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Two years Ronon had been waiting for a perfect opportunity to present itself, and this critical trading run to a revered Satedan ally, with whom Dr Weir was resting all her last hopes on, was what Ronon had been waiting for. Sheppard would be away from Atlantis, away from McKay’s incessant need to talk, away from Teyla’s watchful gaze that saw all and missed even less; away from everyone, except Ronon.

Any smugness at having beaten McKay out of this mission was lost in the way Ronon’s long legs started cramping in the ridiculous confines of the co-pilot’s chair.

“Guess you weren’t’ what the Ancients had in mind when they designed her.” Sheppard teased, his eyes lingering longer than they should’ve over leather-clad thighs, as Jumper 1 lowered herself into the gateroom.

~!~

All signs pointed to it, Celestos knew, as he tugged at the deep blue of his silver trimmed robes and watched the other advisors attempt to reason away what had been written in the stars for five hundred centuries. No amount of modern sciences and naïve dreamscapes could disprove what nature had done to their historical kin, was doing to Celestos’ generation, now.

He only hoped, once the Chamberlain had voiced his decree, there would be time enough to implement the exodus of their people without too many casualties. The soft flickering glow of the thousand candles, whose occupation it was to resist the bloodstone hue of night, could not halt the unrelenting chill that surrounded Celestos’ heart.

“I plead for your tolerance, My Liege,” Celestos interrupted the Chamberlain as he stepped forward, away from the majestic view of Mt Tagnik'zur, the cause of this clandestine meeting. “If you would indulge me with your eyes Sire, I know in your wisdom you will come to see the truth.”

Celestos had the attention of the five other men in the high-altitude pavilion and shivered despite the unseasonal heat in the air. He had to convince these men of power, the leaders of his people; or his people would perish under the weight of modern enlightenment.

“You desire a moment, Scribe?” His liege queried, eyeing him with a beady stare and an incredulous arch of one eyebrow.

“For the sake of our-your people, I do; My Liege.” Celestos murmured and opened the yellowed pages of the golden leather tome he cradled on his pale forearms. “Old Matheus has calculated, has kept the marking of time according to the respected scrolls; now, the words of Viden are revealing themselves in the events you see before you these past days. Be they of small or large design, they are all significant; each one able to be checked like assets on a ledger.”

Celestos swallowed hard past the lump in his throat, and guided two skeletal fingers over the tally of signs, set down by a fellow Scribe when the page was crisp and white. He continued to hold attention though he was uncertain if it was due to his liege’s interest or displeasure, so he continued; his words clumsy in their haste to be recognised as the saviours of the Tarakonan people.

“Crimson cloaks the Heavens, both in day and in night; nature calls home her servants.” Celestos paused, hoping the silence would fill the Chamberlain’s mind with clarity and he would realise their peril, and move to action without further delay.

There was to be no such enlightenment apparently, as the occupants of the high council chamber waited expectantly.

“The forests of the Eastern slope, Sire, have turned silver, their lushness stolen; only their bones remain to follow the river’s path.”

“We have been informed of the occurrence, Scribe Celestos.” First Minister Draach spoke with a dismissive wave of his bejewelled hand. “These…signs that you speak of are merely our world’s changes, natural and expected, like the mysterious tides of our women.”

Not for the first time Celestos pondered how his people had developed with such haste, only to remain ignorant of even the most basic wisdoms.

“Surely Minister, if these, as you say, trivial events are occurring then logic deems the more affecting will follow in their wake; just as My Liege Chamberlain follows the dancing slave girls into Banquet.”

Celestos could’ve bitten off his own tongue for permitting his flair for the dramatic to carry him away, but he was urgent in his need to see action seize the moment.

“You liken your liege master to a-”

“The wakening of a mountain,” Celestos was beyond self-preservation, “both are equal in their majestic grandness, both must be glorious to witness, and life-changing to those beneath them.”

He carried on hoping to cement his case before he could be executed for his offense. “It is upon us My Liege, the future of our people; written in the hand of their long dead kin, so that we might survive.”

Celestos had worked his way across the bloodstone tiles, ignored the symbolic sensation of following his dying people’s blood trail. The open pages before him carried their own splotches of long-dried blood concealing some of the inked warnings and revealing others. He’d always envisioned a Scribe like himself, within the peril of a crumbling ancient building, laying down omens etched in his own blood, with the knowledge and hope of warning future generations. Celestos was that Scribe now, only he had relied upon having enlightened leaders who would read the signs and act without hesitation.

“Those are the ramblings of a people long since gone – without the enlightenment of our day – superstition and a poor explanation for a world incomprehensible to uneducated minds.”

Celestos wanted to knock him flat, wanted to see his life’s blood seep into the tiles, to defend his people from such arrogance.

“My Liege, you must-” and there was Celestos’ error, he had stepped too far beyond his office, had taken his Chamberlain to task; but as his liege’s colour deepened with offended indignation and he felt the heat of menacing grips on his shoulders, Celestos was vindicated.

The ground trembled beneath his thin sandals; hungry cracks grew across the vaulted ceiling that towered above their heads.

“Junok save us. Let him redeem us from our ignorance. May the sons and daughters of tomorrow…” he murmured as his hands gestured The Offering, a series of movements they’d learned at the knee of his mother.

But Celestos’ prayer would never be completed. For as the leaders of his people screamed like boys shown the circumcision blade, Mount Tagnik'zur spewed forth great smoke and flame; before taking flight amid the unnatural blood red of a Tarakonan winter’s night.

Just as Celestos’ treasured tomes and scrolls had declared it would.

~!~

‘Red.’

It was all John’s mind could process, though translating it so Jumper 1’s systems could understand and react accordingly was proving way above his pay grade.

Every jumper mission since coming to Pegasus, even the bad ones, had started with atmosphere somewhere in the spectrum of sky.

“Sheppard?” Ronon spoke without turning his eyes from the undulating swirl of…red.

“It’s fine,” John answered, his tone minus the underlying confidence he always aimed for.

Ronon allowed Sheppard the ruse, as his CO activated the HUD and skeletal blue-white outlines appeared on a background of red, red that now had smoky fingers of black bleeding through it.

