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Teyla's knife is warm from resting close to her thigh. When Ronon swallows he can feel the sharp, roughened edge graze at his throat. The feeling is nothing to the look in her eyes, the look of uncomprehending betrayal.

Ronon cannot regret what he has done.

He knows that Teyla's choice not to bring her knife back up to his throat is based on understanding, not forgiveness. He knows she may never forgive him.

Ronon has killed Wraith upon Wraith upon Wraith. He has killed for survival and at times for the satiation of a hatred that knows no sating.

Kell's death at Ronon's own hand calms something in him. Something he wasn't even aware he carried within him anymore. Kell is dead and three hundred of Ronon's people are alive. It makes no sense at all, but Ronon feels less hunted than he has since the day the hive ships appeared over Sateda.

Ronon helps Teyla back to her room with the flaxseed. He smiles at her lopsidedly. He is actually sorry for abusing her trust, if not what came of the abuse. She seems to understand because she smiles a bit herself. "I will see you later."

Ronon heads off in the direction of the mess. He's somewhat amazed by how quickly his body has adapted to the idea of regular meal times. The first week or so he had wanted food all the time, even knowing that overeating was as dangerous as its opposite. The regular call of food is still nigh on seductive, but it's regulated. Ronon remembers the feeling of his stomach warning him after defined intervals, but the boy that the army fed at each of those intervals isn't someone Ronon recognizes.

Ronon avoids looking too closely at who he was. It's unsettling, having to consider how he went from being that boy to the person he is now.

Or perhaps understanding all too well.

When he gets to the mess, there's nobody that he knows well enough to sit with. The situation bothers Ronon more than he would like to admit. He's had seven years of learning to be by himself, and a few weeks of human companionship have near to completely unraveled all his efforts.

Well, not all. It's not that Ronon can't be alone. McKay has suggested that he is, in fact, "quite proficient at the whole lone-man-on-the-mountain thing," which Ronon takes as a compliment, despite McKay in no way meaning it in that sense.

Ronon doesn't like to be alone. Not even when his choice of company is scientists who speak in tongues and military personnel whose stories are always different from the ones he would share with his division. Ronon has found that the words do not matter so much as the sound of the words. The sound of laughter.

Ronon takes a seat close enough to one of the tables that he can watch and listen without seeming like he's doing either. He's spying on a table of scientists, so for the most part he has no idea what the hell they're talking about but he picks up on this much: McKay's top on everybody's list of possible Wraithbait.

Also, the girl scientist with the blonde hair has a crush on the guy doctor with large glasses. Ronon doesn't think either of them know it yet.

The group vacates the table after a while, but Ronon doesn't have to wait long before some of the Marines come and take their place. Their conversation topic isn't all that different, but where the scientists had obviously been trying to pick apart McKay's mistakes in a feeding frenzy of professional and personal envy, the Marines are merely venting what feels like a tired anger.

Ronon can't feel surprised that whatever McKay did put Sheppard at risk, anymore than he can feel surprised that Sheppard continuously puts up with McKay's antics. Ronon's smart enough to know how valuable McKay is, he'd be smart enough to know it even without McKay's constant reminders. Ronon also knows that Sheppard is smarter than him, and in his own way, more patient.

He sympathizes, however, with these men under Sheppard's control, these men who look to and depend on his leadership.

Sheppard is what Kell should have been.

Solen was right about one thing. There is no closer bond.

*


For the most part John likes people and enjoys their presence, but Antarctica was good to him for more than one reason and among those reasons was the ability to avoid human contact for large stretches at a time. Atlantis isn't always so obliging in that way.

Still, John is the ranking military officer on Atlantis--a fact so mind-boggling when John stops to think about it that his second to last personally minted rule (number 7) has become: don't think about being ranking military officer on Atlantis. Conveniently, there are whole parts of the city where nobody is allowed to go. Nobody except, say, the ranking military officer.

Well, and Elizabeth and Rodney, but he's pretty sure Rodney will be holed up in his laboratory crying out "Sanctuary, sanctuary!" and Elizabeth will be trying to explain the whole three-fourths of a star system thing to SGC.

In the parts of Atlantis that are inhabited John keeps running into the scientists who are trying to hide their cannibalistic glee at Rodney's failure and Rodney himself with his crooked smile and his bad apologies.

John's fucked up a lot in his lifetime, but at least he's learned how to say sorry, even when the words can't possibly mean anything.

As John makes his way into the darkened parts of the city, where it's just him and the hum of Ancient technology that always rests under his skin, and the ocean, he thinks all about how he knows he's being unfair, how Rodney meant what he said and how he had saved John for last and how all that should really matter but somehow what matters is that for a good chunk of the day, Rodney cared more about a Nobel Prize than he did about John.

And three-fourths of a star system.

Sickeningly, John finds the latter more forgivable.

John's a likeable guy. There's really not much choice on that score being an army brat. Brats are either forcefully likeable or complete rejects. And John really does like human companionship.

He's had a lot of drinking companions, and Air Force buddies, and a few really nice girlfriends and before that, when he wasn't afraid of the consequences, some even nicer boyfriends.

He's had very few friends.

He had a family once, before his mother loaded up on Valium during one of his father's tours. He'd been twelve, and a latchkey kid, and he'd applied CPR to her rapidly cooling body for twenty minutes while the paramedics made their way to his house.

His father hadn't been able to make it home for the funeral.

When his father had died in a separate part of Afghanistan than where John was serving, John hadn't flown back stateside for the funeral. His mom hadn't been the world's best mother, but she'd stood up to his father and the life he'd chosen for all of them for as long as she could, and John had respected her for that if nothing else.

When John listens to Ford talk about his grandparents, or when Rodney takes it in his head to be nostalgic over Jeannie, or even when Teyla goes planetside to participate in memorial rituals for her father, John's pretty sure that family means something different than he was taught to believe.

John's pretty sure Rodney is a friend. What's more, John fears that Rodney might be family. A different model than he's used to. A better model.

Rodney, despite his age, is the younger brother John never had but always secretly wanted. Elizabeth, in front of whom he practically undressed himself earlier in the day (he asked me to trust him?), is that missing older sister.

John learned to disobey orders at seven. His father was on leave for two days before the endless fights started. John had ignored a snapped, "Get out," tired of picking his mother off the floor later, of her refusal to be taken to the hospital. He'd earned himself a broken jaw, two cracked ribs and the belting of a lifetime for his trouble.

Breaking her own rules, his mom had taken him in for the jaw. John couldn't talk and she'd mumbled something about him falling off his bike which was obviously a lie given that his hands were entirely blemish free. Also, his mom was sporting a hastily-swelling black eye.

The hospital staff clucked at him a bit and gave him two lollipops (green and red, his favorites) and didn't call Social Services. Army brats were never around long enough to actually get them removed from their homes.

John left the hospital sucking on the lime lollipop and thinking that somehow, staying in the room had been worth it. His mom usually came away with a lot worse than a blackened eye, and the nurses had all smiled at him. Real smiles.

Disobeying orders that didn't make any sense to him became something of a trademark for John, and it hasn’t been up until now, up until Elizabeth that a lot of orders have made sense. Most of the time Elizabeth's orders don't feel like orders, and when they do. . . When they do, she listens to John's side of the story. Her smile, when she turns it on him (and she's not stingy about it) is always real.

Elizabeth didn't yell at John when they returned. She was far too occupied with Rodney for that. She didn't look at John, either, not even to make sure he was whole and okay.

John doesn't want Rodney's apologies. He wants for these past twenty-four hours not to have happened, for Rodney not to have manipulated his trust and thrown it away like it was something John just gave out to anyone.

John tucks himself up into a darkened corner, somewhere where nobody will ever find him, not without one of the life-signs detectors. Since he's not going to get what he wants, for now, John will settle for being left alone.

*


Atlantis feels like safety and is never entirely silent, both things which Ronon appreciates with great depth. He misses the smell of leaves and the erratic companionship of birds. He misses uneven terrain under his feet and non-artificial light.

So it is that Ronon nearly laughs when McKay complains about the damp cold of planet MZ3-whatever. Ronon finds the crisp mist refreshing, the way it softens the ground underneath him reassuring. He nearly does not want to follow the others inside the tavern, but Sheppard's heading inside and Ronon does not plan on being anywhere else.

Sheppard was back to being himself not a day after the Weapon Thing, as Ronon has taken to calling it in his head, since all he really knows is that there was a weapon and something went wrong. He smiles like himself and talks like himself and even treats McKay the way he always has.

Ronon isn't even sure how he knows that the whole act is just too perfect. It feels like he smells it, but Ronon doesn't think his sense of smell has developed to the point where he can ferret out emotions. He's good, but unlike McKay, he's pretty realistic about his own limitations.

When things go from regular-day-out-hunting-the-local-Wraith to regular-day-out-hunting-the-medical-experiment-gone-awry, Ronon's a little unbalanced. And it's not about the uneven terrain. Ronon is used to constant motion, to the act of Running. With Sheppard and McKay and Teyla motion is never as constant as it seems like it should be, or as Ronon wishes it were.

Sheppard thinks before he moves. It slows things down.

There are times when Ronon's thoughts are so closely aligned with motion that they don't feel like thoughts at all. Most of the time, though, Ronon knows he's thinking. He just doesn't feel the need to let on.

In the sudden surcease of motion, when Teyla is lying on the ground and Ronon's mind is still moving, still moving, with Sheppard, he tries to think through the implications of a direct order. With Kell there were no implications, or at least, that's what Ronon thought. A direct order was something a soldier followed, and Ronon was a soldier.

Until he was a Runner.

When Teyla explains the option of agency, Ronon moves with it. Even when his thoughts aren't motion, they're quick. He doesn't like dragging things out.

And then he's on his feet, moving, moving to Sheppard. There's a sharp spike of pain in his back where the transmitter used to be, which is odd, because Ronon rarely notices physical discomfort at moments where survival supersedes everything else. Also, because Dr. Beckett healed that up nearly a month earlier and it hasn't hurt since.

Ronon ignores it, keeps moving until he's with Sheppard and the Bug-Wraith-Creature-Lady-Thing is dead.

Ronon watches it for a bit, just to make sure it's not moving, at all.

Sheppard tells Ronon he's all right at Ronon's inquiry and Ronon says, "She wasn't gonna let us take her back," because he can't say, "You really don't seem okay," or, "I wish you wouldn't lie to me." He doesn't think Sheppard means to lie.

Sheppard says, "Yeah," and Ronon makes himself walk away, because to stay is to think some more, and to have to say those things he can't say.

*


John's mom was an honest-to-goodness, Carolina-bred Southern Belle Trophy Wife right up to the moment she decided not to be anything anymore. John remembers watching as she would make sure everything in the house was in the right place, and dust was banished to the outdoors, where it clearly belonged. He often thought she would have chased it off from there if she could have. He watched as she threw parties upon his father's returns, dinner parties with wine and clinking glasses to which John was never invited.

When Carson tells John that he's not-so-slowly becoming one of the bugs that almost killed him not a year before, he wonders if the harsh dissociation that he tries--and largely fails--to explain to Elizabeth, is what his mother always felt.

The apathy scares him until nothing scares him anymore, and then nothing scares him until he wakes up in a forcefully lucid state with whole patches of memory missing. That terrifies him.

It hurts to breathe, not so much in his lungs as in his head, and he's not sure how that's even possible. Beckett's saying something about the inhibitor. John tries to get at his memories, he knows they must be there. When he can't he resorts to asking Elizabeth, "Did I hurt anyone?"

The look in her eyes is almost as painful as the state of his head. "No, not seriously."

It still hurts to breathe. "Did Ronon shoot me?"

Elizabeth's smile eases something inside of him. He doesn't even know why; it isn't as though anything has changed. "Well, you had it coming," she tells him, which must be the understatement that swallowed the Pegasus Galaxy. She's still talking though, trying to explain to him about a mission. A mission?

John focuses as best he can. Her words are sometimes swallowed up by the sheer intensity of pain. He gets the gist. Bugs, a cave, stem cells. Oh, and Ronon will shoot him again if he makes any sudden moves.

Roger that.

It's terrifying to walk through Atlantis while turning into one of the very creatures which eventuated its evacuation. Terrifying to have heads turn his way. They can't see him, not huddled up inside the cloak, but John can't help the sick swirl of horror in his stomach. Then again, that might be a side effect of the headache. John thinks it's probably a bit of both.

As many harrowing things as John has done in his lifetime (and with the last year, he considers himself well over the limit for his age range) walking into the cave of bugs, trespassing on their ground, and stealing their unhatched young rates in the top three of all time least favorites.

John never talks about the other two. He tries not to think of them either. One nice thing about the headache--it keeps him focused on his task.

The shock of the inhibitor wearing off is even more blindingly painful than the headache itself and then there's just the sense of food, food very near.

Very near.

*


Ronon is not having a good day.

He can put aside having to shoot Sheppard. It wasn't first on his list of things to do when he woke up this morning, but Ronon's pretty comfortable with having to do things he doesn't enjoy.

Dr. Weir's suggestion of private goodbyes is a little less easy to settle up with. Even when he's moving again, measuring his steps down the hall as he follows her, McKay and Teyla at his sides, he can't simply shake off what she has said. Weir is the most optimistic person Ronon's ever met. It's nearly a mania with her. If she thinks they should be formulating goodbyes, then no matter what Beckett says, it's probably a good idea to think about what to say.

Ronon can't understand why it should matter so much. His family is dead. Most of his regiment is dead. His planet is a no-longer-smoking pile of ruins. Ronon has long learned to say goodbye without saying anything at all, by merely moving on. When he considers this possibility in reference to Sheppard, it feels repugnant, like something he wants to rip out from inside himself. That's different.

Ronon knows how to flow with change, how to take its patterns and remake himself to fit them. This whole thing has him faltering, however.

Every instinct in his head says that he should be able to shut off the part of himself that cares for Sheppard. That Sheppard isn't really Sheppard anymore, he's Wraith and Ronon hates the Wraith. If there's one thing in his world that he doesn't have to question, it's that hatred.

But somehow even with insect eyes and scaly blue skin, Sheppard is Sheppard. Ronon watches as he goes into the cave and wonders if he could do his own equivalent, walk into the den of the Wraith by himself, his team simply waiting back where it is safe.

Ronon nearly walks in after him. He stops himself. That won't help.

Instead Ronon thinks about Weir's suggestion. Ronon borders more on the realist side of optimism and he knows this is a last ditch attempt to save the small inkling that's left of Sheppard.

Ronon remembers a time when saying "thank you" was simple, just something that a person said when passed a tankard or given a compliment. Sheppard's actions toward Ronon go a bit beyond that, and Ronon has been trying to say thank you, trying in all the ways that he thinks matter more than words. He watches Sheppard's back, and, on occasion--when the occasion calls for it--shoots him in the back. It's an odd way of relating himself to the man, but sometimes Ronon thinks the Wraith stole more than just seven years and his home and his loved ones.

Sometimes he thinks they stole the part of him that made him human. Ronon never says this aloud. He tries not to think it too loudly.

Sheppard treats him like a human. Like a man. Like someone who deserved kindness on that hole of a sun-soaked planet, even after he'd stunned and incapacitated Sheppard and a member of his team.

