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Ronon starts his e-mail correspondence with Sheppard's brother more or less by mistake.

He's been living in Atlantis for four years and has been with Sheppard for three of them when he decides he needs to learn to read and write English. The realization comes to him out of the blue one day as he's writing a to-do list for himself. As the looping, graceful characters of the Satedan alphabet flow out of the pen, he sees them suddenly for what they are, a dead language. There are at most a thousand native speakers of Satedan left in the entire galaxy, and in a generation there will be none. Ronon has chosen to make a place for himself among the Earth people; it's time to equip himself with the knowledge he's going to need to get along.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of potential teachers among the members of the Earth expedition. Ronon asks around and quickly strikes a deal with Dr Bernarde, who agrees to give him personal tuition in return for training in unarmed combat—it's common knowledge that Bernarde's been trying to get assigned to a Gate team since she arrived in Atlantis. Ronon accepts her terms, and twice a week he presents himself at her office, armed with a pen, a notebook, and a copy of a textbook called Let's Learn English! At least, that's what Bernarde tells him the book is called. To Ronon, the symbols on the cover and the pages inside are still, for the most part, unintelligible squiggles.

Ronon applies himself to his self-imposed task, diligently working through the exercises Bernarde sets for him to do. But learning to read and write English is slow going, made all the harder by the fact that Ronon hasn't studied from books since he took the Specialist exam, back when he was in the Satedan military. It doesn't help that the language is as tangled as a nest of horratas in heat, and includes a concept which has no equivalent in written Satedan, which is called 'punctuation' and refers to a range of symbols which aren't, in fact, words at all, but have to be fitted in around the words according to a set of rules which appear to have been made up by a drunkard on a bet.

"You're making good progress," Bernarde says as she finishes checking his most recent assignment. "I think we'll cover the present perfect tense next."

Ronon tries to smother his grunt of frustration. He doesn't completely succeed.

Bernarde, however, looks more amused than annoyed. "Yes, it's pretty dry going at times, isn't it?"

"I started this because I wanted to be able to write e-mails," Ronon says, "not decline a bunch of irregular verbs."

Bernarde purses her lips, considering. "Well, why don't you? Write e-mails, I mean. It doesn't matter if they're not perfect. You could e-mail your team." She smiles. "Consider that this week's homework."

It's a good idea, but when Ronon sits down at his SGC-issue laptop, he finds himself staring at a blank message. It feels too artificial to e-mail Teyla in a language that's as alien to her as to him, and while Ronon has come to appreciate McKay's better qualities over the past couple of years, he also knows that Rodney is the kind of man who can't help taking petty pleasure in being better at things than other people, and Ronon has too much pride to want to fuel McKay's superiority with badly punctuated, halting English. As for Sheppard... Ronon glances over his shoulder, to where John is fast asleep in the bed they've been sharing most nights for many months. No. Ronon knows that he and Sheppard have stumbled on a kind of language they can use to communicate with each other, and it's not one which can be captured in words in an e-mail.

He's about to give up and turn off the laptop when he notices the corner of a small rectangle of stiff card poking out from underneath the base of the desktop lamp. It looks familiar. When he pulls it out, Ronon knows why. He remembers Sheppard's brother—Dave—pushing it into his hand as they'd left Sheppard's family home after his father's funeral. "My business card," Sheppard's brother had said, and Ronon, who was feeling his way with Earth customs, had just accepted it, assuming that giving people small decorated pieces of cardboard was some kind of tradition at Earth funerals.

He picks up the card and turns it over in his hand. He recognizes the English letters which spell out Sheppard's family name, of course, and it's easy to deduce that the symbols preceding them must be how his brother's first name is rendered. Beneath that, there are several sets of numbers which seem to be codes of some kind, and then, at the very bottom of the card, something which he knows must be an e-mail address from the telltale @ symbol in the middle.

Ronon looks at it, surprised. Until this moment, he'd thought that the electronic message system was something reserved for the military. It hadn't occurred to him that everyone on Earth has an e-mail address.

Experimentally, he types it into the address bar in the e-mail program on the laptop. Then, with Sheppard snoring softly in the bed on the other side of the room, Ronon starts to compose a message.

Yo Dave, he begins. The marines say 'yo' all the time to each other in greeting, and Ronon doesn't know what kinds of formal salutations the Earthers use when they write to each other. Yo sounds right.

I hope its ok to e-mail. your address was on the card you gave me at your fathers death honor ceremony.

It's a lot more absorbing than doing exercises from a book, and it's satisfying to see the evidence of how much he's learned in just a couple of months there on the screen in front of him. He composes another couple of sentences, and reads them back, pleased with himself.

He clicks the 'send' button without really thinking about it.


***


"Do people always answer e-mails?"

McKay looks up from his lunch. "What?"

For a smart guy, it amazes Ronon how often McKay doesn't get things the first time. He tries again. "If you send someone an e-mail and they don't answer it, is that normal?"

