Thank you to everyone who has read, favorited, and/or commented on my other SGA stories. So glad you've enjoyed them. Here's hoping this one provides a bit of a welcome distraction from world events at the moment.

This story takes place between Trinity and Instinct.

The characters and planet in this story were first introduced in my previous story, All Is Bright. It's not necessary to read that story first, but it does help set up some of the plot points in this story.

A thousand thanks to Lyn for the beta read. Any remaining errors are of my own doing.

The smell of decaying vegetation caught in John's throat, making him gag as they came through the 'gate to P4J-958. He'd known from the information sent back by the MALP the planet wasn't going to be a lush paradise. The reality, however, was worse than the images had led him to believe. After the noxious smell, his first impression as he stepped away from the 'gate, was an overwhelming sense of grey. Thick, grey clouds looming overhead promised rain and clumps of grey-green grass sprouted from the pearly grey mud around the 'gate.

The 'gate stood on a small island surrounded by a shallow body of stagnant water, from which John decided most of the smell emanated. Looking across the water, he saw a forest made up of two distinct kinds of trees. The dominant species were tall, palm-looking trees, but a smaller, bushier tree with shiny leaves peppered the forest of palms.

"Remind me to add some sort of olfactory sensor for the MALPs," McKay said from where he stood near the DHD, his voice muffled by his arm covering his nose and mouth.

"You sure there's something on this planet worth finding?" Ronon asked as he surveyed the area around the 'gate with a look of distaste.

Teyla stood at the edge of the water where a line of tumbled stone blocks created a ford across the water. "I believe this was once a bridge," she said as she crouched down near the edge of the water. "It does lend credence to the idea that there was once a thriving civilisation on this world."

Ronon grunted and moved to the other side of the island.

John shook his head and sighed. Even though he, Ronon, and McKay had been back from Earth for almost a week, things were still not all right with his team. The only time he saw all of them together was during breakfast, a tense meal they shared more from habit these last few days than any sense of camaraderie. The rest of the time, McKay hid in his lab, and Teyla taught classes or had meetings with Elizabeth about the state of affairs on the mainland. John wasn't sure what Ronon had been up to since their return, but he'd heard a few rumors from the Marines about the state of the shooting range.

He rubbed his nose and studied the slimy water. He wasn't completely blameless, either, he knew. He'd used the excuse of catching up on paperwork or meetings with Lorne as a reason to cut short any chance encounter he had with McKay. McKay, for his part, accepted the excuses with little complaint, but John hadn't missed the forlorn expression on his face as he stepped back and let John walk away.

When Elizabeth had mentioned the mission to P4J-958, John had volunteered his team to check out the planet. It had seemed like a simple enough mission. P4J-958 was deserted, entirely culled a long time ago. However, several different reports from the science teams researching the planet in the Ancient database showed there might be something useful in the ruins.

He had hoped the routine of a mission would help all of them find their footing with each other again, but so far, he wasn't having much luck. Dex and Teyla still warily tip-toed around each other while McKay was almost diffident when he offered an opinion if he bothered to offer one at all.

Maybe getting back into the field so soon after Doranda and Belkan wasn't such a good idea, after all, he thought to himself with a frown.

He glanced out at the grey trees and remembered his plan to take the team camping on the mainland soon after Ronon had officially joined the team, to welcome Dex to the team and to do a little team building. He glanced from Teyla near the water to McKay still standing near the 'gate, to Ronon a few feet away from him.

Camping may have been the better choice, John, he chastised himself with another look at the desolate landscape around them.

McKay dropped his arm away from his face and turned to Ronon. "According to Zelenka, one of the botany teams stumbled across some research while we were gone." He gave John a furtive look. "According to what the botanists found in the database, the people living here had found some sort of weapon they used against the Wraith." He grimaced as he looked around. "Radek didn't mention anything about the smell, though."

"I have never heard of anyone successfully repelling a Wraith culling," Teyla said. "Could it be possible?"

McKay shrugged. "The Ancients thought it was at least worth investigating. They sent someone here to find out more. Too bad they didn't bother to record whatever it was they found."