Ronon could stand at Sheppard's back for all of eternity and it wouldn't mean anything in light of that. The fact that Ronon might not even be given a few months to stand in that position has him a bit panicked.

He nearly jumps at the sound of Beckett's watch.

The moments between those two small beeps and Sheppard's re-emergence from the cave feel as though they're drenched in some sort of sticky fluid and can't move past properly. All Ronon can do is stand there, waiting, and think, come out, come out, come out, because going in will do no good.

He's about to do it anyway when Sheppard responds to his mental commands.

Ronon's pretty sure it's a sign that the day isn't going to get any better when he has to shoot Sheppard a second time.

*


John quotes The Wizard of Oz upon waking. He tries to stop himself, but the relief of waking up inside his own head makes him a little giddy and before he knows it he's telling Elizabeth and his team--he really wouldn't blame them if they could never take him seriously again--"I had this dream. And you where there, and you, and you."

Teyla and Ronon both have identical expressions of worry that nearly turning into a life-force sucking bug has permanently damaged John's brain. John supposes they have the right. Rodney's obviously biting back the grin of a lifetime. Elizabeth smiles and says, "Welcome home, John."

He's certainly sore enough to have been tossed around in a tornado-uprooted house. "I take it the prognosis is. . .good?"

Carson sidles on up beside them checking the level of IV fluids and smiling enthusiastically over his shoulder at John. "Good mornin'."

"Doc," John says. He tries to tip his head. He thinks he succeeds, but he's still feeling pretty disconnected from part to part. The only thing that's certain is that everything hurts.

"You've been asleep four days."

"Asleep or in one of your fake comas?" John asks.

"Asleep," Carson says. "The process by which the stem cells reversed the progress of the retrovirus was hard on your system. You're gonna need quite a bit more rest before you're ready to be planet hopping again." This last is said with an edge to it, Carson's eyes focusing both on John and then cutting up to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth manages to nod and look somewhat affronted at the same time. That's pretty fair, it isn't Elizabeth who's always ignoring Carson's orders, it's everybody else. Although, to be honest, at the moment John doesn't feel like going much of anywhere. He's sure that will change long before Carson wants it to.

Interestingly, Ronon meets gazes with Carson and nods. John thinks, hey, you're my responsibility, but he's too worn down to get into issues of insubordination with Ronon right then.

Instead John yawns. "I see we haven't sunk into the ocean while I was sleeping."

"Yes, well, good thing it was you that nearly became a bug and not myself," Rodney says, and his tone has almost his normally full dose of arrogance. Almost.

"That's what I'm here for," John says, and if anybody says anything to him after that, it's lost in the haze of exhaustion that swamps him right before he falls back asleep.

*


Ronon spends the thirty hours and seventeen minutes that he waits at John Sheppard's bedside figuring out exactly what he wants from the man. When he has that settled and squared away, he comes up with a list of reasons why he shouldn't pursue what he wants. The top three (on a very, very long list) are: 1. Dr. Rodney McKay, 2. the things he wants often end up with people dead, and 3. the possibility that Sheppard does not want the same things he wants.

The third relates back to the first in that Ronon isn't entirely sure that Sheppard and McKay aren't fulfilling his sorts of desires with each other. McKay might not be able to best Ronon in a fight, but Ronon's not about to piss off a man with the ability to shut off his temperature controls and running water. He's lived in dank holes for long enough.

Observing McKay has gotten him as far as it can. Despite having systems to run and problems to solve within the city, McKay keeps returning to Sheppard's bedside. He's sniped at Ronon a couple of times about people who actually have things to do, but Ronon only rises to McKay's bait when he's spoiling for some action. Right then the only action he's spoiling for is the kind that involves Sheppard opening his eyes. Hazel ones, not insect-yellow.

There are small things between the two men that Ronon is uncertain of how to interpret. Small touches of reassurance that Sheppard will provide for McKay, or McKay's tendency toward uncharacteristic bravery when Sheppard is the party at risk. He wants to just ask, but alerting Sheppard to his interest at all seems like an awkward way to handle things, and asking McKay would probably end with the lights in Ronon's room never working again. Ever.

He would be ashamed at how much he's come to like (depend on) these creature comforts if it didn't remind him so strongly that he's still human--not an animal, and not a plaything. He tightens his arms in their hold over his chest, resisting the urge to touch at the scar just over his shoulderblade.

When Sheppard does finally wake up, McKay looks so relieved that he's nearly faint with it. Ronon actually appreciates the sentiment, but he can't help rolling his eyes at the histrionics that follow. Sheppard lets them slide off him, the way he always does, his eyes happy and focused. On McKay.

McKay eventually has to go back to running his city, though, and when he does Ronon is still there. The doctor's been fussing over Sheppard ever since it became apparent that he was awake. As he's winding down with his questions, and checking the machines, and explaining things about rest and recuperation, Sheppard leans his head back, throat stretching in a manner that Ronon forces himself to look away from. Sheppard closes his eyes briefly before flicking his glance toward Beckett. "You done good, doc."

Beckett smiles that half-grimace of a smile, the one he produces whenever he's been asked to do something that conflicts with his code of ethics, or when he feels he's being praised for a job only half-well done. "Get some rest," he says and walks off. He's gone to not even noticing Ronon's there, and Ronon can't decide whether to be insulted or honored by this.

Ronon hasn't moved or taken a breath out of place or done anything when a supposed-to-be-sleeping Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard says, "You stay in one position too long and your muscles start to atrophy. Judging by that run we had the other day-"

"You were superhuman," Ronon reminds him, not without some understanding that he might not appreciate that being brought up. Sheppard was the one who started it.

"That's your excuse?"

Ronon smiles. It no longer feels as odd as it did those first few weeks, when using muscles so long unexercised had been nearly painful. Not the sort of pain Ronon would generally notice, not intense enough for that, but he had noticed, and that had been one of the first small signs of larger changes to come. Ronon wonders when he stopped paying small things the attention that had so often saved his life.

Sheppard cracks one eye to peer out at him. "Go. . .eat something. Run. Take a few of my men down. I'll be here when you get back."

He sounds so disgusted by that last comment on the state of affairs that Ronon believes him. "You need anything?"

"Sleep," Sheppard says. Despite orders, Ronon waits until he's sure Sheppard's getting what he needs before leaving the infirmary.

*


Once, after yet another move to another base in another state, John had simply lost it and thrown a tantrum. John was young at the time, six maybe, or seven. He had come home from his first day of school (October 19, smack in the middle of a semester) where most of the kids were also army and just sort of nodded a bit at him, wearily. Nobody bothered to say hi, so John had to do all that work himself. He came home to boxes, there were always boxes and he couldn't find his favorite pencil, the one that fit between his fingers just right. Before he knew it he was throwing things--anything small enough to become projectile once in his tiny hands--and screaming, "I hate this! I hate this! I hate this!"

His mom had let him scream himself out, cleaned his mess up, and stood up for him when he could barely answer his father's questions at dinner that night.

Clearly at a loss for what to do--she'd never been much at hugging or any sort of maternal-type comfort--she resorted to her normal tactic of bartering goods for emotion. When John came home the next day the pencil had miraculously been found, and was sitting atop a puzzle. It was the type of puzzle nobody makes anymore, or at least, not the last time John took the effort to look, which was during his stint at McMurdo. The nights get long in Antarctica, and John has never lost his taste for a well-crafted puzzle.

This one was an 8000 piece monster with the blueprints for a Learjet. It took John three months to solve, and that was with the help of the other base kids whom he slowly managed to cajole into friendship with him. He didn't blame them for their reluctance. As a way of apologizing for his insistence on a connection that would have to be broken, John had left the finished puzzle with Davey Compton.

The first time John saw Ronon, large and fierce and smelling of terror he'd long learned not to notice, John could have sworn he felt oddly cut cardboard in his hands. He could practically smell the thing, the sensory perception was so strong. John expected it would go away, or at least work itself out within a couple of months, just like the puzzle.

Every damn time Ronon's near him, it's like the promise of that Learjet is underneath John's fingers, and he just has to figure out how the lines connect up, press the pieces into place.

Unlike the puzzle, Ronon doesn't want to be solved. Or at least, he has no interest that John can see in sitting still long enough for John to get a whole picture. It's nearly enough to drive John mad when Carson confides about the hours and hours Ronon sat at his bedside. Of course he would have been comatose for that. Of course.

John isn't entirely shocked when Ronon returns with an almost militarized regularity. John forgets that Ronon was military, but he doubts that Ronon has ever forgotten, even with the Wraith on him and seemingly nowhere to run. It's to Ronon that he admits, "If I don't get out of here soon, I don't know that I can be held accountable for my actions."

"Yeah," Ronon says. John knows he gets it.

Ronon can't do anything about getting him out of the infirmary (and if John's honest with himself, something he generally tries to be, he knows that his body couldn't really handle half the things his mind is all too ready for) but he smuggles in boredom aids while Carson is looking the other way. Smuggling is probably an overstatement. He sort of glides in to the infirmary with his usual saunter and doesn't let anyone stop him from reaching John. John has noticed, however, that Ronon pauses before entering and checks for Carson's presence. John knows Ronon isn't scared of Carson. He's at odds to decide whether this refusal to flout Carson's authority directly under the doctor's nose is a sign of respect or an affectation of actual fondness.

John does know that Ronon harbors gratitude deeper than anyone would credit. After all, he's made himself the guardian of John's sanity without being asked.

John takes the things Ronon brings in the same spirit he took the puzzle. They don't change anything, not really, but they're the offering of someone who cares about him and doesn't know what else will help.

For the most part, John has always been better at accepting the intentions of people than the results of those intentions.

*


Ronon's a competitive guy, and he likes beating Sheppard in their races for the sheer pleasure of the win. Before now, however, Ronon has never appreciated victory for its signification that things are as they should be, or at least as they normally are. The feel of that is infinitely better even than the valid pleasure of flicking a self-satisfied smile at Sheppard.

Sheppard, bent over on himself and working steadily to re-establish his breathing pattern, pants out, "Wouldn't- have minded-"

He drops his head, too exhausted to finish. Ronon's glad for the chance not to have to hide the worry in his expression. He keeps his voice casual as he suggests, "Maybe we should cut back on the distance for a while."

Sheppard doesn't bring his head up, but he gives a little shake of it. "Worked up- to this."

Ronon figures that at least a few of the times Sheppard's been off-radio the last few weeks he's been forcing himself back up to speed (as it were). He can understand why his commanding officer wouldn't have wanted him to see that, but Ronon is still able to identify the feeling in his chest as a stinging sensation. "Yeah, I can see that."

Sheppard gestures at Ronon with his middle finger. Ronon asked Teyla about the gesture the week before, but she'd been as boggled by it as he was. It wasn't until he asked Beckett that he was able to get an answer, and then only after a lot of stammering and apologetic looks. Now that Ronon gets it, he laughs. He's glad to hear a lack of bitterness--or worse, longing--in the sound.

Sheppard manages to drag himself back up to where he's slumped against the railing. "Sore winner."

Ronon grins his most gracious grin at Sheppard. Ronon's not a particularly gracious guy. Sheppard must appreciate the layered sentiment, because he laughs. He says, "Off-world mission in two days."

Their first since. . . Ronon's muscles burn with the need to leave this place, if only for a little while. He's so excited he actually read the pre-mission briefing. Four times. "PX7-M33."

"Should be fairly simple," Sheppard says, his eyes closing seemingly of their own volition.

Ronon has heard those words enough times over his months with these people not to put a lot of faith in them. It's sort of endearing, the way Sheppard always seems to think things will go according to plan. Ronon's outlook on life involves a healthy dose of always believing the exact opposite. Sheppard's still breathing hard. Ronon says, "Could happen."

Sheppard opens his eyes to look over at Ronon. He smirks. "I become a bug for a day, you become an optimist? We're never setting foot on that planet again."

They will, Ronon knows. The need to trade will overcome their squeamishness. He has no doubt Dr. Weir will send a different team. Ronon's not going to be arguing with her on that front anytime soon. Plenty of other planets waiting for them to get themselves into trouble. Planets where people don't try to make pets of Wraith.

Ronon has a few choice Satedan curses about certain people's ancestry to follow up that thought.

Sheppard's breathing finally slows back down. He asks, "Breakfast?"

Ronon says, "I could eat."

Sheppard's lips curl lazily in amusement. "How's that for a change from the norm."

That's pretty rich coming from a guy who hangs out with McKay on a regular basis. "You offering your rations?"

Sheppard scowls. "You'd take food from the ill?"

Ronon is unimpressed. Working hard or no, Sheppard's just finished a five mile circuit around the city. "I guess that's a no."

Sheppard chuckles and starts in the direction of the Mess. Ronon allows himself a second to watch before easily catching up.

*


When Rodney shows up in his starched white uniform and declares his intention to help, the correct response is, of course, "I feel better already." John can't help being proud of how well he carries it off, either, pitch-perfect balance between sardonic and sarcastic resonating in his tone. After all, Rodney has, not hours before, pointed out that John is the more expendable of the two of them.

What John is thinking, though, is, "You usually have a way of getting us out of these things, what's it going to be?" and a very insistent (if delayed), "apology accepted." John's been trying to shake off his misgivings toward Rodney ever since he woke up human all over again and Carson said, "He's been keepin' an eye out for ya."

It's not until this moment, however, both of them on this eerily alive ship of ten thousand years that John can completely leave his sense of betrayal and just trust. Rodney will make it so that they can get out of here, unexpected Wraith complication notwithstanding.

John knows life would be infinitely easier if he could learn to stop being impressed by Rodney and his unending cleverness, but the trick with the guards is, well, pretty damn clever. It doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world when he and Rodney are back to being he and Rodney and John knows that so long as they make it off this ship alive, and without Wraith on their tails, he'll have a good war story to tell Elizabeth.

She acts all proper and diplomatic, but she likes a good battle yarn as much as the next woman with flint and steel and a traceable amount of gold in her veins. At least, John assumes she does; he's never really met anyone else quite like Elizabeth.

John is pretty sure he shouldn't still be decently satisfied with the way things are going, what with the Wraith ships bearing down on them and Caldwell's trigger finger probably itching to depress the switch and this new intergalactic hyperdrive intelligence issue that's just arisen, but Rodney's doing that thing he does with leaving significant information out to manipulate John, only John's spot on about catching him, and Rodney's going to go handle the Wraith and he's going to handle the Captain, so things are, well, good. For the moment. Until they get blown up, at least.

Also, when John thinks about that last sentence, and handing Rodney off to the Wraith, while he goes to deal with one non-corporeal advanced-stage human, that's pretty amusing. Amusing enough to counterbalance the gnawing panic that the Wraith are going to glom onto the hyperdrive technology and destroy everything he holds ideologically dear. Well, almost amusing enough.

He takes the rest of the journey to the bridge just a little bit faster.

*


In between keeping Caldwell off their backs and hoping fervently that McKay actually has a plan so that they don't end up completely dead, Ronon asks Teyla, "Sheppard and McKay?"

Teyla raises an eyebrow. "They will return shortly."

"Yeah, 'course." He's trying to figure out another way to ask what he wants to know without asking when she catches on.

