AN: Unbeta'ed, as is my approach to this series. This series will always, always belong to egelantier. That said, she has once again been generous and allowed me to write a chapter for someone else. In this case, the awesome elwoodjake who donated to the LLS to help me train for a triathalon. She gave me several options of what to write, this chapter being one of them, and I went with this. I am super appreciative. Finally, I am using this for my "wings" square of hc_bingo.
r13; J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird
Jen brought up the idea carefully, the way she did everything, even after nearly half a year of having Ronon and him around. In fairness, the first time Sam had suggested a trip to a wool festival, Ronon had shattered a drinking glass, used one of the shards as a weapon to keep himself from being followed and climbed onto the roof, where he'd stayed for the better part of two days. John had been right behind him. But that had been a miscommunication born of the early fears about being left somewhere to fend for themselves, or of anything new, really.
John understood, but it made him feel like a bomb, or a gun: something likely to go off at the slightest touch and good only for destruction. John looked up from his math homework reluctantly. Math was safe, easy. Numbers didn't lie or cheat or steal or pretend or deceive.
Across the kitchen table from him, Ronon was considering his shop project. He'd carved the car by himself. It was sleek and sweet looking, something they could both dream about driving, if either of them ever even managed a license. John wondered what it would feel like, a car like that, windows rolled down so the air was sharp and oh-so-intense against his skin.
"Hey," Jen said, sitting down at the table. "C'mon, hear me out."
"He's listening," John told her. Ronon would speak up if absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it was up to John.
"Sam and I wanna take you on a trip. Nothing big, just a week in Colorado, where Sam grew up. We thought you guys would enjoy some mountain climbing, maybe snow tubing. We've got a cabin out there, so we wouldn't have to be around other people, or anything."
Ronon didn't look up, but he asked, "Where's Colorado?"
"It's a little over a two hour flight from here," Jen said slowly, clearly unsure how that would be received.
John bit down on his cheek for a long moment before allowing himself to ask, "We'd go on a plane?"
"We can arrange to do it by car or train if that's going to be a problem," Jen said, so very calm, the way she'd grown to be with them.
John pushed away his disappointment. He knew it was stupid to get excited about things, but it was something even the cages hadn't taken from him. He wished they had. Ronon was so perfectly even-keel, finding little things to care about, little things that, if they were taken, could be created again. John said softly, "That's fine."
John heard Sam come just inside the room. She asked, "Did I miss something?"
"I was telling them about Colorado," Jen said.
"And?" Sam asked.
"John wants to fly," Ronon said, surprising all of them, even John. For one thing, Ronon didn't bother to talk much, ever, no matter if they were alone or not. For another, Ronon had never betrayed John to someone else, not in the cages, not ever, and there had been plenty of times when things would have gone better for him if he had. Beyond even that, though, John couldn't remember mentioning he thought it would be cool, to see the world from that far away, be above the birds and the clouds, sort of like being superhuman, or at least, something more than kid whose main use was for blood sport.
"You like flying?" Sam asked, not sounding surprised, just interested.
John shrugged. He wanted to go back to math now. Math had answers that wouldn't get a kid into trouble. Sam came over and hunkered down in front of him. "Hey, John. I'd just like us to have something else in common, is all."
Sam was an M.D. Ph.D. who worked with Neal's dad, Dr. Burke, in the lab. She was really smart, and good at math, and she had a smile that always made John want to return it. He didn't, he wasn't stupid, but the temptation was there. John did his best not to look at her.
She asked, "Did you know the Air Force paid for my schooling? Well, undergrad. The rest was scholarships, but it was the way I got my B.S."
John couldn't help himself. "You were a pilot?"
"Still am, just have a civilian's license now. I don't get up as much as I wish, but if you wanted, we could talk to Tony about borrowing one of his Cesnas, and I could take us to Colorado. You could ride in the cockpit with me, and I'd show you how it all works."
John knew he was digging his fingernails into the underside of the table, a sure tell. Ronon, surprisingly, was watching him, like he was waiting to see what John would do, like maybe he thought John ought to take the chance on this being real. John tilted his head at Ronon a bit, and Ronon put his hand atop the wooden car, rolling it back and forth along the table.
