The last thing that Ronon needed after coming off the experience with the Wraith's brainwashing and Tyre's betrayal was a trip to Earth but John had been planning this for weeks. There was no way he was going to leave Ronon behind, even though it had been suggested by several people. This had been the toughest month so far on Atlantis for both of them and they deserved a real break, not just a closed door between them and the rest of the city. For a few days, they needed decent rest and good food without any interruptions and expectations.
"I'll vouch for him," John stated through clenched teeth for what felt like the thousandth time as Woolsey gave him that look that spoke volumes. "What's the worst he can do?"
"Do you want the list alphabetically or by the length of jail time that goes with the crime?"
It was that kind of talk that made John almost irrationally angry and it wasn't just from Woolsey these days. Everyone seemed to be a little edgy around Ronon. Not that it wasn't for good reason, but things weren't going to get any better if no one gave him a chance to prove himself. Right now, John wondered if Ronon would take the chance if it was given. The way he'd been acting lately, turned inward and unresponsive unless directly confronted, was getting damn tiring.
"If they arrest him... or me, you won't need to worry any longer because we'll be out of your hair. Hell, maybe you could call and warn them about us just so they'll be on the lookout for any screw ups."
"That's not what I meant." Now Woolsey was using the patient voice that John despised because it meant that he was being pacified, as if he had no call to be this angry when he really had every right. In the last thirty days, he had nearly died in a sandstorm, nearly died when a building fell on top of him, nearly died while trying to rescue Teyla (who would have most definitely died if they hadn't gotten there when they did), nearly died while trying to rescue the city from a Wraith pathogen and then watched helplessly as the one person he thought he might just love utterly and completely was taken to the brink of sanity because he'd put his trust in the wrong person. If that list alone didn't qualify both of them for some R&R, he didn't know what did.
"So, are you going to turn down my request for leave?"
"No. I just wish you would rethink who you're taking." Under those words was the undeniable statement that he'd heard other people imply as well. I just wish you would rethink who you love.
"I asked permission for Ronon to come and it was given. Either turn down my request or let me go. It's that simple." He knew it wasn't that simple at all but he was feeling cornered.
Never had his breaking point been so close, not that he blamed Woolsey for the pressure that was building up inside him at the moment. Most of that was due to the confused look he'd seen on Ronon's face this morning when John had stopped to get him for their morning run, like he was unsure what to do next. Their morning run was right up there with breathing - if they were on Atlantis, John and Ronon went for a run. End of sentence. It was just what they did. No one tagged along and no one questioned what they did. It was their time alone. But if Ronon wasn't sure he was still invited along then it seemed silly to make it anything more than just some exercise. John hated running on the best of mornings. Lugging all this pain and rage around so early in the morning was making him positively mental.
With a sigh and wave of his hand, Woolsey dismissed him from his office. John took the opportunity to walk away from this situation, knowing that there was nothing he could say or do that would make this whole thing better. All he had to do now was convince Ronon that he was still welcome on the trip, a more daunting task than arguing with Woolsey.
Dave had been up for the last twenty-seven hours straight, trying to figure out how they were going to redirect their shipments now that the snowstorm had closed down most of the East Coast. It would be days before the roads were passable and any planes could take off. Most transit systems would be hopeless messed up for weeks as everyone tried to get where they wanted to be without regard for the time or money it would take. Normally, Dave would have been right at that front of that queue, pushing to get back to Virginia and home but his work could be done on the West Coast just as well as on the East. Besides, John was due for leave and they'd mentioned maybe meeting up for dinner. Since neither of them would be able to get much further than the Colorado border without running into trouble, he might as well hunker down in the Denver penthouse and try to act like he wasn't severely irritated by the delays.
When his cell phone rang yet again, he tried very hard to reign in his irritation before he picked it up. It never paid to scare someone's assistant. bringing all his hard work to a screeching halt while he tried to find the right way to apologize. "Sheppard here."
"Sheppard here, too."
It was a joke as old as their use of telephones but it was enough to make Dave smile. "Hey, John. Are you in the country?"
"Just got in. I hear there's been a blizzard along the coast so it looks like-"
"I'm in Denver. The storm caught me out here on business. I won't be able to go home for at least three or four days. Where are you?"
"Um, just down the road. They dropped me off in Colorado Springs. I guess we'll be able to meet for dinner, after all."
Dave's smile got wider. He hadn't realized until this moment just now much he had been looking forward to this time with his brother. They'd sent a few letters back and forth, both of them horrible at anything more than the bare minimum so they were always horribly stilted. Part of the problem was the government censors but Dave knew it was really just years of no communication coming back to haunt them. They were Sheppard men. It wasn't in their genetic makeup to be forthcoming with information.
"I'm glad," Dave finally said when he realized he'd left a longer than usual pause in the conversation. "Really. It'll be great to see you again. We have a lot of catching up to do, especially since it'll just be me and you."
"Listen... about that."
In that moment, Dave's heart sank. He tried to think where he'd pushed too hard or what he might have said to make John rethink dinner or just getting together in general. "If you don't want to do dinner, that's fine. We're close enough that we can get together for a beer or two. Or coffee."
"No, it's not that." There was definitely a catch in John's voice. He'd heard it often enough when they were kids and it was always accompanied by John running his hands through the hair at the back of his head. "It won't just be me and you. I mean, it can be if you're really set on it just being me and you. The thing is... do you remember Ronon? Tall guy that I brought to Dad's funeral?"
"How could I forget him? He doesn't exactly blend into a crowd."
"Exactly. See the thing is... well, the thing is-"
"You want to bring him along? That's fine." And it was. Dave let out the breath he'd only just realized he was holding. Now that he knew that John wasn't just trying to back out of the meeting, he would allow him anything. His brother could come with a chimp wrapped around his torso, wanting to only talk in iambic pentameter and Dave would welcome him with open arms. Okay, that was going a bit far. He certainly hoped there was no rhyming over dinner.
"Thanks." There was mumbling and then John was talking but it was muffled like he had his hand over the mouthpiece. More mumbling and then John was back. "He wants you to know that I'm not using him just so we won't have to do this dinner all alone."
Dave snorted. It was an unbecoming sound for a man of his age but he couldn't help it. He was suddenly transported back to junior high when the only way he'd ever worked up the courage to gone on a date with a girl was in a group. Those had been an awkward couple of years but then he'd grown into his personality. This conversation was too much like one he'd had with the girl who would end up being his wife. Funny how life circled back like that.
"Hey, I'd bring a date if mine was stranded on the other side of the country. I'd like to get to know your friend. It's not a problem."
This time John snorted. "Right. A date. I guess he is my date." There was more murmuring but John didn't respond to it. "What time works good for you?"
"How about tomorrow? I'll come down there. Where are you staying? The Broadmoor?"
"Uh, no. I'm military. Not one of your business contacts. We're staying up in the north end of the Springs, by the Academy. Why don't you meet us around 7pm at-"
"How about we meet up at that sports bar off Briargate? That way we'll all... blend in."
There was a definite smile in John's voice, one that hadn't necessarily been in place during this conversation. "That should work just fine. See you there, Dave."
"I'll be there, John."
John stood on the hotel balcony, staring at the color of the sun setting behind the string of peaks that bracketed the city to the west. He'd paid extra for the privilege of the view. It wasn't the same one he was used to seeing every day from Atlantis but he liked it. There was something about the steadfastness of the mountains that calmed him.
The view had done something to Ronon, too. After getting through the endless medical checks and last-minute questioning, they'd been driven out of Cheyenne Mountain well after dark. It wasn't until the next morning that they'd been able to fully appreciate the mountains. John had sipped his first cup of coffee and walked back into the room, content that it was still as beautiful as he remembered. Ronon, on the other hand, hadn't left the balcony all day long.
"It's like..." but he'd never finished the sentence, the word home implied by his stricken expression. John had forgotten that he'd been asleep the last time they'd come through a year ago, missing out on the scenery on their way back to Atlantis from his dad's funeral. Having only seen Sateda after it was leveled and then only while actively fighting Wraith and not sightseeing outside the city, John couldn't see the similarities.
They'd spent the day in the room, though. This was not what John had planned when he'd asked Ronon to come with him. He'd wanted to show the man the places on Earth that held good memories for him since the last trip was all about places he didn't care if he ever saw again. When he'd first thought about this trip, he'd thrown around the idea of going up to Aspen for fun in the snow or down to Phoenix to soak up some sun. Now he just wanted to sit here until in this hotel room until Ronon was himself again. It would be useless to be running here and there if they went back to Atlantis more tired than when they'd left. If they needed to order room service for every meal instead of going out, he would do it and consider it money well spent.
He turned his back on the view, leaning against the railing. Even after all the consideration he'd given to the problem of what to say to Ronon, he still had no idea of what words to actually use. They all sounded so trite, like they were coming from someone who only wanted to make him better because they were being paid a good bit of money to keep his head straight.
"Hey, buddy." His voice felt rusty from disuse even though he'd only hung up with his brother a little over an hour ago.
That one word broke his heart all over again. John rubbed at his chest, trying to push the hurt to one side or the other so that it wasn't right in the front, doing more damage than it should. "Listen, I didn't want-"
"You can ask me."
Ronon lifted his head, looking him in the eyes for the first time in days. Weeks, even. "You can ask me about what happened. I don't know what you want to know. Be a shame to tell you things you don't want to know."
"What if I said I wanted to hear it all?" John walked over until he was standing in front of Ronon, willing to do whatever he needed to do to convince the other man that he was going to listen to every horrific detail.
It turned out he didn't need to do anything because as soon as he was close enough, Ronon wrapped his arms around John's waist, drawing him in closer. He rested his forehead against John's chest and began to talk, his voice rumbling through every cell of John's body so there was no way he could miss even the quietest of words. It seemed he went on for hours, recounting everything he remembered from his time with the Wraith, but it was only about fifteen minutes. Still, when Ronon was done, John felt exhausted.
"Sorry you asked?"
John took several deep breaths, trying to calm both their heartbeats with just his strength of will. When Ronon tried to move away, John threaded his fingers through the man's dreads to keep him in place. "Never. None of this changes anything between us."
"I could have killed you."
"And I could have killed you. But we were smart for once and shot the right people."
"You sure about that?"
They both slept that night. John knew that for sure because he only closed his eyes for a few hours, long after Ronon had let himself close his eyes and drift off. It had been surprisingly easier getting Ronon off the balcony and into the bed than he'd thought it would be. They'd stayed on the balcony, neither of them moving or talking, for at least half an hour when Ronon had looked up at him.
"If I don't get some sleep soon, I'm not going to be good company for your brother tomorrow." He added a smile on the end, the first in days that hadn't looked forced. As always, John felt his body heat up at the mere sight of the look of happiness. It didn't take much to make him want to pull the man up for a kiss but the hesitation of the past weeks stilled his body. Instead, he'd smiled back and nodded his agreement.
They'd broken apart and gone about their business to get ready for bed. John stretched out on the top of the covers, waiting for Ronon to finish up in the bathroom, as he went through all his worries and began to recategorize them. While he was no stranger to worrying about Ronon, it felt strange to currently be more worried about how he and Dave would react to each other than anything else. It was strange to even care what his brother thought. For so many years, John had pushed aside the need to have his life accepted by anyone in his family.
Ronon climbed under the covers and they went through the motions of saying goodnight but neither of them moved to turn off the bedside lamps. Even when John finally gave up on sorting out how he would handle all the numerous different situations that could crop up and crawled under the blankets, he left them on. There were enough demons swirling through both their heads that they didn't need to add waking up in a new room without being able to automatically tell where they were.
When John woke up the next morning, he was surprised that he felt rested when he saw the numbers glowing on the clock. It was only just sunrise and there were still hours to fill before seeing Dave for dinner. He began to pull up some possible ideas when he realized that Ronon was staring at him from his side of the bed. His side being subjective as they both had a tendency to sprawl across whatever space there was available while they slept. When he turned his head, almost dreading what he might see, he was mildly surprised to see how rested Ronon looked. There was still something not completely right about the look in his eyes but there wasn't the heartbreaking lost look there any longer.
"What?" John finally asked when Ronon didn't say anything right away. His body was rebelling against his intention to just lie there, staring instead of doing. It wanted to be touching the skin that he hadn't touched just for the heck of it lately, kissing the pouty lips that looked ripe for the taking, tangling their limbs together until he couldn't tell where he ended and Ronon began. Still, he held back. He dreaded the thought that Ronon might reject him and, even though he knew it would be because of the current situations they found themselves in, he didn't think he could handle it.
Ronon opened his mouth but nothing came out at first. He seemed to be weighing his words. "You were talking in your sleep again."
"What did I say?"
"You were under that pile of rocks again." A roughened hand slid John's shirt up, searching for the pale pink and white skin that was only just beginning to smooth out. "Trying to get me to leave."
The hiss wasn't because Ronon's touch hurt but because it felt very good to be touched, even on the still-sensitive skin. Most of his dreams still centered around those horrible hours spent trapped and useless, knowing he was keeping Ronon from reaching safety. Sometimes there were other members of the team there as well, but most often it was just as it had been at the time - he and Ronon alone and trapped. They had come so close to being captured that his heart still stuttered when he thought about it. Too close.
"You're stubborn even in my dreams."
Ronon's hand moved to the waistband of John's sweatpants, sliding under them with practiced ease. Most of the time, John was the one doing the seducing but this was one time that he was glad to let Ronon take the lead. With uncharacteristic malleability, John moved when he was told to move and touched the skin that was put in front of him. When he found his climax, there were tears clouding his vision as he called out his lover's name like a prayer.
Maybe Ronon wasn't the only one who needed to heal. Until this moment, John hadn't realized that he was just as messed up, maybe more so because he hadn't been able to see that for himself. Ronon's gentle kisses at the corner of his eyes gave him pause as he realized that his torment hadn't been nearly as hidden from everyone else as he'd hoped.
"I wasn't pushing you away," Ronon murmured as he moved back to his side of the bed, his arm flung over John's chest as if he was eager to keep him right where he was. "I just needed-"
"I just needed to-"
"I know," John repeated a little more fervently. "I never blamed you. Anyone's head would be messed up."
His hand clamped over John's lips to keep him silent. "I just needed to figure out what was up with you. I wasn't pushing you away but it was beginning to feel like maybe you were pushing me away. Like you wanted to make sure that you wouldn't be hurt so you were running first. I just wanted to figure out if I was doing anything that might hurt you. That's the last thing I want to do."
That was more words than Ronon had used even to explain what had happened when he was with the Wraith. It took John several minutes to digest what he'd just said and what it all meant. "You were worried about me?"
"Yeah. Someone has to."
It took several more minutes to get anything but ragged breaths out of his mouth. John rubbed his lips along the hand that still cupped his cheek. "I love you, Ronon Dex," he whispered through a throat hurting from keeping the sob pushed down deep where it needed to stay. He had no cause for that kind of display in this setting.
Ronon leaned his forehead against John's shoulder. "Just so you remember that."
Dave was pleasantly surprised to find that Ronon liked the same kind of beer he did, even if John kept trying to tell him that was because Ronon liked every kind of beer. "It takes a distinguished palette to appreciate this kind of ale. For instance, you wouldn't know good beer if it was put in front of you with a sign that said Free Beer."
"Sure, I would," John argued, content to lean back in his chair with plain, ol' Budweiser from the tap. It was true. He didn't care about what beer he was drinking as long as it was at the right temperature and wasn't about to make him feel poor after one glass. Funny how Ronon, the one person he knew who could drink more glasses of the stuff than anyone else he knew, seemed to have a taste for the good stuff. It was probably something as simple as the taste being comparable to the stuff he was used to on Sateda. Still, it was disconcerting to feel like the cretin. He'd figured that he'd spent half the night trying to explain Dave and Ronon to each other.
He might have felt like the odd man out except for two things. One was the fact that Ronon's foot was planted between his so that their legs rubbed together whenever either of them moved one way or the other. It was a nice reminder that no matter what happened, there was someone who had his back. And, if they got back to the room without having finished off too many drinks, his front, as well.
The second thing that was giving him the warm fuzzies was the way that Dave was instantly relaxed. This wasn't his sort of scene but he was enjoying himself and had even worn jeans and a t-shirt so that he blended in with the rest of the crowd. It was nice to know that his brother was trying to make an effort. That it didn't look like an effort was the real surprise. Today just seemed to be the day for that sort of thing.
They'd talked of the weather, both here and back on the East Coast, as well as every sports team that Dave could think of. He was a season ticket holder for every sport that needed a ticket but also kept up with the football team at their old high school. "Your picture's still up in the trophy case. I don't think anyone is going to break that record."
"John holds a record?" Ronon asked and John tried to figure out if he understood the meanings of the words in the way they were used. He didn't seem to be asking for an explanation so much as the story behind the comment so John let it go. If he didn't understand, he'd ask.
"At one time, he held several." After brushing aside John's irritated growl, Dave started in on what his appeared to be his favorite topic of the night. Maybe it was because he had such an attentive audience or maybe it was because it was making John so uncomfortable but Dave seemed to expand the story even more than normal. Yes, he'd had the most rushing yards in one season for the whole division but the other award was bogus.
As always, Ronon picked right up on the one that John didn't want him to know about. "Biggest chick magnet?"
Dave looked over at his brother and winked before turning back to Ronon. "Yeah. He was the guy on the football team who all the girls wanted to be with. Every single girl in a hundred mile radius was smitten with him. The other guys were so jealous because he always had a date to the dance or someone to sit by him at lunch and share their snack pack."
"I can see that." Ronon looked almost proud, as if he had done something to help John win the stupid title. In an instant, John went from irritated to embarrassed, his cheeks burning with color that both of the other men noticed. Ronon's smile got even wider. "All the girls love you."
"No, it's true. They do." Dave was warmed up now, eager to tell story after embarrassing story about all the girls that had thrown themselves at John over the years. It was hard to tell if he was jealous or proud. The more stories he told, the more Ronon smiled and laughed as if he truly found the stories as hilarious as Dave hoped he would.
After half an hour of this, Ronon excused himself (although "excused" was not quite the word that anyone would use in this instance but John had to give the guy credit for trying), leaving Dave and John to sit in silence. "Look," Dave finally said, leaning forward to cross his arms on the table top, "I haven't been telling these stories just to see how red you'd get. I wanted to see how he'd react."
"To me getting embarrassed?"
"No, to the fact that women always have and will always find something special about you. I thought it was the easiest way to figure out your relationship with him."
John struggled valiantly to keep from running his hands through his hair in frustration. Why couldn't they have had a nice dinner where they'd only talked about the weather. Who would have thought that talking sports could get into such dicey territory? "And what did you figure out?"
The look on Dave's face was one he'd seen often enough as the man searched for the right words to say. Since John had always been the hot head, Dave had learned early to weigh everything he said. It was odd being on the receiving end of the silence now as he was on the edge of his seat to hear what this had all been about.
"That you've finally found someone who's good enough for you. For once, you haven't picked someone because you think it's the right thing to do. You finally picked someone for the right reason."
"And what reason is that?"
John took a long swallow of his beer, trying to keep the stupid smile from pushing at his cheeks. "Well, you're wrong."
That got a shocked look out of Dave. "I am?"
"Yeah. I didn't pick him. He picked me."
"Semantics." Dave dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "It all comes down to the same thing. It's easy to see that he makes you happy which is all that really matters. I just wanted to see if he would let stupid stories about past events make him angry. Remember how Nancy hated to hear about any of the girls you'd dated before you and she got together? It made her insane with jealousy to think that anyone else had once ever laid claim to what she thought was exclusively hers."
"I remember." He was beginning to wish he had a label to rip at with his fingernail and he wondered if he should order another just to have something to do if there were going to be more retellings of his embarrassing history. While he knew Dave wasn't doing this to be spiteful or mean, it was still hard to listen to. All the embarrassing stories from his current life usually featured at least one other person nearby so he didn't have to deal with all the notoriety. "So, have you gotten enough evidence to quit telling these stories? You're killing me here, Dave."
Dave had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Yeah, I'm done. Since neither of you are very talkative this evening, I guess that means we're going to sit in silence for the rest of the evening?"
"Maybe we could think of stories a little less awkward?"
"Sure. I guess we can come up with some." Dave's quick glance up and then back down alerted John that Ronon was coming back. "Or we can sit quietly, if you'd like."
"I miss anything?" Ronon asked, his hand heavy and warm on John's shoulder, reminding John that he shouldn't get another beer because he wanted to be alert for anything else that might occur later on tonight.
John looked up and smiled as he was reminded all over again just how lucky he was these days. "Not anything important. Hey, want to hear about how Dave couldn't say any words that started with L for the longest time?"
The look Dave shot him was priceless. All John could do was smile back as innocently as possible. He'd even up the score and then they could get to the usual round of Hey, Remember When stories that weren't quite so painful. After that... well, they had the whole night ahead of them. Anything could happen.