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Fourteen Years

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The first year he was a Runner, he was angry all the time. He had been a good person, a good soldier, a good friend, not rich and not important in the grand scheme of things, but a man who appreciated his life, who paid all his debts and remembered the less fortunate, who knew how to lead, how to follow, and how to have fun, all when the time was right.

It was just so fucking unfair.

They turned him loose with nothing, not even his own clothing – just one of those dark coats they wore, too tight through the chest and hard to run in. They had ships and guns and they regenerated and could bring a man down with a brush of their fingers, and they put him on the ground with a coat that didn’t fit and a device in his back that transmitted his location, and it was so clear that he was going to die that he wasn’t even afraid. He was just pissed off.

He just wanted to hurt them worse than they expected him to, and that made him dangerous.

He was twenty years old and a good soldier. By the end of the first year, he’d killed six Wraith and left three too injured to pursue him, and he didn’t know who he was anymore. He would lie in the dark, sheltered by whatever thicket or abandoned building he could find, and he would close his eyes and try to feel the pulse of the tracking device, calling out steadily and silently to his enemies. Come on, he would murmur along with it, sometimes out loud just to hear the sound of a human voice, sometimes only in his own head. Come on. Come get me, motherfuckers. I’m right here.

They always came. He didn’t care; he wanted them to. Every time he took one on – and two, then, and three and four as they learned to be wary of him – every time, he felt the red thrill of it, of how they’d put everything they had into making him weak, and he was giving them something to be afraid of.

None of it slaked him, though. Not for the first year. All he felt was angry, even in the middle of the fight, even standing over their corpses. No matter how many of them he killed, nothing gave him any rest from the knowledge that he’d had everything that, at twenty years old, he thought he could ever want, and he’d lost it all for no reason that he could see.

The first and last thing the Wraith took from him was his faith in a world that had rules. That was the thing that really kept him angry.

*

The first year he was on Atlantis, he couldn’t relax. He was impulsive and sloppy; he made mistakes. He lost his temper a lot.

He didn’t know what he was so angry about all the time. He had a pretty good situation on Atlantis; he wasn’t unhappy with the arrangement. He was supposed to be grateful to them, and for the most part he was. He was supposed to pay them back in what he’d learned about hunting and being hunted, and for the most part he did.

He just couldn’t settle in. He found himself losing control of his temper at all the wrong moments – not just on missions when his orders were to blend in and keep himself to himself, but also over stupid, small things. People jostling him in the mess hall. His clothes coming back from the laundry smelling like nothing he recognized, after he’d said he didn’t want anybody but him handling his things.

He started having nightmares, which he hadn’t had for a long, long time. It was the video feed, he was pretty sure. Those pictures of his city in ruins, but more importantly all the things he couldn’t see in it. The orphanage where he grew up. The field where he won his age group’s bagara tournament when he was twelve. The stand where you could buy fresh deep-fried nyan rolls in front of the Reservoir Authority building. He woke up night after night from dreams of walking through empty streets, the buildings intact but all the people missing, and around every corner, the startling absence of exactly what he most wanted to see there.

It had been a long time since Ronon had let himself hope for anything. Then it happened so fast – so much that it almost overwhelmed him, and then it was gone. After all the years of knowing that he would never go home again, it wasn’t until he came to Atlantis that he really knew.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault – no one on Atlantis, anyway. But he was still angry, and he didn’t know how to stop feeling that way, or where to direct it now that his enemies weren’t dogging his every step.

When the Wraith began coming into Atlantis – first that mutated lab animal, then the hive queen and her drones – it was almost a relief. He knew what to do about Wraith. Their mere existence justified his rage.

The rest of the time, when he had peace and comfort and honest work, even friendship, and he still couldn’t shake his anger, he just wondered what was wrong with him.

*

The second year he was a Runner passed in a kind of blur. Two years felt, at that time, impossibly long, like no matter how far he stretched, he couldn’t touch the past or the future. Like there had never been anything but this.

Fear began to creep in, against his will. He needed his courage against the Wraith; it was the only real weapon he had. So he preserved his hate for the fights, but in between, he let his fear run its course.