Ronon turned from his study of the forest on the other side of the water. "So where are these people now?"

"If the Wraith learnt of this weapon, they would have certainly taken steps to prevent its use," Teyla replied and pointed at the tumbled stones in the water. "I am not sure there will be much left to find."

"We aren't going to find anything staying here," John told them. "McKay, which way to this village?"

McKay looked out at the trees, then turned in a slow circle. "Umm, the data Zelenka found said the village was a few kilometers south of the stargate."

Ronon pointed to the trees on the other side of the ford. "That way," he said and brushed past Teyla as he started across the shallow ford. Even with the rocks, the water still rose past Ronon's ankles and, if anything, the water smelt worse once it was disturbed by Ronon crossing.

John waited until Dex was across, nodded to Teyla to follow him, then waited for McKay to fall in behind her.

McKay stopped at the edge of the water, and John saw his face screw up in distaste as the slimy water ran over his boots. He took a deep breath and started across. John was a few steps behind him when one of the stones must have shifted, and McKay flailed his arms in a desperate attempt to keep from falling.

John grabbed McKay's arm, preventing a fall into the smelly water, and kept his hold on McKay until they were both across.

"Umm, thanks," McKay mumbled as John let go.

"No problem," John replied and turned to Ronon. "Lead the way. I've got our six."

Ronon led the way into the forest, McKay a few steps behind him, one eye on the scanner in his hand.

John fell into step next to Teyla as they walked through the woods. Now that he was closer, he noticed the taller trees looked like a cross between a palm tree and something out of Doctor Seuss. The trunks were tall and straight and a sort of brownish-grey color. A feathery poof of frond-like leaves sprouted from the very top of each tree. Protruding out from the trunk at regular intervals were spines, thick at the base sharpening to needle-sharp points at the tip. Sprinkled in amongst the weird palm trees, were the smaller trees, and John could see what looked like tiny apples peeking from between the leaves.

He reached forward to pick one of the tiny fruits but grabbed Teyla's arm instead when she slid on the muddy ground.

"Thank you, Colonel," Teyla said with a smile.

John nodded. "How are you doing?" he asked with a glance at her leg.

"I am well," she replied. "Doctor Beckett said the wound healed well and there should be no long-term complications."

John looked up at the looming grey clouds overhead. "I'm sorry we weren't there to help. You do know I didn't mean to abandon you like that, right?"

Teyla smiled. "There is no need to apologise, Colonel. Rodney was in trouble. You were needed more on your homeworld."

"Still, I'm sorry we weren't here to help while you recovered."

"I was fine," she reassured him. "Between Doctor Beckett and several of my people on the mainland, I was well looked after."

John nodded absently, and they walked in silence for a few minutes. He was about to ask Teyla about the Athosians on the mainland when he heard a commotion in front of them.

"Ow!" McKay exclaimed. "Just what I need, to be skewered on a deserted planet by mutant palm trees."

John and Teyla exchanged a look before hurrying forward to where McKay stood next to one of the Seussian palm trees, rubbing his arm.

"Told you to watch where you were going," Ronon said as he walked back to McKay.

McKay shifted to glare at Dex. "Thank you so much for that." He pulled at the tear in his jacket sleeve. "This planet just keeps getting better and better," he groused as he checked his arm. "Just my luck those spikes are probably poisonous."

John glanced from the scrap of grey cloth still snagged on one of the needle-like spines to McKay's arm. A thin line of blood showed where the tree had managed to slice more than just material. The injury, however, was little more than a scratch, and John shook his head. "I think you'll live," he said, and motioned Ronon to move out.

McKay made a face, rubbed at the scratched skin, and followed as Dex set off into the forest. John hid a smile when he saw McKay give the palm tree a wide berth and he put the scanner away before he followed behind Ronon.

"Is everything all right between you and Doctor McKay?" Teyla asked after they'd been walking for a few minutes.

