Summary: Rodney McKay, many would agree, was not a very nice man. It was not that he intended to be harmful or rude to anyone, or that he meant to send new students scurrying away in tears, Rodney was just blunt - and perhaps a bit dense socially. And he didn't tolerate failure.
**10/22/09: New Version posted: The Personal Remix. The New Version is a highly edited form of this story, and should be read in place of this story. This version will remain only for those who prefer the older style, and will not be further edited.
Title comes from a song by Avril Lavigne, "Keep Holding On". This song is most definitely recommended listening material while reading.
Author's Chapter Notes:
EDITED: April 25th.
Therefore foresight, thought for the future, is always best: he must abide much of good and evil who lives for long in these woe-filled days in this dark world. -Beowulf, ll. 1059-1062 --------------------------------------------------------- A lonely howl broke through the night air, rousing an answer from the pack. They knew it was nearing the time when the lone wolf's exile would come to an end - his actions of late had approached the unforgivable. Blackfur - better known as Kavanagh when in his skin - had not yet infected a person, nor had he crossed that thin line between threatening and hurting. He'd not yet killed - he was not that far from the pack yet.
But he had threatened, and even attempted attack. He had tried to hurt humans. He was most vicious towards his colleagues at the research center - where he worked when not out prowling. He envied their relationships with each other, and their intelligence when compared with his own. He never could stand someone smarter than himself, and his patience with those who were was growing as thin as their numbers.
The pack was restless with fear and anxiety. They would have welcomed Blackfur back, even if they did not forgive him for his misdeeds. As it was, he did not want to return. He did not seek to end his loneliness, but to continue it - and that was what made him snappish, angry, and even more arrogant than he had been.
Laura whined at her Alpha, dipping her head and looking towards the sound of the howl. Laura was pretty while in her skin, but the Alpha did not want her - never had. He cared for her like a litter-mate, and she, in return, was one of the fierce fighters that worked to protect the pack's weaker members. It also worked to her advantage, as she was fond of Carson - a member of the pack who worked to supply most of the income for when they walked among the humans. He was a vet, known to the humans as Dr. Carson Beckett, and Laura worked hard as his personal secretary, helping to make him the best in the business in the quaint little town where they had settled - despite the fact that he was the only vet for miles, it did not serve to make him lax in his practices.
The Alpha rubbed his head briefly on Laura's shoulder, showing his understanding. He, too, felt the loss of Kavanagh's presence. He, too, felt the other's pain. They all did.
There was a hole in the pack dynamic now that he was gone. Kavanagh had been smart. Not wise, maybe - not like Zelenka, the small Czech wolf of Weir's pack. Weir was a rare female alpha, and she had gathered her pack well. Zelenka was wise, smart, and inventive. Kavanagh was only smart. They did not despise him for his failings, but he felt them just the same.
Weir's pack was far away now, in their own settlement. They often traveled to the other side of the mountain, which had already been covered in a light spattering of snow from the coming winter. Their allies could not help them retrieve the lost member of their pack - Weir's helpful pack-mate Kate could not help either. Kate was good at listening. When in her skin, it was what she did - she was a therapist, and she listened. Humans called her Dr. Heightmeyer.
The tension in the air seemed to thicken - worry filled the whines that followed the howling answers. Worry for what Kavanagh would do in his anger and resentment.
Aiden paced the clearing, obviously itching for something - anything - to do to release the anxious energy he held inside. He was always full of energy - in his skin it was helpful, as he played the part of a bright young waiter and student known to his peers simply as 'Ford', but now it only added to the weight of the night.
Ronon - a late-comer to the pack, who had lived on his own for decades and knew the dangers - suddenly lifted his head from where he was dozing and growled. The Alpha stepped towards him, curious - Ronon had a very sensitive nose, even in his skin - but stopped as he, too, recognized the scent the wind carried to him.
It was distant, but strong. There was no hiding what it was. Blood.
With a snarl, the Alpha jumped through the tree line and raced after the freshly-spilled scent to its origin.
John Sheppard's pack ran behind him without question, graceful and silent as the wind blowing lazily through the trees, eager for justice.
Rodney McKay, many would agree, was not a very nice man. It was not that he intended to be harmful or rude to anyone, or that he meant to send new students scurrying away in tears, Rodney was just blunt - and perhaps a bit dense socially. And he didn't tolerate failure.
If he needed something done right, and done right now, he did it himself. He double-checked his associate's work, and loudly pointed out their mistakes. He'd made more than one girl break down in sobs in the middle of the lab. He hadn't meant to, he just didn't seem to understand that gentle was sometimes better.
Today he had been bemoaning the loss of Zelenka, his second-in-command research scientist who had returned to his home for the winter. The Czech was the only one even remotely able to keep up with Rodney's mind - as Rodney constantly reminded his crew - and the loss of him every winter was a severe blow to their research capabilities. And once again Rodney had failed to convince him to stay.
It wouldn't have been so bad if Rodney could have somehow forced the other man to stay, threatening Zelenka with deportment or loss of a job, but the truth was that he couldn't. Zelenka didn't need the job or the money, was as legal as Rodney himself was, and was smart enough to follow Rodney's leaps of logic as well.
Having the clearance to work on the project helped as well.
Rodney sighed as he shut down his computer. Despite Rodney's protests over how close they were, Zelenka had still insisted on his annual two-month vacation, and Kavanagh had not reacted well to his superior's constant complaints over the lack of the smaller man. Rodney wouldn't admit that it was because Zelenka was missed in any capacity, but that hadn't stopped Kavanagh from storming off in the middle of the afternoon, leaving Rodney to pick up the slack. He'd stayed as long as he dared to complete the equations, but hadn't the energy left to do so. The formulas danced around his head, elusive and incomplete, an unwelcome compliment to the hum of the computer completing the shut down sequence.
The clock read two a.m., and Rodney stood to stretch the kinks out of his arms and back, letting the numbers dance their way to the back of his mind. Had he misplaced a square root somewhere? Or was there a missing variable in the lead formula? Why wouldn't the numbers match up to the expected theory?
He yawned, pushing the questions down once more. The clock ticked over to one minute after the hour, and Rodney swayed as his stomach reminded him of his hunger. He hadn't dared eat from the cafeteria for dinner, not after they had started serving sandwiches on hated rye bread, and he hadn't expected to stay so late to make up the slack, so it had been a long while since he'd last eaten. He'd hoped to be home long before now.
He wondered if he'd make it home before his sugar plummeted, or if he should stop by the 24-hour store on his way. He wasn't shaking yet, but it had been hours since he'd had even a power bar.
The howl that echoed outside made him shiver. He didn't believe the stories of a wolf terrorizing late-night walkers - stories to frighten children, obviously - but he wouldn't deny that the sounds were somewhat eerie. There really were wolves in the woods, but, like all sensible animals, they stayed far away from the town.
It was a decent walk back to his home - not long, but decent, and he hadn't had the money left for a car after pouring all of it into his latest project. He'd walked the path hundreds of times before, so he wasn't afraid as he locked the doors behind him, and the crickets chirping their last songs before winter truly hit did not bother him. What bothered him was that no one would hear him scream if something happened - for safety reasons, the project had to be a fair distance away from the town, just in case something happened. It had made finding a leaser for the unsealed half of the building difficult, especially since Rodney had insisted on making certain it was understood the other leasers might be forced out eventually. The catering company had been a piece of good luck on a long road of bad. Now, though, he was wishing he hadn't insisted on the distance, or had hitched a ride with someone; it was chilly, and the nights here were always somewhat scary.
It wasn't until he felt the pain that buckled his legs and made him fall face-first on the cement that he thought to be truly afraid. His mind entertained thoughts of muggers and assassins as he scrambled to turn around and see what had hit him.
A black wolf.
The animal charged at him, and Rodney did his best to fend off the beast, struggling to stand and run. Teeth sank into his calf, ignoring the arm that smacked across the animal's muzzle to sink past the thick denim and into skin and muscle. Rodney tried to scream, but there was no air in his lungs for the effort, tears welling up in his eyes as his lungs tightened.
He was able to breathe again as the wolf began tossing his head, digging dirty canine teeth into softer flesh and spilling blood. Rodney was gasping, panting, and this time he did scream as he flung his arm towards the wolf's head.
No one was around to hear him. He'd just locked up the empty research center, and even if those houses closest to him were thin enough that his screams might reach someone's ears, he wasn't near loud enough to rouse the owners from their sleep.
He felt the tears fall from his eyes, overflowing with the sudden increase of pain, and he scrambled to get away as the animal briefly loosened its grip. Something was wrong with his leg - it didn't want to move, and it was starting to go numb - but a moment later felt the teeth sink in further, the wolf hanging on desperately. Rodney briefly wondered why the dog wasn't going for his throat, and then his head filled with the dread of wondering if this was how he would die.
And then there were more of them. Wolves of all colors and sizes surrounded them. One of the newcomers attacked the black wolf, looking like a blur against the darkness of the night. Rodney's leg shook as his attacker was forced from the limb, and he let out another scream.
He heard the tussle, though he didn't see it behind the spots in his vision, and he hoped that they wouldn't come after him again. He turned to try to stand once again, but came face-to-muzzle with another wolf. He gasped, but held still. The wolf wasn't very large, and, now that he had the chance to think about it, they looked more like dogs than wolves. Not that there was a lot of difference - but he fancied that he could see intelligence in those eyes staring at him, not rage.
It made him wonder if he'd gone mad from the pain and shock of the bite - or maybe it was just blind hope in the midst of fear. Animals weren't supposed to be smart.
The fight between the two wolves ended, the black one properly cowed and whimpering, and Rodney turned his head to watch the pair warily.
The seconds seemed to pass like minutes, and Rodney turned back to the wolf - dog? - that was so close he could feel the heat of its breath on his neck. He could always blame it on the shock later, he told himself - and hadn't he talked his cat down from the bookshelf once? "Look, I know you're probably just going to eat me or whatever, and it's been a really nice life, and I can't really blame you or anything, but could you please just make it quick? Not that you can really understand me or anything, but I'm not really into pain, and my leg hurts like hell right now, and really, I'm a scientist, I'm not meant to deal with wild animals, and injury, or even people, really, and I'm feeling somewhat sick, so you may not want to eat me anyway - and I didn't get to leave any notes for Zelenka! Not that he couldn't figure things out eventually, since he's almost as smart as I am, but who knows what could happen with all the trained monkeys that work there, and I really am the smartest person there, even if I can't deal with people very well, and I think I might just be panicking a bit, and I'm really, really hungry, which is odd, but true, and - oh god that hurts!" Rodney winced, curling inwards as he accidentally shifted his injured leg too much, dragging it painfully across the cement.
The wolf in front of him had cocked his ears forward, as if listening to him, and now turned his head slightly, regarding him with hazel-amber eyes that seemed to glow slightly in the night.
Slowly, he stepped over the scientist's shaking body, brushing against arms and torso, and sniffed at the wound. Then he began pulling the denim out of the skin with slow, careful nips, and - just as slow, just as careful - wiped away the blood with his tongue.
Rodney clenched his fists, enduring the treatment for a moment before simply giving up - and passed out.
John glared down at Kavanagh, his hazel eyes flashing with anger. For his part, Kavanagh did not look very repentant; in fact, he looked almost smug.
"If I didn't know better, Kavanagh," John snarled, "I'd think you were proud of the fact that you may have killed a man."
The long-haired man flushed, not raising his eyes to meet John's. "I just meant to scare him, really, and I got a bit...carried away. I went too far...but it was nothing that wasn't deserved. That arrogant excuse of skin finally got what was coming to him - he was bound to piss someone off sooner or later. Maybe it wasn't planned, but it's not unforgivable either."
"That is still up for debate - and not for you to decide," John snapped, voice hard. "It is my decision that will determine your fate, and I can tell you right now a large portion of that depends on the state of the man you've brought into our fold. Know now that if he dies, I will not hesitate to break your neck as well." John paused, letting his words sink in as Kavanagh shifted uncomfortably in the hard chair of the animal hospital's lobby. "Tell me, Kavanagh: was it worth the risk of your own life to get revenge?"
The dark eyes closed as the other man leaned back, away from his alpha, his head hitting the wall behind him. "It was never my intention to risk my own life or his. He will die, I do not doubt that - McKay's weak, and too much of a coward to hold on. I can only beg forgiveness for my own weakness."
"If I were you," John growled, his voice low and deep, eyes flashing with the reflected light, "I would start praying that I was wrong. If he dies there will be no forgiveness - you knew that we would welcome you back and help you work through your issues, and still you did not take what was offered, instead lashing out at innocents."
"So what should I do then?" Kavanagh shouted, clenching his fists.
"Pray," John answered. "Pray to the Moon and all the Heavens that Carson is as good a doctor as he is a vet, and pray to every God you know that this 'McKay' is stronger than you think he is."
John turned and stormed off before the other could reply, snarling at Ronon, who trailed at his side, to stay with the troublesome man and keep him in the clinic. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he pushed his way back into the emergency room of the vet's building.
The man on the too-small, too-cold table was pale, but breathing steadily. "How's he doing, Doc?"
"Better than expected, worse than I'd hoped," the vet answered, his familiar Scottish accent thick with worry. His dark hair was wet with sweat, his mask pulled down around his neck and away from his mouth and nose. The gloves were bloody as he pulled them off, but that was the only sign that the man on the table had had open wounds. "He'd lost quite a bit of blood, and I've none to give him to replace it. Kavanagh very nearly cut the man's hamstrings with his teeth - it was a close call, but he was lucky in that his leg will still work.
"He will, most likely," the vet continued, "have a limp from all the muscle damage. There was simply too much damage to repair - but the good news is that we got him here quickly enough that I was able to do a lot more than I would have otherwise. The pain should be minimal once he recovers, and the limp small. The worst thing right now is the blood loss. If – and I must stress the "if" – he manages to pull through with the gift strong in his blood, it's possible for him to make a full recovery. Given the strength of Kavanagh's gift, it's not as likely, but with the influence of your own it just might be possible."
There was a sigh, catching John's attention. He looked up from his gaze to meet the eyes of one of the oldest members of his pack - Carson had been with John for longer than he could remember. "I'm worried, John," he said, slipping into the familiar reference John allowed him. "He hasn't woken up yet, and since I haven't the proper pain medication to give him...he should have. I haven't the equipment to find out why he hasn't. If he doesn't survive, the strength of his gift will be a moot point."
"What do you suspect?" John's voice was soft, soothing.
Carson collapsed into the chair kept in the back of the room for those pets that needed the owner's presence to stay calm during surgery. He looked exhausted, and John didn't blame him; John was tired himself. "It's late, and I've no way of knowing how long he's been up. It could be simple exhaustion, it could be shock, it could be low blood sugar or blood loss, it could be an adverse reaction to the bite or the gift - lord knows, not everyone can handle it - but the truth is..." the doctor paused, looking sadly at the man laid out awkwardly on the table. "The truth is I just don't know."
"Is he stable?"
"For now, yes. I don't know how long he'll stay that way."
John nodded. "Tell Teyla what you need, and she'll see that you get it. We can keep it on-hand, as well - just as a precaution, of course."
"Tell her to do whatever it takes to get everything tonight. I want this guy to make it."
"Alpha?" Carson asked, voice cautious. "Is there a problem?"
"No one should die because of another man's jealousy - and that's all this is. Kavanagh is out there smelling like a pleased kitten over scaring this guy...and resigned to the fact that McKay will die. I'd rather not lose both of them."
John nodded. "Make sure he makes it, Carson. I need to go run - I need to think. Such aggression is not acceptable, and I cannot simply let it slide."
"Aye. I'll have Laura sit with him; she should be able to keep an eye on things here while I talk to Teyla. Do what you have to, Alpha; I know this is difficult. For all of us."
John nodded again. "And get some sleep yourself - I need you to be in top shape to care for him."
Carson nodded, but John didn't see it as he pushed his way out the doors, hardly aware of the pack members that made their way to his side as he made his way through the halls, stripping as they passed into the mudroom. They flanked him as he walked outside, and changed with him as paws hit the ground on the dirt path; ran with him as he ducked into the woods.
It was just him and the wind and the sound of the pack beside him. He let his paws dig into the dirt, thrumming a jolt through his legs with each stride. His lungs filled and his head cleared. The night was his.
Twenty minutes later, he stopped and howled his grief to the night's moon, just past full and heavy in the sky. The pack joined him, guilty and tired but too nervous for real rest.
They needed to be together for comfort, the entire pack. But Teyla was out getting supplies, Carson was too tired, Laura was sitting with McKay, and Ronon and Kavanagh were - no doubt - exchanging growls inside the clinic. They were too far apart, too scattered by the night.
There was more than one reason to hope McKay lived. Kavanagh's revenge was pointless, yes, but John was certain Kavanagh was just angry and confused, not really aware of the consequences of his actions. He'd said it himself - he had not intended for McKay to die. The grief if he did would be excruciating - for all of them. Beyond that, it seemed as if this McKay guy was smart; maybe he would be what this pack needed to become a solid unit. Maybe they could do more than just survive. And maybe they could teach him a thing or two about being a part of a pack.
McKay also seemed to know Zelenka. It was hard to say if it was close or not - or even friendly, considering the circumstances - but it was there. If McKay was half as smart as he claimed...
Maybe they could finally reclaim the land of their dreams, with enough land for his pack and Weir's to run together again, separate but together under the Atlantis moon.
The day dawning bright and early came as no large surprise to anyone, although many members of the pack wished that the night had lasted longer. Tired and grumpy, they did their best to greet the sun with hope for a better day than the night.
The clinic had to open as normal, of course, although Carson tried to put it off for as long as possible to give both himself and his workers the chance for a short nap. Twenty minutes wasn't really enough, but it was all the chance they had.
McKay - Rodney, Carson corrected himself, having read the copy of the man's medical charts that Teyla had so gracefully retrieved for him - was hooked up to an IV containing nutrients and hydration for his body. Quick blood tests had shown that the sugar level was low, but not dangerously so; he now also had a proper bandage on his leg to prevent disease setting in. Considering that the charts showed a history for hypertension and sleep deprivation, Carson was relieved that the problem was likely just exhaustion.
He was actually very lucky, Carson thought. If Rodney had kicked any harder - thrown the angle of the bite off in the slightest - he might never have been able to walk again. Hamstrings just couldn't be fixed - by anyone - and there was no telling how much damage Kavanagh would have done before he'd realized what was happening.
Rodney was now as comfortable as possible on a cot in the back room, away from any animals the chart claimed he had an allergy to - which could prove to be problematic if true. He would never be pleasant if he was allergic to his own fur, but the gift might ease or even cure such things - if it didn't kill him first.
Teyla was the one who had volunteered to keep an eye on their human patient while Laura and Lorne helped him to keep up with the animal patients. It wasn't easy when he had to examine each and every one himself - and all of them, human and animal, could sense his weariness.
"Are you sure you're all right, doctor?" asked his latest visitor - the owner of a particularly snappish feline, who had been respectfully compliant for once.
It was a question he had heard many times already, and that only added to his fatigue. "Aye, lass," Carson answered, thoughts still on Rodney. "I just had a wee bit of a late night with an unexpected patient." It was the answer he'd given all the other questioning pet owners. He'd perfected the story early on, informing his two assistants to keep inconsistencies down. There was so much work, and so little time.
"Did someone's pet get hurt?" It was rare, but it did happen.
Carson shook his head. "More like I found a wee little lost kitten with a nasty bite. He seems to be doing all right now, though, and I might be able to set him free again soon so that he can find his way home."
The girl raised an eyebrow in surprise, picking up her own cat. Of course, like most cat owners, she wouldn't let it go at that. "You aren't going to try and find the owner yourself?"
Carson shook his head again. "This isn't the type of cat you want to keep as a pet, lass. He belongs in the forest." True enough - if the gift took. Of course, he wouldn't be a cat then, either.
She nodded in understanding, though, cuddling her own pet. "I heard the wolves last night - I wonder if it was them. It must be hard, living out there."
"Aye, but don't you worry. The animals out there know how to survive, and can do well enough without us keeping an eye on them. I just couldn't stand to leave him out there alone. Now, if you don't mind, I've got a little furry friend to examine before I can lay down for a bit - and I think I'm going to need it. Evan is at the desk, and can get everything settled for you." Not that Lorne liked it; he preferred being out and running.
"Of course; thank you, Doctor Beckett."
Carson sighed as the woman left - the last one before his lunch break, and then, if there were no emergencies, there were no more appointments until three. He'd eat first, and then have a short, two hour nap.
But first to check on Rodney.
Teyla greeted Carson with a soft smile as he entered, backing off so that the doctor could look into Rodney's vitals and the equipment.
"He woke up for a short while earlier, and managed to eat something. I did not wish to disturb you; he insisted on calling in sick, and asking someone to feed his pet. He managed to spend ten minutes yelling at someone before I was able to retrieve the phone from him and explain that he was ill, and needed someone to look after his home," she reported. "I did not explain why he was not there, nor to him what had happened last night. He seemed agitated, and fell asleep shortly after the end of the phone call."
"It's all right, love," Carson told her, holding Rodney's wrist in one hand to check his pulse. "I get the feeling that he's going to be a most unusual patient. It's likely that he's simply too tired and confused to be polite; he should recover given time and rest."
"You are tired yourself, are you not?"
"Aye," Carson smiled, amused at the almost-repetition of the question so many others had asked. Teyla, however, knew why he wasn't at his best. "I need to keep an eye on this fellow here, though. I think it's safe to take the IVs out now, if he's able to eat, and he seems to be settling down well enough. I don't think we'll have any more major problems.
"If you could tell Smith to send Alpha a message while I fix Rodney up, I'm sure he'd be pleased to know that our patient is doing well. Not only will he live, but I suspect he'll make almost a full recovery."
"What do you mean, 'almost'?"
It was the first time Carson had heard Rodney's voice, and it was both snappish and cutting as he had expected. Patients - animal or human - didn't like being in pain, and didn't like being attacked; Carson had dealt with enough patients after surgery - and enough snapping turtles - to not be deterred by the tone. He could see the worry underneath, could smell the panic the other couldn't quite hide. "I'm afraid you're always going to have a bit of a limp with that leg, son, but nothing that should be too troublesome. With therapy and time, you may even be able to rebuild the tissue until it's as good as new."
Carson almost found himself mesmerized by the relief that showed itself in those blue eyes. It wasn't that they were particularly beautiful or expressive, but they caught his attention and held it, just the same. It was like the snapping turtles - they hid more than they showed, but they could hold your gaze for hours without blinking. "And then there's also the gift," Carson found himself saying, "but that is for the Alpha to explain to you."
"Why can't you?" Rodney asked, eyes narrowed. "And what happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?"
"Well, for one, it's not my place," Carson said, turning his gaze away to start the process of removing the IVs. "And as for the second, I'm a vet - not a physician. You'll have to ask the Alpha for questions about the gift, but I can answer what I can about your health. Now, are you up to eating anything? I promise - no citrus."
It was a plus that Rodney wasn't sneezing from the cat-hair on his lab coat. He hadn't changed after the last patient, so he hoped that it was a sign the animal allergies were lessening. That could have been medicines and tolerance, too, though; Rodney did have a pet cat, after all – Carson had treated it before, although Rodney hadn't brought the animal in.
It was a better sign that Rodney was up and eating on his own, and that the IVs could come out.
Carson really, really wanted that nap, though.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Rodney snapped. "I thought you said you were going to feed me?"
Carson sent Martin out to inform the Alpha that Rodney was awake and talking; true to his nature, Martin was quick, and he had John back at the clinic within ten minutes of being told he had an errand to run. Carson was relieved to see the lean, tanned form stride into the room and kick a chair around so he could straddle it backwards, his arms resting on the backrest so that he could lazily watch the new patient eat a light lunch.
Carson couldn't blame John for his worry – Carson shared his concerns. Yes, they did have new pack additions, but they had all been graced with the gift for years before being welcomed; Ronon had been a lone wolf, roaming in search of his people, and Teyla had only recently lost a good deal of her pack. She and those who had remained had joined John, eager for the protection of a larger group to run with.
Rodney was the first to have been bitten on John's watch in years - ever since the fiasco with Mitch ten years ago, might the man rest in peace.
It took a few moments for Rodney to speak to John, but he didn't blame Rodney for his concerns either. If the records were right, he was slightly paranoid over his blood sugar levels, and had been ever since a cousin of his died from a sugar crash. Of course, that cousin had been diabetic, but Rodney had been only five at the time, and all he had understood was that his cousin hadn't eaten on time.
"Who are you?" Rodney's voice cut through the silence and Carson's thoughts, causing the veterinarian to jump slightly in surprise.
John simply smirked, and held out his hand for the other to shake. "They call me John Sheppard," he said, not at all perturbed by the icy tone Rodney had given him. "Though I'd have wished for better circumstances, I think it's safe to say that I'm pleased to meet you, Mister McKay."
Rodney didn't take the hand. He made a snorting sound and plucked at what was left of his food until John dropped it. "You probably just want to know if I'm going to press charges - of course, that's assuming that mangy mutt was your dog, but that's the only reason I can see that you'd be here." John frowned slightly. "I hope that thing got put down, he probably had rabies." Real fear cut through the room like a heated blade, sharp and fast, as Rodney turned towards Carson with panic written across his face. "You did check for rabies, right? Oh god, I survived the bite only to be killed by the disease. That other one was licking it, too - there's no stopping it. I'll die and I haven't even gotten my third PhD yet - why haven't you got real doctors in here - "
"Calm down." John's voice wasn't loud, but, then again, it didn't need to be.
"Carson," he continued slowly, "did you check for rabies?" It was meant only for Rodney's comfort; their kind could not carry such diseases.
"Aye," Carson answered, bowing his head slightly as he answered, turning it to the side so his vein showed. And it was true enough - Carson had tested Rodney's blood for any disease he could think of, not just rabies. "He's clean. Only the gift took to his blood, and even seems to be relieving a few of his other problems – allergies, possibly insomnia, and possibly a very low level hypoglycemia as well."
"Good. Why don't you go take a nap while I see to things here? There's no need to run yourself ragged."
Carson let out a sigh of relief - he was just so tired - before leaving.
Rodney swallowed and hunkered down on the cot, making himself as small as possible. Considering the fact that he was a decent sized man - with a bit of a soft belly, John couldn't help but note, and not a lot of coordination or muscle - the attempt was pretty feeble. He avoided John's eyes, playing with the blanket for a moment to stall for time; it was obvious that he wasn't used to such situations when he suddenly blurted: "I won't, you know. Sue. I mean, it wasn't your fault it went rabid or whatever. And...and I won't get you in trouble over it. Obviously you couldn't control it if the animal was sick. I won't even report it."
John waited half a moment before answering. "That's good to know."
The room was quiet. Rodney squirmed. John didn't need the gift to sense the other man's nervousness. "Surely you have questions," the Alpha stated, keeping his voice gentle. John reminded himself that the man on the cot had just gone through an attack, and was probably unsettled enough already. He didn't need to know that his attack wasn't caused by illness.
Rodney nodded in response to the not-quite-question, but didn't voice his curiosities.
John sighed. "Well, I guess then I'll just have to say what I can and hope I answer them. A long time ago, people believed in the true Gods - "
Rodney snorted disbelievingly. "Oh please. Next you'll be telling me about elves, fairies, and werewolves. I want answers, not a bedtime story, Sheppard. Kavanagh could do better."
John was silent, suddenly still and tense.
"Oh, all right," Rodney gave in after a moment, uncertain what button he had pushed to cause the other man to stop so suddenly. "I'm sure it was going to be a good story, with rightly evil vampires, benevolent gods, and scary ghosts - I've heard them all before, Sheppard, and there's no need to repeat such nonsense. I'm no child."
John didn't answer, his gaze fixed on Rodney's face and his mouth set stubbornly shut.
"And Kavanagh's an idiot. Any trained monkey could do better than him - well, except maybe what's-her-face, Kusa-something, but she cries half the time, and that's just not fair."
John almost let out a laugh, but made an effort to keep his face straight.
"You were going to tell me a story, right?"
The dark-haired man gave Rodney a smirk, finally letting his amusement show through. "I guess you'll never know now, will you? I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss such things, McKay - they may just prove true."
"There is no solid evidence that any such mythological creatures exist - "
"Nor is there proof that they do not. I know enough about scientific theory to know that it's near impossible to prove a lack of something that can't be seen or measured."
Rodney stared at him for a moment, silently measuring, before looking away. "Believe what you want, I have work to do. How long before the psycho-vet lets me leave?"
John watched him. "Not for a while yet, I don't think. You need some rest, as does he. It has been as difficult for him to treat you as it has been for you to suffer through this. It is not always easy to receive the gift."
"What is this gift that everyone keeps talking about?" Rodney asked. "And what's so great about it anyway?"
John stood, giving himself a moment to collect his thoughts, and patted a blanket-covered ankle as he walked by on the way to the door. "It's too soon for you yet," he said. "I'll send in some company for you." He was gone.
A few minutes later, a large dog pushed through the swinging doors and hopped up onto the cot, mindful of Rodney's wrapped leg.
"Get off, mutt!" There was the slightest hint of panic in his voice.
The dog settled down beside him, the large brown head on Rodney's thigh as the tail thumped against the bed by his feet. The dog was large, even if he was lean. Rodney recognized him as the 'rescuer' dog from the attack; in the daylight, it was easy to see how Rodney had mistaken him for a wolf the night before. The look and size were both similar, so that in the dark there would be little different to distinguish them.
"I'm allergic, you know." He was calmer, relaxing as the animal made no move to harm him.
The dog whined, inching forward to shove his head under Rodney's hand.
Rodney let himself give the dog a tentative scratch behind the ears, calming further as the dog continued to show no signs of aggression.
The tail wagged with the small concessions, and Rodney sighed. "I guess, since you did save me from that other mutt last night, you can stay for a little while. But if I start sneezing you're gone."
A soft, happy 'arf' was his answer.
Rodney couldn't figure out the dog that Sheppard had sent him for 'company'. He knew it left sometime after he fell asleep, and came back shortly after he woke up and ate breakfast. It didn't stay for lunch, and seemed to have the odd ability to order Carson around.
That was the vet's name, he'd found. And he was fairly proficient in human medicine, he just preferred working with animals.
But the dog...the dog watched him like a hawk. A hawk with large, sharp teeth.
Four days had passed since John had first visited him, and Rodney had been whining since the second that he was fit to leave - or at least work on his laptop. Since he wasn't about to give anyone at the clinic the keys to his house, however, and since no one had yet to come and visit him despite knowing he was ill and where to contact him, Rodney didn't get it. Someone at the center had been feeding his cat, though, and Rodney shuddered at the thought of Kavanagh going through his periodicals.
So instead of actually getting work written down, Rodney found himself working out problems in his head, reciting his theories out loud to the dog, and worrying about his cat. He'd clamp his mouth shut if anyone came in, and made it a point to annoy them with whines about leaving and complaints about whatever project the trained monkeys in his lab were messing up.
On the fifth day, John showed up again - before his mutt had a chance to make an appearance. "Feeling better?"
"Yes, no thanks to you. Your voodoo vet can't keep me locked up here forever, you know. I've already missed a week of valuable lab time, and soon I'll have to start submitting grant applications - I can't do that from in here, at least not without my laptop. And that's not counting the racket my cat's going to put up for being without me for so long." Because, no matter what, his cat loved the hand that fed it - even if Rodney hadn't been that hand for a few days.
"I'm sure he's getting plenty of company from the people you sent to feed him."
Rodney looked away, not voicing his worry that the lab techs had forgotten his pet, or worse – terrorized it.
"Would you like me to look in on him? Maybe bring him in to Carson for a quick check-up and some quality time?" John asked after a moment.
Rodney didn't answer, still wary of handing over his keys, but growing more concerned over his pet as he didn't hear a thing from his coworkers.
"Maybe later," John conceded when the silence threatened to grow awkward. "Are you feeling up to walking for a bit?"
"Of course!" Rodney snapped, indignant. "What do you think I've been telling these morons for the past few days?"
John held out his hand. "Come on, then."
"What? Wait - don't I get crutches or something?"
John smirked. "You get me. Considering the fact that I carried you all the way here, I don't think you have anything to worry about; I'm stronger than a crutch, and smarter too."
"That's debatable," Rodney shot back, looking John up and down. "And you look like a twig. No offense."
John's eyebrow twitched, but he kept his smirk firmly in place and held his hand steady.
"If I fall, I really will sue. I don't care what your arguments are."
John didn't move.
"I - "
"You're going to have to trust me, McKay," John interrupted. "It's not far. You said yourself that you wanted to get out of here, and I think Carson would like to get you some fresh sheets."
Rodney hesitated a moment more.
"I won't let you fall. I promise."
Rodney bit his lip and took the hand, turning so that he could let his legs down over the side of the bed on his own. John pulled Rodney's arm over his shoulders, crouching down so that the injured man didn't have to stand just yet, and wrapped his other arm firmly around Rodney's waist.
"You ready?" John asked.
Rodney nodded, not looking the other man in the face.
"Okay then - one, two, three." John lifted and Rodney pushed himself up. Within moments he was standing on unsteady legs, one foot firm while he gingerly tested how much weight his injured leg could take on.
Not much, but some. Enough to hobble on.
"Come on," John urged, pulling Rodney towards the door. "Let's get some fresh air, and, since you weren't getting many visitors, I want to introduce you to someone."
"Who said I wasn't getting any visitors?"
"A little birdie told me," John told him, voice light while his face revealed nothing.
Rodney frowned, but didn't push, instead devoting his energy towards the odd walk-limp-hop he was managing to pull off with Sheppard's help. There wasn't really a reason to argue after all; any one of his 'caretakers' could have told the other man about the lack of concern over Rodney's supposed illness. He quickly banished the thought that the scientists were celebrating his absence - even they weren't that cruel. They probably just thought that he was slacking off, or going off on one of his tangent projects and didn't want to be disturbed. Hopefully they had remembered his cat, though.
"I do need to get home," Rodney mentioned, more for a moment to stop and catch his breath than to voice further complaints. They'd only made it down the hall and around the corner, but hopping along on one foot wasn't easy, even with John taking most of his weight. "Make sure those idiots fed Newton, get my laptop, make sure nothing's in danger of blowing up..."
"Is your work really that dangerous?"
"When you work with morons like I do? Of course. I may be a genius, but I'm not a cure for stupidity in the lab. I swear last week what's-his-name - Smiters, Smith, something like that - was trying to do some damage by initializing the remote radio sensors before the reactions were finished." There was no doubt in his voice that this had been an incredibly stupid move. "I'd swear they all got their degrees from a Dollar General store."
"Maybe they just can't keep up with your intelligence."
"Of course not. Didn't you hear me when I said that I was a genius?"
"And so modest, too," John teased. "Well, genius, are you ready to move again?"
"What?" Rodney gave him a blank look before remembering that they were standing in the middle of the clinic's hallway. "Oh. Right. Is your hair always like that?"
"Well, last time I thought it was just because it was the middle of the night. You know, bed head? But it's all..." Rodney waved a hand at John in the general direction of his hair.
"Yes, McKay, it's always like this."
"Huh. Another oddity."
John didn't comment, instead pulling Rodney along the last few feet to the clinic's back door - the closest of all the exits to the room he'd been staying in.
The ten minutes it took to get out and seated on the wooden bench seemed to take hours in Rodney's mind. His left leg, unused to taking the brunt of his weight, felt shaky and weak; his right arm felt sore from where it was thrown over John's shoulders, bracing his body against the other man's. He'd broken a sweat before they'd even made it to the back parking lot.
John helped him to get comfortable on the bench, throwing his light jacket over Rodney's shoulders and crouching down before him. "Still think you can make it on your own?" he asked, a quiet smile on his face to cover his concern.
"Oh ha ha, very funny Sheppard," Rodney snapped, clenching his hands in the leather. "Remind me to laugh once I catch my breath."
John let his lips quirk up in a strange sort of smile. "Well, maybe I can see if someone can stay with you. Someone who knows how to change your bandages and can put up with your snark."
"Why do you care, anyways?"
"Why shouldn't I?" John shot back, not looking disturbed in the least.
Rodney gave him a funny look, like he couldn't quite understand the man with the fly-boy hair and hazel eyes.
"Wait here for a bit," John said as he stood, once again not letting the silence drag on too long. "I'll be right back."
Rodney almost mentioned that he couldn't go anywhere, but bit his tongue against the comment. Slouching down on the bench, he huddled into the jacket that smelled faintly of the man who had worn it - and how he knew that he never could have guessed. It was clean, but that only reminded him of how grimy he had felt. He hadn't had a shower in days, and had refused to allow Carson to give him a sponge bath. He also hadn't had any other clothes to change in to, and hadn't really wanted to ask the vet for anything else.
He couldn't really pay for the treatment as it was. It wasn't like Carson was an actual doctor - and he still wondered about that, occasionally, but had accepted that he wasn't going to get any answers until John felt like giving them - but he didn't doubt that the man would expect some sort of fee.
The rent was due in a few weeks, the water and electric bills he'd gotten just before he was attacked. There were probably more in his mailbox even now. It was going to be tight this month - being a scientist hadn't really paid off the way he'd expected it to; only the military paid that well, and they didn't want theorists from Canada, they wanted scientists that worked with weapons.
He fell asleep wondering if John would let him go home just because he smelled bad, and running the equations for the experimental worm-hole theory he'd found in the library's more-recent but less looked-over files.
John let a rare full smile grace his face as he knelt down and ran his hand through Rodney's hair. Once more crouched down before the scientist, he considered letting the man rest for a while longer. Rodney had fallen asleep in an awkward position, though, his head falling forward and his body slouched down so that his spine pressed into the wooden back of the bench - he was asleep sitting up, oddly enough.
The walk, short as it was, had completely worn him out.
Carding his hand through the receding hairline, however, was enough to stir Rodney from the light doze.
"Hey," John greeted, morphing the smile back into a familiar smirk as blue eyes blinked open.
"Sheppard?" Rodney asked, sitting up straighter while one hand went to rub at his sore neck.
"How are you feeling, buddy?" John's voice was gentle as Rodney moved to rub the sleep from his face, one hand still holding on tight to the jacket John had covered him with.
"All right, I guess."
"That's good; I want to introduce you to the biggest part of the gift today, which is also the hardest for outsiders to accept. First, though, I need your keys."
That got Rodney's attention immediately. "Why?" he asked sharply.
"I managed to swing by your house and take a peek in through the windows - I got the address from your medical records, since Carson had them," he explained at Rodney's wary look. "And I probably looked like a right fool peeking in the windows like some thief, so you'd better be grateful," he teased. "Anyways, it looked like your little friend wasn't doing so well, and I thought Carson might want to take a look at him."
Rodney immediately dug around in his pockets for the right key - if they really wanted it from him, he thought to himself, they could take it from him anytime. There wasn't really much point in making a big fuss. "He's not..."
John waved off the concern. "He maybe missed a meal or two - not many - probably as a result of staying home alone so long. Heaven knows, I would be lonely if I were cooped up by myself all day. Still, it's better to be safe than sorry - and I'm sure he'd be happy to see you."
Rodney held out the key, but held on to it a moment when John made to take it from him. "If anything's missing when I get back..."
"You know my name, my friends, and where to find me," John finished for him. "I'm not a thief, McKay; you have nothing to fear from me." The key disappeared into his jeans, tucked safely into a pocket. "Now, the gift. Are you ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Rodney grumbled.
"Ronon, Teyla - come on over."
At John's command two large dogs made their way out of the woods and came to sit on the cement before Rodney and John. The first was smaller, female, and covered in reddish fur. She moved with a sort of grace that the second dog lacked, a grace that was almost feline, smooth and deliberate in a way that Rodney had never seen before in a dog.
The second dog was more of a giant of its kind; he had large, powerful jaws, large teeth, and strong paws. Despite his size, his movements were just as quiet and deliberate as the females; he reminded Rodney of a hunter.
"I'm sure by now that you've noticed your allergy to dogs has been mostly, if not completely, cured?" John asked.
Rodney nodded. "I don't see what that has to do with this, though."
John moved to sit beside him, facing the pair. "It is one of the lesser aspects of the gift - a way of easing it for those less capable of accepting it as they are. Now, the best way to explain the gift is to show it, but I need you to not panic - no one here will hurt you, okay?"
Rodney gave him an odd look - a look John had come to associate with Rodney's confusion, and feeling that his companion was a moron. "There's only you and me here."
"Trust me," John repeated his earlier words. "Watch the wolves." Rodney turned his head to keep them in his sights. "Listen to them as carefully as you can - every sound. Watch their every move. Tell me what you see." His tone was expectant.
"A pair of mutts that have been running through the woods and that probably have ticks," Rodney answered, frowning. "Are they really wolves? They look almost like dogs."
John looked displeased as Rodney took a quick glance at his face, and Rodney got the feeling that he had, for once, failed at something. Which was ridiculous, since he hadn't actually been doing anything. "It's been a long time since I've had to do anything like this," John said, voice resigned, ignoring Rodney's question. "It was easier when they already knew the stories - already suspected they knew what the gift was."
Rodney thought for a moment. "You mean that ridiculous bedtime tale you tried to feed me the first night?" Rodney asked. "What good could that do?"
"Think of it this way," John said, brushing off the question, "and just humor me for a few minutes. Picture yourself as a wolf - something like these two before us. Think of yourself as something like a werewolf, but with the ability to change yourself at will. Please, McKay, just do it and don't ask questions," he said in response to the sour look on Rodney's face.
"You do realize that this is insane, right?" Rodney asked. "And that you are quite possibly insane as well? Werewolves - or whatever mutation you'd have me believe this is - don't exist."
"I believe you are mistaken, Rodney," came Teyla's sweet voice. "Our werewolf kin are not yet extinct, though some might wish it so."
The smaller red wolf was gone, and Teyla stood in her place, completely naked.
"I was trying to break it to him gently," John almost growled, his hand tightening into a fist on the bench. "But thank you, Teyla," he conceded. "I'm afraid his thick skull just wasn't letting it sink in."
"Indeed. If it would please you to see Ronon change, Doctor McKay?" Rodney shook his head in answer to Teyla's question. "Then Ronon and I will leave you to the Alpha's care. If you have need of us, you need only call."
He watched her shift back, the hair shifting across her skin as fur, bones rearranging themselves in her body, her spine stretching out to make a tail, her nose and mouth morphing into a muzzle, her hands hitting the ground as paws and her legs shifting angles and shortening. It wasn't long before the two wolves were trotting off into the woods.
"McKay?" John's voice was soft, probing.
Rodney swallowed. "I want to go home."
"Look - "
"Take me home!" It was desperate, needy.
"Okay." John put a hand on Rodney's shoulder, as comforting as he could. "Okay. I'll take you home."
Rodney buried his face in his hands.
Rodney didn't call him a liar, didn't try to explain away what he'd seen as illusions or hallucinations, didn't complain the way John had come to expect of him at the clinic – he didn't say anything at all.
The ride to his house was ominous in its silence. John didn't like it – the quiet made him itch with the feeling that something was wrong – but he tried not to let it get to him.
Rodney had made it to the car, and was probably tired – he had fallen asleep on the bench, after all – but John didn't think fatigue had much of anything to do with the scientist's quiet. John could almost hear the wheels turning in the other man's head, examining and rejecting theories; he knew that whatever Rodney was thinking about wasn't good. John didn't argue against it, or try and set things right. It was natural for outsiders to question things, after all. It was just a part of accepting the gift.
Sometimes it didn't turn out for the better, but John had hope for Rodney.
Rodney allowed John to help him into the house and settle onto the bed. He didn't even complain about needing to stop and rest when he was obviously tired; John simply slowed his pace, and let Rodney take his time. John locked the door behind them and made certain that the cat had food and water while Rodney reacquainted himself with his room. When he thought it was safe to check on the man again and see how Rodney was, he found the pale man sitting on the bed and running his hands through his cat's fur, smiling slightly at the little purring sounds the animal was making.
"If you'd get me a change of clothes, I'd like to take a nap now." It was the first Rodney had spoken since 'take me home.'
John went to the chest of drawers and began searching for something appropriate. "McKay?" he probed softly when the other man seemed lost in thought.
"Was it someone I know?" Rodney asked after a moment.
The injured man was quiet for a moment, and John put a clean pair of boxers and an undershirt on the bed – it was all he had found that seemed both clean and comfortable enough to sleep in. Rodney didn't look up at him. "I'm not stupid, you know," the scientist continued, hand stilling on the cat's back. "It doesn't take a genius to figure it out. So I want to know who it was."
John didn't even try to pretend that he didn't know what Rodney meant after that. "It's against the rules to attack someone – to even mingle with humans at all in our fur is discouraged, excepting some special circumstances. We knew he was upset, but we didn't know he'd...lash out like that. His actions won't go unpunished, but," John paused, taking a breath, and tried to get a glimpse of the blue eyes that had been so elusive since he'd put on his skin. "Well, I told him his punishment depended on how well you recovered."
Rodney let out a short, sardonic laugh. "I should have known. He's probably taken over the lab already."
"He hasn't been allowed to return – and that will continue until you are able to go back as well."
"And my 'company'?" Rodney asked.
John hesitated a moment before answering. "Myself," he said softly. "Just me."
"And you insist on staying, no matter what I say?"
John nodded. "It's not safe yet to leave you alone, for you or for us."
Rodney frowned, letting the cat jump down from his lap. "There's a guest room down the hall. Don't eat my cat."
John accepted the dismissal for what it was – Rodney did, after all, deserve some time to himself to rest and sort things out on his own.
The full moon was approaching, however, and they had not escaped the fate of their werewolf kin. The night of the full moon, John knew, Rodney would be a wolf whether he liked it or not. John tried not to think of the alternative.
The guestroom was smaller than the master bedroom, and sparsely furnished. The bed was a futon, and looked like it never got much use – it was almost new, if not for the layer of dust on the sheets, the springs still squeaking with new stretch and strain. There was a nightstand with a lamp, and a short chest of drawers with a standing mirror, but aside from that not much decorated the room. From the look of things, Rodney had spared no expense on his own bedroom – on his own house – but when it came to the comfort of others, or even the luxury of a car, he baulked. John wondered for a brief moment why, then realized that it didn't matter. He would have plenty enough time to get to know Rodney once he was one of the pack.
John opened up the window by the bed, letting in the fresh air and clearing out a bit of the dust. He could hear the sounds of his pack, roaming the forest without him. Teyla would keep them in line, much as she had been doing for the past few days – more? – while he was distracted by their newest member.
Tomorrow, he decided, he would help Rodney exercise and build up strength in his injured leg. Tomorrow night, he would help Rodney transform – and reveal to him the consequences of failure. They would do what they could; John had had enough of not being with his pack.
Stripping off his clothes, the alpha wolf let the change take over him. He would not be running with the pack – not now, and not later tonight – but he would have this. Rodney would not want him in the room – although he doubted the other man would kick him out – and so he had to prepare himself for a long, lonely night.
He howled out the window at the sun, reminding both himself and his pack that they were not alone, and reminding Rodney of what they were. It was a reminder that, somehow, they would all pull through this, and that everything would be all right.
John didn't know if he believed that, but he had to have faith in it. They all did.
Feeling better, he returned to his skin and dressed before heading towards the kitchen. He would need to examine the food situation before Rodney woke up, hungry for lunch, and he would need to find some clean sheets for the futon in the guestroom. Considering that no one had been in the house for a week, John hoped that there was still something edible around. No doubt, there would be a need for grocery shopping soon.
The cat – what had Rodney called him? Newton? – mewed from the study doorway, staring at John from atop a pile of books and papers Rodney had left sitting there. The room, from what John could see, was a mess of all sorts of books, journals, notebooks, papers – he even fancied he could see a scroll on one of the shelves.
"Hey buddy," John greeted, ignoring the mess in favor of the cat. "Bet you and McKay didn't much like that racket I made, huh? Sorry about that."
Newton cocked his head and mewed again, curious.
"I don't have any treats for you, sorry. Maybe Lorne will remember to get you some when he gets food for me and your owner." John picked Newton up and walked the last few feet to enter the kitchen, scratching the feline behind the ears until he had to stop to open the fridge. He made a face at the obviously spoiled milk, and set the cat down on the floor so that he could dump it down the sink. "It's going to be a long day, kitten, and I'm already missing the comfort of my pack," he said, tossing the empty jug in the nearly-full and stinking trash. A package of turkey followed by another of ham went the same way, quickly followed in turn by spotted cheese and foul-smelling leftovers, containers and all.
"A very long day indeed," John sighed, tying the top of the bag and hefting it up to take it outside.
It felt like only moments before John was shaking his shoulder, but a brief look at the clock showed the numbers blinking back at him a time that was hours later – half after one, if Rodney wanted to be specific.
"Come on, buddy," John cajoled. "You're going to have to work for your lunch."
"I know, frozen dinners aren't all that appealing to me either, but Lorne doesn't get off of work until five, and most of your food was spoiled. I could whip us up some spaghetti, if you'd like?"
Rodney made a face, but nodded.
"You still need to get up and walk to the kitchen; we can't let that leg get too weak now, can we? I'll go ahead and start the water while you get yourself together, and then I can help you. Would you like a pair of pants, or are you fine in just your boxers?"
"In the closet – there should be a pair of jeans hanging up."
John found the pants and set them on the bed within Rodney's reach. "I'll be back in a few minutes," he said before leaving the room.
Rodney sat up gingerly before attempting to put on the comfortable denim jeans. He'd been happy to discover earlier that changing wasn't really that much of a chore; his problems only really started when he tried to walk or if he rubbed at the scabbed over skin too hard.
But, eventually, he would have to walk on his own. The problems he had weren't going to just disappear because he wanted them to, he knew that, but he also knew that he was an expert at focusing on one problem at a time and ignoring everything else – when he was able to, of course. A sharp pain in his leg was rather difficult to ignore.
It was still a skill he planned to put into use for as long as he could, and he doubted that anyone would think poorly of him for it.
At the moment, he planned to focus on building up the strength to walk again without assistance. With that in mind, he used the nightstand to heave himself onto his feet. He'd grown better at avoiding the pain in the few short trips he'd already made, and somewhat more used to it. The naps had helped, far more than he was really comfortable with.
Still, Rodney was somewhat proud to make it all the way to the bedroom door before John came back to collect him for lunch – and he was suddenly pleased with his decision to buy a house that was only a single story.
"Would you like some help," John asked, "or would you like to try and make it on your own?"
"Crutch," Rodney answered, not needing to explain that his stronger leg wasn't yet used to the jarring hop-limp his injury was forcing him to make. Rodney had never been good with injuries period, no matter what form they had taken.
John slipped under the unresisting arm. "I'll see what I can do about getting you a real crutch tomorrow – until then, I'll have to be a substitute."
Rodney didn't comment, focusing instead of making his way down the hallway and into the kitchen without falling on or over top of anything. It was a short trip, again – not even as long as the trip from the car to his bedroom – but Rodney was beginning to realize that everything seemed to take longer when you were injured.
John waited until Rodney was seated in the chair at the table before putting the noodles in the pot and opening the jar to heat up the sauce. Rodney hadn't even remembered he had it; maybe someone had left it when they came over to feed his cat.
"How much longer until I can go back to work?" Rodney asked, reminded of the job he had left unfinished.
John started at the question. "So long as you're off your feet most of the day, until your strength in that leg builds up...I don't see any physical reason why you couldn't go back as early as tomorrow. I'm sorry I have to tell you that you're not going to be able to, though."
John saw his plans for later stumble drunkenly out the door, discouraged by the questioning of the brown-haired man seated at the table. "I need to teach you how to change; I can't do that if you're gone all day, or too tired to really try."
Rodney glared at him. "And I have work to do that I've been forced to put off for nearly a week. The people I work with are morons – I've probably been set back twice as long, and that's time I can't afford to lose."
John stirred the noodles as he thought, making Rodney twitchy with irritation and nerves. John had to know that, if he didn't drive Rodney to work, there was no way the injured man was going to make it there on his own – the scientist didn't have a car of his own, and the walk was too far for him to make for another few weeks, if then.
"I'll drive you to work tomorrow if you can show some progress with the gift tonight, after dinner."
John shook his head, still not facing Rodney as he kept his attention on the saucepans. "You're too wound up right now, and I'm not calm enough to show you. It would never work. The point is to relax and accept it – otherwise you end up like the werewolves, hating what has been given to you and having the change forced upon you until it drives you mad."
"Fine," Rodney said, a slight pout evident. "After dinner – but I get a half day tomorrow no matter how much 'progress' I do or do not make."
John let out a sound very near a growl, but Rodney didn't back down. "Two hours guaranteed – after lunch tomorrow, but that is it." He slammed a bowl down on the counter before draining the noodles and dumping them in it. "Lesson one of the pack, McKay: I'm the Alpha here, and there are no arguments and no negotiations against what I have said." The sauce joined the noodles in the bowl, and John stirred them together roughly. "We haven't had the chance to teach you our ways because you are both new and injured, but know that fighting with me is a good way to get your nose bit; I don't take well to others ignoring my orders. Now eat." The bowl, a plate, and a fork were slammed down in front of Rodney, one right after another, just before John stormed off.
He wasn't really that bad, Rodney thought. At least, not for a guy that howled at the moon. And he knew how to make spaghetti, which was a definite plus – and meant that they didn't spend their spare time off hunting down raw meat to tear apart.
Still, Rodney knew he would have to be more careful around the man. John could, literally, bite his head off – like Kavanagh had tried to do.
He was so not letting that black-haired beast near the radioactive minerals, if they ever got any at the center. Or any cleaning products for that matter.
And maybe he could work towards having citrus banned from the premises?
Not to mention the fact that he still had to work out the equations that Kavanagh had been assigned, but had never completed.
Numbers started dancing around his head as Rodney took a bite of his lunch. Maybe he could dig out his laptop – it was an older model, but still capable of handling the necessary equations...and his room still received the wireless frequency from the neighbor's internet...
John and Lorne were sitting in Rodney's living room – taking up space on his comfortable navy-blue couch as if they were friends, both nude and not caring one whit about it – patiently trying to help the scientist with his 'gift.' Work on that front was very slow.
It didn't feel like much of a gift to the injured man.
"Look, you just need to relax and focus, okay?" John told him. "Just accept it; it's simple once you get the hang of it."
"Simple enough that you're asking me to do two contradictory things? Last time I checked, Sheppard, relaxing had nothing to do with focus!" Rodney snapped.
"Calm down and try again; you're getting too frustrated. We're not going to leave you here until you show us something."
"What are you, a drill sergeant? Well I'm sorry, sir, but maybe I'm just not cut out for this!"
John frowned. "You know, I think I like 'colonel' better than 'sergeant' – or maybe 'general' would suit me better? Then again, there's so much paperwork to do when you're that high up, and you don't get as much time out in the field, where all the real action is."
"I'm so glad you find my failure amusing."
"You can do this, McKay," John urged. "The gift would have killed you otherwise. Now, watch Lorne again and try to follow him."
Rodney huffed, but watched Lorne sit on the floor again – still completely naked and completely uncaring, and that bothered Rodney for some reason. The first noticeable change came to his ears, where they began to lengthen, point, and grow fur. Next was his face and teeth, and then the change seemed to ripple down his body in a wave of complex shifting. His change had been the same every time Rodney watch it, and yet it was different from Teyla's; she had made small changes first and larger changes last, and where hadn't seemed to matter.
"Follow him, McKay," John's gentle voice was behind him, urging him and pushing him softly onto the path. "Focus on the ears, the easiest to change. Start at the top, where they come to a point, and then cover them with fur and allow them to move. Feel them grow and stretch to catch the slightest sound – "
Rodney stood, cutting John off. "I can't do this," he said. He took a limping step away from the pair. "I just...can't."
John smirked slightly. "But you are."
Lorne raised a paw to cover his own wolf-ears, and Rodney – in a panic – copied the motion with his own hand.
They were still human – still skin.
"You can't fear the change, McKay," John frowned. "You need to let it come to you."
"I don't need to do anything you say!" Rodney protested. "I need to go to work, I need to sleep, and I need to keep the lab from turning into a danger zone, but I don't need to follow every absurd order you give!"
Lorne growled, stalking forward, but a quick, cutting hand motion from John stopped him where he stood. "You're right; you aren't going to make any more progress tonight. Not while you're like this, anyway. And I can't force it on you – the gift doesn't work that way."
Rodney was silent. He didn't have to admit his fears to the other man – to the other wolves – in the room. John could see his hands shaking, and Lorne could smell it on the air.
"Why don't you get some rest," John offered, still keeping his voice low, steady, and gentle. "It's been a long day, one that has been too stressful by half for what we are attempting."
"Then why did we even try?" Rodney let out, his voice a desperate plea for a satisfactory answer.
John didn't have one – at least not one that Rodney liked to hear. "You were the one to insist on trying today," John reminded him. "Perhaps we will have better luck after you've been able to spend a few hours in the lab."
"And why would that make a difference? Not that I'm complaining, of course."
"Something familiar might help to ground you," John explained, then abruptly changed the subject. "Did you need some help getting back to your room? You're shaking..."
"I'm fine!" Rodney snapped. "I can make it on my own..."
But even Rodney could tell that he didn't sound that happy about it, and so he wasn't surprised when John moved to let Lorne out the front door for the night and then came back to act as his crutch for the short trip.
It wasn't until he'd made his way into the bedroom and was under the comforting weight of the covers of the bed that Rodney spoke again, just as John was reaching to turn off the lamp at the bedside. "What if you're wrong?" he asked. "What if I don't have this...gift?"
John sat down on the bed so that he could look Rodney in the eye without trouble. "We aren't wrong," he said, and there was no doubt in his voice. There may have been hints of amber in his eyes, but his voice was strong and steady. "The only test for it settling in the body is your survival – if your body had fought against it, you would be dead now. As for knowing that the bite contained the gift...we can smell it."
Rodney's face scrunched.
"It may not be exactly scientific, but it is completely accurate, without fail. We can smell one of our kind even through the hindrances of human flesh. The infection is a wound that smells foul and festering – but then it transforms into the gift, a wonderful blend of wood and trees and water."
Rodney frowned, a look that quickly turned into a pout as he looked at the floor. "My cat doesn't hate you."
Indeed, Newton was twining around John's feet even then, and Rodney seemed to be taking it as a personal slight.
John took the change of subject for what it was, and, with a light laugh, picked up Newton to place the squirming feline on the bed. "Well then, I will leave his evil little kitty genius to get reacquainted with his even-more-genius human, shall I?"
John turned out the light and stood again. He was almost out the door before Rodney's voice once more stopped him from leaving. "If...if you wanted, there might be enough room for a dog in here, too. But only a dog! A man would definitely not fit."
John grinned, not daring to tease. "Goodnight, McKay."
A few minutes later, he was stretching out his wolf body beside the other man's.
Rodney smiled in the darkness as he shifted to accommodate the animal's body in his bed, and then gave John a quick scratch behind the ears. "Goodnight, Sheppard," he replied – late, but that didn't seem to matter.
John was getting irritated by the entire situation – with both Kavanagh and Rodney, but mostly with Rodney. For the past four days the newly gifted man hadn't made any progress with his change at all, only a few peeks at ears that disappeared almost as quickly as they had come into being. Each day he had needed to draw Rodney away from his experiments with 'naquahdah' – whatever that was – and 'power generators' for practice with the gift. Each day was a trial met with failure.
It was almost a relief to spend some time with Carson while Rodney played around at the research center; almost, but not quite. The need to keep pushing Rodney, to press for more from the scientist, kept eating at him. He needed to take care of Rodney – everything else, even the distant hope of one day returning to Atlantis, could wait. He couldn't explain it; he only knew that it was.
"What's he so afraid of?" John asked himself, mumbling as he stared at the false wood of the vet's table-top.
"What was that?" Carson asked, setting take-out cartons down at the table's center and retrieving plates and utensils. It looked like what passed for Chinese food in their relatively small town, although it was hard to be certain which foods were which.
"Just wondering about Rodney," John said, breaking apart a set of chopsticks and poking around in one of the boxes.
"Still no progress then?" Carson asked. "Well, considering his personality I'm not all that surprised; the scientists always do seem to take longer."
"It's something about the mental aspect of the change," Carson explained as he poured heaps of rice onto his plate. "Zelenka explained it to me once as being like the differences between lego blocks – they're all the same size and shape, but they're different colors. A child is yellow, they see the gift as magic; a military man – or woman – is green, they see what the gift can offer; the average civilian worker is blue, they see what the gift can do; and a scientist...he said that scientists were red, because they see where the gift can go wrong."
"Red?" John scoffed – even if it was just an analogy, it was amusing. "More like red for 'warning – do not touch.'" Carson joined him with a small half-laugh around his food. "Seriously, though, what could go wrong with the gift?"
"Zelenka said that it was Murphy's Law. Basically it boils down to 'if something can go wrong, it will.' Rodney has the type of personality that sees something drastic failing or not changing right, leaving him dead or debilitated. And it's not just because he's a scientist, either – it's just the way he is. At least, from what I've come to see of him."
"So he'd rather the moon forced herself upon him?"
"I don't think he wants to go mad, John," Carson countered. "I just don't think he's at the point where the change really affects him. He doesn't see it as a pressing need – but the next few days might show you someone completely different. I think, when it gets down to it, Rodney will pull through. 'Messing up' the change is, after all, better than madness in many ways – especially to a man who believes so highly in his intelligence."
"Yeah, like the rest of us mere mortals don't fear that, too." John played with the chicken bites he'd taken out of the box for himself, knowing he should eat but not really hungry. "It's just so frustrating, you know?"
"Give it time," Carson offered. "He'll come around eventually; I have faith in him. In all honesty, that's about all we can do from our end. Show him how, accept him as he is, and have faith in him."
"I can see the wheels turning, John," Carson scolded after a few minutes of silence. "Are you not going to tell me what it is that's got you thinking?"
"What if...he can't change because he doesn't have faith in himself?" Which was, John thought after a moment, pretty much the same as what Carson had said.
"You mean he doesn't believe he can do it right, or that he can do it at all?"
"At all," John answered. "Now that I think about it, he's been asking questions like that. I've told him time and again that I know he has the gift – I've seen peeks of it coming out, for crying out loud – but he still seems to...doubt it."
"It's rare, but might have an effect," Carson hedged. "I have to admit, most people know about the gift beforehand; it's rare that it is...thrust upon them like this."
"And rarer still that the victim survives when it is," John agreed. "Still, maybe there's something I can do to reinforce the fact that the gift has taken hold."
John paused. "I'm not really sure yet, but I'll think of something."
Carson sighed. "Give him a few more days. He can join us in the clearing, even if he hasn't yet managed to take on his fur. It might even bolster some faith in his own gift, or add to his comfort level around those who are changed."
"After all, if we accept him, and if even our pups can manage the change, what has a genius like McKay got to fear?"
"Exactly. Now eat up – you're much too thin."
John dug into the take-out before him, hungrier than he had been since Rodney had first been bitten.
Rodney rubbed at his eyes wearily before looking back up at the clock for the fifth time since the hour had changed. It was after four; John was late – two hours and twenty minutes late, to be exact. Too late for it to be a simple accident like traffic or losing track of time. Rodney wondered if maybe something was wrong – or if maybe he'd done something wrong, something that had royally messed things up between him and the other man. It wouldn't be the first time Rodney had screwed up a relationship or a friendship and not realized it until too late.
John had always picked him at two – dropped him off at twelve and returned at two like clockwork, even if it meant having to drag Rodney off while the computer was still running simulations and working through equations.
Rodney looked up, but he already knew that it wasn't John; it was one of the younger lab assistants – Mark, or Clark, or something like that. "What is it?" Rodney couldn't help it if he sounded tired.
"I have the results from the last simulation we ran while you were gone this morning – and the mail." She handed the sheaf of papers over a bit reluctantly.
"This is postmarked for last week," Rodney told her after setting the entire stack down on the center of his crowded desk and pulling off the top envelope, stamped 'top priority – confidential' in irritatingly red ink. "Why am I only getting this now?" The return address was a military base in Nevada – it was either about their project or their grants, then.
"We only got it yesterday, after you left. It was sent to the wrong address first..."
Rodney glanced down and saw the simple zip code mistake – transposed numbers. Somewhere up-state had received it first then, and had been nice enough to pass it on. Hopeful, Rodney tore it open – maybe they were getting a fresh shipment of mineral, or some new equipment to test out – but his face fell as he skimmed over it.
"To the doctors McKay, Zelenka, and associates," he read aloud. "I am sorry to inform you that your request to work with Naquahdah's radioactive isotope, Naquahdriah, has been denied. The reasons are detailed in the accompanying survey of laboratory conditions; we have also received complaints from your coworkers, who wish to remain anonymous, that the atmosphere is unsuitable for handling more explosive elements. These complaints were taken into consideration when your involvement with the project was reviewed. Please remember that, while we do value your expertise and experience, we are only looking out for the safety of your team and the feelings of your families. In light of all this, we have decided that, in order to further the research you have been providing for us, the grant allowance you will receive for the next quarter is five thousand United States dollars. Please use it wisely – the government cannot condone spending more. Major Samantha Carter, PhD. USAF, Nevada Base UM12."
Rodney slumped in his chair, hardly feeling his head hit the desk as the papers crinkled in his hand. "Kavanagh's a fool," he told the cold metal – while the letter had said 'anonymous', it couldn't be any clearer to Rodney who could, and would, complain about the 'atmosphere'.
"I'm sorry, Doctor," the assistant said – and for what it was worth, she did sound truly sorry. "We did try."
Rodney waved her off. Adrian? Maybe that was it – her name had sounded like a boy's.
"Should," she paused, as if considering if she should ask. "Should I send in your visitor?"
Rodney waved her off again; he never got any visitors, and he didn't see why he should need to see one now, when everything was going downhill. His day was bad enough without another crisis landing on top of it; it was probably the fireman coming to tell him that his house was burning down.
Or – even worse – someone coming to take away what little bit of material they had managed to acquire, through much demanding, pleading, and just plain begging. They didn't have enough to split it down and make a working reactor, not one that put out sufficient power, anyways.
A hand came down on his shoulder, rubbing it soothingly in a familiar way. The voice was equally familiar when it asked: "Bad day?"
John. Finally, John had come to pick him up from work – but it was too late, wasn't it? The damage had already been done.
"They cut our funding," Rodney announced – to anyone that would listen, John included. 'Classified government materials' didn't mean much to Rodney at the moment; he was still trying to work through the hurt and the reality of the situation. "Those stupid, arrogant, military-minded assholes cut our funding to less than half of our former grants." Right now he was working on 'anger'. It seemed a good stage to be at.
John was still there, calm and supportive as always. The lab seemed oddly quiet, and Rodney wondered if everyone had left before he'd had a chance to get started.
"We were so close to making a break through on the power generators – a few more months at most, and we would have had a working model to go from." He didn't voice his fear that he wouldn't be around to see it happen. He didn't want to hear more of John's pretty words about that; the fact that John hadn't shown up to take him home on time – had waited long enough that their afternoon practice-session-with-the-gift was no longer possible – told Rodney enough about what the other man thought. It more than told the story of his progress, after all: none.
"It'll work out," John said. Pretty words indeed.
"I won't be able to keep all the researchers," Rodney said, unable to keep the bitter tone out of his voice. "And I'll need to cut their pay – cut my own pay, even. Maybe sell the house and see if I can move into a cheap apartment. And that's just to keep this place running; I'll never be able to make the upgrades we wanted. Not this quarter, anyways."
"It'll work out," John repeated. "And I'll bet you won't even have to sell the house. After the moon, you and I can go see whoever sent you that letter, and talk to them. I'm sure once they see how brilliant you are, they'll see where they went wrong."
"She. It's a 'she'. Major Samantha Carter."
"Even better – I can win her over with my charm."
Rodney smiled at that, almost daring to let the light mood take him. "Your charm makes you sound like a drill sergeant," he teased.
"I really was a Major once – maybe that'll help some."
Rodney sighed, pulling his arms in for something softer to rest his head against. "I was listed to work on the classified materials she's working with. They told me it would be science unlike anything I'd ever seen, a real breakthrough in the world of astrophysics, chemistry, and real-world physics."
"What happened?" John asked when Rodney was silent for a moment too long.
Rodney raised his head so that his chin rested on his arms, looking at all the equipment that was scattered around the lap. Neat and tidy tables stared back at him, his desk the only island of chaos in the sea of order after everyone else had left. He and John really were alone. "My sister got married, and I told her I would never speak to her again. Then I got my second doctorate. Something must have tipped the USAF off, because things started falling downhill then. I was only in the states on visas and permits – but that wasn't good enough for the military. You're too much of a security risk if you aren't a citizen. They were considering going multi-national, but the last I heard that project was still under debate."
"Sounds like you've had a rough time, then. Rougher than most."
"Yeah – a real carrot-and-stick scheme."
There was a warning in John's voice as he drawled out Rodney's name. "McKay..."
"I don't want to hear it!" Rodney shouted, finally sitting up straight as he went from dejected straight back to anger. "Go on Sheppard – leave. You've made it clear you want to. I may be dense but I'm not stupid; I know when someone's going to leave me. It eventually happens anyways so why don't you just go now and spare yourself the trouble."
"McKay," John snapped again, his voice threatening, but Rodney was already standing and reaching for his crutch.
"Don't try to kid yourself into thinking you're doing me a favor by hanging around; you're not. I'll try to stay out of your way. If you clear out of the building now, one of the janitors will lock it up when they leave."
John stormed around the chair and knocked the crutch out from under Rodney's arm. He then proceeded to pick the man up and throw him over one shoulder.
"What are you doing?" Rodney shouted, a hint of panic in his voice as John turned to walk towards the door as if the man over his shoulder was nothing more than a light basket of flowers.
"Keeping you from doing something totally stupid," John told him. "I'm going to assume that you're just having a really bad day, and that it's that bad day that just snapped back at me, so I suggest that you shut up before you really stick your foot in your mouth, and I decide that I need to show you just how an Alpha runs things in his pack."
The scent of fear was sharp and clear, but Rodney dutifully shut his mouth and went limp in John's grasp, letting the other man carry him wherever John wanted.
And if he was a bit more afraid of the Alpha wolf just then, even more so than when John was in his fur – well, who wouldn't be?
Rodney felt only slightly better about the situation when he saw the red-furred wolf give John a look that clearly said 'you should know better' when they stumbled into the clearing.
He felt even worse when John answered the look out loud with: "Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid." He almost huffed at the insult – he was anything but! But then again, he almost felt he deserved it, too.
Being slung over one man's shoulder like you weighed nothing and being carted around like some Neanderthal's version of dinner wasn't giving his intelligence much credit, and he had been unnecessarily short with John earlier – a part of his character that came as natural as breathing, but wasn't nearly as helpful.
Rodney had expected to be left alone once John met up with the pack, the rest of them running off into the woods to do wolf-like things in private. Maybe he'd get a guard or two, to make certain he didn't wander off and get lost – or worse, eaten – but the last thing he'd expected was for the entire pack to stay there. That's what happened, though; they were doing wolf-like things right in front of him, as if he were one of them.
A gentle tug on his jeans invited him to sit down, and he did so, leaning against a large, sturdy tree next to the gentle reassurance of the red wolf that laid pressed against his thigh. It was awkward getting comfortable with one leg that did not like to move quickly, even if the pain had lessened to near nothing; after a few moments, however, he was able to settle comfortably.
One wolf – he thought it was the one he'd designated the 'hunter' at the vet clinic, while John had called him something like 'Conan' – was a large, powerful, sleeping presence at the edge of the clearing, near the tree line. A few of the younger wolves – adolescents? – were darting in and out of the bushes and trees near the larger wolf, playing some twisted version of hide-and-seek that involved tail-biting and pouncing.
Another Rodney thought he recognized as Lorne was laying on top of a fallen tree trunk, overseeing the entire group. Rodney thought that he might also be guarding the entrance to a 'den', if the group had such a place.
He had managed to do some research on wolves, after all – he just wasn't sure how much of it really applied to the group he was now watching.
John, recognizable by the just-fell-out-of-bed look that never seemed to leave him even when he was in his fur, was rolling around in the freshly fallen leaves and dirt with pups that must have been children when in their skin, no older than four or five – no, Rodney thought, correcting himself; with the dog-year conversion they might even be as old as seven. Older, if the 'gift' made a difference in the ratios – less, if it worked the other way around. Considering the way these people acted, however, Rodney thought it more likely that the gift was lengthening their lives instead of shortening it.
He didn't want to think what his own age would be when he changed – too old by half, he thought, and that was just considering things like his asthma, allergies, and high blood pressure, not his actual age.
The gift had eased some of that, but not all – he hadn't tested how far it had helped him.
Teyla's nose found its way into Rodney's palm – at least, he thought it was the red wolf John had called Teyla – and Rodney sighed.
Her ears perked up, her tongue lolling out as she watched him.
"It's just been a long day," he said in answer to her silent question. He saw the wolf he thought was Kavanagh sulking in the grass, looking ready to bite anyone who came near him.
Rodney ignored the black wolf.
Teyla whimpered, and laid her head on his thigh again, amber-tinted eyes rolling to look up at Rodney in a silent show of comfort.
Rodney let out a soft laugh as his hand fell on her shoulder. "Sorry. Disappointment makes me stupid sometimes."
John trotted over, the little ones trailing behind him, yipping and nipping at his heels as they tripped over themselves to try and keep up. John rubbed himself against Rodney's side, sitting beside the man with his tail curled around his legs.
"Yeah, I'm sorry," Rodney said, as if the action had been a question. "Not as sorry as Miss high-and-mighty Samantha Carter should be, but I...shouldn't have snapped at you." John pressed against his side again, and Rodney found that it was easier to talk when the other man was a wolf – when he didn't have to see John's face. "I told you I wasn't very good with people; I don't know why you expected that to change when the people were...well...whatever you call yourselves."
John moved forward to pick up the last of the pups, who was having trouble climbing over the mound of Rodney's legs, and deposited the wriggling ball of fur in Rodney's lap with the rest of the litter. Rodney let his hand fall into the mess of fur, petting the little ones as they yipped at each other and wrestled in his lap, one clambering up to stand on top of Rodney's leg and shakily try to walk up it towards the man's stomach. Another ran down to where he saw a shoelace laying in the dirt, and pounced on it, pulling at the string with teeth too small to break it.
"I don't know how you do it," Rodney admitted. "I just don't get it, and that's something that's entirely new to me."
John moved forward to give Rodney's face a few cleansing licks, and then laid down beside the man, his nose pressing lightly against Rodney's shirt, his tail coming to lay down over top of Rodney's leg in a silent gesture.
Rodney wished he knew what it meant.
Four more days had passed. Four days where Rodney had gone to work – even on Sunday, since science pretty much was his religion, and his devotion to worship was his life and livelihood – where he made calculations and informed his coworkers and underlings of the lack of funding, inevitable pay cuts, and reduction of incoming resources. He stayed each day until he found himself rubbing his eyes to uncross his vision, and John came in and rubbed his shoulders. Then John would take him to the clearing, where the pups would climb over him until they were too tired to raise their little paws and their mothers and fathers came to collect them, giving Rodney a small smile and warm look.
He didn't understand why the little pups liked him so much; he wasn't a good storyteller, he didn't play with them – he wasn't much more than a big playground. Inevitably, though, the moment he came into the clearing, they would run over and paw at him until he sat down and they could climb into his lap to wear themselves out.
And when they were all safe with their parents, John would come to collect him from the spot he had claimed as his own and take Rodney home. John would cook dinner and Rodney would feed Newton; Rodney would shower and John would clean up; the three of them would crawl into bed together, Rodney with the wolf and the cat, and sleep would claim them until the next day – and the next repetition of events.
It was four days without any pressure from any side on Rodney about his 'gift', and about changing into his fur. Four days without any 'practice'.
Rodney found himself writing notes to be delivered 'in the event of death' on the fifth morning – including one to his sister, another to Zelenka, and a last one to Major Carter, begging her to let his scientists continue even if he was unable to.
When he realized what he was doing, he broke down and threw the letters in the trash, ripping them to shreds. He didn't cry – he was a man, after all, and men didn't cry – but he did decide to take his shower before they left for the lab, and if there were salt water tracks down his cheeks for a good portion of the time, he pretended not to notice.
Mostly what he did was shout. He shouted to the ceiling that God hated him; he shouted to the walls that it wasn't fair; he shouted something into his pillow that Rodney couldn't even hope to voice aloud – inarticulate screams that had no meaning.
At least the neighbors hadn't heard; at that point they had all left for work.
John had heard him, though, and Rodney could tell that the other man was worried from the look on his face.
On the sixth day, close enough to the full moon that Rodney was starting to feel uncomfortable about his lack of progress, John took Rodney straight to the clearing, not even bothering to stop by the research center; apparently he had decided that Rodney was no longer fit for work.
If pressed, Rodney would have been forced to agree with him – his work from the past few days had been shabby at best, nothing like his usual genius.
This time, though, John didn't change into his fur the moment Rodney had settled down, as comfortable as possible against his tree. Instead, John sat down beside him in his skin, watching over his pack from a distance. The pups seemed to notice the change as well, because, even though they sent longing looks over at Rodney every now and again, they stayed well enough away from the pair.
"Why do you even bother with me?" Rodney asked after a moment of silence.
John leaned back against the side of the tree closest to him and closed his eyes as if this were just another normal, sunny afternoon they were spending in the park with a picnic basket at their feet. Rodney personally thought that it was a bit chilly, and that it had been for quite some time, even if it was unusually warm for the season.
"Maybe I think you're worth the bother," John said – and it took Rodney a moment to realize that it was the answer to his question.
John was silent for a moment, and Rodney almost thought that he had fallen asleep, but the answer did come eventually. "I don't leave a man behind." John's voice was unusually serious, and hard.
"I'm not one of your men," Rodney felt compelled to point out.
"If you believe that, then you're deluding yourself. Every member of this pack is one of my men, and like it or not you are a member of this pack."
Rodney didn't have a response to that.
"You could go over there and play with them, you know," John said, motioning towards the wolves rolling in the last fallen leaves of autumn. Winter would be setting in soon, in full force, but it was still going to be a mild year. "They don't bite to hurt, and the pups love you."
"I'm afraid I'm a little too wary of teeth to join in a game like that."
John scoffed at the idea. "You just think that you're too old for messing around."
"Actually yes, I do."
John smirked, rolled over, and attacked.
Rodney was unprepared for a full-grown man who had spent the last three nights discovering all his ticklish places to launch himself into a play-fight. Rodney found himself laughing involuntarily – a sound Rodney could hardly remember; a sound no one had heard loud and rich in years.
Rodney felt their bodies tumbling through the dying grass and leaves, but couldn't stop their movement without giving more of an advantage to John's tickle-attack. When John finally did let up and let Rodney breathe, the scientist was on his back in a pile of dead leaves, panting heavily in an attempt to regain the breath he'd lost.
"You're never too old for a bit of fun, McKay," John said – and then he was a wolf in over-large clothes, the change taking over him almost instantaneously, everything shifting at once. John stepped out of the no-longer necessary pants and boxers to lick at Rodney's face, nuzzling the man's neck in a familiar and comforting way.
Rodney tried weakly to push the wolf off. "Yes, yes, you made your point – I'm a scrooge who never got enough presents as a child. Now let me catch my breath before you try to smoother me with your fur."
Rodney could have sworn the wolf was laughing at him, those amber-hazel eyes dancing in the afternoon light.
"Why you – " and Rodney lunged at the animal, rubbing under the shirt in quick motions that had nothing to do with tickling or hurting or anything really, besides making Sheppard feel good in his fur. It was more a way to get rid of his excess energy and let John know just how good he felt at that moment, unconcerned about his lab or his leg. Rodney found himself pulling the t-shirt off the wolf in no time, then laughing as he fell back down in the grass when John pushed against Rodney's chest. It had been a long time since he'd done something so...pointless.
John hovered over him again, human and naked and as close as Rodney had imagined a lover would be. He was hardly even sweating from their games, which made Rodney slightly envious of the Alpha. "Try it now," John urged. "Try the gift."
Rodney closed his eyes, breathing deeply and sinking into the dirt. He didn't want to see the disappointment that would flash across John's face if he failed, but he didn't want to not try, either. He couldn't deny John another attempt – not now.
He heard the happy howls, but was afraid to open his eyes to see what had caused them.
And then they were everywhere around him, brushing against him and licking him and he had to look – had to see his own paws up in the air, roll over and wriggle out of his clothes to see his own tail and fur, even the scar where he had been bitten seemed new and exciting.
It was a mass of fur and tongues and happy barks that surrounded him, the pups tripping him up under his paws – and above it all was John's happy face smiling down on them.
Rodney let out his own pleased bark and pushed his way through the pack towards the other man. The limp wasn't as bad when he had four legs instead of two, and he wasn't as cold with a layer of fur to fight off the autumn chill.
Like John had done to him before, Rodney brushed against the human skin of John's side – a silent 'thank you' he would never dare to say aloud.
John leaned over Rodney to dig his hands in the fur, feeling the thick pelt and scratching the wolf's side in a way that felt like heaven. Rodney's tail wagged, and he leaned into the touch. He was only marginally surprised when he both heard and understood John's words.
"Welcome home, Rodney."
He was home.
Chapter End Notes:
I *think* I found and corrected all the formatting errors that were coming through, but if not please let me know.