He became obsessed with the idea that he would die not by violence, but by starvation. He’d gone through a survival course in basic training, but that was utterly different from surviving. He was afraid to eat anything that he didn’t recognize, and he rarely stayed on one planet long enough to recognize much of anything. Then when he did find a safe source of food – a stream running so rich with fish coming to spawn that he could scoop up fistfuls of them, a patch of weeds with bulbous sweet roots, an unguarded nest of eggs – he devoured it, terrified to let one plant, one berry, one fucking insect escape through his fingers, because what if there wasn’t more? Every meal, in his own mind, was nearly his last.

The Wraith became only a hazy distraction from the real work of running. He moved from Ring to Ring, planet to planet, thinking about nothing but the undefined importance of covering ground and the driving need to find something to eat. He thought about food constantly. He searched the bodies of dead Wraith for miliary rations, forgetting that they didn’t eat food, and then he threw up and dissolved into blind panic over wasted calories.

He was hungry all the time. He couldn’t remember what it felt like to eat for pleasure, to be satisfied, to take comfort in food. Eating was no pleasure to him, but a desperate, crushing necessity, outweighing anything and everything else in his mind.

Without that obsession, he might have had to consider his future: how long did he expect to be doing this, and how could he get away, and was it even possible, and how could he keep going if it was not?

In the second year, he wasn’t ready to ask himself those questions. Instead, he stayed on the move and dedicated himself to the intensely present, ground-level task of finding his next meal.

*

The second year he was on Atlantis, he began to tell them things about himself. He began to remember things he hadn’t remembered in years.

One thing he couldn’t remember was when his birthday was, but that was nothing new. “We were refugees,” he told them when they asked. “There was an earthquake in Garripre Province when I was a baby. I don’t know, I got out somehow, but I guess my parents must have died or something. I grew up in a state orphanage; a lot of us from Garripre did.”

His teammates looked around at each other, faces drawn in the firelight, unhappy and silent. “It’s okay,” he said. “Actually, it was nice. It was a nice place. But most of us there were either refugees or we’d been abandoned, and nobody knew our birthdays, so we had two big parties a year, one in winter for the boys, summer for the girls. We’d get the day off from chores and school and play games all day, and then there was a big dinner. We didn’t have to clean our plates before dessert, so of course we didn’t eat anything but dessert.” He felt something unfamiliar about his face, and it took him a strangely long time to realize it was because he was smiling as he watched the crackling flames.

He remembered that not doing chores was the only hard part of those days. He felt uneasy, watching other people do his work for him – thin-armed, sad-eyed new girls dragging mop water up the stairs, his Nurses with their broad laps and sweet smiles and the purple Department of Charitable Works seal embroidered in satiny thread on their plain-spun sleeves, pulling weeds out of the kitchen garden in the back. He always tried to help when no one was looking.

They offered him money to enter engineering school when he was sixteen, but he’d already taken so much. He joined the Infantry instead, and every single one of his Nurses cried while they hugged him goodbye. He wasn’t afraid of hard work, and Sateda was his family, so that had to come first.

In the winter, Atlantis had a string of significant victories against the Wraith, which made everyone walk around all the time with jaunty steps and sparkling eyes like they had a secret. That explained why he didn’t notice some of them did have a secret until he went to dinner and met a burst of confetti and applause and bad music, and a table laid out with meat and desserts under a banner with his name on it. “Happy birthday,” Sheppard said, slugging him in the arm.

“Why?” he asked, dazed.

Sheppard shrugged. “Why not? Everybody’s itching for a party anyway.”

He’d never minded sharing his birthdays before – actually, it was good, because no matter how many people had come and gone since the year before, the boys who shared his birthday with him every year had that connection to him; it made them all brothers, in a way – but he found himself both embarrassed and pleased to have one all to himself.

Some people danced to music piped in over the PA; some played video games on the big display that usually only came out of storage on movie nights. Most people still kept their distance from Ronon; he didn’t blame them for that. But they smiled at him, or waved, and he’d never felt so visible in Atlantis before, so on display. He felt hot and prickly and awkward and happy.