"Ah. That was not what you meant."

"Not really."

"You think that they are lovers."

Ronon squints a bit. "Maybe."

"I," Teyla pauses, almost like she is thinking about it, but Ronon is never sure if she is, or if that's just her speech pattern, "do not think they are."

Teyla's very wise and almost eerily observant, but Ronon needs more than that. "McKay does brave for him."

"I did not wish to intimate that the two do not care deeply for each other."

It seems to Ronon that the distance between those two points is not particularly far or hard to bridge. "Yeah."

Teyla smiles at that, one corner of her mouth curving up. Ronon knows he's being laughed at, it is the smile they share all too often at the expense of others. Well, mostly McKay. He looks away, angered but unwilling to argue with her at this moment. There are bigger enemies on the way.

She says, "Ronon."

He does not look at her.

She tries again. "You have been on your own too long."

Ronon already knows this. "What has that got to do with Sheppard and McKay?"

"Sheppard treats McKay the same way that I treat my people. His fondness is often fiercely protective, his confidence in the doctor is more familial than it is sexual."

Ronon turns back to her slowly. "You're sure?"

"Not entirely. I cannot be without asking." Teyla looks at him innocently.

Ronon has been around her long enough to figure out when he's being teased. "You wouldn't."

Teyla grins, then, every tooth on display. "I do know this, Ronon Dex."

Ronon waits. She'll tell him what she knows when she thinks he's listening. She says, "Sheppard does not treat you the way he treats Doctor McKay."

"We're not the same person. And he's known McKay longer."

"Indeed." Teyla's agreement is entirely without inflection.

Ronon sighs, and grips more tightly at his gun. "They'd better hurry up."

Teyla's glance flickers over to McKay's stasis pod. She nods tightly. "They will."

*


On the one hand, John feels sort of stupid being captured by Ford. He's twenty-five, and a lieutenant.

On the other hand, Rodney's the smartest guy in at least this galaxy and possibly a few more, Teyla can kick John's ass with sticks and Ronon can throw John--literally, as he was less than pleased to discover in one training session--so if this is stupidity or weakness, he's in fantastic company.

On the third hand, the one he would have if he'd been involved in some sort of nuclear accident as a young child, the state of John's ego isn't really what matters. What matters is that his team just ate plates of food full of the drug that took Ford from John in the first place. What matters is that John can see the desperation of Ford's cousin reflected back in the inky black of his bad idea. The smooth metal of the picture frame which rested gently in his hands back on earth is now managing to cut into his palms somehow, an unwitting weapon from his own mind.

Third hand or no, John can't shake the feeling. He stops trying when he figures this out, dedicating his energies to more important things such as keeping Rodney focused, or watching to make sure that Teyla and Ronon don't turn into steroid-bot versions of themselves.

Ronon's elbow making contact with his face pretty much convinces him he's losing that fight. It could be worse, at least, he thinks Teyla knocking him to the floor would be a bigger sign that he was losing them. Ronon still shows a loss of control over his emotions at specific points. Not usually, granted, in such an obvious way, but John's seen the way he'll lock his jaw, or flick his eyes, or bring his hand to the hilt of his gun.

Teyla will argue when she thinks he's wrong, but not physically.

Ronon's grinning at John, though, and for some reason, John's face hurts considerably more than it probably should. Then Ronon starts talking about the fact that this stuff is working, like he hasn't just laid John out, and John can barely pay attention because he's used to making the same mistakes over and over again, but usually he has the choice to make them.

John's never before considered genocide a positive sort of word, but the Wraith, and their tendency to fuck things up even unintentionally, make him think it might have its upsides.

What John really wants to concentrate on is the fact that two of his team members are complete Wraitheads, or whatever they're calling it these days, but much like the rest of this week, that doesn't seem to be in the cards. No, what's in the cards (of course, really, because how could it be anything else?) is trying to carry off a plan that does not, in any way, shape or form, deserve to have the descriptive identifier 'plan' attached to it, while Rodney's stuck on a planet with a bunch of guys on the same drug which is making Ronon hit someone he ostensibly likes.

John tells himself he's been in worse spots, and doesn't bother trying to list them. It's a little hard to hear the mantra over the scream of the Wraith sirens, but hey, what good is something if he doesn't have to work for it? That's what John always says. Actually, he never says that, but now seems like the time to pretend he does.

It's all in a person's attitude. Somebody told John that. He thinks it may have been the same officer who demoted him.

John knows it's a sign that he's gone even more insane than the rest of his party when the Wraith come to get him. He's being taken with them, taken to a place where he had to shoot his one-time superior officer, taken away from the team that's his to protect, taken by the Wraith which is never, never, never a good thing, and John feels immeasurably cheered by Ronon's show of protectiveness.

As he walks to places unknown (and better unknown, really) with his guard escort, John notices that the remaining soreness in his face is fading.

*


There's a part of Ronon--the small, barely-conscious part that even the enzyme can't quell--that knows he has Wraith inside him, inside his veins, and wants to open his skin up, let the blood pour out of himself until it is entirely cleansed. Mostly, though, he feels strong and wired and like nothingnothingnothing can stop him. It feels like knowing the transponder was no longer inside of him, or the way he imagines Sheppard's hands feeling on him. It feels like perfection.

Even in the dark of the Wraith ship, the cocoons everywhere (Ronon remembers that, remembers the wet-slick cold of the membrane, the contrastive fire of the Wraith feeding on him) even there, it feels good, like nothing on this ship can get to him.

He's too much a part of it.

The thought brings a sickening rush of power with it, a wave of filth that crashes neatly over him. Ronon can't find it in himself to be surprised when they're all of them in a holding cell.

All of them but Sheppard. Ronon carefully doesn't think about the way their cold, inhuman hands felt against the center of his chest, slightly over from his heart. He doesn't think about the way Sheppard is smaller than him, and their hands will breach more of his torso.

Until they realize he truly won't talk, they'll want him alive. He and Teyla have until then to figure something out.

Ronon will never, ever admit this to anyone but himself, but it would be really convenient to have McKay along right about now. This is really more his scene.

Luckily, when they throw Sheppard back, he's not only whole, but brings parts of McKay with him. Ronon has never been so glad for the way Sheppard pays attention to the other man. He doesn't so much hide his euphoria as replace it with a little non-recreational knife throwing. Sheppard watches as he withdraws each knife, and Ronon can't pretend he doesn't slow his actions down just the tiniest bit.

Enzyme or no, Ronon's still human.

More than human enough to exalt in the feeling of running down the corridors, and more than human enough to stop when Sheppard stops, to not think twice about extricating live women from the sorts of webs that he has known all too well. More than human enough not to be too bothered by waking up in the cell for his choices.

The pull of the withdrawal is hell. Ronon's need to know where Sheppard is feels worse. Even after watching Kanayo burn out, watching his body go from shock-rigid to deadly limp, even then mostly all he can think is, "He wasn't on the enzyme, he, they could have, the webs-"

Ronon knows that the incoherence, the hyper-anxiety is the enzyme and its less-than-graceful exit from his body but he's helpless to stop either. Instead he does the one thing he can do--not that he thinks it will help--and stands in the Wraith's way when they come for Kanayo.

The blaster shot is agony and if he weren't paralyzed by it Ronon's pretty sure he would be vomiting. He can't believe he actually feels grateful to the weapon for a second. No more enzyme, he promises himself. No more.

*


Hitting Ronon feels good. Not that John gets in a whole bunch of shots, what with Ronon being, well, Ronon, but John's crafty and pretty quick and can give as good as he gets when he sets his mind to it. He's not really mad anymore, what with them being back on Atlantis and whole, and Rodney not even being brain-damaged, but John figures he deserves just a bit of payback.

His pleasure isn't even terribly lessened when it sinks in that he's gotten a few too many hits on Ronon, which can mean nothing else than that the other man is allowing it. John's mother taught him the sort of proper Southern pride that has never permitted him to take charity, and he's had a spitting hatred of pity ever since all of his teachers treated him with a sickening delicacy in the wake of his mother's death. The way Ronon plays dirty doesn't feel like either of those things.

It feels like an apology.

John's learning to accept those in their different forms. Rodney has actually been supplying him with a small but steady stream of Sweetarts. John has no idea where Rodney is getting them from, nor how he knew they are John's secret weakness, nor even how Rodney has obviously figured out that the yellow ones are his unqualified favorite. Some things are better left as mysteries.

With Rodney, most things.

When John's had enough, he asks, "How you feeling?" with enough of an edge to it to let Ronon know he's caught on.

Ronon gives him one of those impressively-blank looks. "Fine. Doc said there's no lasting damage."

John hadn't left the infirmary the entire time Carson was checking them all out, so he knows this. Granted, this was partly because Carson had glared at him and threatened him with dire medical consequences and partly because Elizabeth kept dropping by to glare with equal menace. Mostly, though, it was because John spent a disproportionate amount of time on this last mission thinking, "I'm going to get them killed, I'm going to get them killed," which is a mantra that features in a lot of his nightmares about the first soldiers he lost while in command.

John knows that war is war and that each member of his team signed up for this with the full awareness of what he was getting himself into. That's more than John can say for the pair of nineteen year olds that he lost in his early captaincy. None of that changes the fact that they are his team, under his command, and somehow the word "team" has started sounding like family in his head.

He should probably go see Heightmeyer. Command requires some distance, so that responsible decisions can be made, and John thinks he's probably lost all perspective. Everything seems skewed in the Pegasus.

John says, "Thanks," because for reasons he's choosing not to explore, having Ronon think that he's naïve, even just slightly, makes him want to cringe.

Ronon shrugs. "Yeah."

John wonders vaguely if it's incestuous to notice the way Ronon's dampened skin curves sleekly, dangerously, in the hum of Atlantean light.

*


Ronon has survived betrayals of the greatest magnitude in his life. As Sheppard disappears through the barrier on P3X-742, in pain and struggling to pull back, Ronon realizes that his own strength has never before betrayed him. Certainly he has had moments of weakness. He has been fed on by Wraith, hunted so closely by them that he could hear the whisper of their hair across their jackets. He has been crippled by the loss of loved ones and the guilt of inadvertently bringing mass destruction to those who sheltered him. He has known weakness.

He is still alive, though, and as such, the strength of his body has never completely turned its back on him. When he heeds McKay's warning, fingers flying open, Sheppard slipping from his grasp, Ronon knows all that has changed.

Things only get better when McKay figures out the time problem. Ronon wants to forget all about the camera, and throwing supplies over, hoping they'll reach their mark. He wants to follow Sheppard over. He wants to say, "The bad news is we're probably going to die within a matter of real-time days."

He wants Sheppard to ask, "What's the good news?"

He wants to answer, "McKay's working on it." And then he wants to share a look with Sheppard that is at once entirely reassured and completely aware of how doomed they probably are.

Instead he tosses the supplies over. He placates himself with the thought that he never had anyone tossing him supplies in all his years of running. Then again, he wasn't usually hopping through temporo-spatial portals. Ronon is not a man easily placated, not even by the one person who knows him best.

The wait for McKay to get back with reinforcements in interminable. Ronon can only imagine how it feels on the other side. Sheppard, he knows, is a competent person. If there is a way to survive the situation, he will find it. If there is a way to come out of the situation better than he was before it, Sheppard will probably find that, too. The latter will be sheer dumb luck. Ronon respects that sort of thing in a man.

Beside him, Teyla is hanging onto Calm with the same sort of tenacity with which Ronon generally holds onto life. He says, "That was good thinking."

Despite the fact that it's been long, silent minutes since they put the camera through and Teyla worked out the time ratio, she knows to what it is he's referring. "I suppose spending time with Dr. McKay is having its effect."

Ronon wonders if that will start happening to him. He doesn't think so. Teyla is perhaps less malleable than he is, but she doesn't shy away from adaptation to others in the way that he does. Eventually Ronon thinks he will remember how it feels to have people--friends, lovers--imprint themselves on him. For the moment, the possibility of McKay rubbing off onto him seems laughable. "Think he'll fix this?" Ronon asks Teyla. Sheppard isn't there to ask.

"Dr. McKay cares greatly for the Colonel."

"That's not an answer," Ronon growls.

One side of Teyla's mouth curves upward in acknowledgement. She doesn't say anything. Ronon lets the silence be until she jolts him from it. "Have you spoken of your feelings to him?"

Ronon considers playing dumb. Where it would work with McKay, it will not work with Teyla. Instead he asks, "Have you noticed their. . .discomfort with same-sex couplings?"

He can tell by the look in her eyes that she has. All she says is, "I would not have believed such a thing could stop you."

Ronon wouldn't have either. "He's my boss."

"And you are free of the Wraith. Free to leave if you so please."

He is. He wishes it were that simple. He wishes he didn't know about the way the sea floats along the air to greet people on Atlantis' balconies, or the way its long corridors seem to cushion his feet when they hit the ground running. He wishes he didn't know about these incautious explorers from another galaxy, their ruthless kindness and accidental cruelty. He wishes he didn't associate the words "John Sheppard" with the concept of freedom. "Yeah."

Teyla smiles at that. "Ah."

Ronon nods. Teyla stepped away from her people for Atlantis. For Sheppard. For the hope that the combination implies. Even if she thinks of different things in her list of reasons why, she understands.

Seconds pass, valuable, precious seconds. Ronon has never been so acutely aware of time. He has spent hours hiding from Wraith, violently conscious of their proximity and his own danger, and never has time felt this pressing. Teyla says, "So long as you are discreet, I do not think he will be put off by your offer."

Ronon looks at her. She looks away. "His interest does not tend toward women."

Ronon blinks. So far as he can tell, Sheppard is always flirting with women. But Teyla is a woman, and they generally know this sort of thing. Her face says that she knows what he is thinking. She repeats, "They have a discomfort for same-sex pairings. As a society. And the Colonel is not a fool."

No, not a fool. Ronon can't bring himself to say, "I want more than for him 'not to be put off' by me." He settles for, "Mm."

*


At first the pain is all John can really think about. That passes pretty quickly, though, and he almost wishes it hadn't. When it's gone, he has to consider why nobody's responding to his comments. None of the options that he can come up with are very encouraging.

Despite the lack of radio contact, John knows that Rodney, Ronon and Teyla are all simply on the other side of that. . .wall thingy. There isn't anybody in the world John trusts to get him out of this cave more than those three people.

When an entire day has passed, John is feeling a bit less confident. Seeing as how they really have no idea what's happening to him over on this side, he would have thought getting him back would take something of a high priority. Rodney can be pretty quick. When he wants to be.

Somewhere along the way, John starts making two lists. The first list is of things he will do when he gets out of here. The second list is of things he promises himself he will do, but most likely won't.

The first list has four items on it: 1) eat something that is not a Powerbar, 2) take a shower, 3) find some way to assign Rodney a task that will seem totally necessary but really just be designed to drive him crazy, and 4) sleep on a surface not littered with small, sharp rocks. The list is not in any particular order.

The second list has only one item, 1) bribe Ronon with a share of the not-Powerbar food to partake in some quick, fulfilling shower-sex and possibly a follow up in whatever sleeping surface John finds.

