Push Until It Holds
Big Bang 2008.   Forks in the Road: Reunion - Ronon goes with the Satedans.
Ronon has known all his life that the three pillars of victory are honor, loyalty, and unity. He's been a member of Sheppard's team for two years when the team to which he owes his first loyalty finds him again, during a time when Ronon must question whether his loyalty to Atlantis is returned. Torn, he chooses the team he believes needs him the most, but the price is more than just the home he's come to love, and the reward may be betrayal and death, or worse.
Word Count
52924 words
Story contains spoilers for aired episodes through Reunion.

Please see notes at the bottom for warnings. Warnings and notes contain story spoilers; notes contain spoilers for aired episodes through Reunion.

Huge thanks to my wonderful beta readers: kyuuketsukirui, anatsuno, and msilverstar. They are superstars, and have improved this story immeasurably. All remaining flaws are entirely my own fault. Special thanks also to telesilla, darkrosetiger, sally_simpson76, hanncoll, almostnever, helens78, tmihily, and my betas, for encouragement and cheerleading and handholding, and of course to all the mods and volunteers who've put so much time and effort into this challenge!
Companion Artwork
  • Push Until It Holds by kyuuketsukirui
  • Push Until It Holds/Hand Me Down by Cosmonaut_elf
  • untitled  by Barbana

Chapter One

Stepping through the Gate, the first thing Ronon noticed was the air. It smelled clean in the way that air smells when it's been run through a filter, so clean that if he hadn't been told the city was on the ocean, he wouldn't have known. The whole place was too clean. It almost hurt to look at it, and Ronon wanted to smudge the walls, to track dirt across the shining floors. Make it more like a place people might live.

A pair of guards fell into step beside them as he walked with Sheppard through the cavernous room, and further back he could hear Teyla murmur to McKay, "I fear this will not go well if Doctor Weir is too blunt in her doubts," and McKay's answer, "Can you blame her? Anyway, Elizabeth has handled the S.G.C., the I.O.A., and Sheppard—I doubt she'll have trouble with one angry caveman. I'm going to check the database, see what I can find out about this Sateda." Then her lighter tread, and her velvet voice saying, "He is not a caveman, Rodney," as they departed.

He followed Sheppard up a set of gleaming stairs to a glass-fronted office. A dark-haired woman he supposed must be Weir was behind a desk, her skin pale as the paper lanterns that had hung over Melena's doorway on the night of their betrothal. He wondered what she had doubts about.

"Colonel Sheppard," she said as they entered.

"Doctor Weir. Allow me to introduce Specialist Ronon Dex," Sheppard said. "Ronon, Doctor Elizabeth Weir. She's in command of Atlantis."

"We don't usually approve of someone holding our people hostage," Weir began. "But I understand there were extenuating circumstances." And then she waited.

"The Wraith were tracking me," Ronon began, but Sheppard interrupted.

"That's okay, Ronon—I briefed her before we got back. She's aware of the situation."

But what did Weir want, then, an apology? He didn't even know why Sheppard had insisted he come back with them. He'd claimed it was to get the incision looked at, and that had seemed so obvious a lie that Ronon had thought maybe he was sincere, but now Weir was looking at him like he owed her something and Ronon just wanted out.

"I'd like to go back to Sateda, now," he said, "to my people. I've given Colonel Sheppard the Gate address."

"Please, sit down," Weir answered, non-sequitur. But Sheppard seated himself, and after a moment Ronon followed suit.

"You said you were a 'runner' for seven years," Weir began, "and that you became a runner after a Wraith tried to feed on you but couldn't."

Ronon's jaw clenched. "I didn't 'become' a Runner; they made me one. And I don't know what made him stop."

"But it may have been that he couldn't, for some reason, or they may have decided it was more worthwhile to release you with the tracking device."

Ronon shrugged. "Maybe. I never thought about it."

Weir's expression called him a liar, and he dug his nails into his palms. "In seven years," she said, "you never once thought about why they made you a runner instead of killing you?"

It was like when Kell would call him out to accuse him of some made-up charge, some excuse for punishment. Ronon's heart beat faster and his palms itched for something to grip. But he'd never backed down from Kell and he wouldn't back down for this pale, thin stranger. "For seven years," he said, meeting her gaze steadily, "I just cared about making sure they didn't get another chance."

Sheppard opened his mouth as if to speak, but Ronon kept going. "Do you understand what it means to battle the Wraith?" he asked, though he knew she didn't, and he knew he couldn't explain it to her. She would have to live it. But the words fell from him as if they'd been piled up behind his teeth just waiting for him to open his mouth.

"I didn't have time to wonder why they made me a Runner," he went on, his voice growing tight. "If I stayed in one place too long, more than a day, more than a few hours sometimes, I brought the Wraith there, and risked the lives of anyone near that Gate along with my own. I didn't sit around wondering about their reasons. I learned to survive, and then I learned to hunt them back."

"Why did you never return to Sateda, in those years?" Weir asked.

He stared at her. "The Wraith were hunting me," he repeated. Had she not understood even that much? Surely she wasn't stupid.

"They already knew Sateda's location," Weir said. "You wouldn't have been leading them anywhere they hadn't already been, and your doctors might have been able to remove—"

"They were hunting me," Ronon hissed, closing his fists. "Where I went, they followed. You think I'd knowingly bring them back to my home world?"

"Yet you brought them to other worlds," Weir said, a murmured accusation, and she leaned forward, folding her hands as he struggled not to strike her. "You must understand, Ronon, we know nothing about you, nothing about Sateda. Teyla says she's heard rumors of so-called 'runners', but even she admits she didn't believe them, and that she doesn't know why they would do such a thing."

"Because they're Wraith." Ronon's fingers were cold and his face hot, his heart racing. "What reason do they need? If you—If you're accusing me of something, then say it! Otherwise contact my people and let me go home."

"I'm not accusing you of anything," Weir said. "I'm trying to understand."

"What is there to understand?" His voice rose to a shout, and Weir's flinch made him want to push harder even as the guards raised their weapons. Sheppard's hand was on his arm but Ronon shook him off.

"I served Sateda, I served my regiment, I led my soldiers with honor." Her eyes flicked to Sheppard, but snapped back when he leaned closer. "The Wraith killed everyone I ever cared for," he said, quiet as a blade slitting skin, "and when they had done that, they took me, and they set me loose to be hunted like an animal. I made them regret that choice." And with his gaze he told her that she, too, could be made to regret.

"Well," Sheppard said. "So much for pleasantries. Elizabeth, if it's all right with you, I'm going to show Ronon to the guest lounge, and then we'll see what we can learn about Sateda."

Ronon was out the door before Weir could answer, and Sheppard hurried after him, the booted feet of the guards echoing against the too-clean walls.

"That could've gone better," Sheppard muttered, and Ronon growled an obscenity. "She's okay," Sheppard went on, "she just wants to be sure she doesn't let someone into the city who.... Well, you know."

"No, I don't know," Ronon spat, wheeling to face him. "Tell me. Someone who what? Who betrayed his own people? Who ran like a coward? Should I have gone back to Sateda, brought the Wraith there again as our people were rebuilding? Killed myself instead of the hundred Wraith they sent after me? That is the coward's way out, and if that is how your people face their enemies—"

"It isn't!" Sheppard shook his head, half-reaching for Ronon, and over Sheppard's shoulder Ronon saw the guards alert and ready, and past them, McKay, wide-eyed, watching from Weir's doorway. When had he returned? Teyla Emmagan wasn't with him.

"It isn't," Sheppard said again. "She doesn't. I probably just didn't explain it to her right, what you told me."

Ronon watched Sheppard for a long moment. What he had taken for strength now seemed yielding, and Ronon wanted to push until it gave, or held.

Outside Elizabeth's office, Rodney watched Sheppard follow Ronon towards the guest lounge. "What was that all about?" he asked.

"He took offense to some of my questions," Elizabeth answered. "What did you learn?"

"Not much," Rodney said, turning to face her. There was nothing to worry about. Ronon wouldn't be here long anyway, and Sheppard didn't go for the caveman type. He liked kids like Marty Addison, fresh-faced and not half as naive as he looked. That had been a close call. It would've ended badly, McKay was sure of it.

"I checked the Ancient's database and Sateda's a very populous planet with several large cities, each with a Gate. It's technologically advanced, relatively speaking, and it looks like there hadn't been a culling in a long time before the—battle, war, whatever it was when Ronon was captured."

"If he was captured."

Rodney blinked at her. "What—you think he's lying?"

Elizabeth sighed. "I don't know. Not really, but you have to admit, it does seem odd. And we only have his word for any of it."

"Well, his word and the transmitter Beckett took out of him."

"Well," Elizabeth said after a moment, "I don't suppose it matters a great deal—he doesn't have our Gate address, and whether he's telling the truth or not, he'll be on Sateda shortly and it won't be our problem." She pushed back from her desk and stood up. "Radio John and have him meet us in the Gate room; we'll dial the address Ronon gave us and see what we find."

"Just Sheppard?"

"For now."

John palmed open the door to the guest lounge and Ronon pushed past him. He waved the guards off and followed. When the door closed, Ronon spun around and backed him up against it, and John let him. He wasn't going to get into a shoving match that wouldn't end well for either of them.

"Why am I here, Sheppard?" Ronon asked, growl like velvet on gravel. "Why not let me dial Sateda and go home?"

"Well, for one thing," John answered, meeting Ronon's narrowed gaze, "Doctor Beckett just cut a three inch gash in your back to get that thing out of you. Didn't seem very responsible to just shove you through the Gate when you don't even know for sure what's on the other side."

"Whatever's happened there, it's my home—"

"And for another thing," John broke in, "we don't want your home world to think of us as the kind of people who'll carve a guy up and then just send him on his way. We want to make sure you're okay."

"'We'?" Ronon asked. "Weir accused me of cowardice, or worse. McKay thinks I'm an animal. Teyla Emmagan knows the injury isn't serious but she won't contradict you, so who is it," he asked, crowding closer, "who wants to make sure?"

The air in the room was crackling now with something that wasn't anger, and John smiled tightly. "Me," he answered at last. "I want to make sure you're okay."

"You can see I am," Ronon said. "You sure that's the reason?"

He pretended to think about it. "Yeah," he said after a moment, "I'm pretty sure. Why? You have another explanation?"

Ronon licked his lips, glancing down at him, and John smirked.

"Tempting as that is," he said, "it isn't the reason I brought you here."

"Too bad," Ronon murmured. "Might've been fun."

John's dick shifted interestedly, but he ignored it while he tried to get his balance. He wanted to push back—push back hard—but the guy was a guest, even if he was behaving kind of like a jerk.

His comm beeped softly, but before he could answer it Ronon was sliding his knee between John's thighs.

"Could still be fun," Ronon whispered, warm breath on John's neck.

A really hot jerk.

His comm beeped again.

"Tell 'em to wait," Ronon breathed.

John scowled at him. "No, I don't think so." He touched his comm, his gaze fixed on Ronon's. "What?"

There was a startled pause, then Rodney said, "Elizabeth wants you in the Gate room. We're going to dial Sateda. Just you," he added quickly.

Ronon's hands were on his waist. John's scowl deepened. "Okay. Five minutes."

He looked at Ronon. "I've gotta go."

Ronon wasn't actually smiling, but John got the impression he was laughing on the inside.

Rodney was still lingering near the entrance to the Gate room, checking his watch about every thirty seconds. What the hell was keeping Sheppard so tied up with an angry barbarian caveman?

An angry barbarian caveman who'd already taken him hostage once today.

"Sheppard," Rodney said, thumbing his comm and starting towards the lounge.

"What is it, Rodney?"

"Sheppard, are you—hey!" he said, jerking back just before they collided. "You're here."

"Yeah, I'm here," Sheppard said. "Where'd you think I was?"

"I...thought you were on your way."

"Well, you were right," he said, looping his arm around Rodney's neck and steering him back into the Gate room.

"How's our visitor?" Rodney asked.

"He's kind of irritable, actually," Sheppard answered. "I don't think he liked Elizabeth's questions. What did you find out about Sateda?"

"Big, lots of people. Multiple cities with Gates—very advanced compared to what we've seen so far."

"You get the other Gate addresses?"

Rodney waved his handheld. "Right here."

"There you are," Elizabeth said, turning at their approach. "John, we're ready to dial the Gate."

"All right, let's do it."

The Gate activated with a rush of sound and energy and the communications team began broadcasting, but after several minutes the team lead shook her head. "Nothing."

Elizabeth nodded. "Understood. All right, send the M.A.L.P. through."

The squat machine jerked to life and rumbled towards the Gate, slipped through the event horizon like slipping into water. Rodney joined Sheppard and Elizabeth to watch as the video feed flickered and cleared.

After a long time, Rodney said quietly, "Oh.... Oh, no."

"Okay," Sheppard said, "bring it back and try one of the other Gates. Maybe one of the other cities...."

But it was the same in each one. Nothing was left except rubble and the bones of what was once a civilization.

Elizabeth lowered her gaze. "Rodney," she said, "go help Beckett with that transmitter. I want to know whether it's Wraith technology, whether it does more than transmit a location, and anything else you can learn about it."

"What do you mean 'whether'?" Sheppard asked, but Elizabeth ignored him.

"Colonel Sheppard, please get Ronon. He deserves to know as soon as possible."


"I'll have to insist on guards for him until we know more," she went on, "but he's welcome here for the time being, unless we learn something to suggest he's a threat. Rodney, let me know what you and Carson find out."

Ronon stared at the images, at the broken towers of his city and her desolate sky.

It was true, then, what he had feared, what he had denied for all those long years. Sateda was dead. All of it gone, all of his people, everything he'd hoped for. He'd known it, he realized now, all along. It was confirmation, not revelation, that stung his eyes and hollowed out his heart.

Behind him, he could hear the careful breaths these strangers took as they watched him, the soft shift of weight from one foot to the other, uncertain. He waited long moments for their useless sympathy, poised to give them his anger in return—what had they ever lost that could compare with this?—but it didn't come and he left without another word.

His guards kept a distance of ten paces, and when he passed the corridor that led back to the guest lounge, they didn't stop him. Through doors that opened onto the glittering ocean he found the silver sheen of sky, and the gleaming platform of the impossibly clean aerie that looked out over the city. Atlantis stretched in all directions—skyward, towards all horizons, down into the sea, so far down from this perch that Ronon could, if he wanted, step up onto the railing and tip forward, and he would have long moments to remember his home before death finally caught him.

It was no temptation. He looked at his hands where they gripped the railing and he saw his father's hands, calloused from working in stone and metal; his mother's dusky skin that turned to burnished gold in the long summers. Their blood beat in his heart, and he carried the memory of all that was Sateda.

And there were still the Wraith.

That night, Teyla found him on the southeast pier. He heard her soft footsteps, could smell the light fragrance of the fabric she wore, the almost imperceptible musk of her skin. The guards' footsteps retreated and she sat down beside him, close enough to touch if he stretched out his arm, and her skirt spread around her and covered her feet.

She didn't speak. The pier was ghostly in the pale wash of moonlight, and she watched the sky with him, and listened to the ocean lapping against the pier's massive bulk. It sounded far away. He wondered whether any of them ever swam in this ocean.

After a long time, he said, "Did they send you to talk to me?"

"No," she answered, and glanced at him. Her eyes were the color of the teksah trees that grew along the lane of his grandmother's house. "Would you like me to go?"

He shook his head. "I'm not used to so many people."

So many years always moving, sleeping far from any home, from any town. "It's nice not to be alone," he added at last, and thought of Sheppard backed up against the cool, smooth surface of the door, and that level gaze. "I'm not sure I know how to do that anymore. How to not be alone."

Teyla's wide mouth curved in a smile, and she looked down. "In Atlantis, it is always possible to find companionship or solitude. The difficulty is in knowing which you want."

They stayed there until late into the evening, and behind them the city was lit like dusk. His mind was filled with questions, but the grief in his heart blunted them, made them soft, and he ached too much to voice them.

When the rustle of her skirt told him she was about to stand, though, he realized he wanted her to stay, and he said abruptly, "Weir doesn't trust me."

She relaxed again, and spread her skirt back around her feet.

"She thought I was lying. About all of it."

"She is...cautious," Teyla said. "She must be. She is responsible for the safety of everyone in this city, but she does believe you now."

Ronon looked at her. "Why?"

She inclined her head. "Doctor McKay and Doctor Beckett examined the tracking device."

"And it's what I said it was."

"Yes," Teyla answered with a nod.

Ronon was quiet for a moment, then said, "I don't blame her. You have to be careful." If someone from Si'ejah had come to Ronon seeking sanctuary, with a homing beacon in his back and a wild story about Tenedrian hunters tracking him, Ronon would have had him bound and under guard before he'd finished speaking.

"They are good people," Teyla said. "If you stay here, you will see that. Their compassion, and their courage."

When she finally rose to her feet, she hesitated a moment, wordless, and he pushed to his feet as well and they fell into step beside each other. She was small next to him, but her shoulders were strong, and her stride nearly matched his.

He felt as if he should apologize to her for earlier, but he wasn't sorry. He would have killed her and Sheppard both to escape the Wraith, if it had come to that, but instead they had helped him, brought him here, offered him sanctuary. He was glad of it, but he didn't understand.

They reached the entrance and Teyla said, "Can you find your way from here, or shall I walk with you?"

"I can find my way," he said. It was on his tongue to say she could walk with him anyway, but he didn't. "If I get lost, I'm sure they'll help," he added. Behind her the guards were waiting, a respectful distance away.

"Very well," she said. "Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay, and I usually breakfast early, in the mess hall. You are welcome to join us."

He shook his head, remembered the press of Sheppard's stiffening cock against his thigh, and the smirk that said he was in charge even if it was Ronon who had him trapped there. "Thanks," he said. "I don't think so."

She nodded. "You are welcome there regardless."

"Thanks," he said again, and, "Good night."

"Good night," she said. "Rest well."

He watched her walk away, the V of her back, the swell of her hips, until she rounded the corner and the soft flare of her skirt disappeared after her.

That night he thought of her as he searched for sleep, and her skin, like his mother's, her eyes like teksah, warm and alive.

"So," John said to Teyla the next morning. "Is he coming to breakfast?"

Teyla shook her head. "I do not believe so. I told him he was welcome, but I believe he is still...unsettled by the number of people here."

"I can imagine. Rodney, what'd you and Beckett find out about the transmitter?"

McKay shrugged. "It's what he said it was. Wraith technology, does nothing but transmit his location. Not that different from Teyla's necklace. I mean it is different, obviously," he went on, spearing a sausage from John's plate and ignoring his indignant squawk. "Totally different in configuration and not keyed to the Ancient gene—"

"Also, surgically implanted in his back," John interrupted, "which makes it kind of different right away."

McKay gave him a withering glance. "As I just said, totally different in configuration."

John wondered if he got that look on purpose or if it was just habit by now.

"But anyway," McKay went on, "I don't think he'll stay even if Elizabeth lets him. I mean think about it." He gestured with his fork, the stolen sausage waggling precariously. "Okay, sure, maybe there's no one left on Sateda, but he can go anywhere now, do anything he wants to. Don't you think he'd go looking for survivors?"

"Perhaps," said Teyla, but her tone was doubtful. "I found no reports of survivors, though of course it is impossible to be sure. In the chaos, some may have found hiding places, and escaped through the Stargate after the Wraith released it."

"Anyway, Rodney, how's he supposed to track them down?" John asked. "Even if there are any, they could be scattered all over the Pegasus galaxy by now. In fact," he added, thinking about it, "if he wants to find survivors, then staying here in Atlantis is probably his best bet. We've got the resources to help him."

"You just want him to stay because he's a great big hulking menace who can beat up your Marines," McKay said, making a half-hearted grab for the last sausage.

John smacked his hand away. "Who says he can? And anyway, what's wrong with that?"

"Nothing! I'm just saying," McKay insisted, "maybe he's got better things to do than hang around Atlantis. And what do you even know about him? That he'll take hostages? Oh, yes, that's something to recommend him."

"He was under threat," Teyla pointed out. "The Wraith—"

"Sure, yes, okay, the Wraith," McKay agreed, "but he couldn't just say, 'oh by the way, could you take this tracking thing out of my neck, please?'"

John snorted and McKay shot him a glare. "It's wonderful that you can be so cavalier about your own life, Colonel Sheppard, but not all of us feel quite as laissez-faire as you do when it comes to your continued survival."

John looked at him.

"Our continued survival," he amended quickly. "My," he said. "My continued survival."

John shook his head and went back to his breakfast. He didn't know if he wanted to belt the guy or kiss him, or both, but either would be way more trouble than it'd be worth.

Well, maybe not the kiss.

"Ronon had no reason to trust us," Teyla went on, ignoring the awkwardness, or not noticing it. "There was little time before the Wraith would find him."

"Why are you defending him?" McKay asked. "He could have killed you! He could've killed me!"

"But he did not," Teyla pointed out.

"That's why we've got the guards watching him," John said, "and it's why I'm not already asking him to join the team."

"Join the team?" blurted McKay. "Are you insane? Our team?"

"Yes, our team! Rodney, he's got no place else to go, and you saw how he took out Ford! He got the drop on me and Teyla both at once, and he saved your life."

"Sure, and then almost gutted me like a trout! You didn't see the look on his face! He was clearly considering it."

"Some days," John said, "so do I."

"Ha ha." McKay scowled. "I just think we should all be involved in decisions that affect the entire team this way."

John nodded. "And you will be. I'll say, 'all in favor of growing the team by one ninja berserker who can kill three Wraith in two seconds with one hand,' and you'll say 'aye.' And then I'll say 'all opposed,' and you'll realize that we need a ninja berserker, and you'll keep your mouth shut."

"You want to what?" Ronon asked.

"Show you the guns. The firing range, some of the weapons we use."

Ronon looked at him. John remembered the way he had cocked the P-90, and wondered if this was really necessary.

Then he looked again. Ronon was watching him through narrowed eyes, and he thought about how awesome it would be to have a ninja berserker on the team. A ninja berserker who was way hotter than someone who'd been on the run for seven years had a right to be, and who always looked like he was about a minute away from either killing something or—

Well, that wasn't a productive line of thought.

"They're not all as simple as the ones we had on that planet," he added, though it was arguably not exactly the truth. Guns were pretty simple no matter what.

It turned out Ronon thought so too, and John wondered if there was something perverted about just how hot it was watching Ronon handle them. He thought there probably was.

Then Ronon drew his own weapon and blew a head-sized hole in the target, and John forgot about being a pervert and started wondering how he could get hold of a couple hundred of those guns.

"So how's it work?" he asked, turning it over in his hands.

Ronon shrugged. "I didn't ask."

"Does it ever not work?"

"Not so far."

"Huh." John sighted down the barrel, but he didn't fire it, and Ronon held out his hand.

"Can I have it back?"

He handed it over reluctantly. "We gotta get some of those."

Ronon had been in Atlantis for three days before he decided that since Sheppard had assigned the same two men to be his guards every morning until dinner, he might as well find out their names.

He asked, and after a pause that might have been startled or might have been hesitant, one said, "Private Addison." He was the shorter of the two, fair haired and looking as young as Ronon had been when he joined the army. "Marty Addison. And this is Private Maxwell," he said, nodding to the other.

"John," said the private, and held out his hand. "But everyone calls me Max."

Ronon had seen this his first day on Atlantis, while following Sheppard to his commander's office, had seen a woman hold out her hand to a man and the man take it, grasp it for a moment. He'd assumed it was a pledge of some kind, but surely between strangers it couldn't be. Maybe Max was waiting for Ronon to hand him something, but Ronon had nothing to hand him. Nothing Max would know of, anyway.

So Ronon took the man's hand in his and grasped it briefly, and Max smiled. "Good to meet you. You go by Dex, or Ronon?"

"Either's fine," Ronon answered, then went on, "Listen, I don't like all this sitting around. There some place I could go and work off some steam?"

"Sure," Addison said. "Yeah, there's a gym on this level. You, uh, you need to grab anything? We can scrounge you up some sweat pants or something if you want."

"Nah, I'm good," Ronon answered. He didn't know what sweat pants were but they didn't sound like anything he wanted to put on.

"All right." Addison looked doubtful, but he didn't argue. "It's up this way."

When they got there, though, Teyla Emmagan was already there, moving through the forms of her art like liquid.

She stopped when they entered and looked as if she might speak, but then didn't.

"Sorry," Ronon said. "I can come back later."

"No, that is fine," she answered, and gestured him into the room. "I was waiting for Colonel Sheppard, but he is late."

"Sheppard?" Something lurched in Ronon's chest. He hadn't seen much of Sheppard since the day at the firing range, and it was only hearing his name that made him realize he wanted to.

She nodded. "He and I were to spar this morning."


There was a silence that stretched towards awkward, and then Teyla said, "Would you like to spar with me until he comes?"

Ronon cocked his head, considering her smaller size, the lean muscles, the way she had been moving when he first saw her as the door slid open. She would be a difficult opponent. "Sure," he said, "okay."

"You do not have to go easy on me," she added, turning to move to the center of the room and picking up her fighting sticks. Ronon smiled for the first time that day, and didn't wait for her to turn around. She was ready, though, as he'd expected, and the match was on.

Max and Addison moved around the edge of the room to watch from the other side, and Ronon was dimly aware of their occasional hiss of breath or murmured remark when he or Teyla landed a strike or avoided one. She was as good as he'd thought she would be, and the fighting sticks gave her an advantage. Still, she was small and lacked his upper body strength, and he found himself stopping short of his best.

He shouldn't have. When once he hesitated to strike, she swept his legs and he went down, and she was on him with her stick at his throat, pressing. Her thighs gripped him and there was a sheen of sweat on her skin. They were both breathing hard.

"I said," she reminded him, "that you did not have to go easy on me."

He grinned up at her. "Okay," he said. "Got it."

She smiled and rolled to her feet, then padded across the room to grab one of the other sticks, and tossed it to him. "Perhaps you will do better if you are armed as well."

He laughed, a real laugh for the first time since he got here—the first time in longer than he wanted to think about. It felt strange and good in his chest, and his smile felt real, felt like something new, something he hadn't known he'd forgotten and hadn't realized he'd missed. He was still smiling when Teyla came towards him, and they didn't stop again until Sheppard's arrival interrupted them.

Teyla watched Ronon stalk from the room, followed, as always, by his guards, then turned to face John.

"You okay?" he asked, and as usual she wasn't sure whether the possessive concern in his voice was more charming or irritating.

"I am fine," she answered. "I told him he did not have to go easy on me."

"You've gotta be careful what you say to this guy!"

"He would not have hurt me," she answered, and he stared at her like she'd just told him the sun rises under the ocean.

"Teyla, the minute you turned you turned your back, he picked you up by your throat and slammed you into the ground!"

"Yes. He will be an excellent training partner if he chooses to remain."

"Training? You call that training? I call it a cheap shot—you were distracted!"

"An enemy would not wait for my attention to return to the fight," she pointed out. "And if you had come in half an hour earlier, you would have found him on his back with my stick across his throat because he hesitated when he should have struck." She reached for a towel from the bench. "You have acted as though you believe him to be without honor, and you have shamed him in front of me and in front of Privates Addison and Maxwell."

"He was throwing a member of my team around like a rag doll," John retorted. "You expect me to just let him do it?" But he sounded less sure of himself, and he looked in the direction Ronon had gone.

Teyla sighed. "He was about to release me when you rebuked him—as any training partner would. Am I to understand that when you and I train, you do not do your best with me, for fear of my delicate femininity?"

He gaped at her.

"And if you want Ronon on the team," she went on, glancing meaningfully after him, "I believe you should speak with him before he decides that he truly is not welcome here."

Ronon lay sleepless on his pallet. The bed was too soft, and for his entire second day on Atlantis his back had hurt. On his second night he'd taken the blankets from it and spread them out on the floor, and that had been better. But sleep still came reluctantly, sometimes not creeping over him until it was nearly dawn, and then fleeing again with first light. Today he was trying to outsmart it, sleeping during the day, but it wasn't working.

He and Teyla would have gone for another hour if Sheppard hadn't stopped them.

He could still feel the heat of Sheppard's hand on his, fear and adrenaline in the prickle of sweat and his racing pulse. Humiliation had tangled with heat in Ronon's belly, and he had wanted to strike him, kiss him, bite his mouth to give him back the rebuke.

The humiliation had finally drained away—Sheppard was only looking out for his team, the way he should—but the heat remained, feeding on itself and the memory of that touch, the memory of Sheppard pressed against the door, Ronon's thigh between his. If he'd known how it would stay with him, he might not have done it.

He rolled over and took out the little notebook that Teyla had given him, and the pen. He'd asked her if there were paper and pen to be found on Atlantis—it didn't seem likely, not with everyone glued to computers or handhelds all day and night, but he had to ask. She'd gone to her quarters and had returned with this, a small leather-bound book with thin sheets that didn't tear easily. She said she'd gotten it from one of her trading partners and that she didn't need it, and she wouldn't accept anything for it in return. He'd been reluctant at first, but she had pressed it on him along with a slender pen with watery black ink that dried almost instantly.

My first week in the city of the Ancestors, he wrote now, and though seven years of running had done nothing for his handwriting, the curves and angles of the Satedan alphabet were still beautiful to his eyes.

It's the longest I've stayed in one place since I was captured by the Wraith. It feels like a month, and I still want to move, I still feel that thing in my back. I know it's gone, deactivated and kept somewhere in their doctor's lab, but I can't stop feeling like I have to leave, like I'm calling the Wraith to this place. I guess it might take more than a week for that to stop.

He shifted a little, sitting up and pushing back against the wall, and he touched the end of the pen to his mouth, remembering Sheppard, the anger in his voice, the heat in his slitted eyes.

Teyla said I should come spar with her again, he wrote. She says she told Sheppard it's okay, that I wasn't going to hurt her.

I wonder how she is with Sheppard, or if she is. Maybe they don't even join, in this place. Maybe he welcomes new team members with the hand clasp they use here, or with only a kiss.

He couldn't really imagine it, though. There were few better ways to bind a team together, and Sheppard was obviously a leader who put his team first. Ronon thought Teyla would be more likely to share McKay's bed than Sheppard's, though, and not only because Sheppard preferred his own sex. McKay would be one who would worship her, whereas Sheppard....

He doesn't respect her, he continued finally. He doesn't respect her strength. He doesn't know me, so I guess I understand that he thought...whatever it was he thought. But he looks after his team, and that's good. She doesn't need him to protect her, but I give him credit for doing it anyway. She

A bell chimed and Ronon looked around for the source of the sound, then remembered the door.

"Come," he said experimentally, and it slid open.

Sheppard was leaning in the doorway, smiling.

Ronon turned the notebook over and set it carefully on the floor beside him.

Sheppard came into the room. "You can sleep on the bed, you know," he offered. "We changed the sheets and everything."

Ronon shrugged and glanced away. Seven years of sleeping rough, on the ground, or in tree blinds, stone floors of caves—McKay had been right, in a way. "It makes my back hurt."

"Oh." Sheppard pulled out the chair from the unused desk and sat down. "But apart from that, you still liking Atlantis?"

This was the third time Sheppard had asked, and it never sounded like an idle question. Ronon wondered what he was really asking, and whether it was something new each time he asked.


The city was driving him crazy. It was never quiet, but the sounds were the soft sounds of machinery or people, and even the sound of the wind brushing past the angular windows was different than what he knew. There were no animals in Atlantis, not even insects. No grass grew, no trees or plants except ones bound in pots. Ronon thought maybe that was why he hadn't been sleeping.

Sheppard was still looking at him, like he didn't think Ronon was finished talking.

"It's clean," Ronon added.

"You haven't seen McKay's quarters," Sheppard said, and he looked like he was telling a joke, so Ronon laughed. Sheppard's smile broadened from a smirk to a real smile.

Then his face turned serious. "Listen, about yesterday," he said. "I'm not really used to my team members going all out that way," and there was that little grin again, but this time Ronon couldn't tell what it meant. "And Teyla—"

"I wouldn't have hurt her," Ronon interrupted, and Sheppard started to say something else but Ronon added, "But it's good you look out for your people."

Sheppard closed his mouth again. He looked like he'd expected something else.

And maybe there was something in the way Sheppard was looking at him, or maybe it was just that he was so tired, but Ronon felt a sudden, aching loneliness, and the tug of companionship, of order, of family, that he hadn't had since Sateda.

"I had a team," he said at last. "We'd run an op. Quick strike against the Wraith—just hit 'em hard and get out. But two of Second Squad's tenji and their squad commander had been killed, shot down by Wraith darts, and Second Squad was falling apart." He was watching his hands. He wasn't used to how clean they were. "I handed command of my team over to Tyre and got 'em through the Gate. By the time I got back, our position had been over-run."

He took a breath. "I got a field promotion, command of Second Squad. Stopped second-guessing myself about it years ago. But I'd been their tenji since the team was formed."

It wasn't what he'd meant to say. He'd meant to say I had a team. I had a squad. I had people to take care of, someone to take orders from, people to take care of me. I miss it.

"It's been a long time," he said at last, "since I had anyone to look out for."

Sheppard was quiet for a long moment, and when Ronon looked up, he found Sheppard regarding him with an expression he couldn't read.

"Well," Sheppard said finally, and stood up. "If you join the team, you'll have a whole city full of them. Think about it."

Joining the team. Could it mean the same thing here as on Sateda? Surely not, or Sheppard wouldn't just blurt it out that way when he was already on his feet to walk out the door. But his voice stirred something in Ronon, a long-ago longing that made him think of taking Sheppard's hand now, pulling him down, covering him with his body, offering his own. Biting into him like seta fruit, juicy and dark. It would mean a home, Ronon thought, and belonging, belonging again to something more than his own survival.

Instead he said, "Okay. I'll think about it."

Sheppard nodded. "Good," he said. "Good. I'll see you later, then."

Ronon watched him leave, then dropped his hand to his prick and cupped it, the tips of his fingers curling around the head.

It had been so long since he'd felt desire for anyone, until coming to this place.

Every so often in the long months of those seven years, when he'd had the time and the Wraith hadn't found him yet, he'd bring himself off with quick, hard strokes just to do it, and it felt more like anger than release. And he never thought of Melena when he did it. He might remember hot nights with Seren, whose hands he knew like his own, and laughing in the morning at their bruises. Might recall Ara's taste or Rakai's clever tongue, or Hemi's strength, how Morika's shyness fell away, or Tyre's urgency and need.

But Melena's memory was of softness and laughter and healing, and it was a distraction he couldn't afford. He had refused it, refused to see her face in his mind, refused to remember her touch, prayed to the Ancestors from rote memorization for her and for everyone he'd lost, and had blocked his mind against the rest.

As his skills increased, as he killed more and more Wraith, memories had started to come back to him in his dreams. He would see her with the sunlight in her hair, laughing, reaching for him, and the sunlight would turn into the blast that had taken her. He would remember her hands, and the way she'd kiss his belly and laugh and make him laugh with her, and he would dream of the children they never had. He would see her beside him on the grass, and she would be telling him of all that had happened on Sateda while he had been away, and she would pull him to her and kiss him, and whisper, "Come home, come home," and he would wake with an ache in his chest that stayed with him until he was on his feet again and moving, running, running.

He didn't have to run anymore. Sheppard was offering him more than just a place to stay. He was offering him a new home, to be part of something again.

But before he could be part of something new, he had to let go of what had been. And he couldn't do that without saying goodbye to Sateda.

Sheppard went with him, along with a squad of Marines. Ronon had refused at first, but Sheppard had insisted and Ronon needed to go.

"You that eager to make sure I come back, Sheppard?" he'd asked.

"Rules are rules," Sheppard had said, and shrugged, but he hadn't answered the question.

They stepped through the Gate into the cool, still air of early spring, and the breath left Ronon's lungs like he'd been punched. The towers that had risen so high, shining as bright as any on Atlantis, were torn like paper, and only a crumbling, overgrown pathway was left of the wide boulevard that stretched away towards the Hall of Elders. Rusting bones of burned-out vehicles choked the boulevard, and of the Hall itself, little remained but the foundations. The pictures sent back by the probe had been a child's drawing compared to this reality.

Something moved in the weeds far ahead and Sheppard and the squad were suddenly alert, weapons raised.

"It's a just a se'hret," Ronon said. "It's harmless." A flash of brown as the creature streaked across the boulevard into the ruins of the Museum of Medical Technology.

"What is it?" Sheppard asked.

"A small mammal," Ronon said, sketching a space in the air. "Carnivore, keeps pests away. Some people kept them as pets, but there were a lot of wild ones too." He paused, then started down the steps towards the boulevard. "I guess they're all wild now."

"Seren Gotar," Ronon said, nodding to a portrait that leaned, lopsided, against a crumbling wall. Only Sheppard had come with him this far, through the ruins of the city to this museum. "He was the commander of the Satedan army when we drove the Wraith back two hundred years before I was born." He brushed his hand over the frame as he passed it. "My taiji was named for him."

"Taiji?" Sheppard asked, but Ronon ignored it, and Sheppard didn't ask again.

Little was left in the room beyond, but past that, and through a wide doorway into the ruined Hall of Heroes, Ronon found it, still hanging at the far end and sheltered by a rotunda that had miraculously survived. He stopped at the foot of the dais, looking up at it.

Behind him, Sheppard's steps were careful, the measured tread of someone who's conscious of the silence and doesn't want to break it.

He reached Ronon and stopped. "What is it?" he asked at last.

"The Satedan victory over Vetariss," Ronon answered. "It was painted when my mother was a child, by her grandmother."

Sheppard was quiet for a moment, then said, "So, the people in the painting. Are they...relatives?"

Ronon shook his head. "They represent the pillars of victory: honor, loyalty, unity."

After a moment he walked up the steps and reached for the painting, carefully lifting it down. The wall behind it was white, and Ronon wondered how long it would take him to clean off the ash and dirt from the canvas.

He handed it to Sheppard. "Take that back to the Gate for me?" he asked. "There are some things I have to do alone."

Sheppard hesitated, but then nodded. "Sure." He held the painting awkwardly, like a child he hadn't expected to be thrust into his arms. "Don't be too long. And," he nodded to Ronon's radio, "keep in touch."

Ronon nodded, and Sheppard headed back the way they'd come. Ronon went in the opposite direction, through the small exit at the back of the hall and out into an open courtyard that smelled of yargrass and rain. Through the broken gate and into the sun-dappled boulevard, Ronon jog-trotted past rows of shattered buildings, past the park where parents had brought their children on summer mornings, and to the vast and overgrown gardens where the dead were put to rest. He flicked off the radio as he entered. He didn't want to be interrupted here.

The plot where Seren's ashes had been laid was near the center of the garden beneath a flowering t'hathe tree, and when Ronon reached it, he knelt in front of the mossy stone marker.

"I have no wine," he murmured. "I have no bread. I have no fruit to bring you, Seren, but I know you won't mind." He lay his hands on his knees, palms up as if waiting for Seren's touch. "I haven't decided what to do," he went on. "But I know I can't stay alone. I need to be more than the last survivor of Sateda."

He could hear Seren laughing at him, his voice like absolution. There's more to you, Ronon, he had said. There's always more to you than anyone knows, even you.

Ronon reached for his thermos of water and quickly unscrewed the lid. "From death, life," he murmured, pouring it over the grasses that grew thick around Seren's marker. "I will see you again one day, Seren." He tipped his head back, and let the sunlight dapple his closed eyes. The t'hathe smelled sweet and green.

The breeze picked up, brushing Ronon's skin and catching at the laces of his coat, and finally he capped the empty thermos and got to his feet.

He scaled the crumbling wall of the garden easily, dropping to the ground beyond and making his way between the buildings until they turned to the wrecks of houses and, finally, the neighborhood where he'd made a home with Melena.

Their house still stood, faded from sun and bent with neglect. The windows were unshuttered, only shards of glass remaining in their frames. She hadn't known, leaving that morning, that she would never come back to shutter the windows, to gather up their belongings and close the house. Ronon placed his hand flat against the wooden front door, its red paint peeling. It was hot from the sun, and he left his hand there until his palm stung, then finally pushed it open.

Inside, the dust kicked up by his entry glinted in the sunlight that shone in through the broken windows. Furniture was overturned, some of it smashed. Wraith, he supposed, or looters before the Wraith caught them. He moved through the house like through a ghost landscape, with the echoes of the past in his ears.

"Do you think it's big enough, though?" Melena stood in the center of the room and gazed around critically, and Ronon laughed.

"Melena, it's huge. It's three times the size of my place, and we haven't been tripping over each other, have we?"

"That's because you always have your arms around me," she answered with a smile, and reached for him. He pulled her close and kissed her cheek.

"Doesn't matter how big a place we get, then," he murmured. "I always will."

In the end, he hadn't even convinced her to take his hand.

At least she had been saved the horror of the final culling, those last days of terror and helplessness. If she wouldn't leave, maybe it was better that she'd died in the blast. She never had to see what Sateda became.

Dust was thick in the room that had once been their bedroom. Like all the other rooms the glass was out of the windows, and there was an animal scent; something had been living here. Probably someone's pet that couldn't get back into its own house, or didn't have a house to go back to.

He touched the wood of the dresser where Melena would sit in the evening to brush her hair, traced his finger through the grime that coated the big square mirror. He could still see her, the blue nightgown she wore, the bone-handled brush. "Why wouldn't you come," he murmured, but he knew the answer. He'd known it then. The answer had been all around them, had been in the eyes of the doctors, had been in the child he'd carried in his arms. Melena had asked, What about her? so he'd picked her up to bring her, knowing even as he held her that it wouldn't be enough.

Melena had always laughed at him. So literal, Ronon. Are artists supposed to be so literal? He used to tease her with it.

A board squeaked when Ronon started towards the bed, and from a drift of leaves beneath the nearest window came a soft mewling cry.

He turned, and looked more carefully, and saw that it wasn't only leaves. Something had made a nest beneath them of fabric and twigs; the leaves were only camouflage. They moved, and Ronon crouched beside them, and carefully lifted off the top layer.

Inside the nest, a se'hret kit blinked up at him with eyes the color of silver coins, and hissed. Its fangs were no longer than the tip of Ronon's thumbnail. The body of another kit was in the nest, dead two days, maybe three. The surviving kit was only a few weeks old, barely old enough to be weaned and much too young to survive by itself.

The mother wasn't coming back, that much was obvious. If she still lived, she would have removed the dead kit and taken it someplace far from here. It wouldn't be long before this kit died as well, died of dehydration, or was killed by another animal. Its tiny life would be only a few more days of loneliness, fear, and hunger, huddled against the body of its litter-mate.

He watched it for long minutes. Its dirty coat was putty-colored like the clay by the river, and the tips of its ears and tail were black. He stroked a finger down its back and it tried to bite his wrist, but not with any great enthusiasm. It was so hungry already. It couldn't survive here, and Sheppard would never allow an animal into the city, especially not a lost, filthy, matted kit that could carry who knew what diseases.

He would be doing it a favor to snap its neck now, and save it the days.

The kit mewled again, and Ronon lifted it from the nest.

The sun was low on the horizon, making shadows long and cool, by the time Ronon approached the Stargate, and the active Gate rippled like water. "Where've you been?" called Sheppard. "We were starting to worry."

Ronon shrugged and shouldered his bag. It clinked with the things he carried, mementos of a lifetime ago. "Took a little longer than I thought."

"You weren't answering your radio."

"Yeah, I turned it off." He ignored the set line of Sheppard's mouth and headed towards the Gate. "You coming?"

"Ronon!" Sheppard's tone was sharp, and Ronon turned abruptly, the muscles in his face trying to pull into a snarl. "When I tell you to keep in touch," Sheppard said, "that means no turning off your radio. At least not without radioing in to tell someone."

The Marines were suddenly alert, even Max and Addison, and that stopped Ronon from crowding into Sheppard's space, using his size and height for the advantage they gave. The snarl showed, though. "This mean I'm part of your team now, you giving me orders? 'Cause I don't remember saying yes."

Sheppard's eyes went flint-hard. "When we're off-world," he said, standing his ground, "this becomes a military operation, and civilian or soldier, you'll follow my orders."

"Fine," Ronon growled, but the change was like a hand on his back, was like being told yes, I'm stronger than you are, you'll do what I say. "Permission to return through the Stargate, sir?" But the anger was already beginning to drain away.

There was a pause, and Sheppard's eyes went from hard to just irritated. "Permission granted."

Ronon didn't wait for the rest of the team, and he could hear his guards scrambling to catch up until Sheppard called after them, "Leave it! Leave it, he's fine."

He strode through the Gate and headed for his quarters, grateful that at least for now the guards were off his back, and maybe for good. The guys themselves were okay, and handy guides when he wanted to find something, or know about something. But it was tiring to have them always there.

The door hissed shut behind him and he dropped his bag on the bed, then carefully unlaced his coat.

He reached in, into one of the dozen soft pockets, and gathered up the warm ball of matted, putty-colored fur that had been nestled near his heartbeat. It mewled as he drew it out, and blinked open eyes the color of coins, and it clung with its tiny needle claws to his hand.

One thing about liking the food here, the people who worked in the mess liked Ronon.

"Hey, Dex," Fuller called when he saw Ronon coming. "Making some of that stew you like for tonight—don't be late or it'll all get gone."

Ronon grinned. "You'll save me some," he said, and Fuller laughed.

"Yeah, you know I will." The chef's knife in his practiced hands was a blur as he chopped carrots for the stew. "How's it going?"

"Pretty good," Ronon answered. "Listen, I wanted a favor."

"Yeah?" Fuller glanced up. "Shoot."

"I need some meat. Not much," he said at Fuller's startled expression, "just, maybe one of those birds, the uh..."

"Chicken?" Fuller asked. "You want a whole chicken?"

"No! No...well, not all at once," Ronon said. "And maybe a little space in one of the cooling units."

Fuller stopped chopping and turned to look at him. "Ronon, we not feeding you enough? Or—oh, hey," he said, and grinned, "if you've got a hot date, hey, I can hook you up with the best meal you ever had if you gimme a day or two notice."

Ronon shook his head. "No, it's nothing like that."

And as much as he liked Fuller, he wasn't going to tell him about the se'hret.

"I just need it," he said instead.

After a moment Fuller nodded. "Okay," he said. "Sure. How soon?"

Ronon crinkled his nose. "Um. Now would be good."

Fuller stared at him for a second, then laughed. "Okay, all right, for you, Dex, only for you. But when they do inventory, you gotta help me come up with an excuse why we're a chicken short."

Ronon didn't tell him that a se'hret would eat a lot of chickens before it was old enough to hunt for itself.

"When I was a boy there hadn't been a culling in almost two hundred years," Ronon said. He reached for one of the small, yeasty dinner rolls and put it in his pocket, then took another and tore it in half. "We knew other planets still suffered, but many on Sateda believed that the Wraith were done with us, that we'd grown too powerful, our military too strong, or even that they'd forgotten about us."

"Hey, uh, pass the—yeah," McKay said, "that," as Ronon reached for the butter and passed it across.

"A lot of people thought the Wraith were never coming back, but my father wasn't one of them," Ronon went on. "He didn't think we could survive them. He wanted me to be a teacher or a doctor like him and my mother, so I could run if they came. He said, 'Ronon, you're a smart boy. You could have a good life, on Sateda or anywhere. Don't throw it away.'"

"I take it you didn't listen," Sheppard said, and Ronon snorted a laugh.

"I told him that if the Wraith came, I wasn't going to run. I was going to fight them, I was going to be on the front lines, defending Sateda."

A long moment passed with only the soft clink of tableware, and then Ronon went on, "My ma said I should join if I wanted to, that not everyone wanted to make a life out of scraps of metal and art theory like Da did."

Teyla was carefully trimming the stems from the broccoli on her plate and setting the florets aside. "Had you always wanted to be a soldier?" she asked.

He shook his head. "No, I joined late, but I made up for it. By the time I was seventeen Seren Tenn had become my taiji, and we lasted three years before Seren died. Guao sickness," he said, and Teyla drew a soft breath. "After that I was tenji for my team, then squad commander and specialist."

Sheppard's eyebrows drew together. "I think 'specialist' is a higher rank in the Satedan military than the U.S."

"It's not really a rank by itself," Ronon explained. "When we met, if I'd had a squad to command I would've said I was squad commander, but since it was just me, my rank reverted to specialist."

"Then what's taiji, and tenji?" Sheppard asked.

Ronon glanced at him, wondering how much he could say, how much would be too much. He didn't know Earth customs yet, not enough to be sure, but he'd figured out they didn't have anything like this.

"Tenji's kinda like a big brother," he began at last. "Or a big sister. Keep the team together, keep 'em safe, monitor their training. Knock 'em around when they need it," he said, and grinned. "Taiji," he said thoughtfully, "that's a little harder to explain. Like a mentor and a commanding officer both, I guess, but more than that."

You are mine, Ronon Dex, and the touch of Seren's palms on his. The beat of your heart is mine, the draw of your breath is mine.

No, he didn't want to explain that to these people, not yet.

"When I was a kid, though, I thought I wanted to be a sculptor like Da, and teach," he went on, "but I was better at painting. I liked the way the paint felt." He could still feel it sometimes, if he thought about it, cool and smooth like the cream on a marriage cake. "I kept it up even after I joined the army. I haven't done it since the Wraith came, though."

"So, it runs in your family," Sheppard said. "The painting thing."

Ronon looked at him.

"The painting," Sheppard said again. "The one you said your mother's grandmother painted. Of the victory over Vetariss."

"You remembered that," Ronon said.

"Well, yeah," Sheppard answered. "Not every day I find out one of my team members has a famous artist in his family."

"Your great-grandmother was a painter?" McKay asked.

"Yeah," Ronon said, tearing off another piece of the roll. "She was pretty well-known. She died before I was born, though."

"That's the painting Ronon brought back from Sateda last month," Sheppard said. "Of the three Satedan soldiers—"

"On the battlefield, yes, I remember." McKay turned to Ronon again. "She had a—uh, a very dramatic style," he said. "Very militaristic."

Ronon shrugged. "She was a commander in the Satedan army when she painted it."

"Really." McKay's voice had that flat tone that meant he was processing new information and trying to fit it into his understanding of how things work.

"Why? Don't the women on your planet paint?"

"Well, sure," McKay said, "yeah, of course they do. Just...not Frank Frazetta paintings, as a general rule. All it needs is a couple of polar bears."

"Rodney!" Sheppard glared at him and McKay's eyes went wide.

"What?" he said. "It does!"

"Who's Frank Frazetta?" asked Ronon.

"An Earth artist," McKay answered. "Tended towards muscle-bound men and well-endowed women wearing very little clothing."

Teyla's eyebrows rose.

"Sounds good," Ronon said, and shot her a sideways grin. Her mouth crooked and she kicked him under the table, but not very hard.

"Ow," he said, and made a show of rubbing his ankle. "Anyway, how do you know I was thinking about the women," he added with another grin, and Teyla cocked her eyebrow again and the smile she gave him was sly, and said she wondered if he was teasing.

When he looked up, though, there was an expression on Sheppard's face like he wanted to say something but the words were caught in his throat, and then he looked away and started arguing with McKay about whether it was polite to compare Ronon's painting to the one with the polar bears. And Ronon thought for a while about how it was that Sheppard remembered the name of Vetariss, and that Ronon's mother's grandmother had painted the victory, and that he thought it was worth arguing with McKay over if he thought McKay had insulted it.

Teyla took up her little cache of broccoli florets and carefully deposited them on McKay's plate. McKay gave her a distracted "Thank you," and then went back to arguing with Sheppard.

Ronon turned to Teyla and said, "Why do you do that?"

She shrugged, spearing one of the broccoli stems. "I do not like the way they feel in my mouth, but Rodney has a preference for them. Why do you put dinner rolls in your pocket?"

Ronon blinked, then looked down at his pocket. He hadn't even realized he'd done it, though thinking about it, he remembered clearly. "I don't know," he said. "I guess 'cause you never know when you'll get a chance to eat again."

Teyla paused in what she was doing, and for a moment Ronon felt embarrassed, but then she smiled. "That is very pragmatic."

McKay and Sheppard kept arguing. It was interesting enough, but Ronon was starting to get anxious that the se'hret would begin crying if she didn't eat soon, and that was all he needed, for someone passing to hear the animal wailing in his quarters. He pushed away from the table and picked up his tray.

Sheppard looked up. "You leaving?" he asked, but since Ronon obviously was, he went on, "We're watching movies tonight, McKay's quarters. You should come."

Ronon hesitated, and Sheppard added, "Teyla's coming too. Aren't you, Teyla?"

"Yes," said Teyla, and looked up at Ronon. "Colonel Sheppard told me that the movie tonight is about those who have passed into the next world returning to this one, and the social and political breakdown that occurs as a result."

McKay snorted, laughing around his mouthful of broccoli florets, and Teyla looked at him.

"Uh. Yeah," Sheppard said doubtfully, "something like that."

"It is called, 'Dawn of the Dead'," Teyla added.

"Sounds kinda dry," Ronon said, and McKay choked on a laugh and started coughing, and Teyla thumped him helpfully on the back a few times.

Sheppard waved his hands. "Zombies! That is so not dry. C'mon, Ronon, it'll be like a whole big team thing. And if it's gonna be a whole big team thing, we have to have the whole team there."

Ronon thought about that. He still didn't remember saying yes, but maybe this was Sheppard asking again.

They didn't join here, he'd learned, at least not that anyone would admit. Teyla had looked startled when he'd asked her about it, and then had said in a hushed voice that he should not approach Colonel Sheppard about such a thing.

But even so, a team...it would be better than being alone.

Finally he nodded. "Okay," he said, answering both questions. "Thanks."

Once he'd joined the team, though, Ronon started to feel awkward about keeping the se'hret a secret.

He went to Sheppard's quarters one night, long after dinner. Sheppard answered the door with rumpled hair, and Ronon couldn't tell if he was dressed for bed or not. Loose pants, barefoot, a white tee-shirt that stretched snug enough across his chest to make Ronon wish it were a little more snug or else not there at all.

"Ronon," Sheppard said, and he sounded surprised, and his voice was rough with sleep.

"Are you busy?" Ronon asked. "I can come back later."

"No, no, now's fine." He stood aside so Ronon could enter.

Ronon hesitated on the threshold. "Actually, could you come with me? I think it'll be easier to show you."

Sheppard scrubbed his hand through his hair. It only made it stand more on end. "Okay," he said. "Sure."

Ronon's quarters were three corridors over, and they fell into step beside each other.

"Is something wrong?" Sheppard asked.


He could feel Sheppard watching him uncomfortably, though, so he added, "Everything's fine. It's just that now if I'm on the team, I thought you should know about something."

"Know about what?" Sheppard's eyes had gone a little narrow. "Listen, Ronon," he said, "if this is about—listen," he said, and stopped, and Ronon stopped too and turned to face him. "I don't know how things were in the Satedan military, but in the U.S. military, there's this rule—'don't ask, don't tell.'"

Ronon frowned. "Don't ask, don't tell what?"

Sheppard looked nervous. Ronon wasn't sure he'd ever seen Sheppard look nervous, though, so maybe that wasn't it at all.

"You know," he said. "Like, if I have a secret, I don't tell you about it, but you don't ask me about it either."

Ronon's frown deepened. "You're supposed to keep secrets from your commanding officers?" That could simplify things, but Ronon tried to imagine keeping a secret of any size from Seren or Kell, or one of his team keeping a secret from him, and he didn't like the idea that this was something Earth military did as a matter of policy. It could only lead to trouble.

Sheppard shook his head, gesturing. "Not every secret," he said, "I mean, not the ones that matter, not. Just about this one thing."

In the hallway's warm light it was hard to tell, but Ronon thought it looked like Sheppard was getting red in the face, just a little. He wished Sheppard had brought this up before Ronon had said yes. "What one thing?" he asked. "And if it doesn't matter, why's it have to be a secret?"

Sheppard scratched the back of his neck. He was definitely red-faced. "It's gotta be a secret 'cause that's what the damn politicians decided," he said, and he didn't sound happy about it. "And it's, uh.... It's about who you have relationships with," he managed at last. "Intimate relationships."

"Intimate relationships," Ronon repeated. Sheppard couldn't mean what it sounded like.

"It's simple, really, when you get down to it," Sheppard said. "The U.S. military doesn't care if ... if the guy soldiers like other guys, or the women soldiers like other women. They just don't want to know about it."

"That doesn't make sense," Ronon said. "You and McKay like each other, and Beckett, Teyla and Doctor Weir are friends—"

"Not that kind of 'like,'" Sheppard interrupted. "The kind of 'like' where you walk home in the morning with your shirt inside out and then have to call and apologize for leaving your boxers on his bathroom floor."

"Oh," Ronon said. The shirt thing seemed strange, but the part about the boxers was clear enough. "You mean joining."

Sheppard looked at him blankly.

"Sex," Ronon said. He wondered why Earth people used the same word for joining and for gender. "You're not supposed to say anything about it if you're having sex with someone."

Sheppard groaned and leaned against the wall, thumped his head against it. "No, it's—okay, it's a little more complicated than that. Okay," he said. "That thing you said at dinner before the zombie movie, about maybe you were thinking of the guys when you thought about people not wearing very much? Not the women? That's what you can't tell me. Or anyone in the military."

Ronon blinked. He already knew that about Sheppard—had Sheppard forgotten, or was he just pretending not to know? Or pretending it hadn't happened. And anyone who'd known McKay and Sheppard for more than a week had to have noticed that Sheppard wanted to have sex with McKay, and that McKay couldn't decide if he wanted to or not. Maybe that was why McKay couldn't decide—worried about his career, or about Sheppard's.

And maybe that was why Sheppard had never again mentioned what had happened that first day, had never made any overtures, hadn't seemed to notice the few that Ronon had made.

Was it considered too personal for others to know? Given the conversations he'd heard in the mess, he didn't think much was too personal among Earth people. So it was shame, then, he supposed. Shame for joining, for binding yourself to another person, just because of what their gender was. It seemed stupid beyond belief to Ronon. His team, his taiji, he tried to imagine being ashamed for what they had, for the strength they gave each other. The idea of it shook him, and he wondered if he'd made the right decision.

This would take some thinking about. Maybe Teyla would know more.

"Okay," he said at last. "But that's not what I was going to tell you."

Sheppard looked at him again. "Oh."

There was a pause.

"So, you want to come with me now?" Ronon asked.

"Oh! Yeah, sure," Sheppard answered, and they started for Ronon's quarters again.

"Uh, sorry about that," Sheppard said after a moment.

"Sorry about what?"

"You know." Sheppard waved his hand. "Thinking you might... you know. Be into guys."

Ronon glanced at him sideways. "Sheppard. You just said we couldn't talk about that."

Sheppard cut his eyes up at Ronon. "Right," he said. "Right. Well, I mean you could tell me if you're not."

"What'd you think I was gonna show you?" Ronon asked. If Sheppard was determined to ignore what he already knew about Ronon, Ronon might as well let him.

But the whole thing was weird.

"You—oh! Uh, I'm not—I—I don't know," Sheppard stammered, "I guess I just—well hell, Ronon, it's after midnight, you woke me up!"

"Oh." Was it that late? He hadn't realized. "I didn't mean to."

Sheppard sighed. "That's okay."

"Maybe you can take a nap tomorrow or something."

"Yeah," Sheppard said, and laughed a little. "Yeah."

They reached Ronon's quarters and Ronon palmed the door open, and Sheppard followed him in.

"So, what is it you wanted—"

The se'hret trilled, and leapt up onto the bed.

Sheppard stopped. The se'hret looked at him with silvery eyes, her round black pupils narrowed in the bright light. Her coat was no longer the pure putty color of when he'd found her, but was tipped with soft silver grey now, blurring her edges like fog.

"What the hell is that," Sheppard asked, "and what's it doing here? And this had better be the thing you wanted to talk to me about."

"It is," Ronon said. "She's a se'hret—her name's Zephyr. I found her in an abandoned nest the day we went back to Sateda."

Sheppard looked at her. "You found her."

"Uh-huh. She was about three weeks old, maybe four, and I guess her mother had been killed. Her litter-mate was already dead."

"And you just thought it'd be great idea to sneak a wild animal into Atlantis to keep for a pet?"

"Not really," Ronon said. The se'hret trilled, and Ronon sat down beside her and stroked her back. "I was going to snap her neck, save her from three days dying of dehydration or worse, but when I picked her up...."

He remembered the tiny, fast heartbeat thrumming against his fingers, and the little mewling cry. Miniature claws catching on the whorls of his thumbprint.

"I just didn't."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Sheppard asked, finally turning to Ronon.

"I figured you'd tell me to leave her there. Anyway, she wasn't wild," he added, "not really. She was too little to be wild. The nest was inside—inside my house," he explained, not yet ready to tell about Melena. "I figure the mother was one of the domesticated ones, so this one's probably not even one generation wild. Se'hrets don't breed until they're six years old, and I don't think a wild one would've been living in a house yet, even one that had been standing empty."

"So you're an expert on animal behavior now, too?" Sheppard said with a scowl, and Ronon was about to snap out a sharp retort—he was the last living expert on everything Satedan—but then Sheppard was stretching out his hand towards the se'hret and Ronon didn't want to startle her.

Sheppard held still as Zephyr sniffed at his fingers, her gaze flicking from his hand to his face like she was judging whether or not he was a threat. "Does she bite?" he asked.

"Not unless you're trying to take her dinner away."

Sheppard looked at him.

"That was a joke."

"Huh." He took a step forward. "She's pretty. She looks sort of like a fox crossed with a cat."

Ronon knew what cats were—he'd seen pictures of McKay's, and it had made him re-think some of his assumptions. He hadn't figured McKay for someone who'd keep pets at all, much less the kind that could hurt him if they wanted to, even just a little. "What's a fox?" he asked.

Sheppard thought a moment. "It's actually sort of like a cat," he said. "Crossed with a dog."

"So...a se'hret is like a cat crossed with a cat crossed with a dog?" Dogs, he knew. Seemed like every planet had dogs.

Sheppard looked at her. Her large ears pricked forward. "Yeah," he said. "That sounds about right. Does anyone else know about her?"

Ronon shook his head. "I think Fuller suspects something, but he's never asked."

Sheppard held out his hand again and the se'hret butted up under his palm. "Why 'Zephyr'?" he asked, and stroked her back cautiously.

"Well," Ronon said, "I thought since she was going to be living among Earth people, maybe I should give her an Earth name. I looked through some of the databases, and I liked Zephyr, because of how soft she is. It's one of those words that sounds like what it means." He touched Zephyr's hind foot and she twitched it and nuzzled Sheppard's palm. "And also I just thought it sounded nice. Kind kind of exotic."

Sheppard smiled a little. "I think 'se'hret' sounds kind of exotic."

Ronon wondered what he'd do if Sheppard said he had to get rid of her. Maybe the Athosians could make room for her. He could visit her then, if one of Teyla's friends could be convinced to adopt her.

He didn't like the idea. He didn't like the idea of not having her around. He'd finally started sleeping through the night, with Zephyr curled up against his knees, the soft sound of her breathing.

"Try rubbing her ears," he said. "She likes that."

Walking to Elizabeth's office, John couldn't decide whether having a secret alien pet that hadn't so much as glimpsed the inside of a quarantine was a better or worse secret than if Ronon had admitted to being secretly gay.

Probably a worse one. John was living proof that being gay wasn't that hard a secret to keep if people didn't want to know. At least on Atlantis.

Elizabeth looked up from her monitor when he tapped on the frame of her open door. "John," she said, "come in. What did you want to see me about?"

He shut the door and sat down across from her. "The new guy," he said. "Ronon."

She leaned back and folded her hands. "Is there a problem?"

"No! No," John John said, "no, well, not a problem with Ronon. Ronon's great. A little rough around the edges, maybe, but he's great. He'll be coming on our next mission."

"Then what is it?"

"You remember when we went back to Sateda with him?"

She nodded. "And I have your plan in my queue," she said. "It looks good, but we should definitely send an archaeological team along with science teams to see what they can salvage culturally from the city."

"That'd be great, definitely. But that's not really why I'm here."

It took a little while to explain to her about the se'hret, and why Ronon had kept it, and why he'd kept it secret. John was relieved, though, to see her expression change from 'Doctor Weir, commander of the Atlantis base,' to 'Elizabeth, who likes puppies and kittens and has a soft spot for injured creatures of any kind, including hulking soldiers whose civilizations have been destroyed.' By the time he was done telling her about Zephyr, she'd stopped talking in terms of quarantine and relocation back to Sateda, and had started talking in terms of wanting Beckett to have a look at the animal before making any kind of decision.

"After all, Ronon's had it for almost two months and he hasn't gotten sick."

"Nevertheless," Elizabeth said, and he could hear 'Doctor Weir, commander of the Atlantis base' trying to muscle her way in past the love of puppies. "There are reasons we have these protocols. We don't know what diseases it might have that would affect us without affecting someone from this galaxy."

That part, though, didn't seem to interest her as much as the other question—one John had been turning over as well.

"John," she said, her eyebrows drawn together in that expression he'd come to recognize not as the disapprobation it first looked like, but as the inquisitiveness that gotten her here in the first place. "Why do you think Ronon would want a pet?"

He shrugged. "Why not?"

She huffed a breath, spreading her hands. "Seven years of running from the Wraith, never staying in one place for more than a day, never having a home. And now, within two months of arriving on Atlantis, he's smuggling in pets? And forgive me, John, but honestly," she added, "does he seem the type to...coo over baby animals? To feel such compassion for an orphaned stray that he'd risk his first home in seven years to care for it?"

"Maybe it's because it's Satedan?" he offered. "You know. Another survivor, like him? Anyway," he went on, "does it really matter why? He did, it's here, we deal with it."

She paused, then nodded. "Of course. After all, there's no reason he shouldn't want a pet."

"Exactly. Who doesn't like animals?"

But Beckett, when Elizabeth called him to her office, was less than enthusiastic.

"I'm a doctor, not a veterinarian!" he sputtered, and John grinned and patted his shoulder.

"Just think of it like a little furry alien."

Beckett looked at him. "That's what it is," he pointed out. "A wee furry alien pet."

"Doctor Beckett, we don't have a veterinarian," said Elizabeth. "So either you can examine it to the best of your considerable abilities, or we can explain to Ronon that he has to get rid of her."

Beckett's eyes grew wide. "Oh, now, Doctor Weir, that's not playin' fair. He's lost everything already, I can't tell him he's to give this up as well."

"I promise not to let him hurt you," said John, and Beckett scowled.

"That's not the point! The point—"

"—is that you are more than capable of running a few tests on an alien animal to see if it poses a biological threat to us," Elizabeth interrupted. "Now, will you please do it?"

"Sheppard, did you hear?" McKay asked, trotting to catch up. "Ronon's got some kind of animal or something. He's taken it to sick bay."

"I heard," John said, and eyed McKay. "But how'd you hear?"

"How could I not? Everyone in Atlantis knows by now—apparently you could hear it two levels away when he was taking it down there."

John rolled his eyes. "That's an exaggeration."

"I wonder where he got it," McKay said. "He hasn't even been off Atlantis except for Sateda and that one trip with Teyla to the mainland, and I'm sure she would have mentioned it if he'd picked up a stray Athosian cat or something."

"It was on Sateda," John said. "He found it in the house where he used to live."

"What, you mean like a—a feral cat or something? Wait, how long have you known?"

"Just since last night."

"Last night? What were you—"

He could practically see McKay turning over the possibilities.

"He came to my quarters to tell me," he said, cutting McKay off before he got too far down the wrong road. Sure, Rodney was straight, but that didn't mean he couldn't be kind of an asshole if he thought John was getting too interested in someone else.

It was flattering, but very damned frustrating.

"He didn't think he should keep it a secret," he went on, "now that he's officially a member of the team."

McKay blinked. "He is? When did that happen?"

For a genius, John thought, McKay could be remarkably dense. "C'mon," he said, clapping McKay on the shoulder. "Let's go see how Beckett's doing with Ronon's cat."

"Not that I mind, even if he did almost—Wait, it really is a cat?"

John sighed. "No, it's not really a cat. Come on."

When they reached sick bay, they found Ronon holding Zephyr down by her scruff while Beckett drew blood. Zephyr's angry screeching was like the cry of a hawk and all her fur was on end.

"Okay," John said, "maybe it wasn't an exaggeration."

"There." Beckett withdrew the needle and Ronon—still scruffing her—tried to stroke Zephyr's fur back into order, without much success.

"You big baby," he murmured to her. "That didn't even hurt."

The screech was down to a growling whine, and her coat was so ruffled she looked like she'd put it on backwards. McKay stared at the animal. "What is it?"

"A se'hret," Ronon answered.

"Her name's Zephyr," added John helpfully.

McKay snorted. "Oh, that fits."

"Hey!" Ronon glared at him. "She hasn't been outside my quarters since she got here, and first thing, someone's sticking her with needles. See how you like it."

"Okay," Beckett said, labeling the vial of blood. "I'll run some tests, but she appears to be in good health. You can take her back now."

"Thanks, Doc," Ronon said, reaching with one hand for his coat that was draped over a chair and then bundling it around Zephyr and scooping her up. She went quiet then, and Ronon held her cradled against his chest.

It occurred to John that maybe he'd missed something important about Ronon. Something different from what he expected. That maybe when he looked at him, there was a whole other Ronon he hadn't been seeing.

He and McKay fell into step beside Ronon and the three of them headed back towards the crew quarters. McKay was on Ronon's other side, trying to peek into the coat.

"Hey, maybe we should have the next movie night at your place," John said. "So she can...you know. Start getting used to having other people around."

Ronon grinned. "You mean having the team around."

"Well, yeah," John said, and grinned back. "Yeah. Having the team around."

"Okay," said Ronon. "But I get to pick the movie."

"Who's a pretty girl?" Rodney cooed to Ronon's coat. "Who's a pretty girl?" and Ronon drew back the collar, just enough for Rodney to see the top of Zephyr's head where she was tucked against Ronon's chest. Zephyr growled faintly. "There she is," Rodney murmured, and smiled. "There's a pretty girl."

Chapter Two

"I'm telling you, Ronon, you've got nothing to worry about!" John dodged backwards and Ronon barely missed him. "No one's getting kicked off Atlantis!"

"Right, because Woolsey's so comfortable with me," Ronon growled, and lashed out again.

He wasn't as quick this time and hissed when Ronon's knee connected. Then Ronon barreled into him and hooked his leg, and John went down with a thud and a grunt. "You don't know that's who they're gonna choose," he gritted, glaring up at Ronon.

Ronon glared back. "You don't know it isn't." He shoved off John and rolled to his feet, headed over to the bench where their towels were. John sat up and watched him. Ronon must really be pissed off to stop a fight in the middle, before John even started complaining. "Anyway, whether it's an agent of the S.G.C. or the I.O.A or a military commander—doesn't matter," Ronon said, and tossed him a towel. "I'm here because Weir okay'd it, and we both know Weir doesn't do things like regular military."

John caught the towel and swiped it over his face, more to hide the wince than anything else. Like all of them, Ronon refused to believe Elizabeth was dead, but hearing him talk about her like she was still here felt like pressing a bruise.

"Look, you and Teyla have proved over and over how valuable you both are," he answered. "Even if they get some regular military guy to take over this place, they're not gonna just kick you two out, okay?"

"Don't get me wrong, I don't blame 'em," Ronon continued, his voice briefly muffled as he stripped off his shirt. "But you better start thinking about who you're gonna get to replace us. Me, anyway," he added, and shrugged, tossing the sweat-soaked shirt on top of his bag. "Teyla's good, she's a diplomat, she's got contacts, you can use her. But me? Hell, you've got two dozen Marines here who are as good as me at what you use me for—"

"That is not true," John argued, but Ronon went on like he hadn't even spoken, and John had to chew the inside of his mouth to keep from shouting him down. No one was going to make John give up a member of his team, and every word out of Ronon's mouth was making him want to bite, want to mark him, label him 'Property of John Fucking Sheppard' and no one was going to take him away. Not any of them.

He wondered sometimes whether it was normal to feel like this about your team. Not that it mattered much. He'd given up on being normal right around the time he figured out that watching Batman and Robin tied up together and hanging over a vat of acid made his stomach knot up in ways that were a lot more interesting than watching them beat the crap out of the bad guys.

Maybe if he made it an order, Ronon would stop with this 'they're gonna kick me off Atlantis' crap.

"—and the S.G.C. and the I.O.A. aren't gonna buy it," Ronon was saying. "Your people may be the visitors in our galaxy, but as far as they're concerned," he said, punching a finger at Sheppard, "we're the outsiders."

"Ronon, will you shut up and listen to me?" John snapped, and Ronon shot him a narrow-eyed look that he couldn't read. It might be I can kick your ass six ways from Sunday if you piss me off, or yeah? Make me, or anything in between. Either way it made John's dick shift and start to stiffen, and he dropped his towel into his lap and leaned on his knees. "Now I'm the ranking—"

"—by idiots, how many times have I told you?" McKay was saying as he strode into the room, gesturing irritably. "Just because the life signs detector doesn't detect any life signs doesn't mean that nothing's alive there, it only means that it hasn't detected it yet!" He paused. "Yes I know that—hold on."

"Rodney," John said.

"Would it kill you to answer your comm?"

John scowled.

"We were sparring," Ronon said, nodding to where John's radio was peeking out from under a flap of his gym bag.

"Yes, I can see that, thank you Captain Obvious," McKay answered, and turned to John again, ignoring Ronon's eye-roll. "I've been trying to reach you for half an hour. Up, get dressed. You too," he added, motioning to Ronon. "Zelenka thinks he's found a ZPM."

"What? Where?" John asked.

"The flyover of M6A-424. I was too busy with those miserable employee evaluations to analyze the readings myself, but Zelenka—"

"You're still working on those? They were due almost a month ago!"

McKay gave him a look. "Yes, I'm still working on those. Or did you think I had time to do them while I was saving us all from gruesome death in the vacuum of space?"

John cocked an eyebrow, doing the math, but it'd be pointless to argue about it. Fun, sure - McKay was hot when he got all self-righteous and irritable, and John couldn't help wondering if deep down he was hoping someone would finally put a gag in his mouth. But pointless, and anyway, McKay was straight. That had been established, no matter how much like a jealous boyfriend he sometimes acted. "So he thinks there's—"

"A ZPM, yes, what did I just say? Teyla's meeting us in the Gate room."

"What's the rush, Rodney?" John asked. "It's been there this long, it'll be there another couple hours."

"Yes, and?" McKay answered. "The sooner we can get it back here, the sooner we'll have full power for the city. Or at least be one ZPM closer. Come on."

"It can wait ten minutes." John levered himself to his feet. "I don't think you wanna spend an hour in a puddle jumper with me and Chewie here if we haven't gotten cleaned up."

"Yes yes, whatever, just go. Be in the Gate room in ten minutes."

"Or what?" Ronon asked as John fell into step beside him. "You'll leave without us?"

"Ha ha, very funny," McKay said with a scowl. "Just hurry up."

John waved vaguely at him as they left, a gesture that was equally likely to mean "screw you" or "don't worry so damn much," and even John wasn't sure which it was.

"Hey," Ronon said. The door slid shut behind them, silencing McKay's imprecations against whichever unfortunate he had on his headset. "You wanna get drunk later?"

John thought about it. He'd sort of planned to invite McKay over for movies or something, but he had a feeling that trudging around M6A-424 looking for a ZPM was probably going to leave him wanting easy company, and a lot to drink. And for about a dozen different reasons, Ronon was just easier company than McKay, drunk or sober.

"Sounds great," he said. "I'll bring the nachos."

Ronon glanced at him and John tried to remember whether Ronon knew about nachos. It wasn't something they got very often in the Pegasus galaxy. For some reason, they weren't considered vital to the mission. But Ronon didn't ask, and John didn't bother trying to explain. Most of the time it was easier just to show him.

"It would have to be the rainy season," Sheppard grumbled. His foot slipped in the muck and Ronon caught his arm, steadying him. "I'm starting to think nachos'll be too much work. Maybe we should just stick to beer."

"Fine with me," Ronon answered. He wasn't really worried about the nachos, whatever they were. Long experience had taught him that the things Sheppard offered to bring over were rarely as interesting as they sounded. Nachos, for instance, sounded to Ronon like one of those ancient Earth weapons for hand to hand combat, like nunchaku or khopesh. Or maybe something like the Satedan ch'saket that could be used equally well for combat or for binding a captured enemy. If nachos were like that, Ronon was all for them, but Sheppard never brought stuff like that when he came over. If he held true to form, nachos were either a video game or something to eat, probably salty enough that they'd make the hangover that much worse. Still, it would have been worth it to watch Sheppard licking the salt from his fingers.

First, though, they had to get back to the jumper without Ronon killing McKay.

McKay slapped at himself, then at the air around him. "No, seriously. I think I'm getting lightheaded from blood loss. Am I the only one getting eaten alive by these things?"

"No, Rodney," Teyla said, and Ronon could hear her rolling her eyes behind him. "We are all being bitten. I doubt you are in any immediate danger."

They were trudging across a muddy plain of low hills and scrub grasses, the leading edge of a forest three hundred yards to the east. It had rained recently and the plain was filled with shallow puddles and sucking mud, and gnats that swarmed out of the trees to surround them.

"Only of getting smacked if he doesn't stop bitching about it," Ronon muttered. It was bad enough that they were slogging back through this muck after not finding a ZPM, but McKay's constant complaining was worse than the droning of these tiny bloodsucking insects.

"Play nice, you two," Sheppard said, and Ronon shot him a look, but Sheppard was turned, watching McKay. He had that expression that he got sometimes, sometimes when he looked at McKay and sometimes when he was watching some of the Marines training, a look like he wanted to push them to the ground and bite his way into them, hold them down and swallow them. It gave Ronon a little lurch to see it directed at McKay now. He'd seen it dozens of times before, but today on top of everything else he felt it like an unexpected loss.

Ronon had seen that look trained on himself only a few times, when he and Sheppard were sparring. He wondered if Sheppard had ever looked at him like that when he wasn't looking, if maybe sometimes if he'd just glanced up a moment earlier, he'd have seen that hungry expression.

If Sheppard looked at him like that again, he was going to do something about it.

Maybe even if he didn't.

"You know what we need," McKay said, smacking ineffectually at the gnats. "We need another team. One we can send to look for ZPMs on marsh planets, and—and to infiltrate Wraith hive ships and things like that, so we don't have to get almost killed so much of the time."

Ronon glanced back. Had McKay overheard him talking with Teyla?

"That's a great idea," Sheppard said. "Except we already have those teams, and you're always complaining that they're not as good as we are."

"Well," McKay said plaintively. "It's true. They're not."


"So... maybe you just need to train them better."

Sheppard rolled his eyes and didn't answer, and they trudged through another hundred feet or so of muddy plain before Ronon spoke again.



"I was thinking. If they pick Woolsey or Caldwell or someone and I have to—"

"No one's leaving," Sheppard interrupted.

"Leaving?" Behind them McKay took a few hurried steps to catch up. "What do you mean, leaving?"

"Nothing," Sheppard said, turning again. "No one's leaving."

"Sheppard," Ronon started, and Sheppard cut him off with a sharp look.

"No one," he repeated, "is leaving."

Ronon scowled. Sheppard's refusal to face facts wasn't going to help either of them. "It isn't up to you," he began again, but Sheppard just lengthened his stride, his steps quickening the way the did when he was getting mad. Ronon matched him easily even on the uneven, muddy terrain, and behind them he could hear Teyla murmur to McKay, "Let them walk ahead," and McKay's worried protestation, but he lingered with Teyla some paces behind.

"Listen to me, Sheppard," Ronon said as they slowed and started picking their way down a steep, sodden slope. "Fine, you don't think they're gonna tell me to leave, great. But I've gotta think about what happens if they do."

He paused for a moment, and took a breath. This would work. Even if they kicked him off Atlantis, this would work. It would work, and it would mean not losing Sheppard, not losing Teyla or McKay. Things would change, sure, but change could be good. Or at least not all bad.

"I'm not gonna just start moving around again, and I'm not going to—I don't know, become a tava bean farmer or something. There are other options, and if I—"

"Ronon, I swear to god," Sheppard growled, "if you don't knock this off—"

"What are you gonna do?" Ronon snapped. "Fire me?"

Sheppard glared, but he didn't answer.

"Okay," Ronon went on, "Atlantis is going to need all the help it can get fighting the Wraith and the Replicators, even if they are already fighting each other, and the Pegasus Galaxy is filled with people who'd jump at the chance to kill Wraith. If I do have to leave, then let me build a team to work with Atlantis—soldiers, fighters, who know this galaxy and our people. I can give them structure, training," he said, ticking items off on his fingers, "and with Atlantis's help maybe I can give them weapons, too, and supplies. It'd be good for all of us, and it could open up alliances that maybe we didn't have before."

Sheppard stopped and stared at him. "Ronon, come on, you're one guy. You're gonna recruit and train a whole team?"

Ronon stared back, his eyes narrowing. Maybe he hadn't talked that much about his life before Atlantis, but it stung that Sheppard thought he couldn't do what he said he would.

"More than a team," he said tightly. "I was tenji, I was squad commander, I was specialist. If the Wraith hadn't come I'd be leading a company today, maybe a battalion." He stepped closer, crowding Sheppard. "I follow your orders because this is my team now, but I am more than what you use me for." Teyla and McKay were only a short distance behind them, and Ronon shook with the struggle not to put his hands on Sheppard.

"Ronon," Sheppard began, not backing up at all, and there it was, the hungry, possessive look on his face, desire in it, and something sharper. "If you want more responsibility, then come to me and we'll talk about it," he said, tight-voiced and his gaze locked on Ronon's. "But I am not ready to lose you from this team."

Rodney was too far back to hear them, but their body language was making him anxious.

Teyla could tell, too, it seemed. "Relax, Rodney," she murmured. "They do not have the look of men who are about to come to blows."

Rodney looked again. Ronon was shoved up into Sheppard's space, his hands clenched into fists. He looked about twice normal size—Rodney wondered if Satedans could do that thing cats could, where they puff up to look bigger and more threatening. Not that Ronon didn't look threatening enough when he was just sitting around. But Sheppard wasn't backing off, and he was glaring up at Ronon like—


Rodney stopped, and something twisted a knot in his stomach.

Maybe it really was blood loss. It couldn't be jealousy. Could it?

It had never been clear to Rodney why he and Sheppard had become friends—even less clear than why he and Ronon had. Ronon was easy: if you were on his team, you were family, or, well, close enough. And they had things in common—things they didn't fight about. Eating, for one, and healthy desire to avoid predators. And after the first time that Rodney had offered to watch Zephyr during one of Teyla and Ronon's periodic off-world visits, and Ronon had come back to find Zephyr and Rodney asleep on the floor with the remains of a demolished chicken dinner on a plate nearby, well. Rodney'd made him promise not to tell anyone and Ronon had never breathed a word of it, and shared secrets did tend to cement a friendship.

But Sheppard wasn't the type to spend a lot of time with genius scientists, and Rodney had never given much time or thought to people whose negotiating skills usually involved heavy firepower. But Sheppard just sliced through all the layers right to the core—of a problem, of Rodney, of whatever, didn't even seem to notice them. Being with Sheppard was like being able to breathe again after too long deep underwater.

Still, it had taken stumbling onto Sheppard's porn collection for Rodney to notice that Sheppard was on the "don't tell" side of "don't ask, don't tell." They'd been in Sheppard's quarters having one of their stupid arguments when Sheppard called a halt so he could take a leak. Rodney was just rummaging through the desk for something to write on to illustrate his point, when he saw a magazine called Drummer peeking out from beneath a stack of Sports Illustrated back issues. He pulled it out fully expecting to be able to gig Sheppard for weeks about wanting to be a rock star.

It wasn't a magazine about drums. Beneath it was something called Machismo, and—disturbingly—three issues of Bound & Gagged, and that was more than enough to get Rodney shoving them back in place and sliding the desk drawer closed again. When Sheppard emerged, Rodney made an excuse and fled.

But once he'd realized it, it had stayed on his mind. He hadn't been able to stop waiting anxiously for what he assumed would be the inevitable. Not that Rodney thought of himself as any sort of sex god, but they were good friends, and Rodney was, he thought, more than reasonably attractive by anyone's standards. Sheppard was bound to make a pass at him eventually, and Rodney had thought through everything he wanted to say, the perfect response to make sure Sheppard knew that although Rodney himself preferred the female of the species, unadorned with gags or handcuffs or whatever was in vogue with the kinky crowd these days, this would not affect their friendship or change Rodney's opinions about him. The perfect response to make sure there would be no awkwardness going forward. And the more time went by, the more Rodney wanted to get it over with.

When it had finally happened, it was pathetically anti-climactic. They were cleaning up after one of the off-world missions, and Sheppard stopped him and just looked at him for a minute, with an expression Rodney couldn't read but which made something go hot and liquid inside him. Then he said, "You wanna come back to my place?"

Rodney blinked at him. "I'm straight," he blurted.

Sheppard thought about that, then shrugged. "Wanna come back to my place anyway? I've got a bottle of pretty decent scotch and I hate drinking alone." Then he smiled that patented Sheppard smile and added, "I promise your virtue is safe with me."

And that had been that. Except sometimes Rodney couldn't get it out of his head. The way Sheppard had looked at him, an almost predatory glint in his eyes, and okay, no, it hadn't been a turn-on, exactly, but he kept wanting to see it again. That focused, narrow gaze, fixed on him like he was the only thing in the world that mattered.

And now it all just clicked. Like finally seeing the answer to an equation, Rodney saw it, all at once. It wasn't just that Sheppard wanted him. It was that he wanted Sheppard, too.

At least, he thought he did. What else could all this mean? The tightness in his chest, the way his heart was palpitating, the dryness in his throat. He was either having a heart attack or he was jealous as hell, and Rodney's last checkup had just been a couple weeks ago. His heart was fine.

Well, physically anyway.

And now Ronon, who apparently preferred the warriors to the damsels—no, Rodney hadn't forgotten that conversation; it was etched in his memory as clearly as the painting that had started it—Ronon was down there threatening to leave the team, and Sheppard would do anything to keep the team together. Not that Ronon would deliberately try to manipulate him, he wasn't the type. Rodney was pretty sure Ronon wasn't devious enough to do it deliberately anyway.

But it wouldn't have to be deliberate to work.

"Oh crap," Rodney muttered, taking a step forward.

"Rodney?" Teyla said. "What is it?"

He just shook his head and started towards Sheppard and Ronon, not knowing what he was going to say, but he knew he had to do something before he lost someone he hadn't even realized he wanted.

So it was really kind of fortuitous that the little root snagged his foot just when it did. It jerked him back at his next step and Rodney stumbled, his arms pinwheeling as he tried to keep his balance. And then the root gave way.

Ronon looked up just before Rodney crashed into him and sent them both tumbling backwards down the hill. They hit the mud puddle at the bottom with a splash and Sheppard and Teyla came scrambling down after them.

Rodney looked down at Ronon. "Uh."

Ronon glared up at him.

"Um. Sorry."

"McKay, you all right?" Sheppard said, reaching down to haul him up. "Ronon?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Rodney said, brushing at himself. Sheppard was a solid weight beside him, and Rodney didn't move away, his heart beating loudly in his chest and his throat working, trying to swallow but he didn't know what.

"Yeah, he's okay," Ronon grumbled, squelching as he sat up and took Teyla's offered hand. "He had a soft landing," he said.

Sheppard cocked his head. "In fairness, Ronon, you're not really all that soft."

Rodney's heart lurched like stepping off a cliff.

Teyla wrinkled her nose. "Come," she said, "the jumper is not much farther."

"Not more than an hour or two," Rodney muttered, shaking a clot of mud from one boot and trying to lose the sick feeling in his stomach.

"Half an hour," Sheppard said. "And if you'd been able to pinpoint the location a little better—"

"Oh, fine, it's my fault, yes," Rodney said, falling into step beside Sheppard.

"I'm not blaming you, Rodney," Sheppard said, and Rodney glanced at him, but he didn't say anything else.

Sheppard was totally blaming him. And usually Rodney would launch into all the reasons it wasn't his fault, but today...today he didn't want to fight.

"No, you're right," he said after a moment. "It's been a complete waste of time, and if I'd just looked at the numbers myself before dragging us all out here—"

"Then we'd have missed out on seeing this beautiful planet on this beautiful day," Sheppard said, smiling beatifically.

"Oh, shit," Ronon said behind them.

"Look, I said I was sorry," Rodney started, but Teyla interrupted.

"John, Rodney," she said in a tone that spoke of grisly death coming up behind them, and he and Sheppard turned.

"Oh, crap," Sheppard said.

Rodney stuttered to a halt. "What is that?"

"Something big," Ronon answered. It was close enough now to see the wings, sunlight shining through golden skin that stretched between finger-like bones, and it was headed towards them, moving too fast.

"Take cover!" Sheppard shouted, unslinging his P-90.

Adrenaline jolted through Rodney like a shot to the chest and then he was running for the shelter of the trees, the mud sucking at his boots. He knew it was too far, there was no way they could outrun this thing, and he struggled to get his weapon up without slowing down. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sheppard wheeling around to fire at the thing and yelling Rodney's name, could hear someone running up behind him and then Ronon dove for him and sent them both crashing to the ground, and there was a screech and a fetid reptilian smell on the wind from the creature's wing-beats. Ronon rolled to fire up at it and then scrambled to his feet.

Rodney was trying to push himself upright, and Ronon grabbed his arm and hauled him up. "You okay?"

"Am I—? No, I am not okay," Rodney began, but Ronon just snorted.

"You're okay."

Teyla cursed. "It's returning," she called, and Rodney turned and oh crap that thing was huge and it was coming right for them, and there was the distinctive sound of Ronon's energy weapon and the clatter of the P-90s, and Rodney was slipping in the sucking mud.

"It barely even feels it," Ronon snarled, shoving the pistol back into its holster and drawing his sword. He spun it in his hand and braced himself in front of Rodney, waiting, but at the last moment the creature turned.

"John!" Ronon shouted.

"I see it!"

Ronon launched himself towards Sheppard, and Rodney finally had the P-90 up but it was too late—he couldn't risk a shot, couldn't risk hitting one of his teammates instead, and the creature dove for Sheppard, catching him around his chest. Its talon snagged the strap of the P-90 and the weapon jerked out of Sheppard's grasp, and Sheppard started scrabbling for the knife at his hip as the creature beat skyward, but Ronon leapt for the thing with a furious shout, grabbing on and cutting up through the white belly scales. Dark blood spattered him and he thrust again, and the thing shrieked and let go of Sheppard. He fell ten feet and hit the ground with a thud, and Ronon jumped as it wheeled higher and then away. Teyla was already beside Sheppard, tugging at the straps of his body armor as Rodney scrambled to his feet and hurried towards them.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," Sheppard was wheezing, batting ineffectually at Teyla.

"Sheppard," Rodney snapped, "you were just almost eaten by the Pegasus galaxy's version of a pterodactyl, let her take a look at you!" His heart was beating twice too fast and he was pretty sure he was on the brink of having a heart attack no matter what his last checkup had said. He sat down again heavily.

Beside him, Ronon wiped the blood from his sword and sheathed it. He was looking at Sheppard with an expression Rodney recognized: it was the same one Sheppard had looked at him with, so sharply possessive it made Rodney's breath catch.

By the time they were back through the Gate and Rodney was in his quarters getting cleaned up, he'd realized he would have to come up with a plan, fast.

It was so clear now, he couldn't believe he hadn't seen it sooner. Sheppard had waited patiently for years for Rodney to figure out what he'd already known: that there was no one in the world—no one in the universe—who cared for him as much as Sheppard did, and no one in the universe whom Rodney cared for as much as he did Sheppard.

This had to be why he'd had such a difficult time with Katie, and wasn't even interested in any of the other reasonably attractive, intelligent women on Atlantis. It didn't explain Sam, but in matters of the heart one couldn't expect unalloyed logic. And what other reason could there be for all the times Rodney had saved Sheppard from some sycophantic twenty-two year old? He didn't really believe Sheppard was incapable of seeing through their childish ploys, did he?

Well, okay, yes, he did, actually, but nevertheless, Rodney had to admit it may not have been entirely altruism that had motivated him.

And why else would he be so glad when Sheppard invited him over for movies, or started those ridiculous arguments with him over invisibility versus x-ray vision or whether Romero was a genius film-maker of social commentary or a hack going for the gross-out? Who else would he have trusted to shoot him when he found that invulnerability shield? And why would Sheppard have tried to stop him from saving all their lives when the entity was draining the Gate, if Rodney's life didn't mean more to him than his own?

And why did it make that little spot just below his heart go all warm and surprised when Sheppard told him he'd done a good job? It was pathetic how glad that made him—or it would be pathetic, if Sheppard were anyone other than Sheppard.

And when he'd blown up half a solar system, why else had it felt like he might as well have stayed on the station and get blown to smithereens with it? The look on Sheppard's face—knowing that he himself was responsible for putting it there, that his own arrogance might have cost him the trust of the most important person to him in...well, in two galaxies.

There was just no other explanation. Sheppard loved him, and he loved Sheppard back.

He stood in the shower with hot water sluicing over him and thought about that.

"I," he began experimentally, "am in love with John Sheppard."

That felt a little silly... but not bad. In fact, there was sort of a tingly sensation that went along with it.

He tried again. "I am in love with John Sheppard."

The tingly grew, and there was a tight little fist of something knotting in his stomach, the same way it had when Katie had named that plant after him.

Not that that meant he was in love with Katie.

"I am in love with Katie Brown," he tried, and that felt kind of silly, but that was all.

"Huh." He wondered if this meant he should stop seeing her. They hadn't gone much past kissing anyway, and now that he'd figured out he was in love with Sheppard, it seemed wrong to keep leading her on. It wasn't like they ever saw much of each other anyway, not nearly as much as he and Sheppard.

And now Sheppard was getting drunk with Ronon instead of watching movies with Rodney, which Rodney had been sure he was going to invite him over for later—he always did, or almost always, on Wednesday nights, and just because they were on a new planet hiding from the Replicators with Elizabeth missing and some new commander on the verge of taking over, that didn't mean they should start getting drunk instead of watching movies.

And sure, Ronon had invited Teyla and Rodney too, but any idiot could tell he didn't really want them there. Teyla hadn't even thought about it before she'd said she'd promised some friend of hers or other to work on their knitting or God knew what, and Rodney....

Well, Rodney didn't want to spend the evening with Sheppard and Ronon.

He turned off the water and grabbed a towel, hurrying into the bedroom. Ten minutes until Sheppard had said he'd be at Ronon's quarters.

It was now or never. He glanced around for his pants.

Minutes later he was standing outside Sheppard's door wearing a just-washed tee-shirt and fresh boxers and BDUs, and with clean socks on his feet instead of just the first pair that came to hand. His hair was still wet, and his boots hastily tied. He palmed the little chime.

The door slid open.

"Rodney," Sheppard said. "Change your mind?"

Rodney blanched. How had he known? "Yes," he said, pushing past Sheppard. "Yes, yes I have. Sheppard, I've been an idiot. Well, not literally an idiot, obviously, but I don't know how—you have the patience of—well, not a saint," he said, turning to face him again and shrugging a little. Surely saints didn't have extra-marital sex, so it wasn't exactly smart to call him a saint and then try to seduce him.

Sheppard was looking at him, his eyebrows squinched together the way they did when he didn't understand something. "It's just drinking, Rodney," he said. "And we're not even late."

"Just," Rodney blinked at him. Oh. Oh, Sheppard hadn't known at all. "No," he said, his face heating, "no, no, that's not why I'm here."

Sheppard's gaze narrowed a little, and it was almost there, he almost had it, that focus. "Is everything okay?"

Rodney started to laugh, and something in his chest loosened. "Yeah. Yes, everything—hey," he said, and took a step forward. "Listen. No, wait, don't listen," he amended, shaking his head. "I always mess things up when I start talking too much, and I'm about to start talking too much and I'll just ruin everything. Sheppard," he said, and Sheppard was looking at him expectantly, and he took another step forward.

"Sheppard," he said, and reached for him. "Come here."

Kell stood over Ronon, looking down at him. Ronon kept his head bowed, his hands on his knees, waiting for Kell's pronouncement like a doom hanging over him.

"I should keep you another year," Kell said at last, and Ronon's heart clenched, and in his sleep his fingers made a fist. "You're not ready. You're too young, you're arrogant, brash. You'll be a trial for him."

From behind Ronon came the soft answer, and Ronon could hear the smile in it. "Couldn't beat it out of him, Kell? He's a trial I'll gladly take."

Kell laughed. "You'll be begging me to take him back inside a month. But if you're determined, I won't refuse you. It'll give me a month's peace, anyway." He placed his hand on Ronon's right shoulder. "He who has been my student, you will be his master. Take him; I give him freely."

The words had no inflection, no sign that Kell had ever thought of Ronon as anything but an untrustworthy tool: the knife that turns and cuts you, the wrench that slips.

Seren's hand came down on his left shoulder, warm and strong. "Ronon Dex," he said, "I would be your taiji. Will you accept?"

They never would have been here if there had been doubt of Ronon's answer.

"I will," he said.

Kell turned and strode out of the chamber, and Seren slipped the soft leather around Ronon's throat and fastened it, then knelt in front of him. Ronon turned his hands so his palms were up, and Seren wrapped the second length of leather around his wrists and covered them with his own.

"You are mine, Ronon Dex. The beat of your heart is mine, the draw of your breath is mine, the strength of your body, your mind, your heart are mine, to use as I see fit. There is nothing of you that is not mine, 'til death parts us or I release you."

"I am yours, Seren Tenn," Ronon began. "My hands are your hands, my body is your body, my strength is your strength, my will is your will. There is nothing of me that is not yours. My breath and my life for you, 'til death parts us or you release me."

"You will be tempered steel," Seren began to finish the ritual. "You will be the grass that bends and rises again. You will be water wearing away stone, and the lightning that cracks the strongest tree. You will be my student and my strength, 'til death parts us, or I release you, and I will give you all that I am to make you all that you will become."

The dream was always the same, memory bleeding into wish, for after the ritual he and Seren had gone out drinking, had gone to every bar and raised a glass to each other, and to their union. By the time they'd gotten back to Seren's quarters they were too drunk to do anything but fall into bed, laughing, and wait for the room to stop spinning enough for sleep.

In the dream, he always felt Seren's touch as if it were real, warm palm sliding over his skin, fingertips tracing each scar, each tattoo. Seren's body covered him, a weight that held him steady and held him down, and in his ear Seren breathed, You will be tempered steel, as his knee parted Ronon's thighs. You will be the grass that bends, and rises again, water wearing away stone. His mouth on Ronon's neck, and Ronon arched for him, and Seren found him, and pushed inside. You will be lightning, Ronon, he murmured, and bright-hot sparks raced up Ronon's spine, his cock hard and heavy as Seren began to move.

Your life and your breath, he said, but the voice was Sheppard's now , and it was Sheppard's mouth on his throat, Sheppard's teeth, Sheppard's body joining with his, covering him, holding him still, Sheppard's hands wrapped around his wrists, Sheppard's leather at his throat. There's nothing of you that is not mine, Sheppard murmured, and pushed deeper, and Ronon groaned, pushing back to meet him. Mine.

Ronon opened his eyes. His hard-on pressed uncomfortably against the leather of his trousers, stiff and aching. He looked at the clock, and saw two hours had gone by since he had last checked, and Sheppard still hadn't shown.

He could call Addison, maybe. He was always good company, always willing. Or Jack Willcock—there was a guy who lived up to his name, and Ronon grinned a little, remembering the last time.

But Sheppard had never just not shown up before. Ronon had lost count of the number of times he'd called to say Ronon had to gear up and come to the Gate room instead, but he'd never just skipped out. Maybe everything wasn't okay.

Finally he rolled off the couch and padded into the bathroom to jerk off, then washed his hands, padded back out, and reached for his comm.

"Look, I'm sorry," McKay said for about the fifth time, digging through the rumpled sheets to find his boxers. His dick lolled ridiculously against his thigh, as limp as it had been when they started. "I really thought—"

"Don't tell me—that some Ancient device you accidentally triggered in a forgotten lab turned you gay?" John offered. There was a fist-sized knot in John's stomach that was getting tighter. He felt sick.

McKay shot him a glare. "No," he said, boxers finally in hand and starting to struggle into them. "I just thought—given how—I just thought it would work, okay?" He rolled out of bed and grabbed his pants.

"Rodney, you're straight," John said. The fact that he himself had ignored that knowledge when McKay had reached for him he put down to three years of...of Rodney, who had put on that green glowy Ancient shield thing and said delightedly, "Shoot me. Go on! I'm invulnerable!" Three years of Rodney, who always seemed like he needed a leash to keep him safe and a gag to shut him up, who was arrogant and thoughtless and so fucking hot when he was cranky. And most other times, too.

"Sexual orientation is on a continuum, everyone knows that," McKay was saying, fumbling with his pants to get one leg turned right side out again. "And sexual attraction isn't always instantaneous. It is possible," he went on archly, "to develop an attraction over time."

"That's terrific," John muttered. "Looks like you didn't wait long enough."

"I said I was sorry!"

"Look," John said, grabbing the sheets and pulling them up, "just, find somebody else to try it with the next time you decide to see if you like dick."

McKay grabbed his shirt from the back of the chair. "You're the only one with a dick I wanted to like," he snapped.

Which was, he thought, sort of comforting in a way. If McKay wasn't going to be gay for him, at least he wasn't going to be gay for anyone else, either.

"Well, I'm flattered." His tone came out pissier than he'd meant, and McKay huffed an annoyed sigh. John rolled his eyes at McKay's back. "I just meant—"

"I know what you meant," McKay said, and turned to face him. "But whatever you may think, the fact that my—that my parts, for lack of a better term—"

"Penis, I think is the word you're searching for."

McKay scowled. "The fact that my penis failed to live up to its end of the bargain in no way invalidates my—my feelings for you."

"Yeah," John agreed. "Totally platonic."

"Oh, are they?" McKay said, his voice tight as a drum. "Well, of course, you would be the one to know, wouldn't you, seeing as how I'm the one having them."

"Rodney, you're straight! You can't be having—"

"No no," McKay said, waving John off and turning towards the door. The back of his neck was scarlet and mottled. "You're undoubtedly right, my platonic friend. If my penis says no, then all the rest must surely be no more than my fevered imagination."

The door slid shut on "Good night," and John flopped back onto the bed with a groan, both hands over his face.

"That," he muttered, "could've gone a lot better."

On the bedside table, his comm beeped. He sighed and reached for it, hoping this wasn't something he'd need McKay for. Or McKay himself.

"Sheppard," he said.

"Hey," Ronon answered. "Where are you?"

Oh, shit. John sat up again. "Hey, buddy. I'm sorry—something came up."

Or didn't.

"Sorry I didn't let you know. It was one of those sudden emergency type things."

"Everything okay? You need me to—"

"No, no, everything's fine, everything's fine," John said, and then because he couldn't help it, he went on, "Everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?"

There was a beat.

"Sheppard, you sure you're all right? You don't sound all right."

"No, it's—it's a joke, it's from Star Wars, you remember? When the—they're trying to rescue the princess? Just before they get caught in the trash compactor?" said John, then sighed. Rodney would have gotten it.

"Okay," Ronon said. "So, you wanna come over now? I'm still up."

And it sort of sounded good, just hanging out with Ronon and drinking and not talking about whatever the hell just happened.

But really what he wanted to do was go take a shower and try to sleep off the humiliation.

"I don't think so," he said, apology in his tone. "Lots to do tomorrow and everything, you know." It sounded weak even to him.

To John's surprise, though, Ronon didn't argue. "Sure," he answered. "Still going running tomorrow morning?"

"Yeah. Wouldn't miss it."

"Okay. See you."

John put the comm down and swung his feet onto the floor, trying to talk himself into standing up.

"Shit," he muttered.

Maybe he should call Ronon back, tell him he was coming over after all.

Or hell, maybe he'd just go over. Ronon wouldn't mind. That was one of the cool things about Ronon—one of a lot of them. He just mostly didn't seem to mind. Sometimes John thought that if they did sleep together, it'd be one more thing that Ronon just didn't seem to mind, and wow, did that sound good right now.

He tried to stop feeling sick as he padded towards the shower.

Teyla was about to slip off her robe and climb into bed when her door chimed.

She re-tied the sash. "Come," she said, and the door slid open. Ronon was leaning in her doorway with a slight scowl on his face and his shirt open.

"This a bad time?"

"No, of course not," she said, gesturing him inside. "Is everything all right?"

"I don't know," he answered, coming in and pacing over to the window.

She frowned. Ronon was usually quite clear with himself about whether things were all right. "Did you and Colonel Sheppard have a disagreement?"

"We didn't get a chance to," he said. "He never showed up. Said something came up. A 'sudden emergency type thing.'"

"An emergency? I heard nothing."

"Yeah, me neither," Ronon said. "Then I figured I'd just go over there, and McKay about ran me down coming from Sheppard's quarters. At least I guess that's where he was—there's not much else down that way."

"Perhaps they had been discussing the emergency," she said as he finally came over to join her on her low couch.

"I don't think so," Ronon answered. "He had his shirt on inside out."

Teyla smiled. "Ronon, you know that Rodney is often distracted when he's focused on a problem."

"No." Ronon shook his head. "Sheppard told me that's what they do when they get together with someone they really like. Earth people, I mean. They go home with their shirt inside out."

Teyla raised an eyebrow. This was not a custom she had heard of. Perhaps it was different for women, or perhaps it was only done between men. Or perhaps Ronon had misunderstood.

"Weird, huh?"

"Well, no stranger than some of our customs might seem to them, I suppose," she said, more from habit than anything else. This seemed slim evidence on which to base a belief that Rodney and John had finally acted on John's desire.

"Perhaps you misunderstood," she suggested. "I am sure Rodney is often too distracted to notice if his shirt is inside out. It would seem an...unreliable indicator, and you know that John's statements are often not literal."

"You think?" Ronon looked at her, and on his face she saw hope and resignation in equal measure, and she thought that perhaps she had underestimated the depth of Ronon's feeling.

She thought perhaps Ronon had, as well.

"That thing almost had him today," he said abruptly. "If I'd been any slower, that would've been it." He whistled, skating his hand through the air, but her heart twisted at how hollow the gesture seemed. She sat down beside him and took his hand, and his fingers curved around hers, warm and dry. They'd all seen each other an inch away from death before, but Ronon's fear for his teammates, hidden in anger and determination, never lasted past the end of the danger. She hadn't seen him look so lost since his first days on Atlantis.

"They're announcing the new commander in the next few days," he said, looking away again, "or anyway that's what the rumor is."

Ah. "You are still concerned you'll be asked to leave."

He nodded. "I don't want to. And if they don't trust me enough to let me stay, would they trust a team I put together?" He turned to her again. "I think I'll do it even if they don't, though. I mean if I leave. It's something I'd be good at."

"Ronon," Teyla said, "you are good at what you do here."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But what I do here isn't anything Lorne's men can't do."

"That is not true," Teyla said. "Lorne's men could not have done what you did today." She touched his face. "We need you," she murmured. "John's superiors know this. Remember when you were taken by the Wraith."

Ronon snorted and shook his head. "You know how people talk in this place," he said. "Caldwell was against it. Said it was too dangerous to try to get me out of there."

"But he agreed to it in the end," Teyla pointed out, and squeezed his hands. "And we would miss you if you left. I would miss you."

He smiled a little, and tipped his forehead to hers. "I'd miss you, too."

John trudged back to his own quarters. Ronon hadn't answered, and John didn't know if he was just sound asleep, or if he was pissed off—though Ronon usually made sure you knew when he was—or if he'd gone to find company. One of his Marine buddies, maybe. Or who knew.

He sure hadn't argued when John had said he wasn't coming over.

"Just as well," he muttered as he palmed his door open. McKay was one thing—officially he was under John's command, but he mostly followed orders only as long as he didn't think he had anything better to do. And Addison, and the others, okay, technically John was the guy in charge, but Lorne was their day-to-day C.O.

He scowled to himself and started jerking at his boot laces. A court-martial wouldn't see it that way, but he tried not to think about that too much. No, the big problem was McKay.

Ronon had made it clear: if John ordered Ronon to fly a jumper into a volcano, Ronon might tell him he was crazy and he might argue about it for a while, but then he'd fly the damned thing into a volcano. But John had never gotten the idea that Ronon's obedience extended any further. John could order him onto his knees and Ronon would laugh his ass off and then maybe pitch John off one of the towers.

But what would happen to the team if John and Ronon hooked up and McKay found out? Which, of course, he would. John had never been stupid enough to think that'd be great for team unity, but now Rodney'd decided it wasn't enough just to act like a jealous boyfriend, he wanted to be one.

John scrubbed at his face, pushing away the memory of trying to stroke Rodney's flaccid dick to life. Rodney hadn't even wanted him to use his mouth. Rodney was so disgusted by the idea that he turned down a blow-job.

"Who does that?" John muttered, but it didn't make the weight in his chest any less.

It was crazy. The whole thing was nuts. But the fact that it was nuts didn't change any of it.

So barging into Ronon's quarters in the middle of the night after being teased into a state of readiness by a guy who didn't turn out to want him after all—that really wasn't an option.

Ronon deserved better than to be a boost to John's ego.

By the time they'd gotten down to the southeast pier and back John was, as usual, breathing hard and drenched in sweat, and wondering why the hell he did this to himself. He thumped Ronon on the shoulder and nodded towards some benches, panting, and Ronon followed him over and sprawled out beside him.

For a while they just sat there, breathing, the steady fast thudding of his heart beginning to slow. Ronon was close enough to touch, if he just reached out, just nudged his knee a little to the left, and he could smell the clean musk of Ronon's sweat mingling with his own. He thought maybe this was the source of it, why he liked men instead of women. Something in the way they smelled.

It didn't really matter, the why of it, except sometimes when his head was swimming with how hungry it made him for touch, for biting kisses and the rasp of another man's cheek, when he wanted so much to know the taste of another man's skin, to take him in his mouth and make him helpless, sometimes he wondered why, when other men wanted the soft curves and yielding secrets of a woman's body, he craved the muscles and familiar heat of a man's.

This line of thought, though, was only going to get him in trouble this morning. He glanced sideways at Ronon.

"So, what'd you wind up doing last night?" he asked.

Ronon hesitated, like he had something he didn't want to admit, then said, "Just hung out with Teyla some."

"Yeah?" John grinned, ignoring the cool wash of disappointment. Ronon and Teyla. Well, it wasn't like he'd never expected those two to get together, and Ronon deserved someone awesome like Teyla. Strong, and capable—a match for him. And gorgeous didn't hurt. "You two, uh...?"

"What?" Ronon shot him a startled look. "Me and Teyla? No, I mean, she's beautiful, but she—we don't—we're not that way with each other."

Weirdly, that was sort of disappointing, too. Maybe John couldn't stop wanting someone he couldn't have, but Ronon and Teyla, he wished they didn't have to be alone. Seemed like no one on his team ever had better things to do on Friday nights than hang out with the folks from work. Which was good for John, but maybe not so good for them.

They were quiet for a while longer, and then Ronon said, "What about you? What was the emergency?"

And suddenly the humiliation of last night came slamming back, that sick feeling, the tightness in his chest. "Oh," he said, "just...a thing Rodney was working on."

"Oh. Okay."

John glanced at him. He was leaning back with his eyes closed, and the line of his throat begged for kisses, teeth, fingers.

"I'm sorry about that," he said at last. "I should've let you know, but it just kinda...came up. Suddenly."

Ronon shot him a narrow-eyed glance. "You can make it up to me."

John cocked an eyebrow.

"C'mon." Ronon stood up.

John sat there for a moment, staring up at him and wondering whether maybe he'd said that thing about Ronon's throat out loud.

He really hoped not. As hot as Ronon was, there was just too much room there to fuck things up—no pun intended. The last thing he needed to be doing was trying to slot Ronon in where he wished McKay were.

Then he shook himself back to reality. Probably Ronon just wanted a favor or something, and after last night, John owed him.

"Okay," he said, pushing to his feet. "But this better not have anything to do with the worms they're growing in the horticultural lab. Even Zephyr wouldn't eat the fish you caught with those things."

"But don't you want to be here when they make the announcement?" Rodney asked as Teyla hurried towards the personnel quarters.

"I don't believe we should waste any time, Rodney," she answered. "Whoever these three are, they do not intend to stay for long. We must find them before they leave." Certainly the villagers were eager to see the last of them. It seemed a shame that their first credible rumors of Satedans in over a year were of hooligans.

Three hundred Satedans may have escaped the final culling, but finding them had so far proved impossible. The mercenaries who had been with Kell when Ronon had killed him had chosen to look for new employment, and they did not know where others might be found. Ronon had been philosophical about it then, because he had been sure they'd find Satedan settlements on Manaria. What they'd discovered instead was that a few Satedans had been there only briefly, and no one knew what world they had departed for. Teyla could not forget the look on Ronon's face when they'd come to the end of their last lead. It was not one she wished to see again.

They reached Ronon's quarters and Teyla palmed the chime, but there was no answer. She tried again, then huffed in annoyance and touched her headset. "Ronon," she said, "please respond. Ronon!"

The soft beeping of Ronon's radio went unheard where it lay beneath the crumpled heap of his shirt.

Sheppard went down with a grunt. "Jesus, Ronon—how's this making it up to you? Shouldn't there be—mmnph—beer or something? Nachos?"

"Too much for you?" Ronon asked, pinning Sheppard to the gym floor. Their bodies were slick; the room was hot and smelled of sweat and something more. "Give up?"

"I don't," Sheppard grunted, squirming, "give up."

Ronon laughed—Sheppard gave up all the time when they were sparring—and didn't notice Sheppard's foot coming down outside his leg.

Sheppard bucked up and Ronon went over with a startled grunt, and Sheppard landed on top of him with his hand on Ronon's throat. Ronon barely tucked his chin in time; Sheppard's fingers were digging in. It looked like he really wasn't giving up this time. "Every—nngh—" He started working his way out. "Everyone surrenders eventually," he growled.

Sheppard grinned down at him, narrow-eyed. "I don't."

Desire knotted tight in Ronon's belly and made his cock shift and stiffen, and there was no way Sheppard didn't feel it. Remembered Seren holding him down, pushing, pushing, not afraid to hurt him; he knew where Ronon's limits were and he always pushed a little past, always pushing him for more. Give up, Ronon, you know you can't beat me, and the longer Ronon fought him, the longer he struggled, the longer he held out, the better it was when Seren won.

For a time there was nothing but their labored breathing and the slick-wet slap of skin on skin as Sheppard struggled to keep Ronon down and Ronon struggled not to let him. Sheppard's erection was pressed alongside his own, thick and hard and making Ronon hungry for it, and this was better than getting drunk—Ronon wouldn't have to feel guilty if something happened between them, and neither one of them could pretend later they couldn't remember.

He pushed, got his knee between them and used his bulk and muscle to lever his way out from under, but before he could press an advantage Sheppard was already scrambling to his feet and out of range. Ronon came up into a crouch. Sweat gleamed on Sheppard's skin, smelling so strongly of John and mingling with Ronon's own, and it made Ronon's blood race, his heart thudding. He wanted to lick it up, trace his tongue up Sheppard's spine and down again, lap up the sweat that pooled in the small of his back, lick into the secrets between his legs. He wanted to know what he tasted like, wanted to know the heavy weight of Sheppard's cock on his tongue and how deep he could take him, how far they could go.

Sheppard lunged and slammed into him, and this time Ronon let him, tumbling both of them backwards in a tangle of sweat-slick limbs, and then Ronon wasn't thinking anymore, surging up to crush his mouth to Sheppard's. And Sheppard was there, thrusting his tongue into Ronon's mouth and their teeth clashing, and Sheppard's grip on his shoulder would leave bruises. Ronon fisted his hand in the waist of Sheppard's sweats. "Sheppard," he growled.

And Sheppard jerked back, staring down at him. Both of them were breathing hard. "Jesus," Sheppard whispered, and shoved to his feet.

Ronon sat up. It hurt to breathe, and his desire was shrinking into a knotted ball in his chest.

"Ronon," Sheppard said, and turned away. "No, this—no."

"Why not?" Ronon asked, and his voice was strained, tight. "Is it McKay?"

"What?" Sheppard spun to face him again. "No! No, it—how did you know about that?"

Ronon opened his mouth to ask if there was anyone on Atlantis who didn't know, but the door slid open and they both looked.

"Ronon," Teyla said, coming in. "I'm glad I found you. One of my contacts has learned that there may be some Satedans in a village on M3G-326, but they will not remain there long."

Ronon took a breath, shook his head once to clear it. It didn't help. He looked back up at Teyla. "Satedans?"

"Yes." She looked from Ronon to Sheppard and back again, and the look she gave him was questioning.

He started to his feet, and Sheppard held out his hand. "Want me to come along?"

Ronon wanted to drag him down, damn what Teyla would think or what Sheppard thought he wanted or didn't want, or didn't want to want, and he wanted to push him, shout at him, do something to break apart the tightness in his own chest. But Sheppard was looking at him, his face flushed and anxious, and whatever else had happened he was offering his hand anyway, offering to come. They were still a team.

"Yeah," he said, and took Sheppard's hand, and Sheppard helped him up. "Yeah, okay."

"Rodney is eager to hear the announcement of the new leader of Atlantis this morning," Teyla said. "But he said he could come as well if that would be helpful."

"Let's not bother him," Sheppard said. "I think the three of us can handle it."

They stepped through the Gate into a cool late afternoon near the edge of a forest. A broad, grassy path led into the trees.

"Y'know, I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that," John said as they fell into step. He kept Teyla in the middle and his eyes resolutely forward. "One minute it's the crack of a summer dawn on Atlantis, and the next you're walking into a freezing cold night somewhere, or the middle of an afternoon. It's weird. Worse than jet lag."

"Do it enough, you get used to it," Ronon said flatly.

After two years on Atlantis, there were still these things that'd crop up sometimes. Remarks like that one, that reminded them all of what he'd once been. How light he slept. The way he tended to hoard food like he didn't even think about it, it was just something he did, and the way he always seemed on his guard unless it was just the four of them hanging out. Or the three of them, or two of them.

John touched his lip with his tongue, pressing the soft ache of a rising bruise.

"How'd you hear about these guys, Teyla?" he asked.

"The early communications shift had a report from one of my contacts," she answered. "Her cousin was at market in the town of Four Roads on P4L-020, and heard of three warriors here who claimed to be Satedan, boasting of many Wraith kills."

"She see 'em herself?"

Teyla shook her head. "Apparently they were...extremely boisterous," she explained. "Nessa's people disapprove of intemperate behavior, so her cousin did not wish to investigate the rumor personally."

"Well, it sure sounds like Satedan soldiers," Ronon said, and Teyla glanced at him.

"I do not recall you engaging in a great many bar brawls, or boasting overmuch," she said.

"How often have you seen me with other Satedan soldiers?" he asked. "It's practically a motto. Train hard, work hard, fight hard, play hard."

"There anything you don't do hard?" John asked, and Teyla and Ronon turned to stare at him. Then Ronon grinned, narrow-eyed, and Sheppard realized what he'd said.

"John." Ronon shook his head and started walking again. "I can't believe you just asked me that."

And goddamn it. The knot in John's chest got tighter. He'd really fucked this one up. How had he not noticed? So busy mooning after a straight guy that he'd just talked himself into thinking it was nothing?

Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Ronon was just irritable 'cause of getting all worked up and then not going anywhere with it. Maybe he was nervous about the rumor of Satedans, worried about another disappointment.

That was one of the problems with not talking about stuff: it meant sometimes you didn't have a fucking clue what was going on.

They neared the outskirts of the village, and a few of the townspeople stopped to watch the newcomers. As they entered, a young man approached them with a hopeful expression.

"What brings you to Medai?" he asked. His gaze raked over Ronon and John appraisingly and lingered on their weapons, but settled on Teyla with an acquisitive look that made John's palms itch. "Are you the bride they have sent? You are far more beautiful than I could have ever hoped."

"No, she isn't," John answered quickly, squinting at him, and caught Teyla's muffled snerk of laughter. "Isn't the bride, I mean," he amended.

His face fell. "Travelers, then?"

"We are seeking some visitors who arrived recently," Teyla explained. "A rough group, claiming many successes against the Wraith."

He frowned, though his gaze didn't leave Teyla. "You'll want the tavern or the inn. They've taken rooms, but I doubt they see them much. They spend all their time carousing at the tavern." His licked his lips and added, "If you might be seeking a husband..."

Ronon tensed and John answered quickly, "She isn't," before Ronon could make good on the implicit threat.

"Very well," the man said, eyeing Ronon nervously at last. "The tavern is just there," and he gestured, "and you'll find the inn only a few blocks the other way, and across the road."

"Poor girl," Teyla murmured as he hastened away.

"All right," John said. "I'll check the inn, you two check the tavern."

Ronon fell into step beside Teyla. It wasn't like he'd actually been going to do anything, but the guy should've known better than to look at a woman that way. Especially a woman like Teyla. She wasn't somebody's meat to be bought or sold, and anyone who thought he could try it was going to learn otherwise.

He almost had to laugh. He remembered coming to Atlantis and thinking Sheppard had shown her such disrespect, and now here he was, ready to take the head off anyone who thought he could look at her like she could be owned. She didn't need protecting, it was true, but he'd do it for her like he would for any team member.

Sheppard. Ronon could still feel him between his thighs, the press and slide of Sheppard's erection against his, hard muscles, Sheppard's grip on his shoulder, their sweat-slick skin and Sheppard's narrow gaze.

He pushed it aside, but the heaviness in his chest didn't go away.

They reached the tavern. There weren't many people inside—a few at the bar, and a group near the fireplace laughing about something.

He stopped. Teyla kept going, up to ask the bartender if he knew of these people, Ronon supposed, but there was no need now.

"That's a pretty one," Rakai said, and nodded towards Teyla.

"She's not from here, though," Tyre replied. "You can tell. The way she's dressed, the way she walks. You'd never find a woman like that in this piss-hole of a town."

Ara snorted. "You like her so much, go get her," she said, and Tyre grinned and stood up.

"I'll do that. And if you're lucky—"

"Tyre." Ronon took a step forward and Tyre looked up, and his dark eyes widened. He looked older than Ronon remembered. Thinner. There were lines on his face that hadn't been there when Ronon had believed him dead.

Ara and Rakai turned, and the air between them was still as a drawn breath.

Then Ara was on her feet. "Ronon," she said, and her smile broke like light. He met her in the middle of the room and caught her up laughing in his arms, her legs wrapping around him as tight as if he'd never left.

"So then Tyre decided," Ara was saying, grinning widely, "that the best way to deal with the problem was to blow them up."

"Hey, it worked, didn't it?" Tyre laughed.

Ara snorted. "Almost a dozen charges? Yeah, it cleared out the raiders, but also everything they'd stolen!"

"We still got paid," Rakai said, and reached over to thump Tyre's shoulder.

"And we were still heroes to those caravan drivers," Tyre added. "They haven't had trouble with raiders since."

"You blew up a gang of raiders?" The look on Sheppard's face was the same kind he got when he knew Weir wouldn't approve but he kind of did.

Ara nodded. "Waited for 'em to come back, made sure they didn't have any civilians with them, and blew the charges when they went inside."

"You disapprove?" Tyre said, his smile drawing tight.

"No, no, I'm not criticizing," Sheppard answered.

Ronon grinned and shrugged. "His people have rules about blowing other people up."

"We have found it sometimes difficult to locate high explosives," Teyla commented. "Twelve seems like a great many."

"We have our sources," Tyre answered.

Ronon couldn't stop looking at Ara, Tyre, Rakai. He'd never even liked Rakai all that much, any more than Rakai had liked him, but that had never interfered with the strength of their bond. And it didn't interfere now. He looked at Rakai and saw family. Brother, lover, brought back from the dead. His heart was high in his chest; he was surrounded by their voices, by the smell of their skin, by their laughter. It eased the ache of what hadn't happened with Sheppard, though it carried new problems with it. Problems Ronon didn't want to think about yet.

"It's not just raiders and small-time trouble-makers, though," Tyre went on. "We're still running ops against the Wraith."

"We've taken down twelve darts," Ara added.

"Just like before." Rakai grinned. "Get in, hit 'em hard, get out."

"Just like before," Ronon said, then his smile faded. "So," he began, knowing the answer before he asked, "where are Hemi and Morika? Were they with you when the Wraith came?"

A silence drifted over the table. Finally Tyre answered. "They were. But we lost Morika in the first run we made, and Hemi last year."

Ronon nodded, looking at his hands. He'd already mourned them, so the news was blunted, like hearing again about something that had happened years ago. But he'd hoped, maybe, maybe there'd just been a falling out. Hemi and Morika were forever clashing with Tyre and Rakai, and Ara chose sides based on who she was bedding most often at the time. Sometimes it had taken all of Ronon's patience not to just put them in a room with sticks and let them fight it out.

Sometimes he thought not doing that had been a mistake.

"We do what we can," Rakai went on. "But it's hard. Keeping ourselves in ammo, armor, rations—always making do with a little less than we need."

"Well, maybe we can help with that," Ronon said. "We've got manpower, equipment," and he glanced at Sheppard, whose eyebrows were stitched together in that 'shut up now, please' way.

"We can look into it," Sheppard said cautiously, "but I can't guarantee anything."

"Of course not," Tyre said, and then smiled again. "Everyone has superiors."

Teyla had been reluctant to go back to Atlantis with John and leave Ronon on the planet, but John's not entirely ungentle prodding had finally convinced her. Their presence was an unwelcome intrusion on the reunion—not, perhaps, unwelcomed by Ronon, but most certainly by his friends.

"Back from the dead," she murmured as they returned towards the Stargate. "Does it not seem a strange coincidence that of all the people who are rumored to have escaped Sateda, we find Ronon's friends here?"

"Oh, I don't know," John said. "They're survivors, they get around the galaxy a lot, we were bound to run across them sooner or later."

"Perhaps," Teyla replied doubtfully.

John looked at her. "Something on your mind?"

She shook her head, but in perplexity more than denial. "They claim to have enough explosives that they could waste almost twelve charges on a group of six brigands, and yet they also claim that they cannot maintain adequate ammunition. They claim to be running ops against the Wraith, but their stories were by turns frustratingly vague and exaggerated to the point of comedy."

"You think they're lying?" asked John, glancing back towards the town.

"I do not know." She sighed. "I am glad for Ronon, but...a great many things can happen in ten years," she finished at last. "I hope his friends are still the people he knew."

When they stepped back through the Gate, Rodney was there waiting for them. He glanced behind them as the wormhole closed.

"Where's Ronon?"

"Reunion," John answered, heading towards the stairs. "Turns out he knew 'em."

"Knew—what?" Rodney looked at Teyla. "He what?"

"The strangers are Satedan," she explained as they followed John. "Coincidentally, they are also members of Ronon's own team."

Rodney stopped and stared after her, then hurried to catch up. "His team? What do you—we're his team! When's he coming back? He's coming back, isn't he?"

"I am sure he is, Rodney," Teyla answered. "Remember, all his things are here. And his se'hret."

"And us!" Rodney sputtered.

Ahead of them, John waved his hand. "He's coming back, Rodney," he called, and then paused and waited for them to catch up. "After all, we're his team, too," he said, and smiled, but there was something sharp and hard in it. "If he doesn't come back, we'll just have to go and get him."

"No, Ronon, come on," Ara laughed, reaching up and grabbing his sleeve. "You can't leave now!"

Ronon grinned and shook his head, but it was a bad idea; the room started spinning and he stumbled and sat down on the edge of the bed. "The sooner I get back, the sooner I can ask them," he said, trying to focus on Ara. "And the sooner you get the supplies you want."

"'You'?" Tyre said. The mattress tilted as he knelt up on the bed behind Ronon and slipped his arms around him. "We. You're one of us, Ronon," he murmured. "Nine years doesn't change that."

Nine years. Ronon leaned back, familiar comfort even after so long, familiar smell, familiar body. "'Course not," he said. "'Course not. I didn't mean—just.... Yeah."

Ara held the bottle up to him from where she lay on the floor, her head in Rakai's lap. He waved it off and Tyre reached for it. "You'll always be ours," she said, and smiled, and Ronon smiled back, and he couldn't tell where the sadness ended and the joy began, only that Tyre and Ara and Rakai, Sheppard, Teyla, McKay, were all of them tangled up in it. Atlantis, Sateda.

Except Sateda didn't exist anymore. They were all that was left, the four of them and a few scattered survivors no one could seem to find.

"Anyway, they'll prob'ly listen better if you're not drunk when you ask 'em," she added, and Ronon laughed.

"Go on," Tyre said, and waved towards the door. "I need to talk to Ronon."

Rakai smirked. "Is that what they call it these days?" he asked, but Ara was already pushing herself to her feet, and he followed, catching her hand in his.

Ronon watched them leave, and then Tyre tightened his arms around him, put gentle teeth on his ear, and Ronon laughed, turning. He pushed Tyre down, the yellow-lit room spinning around them, and Tyre was golden beneath him. Ronon slid his hands up Tyre's arms and circled his wrists, and bent to kiss him.

Tyre met the kiss, then twisted against Ronon's grip and Ronon tightened it, could feel the tendons in Tyre's wrists flexing. Tyre's eyebrows rose. "Are you going to fight me for it?" he asked, and Ronon couldn't tell whether it was tension or anticipation in his voice. "Our oath was broken for us, long ago, when you were made a Runner and we each thought the other was dead."

Ronon's breath caught, a knot jerking tight in his chest. He tipped his forehead to Tyre's. "I should've come back. I should have made sure."

Tyre nudged another kiss to Ronon's mouth. "You were sure," he said. "You got Second Squad to the Gate, and you came back for us. It isn't your fault that it was too late."

Ronon rolled off of him and lay on his back, looking at the stained ceiling. A hairline crack ran through it, and he traced it with his eyes to where it stopped above their heads.

Tyre half sat up, leaning on his elbow. "We're together now. That's what matters."

"I don't know how to be part of the team anymore," Ronon murmured, almost to himself. "You're their leader. I don't fit."

Tyre trailed his finger over Ronon's collarbone, and Ronon's skin shivered where he touched. "You fit," he said. "We're a team, you're one of us. You always will be."

"C'mere," Ronon said, and pulled Tyre down, kissed his forehead. "I'm drunk."

Tyre laughed, and his breath was soft against Ronon's throat, sour with wine. "I know. So am I. Go to sleep—we can talk in the morning."

Ronon wasn't sure he could sleep with the room spinning like it was. He squirmed one leg out from under Tyre and planted his foot on the floor, and one hand against the wall. His other arm he looped around Tyre, holding him close.

Brother, lover, back from the dead.

But when he slept he dreamed of Sheppard, and Sheppard's mouth on his throat, Sheppard's teeth, Sheppard's body joining with his.

"I just want to be sure she's comfortable with the situation," McKay was saying as they headed for the Gate room. "I mean, under the circumstances."

"I'm sure she will be," John answered, but his voice was tight around the edges.

"I know, I know, she's a consummate professional, but still," and McKay whistled low. "She really—but who could blame her?" He glanced sideways at John. "Not that I'm at all interested in her now, of course. In a way I guess it's good that I've been seeing Katie. I mean because it's so casual with Katie," he added quickly, "so, I can in all good conscience tell Sam I'm seeing someone without saying, you know, that it's—" he glanced around, "—that it's you," he murmured, "so I'm still not lying and she doesn't have to feel bad about what isn't, at all, going to happen between us, but—"

"McKay, shut up."

McKay looked at him.

"She's due to dial in in about fifteen minutes. What's that?"


John looked pointedly at the basket McKay was carrying. "Oh! This, uh, it's a selection of fruit from some of the worlds we trade with. I thought it'd be... you know. Thoughtful."

John scowled. "A fruit basket? You get your secretary a fruit basket, McKay. Bring the woman some flowers or something, brighten up her quarters."

"You think so?" He looked at the basket. "Maybe you're right. I mean who knows what she might be allergic to. I wouldn't want to send her to the infirmary her first night on Atlantis." He shoved the basket into the hands of the nearest technician and headed for the horticultural labs.

John watched him go, then took the basket from the technician. "Thanks," he said, and started for Carter's quarters.

"'Oh, it's a selection of fruit from the worlds we trade with,'" he muttered. "'I thought it'd be thoughtful, even though I'm dating a girl, obviously still totally hung up on Carter, and hitting on you whenever you're about to make it with someone else.' The guy needs to get his head together."

He didn't bother repeating the advice for himself. He'd been trying to get his head together for years, and between the Wraith, the Replicators, and McKay—and now Ronon—the odds of it happening seemed vanishingly small.

Rodney managed to get through his encounter with Sam without too much awkwardness, but he'd also taken the first opportunity to leave. "Damn Sheppard," he muttered as he hurried towards his quarters, and touched his ears, trying to cool them down. His fingers were cold like they always were when he was under stress, and the tips of his ears were hot. Most screwed up circulation ever. "'Fruit baskets are for secretaries, you should take flowers,' he says," Rodney muttered, "and I believed him!" He shook his head at himself, palming his door open and wishing for one that slammed.

He flung himself into a chair and started unlacing his boots. "What's he trying to do, sabotage me?" He picked irritably at the tangled knot of his right bootlace. "Is he that angry? Or does he think he's gonna start batting for the other team now, just because I embarrassed him?" He jerked at the lace and the knot cinched tight, and gave up and started working on the other boot. "And what's he have to be embarrassed about it anyway?" he went on to the empty room. "I'm the one who couldn't—couldn't perform. 'Perform,'" he grumbled. "Like our dicks are just trained monkeys."

He stopped with the lace of his left boot half untied and drooping along the toe like a limp strand of oddly-colored linguine.

"That's it," he said. "I'll train it."

All he'd have to do is slowly replace his fantasy women with fantasy men, or at least fantasy Sheppard, and pretty soon his body would start to associate the moment of climax with Sheppard, and then they could try again.

"It'll work," he said, brightening. "It'll totally work, a standard Pavlovian response."

But in the meantime he still had to ask Sheppard what the hell he thought he was doing stealing Rodney's fruit basket.

He touched his headset. "Sheppard."

After a moment the reply came back. "Yeah?"

Sheppard still sounded annoyed, and Rodney scowled. What did Sheppard have to be annoyed about?

"Can you come to my quarters?" he asked, his tone cooling by ten degrees. "There's something I'd like to discuss with you. In private."

Another pause, longer this time. Then, "No, meet me in mine," he said. "Door's open."

"Fine," Rodney said, and killed the connection before Sheppard could say anything else. If he'd been going to.

"Look, it's not like I wanna give them a tour of the control room or something, I just want to bring them here to talk about supplies."

Carter smiled a condescending little half-smile that made Ronon's fingers itch. "I'm sure your friends are good people," she said, "but this directive is from the I.O.A. I can't just ignore it."

"Sure you can," Ronon answered. "You're in charge here."

"And even if I could," she added as if he hadn't spoken, "I wouldn't. It is imperative that the location of the Atlantis base remains secret."

He should've known she wouldn't trust him—he had known, he had just hoped he was wrong. "So that's it."

Carter nodded. "That's it. No off-world visitors until further notice."

"Am I an off-world visitor?" he asked, tilting his head and watching her.

Carter sighed. "Ronon," she began, "of course not. You're a valued member of Colonel Sheppard's team."

"But you still don't trust me."

"It isn't a question of trust."

"Everything's a question of trust," he bit back. "Your people have come into our galaxy, you've set up a military outpost in the city of the Ancestors—our ancestors—"

"They're our ancestors as well, Ronon."

"—and you still treat the people of our worlds like we're the outsiders!"

"Ronon, that is unfair and an oversimplification, and you know it."

Ronon spread his hands. "It seems simple enough to me."

She shot him an exasperated look, and that little half-smile was fixed in place. "I'm sorry, Ronon, but I'm not going to debate this with you. The matter is closed. Now if you'll excuse me," she said, but he was already on his way out the door.

If they wouldn't welcome his people, how much longer would they welcome him?

Maybe Sheppard would talk to her. Or if not, then at least he could come back to the planet and talk with Ronon's team—or Tyre's team, Ronon wasn't done thinking about that yet—and then maybe they'd get somewhere. He hit his comm. "Sheppard."

No answer.

"Sheppard," he said again, but still nothing. If he wasn't answering his comm, he was probably either off-world or in his rooms. Ronon headed for the crew quarters.

By the time Rodney got to Sheppard's quarters he'd worked up a good head of steam, and he started in on it the minute he crossed the threshold. "Of all the self-centered stunts to—"

But Sheppard wasn't in the room. Rodney looked around, then heard the shower running. "Oh, great," he muttered, and dragged a chair over to wait.

A few minutes later Sheppard came out, a white towel wrapped low on his hips.

"That was quick," he said, and Rodney glared.

"Of all the self-centered stunts to pull! No matter what else happened, Sheppard, I thought I could at least count on your professionalism!"

Sheppard looked at him. "My what?"

"Professionalism! You know, that thing that keeps you from getting demoted to Private and sent to clean bathrooms in Panama?"

"Rodney, what the hell are you talking about?" asked Sheppard, and commandeered the other chair, sprawling back on it with his legs open and his hands folded on his stomach, the towel draped strategically. He looked altogether too relaxed for a guy who didn't know what Rodney was talking about.

"What the hell was that with the fruit basket?" Rodney asked, resolutely keeping his focus on Sheppard's face. "Did you honestly believe I wouldn't find out?"

"No," Sheppard answered, his eyebrows drawing together and the set of his shoulders stiffening. "Did you honestly think I was going to be happy hearing you go on and on about the amazing sexual tension between you and our new boss? Did you really expect me to behave like an adult about it when you're acting like a hormonal teenager?"

Rodney stuttered to a halt. That hadn't been part of his imaginary conversation with imaginary Sheppard.

"Come on, Rodney," Sheppard went on, leaning forward. "For crying out loud, I blew Ronon off because you showed up in my quarters begging for sex when you didn't even want it! And now you're all 'Sam' this and 'Sam' that and 'oh, the sexual tension, oh, the pulse-pounding desire!' What'd you expect, I was gonna arrange a date for the two of you? Jesus."

"I didn't expect you to try to come onto her yourself," Rodney answered at last, his tone chilly.

Sheppard gaped at him. "You think I was coming on to her?"

"Well of course, what else would you be doing?"

"Well, now, Rodney," Sheppard answered, his drawl at odds with the steely edge to his voice, "if the only thing I could be doing with a goddamned fruit basket is hitting on her, then don't you fucking try to tell me that's not what you were doing."

Rodney blinked. "What—? You think I was—" and then he scowled. He couldn't really counter that one. Maybe it was time to retreat and regroup. "Right, okay, Sheppard, you know what? You just," and he got to his feet and started towards the door, "you just go and do whatever you're going to do, and when she shoots you down cold, don't come crying to me."

"Oh," Sheppard said, standing up, and he definitely had that look now, possessive and focused, only for some reason it made Rodney nervous this time. "If I'm coming to you, you better believe that's not gonna be why."

Rodney swallowed hard. He didn't remember seeing Sheppard this angry at him since.... Well, since Rodney had blown up that solar system.

"You are a piece of work, McKay," Sheppard said, starting forward. "First, you tell me you're straight. Okay. Fine. But every time you think I'm starting to get interested in someone, you pull some stunt, or have an emergency, or need help with Christ knows what, and you keep it up until they go away."

Rodney was backing towards the door and Sheppard followed.

"But I can deal with that," he went on, cocking his head and watching Rodney intently, "because mostly I'd rather work on fucking reports with you than try to make it with someone else. And you know that. That's why you know you can get away with it."

He looked almost like he had when he'd been turning into an iratus bug, focused and dangerous.

"Then you started dating Katie Brown, and I thought, well good, that's settled, but you still managed to run off every guy I looked at more than twice."

"I wasn't—"

"Shut up." The door hissed open and Rodney backed out into the hallway; Sheppard followed.

"Sheppard, you—you might want to put some pants on," he offered, but Sheppard ignored him, and for once Rodney was grateful that Sheppard had chosen rooms in the empty end of the crew quarters. No one came down here unless they were lost or looking for Sheppard.

"And now you show up in my room telling me we've gotta have sex, except you can't, because you're not actually attracted to me. So tell me, Rodney, because I really want to know," Sheppard said, crowding Rodney towards the opposite wall. "Do you actually want me, or are you just afraid of what happens if someone else manages to worm his way past you and start taking up some of my time?"

"I." Rodney stared at him, wide-eyed. "I.... Um."

Sheppard waited.

"Both?" he offered at last. He knew it was the wrong answer, but the way Sheppard was watching him, he couldn't come up with a better one. Sheppard would know if he was lying anyway, and under the circumstances he didn't want to find out what Sheppard would do if he lied.

He was totally unprepared for Sheppard's response.

"Sheppard," Rodney started, backing away, "what are you—" And then Sheppard was shoving him back against the wall and kissing him, only it was more like storming a castle, Sheppard's mouth bruising his and their teeth clashing. Anything Rodney had meant to say was swallowed in the kiss.

Booted steps rounded the corner and Rodney clutched at Sheppard, meaning to push him off, but too late.

"Oh," said Ronon, and, "oh, sorry, I didn't mean—"

Sheppard and Rodney looked up to see Ronon standing there, limned in the light from the side corridor but half in shadow. And then almost before Rodney realized who he was, he was gone, his tread echoing against the smooth walls.

Sheppard dropped his head forward. "Goddamn it," he muttered. "Goddamn it."

"You, um," Rodney began. He was shaking. He was literally shaking, and he didn't know if it was from the kiss or from Ronon catching them or from the way Sheppard's hand was knotted in his shirt, or something else. Maybe desire? Maybe this was wanting him? Maybe they should try again. There was an ache of something low in his belly, and it felt like desire, or maybe fear. He couldn't tell. "You want to go after him?"

Sheppard looked down the hallway after Ronon, then looked at Rodney. "I don't have any pants on."

Rodney blinked. "Oh," he said. "Oh. Right."

Ronon made his way back along the path to the town, and even his footsteps felt heavy as lead. Near the inn he found Tyre with a group of children, showing them the fifth movement from the sahrain form. Tyre saw Ronon and smiled. "Keep working on it," he said to the children, and met Ronon in the middle of the unpaved street.

"You plan to teach 'em combat, too?" Ronon asked.

Tyre laughed. "Doubt we'll be here long enough," he said. "But they're children, they should know the children's forms. Train their muscles while they're still young."

Ronon shook his head, smiling, and glanced back at the kids. They were on the third move now, turning, bending, then twisting back again, their hands locked behind them. They looked as serious as any Satedan class.

"So?" Tyre said as they fell into step.

Ronon shook his head. "New commander, new rules," he answered. "I'm sorry. I really thought they'd be okay with it."

Tyre waved it off. "You've got a secret base, you wanna keep it secret. I understand. If the Wraith found out about Atlantis, they'd send enough ships to blow the whole planet apart."

Ronon stopped and looked at him.

"What, you don't think people talk?" asked Tyre with a grin. "We've been hearing rumors for years about new people in the City of the Ancestors, and a Satedan Runner who wasn't a Runner anymore." He shrugged. "Figured there was only one Runner'd be lucky enough to find Atlantis."

Ronon snorted a laugh. "They found me," he said. "I don't know if the planet has a name, but they call it P3M-736. No human inhabitants that I know of—the sun there'll kill you if you stay too long."

"What were they doing there?"

"Looking for a friend of theirs," Ronon answered, "but they didn't get him."

"They got you instead," Tyre said. "Seems like a fair trade."

Ronon shrugged. "Maybe."

Their boots thudded on the wooden steps of the inn, and Tyre opened the door, leading them into the cool dimness. The door banged shut behind them. "Ara said she was sticking around here today, cleaning the weapons. Don't know where Rakai's got off to."

"He's probably with her," Ronon said, and Tyre chuckled.

"Yeah. Now that you're back, though, he may have to start sharing again."

"So you and Ara don't...?"

"No," Tyre answered, shaking his head. "Rakai and I sometimes, but I leave Ara to him. It's been easier for all of us."

It was only when they reached the rooms that Ronon noticed what Tyre had said. 'Now that you're back.' He let the idea turn over in his mind as they entered, and Ara and Rakai greeted them, weapons spread out on linens on the floor. It wasn't the strike force he had imagined, but when he had imagined that, he hadn't known that his team still lived.

His team.

Sheppard's team was his team too, but they had Sheppard to take care of them, Sheppard and the full weight of Earth's military forces. Or at least the full weight of the ones that knew about the Pegasus galaxy and could get there. Ara and Rakai only had Tyre, and Tyre only had Ara and Rakai.

It wasn't enough.

Sam was just getting her first cup of coffee down and starting to review the overnight reports when Hannit called to her from his station at the Gate controls. "Unscheduled off-world activation, Colonel Carter."

She cursed silently. Why couldn't these things wait until she was sufficiently caffeinated? "What have you got?" she called back as the Gate activated.

"Receiving I.D.C. now," he answered, and then, "It's Ronon, ma'am." He looked over at her, obviously expecting to let him through.

Sam hesitated. She'd been clear with him about the policy, but from her one brief encounter with him Ronon didn't seem the type to follow orders he didn't like. He might obey Sheppard's just fine—Sheppard's evaluations said as much—but that didn't necessarily mean he'd follow the orders of the faceless I.O.C., or of a new commander who might not yet have his loyalty. "Just Ronon?" she asked.

Hannit spoke into his headset, then nodded. "He's alone, Colonel."

"All right," she said. "Lower the shield."

A moment later Ronon crossed the event horizon, striding into the Gate room like he owned it. Which, Sam supposed, wasn't surprising. They were the visitors in this galaxy after all, not Ronon, and Ronon had been in Atlantis nearly as long as the expedition. Longer than many members of it, including herself. Of course he felt at home here.

She started down the stairs to meet him, and for a moment she thought he was going to simply pass her by.

He didn't, though. She was struck again by his height as he stopped in front of her; there weren't that many men she didn't meet eye to eye, or close enough. He smelled faintly of some unfamiliar spice, sweet and biting.

"Ronon. Welcome back."

There was a pause, and Sam had the impression that Ronon was turning something over in his mind, but she couldn't read his expression. She wondered what he was debating.

"Thanks," he said finally. "You didn't have to check. I might not like them, but I don't break the rules here without a good reason."

He sounded remarkably calm, though, and Sam nodded once, and smiled. "So noted."

"I need to talk to Sheppard."

And that wasn't surprising either. "Of course," she answered. "I believe he's in the jumper bay."

"Thanks," Ronon said again, and then he was past her, through the Gate room, and gone.

The jumper bay was lit by spotlights, each jumper in its own puddle of light, deep shadows between. Ronon could hear someone banging around in the one farthest from the door. He started over there.

"Sheppard!" he called when he reached the nose of the jumper.

There was a sharp clang and a clatter and a wrench landed below one of the drive pods, and Sheppard cursed.

"Ronon," he called back. "Can you get that?"

Ronon grabbed the wrench and handed it up. "What're you doing?"

"Eh, this thing isn't retracting right. One of the joints is frozen, I'm just trying to work it loose."

There was a slash of grease on Sheppard's cheek and he was biting the tip of his tongue, his face flushed. An ache of loss settled heavy in Ronon's chest.

"I need to talk to you," he said.

Sheppard looked down. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," Ronon answered, and then, "Well. I don't know. Yeah."

A moment later Sheppard dropped down beside him. "What's the matter?"

"I'm leaving Atlantis," Ronon said abruptly.

Sheppard blinked and wiped at his face with the heel of his hand, and Ronon thought he heard his breath catch. Finally he said, "What do you mean, you're leaving? Not...leaving, leaving."

Ronon nodded.

"Ronon," Sheppard said, and then stopped, his throat working. "Look, if you want more responsibility, we can do that. I've been thinking about—"

"It's not that."

"Is it about—what you saw, yesterday? Me and McKay?"

"No," Ronon answered, shaking his head, though something twisted inside him at the memory, and at the memory of his mouth on Sheppard's, Sheppard's hands on him, Sheppard pushing McKay against the wall. He wasn't sure if that was the problem or not. "It's my team," he said. "Tyre, Ara, Rakai. They need me."

"We need you."

"Not like they do. And they're my responsibility, they always have been." He looked down, then back at Sheppard, and the weight in his chest was making it hard to breathe. "I thought they were dead. I never would've left them there if I'd known."

"And now that you know they're not...."

"I have to go with them."

Sheppard shook his head. "No, you don't. They've been doing fine all this time, and they can't expect you to take care of them forever," he said, and then, "I could order you not to."

Ronon smiled. "Yeah, but you wouldn't. And hell, Sheppard, Carter wouldn't even let me back into the city without checking to be sure I was alone, like I can't be trusted to follow one simple order."

Sheppard opened his mouth, then closed it again. "I'll take care of Carter," he said. "You just tell me how can I talk you out of this."

Tell me to stay, Ronon thought, so loudly that surely Sheppard could hear him. Tell me to stay. Tell me to stay. Tell me to stay. Take the beat of my heart, take the draw of my breath, take every secret I ever had. Tell me to stay.

"You can't," he said at last.

They looked at each other, and the moment stretched until the air was tight with it. Then Sheppard turned away. "I've gotta get this fixed. I'll see you before you go."

The words fell like a lead weight, and Ronon watched him disappear up into the jumper. After a few moments, when he didn't come back and didn't say anything, Ronon turned around and walked out of the bay.

"Do you think he's really going to leave?" asked Sam.

John nodded. "Ronon's not exactly a drama queen. If he says he's leaving, he means it. Did you try to talk him out of it?"

"Of course. But if you couldn't do it, I can't imagine I'd be able to sway him."

John didn't tell her that he hadn't tried.

"Did you tell him why you're worried?" he asked instead.

"I didn't need to—he told me." She dropped her voice: "'With everything I know about Atlantis, you gonna try to stop me?'"

John smiled. "Pretty good impersonation. Couple octaves too high, but pretty good."

She inclined her head. "Thank you," she said, then smiled. "I'm here all week. Bring your friends, and don't forget to tip your waitress."

It made him think of when she arrived, except she now sounded more sad than nervous.

"So," he said after a moment. "Are you going to try to stop him?"

"He's a free man, John," she answered. "If I stop him from leaving now, what am I going to tell him? Once an Atlantis expedition team member, always an Atlantis expedition team member? We'll lock him up in Area 51 before we'll let him go?"

John resolutely did not consider the idea of locking Ronon up somewhere. But if he were going to consider it, it sure wouldn't be Area 51. "Well, no. No, I guess not."

"Anyway," she added, "what do you think his response would have been if I had?"

He chuckled. "He'd be gone already and we'd never hear from him again."

"Exactly." She shook her head. "It has to be his choice. I did tell him that he's always welcome here if he ever wants to return, but I'm not sure he believed me."

"He's got this—this stupid idea that his old team needs him more than we do! I don't know how to show him it isn't true."

Sam looked at him. "Is it true?" she asked.

"What do you mean, 'is it true'? Of course it's not true!"

"Think about it, John," she said, ignoring the heat in his voice. "You've got this base and all its personnel, the U.S. military backing you up, and what do Ronon's friends have? Is it any wonder he thinks they need him more than we do?"

"I need him," he began, but he stopped himself, and Sam was talking over him anyway.

"Maybe this is the right decision for Ronon," she was saying. "He can't spend the rest of his life doing heavy lifting and cover fire for your team."

"Hey, he does a lot more than that."

"Of course he does," Sam said, "but look at it from his perspective. I've read the reports. He's been here two years, and in that time, how has he advanced? Does he have more responsibility than he had when he joined the team?"

John made a dismissive snort and waved his hand. "Why does everyone talk about responsibility like it's some great thing, huh? That's what I want to know."

Sam just looked at him. "Forget about his old team. Maybe this is what he needs."

And maybe she was right. He thought about that all the way from her office back to the mess hall, where Teyla and McKay sat picking at their dinners.

John got a tray and served himself the first things that came to hand—some kind of breaded something, a spoonful of beans, and some vegetables that didn't look like they were from Earth—and pulled up a chair to join them. "So, I guess he's talked to both of you."

McKay nodded.

"Neither of us could dissuade him. We had hoped you might try again."

John looked at his hands, then his tray. He really wasn't hungry; he didn't know why he'd gotten all that food. "I don't know," he said after a moment. "Maybe he needs to do this."

But if he was honest -- which he was, only not out loud -- John didn't think Ronon needed to do this, John thought Ronon needed to stay right the hell where he was. They'd work this out. They could work this out if Ronon would just stay.

Teyla sighed. "I suppose if you couldn't convince him," she began, but she stopped when she saw his face. "John?"

He shook his head. "I didn't try."

"You—you didn't try?" Her tone was disbelieving. McKay appeared fascinated by the lines on his water glass.

"Look, he's a grown man," John said, "and he'd already made up his mind. Said I couldn't talk him out of it anyway."

"And of course you are certain that was true," Teyla said, pushing her tray away.

"Teyla, don't be mad at me about this," John said quietly, looking at her from beneath lowered brows. "I don't want him to leave any more than you do, but I can't force him to stay."

She met his gaze levelly. "You could have tried to convince him. He looks to you, John."

"And if I'd convinced him, what then?" John snapped. "You want me to talk him into doing something he's always gonna wonder if it was the right thing?"

Teyla opened her mouth, then closed it again, and she looked down. "No...no."

John's heart clenched; the day could hardly get worse. He reached for her hand and covered it briefly, awkwardly with his own.

But what kept replaying in his mind and making it hard to breathe wasn't the vision of Ronon regretting forever what John had talked him into doing. It was seeing Ronon walk away from him, even after John had begged him to stay.

Later that night, Ronon met the three of them stood in the Gate room. He had a small bag slung over his shoulder.

"Listen," he said. "I'm not gonna be gone forever. I'll come back sometimes, to visit. Or if you need me, any of you."

"Ronon," Teyla said, and she reached forward to take his hand. Her fingers curved around his and her palm was warm. She opened her mouth as if to speak, and then closed it again, and she smiled at him, but it was the kind of smile that said goodbye, and I wish you would stay, both at once.

He swallowed past the ache in his throat. "You'll look after Zephyr while I'm gone?" he asked, turning to Rodney.

"Yes, of course," McKay answered quickly, nodding. "Absolutely."

"We all will," Teyla added.

"Thanks," Ronon said, and managed a smile. "She likes you, McKay. She likes all of you," he added, "but McKay's the one who brings her chicken livers and thinks I won't notice."

"You know about that?" McKay asked, his eyebrows shooting up, but Ronon just grinned at him. He nodded again, and his breath hitched. "Well," he said, "I like her, too."

"Ronon," Sheppard said abruptly, "you don't have to go. I talked to Carter—hell, you talked to Carter. You know she doesn't want you to leave, there's no way they're gonna ask you to. There's gotta be a way around this."

Ronon looked at him. "You gonna bring my team to Atlantis, set 'em up in quarters, send 'em on missions?" he asked. "I have a hard time fitting in here sometimes, Sheppard. They'd be bucking your orders and causing trouble from day one." He shook his head. "What you do isn't what they do, and the way you do it isn't the way they do it."

He glanced towards the Gate. It had been open twenty minutes already, and Ronon was starting to feel like if he didn't go soon, he wouldn't go at all.

He squeezed Teyla's hand and stepped close, touched his forehead to hers.

"Go safely, Ronon," she said. "And remember that you always have a home here."

He nodded, and kissed the top of her head, then turned to McKay. He wanted to wish McKay and Sheppard happiness, but the words caught in his throat, and anyway, the Gate technician might overhear, and that'd cause trouble for them.

McKay yelped when Ronon pulled him into a tight embrace. "You take care of him," he murmured, so quietly he wasn't sure McKay heard, but then McKay nodded. When he let go of him McKay looked up and nodded again, and his eyes were wet and bright.

Ronon looked at Sheppard. Sheppard was watching him with that narrow gaze, his arms crossed, and Ronon's heart lurched. "I'll be in touch," he said, and Sheppard didn't say anything.

They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Ronon took the two steps over to him and grabbed him by the back of his neck, heard his hiss of surprise. He tipped his forehead to Sheppard's, but it wasn't to say farewell the way the Athosians did. His mouth ached for Sheppard's, open as if to say something, but there was nothing more to say.

Finally he just gave him a quick, hard hug. "I'll be in touch," he said again when he drew back, and he smiled, huffed a breath.

"You better be," Sheppard said. "I don't wanna have to come hunt your ass down."

Ronon grinned, reached out to cup his face, but then laughed and smacked his cheek instead, stinging his palm and rubbing his thumb across Sheppard's cheekbone while Sheppard's eyes were still wide with surprise. "I'll see you, John."

Then he turned and walked towards the Gate, and stepped through without looking back.

Chapter Three

"Uhh, oh, fuck, yeah," John panted, arching back on the bed. Rodney was on his knees, his hands tied and his mouth filled with John's cock, grunting as John pumped into him. "Fuck yeah, yeah, you like it," he muttered, but the fantasy wasn't working anymore, hadn't worked in weeks. Not since that night.

Rodney wouldn't like it. Rodney wouldn't like it at all.

He groaned and gave his cock an encouraging pull. "C'mon, c'mon, fuck," he gritted. He didn't want a perfunctory so-I-can-sleep-better climax, he wanted the toe-curling ones he got from imagining Rodney helpless, begging for him, on his knees or tied up and taking whatever John wanted to give him, no arguments, no whining, just begging for more.

"Come on, goddamn it," he muttered, jerking himself off with fast, practiced strokes, the little hitch under the crown that always got him there, and he squeezed his eyes shut and focused on the imaginary Rodney who did like it.

He was still losing it, though, his dick starting to go soft. He switched to the ruler fantasy, the one with Rodney bent over Sheppard's desk with his pants around his ankles. Not that anyone used rulers much on Atlantis, but it was still hot. Those things were stingy, and a little embarrassing, and Rodney could use a little embarrassment. He was holding on to the edge of the desk, yelping every time John snapped the ruler down across his ass, and squirming and promising never to be a tease again if John would just let Rodney suck him off.

His wrist was starting to get tired and all the slick was gone. He reached over and got another dollop of lube, and then he had Rodney kneeling again, looking up at him with wet eyes and his ass striped red, his cock stiff and dripping as he shuffled forward to get his mouth on John. "Come on, come on," John muttered, teasing his erection back to life.

And then suddenly Ronon was there behind Rodney, grabbing his hips and pushing into him while Rodney moaned around John's dick. And that started to work. "Oh, fuck yeah," John groaned, pumping into his fist. Ronon was pushing Rodney deeper onto John's cock with every thrust, and he was growling out obscenities, whore, slut, you love it like this, you fucking love it, suck him, goddamn it, suck him.

And then John's breath stuttered, because without warning Rodney was gone, and it was Ronon on his knees at John's feet, his shirt half off, glaring up at John with his arms bound behind him, sucking him off like it was revenge for something, teeth and tongue and growling. John's hand moved faster, his climax starting to curl low around his spine, tightening in his balls, and then he was fucking Ronon, had him bent over the goddamned desk and his arms were still tied and John was slamming into him so hard the desk was scraping across the floor, and oh fuck ohfuck! His face screwed up and he pumped helplessly into his own hand, his cock jerking as he came.

He sagged back onto the bed, breathing hard. His hand and belly were slick with come and his dick was still twitching a little, and he reached mechanically for a couple of tissues.

Ronon, tied up, and bent over his desk.

"Huh," he said.

Three corridors away, Rodney had finally given up on the magazines. There were only so many pairs of hanging balls a guy could see and still keep an erection, no matter how much practice he had jerking off. He hadn't even tried the kinky ones. Now he had Sam spread open beneath him, nuzzling her throat as he slid inside her and she clung to him, long legs wrapped around his waist and urging him deeper. "So good," he breathed, and he could almost smell her, soap and the faintest trace of some flowery perfume. She was tight and wet around him, so hot, and he squeezed his eyes shut and shifted the fantasy, Sheppard's ridiculously messy hair sticking up at all angles and the rasp of stubble, his muscled torso where Sam's perfect breasts had been, and the tight ring of his body as Rodney started pushing into him....

"Oh, come on," Rodney muttered, glaring down at his dick.

He gave himself a few quick strokes, picturing Sam again on her hands and knees, looking over her shoulder at him. "You know how I want it, Rodney," she said, and her puckered little asshole was slick with lube and ready for him, her hips curving to meet the narrow line of her waist, and oh, fuck, Katie beneath her—no, Katie in front of her, moaning as Sam ate her out. "Come on, it'll be so good," Katie breathed, her eyes locked on Rodney's, and Rodney imagined pushing into Sam, so tight, and she was whimpering, arching back against him. He jerked himself faster, 'til he was close, so close, groaning and panting as Sam's shoulders became Sheppard's, he was almost there, and her hips were Sheppard's now, lean and narrow and—

"No, no, no, goddamn it!"

He pulled at his wilting erection.

"Come on," he muttered. "He's heroic! He's saved my life how many times?" He tried to count but couldn't think of any specific instances off the top of his head, and he rolled his eyes at himself. "Lots, okay? Lots. And you gotta admit he looks hot when he's holding a gun, so focused, that thing, that thing he does with his eyes," and he was picturing Sheppard's expression when he looked at Rodney sometimes, that laser focus like he wanted to just throw him up against something and take him.

His erection flagged further and he let out another string of curses and finally let go of his dick. "All right, maybe in the morning," he muttered to himself. "Obviously tonight's a complete washout."

Sam's face flashed in his mind and his cock shifted, and he groaned and turned over onto his stomach, punching the pillow up and closing his eyes.

Ronon had almost forgotten how beautiful a strange planet could be when there was no one around trying to kill you and no place else you had to be. Two moons cast a pale bluish light on the rippling water of the lake, and from behind him came the companionable murmur of the villagers getting settled in what would be their home for the next few weeks, until the Wraith gave up—or longer, if they liked. It was a lush world of plains and jungles and rivers, trees heavy with fruit and few predators any bigger than a man, and more importantly, no other human habitations, nothing to draw the Wraith to it.

Footsteps approached, familiar. "I'm sorry about earlier," Tyre said.

"Forget it," Ronon answered, waving off the apology.

"No, you were right. If we'd waited that extra hour, the Wraith would've come through before the villagers were safely here."

Ronon looked at him. "How do you know that?"

Tyre shrugged. "I went back."

"You what?"

"Just a last check around. The Wraith were already there. I had to wait for them to leave before I could dial back here."

"I thought you were just avoiding me."

They stood together in silence for a while, watching the water lap the edges of the shore. He wanted to ask if this meant Tyre was going to start following orders now, but he knew the answer, and he knew if he heard Tyre say it, there'd be a fight, and he didn't want to fight.

"You remember that little cove we used to swim in?" he asked at last.

Tyre chuckled. "With the white sand and those bright red fire flowers." He nudged Ronon's hip with his own. "If I remember," he said, "that was where you kissed Ese when she made the passage."

Ronon laughed and nodded, remembering the hot day and Ese's brown eyes looking up at him, her plump lips. "How could I say no? If it wasn't me it would have been Terek, and he wouldn't have wanted to stop with a kiss. Aunt Evi would've killed me."

"Eh, Terek wasn't so bad," Tyre said, and grinned, and Ronon shot him a disbelieving look.

"He had half the girls in our class convinced he was going to marry them and half the boys ready to string him up if he looked at their sisters one more time. And the other half panting after him like dogs. How bad does he have to be to be?"

Tyre grinned. "Don't underestimate him—some of the ones who wanted to string him up were panting after him too. And it wasn't even Ese he wanted," he added, and Ronon snorted.

"Don't start with that. Terek wanted everything with two legs. He only chased after me because I wouldn't have him."

Tyre kicked a stone out of his way and sat down, and Ronon followed. "What put you off him so hard, anyway?"

Ronon shrugged. "He made a game of it. He didn't care about his lovers, he just loved making them want him, and taking whatever he could convince them to give."

"Like all young men."

"Like some," Ronon said. "And like some women. Not all."

"Like all," Tyre laughed. "Name me a man who won't take it if it's on offer."

Ronon grinned and snorted, and shot Tyre a look. "Seren, for one. Me. Sheppard."

"Sheppard?" Tyre said. "Wait, you and he—?"

Ronon shook his head. "I tried, but they do things differently on Earth, and he said it wasn't right, he couldn't." He didn't mention McKay; that was nobody's business but theirs. "I know he wanted to, but he wouldn't do it."

"How's that good?" asked Tyre. "He wanted it, you wanted it...."

"That's what I'm telling you," Ronon said. "Sheppard cares more about doing the right thing than about what he wants. But Terek didn't care if he hurt someone, he just wanted what he wanted."

"Is that so bad? Not that different from what we do."

Ronon looked at him again. Tyre's face was shadowed. "Yes it is. What do you call this?" He nodded behind them.

"Self-interest," Tyre answered. "They'll give us food and drink now, and one day, if we need it, they'll shelter us, hide us from our enemies. And what did we do?" he asked. "Told them the Wraith were coming, found them a planet from that list of yours. It's not back-breaking work, Ronon."

"So you wouldn't have done it if you didn't think they could give you something in return?"

"That's how the galaxy works, Ronon." Tyre was looking at him like this was something Ronon already knew about them and Tyre was just reminding him of it.

Ronon fought down a rush of anger. "And the last planet? And the next one? If it's just self-interest, why are we gonna risk our lives to get that data when the hive ship reaches Keitera? Why not just settle down somewhere and live our lives?"

Tyre laughed. "Settle down?" he said. "And what, become farmers? I'd hate it, and so would you. Don't lie to yourself, Ronon—if it weren't the Wraith, it'd be another enemy. This is what you are."

Ronon could feel Tyre's eyes on him, and he turned his own to the water. There's more to you, Ronon. There's always more to you than anyone knows, even you. "No," he murmured, "no, it isn't." But even as he said it, he wondered who was right.

Finally Tyre clasped his shoulder. "It doesn't matter. Thanks to us another three hundred families will live to see tomorrow. That's what matters."

Ronon pulled Tyre to him, kissed him hard. "Come on, then," he said. "Let's find our team before they drink all the wine."

But later that night when Ara reached for him Ronon shook his head, laughing, and let himself stumble alone to his bedroll. He lay feigning drunken sleep and listening to their ragged breathing and muffled cries, and told himself it was only the long day and the drink that kept him apart from them.

He wondered what had happened in the nine years since the Wraith came. He remembered Tyre, so much younger, stepping between Kell and a recruit to stop an unjust punishment. He'd gotten nothing from it but to be punished along with the recruit, but he hadn't regretted it. He'd told Ronon he'd do it again, even knowing it wouldn't do any good. He hadn't had anything then to say about self-interest.

In the morning Ronon got out the pen and notebook Teyla had given him and jotted down a quick letter to her, folded it carefully and took it to Ara before she gated to the market at Four Roads for supplies.

"Another one?" Ara asked as she tucked it into her jacket. "Ronon, this is the third time you've written her, and Teyla still hasn't sent a response. How long are you going to do this?"

"Just give it to Nessa," Ronon answered. If there was still no reply this time next month, he'd go back to Atlantis himself. Let them turn him away if they were going to—at least he'd know.


We're on the planet Sheppard's people call G3G-928, and I don't think it has another name. The village of Oessee on Nerae was going to be culled, so we moved them here—I think they like it. They may not go back. I'm not sure I would. It's beautiful here, you should visit it. There are these white flowers that smell like rain, they make me think of the perfume you wear, the one in the little blue glass bottle.

How's everyone there? I hope Zephyr's not being too much trouble. McKay and Sheppard behaving themselves? You're not putting up with too much of McKay's whining I hope. Make him work, it's good for him.

I'm not sure where we'll go next, but I'll write again when we're there. I hope Nessa is giving you these letters. If you write back, just give it to Nessa and Ara'll pick it up next time.

Tell everyone there I said hello.


Rodney was stretched out face-down on the bed, trying not to squirm as Sheppard rubbed his shoulders. It would've been easier if Sheppard hadn't been sitting on his ass while he did it, and okay, they both had their pants on, but still. Sheppard's ass was on his ass, and if the whole point was to get Rodney comfortable with the touching thing, he was starting to doubt that this was the way to do it.

Not that it didn't feel good. Sheppard had really strong hands, for one thing, and the way he was rocking just a little was grinding Rodney's dick against the mattress and keeping him pleasantly on the edge of being hard. And the book did recommend touching each other with sex entirely off the table in order to begin developing the comfort level with physical intimacy necessary for, well, for physical intimacy.

Of course, the book was aimed at married couples who had lost their sex life, not for partly-gay couples who were trying to get one. Still, it had sounded like good advice. Just that in practice, so far it didn't seem to be working out so well.

He closed his eyes and tried to focus on how good Sheppard's hands felt as they worked out the knots in his back.

"Teyla offered to help," Sheppard said.

"She what?" blurted Rodney, and struggled to sit up. Sheppard pushed him back down.

"Relax, she doesn't know. She just mentioned that you and I had been spending a lot of time together, and asked if you were working on something. I told her it was a personal project," he said, and Rodney swore he could hear Sheppard's smirk, "and she said if she could help, to tell her."

"Oh," he said, his voice muffled against the linens. "Well. I mean it isn't as if I'd never thought of her that way. Goodness knows she's a beautiful woman, and I suppose if she were willing..."

Sheppard dug his thumbs in and Rodney winced, adding quickly, "But of course she's like a sister to me. I could never—we could never—"

"I think she'd beat you with sticks for suggesting it."

Rodney suspected it was Sheppard who was considering that course of action.

"It just got me wondering," Sheppard went on. "I mean, Teyla's more observant than most people, and she spends the most time with us, but if she noticed...."

"You're wondering who else might have noticed."

"Yeah, kind of." Sheppard gave a last stroke up Rodney's back and then patted him and shifted off. "Okay," he said, and flopped down next to him. "My turn."

Rodney looked at him.

Sheppard raised his eyebrows. "What—you didn't think it'd all be me doing you, did you?"

"Oh, now," Rodney said, "when you put it that way—"

"Come on, big boy," Sheppard said, and grinned. "This was your idea. Get up there."

Rodney sighed and shifted, heaving himself up and straddling Sheppard. "Okay," he said. "Now, tell me if I do it too hard."

Sheppard snorted a laugh and hid his face in the pillow, and Rodney scowled.

"You are twelve," he said as he flexed his fingers, debating where to start. "How you got promoted to Colonel is forever a mystery."

John had dutifully read the book Rodney was basing all this on, but he had his own doubts about it.

For one thing, all that touching with no chance of sex seemed kind of counter-intuitive. "Isn't sex the whole point?" he'd muttered, but not when Rodney was in the room. As far as Rodney was concerned, sex was most certainly not the whole point. The whole point, Rodney had said, was the relationship, the partnership. The two of them facing the world together.

"We already do that," John had pointed out.

"Well, yes," Rodney had agreed, "but not—not as a couple."

John had felt a brief wave of vertigo. When he'd thought about getting Rodney into bed, he hadn't really been thinking in terms of dating him. Although, upon reflection, that would be as good a name as any for what he did want.

But they'd been at this for a few weeks, and Rodney didn't seem any closer to wanting cock than he had before.

John, on the other hand, still very much wanted cock, and if Rodney's was off-limits for now, he didn't see the harm in getting it somewhere else.

Addison gasped when John did that thing with his tongue, rapid little flicks of the tip right on the ridge of Addison's slick, pink cock-head.

Addison was pink all over—it made John want to paint him with ice cream. He grinned at the image, then growled around Addison's cock just to hear him whimper.

"Colonel," Addison gasped, his fingers clenching in the sheets. "Colonel Sheppard, please, please—"

"What is it, Private?" asked John. And Christ, it was wrong, but the way Addison said Colonel Sheppard, all desperate and hopeful, made John's belly knot with lust. His cock was dripping all over the sheets, begging to get inside that tight little ass, but teasing him was so much fun. "There something you need?"

Addison nodded quickly. "Yessir, please, fuck me? Sir?"

And it wasn't that John didn't know how fast this would ruin his career if anyone knew. Hell, he'd be lucky to get out with nothing worse than a dishonorable discharge. But Addison was so worth the risk—partly because he wasn't half as innocent as his pretty little pout would make you think. Addison couldn't ruin John's career without taking his own down too, and about half the base.

He crawled up Addison's body and kissed him, and Addison moaned and arched against him.

John drew back. "Who was the last person who fucked you?" he asked, watching Addison's face.

Addison blushed. It was cute.

"Um. I shouldn't really say, sir. He could get in trouble."

John laughed and reached down to squeeze Addison's cock, and Addison gasped. "I promise not to tell a soul."

"It—ohhfuck, it was Gressom," Addison managed at last.

"Mike Gressom?" asked John. "You're lying."

Addison shook his head. "No, sir, I'm not."

John raised an eyebrow. "So, I guess he's not as straight-arrow as he pretends." He was stroking Addison absently now, and Addison was starting to squirm. "Hold still," he murmured.

Addison struggled to obey, his fingers curling and uncurling in the sheets.

"Who before that?" he asked, and bent to nibble the lobe of Addison's ear, taking it between his teeth and sucking.

Addison whimpered. "Ha-Har-Harsden. Two weeks ago in the—in the jumper bay."

John laughed. "Damn, you do like to live dangerously."

"Well," Addison said, "it was about one in the morning. But she gets so hot when there's a chance of getting caught, and Colonel Sheppard, have you seen that big blue strap-on she has?"

"I've heard rumors," he said, and smirked. "You really are a cock-whore, aren't you?"

Addison laughed. "Yessir. It's one of the things you like best about me."

"That, and the way Lorne says you handle a sniper rifle," answered John. He shifted his hand down to cup Addison's balls and squeezed, and Addison made a choked sound.

"Who before that?"

"Uhh." Addison looked up at him, and John could see him deciding whether to lie.

Now he was curious. "Tell me," he said, and squeezed harder.

"Oh—oh, Christ, sir," Addison gasped. One of the first things John had learned about Addison was that his brain melted and leaked out his ears if you played a little rough with his balls.

"Come on, I'm waiting."

"Mmph—I've—I've been busy, sir, I haven't had a lot of time for—"

John made a ring with his fingers and pulled down, then twisted. Addison's breath hitched. "Tell me."

"Ronon," Addison gasped, and John's heart lurched. Ronon with Addison, Addison's hole stretched around Ronon's cock, taking—"It was Ronon, Christ sir, he's—"

"Shut up," John snapped, and Addison's eyes flew open.

John pushed down the rush of irrational anger. Ronon didn't belong to him; he could fuck who he liked. John didn't even know why he was pissed—it wasn't like he'd thought Ronon was celibate. He didn't have any right to be angry, and more importantly, he didn't have any right to take it out on Addison if he was.

He pulled on Addison's balls and smiled at the way his eyes fluttered closed again. He'd make this extra good for him, to make up for it. Wouldn't even make him beg.

Well, not much. Addison liked to beg a little bit. "And who's gonna fuck you next?" he asked.

Addison licked his lips. "I hope you are, sir."

"Then spread your legs," said John, reaching for the lube, "and ask me for it nicely."

Lorne tossed the folder onto John's desk and scowled at him. "Look, I know you don't like it, but he's gone, and you have to find a replacement." John opened his mouth answer but Lorne held up a hand. "I know, I know, no one can take his place, but you know what I mean."

John sank back in his chair. "I know," he said. "Look, is it my fault if no one has the right combination of skills?"

"It is if you're looking for skills only Ronon has. Sword-fighting? Are you serious?"

"Hey, he saved my life with that sword."

Lorne looked at him. "Give some of these guys a chance, would you? They're good soldiers. Hell, he trained most of 'em," he said, flipping open the file and turning it to Sheppard. "His notes are all right there. Handwritten, for godssake."

"That explains the folder," John said.

"I don't know why he couldn't just enter 'em into the system like everyone else."

"Be glad he didn't write 'em in Satedan." He pulled it closer and paged through the sheaf of profiles. Ronon's notes were in the margins in a neat, small hand and detailed the soldiers' training, personality, quirks—next to PFC Shelton he'd written, don't make fun of his singing. He's really good, but he doesn't think so. The notes field in the system had a six hundred character limit, and it looked like Ronon had exceeded that on almost all of them.

"Okay," he said at last, and flipped the folder closed. "I'll look them over again."

"Do," Lorne said. "Because if you don't pick one, Carter's either going to assign you someone herself, or make me do it."

John waved him off with another promise to look them over, then leaned back and nudged the file an inch to the left, an inch to the right.

Maybe he'd give it to Teyla, let her pick a candidate. After all, wasn't the ability to delegate the sign of a good leader?

"And you have heard nothing of these people?" Teyla asked. Around them the bustle of the market was the usual chaos, but in Abna's stall there was a bubble of peace. The smell of spices hung heavy in the air, sweet and biting, and sunlight shone through the painted canvas walls to dapple them in colors.

Abna shook his head. "Only that their last time through they had a fourth with them. Big man, didn't talk much. They didn't say where they were going. That was almost three weeks ago."

Teyla sighed. "Very well," she said. "If you do hear of them, or if they return, I would appreciate it if you would tell Nessa. She will be able to get a message to me."

He smiled. "For you," he said, "I will even keep a watch out for them."

She returned the smile and thanked him. A spice trader traveled to many worlds, and Abna was one in whom people seemed to want to confide. He had the air of a man who would never judge, and never reveal a secret. She kept to herself the fact that he revealed many to her.

She made her way back through the market, pausing here and there for small purchases: some fruit for Doctor Keller, a glass perfume bottle for herself, the sweet bread Rodney liked. But once back on Atlantis, she remained restless.

Ronon had been gone almost a month, and he had not contacted them. Of course a month was not so long, and Ronon was perfectly able to take care of himself. Still, she was uneasy.

She touched her comm. "Colonel Sheppard."

After a moment the answer came back. "Sheppard here. What's up? You find that pepper you were looking for?"

"Yes," she answered. "John, I—there is something I would like to speak with you about."

"Sure," he said. "My office?"

She hesitated. "It is...somewhat private. Would you come to my quarters this evening? Perhaps before supper?"

"Everything okay?"

"Yes," she answered, "for the most part. I...would merely like your opinion about something that has been troubling me."

"I'll be there..." he began, and there was a pause; Teyla assumed he was checking his calendar, "say, 5:30?"

"That would be perfect."

That evening the tea had just finished steeping when her door chimed. "Come," she said, and the door hissed open.

"I have to say, I'm flattered you want my advice," John began as he came in, "but if it's about your love life, I'm not the one to ask."

Teyla smiled and shook her head. "No, that is not what it is about. Please, sit down."

John cocked an eyebrow. "It's a sitting down thing?" He settled himself in one of her low chairs. "Now I'm worried again."

She seated herself across from him and poured them each a cup of the fragrant tea. "It is about Ronon."

He drew a breath. "Have you heard from him?"

"No," she answered. "That is why I wanted to speak with you. It has been—much longer than I expected. I did not think he would wait so long, and honestly, John, I am worried for him."

He let the breath out in a long sigh, holding the teacup in his hands. The red enamel gleamed in the warm light. "Yeah," he said, "well. Ronon's a big boy, he can look after himself."

But she did not believe that was what was in John's heart.

"I have spoken with my contacts on the worlds where Tyre said they had worked," she went on, "and no one could confirm their stories, nor has anyone had news of them except for Abna, who saw them shortly after Ronon rejoined them but has neither seen nor heard of them since."

"Well, that's good though, right? You know how people love to spread bad news. If something had happened, you would have heard about it. And Tyre was probably just exaggerating. They probably worked smaller jobs, and word just didn't spread as much."

"I suppose so," she said, but could not keep the doubt from her voice.

He either did not hear it, or chose not to acknowledge it. "Oh, hey," he said, "did you look over that list of candidates I sent?"

She nodded. Perhaps he was right, and in any event, forcing John to talk about things he didn't want to discuss rarely led to insight, on his part or anyone else's. Better to let him change the subject, and try again later. "Yes, and I've sent you several choices I thought would be good additions to the team. Privates Addison, Bartlet, and Wells all received very favorable reviews, and possess many of the skills you requested. Private Addison has even studied fencing and kenjutsu."

John blinked at her. "He has? How come I didn't know that?"

"I do not know," Teyla answered. "You do not work very closely with him or with any of the candidates. Perhaps the subject simply never came up."

"Yeah, I guess not," John said, frowning a little.

Teyla watched him for a moment, then decided not to say anything. What John did on his own time was his own business, and Private Addison certainly showed no ill effects. She did not believe John would jeopardize the team, and certainly not for a sexual liason.

"Perhaps we should go down to dinner," she said at last. "Rodney is probably waiting for us."

"Mm. Yeah," John said, and stood up. "Yeah." He smiled. "Ladies first."

The jungle was hot, the air humid and sticky with the scent of flowers, cloyingly sweet. They grew everywhere in explosions of red, on vines so thick the machetes could barely cut through them. John hacked at another vine, then cursed softly and stopped. "Hold it, Addison." He turned to look at the rest of the team. They were all breathing hard, wet with sweat. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Rodney, any luck on those energy readings?"

McKay fiddled with his handheld and shook his head. "I still can't pinpoint the source. Whatever's been interfering is still doing it—no better or worse than it was six hundred yards back."

John looked behind them at the ragged path they'd cleared. It seemed like the vines were already growing back to block it again, and ahead of them the dense foliage was a mass of green vines and those sweet, dark flowers.

"I'm calling it," he said at last. "Wells and Bartlet, you take point. Teyla, McKay. Addison, you're in back with me."

They started trudging back towards the jumper. "Thanks, sir," Addison said. "Sorry. I know I'm no Ronon."

John shook his head. "Not comparing anyone," he said. "You're doing great."

Better than John had hoped, actually. If Addison joined the team, all that ice-cream skin would be off limits, but he was definitely at the top of the candidates list.

Addison hesitated, then said, "Thank you, sir." Another hundred yards, and he added, "Do you think he'll come back? Ronon, I mean."

John shrugged. "I don't know." He glanced at Addison and said, "Were you two...uh.... You know." He shouldn't ask, he shouldn't ask, he—"Serious?"

"Me and Ronon?" Addison huffed a laugh and shook his head, and John could breathe again. "No, sir. Ronon's awesome, but he's not—he doesn't really do attachment, you know? Drives Udall crazy," he said, and grinned. "Udall's hung up on Ronon and Hess, maybe the only two guys on Atlantis who'll turn him down. But everyone knows Udall's looking for Mr. Right, and Ronon's real careful that way."

"What do you mean?"

"He won't get with people who're looking for something serious," Addison explained. "I figured you knew."

John's eyebrows drew together. "Why would I know?"

He blinked. "Uh. No reason, sir," he said, but John scowled at him.

"Come on, don't make me tease it outta you later."

Addison shot him a look, then grinned and shook his head. "That's no incentive to tell you now, sir. Look, it's just—you're the one he's—you seriously didn't know?"

"Didn't know what, Private?" John growled. "Spell it out for me."

Addison flushed faintly. "Well he doesn't want to hurt anyone, Colonel. You're the one he's waiting for."

"I'm the—what? He told you that?"

"He didn't need to, sir," Addison said, blushing brighter. "Just like everyone knows you're waiting for—"

"Don't," John interrupted, warning in his tone. "Don't go there, Private."

Addison ducked his head. "No, sir, of course not. Sorry, sir."

John's chest felt tight and he was pretty sure it wasn't just the heat. Everyone knew, did they? Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ, the goddamned Atlantis rumor mill, like people didn't have anything better to do. He glanced at McKay, pushing through the jungle ahead of them. Books about rediscovering a sex life they'd never had, and games about touching and not touching, and for godssake, Rodney was straight! He couldn't change that just because he wanted to.


"I see it!" Ronon dove for the scant cover of a burned-out building, then rolled and fired up at the dart as it screamed by overhead. It spun out towards the horizon in a plume of smoke. A moment later Tyre was skidding to a stop beside him.

"You got the data stick?" he asked, and Ronon nodded. "Great. They're coming in from the west." He was breathing hard and there was a cut over his left eye. He pulled the empty cartridge out of his weapon and slapped a new one. "Guess we really pissed 'em off," he said, and laughed.

"What did you think you were doing?" Ronon hissed, glaring at Tyre.

Tyre's laugh died. "Killing Wraith, what'd you expect me to do?" he answered hotly.

"I expected you to stick to the plan! Where's Ara and Rakai?"

"Heading around to the east, back up to the base camp. With the supplies we've got we can hole up there for a few weeks if we need to."

"I don't want to hole up somewhere, I want to finish this and get out!"

"What do you think I want?" Tyre snapped.

"Shut up." Ronon raised his hand and listened. In the distance he could hear the sounds of booted feet. He growled and shook his head.

"Come on," he said, grabbing Tyre's shoulder. "We've gotta get out of here now."

It was nightfall by the time they reached the entrance to the warren of abandoned hill dwellings they'd found when they'd first scouted this position two weeks ago. The Wraith hadn't followed, and they slipped inside and made their way through dark, winding hallways until they reached the central room. The glow of their fire made strange shadows.

"What took you two so long?" Rakai asked, grinning and holding a bottle of wine up to Tyre.

Tyre laughed and grabbed it. "Ronon creeping through the foothills," he answered. "We would've been here hours ago if he hadn't—"

Ronon grabbed Tyre by the collar of his coat, spinning him around and shoving him back against the wall. Ara and Rakai scrambled to their feet. "You could have gotten yourself killed back there," Ronon growled, his gaze fixed on Tyre's. "You could've gotten them killed!"

Tyre shoved at him but didn't break Ronon's grip. "We got the data and there are a dozen fewer Wraith in the galaxy—I call that a good day!"

"He's right, Ronon," Rakai said. "Everyone's okay, you got the data, we killed twelve Wraith. We should be celebrating!"

Ronon let go of Tyre with a snarl. "Stupid first-year mistake. What did I teach you about ops like this?"

Tyre rolled his eyes. "If there's too many to kill 'em all, there's too many to kill any of 'em."

"Unless you can do it silently. That," he said, pointing at Tyre's assault rifle, "is not silent!"

"Listen," Tyre growled, "just because you're too much of a—"

"Too much of a what?" Ronon hissed, starting forward, but Ara darted past and planted herself between them.

"Look, it's done, okay? We can talk about who screwed up tomorrow, but right now let's just all calm down."

"How calm would you be if he'd come charging up here with a battalion of Wraith on his ass?"

"Ara's right," said Rakai. "Come on."

But Ronon was already turning away. "I'm getting some air."

Outside, the night sky was quiet, and there were no lights below in the ruins of the city, no sign that the Wraith were still looking for them. He stood on the slope of the hill and laced his fingers together behind his head, willing his racing blood to slow.

None of this was right. He and Tyre kept fighting with each other over everything, over stupid things, neither one of them willing to give or to force the other down—not that Tyre could force Ronon down, that much Ronon was sure of. Tyre was good, but he was better. So Ara and Rakai were left in the middle, trying to follow two leaders who couldn't agree on anything but the final goal. Find the next village, stop the culling or move the villagers before the Wraith arrived, go on to the next. The data stick in his pocket held a copy of the hive ship's course for the last seven cycles—Rakai would be able to find the patterns, and from there they could extrapolate the next planet, and the next one, and the next one. And Ronon had been able to copy the data without alerting the system, so there wasn't much chance of the Wraith figuring out what had happened, at least not for a while.

It had been clean and quick, but then Tyre had seen the chance to take out three Wraith at once and couldn't keep from shooting. Brought the whole damned hive down on them, and Tyre had activated the shield disruptor while Rakai was still cut off. They'd barely managed to get to him before the disruptor's energy was depleted. It was their only one, too, rare as Shetsian sunstones and bought dearly. If they'd blown this chance, they wouldn't have gotten another. Ronon couldn't remember Tyre ever threatening an op the way he had today.

But what were his choices? He couldn't go back to Atlantis; he belonged here. He belonged with this team; he owed them that.

His chest ached. He felt homesick in a way he hadn't been since his first years running.

Soft footsteps approached, Ara's careful tread.

"Ronon," she murmured.

He looked at her. "He almost got Rakai killed, Ara. He activated the device without checking, and almost left him on the hive ship."

"I know," she said. "He's afraid you're going to leave, and it makes him reckless."

Ronon groaned, sliding into a growl, and she moved behind him and slid her arms around his waist. "I shouldn't be here at all," he said. "It only confuses things, and you and Rakai get caught in the middle."

"So unconfuse things." He could feel her rising onto her toes to whisper in his ear. "Join with us, Ronon. You're holding yourself back from us, we can all feel it."

He turned to face her, his arms going around her waist, and he tucked her head beneath his chin. "I don't mean to," he said. "I don't want to unsettle things. You and Rakai, Rakai and Tyre."

"It's what we need," she murmured. "It's what we all need, to hold us together, to show us all that you're not going anywhere, that you're with us." She kissed his throat, his jaw, reaching up to cup the back of his neck and draw him down. "Join with us, Ronon. Stop keeping yourself apart. It's why Tyre is angry all the time, why Rakai doesn't know which way to turn—they need to be sure of you. I need to be sure." Her breath was warm on his skin. "You need to be sure."

He bent to kiss her, and he knew she was right. He'd been holding back, holding away from them the part of himself he had left behind on Atlantis. They couldn't be whole unless he was whole, and he wouldn't be whole until he committed himself to them.

It didn't matter who he dreamed about, didn't matter who he missed on Atlantis. That was done. He lifted her in his arms and she wrapped her long legs around him. "I'm sure," he said. "I'll show you how sure," and she laughed, and held him tight as he carried her back inside.

He woke in the cold hours before sunrise. Ara and Tyre were nowhere to be seen; Rakai shifted and murmured something as Ronon slipped out from under his arm, but settled again without waking. He made his way outside and relieved his protesting bladder, but as he came back into the darkness of the dwellings he heard hushed voices, and the tense tones of disagreement.

Ara and Tyre. He paused to get his bearings, then moved silently towards the murmured conversation. Pale yellow light spilled from one of the antechambers, and that was where the voices were. Ronon stopped in the shadows outside.

"I still don't understand why we didn't just tell him about the Replicator and get their help."

"Ara, they would have come in heavily armed, you know that," Tyre answered. "Imagine her response if we'd brought the full force of Atlantis down on them. But when we hand her Rodney McKay she won't care how many of her guards we killed."

Ronon's heart lurched, and he touched the wall for balance, struggled to keep his breathing steady and silent.

"But Tyre, he's with us again," Ara said.

"Yes, because he knows he can trust us," Tyre spat. "You didn't see the look on his face back on that planet, like he was wondering if he even knew us anymore. Now he knows he does."

"You think killing those guards made him trust us? Tyre," and there was a pause, and a sound; Ara moving closer to Tyre, maybe touching him. "He trusts us because he's one of us. He proved it last night. We should go, we can get out, get away from them, get our lives back! We can be worlds away before they even realize we're gone!"

"Get our lives back?" Tyre said incredulously. "Only to lose them again when we get old and feeble. No, Ara, no. Anyway, we'd never escape them. But if we give them Ronon, his friends will come for him, including the scientist, be sure of it, and everything will fall into place."

"Then let's just plant the rumor. We don't have to turn him over to them for this to work."

"And what then?" Tyre asked. "What happens when we have to go back to them? No, we give him to them and they'll show him the truth. He'll still be with us, Ara."

"Like Hemi and Morika are?"

There was a silence. "That was their own stubbornness," Tyre said at last.

"Ronon's just as stubborn, you know that. They'll make him a Runner again, or worse! How can you even consider it?"

Ronon's head was spinning, his blood pounding in his ears as he tried to take it in. He'd given up everything for them, for this team, for his team! What had happened—Hemi and Morika, were they dead at all? killed by Wraith, or killed by their own team? And now Tyre thought to give him back to the Wraith.

He could still smell them on his skin.

"And why not?" hissed Tyre. "What can he give us now—more fighting, more death, more of a war we can't win? They give us immortality!"

Something shattered inside him. He drew his weapon and stepped into the chamber. "Not anymore," he said, and his voice didn't sound like his own, hard and desperate and thick with rage.

Ara's face went pale. "Ronon," she said, wide-eyed, and Tyre was already up, but there was no way he could reach his weapon before Ronon fired. They faced each other.

"Tell me what I just heard," Ronon said. "Tell me I didn't just hear you selling me out to the Wraith!" his voice rising to a shout that echoed off the stone walls.

"It isn't like you think, Ronon," Ara began, rising to her feet.

"It's exactly like he thinks," Tyre spat. "You could never see ahead, Ronon, you could never see past the next battle! But with them we have a future—a long," he said, and laughed, "long future."

"You are Wraith worshipers," Ronon hissed. "I should kill you where you stand and leave you for the animals."

And then there was a scuffle of footsteps behind him and he spun around, heard Ara shout, "Rakai!" But there was a fierce, blinding pain, his vision going bright and his muscles seizing from the blast of a Wraith stunner. He dropped to his knees.

"These stunners are brilliant technology," Tyre said, looking down at him. "Knock you down with the first blast, but not out. You can still see everything, feel everything that's happening to you. You just can't do anything about it." He lashed out with a vicious kick to Ronon's midsection and Ronon was knocked backwards, cracking his head against the stone wall.

Ara cursed and started towards him but Tyre jerked her back.

"You would kill us? Your teammates?" Tyre crouched beside him. "Your family? Without even knowing the truth." He shook his head. "What would Seren think?"

Ronon couldn't answer, couldn't make his mouth form the words to tell Tyre what Seren would think of him now.

"You were not fit to be his seji," Tyre said. "If he had lived, he would have learned that."

"Tyre." Rakai's voice held a warning, and Tyre looked up at him. "Enough."

Finally Tyre nodded. "You're right. Time to go." He raised his stunner and met Ronon's gaze. Ronon watched him unflinchingly. "All this anger," he said. "But only because you don't yet understand." The last thing Ronon knew was the searing pain when Tyre fired.

"Rodney," Sheppard said, and the exasperation in his voice made Rodney wince. "What the hell's wrong, will you just tell me?"

"What makes you think anything's wrong?" Rodney asked, biting the words off too sharply.

"Well, that, for one."

So much for his 'what are you talking about' act. He should have known it wouldn't work. He'd tried to be cool about it, but the murmured conversation that had drifted to his ears in the humid air of the planet had been preying on his mind, too much to let go of. He palmed open the door to his quarters and Sheppard followed him inside. The door slid shut behind them. "On the planet yesterday," Rodney said, turning to face him. "What was that?"

"What was what?"

"You're little conversation with Addison on the way back."

Sheppard looked at him. "You were listening?"

"I couldn't very well help it," Rodney snapped. "Sound carries, you know."

"Yeah, but not—"

"Just—just tell me what the hell's going on."

"Well, if you were listening, then you know as much as I do," Sheppard bit back.

Rodney scowled. "What, that Ronon's hung up on you? Or that half the base knows we're," gesturing helplessly towards Sheppard and himself, "whatever we are? Or that you and Marty Addison are screwing around? Damn it, Sheppard, you know how fast you'd get kicked out of the Air Force if anyone found out? Bad enough that he's a—a he, but he's one of your own men!"

"Come on, Rodney! I've worked with the man exactly twice," Sheppard snapped, "and one of those times was yesterday. He's Lorne's responsibility, and anyway, what happens between me and Addison is nobody else's business."

"Oh, how long'd it take you to work out that little rationalization? I can't believe you're so hard up you have to go nosing around for it with the troops!"

Sheppard looked like he'd dropped a hammer on his foot. " What do you expect, Rodney? For crying out loud, you won't even let me touch you! You sure as hell won't touch me!"

"I thought we were working on that!"

"We are! And we're not getting any-goddamned-where, are we?"

It wasn't a question.

"Rodney, you're driving me crazy! Look, okay, you're not attracted to guys, so you've got us doing this big touching thing trying to get attracted to me—which, let's not even talk about how humiliating that is—"

"It's not supposed to be humiliating, it's supposed to be liberating!"

"For you!" Sheppard retorted. "It's supposed to be liberating for you, great, I get that, but Rodney," he said, and something in his voice made Rodney's heart clench. "You still don't even want to so much as trade hand-jobs with me."

"I tried, Sheppard, I did—just give me a little more time to—"

"Rodney!" Sheppard was staring at Rodney with an expression that didn't make sense, half confused and half frustrated and half mad and entirely unhappy. "Rodney," he said again, and his voice was softer now, "I don't want you to do it because you think you have to. I want you to want it as much as I do, or there's no point."

"Well, that's—that's what the touching is about," Rodney said. "To...to get to want to."

"Did you forget, in your big plan, Rodney," Sheppard said quietly, "that I already wanted you?"

Rodney looked at him. Honestly, he had sort of forgotten.

"So how well do you think it's working for me, all this touching that's not supposed to be about sex?"

Rodney's stomach was churning and his chest hurt. He sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. "I... not very well, I suppose."

"So," Sheppard said. "That's what Marty Addison's about."

Rodney nodded, watching the floor. "Okay."

The problem was, Sheppard was right. There wasn't anything he could argue. He'd tried it, he had, but putting his hand on Sheppard's dick had made his stomach twist up, not in the good way but in the 'oh crap, I don't want to be here' way. And nothing they were doing was changing that—not the backrubs, not the cuddling. Hell, the cuddling was almost worse, he didn't even do that with the women he dated.

It was a disaster, all of it, from the minute he'd recognized what was happening between Sheppard and Ronon. Or, at least, what might have happened.

He could practically hear Sheppard deflating, and somehow that made him feel even worse.

"Listen," Sheppard said, "there's about three hours worth of reports I've gotta get on Sam's desk before tonight. I'm, um. I'll see you at dinner, okay?"

"Sure," Rodney said, and nodded again. "See you at dinner."

Somehow, though, he didn't think he was going to have much appetite.

Teyla swallowed a sigh. They were each dealing with Ronon's absence in their own way, but Rodney's seemed particularly strange. John working his way through the ranks of willing soldiers was risky and a bit odd, but John enjoyed risks. Rodney's pilfering of Ronon's possessions seemed entirely out of character.

"Ronon will doubtless come back for his things eventually," she pointed out.

"It's for Zephyr," Rodney answered. The se'hret was lounging on Rodney's couch with her head in Teyla's lap. "So she'll feel more at home. 'Til Ronon comes back."

"The blanket, yes," Teyla said. That was already covered in Zephyr's fur anyway. "Possibly even the cushions, and the shirt. But I doubt she feels a great attachment to that painting." Teyla cocked her head, and added, "Isn't that the one you said looked like it should have polar bears?"

Rodney looked at it. It was leaning against the wall until he decided on the most appropriate place to hang it. "I've become more discerning since then. I've done some reading on Satedan art—they were quite an artistic people." He moved to sit beside Teyla and reached over to rub Zephyr's ears. "It turns out the chieftain at the time of the final battle was also an accomplished poet. You know why they called him 'Chieftain'?"

"I do not," she answered.

"Holdover from their years as a nomadic tribal society, over four centuries past." He nodded. "In some ways they were a very conservative culture, but in others—well, they had customs which on Earth today would be considered shockingly liberal."

Teyla stroked the se'hret's neck, her fingers brushing Rodney's. "Much was lost when Sateda fell."

"Mm." Rodney looked at the painting again. "He said they represent the three pillars of victory. Honor, loyalty, unity."

Teyla put her hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Ronon's leaving was not because he was disloyal to us," she murmured. "His loyalty to his people must come first."

Rodney nodded and covered her hand with his own. "I wasn't thinking of him," he said, and turned to her. "Teyla, I think I may have done a very stupid thing."

She listened as he explained what had happened, his feelings for Colonel Sheppard and his confusion, their attempt to forge a relationship, and John's growing dissatisfaction. His own, as well, he finally admitted, and then admitted his feelings of guilt over Ronon's departure.

She tried to reassure him—Ronon had left Atlantis for many reasons, and she felt certain this was not among them. But Rodney was clearly miserable, and nothing she said seemed to alleviate it.

After dinner that night in Rodney's quarters, as the three of them kept Zephyr company, it quickly became apparent that the subject had to be addressed. It was bad enough that Rodney had barely touched his meal, but Teyla was quite sure they would drive her to physical violence if they didn't stop sulking at each other.

"Not that it's anyone's business," John grumbled, and Teyla arched an eyebrow, "but yes, McKay and I did try to...have...something. And now we've come to our senses and realized it's completely fucking insane."

"No, not 'completely' insane," Rodney snapped. "I continue to maintain that my feelings are genuine, despite my lack of physical desire."

"It is not uncommon, John," Teyla agreed, "for men to form attachments to men much as women do with other women, in which there is—"

"It's called 'friendship,'" John interrupted, "and it doesn't normally involve inserting Tab A into Slot Anything."

"Oh, and since when are you normal?"

"I'm more normal than you, Mister 'I'm straight, but let's have a relationship anyway'!"

"Oh yeah? Don't think I didn't see that stash of—"

"In which there is," Teyla said pointedly, pitching her voice over their bickering, and when they were both looking at her, she finished, "in which there is an excitement of desire that can be mistaken for sexual attraction, but is nevertheless not sexual."

"You see there?" Rodney said. "I told you!"

"Well what am I supposed to do with that, Rodney?"

"I don't know! But you don't have to act like I'm—like I'm doing it on purpose!"

Colonel Carter's voice over the comm system interrupted them.

"Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay, Teyla, please report to Conference Room One immediately."

John sighed.

"This conversation is not over," Rodney said as the three of them headed for the door.

"Oh, I think it is."

Carter and Lorne were waiting for them in the conference room when they arrived.

"I'll get right to the point," Carter said as they seated themselves. "We've had a report that two of Ronon's teammates are on P4L-020 trying to hire mercenaries to hit a Wraith lab. And we have separate reports," she went on, "that the Wraith have re-captured a Satedan Runner and are holding him at a weapons research facility."

There was silence. Finally Teyla took a breath. "Did any of the reports indicate where the facility is?"

Carter shook her head. "Only that they're still holding him. It isn't clear what they plan to do."

"Not a goddamned thing," John said. "We're gonna get him back before they have a chance."

McKay had already pulled up the planetary database. "P4L-020 is a major trading planet—does a lot of commerce, and not just of goods. It's a known meeting place for mercenaries and assassins and their...clients. If we want to talk to them before they get a team hired and get out, we'd better move fast."

"I've already got a squad geared up and ready to go," Lorne said. "We think it may be a trick, though. A trap of some kind."

"For what purpose?" asked Teyla.

"We don't know."

"It just seems too convenient that we received both these pieces of information within a few hours of each other," Carter said.

John nodded. "Agreed. So we'll just have to be extra careful."

Ronon's head was pounding, throbbing with a sick headache as he slowly returned to consciousness. The strange, organic smell of Wraith was unmistakable, musty sweet in the humid air like a honey-cake left to rot in a child's tree-house. He was lying on his side on a stone floor. They'd taken his boots and his leathers and most of his clothing, and his hands were shackled behind him. He stilled his breathing, searching for the motion of the ship, the sound of its engines; there was none. Not a ship, then. If he could get out, he could find the Gate—assuming the planet had one—and gate to any of a hundred uninhabited worlds, and from there dial Atlantis.

He winced, struggling to sit up. A thick chain ran from his manacled wrists to a bolt in the wall, too short to allow him to stand. More caution than he expected from the Wraith.

"You're awake," came Tyre's voice from outside the cell, and it brought another wave of sickness with it, thick in Ronon's throat. He swallowed convulsively. "I was starting to wonder if I'd see you before I had to leave."

"How long?" Ronon asked. "How long was I out?"

"Since yesterday," Tyre answered, "but that's because of the drug they gave you. They wanted to keep you quiet until they were ready for you."

Ronon snorted. That probably explained the dizziness, too, and how sick he felt. The pain in his shoulders and back would be from spending twelve hours or more on the floor of this cell with his hands bound behind him.

"After I'm finished here, I'm joining Rakai and Ara in Four Roads," Tyre went on. Ronon turned his head to look at him, and Tyre smiled. "We're going to convince your friends to mount a rescue."

"They won't come," Ronon answered, fighting down nausea. They wouldn't. He wasn't one of them anymore, and okay, maybe his team would want to come for him, but Carter would never allow it. Too risky. Too risky just to get back one man who already made his choice.

"They will," Tyre said. "With everything you know, they can't afford not to. They can't risk leaving you alive in the hands of the Wraith. Listen to me, Ronon," he went on. "Your friends are as good as dead, but you can still join us. Tell the Wraith what they want to know and they will give you the gift they have given us." He stepped close to the bars, watching Ronon's face. "Never get older, never die. All you have to do is accept it."

"You are worse than Wraith," Ronon said, his voice so tight it shook. "Your mother would have strangled you with your own cord if she'd known what you would become."

Tyre touched the wall and the cell door opened.

"The more I see, the less I understand why Seren chose you," he said as he came in. The door closed behind him, and he drew a slim cylinder from his jacket. Ronon recognized it, a tsinak, a metal rod that could telescope out to as much as six feet. Retracted it could be used as a club; extended as a cane, or a whip. Kell had reserved it for the worst offenses: cowardice in battle, striking a superior officer, lying. He'd made reasons to use it on Ronon a few times, and Ronon had vowed to kill him if he did it again. "You're a good fighter when you're not chained to the floor," Tyre said, "but I always thought he valued intelligence over brute strength."

"If I am so unworthy," Ronon said, his tone rank with disgust, "then why did you beg me to stay with you after he died?"

Tyre's mouth drew into a tight line, and two bright spots of color flared on his cheeks. In the long second before Tyre's fist slammed into him, Ronon wondered whether he noticed the irony.

He spat blood at Tyre's feet, his ears ringing. "Coward," he said, glaring up at him.

"Call it self-interest," Tyre said, extending the tsinak. "I've been told to get you ready for questioning, and it'll be easier if you're not fighting back."

"Careless," Ronon gritted, and choked off a shout when Tyre popped his shoulder back into place. Overall his technique had improved; he was more controlled than he had been in training so many years ago. Each cut, each strike, each blow of his fist was carefully placed and Tyre was patient, waiting for the pain to fully bloom before the next one. He wasn't even breathing hard. The dislocated shoulder had been because Ronon pissed him off.

"Don't provoke me, tenji," Tyre said, and the word on his lips was as much a plea as a curse. "It should never have come to this. Don't make it worse than it has to be."

"It doesn't have to be this way at all," Ronon said, and choked back a cough, wincing. "We can leave here, the four of us. Remember who you are, Tyre, remember your father and mother, remember Sateda."

"Sateda is dead," Tyre said flatly. "I am not. Nor is Ara, nor Rakai." He picked up the tsinak again, turning it in his hands as if examining it. Ronon's blood stained it to the hilt. "Alive is better."

Ronon started to argue, but he found he no longer cared enough to waste his strength. "Why do they want McKay?" he asked instead.

Tyre shook his head. "You can die here, or you can live forever, that's all that matters. It doesn't matter why they want him."

"Oh," came a sibilant voice from outside the cell, "it matters a great deal."

Tyre stood and stepped away, and the cell door opened.

"Please, don't get up," the Wraith said, with a smile out of nightmares. "Your Doctor McKay altered the Replicator base code. It has caused...considerable difficulty. We want him to undo the changes he made."

"He won't," Ronon said.

"Mmm. He will. We even have a test subject for him to work on. Go," he said to Tyre. "The others are waiting. Get McKay here before nightfall tomorrow or I start taking years from your lives, and these I will not return to you. And while we wait for his arrival," the Wraith went on, stepping closer as Tyre retreated, "you will tell us the Gate address of Atlantis, and everything else you know about the city and its defenses." He smiled again and motioned to the pair of guards that flanked him. "Eventually."

"So," John said. He, Teyla, and McKay were sitting across from Tyre and Rakai while around them the bar murmured with the sounds of business being conducted. "You were making a raid on a Wraith lab, and they managed to get Ronon, but you two got away?"

"Where is the other one?" asked Teyla. "Ara?"

"She's at our base camp getting things ready," Tyre answered, and shook his head. "Don't misunderstand, we appreciate your offer, but he's ours, and we're going to get him back."

John tried not to bristle. "Where is this lab?"

"It's on a planet called Sohiut," Rakai answered. "Ronon said your people name it M5R-840."

Tyre glared at Rakai and Rakai glared back. "We can use their help, Tyre, don't be a stubborn fool."

"I'm wondering, though," McKay said. "What was the original plan? I mean what went wrong?"

"It was supposed to be a quick, simple job," Rakai said. "Just grab the data and get out without being discovered."

"But you know Ronon," said Tyre, and smiled, and shook his head. "He saw a chance to kill some Wraith and he took it. Brought the whole place down on us."

"So they're still holding him at the lab?" McKay said. "What for?"

Tyre shook his head. "We don't know, we don't care—we just want him back."

"Well, that'll probably work out better if you've got a plan," John suggested.

"And we have one," Tyre answered.

"And a ship," John added. "We've got one of those."

Tyre scowled. "When we've retrieved him," he said, "we'll tell him you send greetings."

"Tyre," Rakai hissed, and then turned to John. "Will you three give us a few minutes?"

They looked at each other, and Sheppard shrugged. "Sure. We'll just uh...wait outside."

In the courtyard of the tavern, John touched his comm. Rakai's voice was muffled but distinct, picked up easily by the dime-sized transmitter stuck to the underside of the table.

"Don't you think you're overdoing it?" Rakai said. "What if they back off?"

"They won't," Tyre answered. "I know their kind. They don't think anyone can do anything without their help."

Long moments passed in silence, and then Rakai said, "You really think Ronon'll come around?"

"What choice does he have?"

"Same choice Morika and Hemi had," Rakai answered.

"He was our tenji, Rakai," Tyre said. "Whatever's happened since then, the bond was true. I won't let him get himself killed."

"After what you've done to him, you'll be lucky if he doesn't kill you first."

Tyre laughed, an ugly sound. "He won't. If he has to be kept chained in a cage until he realizes the truth, he will join us. Come on."

John touched his comm again. "Lorne, you get that?"

"Loud and clear," Lorne answered, and John thought he heard the same disgust in Lorne's voice that he felt. Teyla touched his arm.

"They come," she murmured. She must have seen his face, because she added, "And John, we need them alive for the time being."

"I know," he said tightly.

"All right," Tyre said, stopping in front of Sheppard. "You and your ship meet us at the Stargate in four hours. If you're not there, we're not waiting."

"We'll be there," John said. "Count on it."

Remember your training, Ronon thought. The fear is in your mind, the pain is in your mind, and you control it.

The fear tells you you're in danger, and you know that. But let the fear turn to anger, and power, and it will carry you through. Change it now. Be angry. Be strong.

The pain tells you you're hurt, and you know that. But pain is just another sensation, like pleasure, like hunger, no different; it only matters how you perceive it. It tells you you're alive, and as long as you're alive, there's hope. The pain is being alive, the pain is hope. Take it, embrace it. Stay alive.

Ronon's chest was being pushed in, his heart squeezed in a vice. He could feel his muscles dying, his body closing in on itself, becoming smaller, becoming brittle, and he knew he was screaming, could hear himself screaming, his voice weakening until he sounded like an old man gasping for air. Then he was released and his breath rushed back, burning his raw throat. Blood pounded in his ears. He was whole again. He slumped forward in the chair, panting. He didn't know how long they'd been here, and he'd lost count of how many times the Wraith had brought him to the edge of death, and back.

"Tell me," the Wraith said, glaring down at him, his lips drawn back to show teeth. "Tell me the location and this will stop."

"The location," Ronon said, his voice cracked and dry. "Screw you. That's the location."

"This is a waste of time!" said the other. "What beast cares so little for its own life? Kill him."

Ronon slitted his eyes open, saw them as if through water, wavy and indistinct.

"No," said the first. "If we kill this one and they fail, the queen will be most displeased. We simply need to change our tactics."

The second Wraith scowled. "As you wish. But drain him again first. He'll be more agreeable when he's near death."

"If that were true," the first Wraith sneered, "he would have already answered our questions. He has no fear of death—it would save him from betraying the Lanteans. But I have another method in mind," he said, and turned to Ronon, "that might persuade him to cooperate."

"Listen to yourselves," Ronon said, his eyes half closed. "You sound...like movie villains." He started to laugh but it turned into coughing, his lungs spasming. The bindings were cutting into his arms; he could feel his own pulse.

"Hmm. For a species so primitive," the first Wraith said, "humans are surprisingly ingenious when it comes to inflicting pain on one another." He drew a small case from his coat. "You may have seen one of these before," he said as he opened the box. Inside were nestled a dozen long, thin needles, and a gleaming metal box.

A Tenedrian songbird. Seren had used one on him during his training, but never at full power. Ronon had been screaming within minutes, begging for it to stop. It had taken him months to learn to defeat it, and he'd never been able to control it past the midpoint. Panic rose in his throat, his heart pounding, and the Wraith smiled.

"All right," John said, giving Tyre's sketch of the base a last look. Teyla and McKay stood beside him. Behind them, the jumpers were loaded and ready, though two of them were cloaked, and Tyre had already dialed the Gate. It rippled like water. "So this is everything?"

Tyre nodded. "Straight east from the Gate, and there's a back entrance on the south side of the facility. That's the one we'll use. Brings us in on level one. Levels two and three are high security. Level four is the holding cells and some of the medical labs. We're not sure what else. The Wraith are overextended and the facility's not well guarded. Should be just a quick in-and-out."

"Great," John muttered. "Sounds like a lousy fuck. Lorne, your squad ready?"

Tyre looked up sharply. "No. This is a small-teams job," he said, "just get him and go."

"And where is he, exactly?" asked McKay.

"We don't know, exactly," Rakai answered snidely, and McKay glared at him.

"We think he's either in the holding cells on level four or one of the level three weapons labs for interrogation," Tyre said.

Interrogation. John felt sick.

"Once we're there," Tyre went on, "we'll split up into two teams to search for him."

"Which would be fine," John said, "if it weren't for the fact that you're leading us into a trap."

He expected angry denials, or for Tyre to draw his weapon. What he didn't expect was for him to yell something in some other language and bolt for the Gate.

"Fuck—stop him!" John shouted, and started after him even as Teyla was reaching for her throwing knife. It thudded into the back of Tyre's knee and he fell, cursing. Rakai scrambled towards him as Ara dove for the Gate, but Addison got to her before she hit the event horizon and the two of them tumbled to the ground as Lorne's men reached Tyre and Rakai.

A careful search of their things while the medic worked on Tyre's knee revealed a small transmitter in the lining of his coat. "This how you were going to let them know we were on our way?" asked John, holding it up.

None of them answered.

"Tell us where they're keeping Ronon," Lorne said. "Help us, and it'll go a long ways towards getting you out of this mess."


John drew his sidearm and pointed it at Tyre's head. "Tell me," he said slowly, "where they're keeping him."

"So determined to get him back," Tyre sneered at last. You think he'll still want you, Sheppard? After you turned him away, forced him to leave Atlantis because he couldn't bear the humiliation?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" John growled.

"He told me what you did. That you refused him, said it wasn't 'right.' Does being beneath you in rank make him unworthy in your eyes?" Tyre's face was flushed and angry, but he held John's gaze like a fist and his sudden sharp smile said things John didn't want to hear. "He's ours," he murmured, "and even if he's with you, you'll never really have him. I know him in ways you're afraid to even imagine."

John's blood pounded in his ears and he stepped towards Tyre. All he could think of was Ronon touching this bastard, fucking him—being fucked by him, and John thought that killing him now with his bare hands would feel really, really goddamned good.

"John," Teyla said, and touched his arm.

"It's too late, anyway," Rakai interrupted. "They've broken him by now—he'll be one of us."

John rounded on him. "What do you mean, 'one of us'?" but a soft sound from Teyla drew his attention.

She shook her head, staring at the three prisoners. "No," she murmured, "no."


"Yes," said Ara, and Tyre cursed, but Ara ignored him. "And when the Wraith capture you, and drain you to the point of death, again and again," she said, and her eyes were fever-bright, "until your throat is raw from screaming and you are begging them to let you die, then tell me how righteous it is to refuse their gift!"

Teyla stared at her for a long moment, then turned and strode towards the jumpers. John decided to put off the pleasure of breaking Tyre's neck and he and McKay hurried after her.

"Teyla, what is it? Teyla!"

She stopped and turned. "They are not simply traitors and mercenaries," she hissed. "They are Wraith worshipers. We must get to Ronon before—before they do to him what they have done to these three."

John looked at them, and then at Teyla. "Goddamn it. Major Roth, take those bastards back to the city. Lorne!" he shouted, and broke into a run. "Get your men in the jumpers. Now!"

"I've got the location," Rodney said. "That's got to be it; it's the only major energy reading around."

"There," Lorne said. "Two o'clock."

A few moments later they were setting the jumpers down outside what could only be a Wraith facility. Lorne's squad was already out of the jumper and forming up, and Rodney grabbed his handheld and started towards the small back entrance.

"All right," John said when Rodney had the door open. "Nice and quiet. They don't know we're here yet—let's see if we can get through this without too much of a fuss."

"Oh, come on," John said, scowling. "How hard can it be to get to the damned fourth level?"

"I think we're in the one of the laboratory wings," said Rodney over the clatter of the P-90s. "There's no telling what we could find here."

A stunner blast screamed by and sparked against the far wall, and then another. Teyla ducked around the corner and fired, a quick deafening burst.

"What we've found is a whole lot of Wraith!" John said. "What we need is to figure out where they've got him! Christ," he muttered, "he could be anywhere—if that bastard lied about this, I'll kill him, I don't care what Caldwell says."

They were at the junction of two corridors, a dimly lit narrow one going towards the transport pod and a wider one heading into the heart of the facility, and there was what seemed like a battalion of Wraith to either side. Lorne and his men were doing their best to hold them off while McKay consulted what he thought was a level directory on the wall, looking for another way to the transport pod or an alternate route to the fourth level.

"This is not going well!"

"I know, I know! just give me a minute! Okay, there," Rodney said, and pointed to an alcove across the hallway. There was a door in it. "That room exits into a hallway on the other side, with an emergency stairwell down to the lower levels and back up to the surface."

"Great," said John, and grabbed Rodney. "Teyla, get us some cover fire."

He propelled McKay across the hallway and they skidded to a stop in the alcove, partially shielded from the blasts of the stunners. McKay hurried to get the door open as Teyla joined them.

"How you doing back there?" Lorne called.

"Hang on," John called back, then prodded McKay. "Almost got it?"

"If you'd stop poking me it might be a little—"

The lock gave.

"Got it."

"Lorne!" John called as McKay pushed the door open, but he stumbled to a stop against McKay's back.

McKay was frozen in the doorway, staring. There was a Replicator suspended in the middle of a lab, and it was awake.

And it looked pissed.

"Sheppard!" Lorne called. "What's the hold-up?"

John gaped at it. "What the hell are the Wraith doing with a Replicator?"

"I have no idea," McKay breathed, still staring.

Teyla pushed past them into the room. "Studying it, perhaps," she offered, her glance skimming over the control panels. "Searching for a way to deactivate the attack code. Whatever their reason for having it here, they have given us a weapon."

"Hey hey hey, what are you doing?" McKay asked, hurrying after her. "You don't know what any that stuff does."

"I am looking for a way to turn off the field restraining it," she answered.

McKay sputtered. "Are you nuts? That thing's a killer!"

"Yes," Teyla said. "A killer of Wraith."

McKay turned to John, gesturing helplessly.

He shrugged his eyebrows. "She's got a point there."

"No, she does not have a point, she has a death wish! Sure, he'll go off and kill some Wraith but what's to stop him killing us on his way out?" McKay's voice was nearing panic. Which for McKay, John thought, in this situation at least, was almost like being calm.

There was a blast from outside in the corridor and then Lorne's voice shouting at his men to hold their positions. The field around the Replicator sparked, like static.

John joined Teyla at the console. "They're gonna be overrun, McKay. How do we turn off that field?"

McKay cursed and pushed in beside him. "Okay, just—let me look at this thing," he said, and then another blast, closer, and the field sparked again, then blinked off and the Replicator dropped to the ground.

McKay looked at it with wide eyes. "That's how," he said.

But though it cast a quick glance over John and his team, the Replicator walked past them and out of the room without so much as a dirty look. John hurried after it, but it showed no interest in Lorne's men either, disappearing into the smoky shadows of the far hallway. Then the bright flash of Wraith stunners and the sickening crunch of meat and bone as the Replicator started tearing through them.

"I can kinda see why the Ancients made them," John said. "C'mon. Let's find Ronon and get the hell outta here."

It was pitch black in the cell, the kind of darkness that would flow into your ears and your eyes and your mouth, down your throat, make you think you were choking on it, drowning in it. Ronon was slipping in and out of consciousness, strapped to the chair and with the songbird's needles still in place. He could feel them shift with every movement, sore where they pierced him, and though the device was off, a low trickle of energy still pulsed through the needles at regular intervals, making his muscles twitch.

He remembered talking. Not at first, nothing more than cursing them and the filth that spawned them. But later, anything, everything he could think of as long as it didn't matter, so that he wouldn't start telling them things that did.

Then something had happened. The lights had gone out, and they'd finally left him alone.

Distantly, he thought he heard gunfire, but that didn't make sense; the Wraith didn't use bullets. Then murmured voices outside the cell and a beam of light slit the darkness. "Here!" someone called. "He's in here!" And, "Get the door, where's the damned release?"

The cell door opened. More lights, flashing, stinging his eyes.

"Ronon, oh, goddamn it." Hurried footsteps. "Jesus, buddy, you must've really pissed them off."

Ronon's heart leapt. "Sheppard?" His voice was cracked and bloody.

"Yeah, it's me. Hold on, we're gonna get you outta here. Christ, what are these things?"

He tried to look up but couldn't, and then there were more people, and someone was working the straps loose. He hissed when Sheppard touched the needle in his side.

"No, wait." Teyla's voice. "Wait." Then the current went dead and it was only needles sticking into him. "Now, carefully. They should not be very deep."

The straps were finally loose and he struggled to get up, but someone pushed him back down. "Hold still," McKay said. Another needle sliding out.

"Sheppard," he said again.

"Yeah, just hang on. We're going get you home."

Flashlights cut the darkness of the narrow stairwell, and John could hear the muffled sounds of explosions and gunfire from throughout the complex. "Come on, buddy," he said. "Just a little further." Ronon was leaning heavily on him, and Addison and Teyla were on point, McKay behind.

"My gun," Ronon said, his voice cracking.

"Don't worry about that," John said. Ronon didn't argue, and John cursed inwardly. That couldn't be a good sign.

"McKay, you still back there?"

"Still here." The beam of McKay's flashlight bobbed and skimmed over the stairs in front of them, then flashed across a door on the landing above where Teyla and Addison had paused. "Okay, that's second level. The next one should open onto a corridor that leads back to the south entrance."

"Hear that? We're almost out."

One more level up, and Teyla opened the door onto an empty hallway. Addison ducked into it, his weapon raised, and Teyla motioned to John.

He touched his comm as he helped Ronon up the last few stairs. "Lorne, we're headed to the south entrance. Get your men and fall back to the jumpers."

"Roger that," Lorne answered. "See you in a minute."

An explosion rocked the facility and John cursed. "Lorne! You okay?"

"We're good," Lorne answered. "It was west of here, near the center."

"Okay, get going."

"Sheppard," McKay said. "Should we—I mean do you think there's any chance they can—any chance the Wraith can subdue that thing, and maybe recapture it?"

John shook his head. "I doubt it. Anyway, it sounds like this whole place is gonna come down. I don't know what it's doing, but I don't wanna stick around to find out, either."

"Okay," McKay answered. "Good. Good."

Up ahead, someone was opening the door. Light glared in, bright white, and Sheppard made out Teyla's slim form silhouetted against it. Addison stepped through, alert, and then waved them on.

"It's clear," Teyla said as they approached. "Come. Quickly."

"Moving as fast as I can," John said. "He's not exactly light."

Then McKay was on Ronon's other side, slipping up under his arm. "Come on, big guy," he murmured, wrapping his arm around Ronon's waist. Ronon hissed softly, but didn't protest, and together they stepped out into the bright sunlight. Lorne's men were already gathering, and Teyla thumbed the switch to uncloak the jumpers and open the bays.

Lorne came dog-trotting around from the north behind the last of his men, and waved them inside. "All accounted for. Blake, Wexler, Maki, and Petran are injured, but mobile. Let's get out of here."

Inside Jumper One, Teyla went for the first aid kit while John and McKay lowered Ronon into his seat.

"I'll get him strapped in, sir," Addison said, and John nodded and headed for the pilot's chair. A few seconds later the jumpers were up and turning towards the Gate. Behind them something exploded, and John cursed softly when a shockwave jolted the jumper forward. He glanced over his shoulder.

"We're fine," Addison said. "Sounds like the lab's coming down, though."

"McKay, dial the Gate."

"Already dialing."

"Ronon, no," Teyla said softly, "hold still. Let me—wait."

"How're you doing back there?"

"We're fine," Addison answered. "Ronon's just—"

"Fine," Ronon said. "I'm fine." But his voice was thready, and John cursed again. He could hear Teyla murmuring something and Ronon quieted, and then he saw the active Gate glimmering through the trees. He angled the jumper towards it. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard. You got that medical team ready?"

"Standing by," came Carter's voice. "How many injured?"

"Four, plus Ronon. Apart from them we've just got some scrapes and bruises, no losses."

"That's good news."

"Jumper Two?"

"Right behind you, sir."

"Let's go home."

Chapter Four

"Teyla," John murmured, "how did you know what that thing was?"

"I have seen something similar," she answered quietly. "The Kurakans offered one in trade some years ago, but my people have no use for such a thing."

"You were right about it," said McKay. "Looks like it uses electrical impulses and neural induction to simulate—well, almost any sensation, really."

John looked down at Ronon, unconscious and on an IV drip in Keller's recovery room. "I'm guessing they weren't simulating sunshine and puppies for Ronon."

"No," McKay said. "No. But at least it didn't cause the damage it made Ronon think it was causing. Or at least made Ronon's body think it was causing. Looks like it was the—the, um. The other things they did that caused the damage."

"Doctor Keller said he will make a full recovery," Teyla said. "Let us concentrate on that."

John was dozing in the chair beside Ronon's bed when a soft sound caught his attention, and he opened his eyes. Ronon was looking at him, glazed with sleep.

"Hey, buddy," John said, sitting forward.

"Sheppard." Ronon shifted. "What. I don't—I don't remember anything."

"That's okay." John pressed the call button. "Doctor Keller said that's just the anaesthesia. It'll come back to you. You're in the sick bay. You're home, you're safe."

"Where's Tyre? Where're the others?"

John hesitated. "They, uh. They're on the Daedalus. They're okay."

"No, Sheppard." Ronon tried to sit up and John pushed him back down. It was like pushing a kitten. "They're Wraith worshippers. Tell Caldwell."

"It's okay, they're—we know. We know. They're under guard."

Ronon took a breath and closed his eyes. "Good. Okay."

The nurse came hurrying in, but Ronon ignored her as she started checking the machines. After a moment he looked at John again. "Hey, John. Thanks for coming to get me."

John cocked a smile. "Thought you didn't remember anything."

Ronon laughed, but it turned to a cough and John reached for the water. "I remember parts," Ronon said. "I remember that much."

"Well," John said. "You would've done the same for me."

Ronon nodded. "Yeah. Yeah."

Rodney was just out of the shower when his door chimed. He tied his robe and and answered it, and blinked. Ronon was leaning in the doorway looking surprisingly healthy for someone who'd been unconscious for two days.

"Hey," Ronon said. "Can I come in?"

"Huh? Oh! Sure, sure," Rodney answered, stepping back. "Keller discharge you?"

"Not exactly. I was feeling better, and I got bored."

"Oh." Briefly, Rodney wondered whether it'd be worth the trouble to buzz Keller and let her know her patient had escaped, but there wasn't much chance of getting Ronon back into the infirmary if he was strong enough to walk out under his own power. "I, uh, I already took Zephyr back to your quarters," he said, clearing a space on the couch for Ronon. "We didn't know when you were getting out and I figured you'd want to see her. But I was going to keep feeding her 'til you were back, of course."

He didn't mention he'd also returned the painting and the various other little items he'd borrowed to ensure Zephyr's peace of mind. No need to bring that up, now that they were all—including Ronon—back where they belonged.

"That's okay," Ronon said. "I went by there already. Thanks for looking after her."

Rodney smiled. "Hey, it was my pleasure. I'm gonna miss having the little monster around." He sat down across from Ronon. "Not as much as I missed having you around, of course," he went on. "And not just because of the—you know, the heavy lifting, or the fact that no one saves my ass with quite your flair for pugnacity."

Ronon started to answer but Rodney hurried on. "You don't—you don't have to say anything back, I mean, I know it's not—you were probably too busy to do a lot of pining for home. This home, I mean," he added quickly. "Atlantis. Here."

"McKay, it's all right," Ronon said, and smiled. "I missed you too. All of you."

Rodney blinked. He hadn't expected that. "Really?"

"Yeah, really. Listen," he began.

"Oh!" Rodney stood up. "Wait, you'll want this," he said, hurrying over to the closet. "I was going to bring it to you in the infirmary but Doctor Keller said I should wait." He turned and came back, and offered Ronon his energy weapon, still in its holster.

Ronon looked at him, and took the weapon. "How'd you get it?"

"When we were looking for you," Rodney said. "It was in the uh—it was in the room outside your cell. They must've been planning to reverse engineer it or something."

"Thanks." Ronon turned it over in his hands, examining it. "I thought it was gone."

Rodney smiled and stuffed his hands into his pockets, shrugging. "It's, um. I'm just glad I saw it."

Ronon smiled and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah. Me too. Listen," he went on. "I just wanted to say—I mean it's none of my business, but I just wanted to wish you and Sheppard happiness."

"Me and—oh, oh, yeah, no, about that," Rodney said, quietly panicking. He'd sort of hoped they'd never have to address this. "I can see where you might have gotten that impression," he went on, "but there's, uh...there's nothing between myself and Colonel Sheppard apart from...apart from a purely platonic friendship."

He knew he was blushing. Ronon looked at him. "I saw you."

"Ah, yes, that," Rodney answered, blushing more hotly, and he raised a finger. "That was—that was the result of a misunderstanding, and was not indicative of—of anything...at all."

"McKay," Ronon said, and winced a little as he leaned forward. "You can't tell me Sheppard doesn't—"

"He doesn't," Rodney said, not waiting for Ronon to finish. "Not any more than he does for any other member of his team."

Ronon narrowed his gaze.

Rodney swallowed and plunged ahead. "Look, I'm—I prefer women. I thought—I thought that something I was feeling for Colonel Sheppard meant that maybe I preferred Sheppard over women, but that hasn't turned out to be the case. And we tried—well, I mean, we didn't try try, not actual—we just sort of—"


Rodney stopped and looked up. "Yes?"

"It's okay. You don't have to explain."

"Oh thank god," Rodney said, breathing again.

"It used to happen in the teams sometimes," Ronon went on. "A lot of teammates joined with each other just because they were a team, all of them, in pairs or threes or everybody sharing. But there were always people—well, like you," he said, and didn't appear to notice Rodney's wide eyes. "People who only want one or the other."

"Um. I suppose there would be."

"But you get in a tight spot often enough with someone who's saving your ass, or you're saving theirs, and it's close quarters, and you're living in each other's pockets all the time even when you're not fighting." Ronon shook his head. "Sometimes someone would get confused, and think they wanted someone when all it was, really, was not knowing how to deal with how much they needed each other. Or they'd get the excitement of the fight confused with excitement for another person. It got messy sometimes, but that's...that's just people being people."

"So...you don't think—I mean, you're not mad? About what happened?"

Ronon grinned. "McKay, Sheppard'd make anybody a little bit crazy."

Rodney laughed, a breathless, relieved sound. "That," he said, "we can definitely agree on."

After he left McKay, Ronon went to Teyla's quarters. She greeted him with a smile and led him inside.

"It is good to see you up. How are you feeling?"

"Better. Listen," he said, "they told me what you did. That you were asking about me when you didn't get my letters, and that really it's 'cause of you and your contacts that Atlantis even found out there was a problem."

"Well, you had told us you would be in touch, so when you weren't...."

He took her hand. It seemed small in his, but as strong as the day he met her, and her fingers curved easily around his. "Thanks," he said. "For having my back, even after I left."

She looked at him with serious eyes. "I always will," she said. "It does not matter how far away you go, or with whom, I will always be your friend."

And he wasn't really thinking about it, but bent and kissed her, a brush of his mouth, and tipped his forehead to hers. "Thank you."

She smiled. "I am sorry not to have seen your letters. Ara apparently did not keep them, nor did she give them to Nessa."

"It's okay. It was just stuff about the planets we were on."

"Nevertheless . And I am even more sorry that you believed I was ignoring them."

Ronon grinned and shook his head. "I didn't," he said. "At first I thought you were just really busy, and then I thought maybe something was wrong. If you hadn't answered the next one, I was coming to Atlantis to find you."

That made her laugh, and she cupped his cheek. "I am glad you are home."

"Yeah," Ronon answered. "Me too."

"I have just made some tea," she said. "Would you like some?"

He shook his head, but followed her to the small table where the tea was steeping. "Teyla," he said as she poured. "What happened to the others? To Tyre and Ara and Rakai?"

Teyla hesitated, then put the tea down again. "I thought Colonel Sheppard had spoken with you about this."

"I think he did," Ronon said. "But everything's fuzzy. I just remember telling him they were Wraith worshipers, and him saying they knew."

"We learned of their plan before we came for you," she began. "They tried to lead us into a trap, and then attempted to escape back to the Wraith lab when they realized we knew. They were captured and taken on board the Daedalus, and are being treated as prisoners of war."

Ronon nodded, but didn't say anything.

"I injured Tyre when he tried to flee," Teyla continued, and her tone was cautious. "The doctor on board the Daedalus has said that he is healing remarkably well, and will not suffer any permanent damage. Doctor Keller says she thinks it may be a characteristic of the Satedan people."

He nodded again. "Yeah, she said she wants to talk to me about some of the data Weir's science teams brought back. She said it looks like Earth people don't heal as fast as we do, maybe have a lower pain threshold, maybe some other differences. I feel kinda bad now. I always thought they were just whining."

Teyla smiled. "Perhaps you will adjust some of your training techniques?"

"Yeah, I guess I should. And maybe stop giving McKay such a hard time. You think they'll let me see them?" he asked, looking at her again.

She hesitated. "I do not know. I believe they are being transferred to a secure facility."

That didn't sound like someplace he'd be allowed to go.

"Ronon," she said. "Are you certain that seeing them again is something you want?"

"Yeah," he answered and nodded, but then, "not really. I don't know."

She touched his hand. "Are you all right?"

She was watching him, and her eyes were warm as teksah, and she smelled like home. He looked at his hands. "I will be."

John reached over and poured Ronon a refill, amber liquid gleaming. "So you were just twenty-one when you got your own command?"

"Yeah," Ronon answered. "The war was going pretty badly, though. We needed commanders. I got a field promotion for getting Second Squad back after their squad commander and two of their tenji were killed. I think I told you about that." He picked up his glass and slammed the shot, set the glass back down.

"Promotion's a promotion," John said, and gestured with his glass. "And yeah, you did, back when you first got here, but you left out the part where you were just a kid."

Ronon reached for the bottle but John was already pouring him another shot. "Thanks," he said, and picked it up, but he didn't drink. He looked like he was thinking hard about something, and John stayed quiet.

"Seren was the one who would have taught me strategy," Ronon went on at last, "taught me how to think about things past just right now. But then the Wraith came, and Guao sickness took Seren, and everything started moving too fast to think. It was just fight, survive the battle, fight the next one."

"It's a hell of a thing," John said. There wasn't much else to say—they both knew what it was like to be fighting in a war zone, outnumbered and outgunned and with barely enough time to take a piss, much less think about the big picture.

Ronon nodded. "I was good at it, though. I only had Second Squad for three weeks before I was captured, but I got them tight. They didn't waver, they knew what to do if their tenji or squad commander was killed, if they got separated from the company or from the team. Any of them could have been tenji if they needed to," he said, meeting John's eyes. "Any of them could have taken the squad; they knew what the chain of command was. They weren't gonna fall apart again, I made sure of that."

"Listen," John began, "about that. I shouldn't have questioned whether you could put that strike force together," but Ronon interrupted him.

"No, you were right," Ronon said. "I could put one together and hold it together, sure, but Atlantis doesn't need a force that can push through one fight and into the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Atlantis needs people who can win this battle, and then figure out a strategy for the next one when no one even knows when it's gonna be, or where, or with who."

"Ronon, you could do that—"

"That's bullshit, and you know it," he said, pointing at him with his hand wrapped around his glass. "Think about it. Remember when we found Michael's lab, where he was creating those—those bug things?"

"Not something I'll forget any time soon, much as I'd like to. I still have nightmares about that, y'know."

"And we found the dart," Ronon went on, "and what was my suggestion gonna be?"

"Well now, blowing it up was a good second choice."

Ronon shook his head and leaned back. "I would've blown up the thing that you used to save all our asses. I would've had us stranded there."

"Okay," John said, leaning forward, "but you can learn that shit. You're smart, Ronon, you just—it's like you said, you just haven't had a chance to learn it yet."

"I've been a member of your team for almost as long as Seren was my taiji."

"So, what, you need a mentor? I can do that." He thought maybe the offer meant he'd already had a little too much to drink, but if keeping Ronon on the team meant giving him a mentor, by god he was gonna give him a mentor. "I mean, I'm sure I'm no Seren, but I'll bet I could be a pretty good taiji, if that's what you need."

Ronon laughed and shook his head. "Sheppard, it isn't that simple. Taiji is... taiji is a lot more than a mentor. It's... father, brother, lover, teacher, trainer. You're a team, but you belong to him, you follow his orders, you do what he tells you to do—any time, not just when you're training. You give your strength and your will to your taiji and he uses yours and his to make you into what you'll become."

John's mind was still stuttering helplessly at 'lover'.

Ronon looked at him. "Seren had known me ten years when he asked to be my taiji."

But John was flashing back to the fantasy of Ronon, bent over the desk, his hands bound. "Uh," he said.

You belong to him.

John's insides had gone hot and liquid, and he reached for his glass.

"So, it's not that easy," said Ronon.

"Uh. No, I guess not."

Ronon's gaze narrowed.

"Is there," he said quickly, before Ronon could make whatever decision he was making, "is there anything um...before taiji?" he asked. "Like, taiji light?"

"Not on Sateda."

"Because some of that I could do," John went on. Oh god, yes, some of that, he'd give his right fucking arm to do, if it wouldn't have meant he had one less hand to hold on with. And oh crap, that was not the direction he needed to go. Back it up, he thought, just don't...don't do that. He's your direct report. Even if McKay's given up the jealous boyfriend act, you still can't.

Ronon watched him. "Which parts?"

"Well," John said, scrambling back from the edge, "I could do the teaching part, I think. Might need a refresher course myself on some of it, but hell, I could probably use one anyway."

"Okay," Ronon said. "What else?"

John shot him a look. He was pretty sure Ronon was making this difficult on purpose, like it was a test or something. "The training part, I could do that."

"Could you?" Ronon asked. "Could you make me keep going even when I swore I couldn't? When I was begging you to let me stop?"

John blinked, trying to process the idea of Ronon begging for anything.

That didn't help his composure. He forced himself to focus.

"I think so," he said. "If that's what I thought you needed." He took the last swallow of his drink and reached for the bottle. "You gotta keep teaching me what you've been teaching the troops, though," he added as he poured them both another drink. "No slacking off."

Ronon grinned. "No problem. You'll need all the help you can get, anyway."

John scowled. "Have we started yet?" he asked. "Do I get to make you pay for that remark?" But Ronon just laughed.

"The military kind of frowns on people owning each other, though," John went on, and even saying it out loud made his dick twitch, and he cursed silently because holy crap, was this not the time to be thinking with that part of his anatomy.

"Your military frowns on men fucking, too."

John nodded. "That is true," he said, and raised his glass.

"Does that mean you're never gonna fuck me?"

John choked and started coughing, his eyes tearing up from the burn of the liquor. Ronon just sat there, watching him. "That's a hell of a question," he managed at last.

"I don't know why," Ronon said with a shrug. "You're fucking just about every other willing guy on Atlantis."

"Sonofa—goddamn it, Ronon," John said, glaring at him. "That's got nothing to do with it! They're not—you're directly under my command! It's—it isn't right, it's taking advantage!"

Ronon snorted. "Yeah, 'cause I'm such a pushover. And before you bring up McKay," he added, "he already told me that's all just a big damn misunderstanding."

John choked again. "Look, okay, yes," he managed when he stopped coughing, "that's—how did you know—? No, wait, never mind," he said, shaking his head. "That's not the point, none of that's the point. Ronon, what you're asking for, it's—it's just wrong."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew what a mistake they were, but before he could figure out how to get them back, Ronon was on his feet and headed for the door.

"Hey, wait, no, I didn't mean that like it sounded!"

"No, 'course not," Ronon bit back. "Just that everything I ever had with Seren, with my team, it's all 'just wrong' because it's not what your people do."

The door hissed open and John stood up. "Ronon!"

Ronon stopped in the open doorway, his back to John.

"Get back in here. We're not done."

After a moment Ronon half turned, looking at John with narrowed eyes. "Is that an order, Sheppard?"

"Is that what you need it to be?"

"What do you think?" Ronon growled.

Tyre's words rang in his mind: Does being beneath you in rank make him unworthy in your eyes?

Was this what Ronon needed? The whole package—someone to push him, teach him, fuck him, give him limits, give him someone to obey? Or was that just what John wanted to give him?

He looked at Ronon, standing frozen in his doorway, waiting for John's answer.

"Yeah," he said. "It's an order."

Ronon felt like he'd been given a reprieve, bands of tension loosening so he could breathe again. He turned and came back into the room, the door closing behind him, and Sheppard met him halfway and took him by the back of his neck, an echo of before. This time, though, their mouths met. Ronon pushed, biting at Sheppard's mouth, but Sheppard pushed harder, and then pushed him down, and Ronon went to his knees.

He was already stiff, his cock straining against the leather, and Sheppard was as well. Ronon wanted to reach for him, wanted to take him finally, finally, his throat working and his mouth wet.

"Hands behind your back," Sheppard said.

Ronon looked up at him and didn't move. In an instant Sheppard slapped him hard across his face, rocking his head back and bringing a flush of heat, a stinging hand-print on his cheek.

Sheppard repeated the order, and this time Ronon obeyed.

"You do what I tell you," Sheppard said. "Don't try to test me. I'll win."

Ronon knew it was true, just like he knew he would test Sheppard again, pushing him to be sure of him, pushing to see if he'd give.

"You came to me for this," Sheppard murmured. "And sometimes, out there," he said, nodding towards the door, "when you and I are making you into the leader we both know you can be, I'm going to make you do things you don't want to do. And you won't have a choice."

He tugged Ronon's head back and their eyes met. "But never in here," he said. "In here, if you don't want it, all you have to do is tell me no."

But then Sheppard smiled, and added, "But you have to say it like you mean it."

Like that, then, and Ronon wanted to laugh. Seren had never believed his 'no' either, not until Ronon had meant it.

He nodded, once, biting back a grin. "Okay."

"All right," Sheppard said. "I've been listening to you mouth off at me for two years, so we're gonna start with your mouth on my cock, and maybe I'll get a few minutes peace and quiet."

The grin broke through. "Can I use my hands?"

"This time," Sheppard said, and Ronon reached for him and started unfastening his belt. "We're gonna work on that, though," he went on. "You should be able to do this with both hands tied behind your back, 'cause goddamn, that would be a pretty sight. Maybe a blindfold, too."

But Ronon was only half listening, focused on getting Sheppard free of those damned BDUs, and then he was there, leaning forward to lick up the salty shaft, and Sheppard's breath stuttered and he shut up. His cock was heavy in Ronon's mouth, and Ronon closed his eyes as he took him in, surrounded by his smell, his taste, drowning in him. He felt Sheppard's hands in his hair, tightening to fists.

Sheppard was silent, thrusting now, rocking his hips to fuck Ronon's mouth and Ronon did what he could to make it better for him, flattening his tongue against the shaft and sucking tight around him, his cheeks hollowing. His own dick was begging for some kind of relief, but Ronon needed both hands on Sheppard's thighs to keep steady, and finally Sheppard was starting to make noise, little grunts and moans.

Then he pulled out abruptly, leaving Ronon off-balance and aching.

"Get up," Sheppard said, and his voice was thick. "Give me your belt."

Ronon didn't hesitate—one step closer to getting his cock free, he hoped.

"Now take off your clothes."

He stripped off quickly, boots first, then his shirt, leathers, briefs. Sheppard's narrow gaze never left him. They'd seen each other naked before, showering or changing clothes, but that hadn't been anything like this. Ronon's cock jutted up heavy and thick, and he swallowed a groan when Sheppard closed his hand around it.

"So fucking beautiful," Sheppard murmured. He gave Ronon a push towards the solid, heavy desk that stood against the wall, following close behind until Ronon's thighs were pressed to the edge and he was trapped between Sheppard and the desk. "Bend over, hands behind your back."

Ronon obeyed, and Sheppard slipped the belt around his crossed wrists and through, and pulled it snug. Heat curled in Ronon's belly and his breath quickened. Sheppard opened a desk drawer and there was a brief clatter before he banged it shut again. "Spread your legs," he said, and then, "Wider. Come on," until Ronon was more on the desk than on his feet, and then a shock of cold slick made him hiss and Sheppard was leaning over him, pushing his fingers inside. Ronon squirmed against him, hungry for more, and Sheppard murmured, "Hold still."

Sheppard worked him open until Ronon thought he was going to go crazy from it, and if it weren't for the damned belt he'd be grabbing Sheppard and—and maybe that was why Sheppard like the hands thing. And then it just sort of slipped out, "Sheppard, please, come on," and he heard Sheppard's breath catch.

"Ask me again."

"Please," he said. "Fuck, please, Sheppard."

"Next time I'll gag you," Sheppard answered, rough-voiced, and then his fingers were gone and Ronon heard a foil rip, and a moment later the blunt head of Sheppard's cock was pushing into him. Ronon gasped when Sheppard drove in hard, pinned and trapped and as he began to fuck him. There'd be bruises tomorrow across the tops of his thighs and his cock was pushed painfully down, dripping precome onto Sheppard's floor, but Sheppard ignored it, pumping into him until with a hiss of breath he shoved in deep, shuddering. Ronon cursed.

"Shut up." Sheppard stayed there for a long moment, breathing hard, and Ronon bit back another obscenity when he finally pulled out. Then Sheppard's arm was around him, hauling him back from the desk and pushing him down to his knees again. Sheppard knelt in front of him and wrapped his fist around Ronon's cock, buried the other in his hair and started jerking him off, too slowly, and Ronon gritted his teeth as his climax coiled tight, just out of reach.

"Is this mine?" Sheppard asked.

"Yes—yes," Ronon said, and he would have said anything to get Sheppard to just finish him, but Sheppard kept up those almost-enough strokes and tightened his fist.

"Are you mine?"

"Yes!" he gasped.

"Who do you belong to?"

"You—Sheppard, fuck—please, please."

"You are never fucking leaving again, do you understand me?"

Sheppard's fierce gaze pinned him more completely than the belt, than the desk, than that maddening hand that kept him painfully on the edge of release.

"Yes," he said, "yes. Please."

"Okay." And then Sheppard was kissing him brutally hard, driving his tongue into his mouth and claiming something Ronon hadn't known was still there to be claimed, jerking him off hard and fast until he cried out and stiffened, his cock pulsing in Sheppard's hand.

Not that it was all smooth sailing.

"Fuck you, Sheppard," Ronon growled.

"No," John answered, "that's the other way around, and not until you finish the simulation."

"This is all hypothetical! And how am I supposed to figure out the answer when I don't even know whether the Hive ship is really disabled?"

"You won't know that when you're up there," John said, "so you've gotta be prepared either way. Just look at the situation, think about it from their perspective—"

Ronon cursed under his breath.

"I know, you hate the Wraith, but you still know how they operate, so just take that into consideration, decide what you think they're doing, and make the call."

Finally Ronon turned back to the screen and John watched over his shoulder as he made some adjustments, moving three of the jumpers to new positions. "And the Gate's been active for twelve minutes, right?"

John nodded.

Ronon made another few adjustments and input the final commands for the different variables he'd anticipated, then clicked the execute button, and he and Sheppard watched as it played out. By the end of the scenario, Ronon had lost two of the six jumpers but successfully disabled the Hive's weapons and hyperdrive.

"Not bad," John said, "not bad at all!"

Ronon didn't look so sure. "I lost four men."

"But the other eight are coming home safe," John pointed out, "and the people on the planet didn't get culled."

Ronon leaned back and rested his head against John's belly, looking up at him. "Can we be done now?" he asked, with that hopeful expression that always made him look even younger than he was, and about a third as deadly.

When he took this role, John hadn't counted on how good it would feel. Not just the obvious benefit of getting Ronon—though if he'd known how good that would feel, he might not have been able to hold out as long as he had—or how much Ronon's improvement improved the team, but how good it felt just to teach him, and to watch him learn. He wondered sometimes how come he'd never thought about Ronon having things he needed or wanted to learn. Maybe because the guy always seemed so capable and self-sufficient, or because he filled a niche on the team that nobody else did. John hadn't thought about whether that niche filled everything Ronon needed.

"Yeah, okay," he said, and dropped a quick touch to Ronon's throat, as far as he would go when they were in public even when there was no one around. Probably just as well or he'd never get anything done. "For today. Come on, we're meeting Rodney and Teyla in twenty minutes."

"McKay's getting better," Ronon said as he stood up. "A lot better. Pretty soon he'll be able to hold his own in a bar fight, as long as he doesn't forget he can do it and try to run."


Ronon nodded. "Don't tell him I said. I'm kinda downplaying it. He tries harder that way."



John grinned. "Should I try that with you?" He knew better, but he was curious what Ronon's response would be.

Ronon looked down at him. "No," he said. "I think the system you're already using works pretty well."

"I don't know," John said. "Sometimes the punishment looks an awful lot like the reward."

"Not to me." Ronon shot him a quick grin. "Hey, don't I get something for bringing eight men home safe and stopping a culling?"

"You want it now?" John asked. "We've only got twenty minutes."

"I don't like waiting."

"Yeah, no kidding," John answered. "Okay, part now, and part later. Come on."

"Aw, Sheppard," Ronon groaned.

"I swear, you're like a little kid sometimes. Patience," he said, "is a virtue. You need to learn it."

"And the fact that it gets you off has nothing to do with it?" Ronon grumbled under his breath.

John grinned. "That's just a bonus."

Earth people, Ronon thought, were bizarrely adept at coming up with weird shit. Satedans were pretty straightforward: sex was sex, and maybe you'd tie your lover up if you were both into that, or maybe a little carefully applied pain if you were in need of it. Seren's brown leather belt had held a special place in Ronon's heart from the first time he'd taken it out. But this...this was just weird.

He squirmed a little, trying to find a more comfortable position, and Sheppard smirked.

"All right," McKay said, "Sheppard, it was your choice this week, wasn't it?"

"Yes it was," Sheppard answered. "And the theme tonight is 'hot men blowing shit up.'"

Teyla rolled her eyes and smiled. "Wasn't that the theme the last time it was your turn?"

McKay just groaned.

"Now, Rodney," Sheppard said. "It's got hot chicks too. I made sure. Carrie-Anne Moss in PVC and leather," he offered, waggling the DVD case.

"Oh, oh no," Rodney said, "not that."

"Come on," Sheppard grinned, "you love it. It's your secret guilty pleasure."

"What is it?" asked Teyla.

"The Matrix," Sheppard said. "Man—and woman—versus robotic tentacled computer overlords, spiced up with some whacked out philosophy shit and a wardrobe that looks like it came from JT's Stock Room."

McKay hid his face in his hands.

"I think it sounds interesting," Teyla said. "And it is Colonel Sheppard's turn. He was very patient last week with your choice."

"Yeah, but my choice—"

"Did not have Carrie-Anne Moss in PVC and leather," Sheppard interrupted. "Now come on, are we gonna do this thing or what?"

"Okay, okay, give it here."

Sheppard handed it over to McKay, then said innocently, "Ronon, could you get the lights?"

Ronon growled at him, but he stood up and headed for the dimmer. He was definitely going to get revenge for this, somehow. Every step moved that maddening piece of metal and made his cock twitch in the...the thing Sheppard had put on him, but at least Sheppard had let him change into a shirt that hid the evidence. Ronon wondered how long it was safe to stay hard before you started losing brain cells.

He wondered how many he must have lost already to let Sheppard do this to him. And not just the thing with the metal and the...the other part, but all of it. Now their morning runs were followed by hours of study, simulations, military history and tactics. Not just Earth history either, which was varied and fascinating all by itself, though secretly Ronon wondered how a planet that had so many cities they had to arrange them into nations that were constantly at war had managed to survive this long, even with no Wraith to threaten them. No, Sheppard had made him go back through the databases that they'd salvaged from Sateda and continue his study of his own military history too, and what they knew of the Wraith, and the Goa'uld, the Jaffa and Hak'tyl resistances, studying weapons, and Gate technology—it was like being a student again. It was being a student again, and just as frustrating, and just as rewarding.

More rewarding, really. Being in the honor guard at Gotar Academy had never been the kind of fun that being John Sheppard's lover was.

He dimmed the lights and rejoined Sheppard, and Sheppard smiled up at him as he sat gingerly down beside him on McKay's small couch. When Sheppard slipped his hand surreptitiously under Ronon's shirt and grazed his skin with warm fingers, he wondered again just how crazy he was to let Sheppard do these things to him.

Not very, he thought.

But he no longer wondered whether Atlantis was his home, or whether he had a place here, and a future. Maybe he was crazy and maybe he wasn't, but that part, he was sure of.

The End
BDSM and rough sex (no non-con), torture (largely off-camera, non-sexual)

There are a few things in the show that didn't make sense to me, so where they're relevant to this story I've tried to account for them.

One is that in Trinity, Ronon says of Sateda, "For years I believed I was the only survivor," but in Runner, he asks John, "Did you manage to contact my home world?" as if he expects there are people there to be contacted. He hadn't been on Atlantis even one year at that point, so I thought maybe it was only when he saw the images from the M.A.L.P. that he realized he'd believed all along, deep down, that he was the only survivor.

Also, he seems to have a greater resistance to pain and to Wraith stunners, and a somewhat enhanced healing ability. In Instinct, he hears Rodney from very far away, indicating that his hearing is much better than Earth norm. It seems to me that this must be more than just the result of seven years of being hunted. It seems likely that the humans of the Pegasus galaxy would have evolved with strengths appropriate to their environments, so I decided these must be traits of the Satedan people.

Regarding the title "chieftain" that Rodney references for the Satedan leader, this actually is canon. It seems very anachronistic to me for such an advanced society, so I wanted to note that this is from the scene in Sateda when Melena tells Ronon she's listening to the Chieftain's speech, and it's clearly a national or world leader speaking on the radio.

In the episode Sateda, and later in Reunion, my impression of Ronon's role in the military doesn't quite fit with the descriptions I've seen of the U.S. Army rank of Specialist. Now, I'm no expert on the military, but it also seemed likely to me that the Satedan military would have a different rank structure than the U.S. military. So I took the liberty of inventing the Satedan rank modifier of Specialist.

Joseph Mallozzi's blog had the information about Ronon's painting being of the Satedan victory of Vetariss and Ronon retrieving it from the military museum. The scene didn't make the episode, but I used it anyway.

Finally, I know that according to some style manuals, "marines" isn't capitalized, but my understanding from Marines themselves is that it's considered respectful to capitalize it, so I've done so here.