He didn’t dance and he didn’t shoot things, but he did eat – nothing but dessert. He had baklava and bread pudding and pecan pie and chocolate cake and flan, some of everything they put out, and then threw up in one of the kitchen sinks.

“That’s it for you, young man,” Sheppard said, wiping his face for him with a wet cloth. “From now on, it’s back to early bedtimes and cleaning your plate before flan.”

“Fuck you,” Ronon said with a wan little smile, and Sheppard smirked back at him and didn’t go away while Ronon cleaned the sink. He just leaned on the counter, not watching Ronon work but waiting for him to be done, for them to go back to the party together.

*

The third year he was a Runner, he got cocky. He’d survived this long; he hadn’t been sure he’d make it three days when he started, but here he was. He felt a little less angry; he gave up the sense that his life should have been something other than this, which helped.

This was his life. In the third year, he stopped thinking of himself as a soldier or a prisoner and started thinking of himself as a Runner. The Wraith became an opponent to defeat, just like they were playing bagara with him. Ronon held two years’ worth of city-wide bagara championships, and he was fucking good at this game, too.

He started doing dangerous things, just to see if he could. He’d acquired a sword, and he taught himself to spin eye-catching shapes with it, drawing his enemies closer to it, pulling their attention to the flashing blade and delaying his strike until the last possible second. He was stronger and faster than he ever had been, and he could use surprise to his advantage, feinting in one direction and then carrying his body all the way around, spinning it like his sword, to come in from the other side.

Almost more than killing them, he loved seeing their startled looks when he showed them what he could really do.

He was vaguely amazed by his own body, by the things he’d never known he could do with it. He’d always been tall and graceful, but he watched himself put layers of lean muscle between his skin and bones, watched himself climb and roll and jump and swim and fight as easily as he could walk, and sometimes when he caught his reflection in a still pond or ran his hand under his shirt in the dark and felt the ridges of muscle there, he wondered if he could have been this all along, any time he wanted, or if his life had to bring him here to turn him into this.

He wondered how long other people lasted – other Runners. Not as long as him, he bet.

When he passed other humans in his travels, they drew away from him instinctively. Hard-eyed, armed, tall and strong and shining darkly with his pride – no one had to be told he was someone to avoid if you didn’t want trouble. Nobody out here, in these remote and sparsely settled worlds, wanted any trouble.

He hadn’t yet forgotten how to be around people, in the third year, but he had a hard time remembering why he used to want to.

*

The third year he was on Atlantis, a dozen high-ranking officers and politicians from Earth came through the gate to look the place over. Ronon didn’t know what the stakes were, but everyone who usually knew what was going on looked terrified, so he stayed on his best behavior, standing up straight and looking gravely interested in their conversations with Sheppard and Weir. He even saluted when he was introduced.

None of them spoke to him directly, except a grey-haired man who looked as slouchy and bored as Ronon was trying hard not to look, who gave him a long once-over and said, “Cool coat.”

The relief in the air was so strong Ronon could feel it against his skin when they finally left, and he knew Atlantis had dodged some grim fate, although he still didn’t know quite what and was frankly glad he hadn’t known enough to get nervous. The only thing that was different afterwards was that they took away part of Sheppard’s rank, which Ronon was upset about at first, until he realized that, counter-intuitively, that meant a promotion.

“Colonel Sheppard,” Sheppard kept saying gleefully. “Colonel Sheppard,” which Ronon didn’t understand, because that was already what everyone called him, but he wasn’t going to say anything.

McKay was. “I don’t know what it is that thrills you so much about saying that,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’ve all been calling you for three years.”

“Yes,” Sheppard said almost primly, “but the Lieutenant was implied.”

There wasn’t a real party, just the four of them and Weir, who celebrated having Atlantis to themselves again by retiring quietly to Sheppard’s quarters to get drunk. Before long, Teyla fell asleep like she always did on hard liquor, and Rodney started to list gently up against Sheppard’s back, muttering dreamy complaints about who knew what, and Weir stood up unsteadily with a quirk to her mouth and said, “In the interest of professionalism, it would be good to call it a night at this point.”