John pursed his lips. "I could ask the same thing about you and Dex." John saw the denial poised on her lips and shook his head. "I had an interesting conversation with Ronon while we were back on Earth. It seems that trade excursion to Belkan last month was a little more exciting than you let on."

"Colonel -" she started to say, but John stopped her.

"I've already had this conversation with Dex," he said in a low voice and glanced ahead to where Ronon and McKay walked several feet in front of them. "I don't appreciate members of my team keeping things like that from me. The four of us can't afford secrets like that. Not if we all want to stay alive out here."

Teyla studied his face for a moment. "I admit I was unsure how you would react to the news Ronon had killed a man in cold blood."

John adjusted the strap for the P-90 clipped to his vest. "I wasn't thrilled when I found out what he'd done, but I do understand why he did what he did." He gave her a measured look. "What about the rest?"


"The part where he used you and your connections to get Kell to that meeting."

Teyla looked away. "It has been a month," she said a moment later. "I thought I had let the matter go while you were all on Earth." She looked from Ronon's back to John. "However, that may not entirely be the case."

John could understand the hesitation. While he and McKay had talked, on Earth and on board the Daedalus, there was still a wall between them. The natural, comfortable relationship they'd had before Doranda was still missing.

"You going to be all right?" he asked with a glance at Teyla. He noticed Ronon watching them from the corner of his eye and could have kicked himself for forgetting how sharp Dex's hearing was.

Teyla sighed, then nodded. "I will be fine," she assured him.

John nodded and let the matter drop for now. He looked at Ronon still watching Teyla and hoped Dex understood he needed to do or say something to her, sooner rather than later.

He opened his mouth to ask McKay how much farther it was to the village they were looking for when Teyla gave him a pointed look and said, "Do not think I did not notice how you did not answer me."

John tried to look innocent, but it was obvious Teyla wasn't buying the act. "Were you and Rodney able to talk while you were on Earth?" she asked.

"We talked," he admitted with a glance at McKay who, unlike Ronon, was oblivious to the discussion going on behind him. "He understands a few things now."

Teyla nodded. "And you?"

John shrugged. "I've forgiven him for what happened. The rest," he adjusted the P-90, "we'll see." He felt Teyla watching him and tried to ignore the scrutiny as he studied the sky through the canopy of trees.

"There is something I believe you should know," she said and paused.

John gave her a puzzled look.

"Doctor Beckett and I took a jumper to the mainland the day after your return from Doranda. I asked Rodney at the time if he would like to join us. To get away from the city for a few hours."

"To get away from me, you mean," John said.

"Perhaps," Teyla replied without hesitation. "However, the important thing is, he refused. He told me he had made a promise to you not to run away if the pair of you had another disagreement" She laid a hand on his arm. "He had every intention of keeping that promise to you."

John pursed his lips and glanced up at the looming clouds. The summons back to Earth had been beyond McKay's control, he knew that, but it was nice to know he had tried to keep his word.

"I thought you should know," Teyla said and let go of his arm.

"Thanks," John told her with a smile.

"You are welcome." She nodded to McKay's back. "How is Rodney doing after everything that happened to him on Earth?"

"He's fine, I guess," John replied. "His wrists were pretty much healed before we left on the Daedalus to come back."

John watched as Teyla started to say something, apparently changed her mind, and finally said, "And there has been no news on the whereabouts of this Alex Vance?"

John shook his head. "Elizabeth talked to General Landry yesterday when we dialled Earth for the weekly check-in. He promised to keep people on the search, but for now," he glanced out at the trees, "Vance is in the wind."

Teyla tapped his arm. "He cannot hurt either of you now that you have returned to Atlantis," she reminded him.

John grunted but said nothing.

There had been more than a few nightmares over the last few weeks in which he did not find McKay in time. In the dreams, he was back in Afghanistan, back in that village, and the limp body tied to a chair wasn't his missing informant, Naseer, but McKay with his throat slit. Or he dreamt he and Ronon found the mine. He could hear McKay calling for help, but before he could reach the building, Vance would appear. He would grin, hold up a detonator, and push a button, blowing up the building and McKay.