The item/plan has several holes, of course, but John's seduction schemes usually do and he's managed to get himself laid a fair number of times all the same. If one discounts the problem of keeping everything a secret, guys are easy.

When the pack of food flies through the barrier, John has two thoughts at the same exact moment. At least I don't have to hunt and gather just yet, and Way to tell me it's gonna be a while.

He starts making faces at the Powerbars. Nobody can see him, and the Powerbars aren't going to kiss and tell, so it seems pretty safe. When he has no more Powerbars with which to amuse/feed himself John makes use of the rocks. If they're going to keep him from getting a good night's sleep, they might as well be useful for something.

Then he goes out to explore. If nothing else, it's nice being out of the cave, in the sun. He's stayed still too long and it's one version of paradise to be moving again, even if he doesn't know where he is going.

Even if wherever he's going is further away from his team.

John can't even find it in himself to be surprised when the first thing he runs into is a guy fleeing a big ol' invisible enemy with sharp claws and some serious speed on him. Really, that's sort of the definition of John's life these days. The only thing that's even mildly surprising is the waking-back-up part, and even that is something John seems to do on a fairly regular basis, considering the odds.

There's pain again when he wakes up. Not a lot, nowhere near as much as there should be. Nothing like coming through the barrier. He wishes it were just a little bit more intense, something to keep his mind off the fact that, nice though these people may be, they're not his team. His team hasn't come for him.

John does what he always does in situations involving emotional distress of any sort, and finds ways to distract himself. He figures it to be kind of bad luck, the way he managed not only to get himself stuck on a planet, but one where the only thing anyone ever does is meditate. John does not need more time to think.

He stays away from the meditation for a while, thinking that if he isn't somewhere where silence is structured then maybe he can get away from his own thoughts. This doesn't work and he ends up outside again, where there's sound and light, if nothing else.

Teer voices her concern at his choice to hole himself up.

"I'm being depressed," John admits, not sure why he admits it. He doesn't usually even let himself know those sorts of things, let alone anyone else.

"Is it so terrible here?" she asks, which makes John feel sort of like a jerk. A lot like a jerk, actually. He doesn't usually insult people's homes.

He backpedals a small bit. "No, you folks have been great." Then, "It's just, I've got responsibilities back home--people I care about, and who care about me. At least I thought they did."

The admission is bitter and he doesn't want to talk anymore, but he feels bad walking away. He's already acted ungrateful enough. Instead he stays and listens to her, talks to her, makes a good attempt at sounding like he's really there. He's already running though, and he knows soon enough it will become a physical run, out to where maybe his team can hear him, if there's anyone left to listen. All he knows is it's time to effect some speed. He doesn't have a Puddlejumper. All he has is his legs.

*


Sheppard talks a fair amount, particularly when he's around McKay. The times when he actually says something are considerably rarer. Ronon has learned to listen for them.

When Sheppard says to Elizabeth, to all of them, "Never thought I'd see any of you again," Ronon hears two things.

He hears the unruffled tone that Sheppard reserves for his most painful moments. He also hears everything underneath it. He doesn't think he would except that Ronon himself has learned to master the understatement. There are fears, horrors, experiences that words will only make real. One's ability to control that can mean one's ability to survive.

Sheppard, surprisingly, adds, "Kind of even. . .missed you a little."

Sheppard's raw admission, combined with Ronon's fierce joy at fighting alongside the man again leaves him with the pressing need to say something cutting, something to end the reality of possible disaster at which Sheppard has pointed. All he can manage is, "Yeah, well, it was only a couple of hours for us, so. . ."

Ronon is so, so terribly grateful that Teyla has survived her own trials stronger than he has, that she has the will and the ability to scold him and to tell Sheppard, "We were all quite worried about you."

Sheppard should hear it from someone, even if it cannot be Ronon.

*


John does not seduce Ronon with food.

John does schedule an extra training session with Ronon and direct all of his pent-up sexual tension into attempting to beat the living crap out of his opponent.

Ronon still takes him down, but it's one hell of a fight.

When Ronon has successfully pounded John into the training mat, he offers a hand. John thinks about the offer for a few minutes before taking it. Ronon's look is assessing. "You been around any of those bug things lately?"

The joke's not quite as funny as John wishes it were just yet, but he smiles all the same. "Maybe you're just getting soft."

Ronon does not appear to be buying this explanation borne of obvious desperation. John doesn't blame him. All the same, he says, "Maybe," and there's something more than wry amusement in his tone. John still can't read him well enough to know what the something is.

John is about to say something inane like, "Well, see you at oh-eleven-hundred," when Ronon says, "McKay calls me something sometimes."

John says, "Oh?" Usually Rodney refrains from calling Ronon names to his face. Rodney has a smidge more of a survival instinct than John himself does. It's not much, but it's enough to work with.

Ronon tilts his head slightly. "Well, he sort of muttered it." Ronon frowns. "He said something about Doc Beckett too, but I didn't catch that part."

John holds back a sigh of disappointment. Holding blackmail material over Rodney's head is always so much fun. And Rodney says so much in front of Carson that anything he says out of hearing range is sure to be pure gold. Ronon is starting to look vaguely inquisitive, though, so John turns his mind back to the issue at hand. "What'd he call you?"

"Conan. He called Teyla 'Xena.'" Ronon sounds eminently willing to be far more offended on Teyla's behalf than he is on his own. Teyla's unlikely to do it for herself over a bit of name-calling. Unless that name-calling involves her being a traitor to her people and aiding the Wraith, that is.

John's lips quirk. "Actually, while I'm sure it was meant in a derogatory sense, I think you'd appreciate the nickname."

"Oh?"

"I'll have to see if someone has one of the Conan DVDs and a season of Xena." Personally, given the number of science geeks on the station, John thinks it will be a miracle if he can't find those items. Atlantis is probably good for all of the Conan movies, and the Xena series en total straight through. "I'll watch'em with you."

This last is said casually, the way John says everything. It is still, clearly, not seduction by food, but he senses it might be a touch more date-oriented than physical combat until bloodletting. John's not the most romantic of guys. Women have complained about this once or twice. Men have too. The vocabulary might be different (or not) but the sentiments are still the same.

John thinks that Ronon's smirk when he says, "Yeah," is possibly just a bit anticipatory, but then again, he might be reading too much into things.

*


Sheppard is right about Ronon finding the nickname to be slightly apt. Then again, Sheppard is right about a startling and even unsettling number of things when it comes to Ronon.

Sheppard shares some of the treat that Ronon knows he steals from McKay. McKay seems to know, too. Not that McKay doesn't have plenty to spare; Ronon figures the physicist to be spending at least ten percent of his annual salary in sweet smuggling. Still, it's odd, unlike McKay to let Sheppard make off with things and not ask for anything in return. He wonders if there are elements of Sheppard that McKay has a hard time resisting, too. Or maybe it's just an earth thing. Ronon hopes it's not a sex thing, because Teyla's got him pretty well convinced that he should take his chances on Sheppard.

The name of the treat, Twinkies, dissuaded Ronon from even trying them until Sheppard did this thing with his tongue and the cream filling in front of him during one of their combined Xena viewings, completely without warning. Ronon tries not to think about it too often, it's not conducive to his continued comfort.

As it turns out, they're actually fairly good. A little bit too sweet, a little bit too fake, but oddly satisfying all the same.

Sheppard's thing with the tongue was an accident, Ronon has since realized. Sheppard catches Ronon staring at his eating acrobatics one time, and either mistakes the look or retreats from it with a somewhat chagrined smile. "Cream's the best part."

Ronon has no idea that there's an earth tradition of interrupting movie viewing with makeout sessions that rival the film's running time. He probably wouldn't do that even if he knew. Sheppard is laughing at the film, his posture slumped and truly relaxed, not the type of relaxation he mimics when in a meeting or on a planet.

When the credits begin to roll, however, Ronon scoops the cream out of his Twinkie with one sure swipe of his tongue and leans in to kiss Sheppard. Sheppard doesn't catch on immediately, so things are a bit messy for a second, but then he opens up, and Ronon catches the sound of a, "yum," inside his mouth.

Ronon enjoys the taste of Sheppard far longer than the lingering sticky sweetness of the cream. At one point, Sheppard pulls back just a bit to mutter, "This was my plan," with a tone of very slight annoyance. Then Sheppard presses his mouth back to Ronon's, surging up against him, taking control of the situation.

And sure, Ronon will beat Sheppard in a hand-to-hand fight every time, but this isn't a fight and Ronon has no intention of struggling. Sheppard straddles him, pressing their covered cocks against one another, wringing a moan from Ronon. Sheppard sets the pace, a surprisingly slow one, given just how hard he's driving himself into Ronon. The pressure is just on the edge of too much and Ronon very nearly begs for more.

Sheppard's mouth doesn't once leave Ronon's, not even as he's coming, panting short, sugar-infused breaths into Ronon's waiting mouth. Nor does he leave as Ronon comes, groaning and biting at Sheppard's lower lip.

When Sheppard pulls back, settling his feet on the floor and giving them both some space, the lip is puffy and marked. There will be bruises soon enough. Sheppard touches at it lightly. "People are going to think Teyla's meaner than she acts."

Ronon looks sharply at Sheppard. "Teyla?"

Sheppard does not wilt under Ronon's regard, but he does not shrug casually or laugh, as Ronon thinks he would do otherwise. "She's the only woman I'm seen with on a regular basis. I should talk with her."

"And say?"

Sheppard does shrug then. "Sorry I'm ruining your chances of getting some hot marine ass?"

Ronon is privately amused that Sheppard thinks the scientists would be foolish enough to try to make a move on Teyla behind his back. He asks, "You are uncomfortable with people-"

"No," Sheppard says sharply. Ronon's not entirely sure where the vehemence comes from. He's not particularly interested in being Sheppard's dirty little secret, but since rubbing themselves off with their clothes still on proved worth the bother, he's hardly going to complain either. It's just a tad annoying is all. More effort.

Sheppard looks away. "When you say it aloud, it sounds really, monumentally stupid, but my job is dependent on my heterosexuality."

Ronon knows his look is completely blank. He can't help it. Sheppard is a warrior. He protects his society. In Sateda, so long as warriors performed their duties, they could sleep with the Wraith for all that the rest of society cared. Having grossed himself out with that last thought, Ronon has to suppress a shiver. "Seriously?"

"What we don't have in Wraith over in my galaxy, we make up for in ignorance and bigotry." Sheppard sounds a little resigned to the whole thing.

Ronon guesses he would be too if he didn't have any other choices. "I'll try to leave the marks in less visible places."

Sheppard raises an eyebrow. Ronon sighs. "I will leave the marks in less visible places."

Sheppard leans back against the wall, his posture making it clear that he's waiting for Ronon to come to him. Ronon holds out for twenty-four seconds. Sheppard touches his lower lip again, and Ronon breaks like the water over the base of Atlantis.

*


It's been a while since John has known another man who was worth taking the risk of exposure. When he first saw Ronon, through a haze of slow-wakefulness and the headache that comes with being knocked unconscious, John remembers thinking, "Hm, tall."

John likes his men tall.

He sort of knew, then, that there might be a problem, since really his first thought should have been, "Where am I and how many weapons does this hulking beast of a man have?"

It seemed pretty cruel and unusual to leave Ronon to either the Wraith or that planet's sun just because John hadn't gotten himself good and properly laid in a bit. Or because when John watched Ronon through the eyepiece of the sniper rifle while Carson was removing the tracking piece, John's second thought on the matter was, "Don't make me shoot you."

This was followed closely by something that had a lot to do with curiosity as to whether pleasure was the sort of stimulus that could make Ronon scream. Pain obviously didn't cut it.

As it turns out, Ronon isn't a screamer. But the right angle of John's cock and a slow thrust upward can get him to pant, and make a sound that John privately refers to as purring. Sometimes he can get the same reaction from a firm bite to Ronon's collar bone, or the pressing of his tongue to the hollow of Ronon's back.

John isn't a screamer either. Occasionally Ronon will do this swallowing thing he does while the head of John's cock is pressed up against the back of Ronon's throat. At those times he'll whisper, "Jesus, Ronon, Fuck," and maybe, "Please," but never more than a whisper. John's kept this in his head for so long that the words associated with it are dusty, hoarse with disuse. Ronon doesn't ask for him to speak up, just surveys John with lazy, smug glances when he's finished.

It's possible that John unfurls a bit under that gaze, lengthens himself out so as to give Ronon a little bit of a show. Ronon is always the largest thing in the room, size-wise and by sheer presence. John feels small by comparison, washed out. Ronon keeps looking, though.

When John goes to Teyla after that first time, his lip is still swollen. She looks at him, and smiles, and asks, "Hard training session with Ronon?"

John grins back at her. He uses his glee and her easy acceptance to cover his own nerves at saying, "People might think-"

"It would be better if they did, would it not?"

"There isn't anyone. . ." John asks, because he thinks he would know, but this is Teyla, and he's not sure.

"No," she shakes her head. The motion carries just the tiniest bit of loneliness with it. "But if there was, he would understand this."

"You're obviously holding out for a better man than me," John says.

Teyla smiles knowingly and leaves him with bruises the size of Ronon's head when they next spar. John takes it in stride.

Ronon kisses the bruises to a deeper shade of purple.

*


It has been seven years, four months, one week and six days since Ronon touched another being sexually when Sheppard melts in his mouth. (Literally.) He remembers the last time because it was with the last person he ever loved. Her name was Breka, and she wasn't a warrior. She was a schoolteacher, and knew more than anyone Ronon had ever met. McKay might have her beat, but not by much.

She was nearly as tall as he is, and her hair was longer, and she could do things with her thigh muscles that most of the people on his planet hadn't evolved far enough as a race to manage just yet.

It was the last time he saw her before his unit went back out to prepare for the imminent culling. To protect her and the hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of others. It was the last time he saw her, the last time he kissed her, and the first time he said, "Love you."

He said it while kissing her, too young and too caught up in his own manliness to say it to her face. She pulled back, and smiled, and said it to his face.

He hasn't said the words since then. He doubts he ever will. But if he does, he will say them clearly, while looking at the person, and it will not be the last thing he says to her. Or him.

It has been seven years, four months, one week and six days since Ronon touched another being sexually when Sheppard brings him off a second time. He waits long enough that Ronon will not pull back at the press of Sheppard's lips to his cock. It doesn't take long. Seven years is a bit of a wait for a man his age.

Ronon comes hard into Sheppard's mouth, so hard that he touches unconsciousness for the breadth of a second. Survival kicks back in then, not quite knowing how to quit anymore, and Ronon claws his way out of the blackness. The pleasure of his orgasm--the second and the first time--is mind-numbing, blinding, every metaphor for intense Ronon can think of.

It is nothing to the feel of Sheppard's hands settling lightly on his thighs. The palms are slightly wet, the fingertips just a bit cool. Ronon tries to keep from twisting his hips slightly, just slightly enough to drive them further against those hands. He fails.

For a second, Sheppard looks as though he will smile but then his eyes darken just a bit and his lips fall. He tightens his grip. Ronon swallows the noise he wants to make. Noises are dangerous. As if to prove that point, it hurts going down his throat.