“We don’t need no stinking professionalism,” Sheppard said, his s’s only a little bit slurred. “I am the greatest military hero the Pegasus galaxy has ever known. I’m Alexander the Great. I’m Napoleon.”

“Napoleon Dynamite, maybe,” Rodney said, managing to sound pretty scornful for somebody who was busily fitting his fingers against the shape of Sheppard’s ribs.

“Hail, Caesar,” Weir said, “and goodnight.”

She seemed lucid enough but she wobbled when she walked, so Ronon took her arm and helped her to her quarters.

When he got back, McKay was in the bathroom and Sheppard was sprawled out sideways across his bed, his eyes drunkenly bright and his smile radiant and real like Sheppard’s smiles almost never were. “I always told myself it doesn’t matter, you know?” he said, to either Ronon or the ceiling. “What kind of life you lead, how significant it is, who you are as a person – I mean, none of that should depend on...medals or titles or, or.... It’s all so political anyway, it doesn’t even mean necessarily that you’re good at this, let alone that you’re – how you judge yourself, it shouldn’t.... It does, though. I don’t know, maybe it’s bred into you somehow. Doesn’t matter what you tell yourself. It still matters. What they think of the job I’m.... What they think of me.”

“You have a right to be proud,” Ronon said. “I’m...proud to work for you.”

He thought he might mean something other than that – or, not other than that, but that and more. In spite of the fact that all the important Earth generals had pretended like he wasn’t even there (except the slouchy grey-haired one who liked his coat), Ronon was a soldier serving directly under the city’s commander. He was good at that – not just at fighting and killing, but at working for someone, working with people, doing a job for some reason bigger than himself. He hadn’t been good at it when he first arrived, but by the third year he was, and he was all the more proud of what he’d become because of where he came from.

He didn’t need anyone to think he was special, or notice him at all. He was one of Colonel Sheppard’s men and a soldier of Atlantis.

*

The fourth year he was a Runner, everything started to fall apart. He’d been doing it for too long; he’d reached the limits of his internal capacity for the work, if not his external limits. Anger couldn’t keep him on his feet anymore, or fear, or even vanity.

There were days when he couldn’t run at all, couldn’t even get up. He just sat huddled in the shelter of a thicket or a cliff wall, his knees pulled up to his chest, feeling nothing except exhaustion. He’d stopped thinking in words. He only knew the shape and weight of too much.

Why was he even running, anyway? They knew where he was. They could come for him as easily in one place as in ten.

He caught a cold that spring. The Wraith broke his arm in two places. He stopped being able to think about home; he wasn’t even sure the places and people he remembered were real, if he’d ever been to those places or been known by anyone at all.

He stopped having nightmares about the culling and the bombing. What had made him think that was such a disaster, anyway? So he’d watched a lot of people die; everyone died.

Truthfully, he was jealous of the dead.

One day he found a clean, cold lake, and he stripped down and swam out to clean himself off. As he kicked his feet steadily to keep himself afloat, he realized he couldn’t say why he was doing it, why he’d want to float instead of sink or live instead of die. Why he didn’t do the one thing he really could do to take control of his situation and just stop moving.

He tried it. He sank three times, but every time his body took over without his consent, lungs burning, limbs twitching, finally clawing for the surface in a panic. You’d think letting yourself go under would be an easy way to die, but he couldn’t seem to manage it. He finally gave up completely and swam for shore. When he pulled himself onto the grassy bank, leaden with despair and the absence of hope, all he could do was cry, while bugs marched peacefully over his fingers and a hundred thousand worlds turned peacefully on without caring what happened to him next. There was nothing left to miss and no one to miss him, and he coveted the quiet of death, the release from all demands and all responsibility, so much that he hated the ones who already had it, the lucky ones.