It came at them from the starboard side, filled the HUD with an unrecognisable mesh of geometric formation that confused the jumper’s systems and distracted John for precious seconds before his instincts kicked in and he was flying her like his Black Hawk.

Ronon was tense but quiet next to him; filling the cabin with a reassuring solidity that John had not only become used to, but relied upon as the man stared out into the impregnable red soup that was all that existed out the windshield.

“What is it?” Ronon asked without looking away as John threw the ancient ship into a nose dive.

“You got me,” John gritted through clenched teeth, tension and expectation pushing into his shoulders. “Sure can fly.”

With a roar, undiluted by cabin atmospherics, a reptilian face, yellow-eyed and brown-skinned, bore down on them in the weirdest game of chicken John had ever participated in. Razor needle-like teeth offered hideous death within a gruesome grin as an ominously growing light filled its open throat.

“Shit!” John cursed and Ronon yanked his eyes from the creature, watched Sheppard’s body follow the jumper’s rapid defensive spiral out of habit, before flicking back to the still-advancing threat.

“Seen one before?” He asked, not certain the answer would be of comfort, whatever Sheppard said.

“Movies,” Sheppard grunted, full attention focused on the zigzag climb he was currently putting Jumper 1 through.

Ronon was right, the answer hadn’t helped; only added confusion to the knot of uncertainty, trust and expectation taking up residence in his gut.

“No one’s gonna believe this,” Sheppard continued as if Ronon had offered a response, and plunged them through the waning red mire to scrape along the riverside terrain of Tarakona’s outlying settlements.

Sheppard grunted every time the thing shunted them off course; forearms straining, knuckles white around the controls as he ducked them around clutches of trees. Red vaporized in the inferno of orange and yellow that engulfed their view, the HUD responding in an incomprehensible stream of scrolling data and echoed warning alarms that clanged inside Ronon’s head for the second it took Sheppard’s distracted thoughts to disable them.

“Hull can’t take much more of this.” Sheppard looked over at Ronon as if he alone held the solution, but when Ronon stared back, soft brown eyes wide and calm, yet lacking the answer he needed; his CO smirked and confessed. “We’re three hundred in, city’s only fifteen; you recognise anything?”

Ronon yanked his gaze from that of his team leader’s, focused both his sight and his memories on the scorched and rubbled vista before them.

“No,” he croaked as the desolate destruction mirrored that of a Wraith-torn Sateda.

His belly churned threateningly as Sheppard flung them into a sharp dive, then a vertical climb that did nothing to lose their pursuer. “Should head back.”

Sheppard glared as the reading spiked and alarms screeched along Ronon’s nerves like nothing he could describe. “That’s the plan, only he’s not going for it!”

It wasn’t like Sheppard to bark like McKay, and that knowledge only served to set Ronon’s defences on high. ‘Sheppard didn’t think they’d make it out of this,’ and all Ronon could think as he pressed his thighs into the secondary control panel, breathed into the repeating spiral dive; was that he hadn’t told Sheppard, hadn’t told John of his feelings. Hadn’t given them the chance to be something more than what they were.

John spun Jumper 1 on a dime while she scolded him like an electronic chipmunk; her updates more panicked as their obviously useless shield crackled and melted under the next blast of flame. John felt Ronon flinch next to him as knowledge hit. If they didn’t land they were screwed. If they landed here they were really fucking screwed! They had to make it to the city, if there was any of it left. Tarakona was nowhere near as advanced as Atlantis, obviously, but living in this environment they had to have a Plan A; right?

John tuned out the little ship’s constant stream of Fourth Realm Ancient dialect and pulled her up and over what was left of modern looking houses, skimmed the unending ruins of the charcoaled crops they’d come here to trade for.

Jumper 1, guided lovingly by Sheppard’s skilled hand, rounded the last of the so-not-helping treeline where it mimicked the base of an enormous mountain range, and promptly somersaulted.

“Arrrgggh!” Ronon protested, long fingered hands wrapping around the chair arms as his brain failed to make sense of the creature filling the windshield, and his stomach fisted threateningly; he’d never live it down if he puked now.

Miraculously they were still flying – albeit on their backs in reverse – the idea of which made Ronon stare at Sheppard in open-mouthed wonder. His CO didn’t look at him in return, but Ronon was okay with that. ‘Reach Tarakona in one, still-flyable piece, then hero worship.’

The creature – Ronon had NEVER come across one of these before, nor heard of them in conversation or legend – was tiring of its game and the hits were coming with more accuracy and frequency.

Jumper 1 would flip or skid then scoot forward before being struck again. The idea would’ve made John laugh with the absurdity of it all; if he hadn’t had Ronon’s life quite literally in his hands. His arms strained with the thought rather than any actual physical pressure, the controls as light and delicate to operate as any summer daytrip to the Athosian mainland.

Ronon shifted his white knuckled grip to point out what John had already seen. The city, finally, growing in scale and detail with their approach.

John didn’t bother asking where the garage was, he was gonna park right on the front doorstep if it meant he could get them on the deck without damaging any more vital control systems, or Ronon. John spared a flick of his eyes for the man next to him, and felt a warmth wash through him, making his knees weak and his feet numb. ‘Ronon.’

John looked back just in time to dive under an elegant pink stone archway, imagined its destruction in the wake of the pissed off dragon on their six, and spun Jumper 1 under an overhang that completely hid them from sight – well normal sight anyway – because Puff was still on them. They flew on their port wing, heard the metallic scrape of Ancient hull on Tarakonan architecture, as their tailgater shunted Jumper 1 in a random pattern of forward, port, starboard and DOWN!

The last hit had taken out the port drive pod, halved John’s power reserves and forced the little ship into a side-heavy roll.

“FUCK!”

‘He needed something…something that’d…’

Ronon grunted but didn’t speak, just closed his eyes; his mind incapable of processing why his body still remained motionless in the chair while a frantic spiral of blurred buildings, red smoke, orange flame, and electric-white sparks out the windshield argued that he should be falling.