Sheppard must notice. A, "hey," escapes from his mouth, low and with a tint of concern. He presses his cheek against the ridge of Ronon's adam's apple. Ronon swallows again, just to bring his own skin closer to Sheppard's.

Sheppard presses in, does not draw back, does not retreat, does not leave Ronon with the familiar cold emptiness of air caressing his skin.

*


Ronon pulls back from John and runs his tongue over his teeth. "You taste. . .sharp."

John puts his hand in his pocket and fumbles around a bit, but comes up empty. He tries the other pocket and finds the roll of Sweetarts. He holds it out to Ronon. "Want one?"

Ronon looks doubtful. He's not in the practice of refusing John, a fact of which John may or may not be taking advantage. Sure enough, he reaches out and takes one. It's pink. John watches as Ronon crunches hesitantly down into it, his lips thinning slightly at the shock of the sour sugar crumbling over his tongue.

John enjoys watching Ronon. The man is a million tiny gestures, a thousand small facial expressions, hundreds of things that most people just don't see.

When he swallows, one of those expressions--a nearly miniscule softening of his eyes in consideration--comes over his face. John waits. Ronon says, "Sharp."

John leans in and runs a finger over the spot where Ronon generally sheaths his sword. Ronon likes sharp things, and they both know it.

Ronon generally tastes slightly bitter, like green tea leaves and the toothpaste the Daedalus is always bringing, the one that's mostly baking soda. The overlay of tartness is disorienting and pleasant all at once. It's a bizarrely apropos taste on Ronon.

John pulls back and says, "That was new, that thing with your hands. On PX7-D34."

Ronon asks, "Want me to teach you?"

"Later," John says. Mostly he just wanted to see if Ronon would offer or not. Ronon is rarely openly generous, not unless the recipient of that generosity is John himself. Occasionally, John is human enough to indulge in manipulating Ronon into making him feel special. (At least, trying to. Ronon is annoyingly canny when it comes to John's time-tested tricks.) Also, John really would like to know how to send people flying like that. He had glanced over in the middle of one of their regularly scheduled Escape-From-Planet-Thing Struggles and noticed that Ronon had people soaring around him. Knee-high boots and a riding crop and he could have been the ringmaster of a circus.

John smiles a little at that image.

"Something funny?"

Not really in the mood to try and explain circuses to Ronon, he says, "Some of those guys were bigger than you."

"It happens," Ronon says, but he doesn't sound happy about it.

John pats his shoulder in amused sympathy. "It happens."

Ronon does not look reassured. John asks, "You want to fuck me?" because John doesn't really mind giving up control, not sexually at least. Bottoming isn't his favorite thing, but it can be good and Ronon, well, everything is good with Ronon.

Ronon looks, for a moment, like he did before deciding whether he liked the Sweetart or not. He says, "Not really."

John holds the roll of Sweetarts out to him. Ronon takes another one.

*


McKay sleeps for thirty-four hours straight after the puddlejumper crash. Ronon approves; he probably would, too. Sheppard spends every moment that's not work-filled at McKay's bedside, and some that are.

Ronon drops by twice. The first time he asks, "How's he doing?"

Sheppard looks at McKay's still form. The scientist's skin is still just a bit bluer than Ronon feels entirely comfortable seeing. Sheppard says, "He's quieter than usual."

McKay talks and talks and there are so many times when Ronon longs for silence, but as soon as he gets it he always wants the chatter back. There's something so human about it, it's nearly as soothing as touch. Ronon says, "Just wait till he wakes up."

Sheppard's smile is tired, but genuine. "That's for sure."

Ronon claps a hand over Sheppard's shoulder before walking away. He does not rub the obviously-tense muscles of his neck, or mutter, "he'll be fine," or dig his fingers into Sheppard's hair. Not in the infirmary, where anybody could see.

The second time he checks by he brings food, because Teyla tells him, "I have not seen the Colonel in the mess since the Doctor's accident."

Sheppard looks at the tray like it's a foreign entity, even though the food is from his planet. Ronon has always been polite enough--well, hungry enough--to avoid doing that. Sheppard eats slowly. He usually eats at a relaxed clip, neither rushed nor particularly leisurely. It takes him an hour to finish what would normally be a twenty minute meal.

It's late enough by then that Ronon does lean in and say, "Dr. Beckett seems confident-"

Sheppard shakes his head slightly. The motion is hardly more than a bobble, but Ronon listens with his eyes. "Not what's bothering you?"

It takes a long time for Sheppard to say, "He was delirious on the way up."

Not really surprising, given that he was all by himself under thousands upon thousands of pounds of water pressure with freezing water leaking slowly into the only barrier between him and that. Ronon says, "Delirium causes people to say crazy things."

Ronon's entire squadron had contracted some kind of viral fever once. He couldn't remember what he had said, but he and his comrades had shared some good laughs over the things he remembered others saying. Given Sheppard's tone of voice, Ronon doesn't think whatever McKay had to say was very amusing.

Sheppard brings his feet up to the upper rung of the stool he's stolen from somewhere in the infirmary. His knees bend, curling closer to his chest and he rests his elbows on them, burying his face in his palms. "Yeah."

Ronon looks at this commander who does not does not does not leave his men behind and says, "He didn't think you'd come."

"I don't even know that he thought I'd try." The words are a bit muffled, Sheppard's face still being in his hands.

Ronon doesn't know what to say to that, but it's all right, because Sheppard cuts off whatever he might have responded. He raises his head just a touch. "And I don't know if I would have either if I were him. I know. . . I know what that's like, thinking you're all by yourself. Being all by yourself. I cut him off after Arcturus because I thought- I don't know what I thought except that he had betrayed me. I guess that works both ways."

Ronon knows all about Sheppard's trust issues. It's been weeks, nearly a month, and not once has Sheppard said anything like, "this is good," or perhaps, "call me John." McKay, though, if McKay were good with a gun he would stun people first and ask questions later. Ronon knows where that sort of behavior comes from, sometimes he feels like he invented it. "You went and got him."

Under the ocean, far, far, far under. Ronon watched as the puddlejumper shifted into submersible mode and then watched some more. Watched and watched and watched until it came back up to the surface. He'd held his breath, the water drowning him as surely as it had the possibility of drowning Sheppard.

Sheppard uncurls a little. "Yeah."

The sound of McKay's heart monitor beeps steadily into the silence and Ronon lets its mechanical repetition soothe him. The next heartbeat always comes.

Sheppard says, "Thanks. I hadn't, y'know, eaten much."

Ronon says, "Teyla noticed."

*


Somewhere in between bitching at Carson that the city is going to fall into the ocean any second if he doesn't let Rodney go, and yelling at Radek about all the things he should have done to adapt the puddlejumper's shields to withstand ocean-bottom pressure, Rodney finds time to snap, "Stop hovering!" at John.

This is, to be honest, a bit surprising, because Rodney likes having people hover and worry themselves over him. John would put money on it being one of his absolute favorite activities.

John stops hovering, though. There are plenty of things to do instead; he's spent far too much time at Rodney's bedside. Paperwork has piled up, and Lorne wants to discuss adding a few men to the roster with the next Daedalus run. Also, John has already skipped one sparring session with Teyla.

John can't decide if he's surprised when Rodney finds him. John's not even in any of his usual spots. Elizabeth has asked him to check out a small disturbance on the west side of the city, and so John has. It turns out to be nothing more than some birds that have made their way inside and gotten lost. John calls a couple of biologists to release them back into the wild, and dismisses the two Marines who have accompanied him. One, a twenty year old from West Virginia, stays to watch the birds fly off.

John is making his way back by the scenic route when Rodney is suddenly at his side. John doesn't let on to being thrown. Rodney is, well, Rodney, and will do as he will. "Hey buddy."

Rodney looks over at John, and moves his hands a few times like he's trying to say something. Nothing issues forth from his mouth. His hands drop to the side, and John says, "Rodney?" because now he's a little concerned.

"It was your turn, you realize."

John doesn't like to appear any more stupid than absolutely necessary in front of Rodney, but he hasn't a clue what the scientist is getting at. "Turn?"

"To save me. It was your turn."

John hasn't been keeping score. He can clearly remember six months of his life that everyone else on the station lived as a number of hours, and that's enough for him to put himself in the debit column for a good while. "You're welcome, Rodney."

"Yes, well." Rodney looks to the side. John watches where they're walking for both of them. "Thank you."

John knows that Ronon is right, that delirium makes men say crazy things. He knows that and he can't help saying, "I don't leave my men behind."

"Oh, yes," Rodney says, and the bite to it is more familiar, more comfortable, than Rodney's stilted gratitude. "Because it's all about your Big Army Man code of honor."

John was exiled to Antarctica by the Air Force for not leaving men behind, which Rodney knows. "It's my code," is all he says.

Rodney has the grace to twist his mouth in something that John has learned to view as reluctant acknowledgment. It is enough to make John continue, "And you aren't just one of my men."

"I didn't think you would- I didn't think you were smart enough to figure out a plan."

John knows that Rodney's revision of what he was about to say is a mercy. Rodney never thinks John is smart enough. Rodney never thinks anyone is smart enough. That, John can handle. "I wasn't. Radek, though, he's a keeper."

"He has his moments." The words drag from Rodney's mouth, sounding wounded and stubborn.

John smirks. "Lucky for you, they're the right moments."

Rodney snorts. "Lucky for me you have a hero complex and Radek's designs were just good enough to hold. If it had been me. . ."

John lets Rodney tell him exactly what he would have done. John only understands about every fourth or fifth word, but Rodney is next to him, whole and alive and awake. John went and got him from the bottom of the ocean. Those are things John understands perfectly.

*


For the most part Ronon believes that people probably shouldn't mess with what Beckett calls their "basic genetic makeup." Ronon calls it the "who" and the "what" of a person. He turned down the gene therapy when Beckett first offered without second thoughts or regrets. Whether it would have worked or not,--there hadn't been any Satedans before him to try it out on--Ronon is pretty happy with what he has. It outwitted and outran the Wraith for seven years, and if it doesn't cause lamps to shine for him and doors to swish open at his mere presence in the city of the Ancients, well, that's a handicap he's willing to accept.

Less acceptable is his separation from Sheppard on the grounds of him not having the right "blood."

McKay and Sheppard do all right for themselves, of course, they generally do. This time "all right" is a package deal with drones that make McKay giddy. Ronon calls him on it, aloud. McKay sniffs. "Just because you haven't the mental-" but Ronon is already ignoring him. Being smart isn't Ronon's job.

Sheppard is giddy over the new jumpers. Ronon is silent in his case however, as Sheppard has two advantages over McKay. 1) He is Ronon's CO. 2) He gives a galaxy-class blowjob and an even better fuck. In that order.

Silently, Ronon will admit that jumpers and drones are both pretty cool, and he sort of gets where each of his teammates are coming from. Still, the people Ronon was once willing to be anything nearing giddy in front of are dead, and Teyla's the closest he's ever going to come to having them back. It's not very close.

Later, when Sheppard has had his fill of hovering over the engineers assigned to check out the jumpers, Ronon and he go for a run. They finish up at the end of the bridge, as always, but by silent agreement find themselves making for the nearest balcony. The night air's just a touch colder than Sateda ever got, but so much warmer than several of the planets he huddled down on in between calling Sateda and Atlantis home.

Ronon uses the rails to facilitate a stretch. "Maybe I should try the gene therapy."

Sheppard watches him appreciatively, making no move to care for his own muscles. "Thought that wasn't your style."

Sheppard has never asked Ronon why he said no. Sheppard does not ask those sorts of things. Ronon stretches just a little past where he's comfortable. The immediate soreness is familiar, welcome. "Not really."

"You upset about not getting invited to eat with the adults?"

Most of the time, Ronon just goes with Sheppard's earth idioms. "I guess."

"I needed you on the outside anyway."

Ronon straightens and raises an eyebrow.

"I couldn't be taking down dark lords and starting an insurgency all at once, could I?"

"That was mostly accidental," Ronon admits. He doesn't like seeing bullies pick on people who can't fight back. Reminds him a little bit too much of his own life, but without the happy, Atlantis and Sheppard-infused ending. "And you didn't know you were going to need that."

"If I knew everything I was going to need, I probably wouldn't need you at all."

Ronon doesn't say anything to that.

"Well," Sheppard amends. Ronon smiles, a little.

*


Thelan wraps himself around John's mind tightly, as though he plans to suffocate John out of his very mind. It only takes John a second to understand that he would, if it were at all possible for him.

Elizabeth's tongue is wet and cold and dead despite its movement in his mouth, and if that isn't a metaphor for everything John can feel gearing up to happen, then absolutely nothing is. John sort of hopes without much hope that Ronon isn't watching. It's almost a relief when the two alien intruders ask for some privacy.

The relief is short-lived. While Thelan runs, John reminds himself not to panic. Everyone was hit with Wraith stunners, and panicking isn't going to help him at all. Except that Thelan knows Atlantis better than John knows Atlantis. John hopes against hope that his Ancient gene isn't giving Thelan any advantages he doesn't already have.

Thelan seems condescendingly amused at John's decision to stay calm. John flings back the best unconcerned, "Blow yourself, dickface" that he can manage, seeing as how the guy has complete reign over his mental controls. Thelan isn't familiar with the colloquialisms, and John can't draw him a picture, given that the only body John really has to imagine him with is, well, John's. John isn't willing to go there, not even for the possible shock factor.

John uses his barely-held calm to listen to every word Thelan says to Phebus, every word she says back. Thelan does not seem as intent on killing Phebus as she is on killing him, but there's only a minute difference, not enough for John to really work with. He tries anyway, of course, talking to Thelan, trying to distract him. Thelan--despite having two functioning brains in his hijacked body--is very single minded. John stops "talking" and starts paying attention again, waiting for another plan to come to him.

The need for a plan becomes urgent, desperate in its immediacy when Ronon falls under Thelan's influence. John forces a laugh at Thelan that Ronon is not stupid enough to give him anything stronger than a stunning weapon, a little bit of revenge for Thelan's earlier attitude.

John is willing to do anything, anything to get Ronon away from Thelan. There is nothing to do. Underneath it all John sort of wants to ask, "How can you not know this isn't me? How can you not know I wouldn't get you involved in this?"

Thelan catches on to John's despair and laughs, laughs outright. John's rage is murderous, overwhelming. He can't imagine how it's not eating through Thelan like acid, wiping him clean of John's mind like rot from a wound. It's not.

John begins talking again, yelling this time. A constant, unending stream of "stopstopstop, let him go, he's not part of this, stopstopstop," the increased volume designed to do nothing other than divert some of his attention. Once he's done that, he figures he can find a way to tell Ronon to go. One step at a time, that's all John can manage for the moment. It's better than the blind panic he wants to give into, if not by much.

He gives in at the sight of Ronon on the floor. John can smell his blood. He's smelled it before; their job isn't exactly low-risk. Usually he smells it carried on the wind, as they flee from some mutual enemy. Ronon is never lying down, never paralyzed by the pain. John is never the enemy.

John can barely hear Thelan's, "If it helps. . ." he's screaming so loud. He can't stop the screaming, it's like his mind simply won't form a word other than "Ronon," as though it's lost all ability to control its inner decibel level.