The Wraith didn’t come that day or the day after, but they did come again, and he still couldn’t go under. He fought as if it were a curse laid on him, some terrible compulsion, and he won over and over when he wanted to lose. Whatever survival instincts he had were locked in the muscle and bone of his body, and apparently that was where it counted, because he came to the surface every time.

*

The fourth year he was on Atlantis, they retired his team. First-contact was over with every inhabited world that they’d been able to locate, and there were new people arriving all the time in the city, eager to take up the job of maintaining those contacts.

Ronon turned thirty that year, and he was the youngest of them by a fair amount. Teyla married an exiled Ixilaran prince and got pregnant. McKay’s work had been partially declassified, and he was busily translating five years of experimental data into papers and principles. Sheppard was teaching younger men and women how to do things in a Puddlejumper that it probably wasn’t built to do, and Ronon was teaching them how not to get hit.

He thought he missed the excitement but not the travel, or maybe the travel but not the excitement. He couldn’t puzzle the whole thing out, but he definitely missed some parts of it and not others.

By no one’s suggestion and everyone’s agreement, the four of them still came together often for no reason except the comfort and security of familiar company. More territory had been opened in Atlantis, including larger living quarters in what came to be known popularly as “the suburbs.” Teyla and her husband lived at that end of the city now, and McKay, too. Sheppard and Ronon kept their smaller quarters closer to the heart of the city’s life. They most often met at McKay’s, a suite apartment with a living room and an office and a small kitchen that felt almost like a whole house to itself.

They spent their time talking, or not talking. They teased Teyla about her strange cravings for things like sweet-and-sour kiniluks drenched in cherry syrup. Ronon taught them how to fry nyan rolls. They often watched movies when it was up to McKay to choose, or recordings of football games brought over on the Daedalus (or, more and more often, the Prometheus as the Air Force worked the kinks out of its own hyperdrive technology) if it was up to Sheppard. Ronon liked both, for the most part.

Sheppard would often stay the night after the rest of them had gone home, but no one ever talked about that. No one said anything at all about that. Very rarely they would kiss, and Teyla smiled on indulgently, but Ronon had to turn away, feeling leaden and helpless and weary. He didn’t think anyone noticed, and he was grateful for that.

It didn’t matter if he was watching or not, though; he was always stuck later with the image in his mind. Sheppard’s hand, with that weird, soft bracer around his wrist, petting idly up and down McKay’s hip. McKay’s hand cradling the back of his head, his fingers sunk into thick hair. Sheppard’s hair was starred with silver now, a fact that McKay never lost his delight in mocking.

Rodney McKay was a good man, a good friend, someone Ronon would (and had) risk everything to protect. Ronon knew it was wrong to be jealous of him, but he’d always had...so much of Sheppard. They spoke the same language, understood each other’s jokes, tolerated each other’s foibles, held secret conversations with their eyes, even fought each other as equals, knowing instinctively how far to push and what kind of jab was too sharp to risk

There had never been very much left over for anyone else.

“Do you never consider it yourself?” Teyla asked him quietly as he walked her home one night. “Marrying, or taking a lover?”

Ronon looked down and shrugged, afraid to meet her eyes. Teyla was always the first to see signs of pain, and he wasn’t ready to be diagnosed yet, or ever. “I’m pretty hard to get along with,” he said. The occasional sex he’d had had always been off-world, happy and grateful local girls who were as excited as he was by the prospect of a brief, intense tryst that would have no impact on their real lives. Since he stopped going off-world, he was sort of at loose ends.

“If Rodney manages, I think there is hope for you yet,” she said lightly, and he knew he was supposed to laugh at that, but he couldn’t. He almost couldn’t breathe.

There was knowing that Sheppard and McKay were lovers – had been so for at least two years, at Ronon’s best guess, although he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it had been longer – and something else to know it. Something else to see it.

He’d been happier before, when he could honestly tell himself he wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he envied McKay for having.

*

The fifth year he was a Runner, he took shelter from a rainstorm in a barn he thought was abandoned, but he woke up to the sound of a woman’s screams and a metal bucket hitting him in the chest. Reinforcements came quickly, and he found himself not only having to talk to people for the first time in a very long time, but having to talk to the tips of several pitchforks.