He could hear Sheppard thinking through the near constant trill of alarms and the acrid burn of fried circuitry now filling the cabin with a blue haze, could see the line of tension sharpen along the other man’s shoulders. This was bad. They were going down.

John leaned back into his padded chair, forearms corded as he yanked the controls back four inches. It was inconceivable that so small a measurement could have such a drastic impact on their real time position, but Jumper 1 bucked like a rodeo bull under her first cowboy; the windshield view arcing back to show the rugged tattoo of brown-black underbelly of the beast on a background of burnt red smog as it flew past them, echo of an outraged roar tossing their little ship in its wake.

In the second it took Puff to overshoot them, John had nosed Jumper 1 down, ducked through a decorative arch and paused for a second, his body determined to force much-needed air into tightly fisted lungs. He wasn’t stupid enough to think they were in the clear, Puff didn’t have the same stopping power, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t counter John’s trick with one of his own. It was too much to hope that maybe the dragon’s attention span lasted only as long as its prey was visible.

John’d barely finished the thought and turned to eyeball Ronon’s condition when the towering wall they were using as cover exploded in a thrashing of battered leather, broiling orange and an avalanche of tumbling grey rubble that threatened to crush John and Ronon in their own readymade coffin while the dragon’s roar filled the cabin beyond any and all ability to think. Despite John’s effort to restart their one remaining drive pod, there was no escape and Jumper 1 with her two fragile occupants fell the remaining fifty feet in a downpour of elegantly carved rubble.

Ronon didn’t feel the impact; heard only the sounds of systems sequentially shutting down around him, the jumper darkening with gentle whirs and clicks as insistent black nudged at the edges of his mind. It was comforting in a way, like end-of-day and the whispery brush of fur on his cheek as he pulled on his blanket in preparation for sleep. Only here, he was with Sheppard, just the two of them, in the dark, alone.

Ronon wanted to say something, reassure Sheppard that this was ok, that if this was it, Ronon could think of no better end, but his lips would not obey him; so he let his gratitude and depth of feeling fill the enclosed space in a silent warmth he hoped Sheppard would sense and take into himself, knowing it came from Ronon and no other. Ronon allowed the darkness to win then, allowed himself to go quietly; with nothing to mark his passing save the victorious circling of the huge mysterious beast that had been his conqueror.

~!~

Red crashed in on John in an avalanche of confused and jumbled sensations. Light, darkness, Jumper 1’s attention-seeking screeches, Ronon yelling his name, and pain.

He hurt. Damn did he hurt. Fucking everywhere! Especially his head; half of which appeared to be fused with the flight controls. John groaned and the huge paws that’d been executing a gentle triage of his spine paused, pressed flat and warm against his lower back, before splaying out to check his ribs. John felt heat suffuse his everything at that touch and groaned, this time with a pleasure he was too concussed to hold back.

“That hurt?” Ronon rumbled, and John tried to answer with a nod.

His voice had dried up along with the million questions he should’ve been asking; evaporated in the wake of the dizzying pleasure of Ronon’s touch…

“Don’t move!”

The command broke through the haze of red John’s mind was drifting into, blended with the velocity, life support, and damage reports that were systematically downloading within cool liquid streams of iridescent light; one more thing fighting for attention he couldn’t find…

‘What did Ronon mean? Of course he had to move, had to get them home, safe. Had to keep Ronon safe...’

“Sheppard!”

It sent a shiver right through him every time Ronon said his name; now was no different, but as the other man’s hands paused in their exploration of John’s right – or was it his left – calf muscle, he wished Ronon would call him John.

‘If wishes were kisses, we’d all be happy, John.’ John smiled and wriggled as that longed-for touch tickled the back of his knee; allowed the red to sooth away the shards of fire those fingers had awakened beneath their tips, and fade out the fear in Ronon’s voice as John drifted into warmth.

“JOHN!”

Ronon clenched his jaw to hold in the suffocating panic that threatened to consume him as Sheppard’s body slackened beneath his hands.

His CO seemed to melt against the machine that already commanded more of his friend than Ronon was willing to share, and one day, perhaps, he’d find courage enough for that conversation. Now though, now Ronon had to move through the bile burning his throat, and complete his assessment of Sheppard’s injuries. His team leader was out cold, even prodding around the arm rest support had sliced Sheppard’s thigh, did nothing to make him stir. And time, time was not Ronon’s ally.

“Fuck!”

John came round slowly, his mind drenched in heat filled craving that arched his body into the touch that both soothed and ignited his desire to mate. Each press of fingertip, each slide of a large calloused palm across the flat of his belly, each puff of exertion against the sweat glazed curve of his neck drove hot hot blood to his cock, and moans from his parched throat.

“I got you.” Ronon’s voice gruff and determined as John felt himself being lifted and untangled from the control panel, had John pressing his lips to a morsel of collarbone, exposed by John’s weight tugging on brown linen.

He felt the bigger man shiver at his touch, felt his own lips tug into a smirk before suckling messily, pulling more smooth skin into the moist heat of his mouth. Ronon’s grip around John’s waist tightened almost painfully with each swipe of tongue. John groaned in the back of his throat and felt Ronon’s answering shiver as he reached up, hand fisted in raspy dreads to bring Ronon’s lush lips down to his own. John twisted his body closer with the contact; heat and wet, and a groan of disbelief and longing filled him, hardened the sharp line of his cock pressed into solid abs as Ronon took control, ravaged John’s soft open mouth with demanding plunges of tongue and warning nips. Until he was gone.

John was burning up. Sweat cooled in an icy mould over his skin, trickled down his spine, as his clouded mind whirled caught in the agony of stone cold turkey. He needed Ronon, craved his smooth golden skin against his own; and his mate’s rejection burned like fire through John’s touch-starved body.

~!~

John was writhing in Ronon’s arms like he wanted to climb inside him. The sensation was better than any number of his fantasies combined, but why had the man chosen now to start something?

Ronon breathed hard, biceps straining with the effort of twisting John’s booted foot free from the mess of exposed circuitry and holding both of them upright. He was still shaking from the shock of landing rough, John’s falling slack in his arms, and now that same man, very hot man, was trying to eat him alive.