If John had control of his own body, he would vomit at his own relief over Thelan's call for help. Thelan doesn't even feel a twinge of nausea. John has no reference for the breadth of his wish that Thelan could be taken care of with a well-aimed gunshot. Or, even better, a good, long, beating under John's hands.

As the screaming (if not the complete, uncontrolled, sickening fear) calms inside John's head he whispers something that might even be a prayer: "Carson, hurry."

He begins to ignore everything Thelan does in favor of telling himself that Carson will save Ronon, of course Carson will, Carson can save anyone.

He wakes up from his haze of worry to find himself trapped at the endpoint of Teyla's gun, someone who looks so very much like Elizabeth ordering her to kill him. John thinks, Teyla, thinks, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said yes, thinks, Elizabeth, maybe thinks about the fact that he loves both of these women. Thelan's sneer is sharp and haunting, but not amused. John's not the only one being held at gunpoint.

That is the only comfort John has.

*


The second time Ronon wakes up, he is still pleasantly, divinely numb. The man sitting next to his bedside is obviously neither of these things, his too-pale skin and the dark smudges of his eyes sure signs of misery.

Ronon tells Sheppard, "You have a bad habit of turning into not-you things."

"Yeah," Sheppard says, and leans just the tiniest bit closer to the bed. "How can you tell it is me?"

"You don't seem so intent on killing Dr. Weir."

Sheppard winces. Ronon feels a slight twinge of guilt, but it's nothing compared to the twinge he's going to be feeling when the drugs wear off, so he doesn't apologize. Sheppard asks, "You know it wasn't her?"

Ronon fixes Sheppard with an unimpressed look. Weir is the least of both their worries. "I know it wasn't you."

Sheppard closes his eyes for a moment. "It was my body."

Ronon's body led the Wraith to him everywhere he went no matter what for seven years. His determination, his mind kept him one step ahead of them. "Just your body."

Sheppard's eyes flash quickly around them, checking to see that nobody is listening. He whispers, "Seeing as how my body has carnal relations with your body-"

The flash of hurt is so quick and so intense that for a moment Ronon thinks the drugs have worn off. Then he realizes the pain has nothing to do with his body, just the way Sheppard seems to believe that's what all this is about. "That's what we're doing?"

Sheppard catches onto the danger, which is reassuring. It means he's paying some amount of attention. It means he knows Ronon just a little bit. "That's part of it."

Ronon's chest loosens and he allows himself a deep breath. It's a sign of just how doped up he is that he can't feel the air filling his lungs. "At least you weren't the one who shot me."

"Yes, feeling much better about the situation now."

"Thought that might set you at ease."

Sheppard looks at Ronon for a bit, his eyes tight, his lips pressing in on each other. Then, after a moment, he laughs. It's hardly more than a huff of air. Sheppard checks their surroundings once more before peeling back the infirmary blanket covering Ronon up to his chest. There's nothing to see under it, of course, nothing but yards and yards of white bandage professionally wrapped over Ronon's torso. The first time Beckett had put a bandage that clean on Ronon he'd had a hard time not understanding why the wound hadn't simply sealed itself up and gone away under such careful treatment. The color of white still makes him feel better, even if it's completely in his head.

Sheppard places a hand gently over the direct location of the wound. "Can't feel a thing, can you?"

"I'm the doctor's favorite," Ronon tells Sheppard solemnly.

"But I hear it was a long, hard race between you and Rodney," Sheppard murmurs.

Ronon smirks. "We're so much alike."

"I definitely have some trouble telling the two of you apart at times."

Ronon raises an eyebrow. "Need some help with that?"

Sheppard brings the blanket back up to Ronon's shoulders, his hands brushing bare skin as he does so. "I wouldn't turn it down."

*


John closes his hand over Lorne's dog tags so tightly that later, when he opens the hand to pilot the puddlejumper, Lorne's name shows clearly on the callused skin of his palm.

Rodney looks askance at John. "It was a simple mission," he says, like that somehow changes the fact that John is the one who signed off on sending those men on it.

John wants to tell Rodney that he's lost men before, even second-in-command men, that military life demands that John be willing to accept loss. John is not terribly willing to accept loss, and he knows he's a better actor when he keeps silent. Lorne's death isn't the personal, searing cut that was Ford's, it isn't even the ongoing ache of knowing that Ford is out there and John continues, with every moment, to fail him. Lorne's death isn't even the ache of emptiness over Mitch and Dex that still sometimes wakes John long before dawn. Lorne's death is exactly what it is supposed to be--the sacrifice of a life in duty and service to Atlantis.

John thinks he should be inured to that.

But he wants to cut a path through every village, every market, every home until he finds the killers. He wants revenge. He wants blood.

Eventually, when Rodney has probably forgotten he's even said anything, John replies, "Evidently not so simple."

Rodney takes this as a sign that its safe for him to throw out theories of what might have happened and chatters toward this aim until they are back on Atlantis. John discards most of what Rodney says--tactical thinking isn't Rodney's strongest point, for all that he's okay at it. Rodney's okay at everything he's not utterly fantastic at, so John has learned to accept that occasionally, Rodney will turn up something. Which means that John keeps his ears open just wide enough that he'll catch the something if Rodney throws it out.

Rodney does say a few things that John has every intention of discussing with Elizabeth, but is distracted by Ladon's message. It's the first time John can ever remember feeling relieved to be dealing with the Genii.

Somewhere in all of this, before Ronon returns to the Planet of Not So Simple Missions on John's orders, he pulls John into the armory with him. Well, perhaps not "pulls," perhaps glances over at John and walks off. John has learned to read Ronon's glances. For all that they often look the same they rarely are.

There is the, "I'm good," glance and the "all right, you just do that," glance. Those two are hard to differentiate, but John can at times. There are the "this is going nowhere good" and "we should split" glances, which are surprisingly different from each other. John thinks Ronon might have become a danger junkie somewhere in his Running years, if he hadn't been one before. John means to ask about that one of these days.

There's also the, "I could really go for a quickie," glance, which is one of John's absolute complete favorites.

This glance, the one that has him following, says, "we need to talk." Nothing more.

It is Ronon's eyes, ever-cautious and fiercely protective, that sweep the armory, as John thinks to the door, lock for me, sweetheart. John does not know when he has begun addressing the city with endearments, but it responds well to them. Nobody will bother them. Ronon says, "I'll be fine."

"Sure," John says, "Teyla'll take care of you."

Ronon smiles self-effacingly. "She always does."

Ronon's kisses taste like orange-juice. John wonders which mess employee has a crush on his boyfriend.

*


Ronon holds Sheppard to him, disallowing the smaller man to withdraw. Sheppard stills. "Ronon?"

Ronon says, "I don't like the Genii."

"We won't invite them to your birthday party. I promise."

Sheppard has just returned from being held hostage on a planet that was then nuked into the consistency of day-old burnt toast, so Ronon doesn't laugh. Sheppard must sense he's not going to after a while, as he says, "I thought we came out pretty well, all things considered. Carson even got to indulge his good Samaritan cravings."

There is so much Ronon wants to say at that moment. His fingers react to the hold he has on all the words streaming through his mind, tightening over Sheppard's back. At some point, no longer able to take the pressure, Sheppard makes a small sound, deep in his throat and Ronon's hands fly away from him. At the loss of the anchoring force, Sheppard stumbles back. He catches himself. "Ronon," he says again.

The sound of it is unbearably gentle.

Ronon says, "Seven years."

Sheppard says, "I can only see what they did to you if you let me."

Ronon touches his hand to the wall. Even the metal in the city pulses, alive if not sentient. Ronon closes his eyes and listens to the city breathe. When he opens his eyes, Sheppard is still in front of him, waiting. Ronon starts with, "I was alone for seven years."

"Yes." Sheppard nods.

"And you. . ." Ronon shakes his head. "I didn't think it would matter so much. That I would need-" you, this, touch, "others."

Sheppard's eyes burn with empathy. Ronon starts to believe that this man may accept. There is no way to understand, no way at all, but acceptance is good enough. More than good enough.

"I thought whatever was between us when we were near each other was good enough. It was before. I had a girl, on Sateda. And I loved her, but it was-" Ronon thinks about what exactly it was between him and Breka. "We were both children. It was the love of two teenagers."

"Forever," Sheppard says, with the wry understanding of exactly how long that is to a nineteen-year old.

"I miss her, but when I marched off to defend Sateda there was no question of where my duty lay and that I would choose it over her. Things are never that easy with you." Ronon rushes the last sentence.

Sheppard's expression is intent, as though he is trying to find the meaning behind words that correspond to Ronon's exact sentiments. "I hate ordering you away from my side."

Ronon inhales the vastness of that statement. "My girl. There were so many things I never said to her. Things I'm afraid you don't want to hear."

Sheppard does not reassure him. He says, "You're not a coward, Ronon Dex."

Maybe not, but he's pretty sure this is what it feels like to be one. Ronon's heart thuds dully, almost too loudly for him to hear himself say, "I love you."

Not quite loudly enough, because he can hear the way the words sound broken and trite and worthless.

Sheppard's face, though, is quiet with awe.

*


John has lived his life not telling, even when asked. He learned this, he knows, from both father and mother, neither of whom ever found words to be of any use. John never meant to turn out like either of them, but somewhere along the way all of his best intentions have gone by the wayside.

John's throat is full of words, his chest and stomach full of Ronon's courage, Ronon's love which John doesn't, can't deserve. Helplessly, he tells him, "I hate having to order you away from me."

John takes a few steps forward and presses himself up against Ronon. He wraps his arms around Ronon's waist and holds on as tightly as he can without cutting off his air supply. Their cocks brush and John feels a small spark of interest, but that's not what this is about, and John can't bring himself to care. Ronon stays still, allowing himself to be held.

After a bit Ronon says, "Okay," and dips his head, pressing his lips to John's. He doesn't open his lips. John follows his lead, kissing him like he's holding him, without interest in it being anything more than a silent message.

Reclaiming his lips, Ronon murmurs, "You're not a coward, either."

Maybe not, but John knows himself to be considerably more intrepid in his actions than in his words.

*


It's all Ronon can do not to tighten his fingers around Michael's ever-weakening neck. The Wraith is there, pinned to the table, and Ronon has never, ever had one at his mercy like that. The ease of it is sweet, sweeter than the ice cream that McKay smuggles from earth and will never share.

Butter pecan. And French Vanilla. Or something called Turtle flavored. Ronon has looked up a picture of turtles. They don't look anything like the ice cream.

McKay won't share, but he can be blackmailed.

Ronon can sense Sheppard's hope even when the man isn't shoulder to shoulder with him, struggling against "the patient." He can see Beckett's tentative faith in his own work. He even notices Dr. Weir's troubled optimism, and she's about as clear-cut to him as the reams of Ancient everywhere in the city that mean absolutely nothing to his Satedan eyes.

He holds the Wraith down, he bruises him, stops just short of breaking bones, but when the sedatives take effect and he calms, Ronon lets him go. Lets it go.

Sheppard knows, Ronon thinks. Why else would he take him to the sparring mat afterward, unleash himself in ways Ronon does not understand, cannot comprehend, has no choice but to positively shut down? Why else would he press Ronon's chest into the bed, hands spread large over his back and whisper, "Okay, okay," with every thrust of his cock? Why else would he leave a whole roll of Sweetarts with the word "sorry" scribbled in black over the label?

Ronon wishes Sheppard knew the Wraith half so well as he evidently knows Ronon. Ronon shudders at the vague wish. Children on Sateda learn to fear and respect wishes. Fathers tell their children that wishes come at night, when the stars blind you to their form. Wishes can be. . .

Ronon does not wish that Sheppard knew the Wraith that well. He just wishes Sheppard were as fearful of them as Ronon is of wishes.

Ronon can respect their use of everything and anything as a weapon. He can understand their drive to cause as much damage with as little loss as possible. He can admire their cunning in such an innately human plan. He cannot stomach their need for humanity.

Michael may have the face and the body of a human, Sheppard may even have gifted him with the name of a human, but he is just another one of them, just another creature who endlessly cast Ronon as food, as plaything, as nothing. That Sheppard would speak to such a creature, treat him as equal is hard, nearly impossible, to accept.

Sheppard tries yelling at him for his outburst, for his attitude toward Michael and there are words like "plans" and "agreed" and "stop" being thrown around.

They weren't Ronon's plans. Ronon never agreed to anything. He waits until Sheppard's cutting, commanding-officer voice has gone silent to say, "You treat him like he's someone you rescued."

Sheppard blinks. Several times. He then says, "He was something. There's a world of difference, Ronon."

Ronon guesses that was what he needed to hear, because following orders after that is only half as hard as it was before.

*


John's mother was a fan of classic Motown. The only thing John can remember hearing when his father was around was either shouting or silence.

John's father was transferred out to Mountain Home in Idaho the year John turned fourteen. Idaho wasn't any worse than any of the other places they had lived, and military housing was military housing country-wide, so John packed up the little he bothered to keep and moved to potato country.

The school he attended hosted a fair amount of kids who weren't armed forces transients, which made it nearly impossible to fit in with anyone. John hadn't come in time to make the football team, and wasn't good enough for the basketball one. He was about to give up and just join the Math Olympiads when Sam Quinn dropped his lunch tray next to John's and said, "You moved here recently, yeah?"

Sam was as tall as John but had never completely lost his baby fat. His cheeks were always just a touch pinker than the rest of his skin, and he had dirty blond hair that he kept in an un-flattering ceasar cut. He was John's only best friend before his entrance into the Academy, and his first ever crush.

Sam's father was a dyed-in-the-wool Johnny Cash fan who couldn't countenance his son being friends with anyone who didn't own at least one CD. By the end of their first week as friends, Mr. Quinn had bought John "At Folsom Prison" and commanded him to, "Listen to it. All the way through."

John did, mostly because Mr. Quinn listened to what Sam said and even laughed at his jokes, and John thought maybe the CD would make him feel the way he felt when he was around the two of them.

It didn't make him feel anything like that. It made him feel like somebody else knew what it meant to be jailed even out in the wild opens of Idaho. It made him feel like he had an ally.

John's iPod has every Cash song ever written and performed. They are meticulously organized by year, performance and album. Sometimes he sneaks off to run to the sound of angry, twang-filled hillbilly gospel Truth pounding in his ears, off-beat from the rhythm of his feet against Atlantis' hallways. Ronon is an excellent running partner, but Johnny never gets ahead of him, never makes him feel as though he should work harder, never asks anything but that he listen.

John hasn't stopped wanting to listen since he was fourteen.

He chooses the playlist from "With His Hot and Blue Guitar" after Michael escapes, nearly killing Teyla and bringing them all closer to their complete annihilation in one fell swoop. Johnny wrote most of the songs on it while he was in the Air Force, and while John mostly loves the Air Force, sometimes he gets the anger, the despair bottled up in those twelve songs.

John runs until his feet hurt, until the sound of his breath is louder than the music being pumped into his ears. His iPod has long since switched over to the playlist for "A Thing Called Love." John doesn't remember queuing it like that, there's no sequential or thematic order to it. He's forced to think that maybe Johnny's just trying to tell him something when Ronon finds him.

John's leaning over one of the north wing balconies. Nobody much comes to this side of the city. Ronon has to have been actively looking for him. He grabs his own patch of railing and asks, just loudly enough to be heard over the guitar, "Should I go?"