Every time he had one of the dreams, he had to remind himself McKay was fine, that he was just down the hall, asleep. That Vance had lost. He glanced at McKay's back and suspected he was having his share of bad dreams as well, but so far he hadn't mentioned anything to John about them.

"His plan almost worked," he said, more to himself than Teyla.

"But it did not," she reminded him. "Rodney is safe. You found him in time."

John looked over at her. "This time. I've already told Elizabeth if McKay makes any more trips to Earth, he's going with an armed escort. That's twice now he's been in danger while on a supposedly safe planet."

Teyla smiled and said nothing.

"We're here," Ronon announced, and John followed the others into a small clearing.

There weren't as many of the palm trees in this part of the forest, the large, leafy trees surrounded the clearing and stood tall enough to hide several tumbled down buildings built near the edges of the woods.

John grimaced as he studied the ruins.

"Lovely," McKay said from where he stood a few paces away. "If there was anything to this so-called weapon, any information is long gone now."

John couldn't really disagree. "We'll take a look around anyway, just to be sure."

McKay started to say something, clamped his mouth shut instead, and moved around the clearing to the nearest building.

John frowned. This wasn't the first time since their return that McKay had stopped himself from disagreeing with something John said and it was beginning to annoy him. One of the things he valued most about McKay was that he wasn't afraid to speak up when he had an opinion on something.

"Stay with him," he muttered to Teyla, then walked over to another of the ramshackle buildings with Ronon beside him.

The building, like the rest of the small village, had been made of stone, which was probably the only reason there was anything left to find at all. The roof was gone, and one of the walls had tumbled into the rest of the house sometime in the past.

John ducked low as he stepped inside and looked around. The room he was in led into two others, one that looked like it might have been a bedroom and the other held a sturdy table and some broken dishes. He was poking through the pile of broken crockery when he heard Dex outside.

"Sheppard," Ronon called through the door. "You need to see this."

"What did you find?" he asked as he stepped outside and found Dex crouched on the ground near the back of the house. "Wow," he added as he knelt down beside Ronon and stared at the large animal print in the mud.

He placed his hand inside the large four-toed print in front of him. "I guess now we know why the trees have those spines."

Ronon pointed out the other three prints on the ground closer to the trees. "Prints aren't that old," he said. "An hour, two at the most."

John gauged the distance between each of the prints and estimated whatever had made them had to stand at least five feet tall at the shoulder, maybe more.

"Don't suppose it eats plants?" John asked with a wry twist of his lips as he did a quick survey of the surrounding trees.

"Doubt it. See those." Ronon pointed to the small divots in the ground in front of each toe print. "Claws."

"Colonel?" Teyla asked, and John looked up to see her walking out of another of the buildings. "Is there something the matter?"

John wiped his hand on his trousers and stood. "Not sure. Ronon found some animal tracks. Whatever it is, it's pretty big."

"It's probably living in the ruins," Ronon added as he stood. "We need to leave before it comes back."

"Where's McKay?" John asked, surprised he wasn't with Teyla.

"He is in the large central building," Teyla replied. She pointed to a large structure at the edge of the trees that was in slightly better shape than the rest of the village. "He found a few books in one of the rooms, and was looking for more when I heard Ronon calling you."

"I'll go get him. You two, stay here and keep an eye out for whatever made those prints."

John found McKay in the back of the large building, crouched on the floor, sorting through broken equipment. A few tattered books sat on the end of a table in the middle of the room.

"Find anything interesting?" John asked as he stopped at the end of the table.

Mckay looked up and jerked his chin toward the books. "There might be something in those," he replied. "I'm still looking for anything that might be a weapon."

"The books are going to have to be enough for this trip. We need to go."

"What? Why?" he asked with the first glimmer of his usual attitude that John had seen in days. "We just got here. If you want me to find anything useful, I need more time."

John picked up the books and held them out for McKay to take. "Ronon found some animal tracks behind one of the other houses."

McKay stood with a huff of impatience. "I'm sure there are any number of animals living in these woods."

"Well, this one is huge, and Ronon thinks it's living in one of these buildings. We need to go. Now. Before it comes back."

"Sheppard," Ronon called over the radio. "It's here. We need to move."

John shoved the books into McKay's arms and tapped his radio. "We're coming. Where is it?"

"Still in the trees," Dex replied. "I don't think it's caught our scent yet."

"Can we get back to the 'gate?" John asked with a glance at McKay busy stuffing the books in his pack.

John waited until McKay had the pack clipped to his vest, then led the way back outside. Ronon and Teyla stood a few feet away, their weapons pointed at the trees behind the buildings to John's left.

"It knows something is in its lair," Ronon hissed as he backed across the clearing in the direction of the stargate.

"What is it?" McKay asked, and John heard the note of fear in his voice.

"Looked like a type of cave bear," Dex replied.

"You're kidding," McKay said.

"Cave bears are common on several worlds," Teyla told him. "They are dangerous predators."

Ronon looked back at them with a glare. "We need to get into the trees. Before we're cut off from the stargate."

John nodded. "Ronon take point. Get us back by the fastest route." He pushed McKay in front of him and nodded to Teyla. "I've got our six. Go."

Teyla nodded back and followed McKay and Dex back into the trees at the edge of the clearing. John waited until she was several steps ahead of him, then turned back to check the clearing. Something that vaguely resembled a bear, if bears stood six feet at the shoulder, had saber-toothed canines, and claws on the end of each toe, lumbered into the clearing and stopped near one of the smaller buildings.

John ducked behind one of the palm trees, wincing as the spines poked through his jacket and into his skin. He watched as the cave bear pawed at the ground then jerked its head up and down as it scented the air. The animal turned in his direction and John was up and moving even as he felt the ground shake as the bear caught their scent and gave chase.

It didn't take him long to catch up to Teyla and McKay ahead of him on the trail. He wasn't sure where Ronon was.

"It has our scent," John said. He gave McKay a shove to get him moving faster and turned back with the P-90 raised.

The bear was closer than he expected, and John fired several rounds at it, hitting it more than once, he was sure. The bear stopped for a moment, and John suspected it was startled by the noise more than it was injured by any of the bullets hitting it. It tossed its head back and forth and started after them again. The delay had bought the rest of his team a few precious seconds, but not much more than that.

John turned and ran.

He heard the snuffling, grunting breathing behind him as the bear closed the distance, and ran faster, ignoring the sharp spikes from the palm trees tearing at his uniform. He knew the bear was almost on top of him and was looking for a place where he could stop and try shooting it again when he saw Ronon in front of him, his particle gun raised. He ducked out of the way just as Dex fired at the bear a few steps behind him.

John heard a howl of pain behind him and turned as Ronon took a few steps closer to the bear and fired again.

The bear jerked its head to one side as it stopped short. Ronon raised the particle weapon, but before he could shoot a third time, the bear turned tail and limped back into the trees, bleeding from the shoulder and its paw raised off the ground as it moved.

"Good timing," John panted as Ronon holstered his gun. "Where are the others?"

"Over there," Ronon replied and jerked his chin toward a break in the trees.

John glanced over and saw Teyla standing to one side, her P-90 held low and ready. McKay stood bent double with his left hand braced on the trunk of one of the smaller, bushier trees as he tried to catch his breath. John noticed their uniforms were torn in several places as he fingered the hole in the sleeve of his jacket.

"Everyone all right?" John called as he followed Ronon into the small clearing.

Teyla examined one of the tears in her jacket sleeve and nodded.

"McKay?" John asked.

"Umm, fine," McKay replied and stood up straight. He looked down at the milky sap covering the palm of his hand and made a face as he tried to scrub the sap off on the leg of his trousers.

John ignored the disgusted expression and turned back to Ronon. "I'm surprised you weren't able to kill that thing."

Ronon shrugged, broke off one of the spikes from a nearby palm tree, and held it up. "Tough hide." He dropped the spine. "The bear was headed back in the direction of the village. No point in trying to go back."

John nodded. "Agreed. I think we've all had more than enough of this particular planet. Time to head home."

Ronon took the lead, and John made one last survey of the surrounding forest before he hurried to catch up with McKay lagging behind Teyla, scrubbing his hand against the leg of his trousers and then his jacket as he walked.

"It's just some tree sap, McKay. You can wash it off when we get back."

McKay glared over at him and scrubbed his palm against his leg again. "My hand feels like it's on fire," he retorted.

John had a sarcastic reply on the tip of his tongue when he felt the itch start at the back of his skull and caught a glimpse of McKay's red and swollen hand.

"All right, that's more than simple tree sap," he agreed. He reached out to turn McKay's hand over, but he jerked back out of John's reach.

"Don't," he said and cradled his hand against his chest. "Trust me, you don't want any of this on you."

"Show me," he ordered with a nod at McKay's hand.

McKay hesitated a moment longer, then held out his hand.

John winced in sympathy when he saw the extent of the damage. The palm of McKay's hand from the second knuckle of his fingers down to his wrist was an angry red with a few blisters starting to form. "We need to get that sap off."

"What do you think I've been trying to do?" McKay retorted, frustration overriding the pain in his tone.

"Colonel?" Teyla said. "Is everything all right?"

John looked up and saw Teyla and Ronon coming back down the trail towards them. "Not really, no."

Teyla glanced from John to McKay and frowned. "Rodney? What happened?"

"The trees on this planet are determined to kill me," McKay ground out. He tried to move his fingers, and John saw him wince and bite his lip.

"How far is it to the 'gate?" John asked, pulling his canteen out of its loop and a roll of gauze out of his vest pocket.

"Not far," Ronon replied. "Maybe a mile or two through those trees."

John nodded. "Teyla, head back to the 'gate. Tell Elizabeth we have a situation and Beckett should be waiting in the gateroom."

Teyla nodded, squeezed McKay's arm, and set off at a run for the stargate.

"All right, let's try and get that sap off," John said to McKay and held up the canteen. "Hold out your hand."

Ronon blocked John's arm as he started to tip the canteen over McKay's hand. "I wouldn't."

"The sap is burning his hand," John pointed to the angry red blotches. "We need to get it off."

"I've heard of something like this before," Ronon replied. "If the sap is from a corpse tree, water could make the burns worse."

"Corpse tree?" McKay squeaked, and pulled his hand back against his chest.

John looked around and pointed to one of the smaller, leafy trees between two of the tall palms. "He was leaning against one of those trees after you shot the cave bear."

"Corpse tree?" McKay said again, louder.

"Never seen the tree. Just heard stories," Ronon replied.

"Why is it called a corpse tree?" McKay demanded.

"You don't want to know," Ronon told him bluntly and focused on John. "Trust me, water will make the burns worse."

John glanced from the canteen to McKay. "Okay, I'll wrap it for now and let Beckett decide what to do once we get back."

"Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla called over the radio. "I am at the stargate. Doctor Beckett is standing by in the gateroom."

John tapped his earpiece. "Copy that, Teyla. Head back. We'll be there as soon as possible."


John tapped off the radio and held up the roll of gauze. He tried to be gentle but heard more than a few hisses from McKay as he wrapped the bandage around his hand, leaving only the tips of his fingers exposed.

"All right, that should hold until we can get you to Beckett," he said a few minutes later as he tied off the bandage.

McKay cradled his hand against his chest. "Thanks."

John nodded and turned to Ronon. "Let's go."

Ronon set a quick pace back to the island. John stayed next to McKay, keeping one eye on Ronon's leather duster ahead of them and the other on McKay stumbling along beside him.

"At least it's my left hand," McKay said as they followed Ronon back through the gloom. "Not that I don't need my left hand, but at least it's not my right."

John made a noncommittal grunt. Something cracked in the forest to their right, and John paused, the P-90 raised as he studied the forest intently. The last thing they needed was another animal finding them.

"What?" McKay hissed from beside him.

John waited a few more seconds, then lowered the rifle.

"Nothing," he replied and started walking again. He looked back and saw McKay staring at the trees. "Come on. Beckett's waiting. We need to get back to the 'gate."

"Yes, yes, coming." He gave the trees one last suspicious glance before falling into step next to John.

"Still, this is going to make doing any real work a problem," McKay continued, a few minutes later. "Typing won't be easy. I hate the hunt and peck method. Takes too long."

"Hmm," was John's only reply to the nervous chatter.

"And then there are the repairs waiting to be done to the ventilation systems along the North pier," McKay added as they came out of the trees. "No idea how I'm going to get that work done with one hand bandaged."

John saw the stargate on the other side of the stagnant water and breathed a sigh of relief. The itch told him McKay was in more pain than he was letting on, and the stream-of-conscious talking told John he was also afraid. The sooner he had McKay back to Beckett, the happier they would both be.

He led the way across the shallow ford, keeping one hand on McKay's right arm, as what light that managed to penetrate the thick clouds started to fade and stopped in front of the DHD. John punched in the address and sent his IDC as soon as the wormhole formed. When he received clearance the shield was down, he waved Ronon through the 'gate and waited for McKay to follow Dex.

John was at the edge of the event horizon when the promised rain started to fall. He brushed the water out of his hair and stepped into the shimmering pool. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason for anyone to come back to P4J-958 any time soon.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Rodney sat on the edge of the infirmary bed wearing a set of scrubs, as Carson gently unwrapped the bandage on his hand. He saw Beckett frown when the last of the gauze was removed, glanced down at his hand, and swallowed when he saw the extent of the damage.

Large blisters covered his palm and the lower joints of his fingers, the skin around the blisters was pale, and he couldn't uncurl his fingers. Looking at the blisters, he thought his hand should hurt much more than it actually did and felt his breathing hitch at what the lack of pain could mean.

"Sharon, I need the distilled water, please," Carson said calmly as he examined Rodney's hand.

"No!" Rodney exclaimed and tried to jerk his hand out of Beckett's grasp.

"Rodney, calm -" Carson started to say, but Rodney talked over him.

"Ronon said water would make it worse." He tried to pull his hand free again, and this time Carson let him go.

"All right, lad, calm down," he said and turned to Sharon. "Send one of the techs to the mess hall. I need a few bottles of vinegar."

Sharon nodded and disappeared.

"You're kidding, right?" Rodney said with a glare and hid his hand against his chest.

"Stop that," Carson admonished and rested the hand back on the table between them. "I've already told David to burn your uniform. Don't go getting any of that tree sap on anything else."

"I always suspected medicine was a weak science," he muttered under his breath.

Carson rolled his eyes. "If Ronon is correct, and water reacts badly with whatever is in that sap, then vinegar is the next best thing for getting any last remnants off your skin."

Rodney shook his head and tried to not look at the blisters or his fingers curled into his palm.

Carson picked up a specimen jar and a pair of tweezers. "Now just hold still, for a moment. I need to get some samples to analyse. The more I can find out, the better we can treat these burns."

Rodney forced himself not to flinch as Beckett collected samples of the sticky sap around the edges of one of the blisters and capped the jar.

Sharon came back into the room a moment later carrying two bottles of vinegar.

"Thank you, Sharon," Carson said with a tight smile. She set the bottles on the table along with a large metal basin. Carson picked up one of the bottles and handed her the specimen jar. "Get this over to the lab for analysis. Let's find out what we're dealing with."

"Right away, Doctor Beckett," Sharon said and left their corner of the room again.

"All right, Rodney, let's see about getting the rest of that sap off."

Rodney sucked in a breath and braced himself for the pain.

Carson waited a moment, then held Rodney's hand over the basin and slowly poured the vinegar over his palm.

Rodney had expected the vinegar to sting and relaxed when he didn't feel much of anything as Carson emptied the bottle. "I'm going to smell like a salad for the rest of the day," he groused as Beckett emptied the basin in a nearby sink. He checked Rodney's hand, frowned slightly, and poured the second bottle of vinegar over the burns.

Carson ignored him, set the second empty bottle to one side, and examined Rodney's hand again. "I don't see any more of the sap," he reported. "I think the vinegar did the job."

"You think?"

Carson gave him a long-suffering look. "Close your eyes."

Rodney stared at him for a moment longer, then closed his eyes.

"Tell me when you feel something."

Rodney waited several seconds, then said, "Well?" He opened his eyes and glared at Beckett. "Are you going to do anything or not?"

"I already did," Carson told him, his tone serious. "Can you unbend your fingers?"

Rodney focused on the wall behind Carson's head and felt the fear rising in his chest. He bit his lip and felt his heart rate speed up when he couldn't move his fingers more than a few millimeters.

"Don't force it, lad," Carson said softly. "You'll only make it worse."

Rodney swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. He hadn't felt anything when Carson cleaned his hand or when Beckett touched his palm, and he couldn't move his fingers. He'd suspected the burns were bad back on the planet, but this was worse than he thought.

Rodney tried to poke one of the blisters on his palm, but Carson stopped him with a gentle hand on his wrist. "Don't," Beckett told him. "You don't want any of those blisters breaking."

Rodney pulled out of Beckett's grip and tried to unbend his fingers again. He looked up, not bothering to hide the fear in his eyes. "Carson?" he whispered.

"I don't know, lad," Carson replied. "The burns are serious. At the very least, you are going to have scars. As for your range of motion, let's give your hand time to heal first. Then we'll have a better idea of what to do next."

Beckett opened a roll of gauze and started to wrap Rodney's hand. "You need to be careful. As I said, you don't want to do anything that will break any of the blisters," he said as he covered the burns, leaving just the tips of Rodney's curled fingers exposed. "You don't want an infection on top of everything else."

Carson finished taping the bandage in place and sat back. "As your hand starts to heal, it's going to hurt. I'll give you some stronger ibuprofen to take with you." He stood and glanced out into the main infirmary. "It looks like Colonel Sheppard and the others were already released. I'll call John and have him bring you some clothes."

Rodney was only listening with half an ear as Carson spoke. He tried to flex the tips of his fingers as his mind was consumed with figuring out how he was going to do his job and stay on the team if his hand didn't heal. A month ago, he never would have questioned his future. Since Doranda, however, Rodney didn't really know where he stood with Sheppard.

John had said they would continue to work together as they tried to sort everything out, but Rodney wasn't sure how well that was working. Sheppard hadn't been down to the lab at all since their return from Earth. And the one time Rodney had sought him out, John had claimed he needed to run a training session for the new Marines and had disappeared after a few minutes. The mission to P4J-958 was the first time he'd seen Sheppard for longer than an awkward meal in the morning.

"Everything will be fine," Carson said and patted Rodney's shoulder. "You'll see."

"Right," he muttered and wrapped his arms around his chest.

Beckett pursed his lips. "Once Colonel Sheppard gets here, you can leave."

Rodney gave him an absent nod. Maybe the best course was to just not say anything to Sheppard. If John didn't know how bad the burns were, he'd have no reason to remove him from the team.

He looked up when he heard the door to the infirmary open a few minutes later, and Sheppard entered, carrying a clean uniform.

"How's your hand?" he asked as he set the clothes on the end of the bed.

Rodney gave him a tight smile. "Carson told me to be careful and try not to break any of the blisters."

Not a lie, he told himself when John gave him an odd look. "What about you?" he asked and pointed to Sheppard's arm.

John glanced down at the red marks on his arm and shrugged. "Nothing serious. Mostly scratches, a few cuts."

Rodney nodded. "And the others?"

"Teyla looks about the same." John smiled slightly. "Funny thing, Ronon is fine. Maybe I should talk to Elizabeth about requisitioning leather jackets for all off-world teams."

Rodney quirked his lips and looked down at his hand.

John stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets. "You sure you're all right?" he asked.

Rodney glanced up and nodded. "I'll be fine," he replied, picked up the clothes in his right hand, and went behind a curtain in the corner to change.