McKay looks at him. "Are you doing Sheppard's dirty work for him, now? Because I keep telling him that I will get to the Gate team science department assignments when I have time, and I don't care how often he passive-aggressively forwards me the same e-mail—"

And that appears to be the closest thing to an answer Ronon's going to get there.

Zelenka is more helpful, and explains about junk mail and spam and how e-mail is a wonderful thing but it's generally accepted that there's just too much of it.

But knowing that Sheppard's brother either didn't get Ronon's message or didn't care enough to answer it is strangely liberating. A couple of days later, Ronon composes a second message and sends it. He doesn't expect a reply and isn't disappointed when he doesn't get one.

By the time he's sent Sheppard's brother five e-mails, it's become Ronon's favorite way of putting his new skills at written English into practice.

He writes the sixth e-mail while Sheppard's in surgery. Ronon's a little banged up himself. The expedition doctor semi-mutating into a Wraith hive ship is the kind of bizarre occurrence that Ronon has learned to deal with as part of his daily life in Atlantis, and it's hardly the first time Sheppard's been injured in the line of duty. But it's hard for Ronon to see him damaged and in pain, and it's getting harder every time it happens. He doesn't say much in his e-mail to Dave other than the bare facts (Sheppard in surgery again. Keller says she didn't mean to stab him!) but sending it brings an unexpected sense of release, like the message is carrying some of his worry for Sheppard away with it as it vanishes from the outbox.

Then Dave Sheppard writes back.


***


Thank you for letting me know about my brother. I never hear from John. Sometimes I wish we were closer. I hope he has recovered and is back on his feet.

There's a final sentence after this, separated from the rest of the e-mail by a small gap, as if the writer hesitated for a long time before deciding whether to add it.

I'm glad John has you taking care of him.


***

"Okay, let me get this straight," McKay says. "You and Sheppard's brother have become intergalactic penpals, and you haven't told Sheppard."

"Dave never e-mailed back before now," Ronon says, defensive.

"Oh my God, you're on first name terms." McKay shakes his head in theatrical despair. "What have you been telling him? You do realize everything you write is going through the SGC's censors, right?" he demands, and Ronon crosses his arms across his chest and glares at him, because of course he knew that. McKay waves his hands some more. "Okay, look, I'll write a subroutine that encrypts everything going to and from that address, at least that way I can screen it before anyone at the SGC sees it." He pauses. "What are you going to tell John?"

"I'm not telling him," Ronon says. "Not yet."

McKay looks unhappy. "Right, because he's going to be just fine with you contacting his estranged family behind his back."

"I'm not breaking any secrets."

"No, but some days Sheppard acts like what he had for breakfast is a matter of national security." McKay hesitates. "Not that you don't know that by now. Okay, fine, but this is not going to end well."

"You always say that."

"And I'm always right," McKay says.


***


"Dr Bernarde is giving you a lot of homework."

Ronon looks over the top of the laptop screen, across the room to where Sheppard is sitting on the bed, doing paperwork. It's the first time either of them has said anything for at least an hour. Ronon likes these shared quiet times; for years he only knew silence as a lonely thing, and he likes knowing that it can be something else.

"She says I'm learning fast," he tells Sheppard.

"When can I get you writing your mission reports instead of dictating them?"

"When someone fixes the rules of your stupid language so it makes sense."

Sheppard laughs at that, and goes back to his paperwork. Ronon returns his attention to the e-mail he's been working on.

Sheppard noticed his hair going gray. He acts like he does'nt care. but I know he does. I told him its good to live long enough to get gray hair. A lot of people don't.

"Are you going to be doing that all night?" Sheppard has put his paperwork to one side, and slung one arm in casual yet ever-so-slightly suggestive way across the bed.

Ronon grins wolfishly at him. "Not all night."

He clicks send and folds the screen of the laptop down.


***


He turns on his laptop one morning to see two new messages highlighted in bold at the top of the inbox, one from Dave Sheppard, and one from Mckay time-stamped only a little later.

Dave's e-mail is uncharacteristically long. Ronon reads English more fluently than he writes it, but it still takes him a full ten minutes to unravel the text. There are a lot of (equally uncharacteristic) mistakes in the spelling and grammar, which Ronon reasons must be very bad if it's obvious to him. He feels vindicated by the terrible punctuation, and takes this as evidence that even native speakers secretly think it's pointless and abandon it as soon as their blood alcohol level passes a certain threshold. Because there is no doubt in his mind that he's reading something written under the influence of a few too many drinks. English may not be Ronon's first language, but the effects of alcohol are universal.

Dave writes,

I was 16 and he was my big brother and I wanted to be just like him and suddenly there was this thing that meant we were always going to be different and I didnt deal with it well but I was a stupid kid, you know? So I guess im saying that I grew up, that I don't care that hes gay, I'm just glad he found someone.

And:

the really stupid part is that i've talked to john three times in the last ten years but I still miss him and I'm jealous of you becuase yu get to be with him every day. I love him and im glad he found a way to be himself, but I wish he hadn't had to go so fucking far away to do it.

There's a lot more, but those are the parts that jump out at Ronon. Dave Sheppard has been sending him cordial, trivial messages for weeks, but there's a raw hurt in these words which makes Ronon think, for the first time, of the reality of a man sitting in front of a computer on a planet in another galaxy drunkenly telling someone he barely knows how much he misses his brother.

The other e-mail, from McKay, is equally out of character, although this time it's the brevity which is unusual rather than the excessive length. Rodney's e-mail is four words long: I'll deal with this.


***


McKay doesn't copy Ronon in on his reply to Dave, but whatever he says is effective, because the next e-mail Ronon receives from Sheppard's brother is a contrite apology. It was clear to Ronon when he accompanied John to his father's funeral that his brother was in possession of wealth and influence; in Ronon's experience, men like that don't apologize lightly. Dave either feels really bad, or McKay was really angry. Possibly both.

It's only by good luck that Ronon happens to be in the main science lab when McKay opens his e-mail from Dave Sheppard. An animated display of flowers takes over the screen of his laptop, while the speakers blare out a tinny song which consists of a woman's voice repeating the lyrics:

Sor-reee!
I'm so sor-reee!
Please forgive meee!
Don't be an-greee!

- over and over again until McKay, spluttering with outrage, finally manages to turn it off.

It's really funny.

McKay turned red like one of those ketchup fruits, Ronon writes in his next e-mail to Dave. It was awesome!

It occurs to him that Dave's apology e-card was exactly the kind of dumb joke John would find hilarious, too. Perhaps John and his brother aren't entirely unalike, after all. Ronon finds himself wanting to share the story with Sheppard. It's the first time since he started corresponding with Dave that he's felt he's been keeping something back from John, and it sits badly with him.

But it's Dave's next e-mail which finally prompts Ronon into action, because Dave ends it with a note addressed directly to John:

I wish things were okay between us. It's obvious that your friends love you very much. You should know you can come home any time you like, John. I want you to. I miss you.


***


"This is from your brother," Ronon says, putting the printed version of Dave's e-mail in front of Sheppard.

John stares at it for a second. "This is an e-mail to you."

"Yes," Ronon says.

"From Dave," John says, more slowly.

"Yes."

"With a message for me." John says this very slowly indeed, which Ronon has found is almost always an extremely bad sign.

"Yes."

"Ronon," Sheppard says, looking up, "What the hell?"

"I started e-mailing your brother to practice writing English. After a while, he started e-mailing back."

"After a while?" John repeats. His tone is one of incredulity, with the first notes of anger starting to creep in at the edges. "And just how long has this been going on?"

"A couple of months," Ronon says.

"What have you been telling him?"

Ronon shrugs. "Just stuff. I told him about the times I beat you at Nintendo. I haven't told him anything he's not supposed to know."

"Oh, Jesus," Sheppard says, putting his hands to his face for a second. When he lowers them, he looks furious. "Ronon, the fact that you are e-mailing him is telling him something."

"He doesn't care that you prefer guys," Ronon says.

Bitterly, John says, "Right, and I suppose he told you that."

"Yeah, he did."

For a second, Sheppard just stares at him. Then he repeats, in a completely different tone, "He told you that."

"I'll show you that e-mail too," Ronon offers. "It's difficult to read, though. I think he was drunk when he sent it."

John laughs hollowly. "I just bet he was." Then he sobers. "I want this to stop. As in, now."

"He wants things to be better between you," Ronon says.

"Yeah, well, it's a little bit late for that."

"No, it's not."

"Ronon," Sheppard says, in that dreadfully calm voice he only uses when he's somewhere beyond fury, "listen to me very carefully when I tell you to keep the fuck out of this."

Two years ago, even a year ago, Ronon would have backed off. But he knows John better now: they have shared intimacies and silences, and Ronon has realized that when Sheppard is injured or in pain, it hurts him as well.

So he simply answers, "Can't," and when Sheppard opens his mouth to argue, Ronon cuts him off. "You're a hard guy to be with sometimes, you know that, right? But it's okay. I can be hard to be with, too. But that's who we are, and we chose each other, so we keep working at it. You can't choose your family. You have to work at it whether you want to or not."

Sheppard closes his eyes for a moment, and shakes his head. "It's not as easy as that. There's a lot of history you don't know."

"There's a lot about me you don't know," Ronon points out. "I had a brother, too. A brother and two sisters. I can't write to any of them. The dead don't write back. That's why you have to keep trying to talk to the living."

John opens his eyes, and looks at Ronon. "I'm sorry," he says. And then: "You never told me that before."

"I guess I should've," Ronon says, "but I'm telling you now."

John is quiet for a long time.

Finally, he says, "I think... I'd like to see the other e-mails. Will you show them to me?"

"Sure," Ronon says.


***


Dave,

It looks like I'm going to be back in the US for a while. I thought maybe we could meet up for dinner. Let me know what dates suit and we can arrange something, if you're not too busy.

I hope you're well. Give my best regards to Caroline.

Ronon says hi.

John