One song ends and there's a stretch of silence that John knows can't last more than a moment before the next song begins. John asks, "Did you need me?"

Ronon mutters something that John can't hear. Louder, he says, "You gonna eat?"

"Not hungry," John tells him. The gnawing, acidic feeling in John's center is not hunger.

"He was Wraith," Ronon says. It's angry and understanding all at once--a bit like Johnny. "And you weren't the only one making decisions."

But John was one of the people making them, and that's really all that he can see mattering. "I-"

Ronon cuts him off with, "I thought you might need me."

John blinks, trying to determine the layers of meaning in the statement. Ronon has said it as he would respond to any command, with a willingness to serve, an understanding of the chain of command far more innate than it ever has been to John. The slightly curved posture of his body seems to offer more than simple obedience, however.

John thinks, burnsburnsburns. He says, "I shouldn't have run without you."

Ronon, persistent, says, "You can eat with me."

*


Ronon reaches out to take the plugs from Sheppard's ears. The music sounds small from where he is standing. Ronon doesn't know what it really sounds like, but he knows that John depends on it, goes to it when he thinks there's nowhere else to go.

Ronon has received messages in his headset that not even the person standing next to him could hear. Awful, urgent messages from Sheppard, McKay, sometimes even Weir.

Perception is everything.

Curious, Ronon slips one of the earphones into his ear. The sound that pours in is not what he was expecting. On Sateda, the music is mostly percussion. Reeds had begun to come into vogue just as Ronon had gone off to train, but in the military the pounding beats of the drum were all that would ever be "fashionable."

Somehow Ronon always expected John's anger, his fear, to sound like the larger drums--deep and resonant and oddly quiet for their size. This obsession, this sound he always turns to sounds nothing like that. It is faster than Ronon expected, more layered, more reckless.

Ronon grabs the other earphone and lodges it in his ear. Sheppard smiles for the first time since they returned from the alpha site. He unhooks the iPod from his belt and attaches it to the waist of Ronon's pants. His fingers brush lightly over the skin right below.

Ronon always laughed when the other soldiers would tell him of taking their girls while playing music. For him music was about fighting and revelry. Nothing to do with love, or even sex.

Ronon would let Sheppard take him to this sound, the plucking of the strings, strong and intent. He would breathe in time to the man's voice, low and raw.

Sheppard leaves his fingers there for longer than strictly necessary.

Neither of them looks to see if anyone is watching.

*


John can't help himself. He wouldn't have even looked twice at Norina, but Rodney's near-admission of having something to learn drives John to flirt. Rodney's always at his best when competing.

Plus, John just likes frustrating him.

Rodney mutters, "Isn't one long-legged bed-slave enough for you?"

John stops breathing for a second. He's wondered, of course, if Rodney knew. Rodney is his closest friend, his team-mate, and exceptionally brilliant. Rodney's also not the most observant person when it comes to mankind and behavioral science.

Rodney has already begun moving again, too worried about disastrous magma flow to trade more than one barb with John at a time. John can respect that. He can also respect that Rodney hasn't outed him yet, and doesn’t seem particularly intent on doing so. John begins breathing again, and it feels like the first time he's done it in years.

Rodney passes by him again and John offers back, "Hasn't Ronon mentioned the long and rich Satedan tradition of threesomes?"

Rodney scowls. "No, and you'll just have to fill me in later. Trying to save our lives and the lives of thousands of innocents, here, remember?"

And get laid in the process, if possible, John thinks wryly. He would say it, but Carson's probably already waiting for him with the most recent bunch of evacuees. He's really only supposed to be checking up on Rodney's progress. Of course, asking Rodney how he's doing is really just a good way to get himself yelled at, so John instead looks for the tale-tell signs that Rodney's satisfied with the way things are going, if not overwhelmingly thrilled. They're on the mouth of a volcano that's about to destroy an entire planet, John's just fine settling for satisfaction.

Rodney's willingness to snark at John is a good sign, even if his admittance of knowing about John's personal life is a little too revealing about just how scared Rodney is. Rodney only lets John have the vaguest clue that he cares about him when one or both of them is really very possibly going to die.

As John is leaving the room, however, Rodney rips open a power bar and starts munching. In between chews, he explains something to Novina. John grins and begins jogging toward the meet-up point with Carson. Granted, both of those actions could mean, "Well, I'm gonna die anyway, I might as well do it eating and chatting up a pretty girl," but John chooses to go with the interpretation, "I've got things covered, excuse me while I enjoy some artificially-flavored protein."

John escorts the refugees and Carson back onto the ship, and returns to check on Rodney again. Rodney likes to feel like people are paying attention, and right now, John can afford to stroke his ego some. If Rodney doesn’t save them, John can ignore him all he wants when they're both dead.

John runs in giving a report on the evacuation, because Rodney also likes feeling in the loop, but it doesn't take more than a second for John to realize that things have changed in the ten or so minutes that he's been gone. John asks, "What?"

"Two large fissures just opened up near the base. One of the lava flows just covered the hangar directly above us. We're talking over thirty feet thick."

"Is the door gonna hold?"

According to Rodney that's really pretty far from being their biggest problem, and John spends a few moments strategizing. Rodney, who is sometimes a bit of an asshole, shuts down that avenue of distraction by having some big, great, brilliant idea that he won't let anyone in on. And not that John doesn't appreciate the fact that Rodney will most likely get them out of this without them being melted down to the point where not even dental records would be of use in identification, but John would sort of like to be involved in that process.

Since it's obvious that's not going to happen, he goes to meet what should be the last bunch of refugees. And realizes that magma pouring down over their heads might be the least of his problems: Carson is the only Atlantean escorting them down. "Teyla? Ronon?"

"Well, they helped the last family. God, I haven't seen them."

John doesn't even feel his hand go to his headset; it's just there. "Teyla? Ronon?" He is very careful to make sure that the second call is not panic tinged.

Nothing, nothing and more nothing. John takes a second to think, Teyla and Ronon are breathing poisonous air, another second to think, I most likely can't get to them, a third to think, my lover is dying from asphyxiation within walking distance of where I am, and a fourth for blind, unreasoning terror mixed, possibly, with a good dose of pain. On the fifth second he turns to Carson. "Don't leave without us."

He's already moving, going toward where he knows he won't be able to reach as Carson tells him that of course they won't. Of course.

*


The children are clinging to Ronon's neck and he uses the feeling of their tiny, desperate fingers curving into his skin to distract himself from the burn of his lungs.

He checks behind him to make sure that the parents and the older girl are still with him. He has checked, compulsively, but it would not be the first time something that Ronon was watching over up and disappeared into the smoke and the ashes on him.

They are there, weary and heartsore, but still following. He nods at Teyla. "Did everyone else get through?" He hopes the answer is yes. His lungs are one large mass of stinging pain, hotter even than the nearly molten air of the planet. He will go back out there if she tells him to.

"Yes. We are the last to remain."

Ronon nearly smiles. He would, if he had the energy. A few more minutes and he will have the too-clean, recycled air of which the Ancients were so fond. A few more minutes and he will be able to laugh at McKay's fumbling attempts to impress the blonde who seems pretty willing to be impressed. A few more minutes and he can smile at Sheppard, the I did what you asked smile and wait patiently for his reward. "We'd better get going then."

He can hear the bad news even before she says it, in her moment of hesitation. Then, "Ronon, the tunnel is blocked. I was just there. It collapsed during the last tremor."

Ronon gives himself a moment to think by returning the children carefully to their parents. They go easily enough, but their arms drag along his skin, lingering an extra few seconds in a subconscious motion of gratitude. Ronon allows the sensation to make him feel strong.

He returns to Teyla who is coughing, badly. He wants to touch her, to rub at her back, to tell her it will be all right. He will not lie to her, and if he touches her, she will just keep coughing. Ronon cannot stop whatever poison is filling the air from falling on them. Looking at her, he says, "We can't go back out there."

She does not make him feel stupid for stating the obvious. Instead she says, "I have been trying to hail Colonel Sheppard."

Ronon, for the first time since the man found him and gifted him with Beckett's medical knowledge and saved him, thinks, John. "So we're stuck?"

"It would appear so." She sits down, then, settling herself so as to reserve all her energy for breathing. It's not a bad idea. Ronon joins her. Slowly, not entirely sure of his welcome, he moves closer to her, close enough that he is leaning against one arm.

She doesn't move. She rolls her eyes in the direction of the family. He tells her, "I will check on them in a bit."

Ronon presses his back a little more tightly against her arm. She presses back. It's enough to help him suppress his urge--at least momentarily--to run, to walk, to do anything other than sit here and wait for their need to breathe to kill everyone in this barn.

He thinks that when he finally gets to smile at John, he deserves not to have to wait for his reward. Not even a second.

*


Somewhere in the middle of conducting a love affair with the Orion on the way back to Atlantis, Rodney says to John, "He's on the Deadalus."

It is said softly, almost like he's still murmuring to the ship's mostly-dead consoles. John hears. "Yeah. Yeah, Teyla too."

Rodney smirks a little at that. John would deck him, but he's feeling too relieved. Also, then Rodney says, "It's probably possible to convert the on-ship transporters into transporter beams. Not of the Asgard sort, different type of technology altogether, but the theory is there."

It's a twelve hour flight back to Atlantis. They're eight house of the way there. John wants to fucking hug Rodney, but that probably wouldn't go over well. He says, "If anyone could do it," and leaves the "it would be you" up to Rodney's perfectly capable imagination. Rodney deserves a little friendly applause--he has just saved John's life, along with a few hundred others.

For a second, Rodney looks as if he's going to roll his eyes at John's relatively inadequate praise. Instead he glances sideways at John and there's a shy smile curving at his lips. John smiles back and wanders off, leaving Rodney and his consoles to deepen their intimacy.

Carson's busy making sure that all the refugees are in working order, and hasn't much more than a distracted, "You're all right, then?" to offer John.

John nods reassuringly at Carson and leaves him to his mending. He finds a quiet corner of his newly-christened ship. Orion, the hunter in the sky. Of course Rodney wouldn't appreciate it. John knows someone who would.

He taps his headset. "Ronon?"

What comes back over his headset throws John, makes it hard to believe that he's reached the right person. Ronon says, "John."

John is quiet for a few moments, processing what this change means, enjoying the sound of his voice in Ronon's quiet growl. "Your people have any myths about the stars?"

"A few. Legend says they were taught to us by the Ancients, but. . .legend says a lot of things."

John smiles at the wry observation. "I named the ship after one."

"Orion?"

"He was irresistible. The goddesses were always falling for him."

"That so?" It is Ronon's turn to sound amused.

John looks out the nearest window. Stars are streaking by, laser lines in the never-ending black of space. "You can't see him in this galaxy."

"We have a warrior. Helides. You can see him from Atlantis."

It takes John a moment to place the tone of Ronon's voice. It is wistful. "You miss Sateda."

"You miss Earth," Ronon tells him. It's not an accusation.

"Not. . . Well, some things." The taste of cheap nachos chased by beer, the wind in the nose-bleed section of the football stadium, the silence of Antartica, the swing of the ferris car at the very top, the threatening pull of gravity. Fear without real risk. "Mostly not, though."

Things are better for John here. He is still, in some ways, confined by the USAF, by the choices he has made. Elizabeth is his boss, though, far more than Caldwell, than any of the brass back at SGC. People here respect and trust him, and John, for the first time in a very very long time, returns the favor.

He has Rodney, and Teyla, and Carson, and Elizabeth. He has Ronon. "You'll have to show me Helides."

"See ya in four hours."

The sun will have risen on Atlantis by then. It will set again.

*


Ronon knows he gave his approval on providing alliance to the Wraith, that much he's clear on. He can even recall his reasoning. Teyla was right about there being no choice. And the retrovirus is their idea.

Which doesn't mean that his skin has stopped crawling for one second since the negotiations began. Not even when John locked the transporter doors behind the two of them, curled his hand firmly over the back of Ronon's neck, kissed him and asked, "Really?"

Ronon said, "Really," but he doesn't think John's convinced. John's pretty smart.

Teyla is skittish in that way that only Teyla can be. Ronon can't stay near her for long periods of time or his fingers become permanently attached to his weapons. All the same, when Michael asks to see her he says, "Think I'll come with," in a tone that will tell her there's very little "thinking" and a lot of "knowing" going on inside of his head.

She smiles. On any other day it would be her sweetly condescending, if that will make you feel better smile, but today there's enough of an edge on it for it to be a sneer. She wipes her features clean and nods instead. Ronon takes it as apology. He didn't need one.

Her sneer was the more appropriate response. Ronon knows it as soon as he is in the room with Michael. He can barely think for the anger inside him. He can barely move for the disgust.

She waits for him in the corridor as he battles his demons, blaster in hand, Michael's inhuman eyes facing Ronon's down, John's voice pounding in his head. She waits for him and she touches his elbow. She says, "Ronon."

He growls, but she does not move away. "I want-" Ronon says, and the thought is too overwhelming to finish. There aren't enough words in the galaxy. In any galaxy.

Teyla's hand tightens on his elbow. "Yes."

Ronon nods and leaves her to her own fears, her own insurmountable desires. He busies himself with whatever he can manage, trying to ignore as the Atlanteans bind themselves further and further to their enemies. Ronon cannot think of them as allies. The Wraith will never be his allies, nor John's, nor this city's.

When John finds Ronon he looks tired. Ronon knows that tired on John is so much more complicated than physical exhaustion. John says, "I have to send Rodney to their ship."

Ronon promises, "I'll watch after him."

*


When John lurches--the ability to hold himself upright under gunfire now discomfortingly familiar--he knows what's going on, even as he feels compelled to ask, "Who's firing on us?"

Hope springs eternal.

In the wake of that hope being wiped clean, John's first thought, oddly, is that he really, really needs to start listening to Teyla. She has the bizarre habit of always being right.

His second thought is, "You gotta give Ronon and McKay time to beam back aboard first."

The 302 plan is pure, sheer desperation. John cannot stand on the Daedalus, not even with comms exploding all around him. He cannot stand there and wait. The hyperdrive is something to focus on, something that's not his best friend and his lover and a few hundred hungry Wraith.

It's relief, sheer pure relief when John is in the middle of a fire-fight, two Darts on his tail and he's still got his eyes on the hyperdrive. A million things to think about at once and he's too busy for the fear that wants his attention.

John feels something, a tingle, something sickeningly familiar and within seconds the dark of space is replaced by something else regrettably familiar--the inside of a hive ship. John isn't sure where his 302 has gone. Possibly whatever technology the Wraith use to disassemble and reassemble human molecules doesn't work so well on mechanical pieces. Not even knowing if this is the case, John allows a small surge of anger. He liked that 302.

He washes down the anger with the need to concentrate. He is in a holding cell. Neither Ronon nor Rodney is in it with him. John has one knife on him, a lesson well-learned, but he thinks it might be wise to save that as a last-ditch attempt. He tries to contact Caldwell on his headset but is not surprised to hear silence greet his attempts.

He tries Ronon, too. No such luck.

He's very near to starting in with the knife-strategy when the Wraith come to gloat.