Ronon’s splayed his hands low on John’s back, felt the undeniable length of cock ground between both their bellies as John yanked him down into their first kiss.

‘Fuck!’ Ronon thought on a groan, John’s mouth was hot, so damn hot, and slick, and soft, and wanting; Ronon just could not resist a moment longer.

He fucked his tongue deep, tasting everything John offered and more, tasted, licked and swallowed each eager noise of pleasure his dark haired CO gave him. The sparks of pain from John tugging on his hair ropes only added to the wantneedfuck command of Ronon’s entire body; but it wasn’t right. John was burning up, while the air around them was rapidly cooling; goosebumps crept over bare skin, untouched by the fiery slide of John’s hands. The man actually growled when Ronon pulled out of their kiss and held his CO at arm’s length, with an effort of will Ronon was unaware he possessed. But as he dug his long fingers into the lean curves of John’s biceps, soft cotton and sweat-slick scorching skin meeting under his palms, Ronon looked into over-wide eyes and watched the other man fight to find himself again.

“Ronon?”

“Yeah, John,” Ronon whispered, his voice scorched in the heat from John’s mouth, scratched the delicate newness between them, “you good?”

John nodded woodenly, already pushing Ronon back, taking a dizzying step before catching his balance. “Should get outta here.”

Sheppard, Ronon had reverted to formality since they were no longer feasting on each other’s mouths, dodged Ronon’s guiding hand and leaned on the bulkhead doorframe a moment, before continuing into the messed-up rear cabin.

Ronon stood there for an awkward moment, his body still buzzing and sparking with denied need, until he could gather himself enough to focus on something other than how it had felt to hold Sheppard in his arms.

~!~

“Now what?” Ronon asked in a higher pitched gravel he hardly recognised as his own voice.

“Well, trading’s off the menu.” Sheppard answered, keeping his back to Ronon as he lifted a transport case onto one of the benches. “Did you see those fields?”

Ronon nodded and swallowed, not only were the Lantean’s gonna go hungry because of this, but the Tarakonay would too.

“You got a plan?” Ronon rephrased his original question, hoping like hell Sheppard did, because his CO looked exhausted and the thing about the fields sounded like stalling.

“That…” John finally looked at the towering solidity of Ronon casually leaning in the doorway, eyes wide and lips swollen from their kissing, and swallowed hard, “…was a Dragon, and if I remember the plot, it sees in infared; and if we get in the way of that flame-thrower of his, it’s lights out.”

John watched understanding sink into the other man’s broad shoulders, studied too long the tightening lines as Ronon stood, automatically ducking his head to clear the panelling above.

“In-far-red?”

“Yeah,” John wiped sweat from his brow and hissed as his fingers brushed the bandaged head wound, “sees through walls, reads body heat as layered colour. Nowhere to hide.”

John saw Ronon swallow, tracked the movement, his own throat mimicking with tight dry flexes. “That why we didn’t lose him?”

John was grateful for the out Ronon gave him; assuming the Dragon and not John’s skills were to blame.

“Yeah,” John rubbed the back of his neck and ducked his head to hide the heat in his cheeks, “cloaks and shields are useless, hull took a beating but we hit the deck before we found out just how much she’s able take.”

Ronon sighed, a long exhale of tightly held breath he hadn’t known he had kept back. “Dr Weir will want to know what happened to the jumper.”

“And I don’t think we got shot down by a dragon is gonna go over too well.” Sheppard smirked as he slid spare P90 clips down the front of his vest, and looked back at Ronon, all indecision evaporated. “Here, carry these.”

“Truth is stranger than most fiction.” Ronon took the bundle of white-capped red sticks and slipped them into the hidden pockets of his coat without question.

“Welcome to Pegasus,” Sheppard chuckled and gestured at the array of ordnance nestled in the black foam beds of their yellow carry cases. “You good?”

Ronon pulled his blaster from its holster, checked the charge reading, nodded and slid the weapon home against his right thigh; fingering the grip lovingly while Sheppard stowed the remaining arsenal away.

“You think any Tarakonay are left?” John asked as he pocketed the life signs detector and clicked the jumper remote.

“Yes,” Ronon threw gruffly over his shoulder as he squeezed his long body out the narrow gap of protesting metal that had once been the hatch, and took up point.

A few strides into their sketchy plan of get to the gate and dial Atlantis before being roasted – or eaten – alive, Ronon hoped Celestos had survived; he and Sheppard would like each other. He felt strangely like he was bringing home his betrothed for approval, and though he immediately dismissed the idea, Ronon couldn’t ignore the way his heart kicked an extra beat.

~!~

“Let’s hope your friend has a plan.” John murmured and clicked the remote, Jumper 1 disappearing inside its cloak.

Ronon couldn’t help thinking that if Celestos had a plan, the older man would be following it. “Thought that was useless?”

“To the dragon,” John couldn’t help the smirk that tugged up the corner of his mouth, seriously no one was going to believe him, “yes, but it’ll stop anyone else stumbling across it.”

Since the broken ship was both half buried in rubble and now completely invisible, Ronon thought stumbling across it was exactly what would happen if anyone was stupid enough to be wandering about in this; anyone other than him and Sheppard, of course.

Ronon grunted a noncommittal answer and moved off, placing each large booted foot amongst the rubble of once-modern buildings and unrecognisable ripples of metallic ash. He could hear Sheppard’s soft scrunch close behind and knew the other man was walking his footsteps, trusting Ronon to lead him sure. The warmth in Ronon’s chest strengthened while he threw his senses outward and pushed a path through a cloying red heat, thick with the overwhelming taste of scorched hope.

‘Ancestors, may he survive.’ Ronon whispered under a shallow breath and knew the prayer was not only for an old family friend from his past; but for Sheppard, his CO, his friend, his future?

A perky bleep interrupted Ronon’s thoughts and he turned, scanning for the threat and waiting for direction. Sheppard was staring at the little screen, a swipe of grey over one cheekbone.

“Three, hundred feet, “John signalled the heading and Ronon started off, his ground-eating pace quick enough that John was half-jogging to maintain their spacing.

John followed Ronon’s lead; the artificial night, thick with smoke and ash, cloyed heavily on his bare arms. Its weight driving the moisture from him in a sheen of sweat, sticky in his pits and salty on his upper lip. Ronon moved through this world as if it were home, and John supposed Sateda must’ve felt this, had you spent long enough in its ruins; long enough for its ghosts to haunt your soul. By the time he and the others had found Ronon, honed in on his transmitter signal, they were down to snatch n grab, in and out, before the Hive could get a bead on them. No room in his mind for anything more than GET RONON BACK!

But here, his eyes tracing the rise and fall, twist and flex, of broad shoulders and strong back, the sweet curve of ass riding tight and high on long strong legs; John could feel everything. Confusion tumbled within him, ebbed and flowed, and swirled with urgent heat.

John shook his head, flinging sweat like a dog fresh from its bath, tried to focus on the five dots – two moving - on the little screen in his left palm, and not the thick lazy thwap of aged leather pulsing stagnant heat over him; like the stench of Death’s final breath.

~!~

Ronon could feel Sheppard behind him, closing the distance, could feel the heat of the other man at his back. But whatever was going on would have to wait; he’d found the three dots on Sheppard’s screen. They were loud, staying hidden, yes, but not silent; gossiping like old women at a council fire. The beast would roast them, roast them alive and screaming, until their bones became nothing more than wind-blown ash.

Two old men and one younger – though not by much – sat huddled against the wall to Ronon’s left, sandal-toed feet poking past the reach of peripheral sight and unaware of Ronon’s presence; even when he and, now Sheppard, were standing directly in front of them. He’d been wrong, only two of them were gossiping; Master Celestos was trying in vain to silence them.

Ronon’s heart lightened, both by the sight of the Scribe, and that he knew enough of the situation to value the importance of silence. There would be no time wasted in explanations best left for when they were safely indoors. Ronon doubted even then, if Sheppard’s theory was to be trusted. Ronon trusted Sheppard with his every breath, so he trusted the Intel, even if it was from one of the collection of moving pictures McKay and his CO were so taken with.

“First Minister, we must remain silent.” Celestos murmured in a hiss.

“Scribe, you over speak your-”

“You should listen, old one, for you will live longer if you do.” Ronon interrupted, his voice a deep rumble that snapped everyone’s attention. “We must go. How far to the ring?”

Relief and recognition shone through the streaks of ash and soot on the softly wrinkled face, and Ronon remembered the amiable demeanour of his childhood tutor with fondness. A feeling he could spare little time for in the moment. Sheppard was close at his back, covering him while Ronon’s attention was on the men huddled at his feet. ‘Must get Sheppard to safety.’

“Master Celestos, we can get you to your people, if you show us the way.”

“Dex-Ron, be that you, child?”

Ronon smiled, the voice had begun to waver at the corners with age, but it was still familiar enough to pull forth favourable memories of walking tours of knowledge from the depths of memory and re-instigate them in full colour. “A child, no more.”

“No,” Celestos grinned with startled green eyes and pride in his tone. “Of that I can see. A strong warrior you did make. I did suspect the life of a scholar lay not in your future.”

Sheppard shuffled his feet, and cleared his throat below the hearing of anyone but Ronon. They had to move. Now.

“We must move, Minister.” Ronon growled, not an order but a simple fact with no room for discussion or dispute, as he offered his arm to the older of Master Celestos’ two companions.

“Soldier, it is your duty to ensure our survival,” the mouthy one commanded as Ronon tugged him upright, frail bones airborne for the space between breaths, before manicured feet settled in the spread of shiny ash accumulating around them, as if they themselves were time-worn ruins.

Ronon gave the man scant notice; he would see them safe because it wasn’t in him to ignore the weak, but when it came down to it, there was no choice. Sheppard came before even Ronon’s own life; whether Sheppard ordered him to or not.

~!~

“Who is your companion, Dex-Ron?” Master Celestos whispered, his words brushing cool against Ronon’s bicep as he nodded his chin toward Sheppard’s back, thirty feet ahead on point, while Ronon herded the elders between them and covered their rear flank.

“You love him deeply, yet he is unaware.” His childhood tutor continued, Ronon only realising he hadn’t answered the first of the alert man’s questions. “Why do you delay, surely with all that surrounds us this day, there can be no better moment to ensure the certainty of reciprocation?”

Ronon agreed, at least in part, with Master Celestos’ observations.

“It’s complicated,” he rumbled threateningly in the hope it would be an end to it.

“Your fear is groundless Dex-Ron, for you are not solitary in your desires.”

Master Celestos continued shuffling forward, while Ronon’s legs had suddenly forgotten their most basic function. His tutor had rarely been wrong in his insight, and Ronon saw no reason to doubt him now. Sheppard felt the same for Ronon as Ronon did for him, the kiss back in the jumper proved that. ‘Didn’t it?’

Ronon growled and strode out, closing the four foot lead Master Celestos had gained on him in two steps.

“It’s-”

“Complicated?” His tutor asked, merriment of a far younger man twinkling in wise eyes. “Yes, so you decreed but a moment ago.”

Ronon bristled, turned to make himself more imposing, though he knew it was wasted on the man at his side. Despite all that had happened to Ronon in the intervening years since he’d last seen Master Celestos, his tutor was still capable of seeing through to the hopeful youth at Ronon’s core.

“And yet, he is still in love with you, and awaiting your declaration.”

Longing and want surged Ronon on a wave of heat that burned like fire; intense and beautiful, and welcome beyond all else. He felt it in his heart, his dick, in the blush painting his cheeks like a bride, as his fingertips fizzed with the need to touch. Ronon ducked, the rasp of hair ropes falling in familiar formation to shield him.

“In your concealment you reveal your deepest yearnings.” Master Celestos murmured, and lay a cool papery palm over the scorched caramel skin of Ronon’s forearm; patted twice and squeezed once, before letting go.

Ronon instantly missed the comfort of the touch, could still feel the echo of its owner’s wisdom slip into memory, just as Sheppard’s barked warning was engulfed in a roar of orange inferno that melted the ruins barely a hundred paces to their right.

He shoved Master Celestos to his knees, registered the old man’s grunt in the back of his mind as he dropped into a crouch, pivoted on the balls of his feet, blaster aimed high with Sheppard’s P90; the Lantean weapon’s scope dancing on the breastscales of the enormous winged beast, whose leathery wings rippled on the air currents as it charged again – straight for Sheppard. ‘FUCK!’

They waited, tension and sweltering heat weighting them down, keeping them motionless as the beast completed a third dive-and-arc hunting pattern; dragged a wind tunnel of flaming embers, cement dust, and ash over the five men cowering in the destruction below his tail flaps.

It had felt like hours, days even, as they waited out their persistent foe. Minister Draach’s asthmatic breaths had quietened as the passage of time slowly calmed his aged heart, and the red in the sky had fallen to starless black.

Their enemy had finally moved east of their position and was showing no immediate signs of returning, but Ronon knew Sheppard still watched the heavens; his sharp vision fading with the dying day. It was pointless to travel at night, if Sheppard’s theory was correct the beast would pick them off effortlessly, and neither his nor the Colonel’s weapons, were a match for such overwhelming firepower. It would be like using Sheppard’s sidearm against a Hive ship. Better to share their rations and Ronon would keep watch while the others slept. Sheppard would argue but his concussion would turn the argument in Ronon’s favour. He was just reaching for his earpiece when Sheppard radioed they’d make camp closer into the ruins and hope the fire eddies would shield their body heat from alert reptilian eyes.

~!~

He was flying, the warm air dancing over his skin in welcome. He’d missed this, missed the freedom, the feeling of stretching wide then pushing his body beyond even that limit; to reach for the horizon, and release tension held for too many centuries in pre-ancient bones.

There was a deeper sense now, pushing itself into his consciousness, thrusting forward, demanding his focus, and scorching his blood. Mate. He must mate.

John shifted, his body hard and eager, desperate in its need. He was so hot; could feel his sweat running, rivulets of fire marking his chest and soaking black cotton. He arched into the feeling, and sought the contact he craved; the touch of smooth golden skin and hot wet mouth, heat like the sun itself. John rolled; cheek delicate against the hard gravel of textured skin. His mate. It had been so long.

He woke with a start; want clouding his mind, need clawing along his nerves, breath close and urgent.

“Fuck!” A whispered gasp, and sharp command, both.

John scanned the small alcove with its avalanche of once-graceful architecture, now lying in dusty scorched rubble, and saw the three elderly men; asleep and undisturbed in the shadow of Ronon’s back as he guarded the entrance.

The dying gold of their pitiful fire was enough to outline long muscled arms, gauntlets etched in dark relief around his forearms. Broad shoulders still tense with awareness called to John. The demands of body and dream pulled him to his feet, lead him forward past silent witnesses, to his mate.

It had been too long.

“Sheppard?” His mate’s voice a growl of knowledge and banked need that matched his own, as John crowded close.

One minute he’d been listening to the sounds of the night around him; sleepy shuffles of his charges punctuating the gravelly slide of falling civilization. The next Sheppard had him pinned between cool stone, and the wall of heat that was his CO’s lean muscled body. Ronon could smell him, musk, sweat, and arousal that kicked low in his own belly.

“Ronon.” His name in John’s slurred drawl had Ronon’s body instantly wanting to submit; to give everything to the man whose hands were shoving linen up to reach bare abs. Each soft rasp of weapon-calloused fingertips was an order, a command to be still as Sheppard yanked at his laces.

But this fevered desperate man wasn’t Sheppard, wasn’t even John. Wide black eyes, harsh breath, and crazed actions spoke in evidence to the truth.

“John!” Ronon pushed against biceps, slick and tense beneath his palms, while his hips thrust into his CO’s touch.

“Fuck, Ronon!” John was on him, lips sweet and clever against his own, teasing and demanding as Ronon opened for more.

He’d wanted for so long, and here John was giving him everything, taking Ronon in trade.

‘Stop,’ he thought through the cloudy heat filling his mind, as John ground their hips, their cocks, together; and fuck, that was good!

“Stop.” He gave the word its freedom, only to have John swallow it along with Ronon’s moan when his cock was fisted in John’s palm; imprisoned with the soft steel of John.

Ronon didn’t want to stop. He thrust his hips into the sweat-slick slide John set for them both; but this wasn’t John, and Ronon had to stop before all he craved was lost to whatever had hold of John.

He had hold of John. When had his own hand wrapped tight over John’s, his long fingers meshing with John’s, increasing the fabulous friction around their cocks?

“John,” he pleaded, even as he kissed back; trailed his own lips down the creamy arch of offered neck, sank white teeth into willing flesh.

“’S’okay,” John whispered, breath hot and assured over the shell of Ronon’s ear as he spun the taller man to face the wall, shoved close and tight behind, body on fire with the need to fuck. “I got you.”

‘His mate,’ John growled in triumph as Ronon shoved his hips back, searched, demanded his pleasure from John with a guttural growl of his own, that sent need screaming through his core.

He had found his mate.

~!~

He couldn’t breathe. He was failing at life’s most basic task. Infrequent shallow intakes that he immediately wanted to force back out. The process was making him dizzy, slowing sound, weighing his limbs. Ronon felt slow and dim, tongue thick with the stuff he refused to let into his lungs. He was falling, the air seemed to halt him for three of those breaths that weren’t really breaths; not sharp and fresh enough to widen your eyes or inflate your chest and let you know you were alive.

Ronon knew he wasn’t making sense, even if it was still all in his head. He felt like he had when he was a boy, and had eaten fistfuls of the bright purple-striped berry; so vibrant and tempting in a forest where everything was seven shades of green. A moon’s passing spent flat on his back in the care of physicians. He’d felt trapped like a Q’tera bug under glass.

Ronon could hear his old tutor’s screams, heard them as a babe’s whisper from another room, felt Master Celestos’ fingers holding Ronon upright with a strength old brittle bones should not possess.

“Ronon!” Sheppard’s voice crackled in his ear, though the man was four people ahead and near invisible against the red of the broken landscape, instead of at Ronon’s side. “Ronon, c’mon buddy, almost there.”

He mouthed a reply that satisfied his CO enough that Sheppard returned to the radio silence they’d agreed upon, before setting out for the gate. When was that? A hundred years past, at least.

Ronon fought back the shame of his weakness, knew it to be simply that he was the largest, would need the most air to move his body, and logically would be the first to suffer. The knowledge did nothing to soothe his pride.

“Come, Dex-Ron, we shall do this together,” Master Celestos encouraged. “Lend this old man an arm? You were always such a considerate youth, I doubt that has changed, no matter the years expired since.”

Ronon answered with a sharp nod; one corner of his mouth tugging up into his beard. He would help this old man across the street and all would be well. Never mind it was a rubble-ravaged street with a hostile resident that saw you as colourful food. Atlantis may have blurred his edges, but being hunted was something Ronon knew in his bones and would never truly lose.

With his next breath Ronon focused his mind, threw out his senses and knew that this time he wasn’t alone.

~!~

The further and longer their party of five wandered amidst the desolate destruction, the more it pulled softly, luring you closer to that place; the place where sitting seemed more hopeful, than continuing the mindless trudge with the measured wheeze of pollution-saturated lungs – when acceptance and submission appeared the smoother course.

Ronon hadn’t believed he would yield so easily to a force whose only weapons were the cremated remnants of yet another Pegasus civilisation. Their ashes blown forth on a wind created by the very beast whose breath siphoned his own, and destroyed the things that marked the passage of a human life from birth to death. Life bringing forth its own demise. A paradox Ronon would consider with much irony, later; for there was these men to bring to safety, and Sheppard. There was always Sheppard.

As if his CO had heard his thoughts, Ronon’s radio crackled into life, Sheppard’s voice close and warm, and on task. “Two o clock, high! Down! Now!”

It was fucking huge, filling John’s vision then stretching beyond it; wings concertinaing outward, endless battered brown leather in sections that silenced all sound, but its own breath as it landed two hundred feet away across a once-stylish courtyard.

Dragons had always been part of Earth’s mythology, in every culture, going as far back as History’s birth. John’d never got what Dragons mixing with humans meant until now. Had there ever actually been Dragons on Earth, or had they been like Atlantis herself; tales told to the Greeks by the returning Ancients? Demoted through the centuries from overwhelming fact to faded memory, and on down to kids’ books; nothing more than fantastical myth and legend.

John crouched, frozen in position with his P90 at his shoulder; terrified that even in this situation his body was more interested in the demanding need to fuck, every inch of his flesh suffused with driving heat and the instinct to mate. Yet lingering beneath was a longing of love, blended with a fear of loss, and the desire to protect…her.

‘Her who?’ John thought sluggishly as the telepathic power of the answer knocked him physically on his ass. ^Naga^

‘And where the hell had that come from?’

John knew the answer. He dragged his gaze along the sweep and spiked wing line, over regimented rows that could hardly be described as teeth, to the vertical pupils of acid-yellow eyes, filled with knowledge so ancient; and John knew.

All this time! Had a single one of his impulses been his own? ‘Ronon. Oh FUCK!’

His mind flashed straight to smooth golden skin, the rasp of dreads on his own paler flesh as Ronon, Ronon who he loved, had taken what John offered; out in the open. John groaned in pleasure, remembering how it’d felt to drive deep inside Ronon, to feel his lover clench to keep them together. His heart kicked in his chest as John fought the urge to rip his clothes off. He’d put Ronon in danger, had risked their lives because of this connection; a connection with a fucking dragon! John couldn’t process, could feel panic rising up to swallow – Ronon’s mouth, wet heat open in offering, closing around John’s cock as he slid past those slick plush li- John groaned louder, helpless in his – the beast’s need.

‘Fuck, had Ronon even wanted it?’

John moaned, a pitiful echo of loss that fizzed in his boiling blood even while his heart clutched in on itself. He’d forced Ronon and now – there was no now, no future either; he’d have t-

“John?”

The voice in his ear was both balm and tinder to the roil of panic and lust filling him. One word, his name, deep and husky, and filled with everything John wanted, and had destroyed. Last night was all on him, not…

“It was us.” Ronon pitched his tone deeper into his radio, hoped the truth of it would break through whatever was freaking John out. “You and me, John. Us.”

Ronon clenched his tender hole, shuddered into the memory of John taking him hard while long fingered hands bruised his hips, and soft hot lips laid kisses into the curve of his neck.

‘Why had John broken every self-imposed rule and military regulation, and fucked Ronon – offworld, with danger and witnesses right there with them in the smoky shadows?’

Ronon ignored Master Celestos’ concerned look and the touch to his arm, but the cool reassuring hand nudged insistently until Ronon dragged his eyes from where John was stretched back, legs splayed and neck arched in offering, to look into his tutor’s knowing gaze.

“We three shall be well Dex-Ron. It is your lover who has need of you in this moment. Go to him now.”

Ronon felt the blush scorching his cheeks, of course this old man knew; just as he’d known when his charges smuggled sweet mead into the dormitory. Nothing escaped Master Celestos for long.

He scanned around them but there was only one danger, one threat, and it was focused fully on John.

“John.” Ronon was moving before the single syllable had fallen off his tongue, saw those hazel-green eyes that had filled his dreams these past two years, turn to welcome him with a grief so powerful it made Ronon stumble and fall at John’s side. “I have you.”

“She’s gone, I know she’s gone, I know.” John was clutching Ronon’s arms, fingers digging deep in the butter-soft folds of his coat, knuckles white with certainty.

Ronon spared a glance for the beast who’d dropped its wings, folded them in except for the outer sections which were shielding all but one watchful eye.

“Will he let us leave?” Ronon asked, voice low in an attempt at privacy despite there being three of them in this.

He didn’t like it, didn’t make a habit of sharing – well except that one time after Academy Graduation. Ronon stopped the thought in its tracks and cupped his hands around John’s face, stroked both thumbs over high flushed cheekbones. John moaned and turned into the touch, first one side then the other, and tried to kiss each of Ronon’s large palms.

“Hey, look at me,” Ronon growled, because just that simple trusting gesture had driven heat straight to his own dick, hardening it even as it softened his heart.

John looked up at him, green-edged black through clear crystal glazing of tears, and Ronon couldn’t bear it. He leaned in, hands still cradling, and kissed his lover’s lips; gentle and sure, tip of tongue prodding in question before pulling back.

John was holding his breath, body captivated by the small point of contact their mouths had been. ‘Ronon had wanted it.’

He breathed out, tension bleeding from him as he looked into soft brown eyes he hoped would never stop looking at him like that. Ever.

“Will he let us leave?” He heard Ronon ask, though John knew it wasn’t the first time he’d spoken the question.

It took little effort to talk with Puff, now that John knew he could. The heat and need intensified in the process, and John felt Ronon tug him into his side; giving a much needed anchor – even though John had no clue what to say to a grieving dragon.

‘I am sorry for your loss.’ He thought and tried not to mentally roll his eyes at how lame the socially acceptable phrase sounded, even in telepathic communication. ‘But will you allow us to return to our home? To Atlantis.’ John added as an afterthought in the hope that somehow a dragon had heard of the Ancients.

He just had to get them all through the gate, then he and Ronon could…

John squashed down the vision of Ronon over him, covering him, weighing him down as they kissed and…

^He is your mate^

It wasn’t a question. Rather an all-encompassing silent bellow so rich with want John ground his hips against Ronon’s muscular thigh, a groan his only answer.

^Go. Now. John, descendant of Sheppard. Guard him well.^

‘Thank you…?’ John paused in thought, unsure how to address the dragon now that he was aware the creature could read his mind.

^I who am beyond your time, have no name you can speak.^

John nodded, only now aware that Ronon had got them to their feet and had one strong arm around John’s waist.

^There is merit in Puff.^

John ducked his head into Ronon’s chest and felt a wash of short-lived amusement warm over his thoughts.

^GO!^

“Let’s move,” John croaked through a parched throat. “I want to get you home.”

Ronon growled too low for anyone except John to hear and turned to signal the other three men to their feet. The faster they walked, the sooner he could have the colonel to himself. Perhaps a shower first…

Ronon spent the last comparatively peaceful half mile to the gate thinking of chilled bottled water, slick skin and John’s lush lips stretched taut around a mouthful of Ronon’s cock.

~!~

Elizabeth’s voice came through the open wormhole into their earpieces with such normality it was a shock to John’s overwrought system. “Colonel? We weren’t expecting to hear from you for another nine hours, everything alright?”

“Lower the shield Elizabeth, party of five for dinner tonight,” John answered with the expected banter that earmarked all his team’s returns.

“I’ll make the reservation,” Elizabeth replied smoothly, a hundred questions hidden within each of her words, as Ronon’s IDC confirmed the deactivation of the shield.

The three Tarakonay stood at the base of the ornately masoned steps in the gate area, looking like extras from the orphan movie Teyla had chosen last team night, and arguing with more vigour than men their age had a right to after what they’d been through.

Ronon was proud of the way they’d recognised the danger they were in and had followed every order without question, even Minister Draach. The disagreement, instead of ceasing when Ronon stepped into the circle at Master Celestos’ side, escalated to wild gestures and sharp words all thrown in his direction. He didn’t understand every one; it had been years since he’d spoken the nasal dialect of these councilmen, but their meaning could not have been more clear.

“Remember your position, Scribe!” Minister Draach warned mere inches from the old tutor’s face. “You teach the stories of dead men to children; what do you know of politics?!”

Before Ronon could move, that hand was back on his arm, calling him to stillness, a skill it seemed still worked, even all these years later. “I wear my position with honour, Minister; for it is this child-now-grown and his companion who ensured your survival from one such dead men’s stories.”

Ronon thought Minister Draach’s impersonation of McKay after one of Zelenka’s word coups, both accurate and amusing, but he allowed none of the mirth to show on his face.

“These men have considered our welfare in adversary,” Master Celestos continued without looking his way, for Ronon suspected the old tutor’s expression of deference would have cracked wide open. “I can envision no excuse for their motives to alter, simply because we are now guests in their home.”

Ronon opened his mouth to back up his tutor’s claim, but shut it with an audible click when the hand squeezed his forearm again.

There was a pause long enough for even Ronon to want to shuffle his booted feet, before the minister turned and bowed from the neck. “I offer gracious greetings, Soldier. For your service to Tarakona, in the protection of its leaders. I beg your benevolence for such dismissive speech, for it was born of mere hunger, and fatigue.”

It was the most flowery apology Ronon had ever heard; anywhere, and he’d heard his fair share of politicians speaking ten words when two would do. He nodded wordlessly, sharp and in precise measure to that of the Minister’s preceding bow, before turning to Master Celestos. “Time to go.”

John’s body was done. Everything he looked at had a sharp rainbow-white silhouette. Every muscle, joint, and tendon, screamed for him to surrender, to sleep; and John, was more than ready to sign off on the past thirty-nine hours.

Ronon was at his shoulder, their civilians had already passed through to Atlantis’ gateroom, and the event horizon was blessedly cool on the back of his neck. John looked out over utter destruction toward the creature whose mind he’d unwittingly shared; whose post-hibernation mating instincts had freed John’s own desires. Puff turned in ragged circles over the mountain range that encircled the smoking skeletal remains of Tarakona, and with his altered perception John could’ve sworn the grey-white peak took the form of a sleeping dragon.

A grief-soaked roar split the crimson sky of the new day, and pain indescribable in its strength ripped through John; tore at his heart, till only bloody pulp remained.

“NO!” He fell against Ronon with the breathless scorching weight of it. He felt strong arms hold him up; knew they would always be there for as long as Ronon lived.

And John understood, clarity strengthened by every agony-infused breath, how an insignificant human could be luckier in life and love, than a centuries-old, legendary Dragon.