John took a breath. "That'd be…I'd like that. If-- I'd like that."
Tony, Pepper, Peeta, Kat, Finn and Jo were at the landing pad when Jen, Sam, Ronon and John rolled up. Jo and Ronon gravitated toward each other, something that often happened when the two were in the same area. She touched the side of Ronon's face and said something John couldn't hear. He imagined it was about Ronon needing a haircut. The pit bosses hadn't allowed Ronon to cut or wash his hair, making it into a weapon for other fighters to grab onto. Ronon could usually hold his own anyway, but it made things harder. The hospital had shaved it all off, since it had been infested with scabies so badly that his scalp was pretty much a bloody mess. He'd kept it super short ever since.
John had told him, "It looks nice."
To John's surprise, Ronon had admitted, "It feels safe."
Finn made his way to John's side. "The one we took to Malibu was bigger."
He sounded concerned. John preferred smaller. It seemed like it would make everything more real. John said, "Sam was in the Air Force."
From behind them, Kat asked, "Really?"
John watched Kat peer over at where Jen and Sam were laughing with Tony and Pepper. Finn made a face, "Kat thinks Pepper doesn't like her."
Kat pushed Finn so hard it was only because Finn's reflexes were as good as anyone's, if not far better, that he didn't go down, just tripped several steps away. "She likes me fine. I just think she'd like a daughter who was less…not like a daughter."
Peeta, who'd ambled over as well, frowned. "You're a good daughter."
Kat rolled her eyes. Everyone knew Peeta was sweet on her, maybe a little on the others as well. Peeta hunched into himself just slightly. It made John uncomfortable. He said, "I think you would. You're protective and loyal."
She was like Ronon, really. He'd always liked her. She shrugged. "I'd be more useful to someone military, probably."
Peeta said, "I'm pretty sure being useful isn't the point."
He didn't sound certain, though, and John hadn't a clue, so all of them were left to question the truth of that statement.
John offered, "We could switch, once we're up."
Ronon said, "I like my feet on the ground."
John hesitated for a second, partially because Ronon's voice was flat in that particular way he got when he was nervous, partially because John hated having Ronon out of his sight. Then Ronon pushed slightly at his shoulder, and John went up, into the cockpit.
He hesitated at the doorway. Inside lay what seemed like a million buttons and lights and things John could so, so easily screw up around. Sam twisted in her seat and grinned. "Hey there. I was starting to think you weren't coming."
John scratched above one ear and gave her a sideways half-smile. He forced himself inside the space and into the empty seat. He buckled the seatbelt, because Jen had pounded that into the two of them over the months they'd lived with her: no seatbelt, no car ride. He imagined it was the same with a plane. A plane. John caught his breath, trying not to give away how much he wanted to touch everything, to take them all up into the sky.
"You ready?" Sam asked.
Ready didn't even begin to describe how John felt. He nodded. She said, "Okay. So, first we have to flip this switch."
John watched as she did everything, listening to her explanations as to why, what each part did. Then she reached out and asked, "Wanna help take us up?"
After a second, John shakily placed his hand in hers. She squeezed it gently, then positioned it on the control column, her hand covering his. She instructed, "Pull it back smoothly."
Her hand was the one that set the pace, but it felt powerful, having his palm on the head of the column, his fingers curving over it. The jet's nose tilted upward as the speed and directional influence being applied began to take them skyward. John felt the moment they left the ground, and took in the way they didn't fall right back down. Then, quickly, so quickly, they were high, higher than anyone's ability to grab them and pull them back down.
"Good job," Sam said.
John touched his fingers to the glass in front of him, displaying nothing but endless blue and said, "Th—thank you. Sam. Thanks."
She murmured something that might have been, "Oh, kid," and squeezed his bicep.
He glanced her way for a second, troubling his lower lip with his teeth. "Sorry."
"For what, John?"
He shrugged. "Probably you like being up here alone, just you and the sky."
Sam seemed to think about that for a moment. "Sometimes, yes. But I remember the first time I shared it with Jen. It was…completely different, and perfect in a way apart from being alone. This is like that. I wanted to have this with you. I still want that."
John hunched over, letting his hair fall in his eyes, not sure how to say thank you, or what he even wanted at that moment, although he knew it was something. Sam said softly, "Watch, John. Keep your eyes open. You don't want to miss any of this."
John was surprised to find that landing was just as fun as taking off. The skill of finding the spot and guiding the plane in trumped any disappointment about having to descend. Also, Sam ruffled his hair carefully and said, "Teach you more the next time," which made it hard to be unhappy about anything.
The drive out to the cabin wasn't very far. The cabin had a main floor with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, breakfast nook and living area, and a loft space where a second bed resided. John shared a secret smile with Ronon. Both of them liked spaces where they could overlook activity, decide if they wanted to take part.
Jen made hot chocolate as soon as she'd set her bag down next to the door. She was like that, just taking a few seconds to make anywhere, anytime more of a home, easier to be in, feel safe while there. She put big marshmallows on Johns, and stirred some cinnamon into Ronon's, the way they both liked theirs.
When they'd finished their drinks, Ronon made his way to the door and stepped outside. John followed. This was new territory, he wanted to have Ronon in his direct line of sight. He knew the same was true in reverse for Ronon. Ronon was on his knees in front of the porch, his fingers buried in the snow. John came and crouched beside him. "Okay?"
"I don't remember this," Ronon said, letting snow sift through his fingers.
John touched his fingers to the surface of the snow. "The…whiteness?"
Ronon shook his head, slightly. "The cold, any of it. I keep thinking something will seem familiar."
Ronon didn't have memories of before the cages. He might have at some point. He'd been one of the earliest ones, or, at least, the earliest ones who had survived to be rescued. John knew all the kids who'd been there when Ronon had come were dead. Two months after John was caught, Ronon had taken a bad head wound in a fight with a kid much older than him. Ronon had killed the kid in a moment of pure self-defense, then almost died himself. He'd survived, but without much in the way of idea or memory of who he was, where he'd come from. He wasn't even sure if Ronon was his real name, or the one they'd given him. For Ronon, the only thing he'd ever been was a caged pit fighter.
John knocked his shoulder into Ronon's. "Maybe you grew up somewhere too warm for snow."
"Maybe," Ronon said softly.
"C'mon," John said. "Let's get in the snowpants they got us and make a snowman and some snow angels."
"I have no idea how to do any of that," Ronon said. John laughed, mostly because Ronon sounded more than a little interested in learning.
The snow out in front of the cabin was covered in angel's wings and lumpy snow-creatures by the time the sun began to set, and Jen made them come in, pushing them toward the bathroom and ordering them to, "Defrost. Dinner's almost ready."
They took a shower together, still both conscious of water consumption, since they hadn't been allowed much of it for all of Ronon's remembered life, and most of John's. Nudity between them was unremarkable, as was most things other people found uncomfortable. John thought Sam and Jen had worried about it at first, but accepted it, just like they seemed to accept all of Ronon's and his scars and habits.
Someone, probably Sam, had laid out sweats for them on their loft bed. They changed into them and slipped back downstairs, where there was a fire going. The cabin smelled of Pillsbury crescents baking and soup, maybe vegetable, John thought, or maybe onion. Something rich and warm and comforting. John hadn't known food could be calming, warming, when Jen had first taken Ronon and him home. Food had always been about survival, about not enough, about take-what-you-get.
Jen wasn't a great cook, or so she said, but John thought he could taste her kindness in everything she made. She ordered out sometimes, and even if it tasted good, it just wasn't the same.
Sam rousted them from the couch, where they had curled in front of the fire and said, "Pour yourselves some milk, dinner's on the table."
John ate two helpings to Ronon's three and every time they took more, Jen just grinned, sunny and grateful and quietly happy.
Sam and Jen woke them up the next morning, feeding them hot oatmeal with strawberries and cream. They all made for the slopes together, where Jen gave them a demonstration of how snow tubing worked and then set them free to do as they would. John positioned himself in the inner-tube the way he'd been shown and pushed off.
He found himself laughing loudly, screaming almost, on his way down. The wind was rushing past him, cold and sharp, but somehow welcoming, like it wanted him. John wasn't used to the feeling of being wanted. It was novel and the lightning-fast slip-slide down the side of the slope gave the sensation of what John imagined birds felt like, free of gravity and the other rules that bogged humans down.
When he got to the bottom, John took the lift back up to the top, enjoying the way he could reach out into the white sky, almost grab it. Then he went down again, and again, and again, never tiring of the wind's caress against his skin, the sweet bite of speed wrapping itself around him.
Sam and Jen made them eat lunch at some point. John hadn't wanted to, but once he was inside the cabin, sandwich makings lying out, he realized just how hungry he was. Two sandwiches and a cup of cocoa later, Sam said, "If we can tear you away from tubing, I thought we'd progress to sledding this afternoon."
The sled Sam kept in the front closet was sleek and modern looking, and could fit two people at a time. Ronon pushed John ahead of him with a look John knew nobody else could see but that meant, "This is your thing."
Sam put him in front of her, enfolding him in her arms, but not so tightly he didn't feel he could escape. It still took a moment to adjust to, but she waited, asking, "Okay?"
When his heart had calmed, he nodded. She called over her shoulder to Jen, "We could use a push."
It was even more strange, Sam's grip on him somehow giving him an orientation in the midst of flight. John wondered if this was what birds felt when they flew in packs. He hated her for a moment, for giving him everything he wanted, for making it so he had things she could take away.
It was hard to hold onto the hate, though, when she was pulling him out of the sled, her cheeks pink and her smile wide and genuine, saying, "C'mon, let's do that again."
When they reached the top, Ronon said thoughtfully, quietly, "I could design a better sled."
John shared a secret quirk of a smile with him, and didn't say anything about how Ronon was always the one who made it possible for John to stay airborne.
John fell asleep early that night, exhausted from the cold and the wind and the sheer exhilaration of it all. He woke up to Ronon's hand over his mouth and the sick feeling that he'd screamed, which was crazy, because John had learned not to scream in his sleep since before the cages, even. Ronon, who knew better as well, was looking a little shaken.
John squeezed Ronon's arm. He murmured, "Sorry," from underneath his hand.
It was too late, though, John could hear the creaking of either Sam or Jen climbing the ladder to the loft. John thought he and Ronon could take Jen, probably, but he wasn't certain about Sam, and even if it was in self-defense, he wasn't sure what keeping themselves safe from one of the women would really accomplish. John doubted they'd be able to stay together if they were put in the system.
Ronon put himself in front of John and said, when Sam's blonde head appeared over the ledge of the loft, "It was me."
John hissed and looked around Ronon, since Ronon wasn't allowing him to come out front. "It was not."
"Okay," Sam said easily. "Regardless of who it was, you wanna come down and have some tea and sit in front of the fire for a while until you're ready to go back to sleep?"
John had a feeling they were both staring at her with stupid expressions on their faces. After several moments of dumbstruck gaping, John said, "Um."
Sam tilted her head and said, "Jen and I have nightmares too, you know?"
It was different. John couldn't have explained how, just that it was. He leaned into Ronon a little bit and decided, "Tea…tea would be nice."
Ronon went ahead of him, but he made his way down the ladder and to the couch, where Jen was waiting for them. She asked them, "Can I put my arms around you? It'd make me feel better."
Jen was so damn honest that even when she should have seemed insincere, she never did. John took the opportunity to indulge in the contact he wanted, curling into her side. She played with his hair a bit and said, "Relax. We're here, just relax."
Sam said, "My nightmares are about the first Desert Storm. And sometimes about missing my mom."
Jen followed her with, "Mine are about making wrong decisions with patient's lives. More recently, I've had a number that have involved losing the two of you."
John didn't have to look at Ronon to know they were both unsure of what to think of that. So far as they were both aware, someone caring whether they dropped off the planet earth—let alone enough to have nightmares about it—was something new. John knew he was supposed to tell them about his nightmare, now. He wanted to do what he was supposed to, he did, but the idea of giving away a weakness left him terrified, paralyzed inside.
Jen said, "It's okay, baby, you don't have to share. We just wanted you to know you weren't alone."
Ronon shifted and said, "I can never remember mine. Like everything. I just…can't remember."
John looked over at him. Ronon shrugged and burrowed deeper into Jen while trying to seem like he wasn't. John took a breath. He wasn't surprised Ronon was braver than him, that was old news. He was continuously surprised by how Jen and Sam just let him off the hook all the time. That was bizarre, really, and it made him want to not disappoint them.
John brought his knees up to his chest. "I have wings in them. Real wings, but not like a bird. They're black and sharp and shiny and like nothing I've ever seen. Smooth, but not like a machine. I have them, and I want to spread them, but I can't, because there are bars around me and no matter how small I make myself, how tight I pull the wings in, the bars squeeze in, trapping me, until the wings start to break. The sound is—"
John's breath hitched a little entirely without his permission. Sam came over and sat on his other side, but not so close that he couldn't get out if he needed to. She asked softly, "Wanna go sit outside with me for a little bit?"
He did, desperately, but it was cold out there, and Sam was nice and warm and he said, "I can do it on my own, it's fine."
"I know you can, sweetheart, but the two of you have been on your own too damn long. Let us be there, just until you don't need us anymore." The last was said with a sense of resignation.
John frowned. That was all backwards from the way he understood things. "You mean until you don't want us anymore?"
"No," Sam said, sharing a look with Jen that was hard to interpret, but it seemed…frustrated, maybe, or just tired, John wasn't sure. "No, I meant what I said. And one of these days, you're going to believe it. But for right now, let me just sit with you on the porch for a bit, until you're feeling better."
John looked at Ronon, who was considering Sam. After a bit, he nodded slightly, and John whispered, "Okay."
"Socks, shoes, coat, hat and gloves first," Sam said firmly.
John repeated, "Okay."
Jen pulled them inside some indeterminate amount of time later, clucking at them about hypothermia, even though they'd been sheltered from the wind by the cabin and dressed plenty warm. Plus, sitting close to each other helped retain warmth.
Sam kissed Jen, laughing. "You worry too much."
"Doctor," Jen said, with a definite shade of "duh" in her tone.
"Mother," Sam said, her voice holding so much contentment, John was almost convinced he was someone's kid.
Jen reached over and tousled his hair. "Think you can sleep now, baby?"
John nodded and told her again, "Sorry I woke you up."
"I wish it happened every time you had a nightmare, but I'm guessing you get away with hiding them more often than not." She punctuated the sentiment with a kiss to his forehead. "Sweet dreams."
John's dreams weren't sweet, but they were quiet and uneventful, and that was pretty close by John's standards.
They spent the next few days alternating between tubing and sledding, with a snowshoeing adventure into the woods, which John suspected was Ronon's favorite part. All of these things were punctuated by time spent in front of the fire, sometimes playing card or boardgames, sometimes napping or having stories read aloud by Jen, who did voices and everything. A smile could almost always be coaxed out of Ronon during those readings.
Sam made cheesy shells with smoked bacon and croutons. Jen made meatloaf. They all four worked together on chocolate chip cookies.
Sam and John hung out on the porch more than that first time, once more in the dead of night. Twice, John fell asleep while having his hair stroked by Jen. It felt like a promise, and even though John was aware he should know better, was smart enough to realize he was being dumb, he couldn't help but let himself believe it, if just for a little bit.
On the day they were to head back to New York, John climbed into the cockpit with Sam. She smiled at him and asked, "Remember what we do first?"
John did. He'd filed away every word she'd said. He nodded and showed her. She said, "Nobody's going to break your wings, sweetheart. Not ever again."
The two of them took the plane up into the air, up so high John felt like he could see the whole world, and he thought, just maybe, she might be right.