*


When Ronon wakes up, he's not in a Wraith stasis cocoon. In fact, he's not even on a hive ship. Which is odd, because Ronon clearly remembers that being the situation when he finally succumbed to the pull of the cocoon.

Ronon closes his eyes again, not entirely sure of where he is. He lets his head droop to the side and cracks his eyelids just a bit. Enough to see that McKay is in the bed next to him. Behind him, a voice says, "Hey."

Ronon knows the voice. "Where are we?"

"Asgard ship."

Ronon's only got one reference for the Asgard. He rolls over to face John. "Hermiod?"

"He made the contact, yeah."

"Why?" Ronon's still feeling a little woozy. He remembers the feeling lingering for days the last time they released him, but that could have been because of how long they'd left him in it--he still has no idea if it was days or weeks. Or, it could have been because they'd just cut him open, inserted foreign matter into his body, and sewn him back up. Either way, really.

"According to SGC, because the Asgard are somewhat interested in the continued survival and development of mankind, particularly of the earth sort."

"Somewhat."

"I don't know details. Nobody at the SGC's all that thrilled with me right about now."

John's tone is casual, light. Ronon knows better. "What else could you have done?"

"If it was your planet, what else would you have done?"

But Ronon's already been there. "You do what you can. You fight the battles you can see." The Wraith lie, cheat and steal and think nothing of it. Between that, the endless numbers, and the technology, Ronon knows a losing fight when he sees one. Which doesn't mean he walks away.

John doesn't say anything. Ronon diverts his attention. "So the grey guys saved our asses."

"The one good piece of news was that I got the distinct feeling from General O'Neill that happens more often than anyone at SGC wants to admit."

"Dangerous to owe an ally so much."

"O'Neill didn't seem. . . I think we've returned the favor a few times. It's all classified at about ten levels higher than my access reaches."

The Satedan system of classification was based more on unit, so that concept is a little bit hard for Ronon to grasp, especially as all the information seems like things that it would be useful for John to know. He shrugs. "How's McKay?"

John's look is sharp. "Fine. The doc from SGC said it might take him a little longer to wake. Something about the hypoglycemia."

Ronon doesn't say, "I didn't protect him." He really does know all about fights that can't be won. He says, "Good."

John checks the corners with his eyes. Says softly, "I don't know what Asgard surveillance is like."

"They share their surveillance with your military?"

John blinks. Ronon wonders when it was the other man last saw some sleep. John says, "Good point," and curls his hand inside Ronon's.

Ronon squeezes. "Maybe next time-"

But John shakes his head, and Ronon cuts himself off. He doesn't know whether John is denying there will be next times, in general, or if he just doesn't want to think about it right at this moment. Either way, Ronon can respect that.

John tells him. "You should get a little more sleep. The Asgard say it'll be another ten hours or so."

"Where are we going?"

John's smile is tight, worried. "Earth."

Ronon says, "Sounds like a place you should be well rested for, too," and closes his eyes.

*


SGC is making no secret of the fact that they are completely bumfuzzled about what to do. Their instinct--and though it sickens him, John can't really blame them--is to replace him, Rodney and Elizabeth. But everything they know about the nature of colossal fuck-ups is telling them that it's probably best to stick with the people who at least know what they're talking about.

Help comes in the unlikely figure of one Dr. Daniel Jackson, who, after hours of listening to Hammond and the rest of the brass argue things out, asks quietly, "Can any of us say that we would have done any different? To all evidences, Dr. Weir sought the advice of trusted members of local populaces and even they agreed that there wasn't much of a choice in any of this."

"Allowing them to download-" Everett begins, but Rodney cuts him off.

"Was arrogant and greedy. Two common failings of mine." Rodney's eyes have dark circles around them, despite the rest garnered on the Asgard ship. "If anyone should be replaced-"

And suddenly it's John's turn to step in, "We would all be dead at least ten times over without Dr. McKay. If, in light of recent events, you feel that would have been a preferable end rather than this, then by all means, replace Dr. McKay. But if you have any interest at all in him fighting as hard for every single person on earth as he has for every single person on that station, then I suggest you keep him in place."

The silence that follows this pronouncement--John seriously hopes he hasn't merely worsened Rodney's situation--is broken by Colonel Carter. "I agree, sirs. Even if he wasn't, at this moment, among the foremost experts on Ancient technology and the foremost expert on Atlantis, his devotion to the expedition and to the people he considers his responsibility would still be invaluable."

One of these days, John is buying Colonel Samantha Carter, USAF, a drink. Or five. John glances in the direction of Elizabeth, who has been brought on the Daedalus. She is sitting calm and nearly unruffled in a seat caddy-corner from him. Her brown eyes are darker than usual, sad. John dredges up a smile for her, a small curve of his lips. She presses her lips together in an expression that John recognizes as appreciation.

The three of them are dismissed, along with Dr. Jackson. John turns to him, "Thanks for, ah-"

He waves a dismissive hand. "It happens. Even these sorts of things."

He sounds like he knows. John wishes he could feel so complacent about the situation. Elizabeth, in what John recognizes as a move to distract herself, strikes up a conversation with Jackson about something involving linguistics, and possibly a dipthong. Jackson is eager and willing to distract her. John keeps an eye on them as they walk down the hall, away from him and Rodney.

Rodney says, "I appreciate-"

John's military, he's more than used to being hung out-to-dry. And he's read Rodney's file, he knows Rodney's been dealt that card as well. Somehow it feels unfair that Rodney should have had to. Rodney's crimes are largely that of curiosity, of the need to be challenged. John can imagine that for most of Rodney's life those crimes have been unforgivable to the people surrounding him. Things are supposed to be different in the Stargate program. John isn't sure how he knows this, just that he does. "Atlantis needs you, Rodney."

"I'm not going back without you," Rodney says, apparently trying to dig his heels into the cement. "Or Elizabeth."

"Rodney, you're not really in a position-"

"I've never been able to trust my superiors before. Not once. I'm not going back without the two of you."

John runs a hand through his hair, torn between being touched and exasperated. "What will you do? Demand as a Very Important Person that they reinstate us?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of creating an argument for why your experience and clearly equal devotion to the expedition was, to quote Sam, 'invaluable,' but I suppose the other tack does have a more me-like ring to it."

John smiles at Rodney's rare moment of self-deprecation.

Rodney says, "I am a Very Important Person."

John says, "I thought I made it pretty clear that I'd figured that out."

*


Ronon isn't at his best in the bowels of the SGC. He walks around, moves restlessly, tries not to think about how he's stuck so far beneath the earth, tucked inside miles of metal and plastic. When John finds him though, he can't help the, "Can we get out of here?" that's the first thing to come out of his mouth.

John blinks at him slowly. "Um. Probably. Let me find out."

It takes John two hours to find out, which makes Ronon think that "finding out" was a euphemism for "let me fight to get you out of here."

John tells Ronon he's managed with a, "C'mon, we're cleared."

A military escort takes them up through the compound and drives them to uninhabited housing units. Ronon gets the feeling that this is just another type of prison for John, but it's one that has fresh air and boundaries that Ronon can see, so he doesn't give voice to his thoughts.

John says, apologetically, "Best I could do."

The air is cold and smells foreign, but not unnatural. "You couldn't have done anything else," he reminds John. He's not talking about leaving the base.

"Maybe," John replies. Ronon knows he's caught on. They're still standing on the house's porch, neither of them ready to shut themselves back inside again. John grips the doorknob but doesn't touch it. "Not exactly what I'd imagined for my first time being on earth with you."

Ronon looks over at John's face. "You'd imagined?"

"Sure. Haven't you ever. . . I mean, I know Sateda does not exist as it did-"

Ronon stops him. "I have."

"Thought I'd take you to one of the bowl games, Orange or Rose, somewhere warm. Introduce you to roller coasters and Häagen Dazs." John is silent for a moment. "That last is probably still workable."

"There is a mountain," Ronon offers. "It has several names."

John nods, knowingly. "And you can see forever from its peak."

Ronon does not answer. The forever he saw so many times from that exact vantage point no longer exists. "What's Häagen Dazs?"

John touches his hand to his headset. "McKay, you there?"

McKay evidently isn't, as John curses softly and fumbles in his jacket for something. He comes up with a tiny device that allows him to eventually contact McKay, although there is button pressing and requests to find "Dr. McKay" involved in the interim.

John says, "Hey, they're holding us in base housing. Think you can prevail on Colonel Carter for some Häagen Dazs?"

There's a pause of a few moments. Ronon can hear the rise and fall of McKay's answer, which is odd. Usually there's just silence. John says, "I thought you two were friends," in the tone he uses when he knows McKay won't want to claim otherwise. "Of course, Dr. Jackson seemed pretty willing-"

John's smirk makes Ronon want to get down on his knees and suck him until his facial muscles refuse to respond. Manfully, he resists the urge.

John says, "Why, thank you Rodney," and presses another button on the device, ending the call. "He'll come through," he tells Ronon.

Ronon believes John. McKay generally does.

John opens the door, throwing it back. He sighs. "Yeah, this I remember."

Ronon follows him inside, hoping that his presence changes whatever John's memories consist of, even if just a little.

*


Rodney comes through and then some. He comes back with a pint for each of them, and one to grow on: triple chocolate, strawberry cheesecake, coffee and black walnut. "Colonel Carter was even able to supply these," he says, and spreads three of the biggest soup spoons on which John has ever laid eyes in his hand.

John takes two and hands one to Ronon. He pries the lid off the strawberry cheesecake. "Elizabeth still at the compound?"

Rodney nods, the set of his mouth unhappy. "I invited her."

"Yeah," John says. Ronon plunges his spoon into the pint John is holding.

He scoops out and pops a veritable mound of the ice cream in his mouth. When he has swallowed, he says, "Huh," and goes back for a second scoop. John sets the strawberry cheesecake on the counter, and assists Rodney in opening the other three.

Ronon settles on the black walnut, and not even Rodney challenges him for possession of the container. Instead, he hoards the chocolate and the coffee. John holds on to the strawberry cheesecake, but cautiously dips into the other three at will. Ronon doesn't say a word.

More surprisingly, neither does Rodney. At least not about that.

Rodney has quite a bit to say about Colonel Carter. John watches as Ronon smiles surreptitiously into his ice cream. Rodney says, "Well, sure, it's easy for you, isn't it?"

They're in military housing on earth and Elizabeth is waiting for word on John's fate. John says, "Easy, sure."

Rodney takes another bite of the triple chocolate and for once, doesn't speak with his mouth full. John reaches out for some of the black walnut--Ronon extends the carton just a little. No sooner has John placed the scoop on his tongue than his phone rings. He fishes into the correct pocket and draws it out. "Sheppard."

"Colonel?" Elizabeth asks.

"I don't know," he says. "You tell me."

"You and the others are due in a meeting at oh five hundred tomorrow. We'll be discussing strategy."

"Ronon as well?"

"All four of us."

"We'll put the ice cream in the freezer. It'll keep while you come."

"I think I have to-"

"Breathe," John says. He means it in so many ways. Earth no longer smells like home, but it's comfortingly familiar all the same. She needs to come up from underground. "We have four flavors."

"I like pistachio."

"That's not one of them. Come anyway."

"There's so much-"

"It'll be there at oh five hundred." It is always there.

"What flavors do you have?"

John puts the lids back on the cartons as he tells her.

*


Ronon spends a lot of time plastered to the Daedalus' windows, watching the stars streak past them. He and John worked out a running route through the ship that kept them out of everyone's way, and Ronon runs it twice, sometimes three times a day, but it isn't helping with the pent up feeling. He might as well be back underground.

He cannot touch John anywhere on this ship. It is too small, too confined. There are eyes everywhere.

Ronon thinks McKay gets that. Not that he's changed in any significant way--Ronon is actually pretty sure that his way of relaying sympathy is to step the insults up--but he smuggled a veritable year's supply of Sweetarts on board. John offered Ronon a whole roll to himself, but Ronon has discovered the joys of sharing, and isn't all that eager to go back to doing everything by himself.

Of course, if McKay had offered him, he would have taken it and run. McKay does not share well.

Ronon has trouble saying anything to John for days after they board. He can run with him, happily decimate his sugar stores and stand in window bays so close to him that touch is a sharp threat. His voice troubles him though, like it might give away some of his unease.

John has superiors. Ronon gets that. John has superiors who are unhappy at the threat to their planet. Ronon really, really gets that.

He didn't want to be in that meeting, watching them stare at John coldly. He didn't want to watch John's posture stiffen out to the point where Ronon held his breath, afraid that the wayward gust of air might break the man. Ronon has recognized the fear of disappointing others, the desperate need not to fail his own that John has probably associated with leadership from his very first day assuming a command position. His search for Ford gave that away before Ronon even had all the details.

So it is days before he can say, "They didn't really come up with a plan, did they?"

"Evidently that's sort of how they do things."

Ronon's not terribly surprised. Plans don't work half the time anyway, and Ronon has yet to encounter a military operation that manages to enact them exactly the way it envisioned. Dryly, he asks, "Really?"

"Surprised I could have come out of that sort of training?"

Ronon ignores the rhetorical question. He looks to his left and then to his right. Nothing but stars. "Which direction is Atlantis?"

"I'm not psychically connected," John says. Ronon waits. John sighs, lifts his hand, and points. Ronon follows the line of his finger into the black.

*


In her own way, Atlantis says, "It's all right, I forgive you." John could stand to hear that from a few more sources, but if he had to choose, Atlantis would be at the top of his list, so he's grateful for her magnanimity.

Elizabeth orders more and more teams on expeditions to the uninhabited parts of the city. This is part of their non-plan: find as much Ancient technology as possible. See if Rodney can't figure out some new way of using it that they never thought about to kick the Wraith's asses.

As non-plan's go, John's seen worse. He was in Afghanistan, after all. In the dictionary, that whole country was defined as a non-plan, let alone the action against it. John has never precisely looked this up, but he knows what he would find.

John takes to going his own way in these uninhabited sections even in his "off" hours, as much as anyone can call them that. He takes Ronon with him, and they find alcoves in which they can take off some of the stress, pretend they really do have down time. At some point, in the dark, barely able to see Ronon at all, but feeling him everywhere, John thrusts up and says, "You could leave. You don't have to face this."

Ronon pushes back and says, "You're not really as stupid as McKay accuses you of being, you know that, right?"

John presses his fingers to the scar on Ronon's back. "I didn't want this for you." Softer, "I wanted you to be done with them."

Ronon brings his hand over his shoulder, awkwardly and yet firmly grasping John's. "I'm done with the fear."

John's not sure how that can work, not when he wakes almost nightly from visions that make his throat clog, when he can hear the murmur of the scientist's terror, when the city itself seems to posture just a bit these days. He doesn't, however, put it past Ronon. He gives one final thrust and stiffens against Ronon's body. In the aftermath, when he doesn't have to believe he has the same responsibility over his words as at other times, John says, "I don't want you to leave."

Ronon says, "I know."

"Yeah," John says, and kisses Ronon slowly. "Ronon."

Ronon smiles against his mouth. "I can't leave you."

John's fingers find purchase over Ronon's biceps, sinking in to the smooth skin, solid muscle, unable to pull away.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile