub the lotion on the underside. He watched as John blinked and then closed his eyes, concentrating on the feeling. Rodney liked to watch John jerk off, and now he looked a lot like he did then, intent and turned on.

"See what I mean?" Rodney said. "Feels good from that side, too."

"Yeah, it does. I haven't really touched them that much." John gave his wing a last little caress and then folded it back against his back. "Tell you what, once you've finished with the other sides, I'll slick myself up and ride you."

"Fuck," Rodney muttered. John was smirking at him, and Rodney snapped his fingers briskly. "Well, come on then, move over."

He didn't exactly rush the underside of John's left wing and the outside of his right, but he didn't linger as long as he had earlier. Instead of working from John's back to the tips of his wings, Rodney worked inward, finally finishing up near John's back. He was careful--John had said he was ticklish there--and he managed it without John laughing and kicking.

"Bend a little and spread your legs," he told John as he grabbed the lube from the nightstand. "You're going to be doing most of the work, so I'll get this part."

"You're so good...oh, fuck, Rodney!"

Rodney smiled, his lips moving against warm skin of John's ass. "What was that about how good I am to you?" he asked, before he spread John open and bent down to lick a slow trail down the cleft of John's ass. John swore softly when Rodney lingered to spend some time tonguing his perineum and then his muttered curses turned into soft gasps once Rodney slid his tongue across John's hole. Above him, Rodney could hear the faint rustle of John's wings moving across the bed.

"Rodney," John finally said several minutes later. His voice was hoarse, and he was squirming, and Rodney gave some serious thought to just getting him off like this.

"Hmmmm?"

"If you really want me to...fuck...." John's wings fluttered hard enough that Rodney felt a faint breeze. "You might want to stop...."

"Oh, fine. Hang on then," Rodney said, grabbing the lube. He did his best to avoid John's prostate as he pushed a couple of slick fingers into John's ass.

"Fuck that...I'm ready...c'mon."

Rodney rolled his eyes and worked a little more lube into John before he finally slapped John's ass lightly. "Shove over and give me some room to lie down."

Once Rodney was lying down, he reached for the lube only to have John snatch it out of his hands. "My turn," John said, making a big show of slicking up his hand as he straddled Rodney's calves. Rodney grit his teeth as John rubbed his slick hands on Rodney's cock.

"Do that too much," he warned, "and you'll totally defeat the purpose."

"Like you almost did a few minutes ago?"

John grinned down at him and then tossed the lube onto the nightstand. Rising up, he moved forward a little, resting one hand on Rodney's chest. He reached down and between his legs with the other, his touch careful as he positioned Rodney's cock. And then he paused.

"John...c'mon, John. Do it!"

"I should tease you more."

"And I should grab your ass and just fuck right up into you."

"Jesus," John muttered. He lowered himself slowly, surrounding Rodney's cock with tight, slick heat.

Rodney caught his breath and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to get at least some control over himself. When he opened them, John was looking down at him, his lower lip caught between his teeth. "Ready?"

"Yeah," Rodney said, reaching down to rest his hands lightly on John's thighs. John lifted up and then moved back down, and Rodney could feel his muscles bunching and flexing. John moved slowly, and when Rodney tried to thrust up into him, John pressed on his chest.

"Let me," he said.

Gritting his teeth, Rodney tried to be still. It wasn't easy; John was still moving oh so slowly and just the sight of him was was driving Rodney wild. His wings were loosely furled against his back and his brow was furrowed in concentration. He looked amazing, and Rodney couldn't help saying, "God, you're gorgeous."

"If you can still talk, I'm not doing this right," John said, rolling his eyes. Before Rodney could point out that John wasn't having any trouble talking, John started moving faster, one of his thumbs rubbing against Rodney's nipple.

"Fuck...John...." Rodney gasped.

"Yeah...oh, yeah...." John was biting his lip again and his wings flared out from his back a little.

Even though his cock was up John's ass, Rodney felt more like he was the one being fucked. And really, he thought, as John kept moving above him, all tight, slick heat, he was totally okay with that. He slid his hands up John's thighs and rested them on his hips, digging his thumbs into the soft skin there. John was sweating and his wings were fluttering restlessly.

"C'mon John...c'mon...want to see you come," Rodney managed to say through gritted teeth. He was close, so fucking close, but he didn't want to come before John got off.

"Fuck...fuck, Rodney...fuck!" John slammed down hard on Rodney's cock and his wings opened up behind him as he came all over himself and Rodney.

That was more than enough for Rodney; his hands went tight on John's hips and he came, straining to keep his eyes open so he could stare at John.

"Goddamn," John said, slumping forward. "That was...I really needed that."

Rodney reached up and slid a hand around the back of John's neck, pulling him down for a kiss. "Yeah, me too."

"And now," John said, after another long lazy kiss, "we both need showers. Again."

"Nah, just a wet towel. If you'll let me up...."

"I've got it."

By the time John had cleaned up and come back with a damp towel for Rodney, Rodney had grabbed a small package of Oreos out of his nightstand. "Grab a bottle of water, too."

"So," John said, once they were settled. "You mind if I stay?"

"Of course I don't."

"Thanks, but make me sleep on the couch if I smack you with a wingtip or something."

"That sounds pretty kinky." Rodney handed John a cookie. "Don't worry. After all, I haven't kicked you out for eating cookies in bed, now have I?

Later, after they'd settled down and Rodney was almost asleep, John spoke.

"Tomorrow?" he said, his voice hushed. "If you can't turn me back? I don't want you to feel guilty about it."

Rodney didn't know what to say to that, given that John would see through any attempt by Rodney to reassure him. So instead he asked the question that had been bothering him for the last couple days. "Will...will you miss them?"

Just when Rodney had decided John wasn't going to answer, John said, "Some. I think."

* * *

Once again, there was no one guarding the gate on M09-873. After the MALP returned to Atlantis, Woolsey gave them the go-ahead and John flew the first of three jumpers through the gate. They remained cloaked as they made the five minute trip to the big stone building where John had been found. Seen in the daylight, the outside was just as plain and as boring as the inside had been.

"It's like they just built a giant cube on top of the older site," John said.

Teyla leaned forward to look over John's shoulder. "It does not look anything like Esnarian architecture."

"Huh, good point," Rodney said. "When we were here last, it was impossible to tell if the soldiers stationed here were Esnarian or not."

"Exactly," Teyla said. "It is possible that we are dealing with a cult that consists of people from more than just one planet or culture."

"You know," John said, as he landed the jumper. "The book didn't specify a planet or a culture. One more thing we've got to ask these guys." He looked over at Rodney. "We know the layout already, how many people are we looking at besides these three at the front door?"

Rodney studied the jumpers scanners and frowned. "About the same number as last time, but most of them are down on the ground floor this time. Going by the angle of the sun, it's probably breakfast time."

"Sergeant," John said, turning to face the back of the jumper. "How 'bout we go piss in their Cheerios?"

"Works for me, sir." Lee hit the release on the back hatch and then waited with her men.

"Oh, that's very inspiring," Rodney muttered. "Right up there with the St. Crispin's Day speech."

John ignored him in favor of contacting the other jumpers. "Okay, people, let's stick to the plan. Miller, you stay cloaked for now. Lorne? We might as well let 'em know we're here."

"Move out," Lee said.

The three guards at the main door all but fell over themselves when the two jumpers appeared in front of them, and then they froze as the Marines rounded the jumper and ran into their field of vision.

John's brow furrowed a little, and suddenly Rodney could hear everything that was happening outside.

"Drop your weapons!" Lee yelled. When one of the men hesitated, she took a step forward, aiming her P90 at him. "Drop 'em!"

Once all of the guards had dropped their muskets and swords, a couple of the Marines moved in and cuffed them using flex cuffs. The rest covered the door and waited while the squad from Lorne's jumper joined them.

"Okay," John said, getting to his feet. "Seems like the people inside didn't hear us. Or they're waiting for us. Either way, it's time for us to go."

"John," Rodney began. He fell silent when John gave him a look.

"Don't. We covered it already." He moved toward the hatch, and Ronon and Teyla fell in behind him as Rodney brought up the rear.

They hadn't been able to alter a tac vest for John, and Rodney wasn't the only one who was unhappy about it. Both Lorne and Lee had wanted John to stay in the jumper until they'd subdued everyone in the building, but John had insisted. Now, as they left the jumper, Rodney hoped that John's appearance would keep this from turning into a fire fight.

If the reaction of the guards was an indication, it would. The moment John came into sight, they dropped to their knees and stared at him. John looked back impassively and then nodded at the door.

"We're going to open the door, and you," he pointed at one of the guards, "are going to announce me. If anyone so much as lifts a hand against my people...." He trailed off and his wings flared out behind him. "I'll be very unhappy."

As Lee cautiously pushed one half of the big double doors open, the guard John had singled out scrambled to his feet and bowed low. As he slipped through the door, Lee motioned and one of her Marines followed.

The wait seemed to take forever; Rodney's hands felt slick on his P90 and he kept shooting nervous glances at John. He was less worried about the possibility of a firefight and much more worried about his chances of reversing what had been done to John. "Relax," John murmured.

"Yeah, like that's going to happen."

Before John could say any more, both of the big doors opened. Several people came out, led by the officer they'd questioned the night they'd rescued John. He was unarmed, as were the rest of the people with him; everyone had their hands spread out away from their empty sword scabbards. All of the were staring at John, even as Lee gestured her Marines to take up positions in front of the door.

"You have returned," the officer said, going down on one knee as John stepped forward. "We are yours to command."

"Seriously?" Rodney muttered to Teyla. "People say that?"

She just gave him a look.

"Glad to hear it," John said with a smile. He walked up to the guy and held out his hand, helping him to his feet. "Let's go somewhere to talk. I could use some information and advice, and I think you're just the guy to give it to me."

"Of course, my Lord."

"I'm not really into formality," John said. "Sir will do fine. And you are?"

"Squad Leader Colvin Milos, my...Sir." He glanced at John. "Will you take a moment to bless the troops?"

John's shoulders went a little tense but he nodded. "Of course." He glanced back. "Sergeant, you're with me."

Milos frowned a little. "Um...." He was a short man and when John looked down at him he bowed nervously.

"Squad Leader," Teyla said, stepping up to join Milos and John. "I am sure you will understand; we were very concerned for the Colonel and we only acted as your own people would were you in danger."

Only Teyla, Rodney thought, could say something like that and keep a straight face.

"I'm sure your troops are disciplined enough that there won't be any trouble," John said, and headed toward the door. He moved quickly enough that he was a few paces ahead of everyone, and Rodney stifled the urge to call him back. From the look on Lee and Ronon's faces as they moved to catch up, he wasn't the only one.

As John pushed the doors open, light from the outside flooded the great hall, throwing John's shadow ahead of him. He spread his wings wide, and Rodney's breath caught in his throat, so caught up in the moment that it was a surprise when Ronon spoke softly.

"All of us need to be as deferential as possible," he said looking right at Rodney. "Call him 'sir'."

"Right," Rodney nodded. "I'll do my best." He stepped forward, following John into the great hall.

John's wings were furled again as he looked over the soldiers kneeling in front of him. After a moment's silence, John raised his hands, palms out, and spoke.

"Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum."

The Church Latin rolled easily off his tongue and the native soldiers looked suitably impressed. Along with the rest of the Lantean contingent, Rodney bowed his head and attempted to look solemn.

"Now, please, as you were." John turned to Milos. "If there's somewhere we can talk?"

"Yes, Sir."

As Milos led them toward the stairs, John looked back at Sergeant Lee. "Carry on, Sergeant."

"But, Sir," she began, a faint frown on her face.

"You have your orders, Sergeant," John said. "I'm sure I'll be perfectly safe with Squad Leader Milos."

"Yes, Sir." She snapped off a perfect salute and John returned it a little more causally.

With Ronon, Teyla and Rodney in tow, John and Milos made their way to Milos' office. It looked much the same as it had a week ago, and John looked at the empty book stand and then at Rodney. "Rodney, we should return Colvin's Book of the Bright Path to him."

"Yes, Sir." Rodney said.

Looking properly gratified, Milos offered John the imposing chair behind his desk. "That's okay," John said, turning one of the smaller chairs in front of the desk around so he could straddle it. "Join me."

"You do me great honor."

Jesus, he sounds like someone from Lord of the Rings, Rodney thought. John must be hating this.

As Ronon leaned casually against the door, John waved Rodney and Teyla over to one of the benches along one wall.

"I do have some questions for you," John said. "Seeing as, how did the Book put it? I came into the world with a clear mind."

Milos leaned forward, a fascinated look on his face. "There has been a great deal of speculation about the meaning of that line, my...Sir."

"Yes, well, turns out it means there's a lot I don't know. I don't know how many planets are waiting for the new Era or how many people follow the Book or if there are signs I should know about."

"Your coming is the greatest sign of all."

Rodney tapped a finger against his leg; he wanted to be down in the cellar digging his way down to the controls from the pod, not listening to this bullshit.

"Thank you," John said dryly. "I knew that much."

"My aplogies...." Milos trailed off as John raised a hand.

"Let's start with something simple," John said. "What were your orders? What were you supposed to do when I emerged from that pod?"

Milos looked confused. "We are...we are yours to command."

John looked really uncomfortable, and Rodney figured he should move things along. "No special prayers or services?" he asked. "To celebrate?"

"No, nothing like that," Milos said. "The Coming of the One is the beginning of a New Era. All things will change."

"Yeah," John said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "They will, just not the way you thought." He glanced at Ronon. "I think we're done here."

"My Lord," Milos began, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Ronon's gun.

"I'll stun you again if I have to," Ronon said.

"But," Milos' face fell, and his shoulders slumped. When he looked at John, his expression was a mixture of betrayal and loss.

"I'm sorry," John said, and if he was lying, Rodney couldn't tell. "But I'm...." He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Yes, I'm a descendant of the Ancestors, but that's all. I'm not some kind of savior."

For a moment Rodney kind of felt sorry for Milos and all the cultists, but then he looked at John, whose wings were furled up tightly against his back. The hell with them,he thought, remembering John comparing what had been done to him to their treatment at the hands of the Replicators. Them and their fucking religion.

"I still have questions," John said. "Are you Esnarian?"

Milos looked stubborn, and John frowned at him. "Say you go through the gate on a peaceful trading mission, get grabbed and taken away from your people. You're shoved into a pod and when you wake up you've been physically altered. How the hell do you think I feel?" He rose to his feet and took a step toward Milo, his wings flaring behind him. "You better give me some answers, or so help me...."

"We're...yes, we're Esnarian."

Rodney was crap at telling whether people were lying or not, but both John and Teyla were pretty good at it. They were also pretty awesome at good cop/bad cop, and now Teyla got to her feet and moved to John's side. She rested a hand on John's arm, pulling him back a little before she turned her attention to Milos.

"Are there any other worlds that share your beliefs?"

"No," Milos sounded almost indignant. "We are the only people of the Bright Way."

"Good to hear," John said. He glanced at Rodney. "Anything else?"

"The Book didn't say anything about how the change came about. How did you know what do to, once you had him?"

"Answer him!" John snapped when Milos hesitated.

"It's in the Commentaries." Milos glanced at his bookshelf. "The green book."

Rodney went over and grabbed the book off the shelf. "We know you just shoved him into a pod. Did you do anything else once he was in there, or did the pod do it all?"

"No. The pods are the art of the Ones Who Went Before. It is beyond us."

"Anything else?" John asked Rodney.

"Not that I can think of right now, but I might have more questions later."

"Okay, cuff him and bring him downstairs. We've given Lee enough time to deal with his troops."

"My people are true believers," Milos said quickly. "But they had nothing to do with this. They just follow my orders."

"Lee had orders to use stunners unless our people were in danger," John said. "I didn't hear gunfire of any kind, so I'm assuming everyone's safe."

"Thank you." Milos held out his hands, wrists together, but John shook his head.

"No, I don't think we need to use those on you." He gave Milos a hard look. "For now."

Rubbing the back of his neck, John looked at the door a little reluctantly. "Okay, I guess we should get down there and bring in the engineers."

"You know," Ronon said. "You could have Lee hold those troops in one of the barracks rooms upstairs. They're big enough, and it'll keep everyone out of your way."

"Good idea," John said. "Thanks."

Ten minutes later, Rodney stood with Sergeant Mason at the top of the stars that led down to the pod room. "I hate to say it, Doc," Mason said, "but I think we're gonna have to start from here."

Rodney frowned, but Mason was right. There was no way to get the heavy equipment down the narrow staircase. "Yeah. We also don't want the whole building landing on our heads." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay, then, bring your guys in and get started."

"It's okay," John said quietly. "These guys are fast; an extra hour isn't going to hurt."

"I know. I just...." Rodney sighed.

"Yeah."

Over the years, Rodney had worked with Mason to incorporate Ancient technology into standard equipment, and he'd learned to trust that Mason and his Marine engineers would get the job--whatever it was--done. That didn't stop him from keeping a close watch on the work as Mason and his men started in on the floor of the great hall.

"Rodney," John said after about twenty minutes. "Let the guys do their jobs."

"You do remember that my first PhD is in engineering?"

"Yes," John said, grabbing the loop on the back of Rodney's tac vest and pulling him out of the way. "And Mason's only got a Masters and what...fifteen years' experience, including all the times he's dug us out from under collapsed buildings and mine shafts and so on. I think he can dig a hole in a floor without you backseat driving."

"Fine, fine," Rodney said, pretending not to notice the grateful look Mason gave John.

By the time the engineers reached the room with the pods, Rodney was sure he would have taken less time by himself with a shovel. He and John went down first, John holding up a hand when Mason and the other engineers made ready to follow them.

"Give us a minute."

"So," Rodney said. "Um...this is it."

"Yeah, I've seen it before." Then, as Rodney scanned one of the pods, he reached out and tugged him away, using his tac vest again. "Stay away from that," he snapped. "Or did you forget you have the fucking gene?"

Rodney blinked at him. "Oh. But didn't you say they had to put you in?"

"Because I was struggling. The pod just opened up."

"Huh," Rodney said. "But they still had to actually put you in the pod." He pulled away from John's grip. "I need to scan one as it activates to see what the power source does. I promise I won't step into it."

John scowled, and he didn't let go of Rodney's vest. "I guess, but I'm going to keep a hand on you. Those vines might be there for a reason."

"Oh um...yeah." Rodney stared at the pod, swallowing hard and trying to ignore the coil of fear twisting in his stomach. "Okay, then." He stepped closer to a pod, his scanner at the ready.

Even though he was expecting it, Rodney still jumped a little when the pod started to split open. It looked just like the pod that John had been in--peeling just like a banana--a banana that could alter his body and brain. He didn't fight it as he felt John pulling him back a little, but he managed to keep his eyes on his scanner.

Just as he'd expected, the power source spiked. "Okay, that's what I wanted to see."

"You already knew there was a source down there."

"Yeah, but I didn't know that it actually powered the the pods. They could have independent power sources," Rodney said, stepping forward toward the pod. Without even thinking about it, he reached back and batted at John's hand where it was gripping the loop on his tac vest.

"Rodney?"

"Hmmm?" Rodney frowned a little and dropped his scanner. He got two steps closer to the pod before John yanked him back hard.

"Rodney!" John yelled. "Hey, Ronon! Get down here!"

When Rodney came back to himself, he was face down on the dusty floor, sneezing. Ronon and John were both pinning him down and they were surrounded by people. He tried to sit up, but John and Ronon wouldn't let him.

"Hey," he said and then sneezed again. "Let me up."

"Are you going to stay away from the pods?"

"Of course I am." Rodney frowned, trying to remember what had happened. He'd been scanning the pod and then.... "Oh, fuck."

"Exactly," John said. "Can we let you up?"

"I think so."

As Rodney sat up, both John and Ronon kept their holds on him--Ronon on his arm and John on his shoulder. Rodney frowned and concentrated, trying to figure out if he wanted to get in one of the pods. He didn't, but then he hadn't actually wanted to before. He shuddered.

"That didn't happen to you, did it?" he asked John. "You said you struggled."

"Yeah, but I'd been struggling the whole time. If I'd relaxed, I might have reacted the same way you did."

Rodney sneezed again and then got to his feet.

"Okay," John said, looking around the room. "Let's keep the gene carriers away from those pods."

"I wonder if the pods would have the same effect on non-gene carriers," Teyla said, looking at the pods thoughtfully.

"I'd rather not test that, so everyone needs to stay on this side of the room." John turned to Rodney. "Can they dig down to the power source from over there?" he asked, pointing at the side of the room that was free of pods.

"Let me look at my schematics." After consulting his tablet, Rodney nodded. "Yeah, the power source is under the pods, and the room it's in looks like it's about the size of this one."

He looked around and then beckoned Mason over. "I think if you start here," he said, tapping his tablet. "Right against the wall, we'll avoid the pods and do the least bit of damage to the power room."

"Got it."

"You okay?" Ronon asked as Rodney settled into place as far from the pods as possible.

"Mostly. God, I hate this fucking place."

"Yeah, me too."

Now that they were digging into an unknown area, Mason and his men were more cautious--and therefore even more slow than they had been earlier. By the time they broke through to the power room, Rodney had gone through two power bars and half the water in his canteen. He hadn't really understood or experienced the whole "hurry and wait" thing before he came to Atlantis, but over the last six and a half years, he'd been through it too many times.

Both he and John stepped forward, but Ronon put a hand on Rodney's arm. "Me first."

Rodney stopped immediately, but John frowned. "You won't be able to tell if it's going to affect us."

"Maybe not, but I know a trap when I see one."

"Yeah, okay. But take...." John looked the engineers over. "Stanton with you."

"Will do."

Although it was really only a few minutes, it seemed like forever before Ronon called the all clear back up the shaft. "Shall we?" John asked. He had his game face on, but his wings were restless, furling and unfurling against his back.

"Yeah," Rodney said. His stomach was knotted and he was suddenly sure he wouldn't be able to fix this, that John would have the wings forever and it would be Rodney's fault. Gripping his tablet so hard his knuckles ached, Rodney followed John down into the power room.

The room looked even older than the pod room, and here Rodney could see hints of Ancient technology. He hadn't been expecting that, and he paused by the wall to get his bearings. While there were none of the green vines that covered the walls of the pod rooms, the thick brownish vines that surrounded and held the pods up came right through the ceiling, where they joined into a large column that ran right down to a big green and brown console.

"Huh," Rodney said. "Looks like modified Wraith tech."

"Is that good or bad?" John asked.

"Well, I've had some success with Wraith consoles, so it could be good. It just depends on what else is mixed in there."

Rodney waited a moment after checking his scanner. The console was powered up, but he wanted to make sure he used it because he wanted to and not under some barely felt compulsion. He stayed in place long enough to convince himself that he was safe, and then he crossed the room, pulling cables out of his vest as he went.

It took him a few moments to figure out where to attach the cables, but once he got it, his tablet lit up right away. Now all he had to do was figure out how the console worked. He was lucky in one regard--the only thing the console controlled were the pods, so at least he didn't have to waste time sorting through other systems. Still, he was dealing with hybrid technology in a programming language he could barely understand.

No pressure, he told himself. None at all.

He had no idea how much time had passed before he looked up and surveyed the room. "Teyla?" he said, tapping his radio. "Are you still in the pod room?"

"Yes."

"I need you to clear out the gene carriers if there are any; after that, I want you to watch the pods. Make sure you keep well clear of them."

"I understand." After a moment, she added, "There are no gene carriers in the room with me."

"Okay." Rodney touched one of the controls. "Tell me what you see."

"The pod that opened up earlier, the one that you walked toward, is closing up again."

"Good." Rodney made a note on his tablet and then touched another control before touching the first one again. "How about now?"

"You have closed up the pod we found the Colonel in."

"All right. I can rotate through the pods, so...."

For the next several minutes, he opened and closed several of the pods until he was sure he knew how to select any given pod. Now he had to see if he could find the start up sequence, and then, after that, he needed to try to start one up without actually putting someone inside. He quickly learned that the system wasn't supposed to let him do that, but that was hardly the end of it. He'd jury-rigged more complicated systems than this.

It took dozens of failed attempts before he finally overrode the safeties and got one of the pods to fill up with the thick liquid. "Well, that's something. Teyla? Do you have a sample vial with you?"

"Yes, Rodney."

"Okay: when I open this, take a sample. Be careful, though; get someone to keep an eye on you when you get near the pod."

"I understand."

Once he'd opened the pod again, he felt a touch on his arm. "Fuck! Don't sneak up on me like that."

"Sorry," John said. "Where are we on this?"

"Well, I know the sequence to start and end the process, and we now have samples of the stuff both before it's worked on someone and after."

"Can you reverse it?"

"Yes," Rodney snapped. "Of course I can. I just haven't told anyone because I want to extend the suspense."

"Hey," John said quietly. "You need a power bar?"

"Sorry," Rodney muttered. "I just...you know."

"Yeah," John said, holding out a power bar. "I shouldn't have...."

"It's okay."

Rodney went back to the console, eating the power bar with one hand while holding his tablet in the other. He was beginning to understand the programing language a little better, but it was still slow going. Instead of being a simple derivative of Wraith coding, it had elements from some unknown system. Those Who Went Before weren't just cannibalizing Wraith tech; they actually knew what they were doing. I wonder who they were?

"The problem," he said sometime later, "is that there's only one console. I can't just try to reverse it because if I get the code wrong, I could end up destroying the whole console. So I have to run simulations...this could take a while."

"Is there anything you need?" John asked. "Anyone from Atlantis who could help?"

"No," Rodney began, and then looked around before continuing in a lower voice. "The problem is...look, it's the usual thing. We're dealing with Clarke's Third Law here. I have no idea how this machine interfaces with the pods and that goo, so my best hope is to not worry about all that and just figure out how to reverse it. I'm...."

Fuck, I'm making excuses is what I'm doing.

"Okay, I'll also settle us in for a long haul and make sure Milos' guys are okay." John paused and then added, "Remember what I said earlier. If you don't...it's okay."

No, it's not. It's really not.

All Rodney said aloud was: "Can you have someone bring a chair down here?"

"Sure."

A couple of hours later, Rodney was no closer to a solution. The machine was designed to do one thing and one thing only, and the more Rodney messed with the console, the more he despaired of ever getting it to do anything else. He ran simulation after simulation on his tablet, and each time the result was either failure or failure and the destruction of the console.

This is John, he told himself. He's trusting you to fix this. You have to do it.

All that did was make his back ache and his head hurt. He was so fucking frustrated that when John finally rested a hand on his shoulder and suggested he take a break, he didn't even argue.

It was dark outside, but all three jumpers were uncloaked and manned, so there was a little light near the front door. John ignored the jumpers, though, and kept walking, using the light on his P90 to follow the dirt road that led away from the building. He paused and checked a life signs detector and then kept walking.

"Where are we going?"

"Just a walk," John said.

Rodney frowned but kept walking. As much as he didn't want to admit it, the exercise and the cool fresh air were helping clear his head a little. The problem was, even with a clear head, he was still left with nothing.

"I...." He sighed and shook his head.

John didn't ask him to explain; he just led Rodney further and further from the building until they reached a big flat stone on the side of the road. Sitting down on it, he patted the spot next to him and said, "take a load off."

When Rodney sat down, John turned his flashlight off. They sat in silence for a long time before Rodney couldn't stand it any longer.

"I don't think I can do it."

John didn't say anything for a long moment. "That doesn't sound like the usual 'we're all gonna die' hysterical rhetoric."

"It's not." Rodney sighed. "Someone somewhere for some goddamned stupid reason decided that giving people wings would be a great idea. Such a great idea that they didn't come up with a way to remove the wings."

"Can you...is it like the ascension machine?"

"I thought of that, but no. The ascension machine...it was more like a simple computer that can be programed to do certain tasks. This thing...it's like a saw. You can saw a board in half with it, but you can't use it to put the board back together."

"So that's it, then."

"For now, yes. I've run through every combination of commands, and none of them reverse the process. But," he paused and reached for John's hand. "But we can keep studying the pods and the console and that goo and everything. Figure out how it works so we can reverse engineer it."

"That sounds like a pretty big task."

"It will take time, but there's a good chance...."

"When you propose this to Woolsey, I'm going to argue against it."

"What?! John, no!"

"How many people will you need to work on this? How many man hours?"

"I don't care if it takes the rest of my fucking life! If I have to spend twenty-five years and invent a new math again, I will."

"No. That other time...it was more than just me. And you--that Rodney--didn't have anything else. He'd lost almost everything that mattered to him." His fingers gripped Rodney's hand tightly. "You have better things to spend your time on. You have Atlantis."

"And you? What do you have?"

"I have...I have Atlantis, too. Look, I'm not saying that this doesn't suck, because it does. But even if they let you work on this twenty-four/seven--which they won't--it'll eat your life."

"So you want me to just give up?" Rodney turned toward John, trying to see him. "And damnit, you did this deliberately, didn't you? I don't want to have this conversation in the dark."

"I..." John sighed. "I thought it would be easier."

"Well, it's not." Rodney glared at John. "And I have no intention of giving up."

"So getting rid of these...my wings is more important than ZPM research? It's more important than researching weapons we can use against the Wraith? It's more important than exploring the City and this galaxy?"

And maybe being in the dark was a good idea; Rodney was pretty sure he couldn't have said this in broad daylight. "You," he said. "You are more important."

"Rodney...."

"If it were me, would you give up?"

"If it were you, would you let me waste the rest of my life?" John moved closer, his shoulder bumping against Rodney's. "I'm not more important, and you know it. It's not like I'm dying or stuck in a time dilation field or being forced to ascend or likely to infect others or turning into a fucking bug."

"No, but you won't be able to go into the field nearly as often. And what if they take your job away from you?"

"What are they going to do, recall me to Earth? Do you really think Woolsey would go for that? Maybe before we came back, but now?"

"No, he probably wouldn't." Rodney sighed. "But that doesn't matter. I...John, I have to try. I can't...as long as there's the possibility that I can fix this, I can't let it go."

"Even if I ask you to?"

"John...please don't."

"How about a deal? Woolsey might protect me from Earth, but he won't let you work on this all the time, and you know it."

"A deal?"

"You work on it a certain number of hours in a week, barring emergencies and missions and the demands of your job."

"I...I don't know."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Rodney." John reached down, and Rodney heard a snick snick noise, and then John put his flashlight on the stone between them. Lit from below, John looked a little creepy, but also determined. "Which would I rather have? No wings? Or a boyfriend who spends all his time bent over a goddamn computer? It's a fucking no-brainer."

"Oh...."

"Yeah, oh." John ducked his head. "I hate to sound like someone from a romance, but I don't want this to fuck us up."

"And that's exactly why I want to fix this?"

"I told you I wouldn't blame you."

Rodney knew it wouldn't be that easy, couldn't be that easy. But when, he thought, had it ever been easy?

"After all," John said, leaning in until he blocked the light from the flashlight. He kissed Rodney and then murmured against his lips, "I can still fly."

* * *

Epilogue

"Hey, Rodney," John said as the door to their quarters closed behind him. "Whatcha doin'?"

"You sound like a ten year old," Rodney said without looking up from his laptop.

"Wish I felt like one."

That got Rodney's attention, and once he actually looked at John, he frowned and pushed the laptop aside. "Bad day at the office, dear?"

"Yeah." John came over to stand next to Rodney and then turned his back. Over the last several years, John had experimented with a number of different shirt designs, but the only ones that he could put on himself were sleeveless and left his back mostly bare. With the Hammond docked out on the East Pier and the City full of new people, Rodney knew that John wanted to be as covered up as he could be.

Now, as Rodney unbuttoned John's shirt, John sighed and Rodney could see his shoulders relax a little.

"Sam's not giving you grief is she?" Rodney had had lunch with her, and she seemed the same as usual--she'd spent most of their time together talking about all the science she wished she had time for. It was kind of nice for her to be jealous of him for once.

"Nah," John said. "We're good. It's just...lots of paperwork and meetings. Two of my all time favorite things."

"And new guys."

"That wasn't such a big deal this time. I think someone back at the SGC is actually showing them video or something. Or maybe this batch just has better manners than the last group."

"That's good." Rodney tossed John's shirt behind him and leaned in and kissed the smooth patch of skin between John's wings. "You okay for the mission tomorrow?"

The team might not be doing first contact missions any more, but that didn't keep them out of the field.Tomorrow's mission was a pretty typical one--they were meeting with the Nelats to renew their trading agreement. Next week, they had a sit down with the Genii, and Rodney knew John was looking forward to it. John's wings seriously freaked Ladon out, and John tended to keep them in constant motion whenever they met.

"Of course," John said. "We get better snacks on Nelat than I do during meetings with the Quartermaster."

"Mmmm, yeah. I love those little pastries with the berries. We need to get the recipe for those."

"I'm sure if you ask Teyla, she can work it into the agreement."

Rodney stepped back watching as John stretched. "So, you're going to go out, then?"

"I spent all day sitting in a chair talking about ammunition counts and supplies and team rosters and the situation back on Earth and more stuff about supplies and all the usual crap."

"I take it that's a yes?"

"Yeah."

It was summer on Lantea Three and the evenings were long and warm, so John changed into a pair of shorts before he headed toward their balcony. As he stretched out a little, rolling his shoulders and doing all the little things he did before flight, Rodney remembered that first year, when John had only flown near the unpopulated sections of the City. He'd allowed more footage to be shot, but when he was flying for fun, anyone actually watching him had done so on an invitation only basis. Even in the warmest weather, he'd left his pants and boots on.

Now Rodney caught his breath as John stepped up onto the little table they kept on the balcony and then up onto the railing; he was always sure John was going to fall. He hadn't yet, but that didn't stop Rodney from worrying.

"Relax," John said over his shoulder.

With a snort, Rodney walked out onto the balcony. "Because that's me, Dr. Relaxation."

"Dr. Relaxation, huh? Sounds like either a late night DJ or a brand of sex toys."

Rodney laughed. "One of those cheap brands with the tacky packaging. Dr. Relaxation's prostate stimulator...ribbed for your enjoyment."

"Oh, baby," John said. He turned a little, keeping one hand on the the balcony support next to him and grabbing at the crotch of his shorts with the other. "I got your prostate stimulator right here."

"Never mind falling," Rodney said, taking a step closer. "I'm going to push you."

With a grin, John leaned forward and dove off the balcony.

"I hate it when you do that!" Rodney yelled, running to the railing just in time to see John spread his wings and catch an updraft.

Almost five years, Rodney thought as he watched John fly out over the ocean. After all that time, after seeing John fly almost every day, the sight still took his breath away. He wasn't the only one; right now, all over Atlantis, people would be stopping what they were doing and rushing to a nearby window. Somehow, in the same way that gossip got around so fast, people always knew when John was flying. And John was surprisingly okay with it.

Some days, he just flew for exercise--the flying simply an evening counterpart to his morning run. Some days he went out to burn off steam, flying instead of going to the gym to hit the punching bag or the range to waste bullets on paper targets. And then there were days like today, when he'd been bored all day and just wanted to play.

Rodney watched, grinning, as John started flying higher and higher, in an ever-widening spiral, until he'd gone far enough that he looked no larger than a bird. When he came back down, he was gliding, his wings stretched out fully as he let a draft carry him. He was, Rodney thought, hardly for the first time, incredibly beautiful. He was still John--always John no matter what--but in the air, he was free of all the burdens and expectations and constraints that made up his daily life. The only other time Rodney saw him like that was during sex, and it wasn't a surprise that John often compared flying to fucking.

Finally John came back in, wings moving steadily as he angled his body just right. There was a reason their quarters had very high ceilings and huge windows that looked out over the balcony and then the sea. For all that John was pretty damn maneuverable and could turn on a dime when he was in open air, landing was a little trickier and he liked to have plenty of room.

He managed it perfectly today, however, and Rodney just looked at him for a long time. If John flying was beautiful, John after flight was just plain hot. His hair was even messier than usual--Rodney was glad John was going gray instead of bald because he loved John's hair--and his face and chest were just a little flushed. He was breathing hard, and Rodney felt a small curl of want coiling low in his belly. John's wings, he thought with a small smile, would need oiling after John showered.

"Have a good time out there?"

"Yeah." John moved in close and reached out for Rodney's shoulders. Pulling him in a little, he leaned down and kissed him. It was a light, easy kiss, more of a promise of things to come than anything else. "Sunset's gorgeous tonight," John said.

Rodney turned to look at it, and John stepped behind him, wrapping his arms around Rodney's middle and leaning his chin on Rodney's shoulder. He was right, the sunset was beautiful; there were clouds out on the horizon and everything was pink and purple and dusky rose like a Maxfield Parrish painting.

"Tell me you're not going to work too late tonight," John murmured, his breath tickling Rodney's ear.

Rodney knew what John meant, and he took a deep breath. "I...um...." He tried again because it was time, it really was, only he wasn't quite sure how to say it.

In the end, he went with the truth. "I'm not working on...that. "Radek has some ideas about improving the hyperdrives on the puddle jumpers. Just now I was looking over his progress, checking to see if I saw any errors."

"You were checking Radek's work in your spare time?" John's tone was casual, but his arms tightened around Rodney's waist.

"Yeah," he said. "I was."

John remained silent for a long moment, and Rodney couldn't help trying to fill that silence. "I...maybe I overlooked something...with the pods. I could...if you want me to keep trying...."

"Rodney?"

"Yes?"

"Better hyperdrives in the jumpers would be pretty awesome."

"Really?"

"Yeah," John said. He brought his wings in and curled them around Rodney. The feel of the textured, pebbly skin and the faint dusty scent was as familiar to Rodney as the touch of John's hands and the curve of his mouth. "Really."

Rodney let out a long shaky breath and leaned back against John's chest. Later, there would be dinner and wing care and, hopefully, sex of some kind, but for now, it was enough to know that John was okay. They were okay.

Wrapped up in the warmth of John's wings, Rodney watched the sun sink over the far horizon.

end