He could have put an end to the whole thing without words, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Human faces, even angry and frightened faces, were making something break up in his chest, old injuries softening and tearing open in little fissures.

In the daylight he could see that he’d wandered into inhabited territory; he hadn’t realized because the Turikans built their houses to blend in with the trees, bark-covered and kept in the shadows. He intended to leave right away – he’d never intended to be there at all – but once the Turikans caught the gist of his garbled explanations, they wouldn’t let him go.

They gave him food and new clothes. They put him back to sleep in a bed – narrow, yes, but a featherbed with clean sheets and a pillow. They talked to him, kind voices, sympathetic clucking, grave prayers murmured over his head for divine protection. An old man examined his back, but finally shook his head somberly, not sure how to help him without cracking his spine.

That night the girl who’d hit him with a bucket came by his room and motioned him to follow. He rolled out of bed and drew his gun, following her like a shadow and ready to make a brutal example of whoever or whatever might be threatening these people who had been nothing but good to him.

She took him out to a meadow glade, fireflies flashing across the surface of a small pond that reflected the half-moon, damp moss and thick blue-tinged grass and little seed pearls of white wildflowers blossoming all over in the night. He didn’t recognize the feeling it brought up in him at first. He’d seen so many things in five years, and been so unaware that they were beautiful.

She put her arms around his waist, her hands against the skin of his back, beneath his new sweater. He shuddered hard at her touch, still wondering what and why, and she smiled up at him and his knees almost buckled as it all became clear. He was baffled and joyful and awed and terrified and aroused, and his world had been narrowed to the most basic of wants for so long, the elements of survival, that this seemed like a gift from some alternate dimension, like a miracle.

She was blonde and green-eyed, with soft skin and high, firm breasts, and her touches were all feathery and shy, but the way she smiled at him and the way she arched into his hands wherever he touched her weren’t shy at all. She moaned softly into his mouth when he stroked her breasts, and when he pressed her down in the wet blue grass, she shimmied and tugged her skirt up until she could wrap her legs around his waist, and he was terrified he wouldn’t be able to get out of his pants before he came.

He tried not to be too rough; he tried to use the stealth and patience he’d learned over the past years, but his whole body strained against him, desperate for the contact. When he finally coordinated his brain and his body enough to slide inside her, it was almost too good to bear. He pressed his face against her body and shuddered again and again while she stroked his hair and murmured gentle, comforting nonsense, but when he started to move, she left the gentleness behind and moved back harder, rubbing against him with her head thrown back and his mouth on her throat, riding him hard from underneath while her small hands pulled at his back, stretching the skin over his transmitter. The smell of the wet earth and the flowers and her musk and her cool, sweet breath as she blew soothingly across the places on his shoulders she bit all blended together, all clean and honest and alive.

He didn’t know how long it had been since he was happy to be alive. Years later, looking back, Ronon wondered if he’d needed that reminder in order to be able to go on at all – if he would finally have figured out how to give in and let himself die, if it hadn’t been for her.

If that was true – and it felt true to him – he didn’t know what it meant that she had to die so that he could survive. Nothing he wanted to hear.

But that night she was alive, and so was he. After they fucked, he slid down in the grass and worked her with his fingers and tongue; everything he knew about going down on a woman hadn’t been too much to start with and it all seemed like a century away now, but his enthusiasm must have counted for something, because she writhed and panted and said yes, yes, yes and came twice. Neither of them were very steady on their feet as they walked home, tipping into each other drunkenly and laughing at nothing and stealing more kisses right under the noses of her sleeping brothers. We’ll get caught, he cautioned, because evasion and fear were still what he understood best. I never get caught, she said with a deceptively girlish smile.

When he went back to the Turikan village, he couldn’t bring himself to look through the burned wreckage for her body; he didn’t want to know if they’d killed her here or taken her with them.

He felt guilty about the fact that he still got hard remembering her. She was still alive in his mind, as if her death meant nothing, and he couldn’t change that.

Worse still was the knowledge that if he had it to do again, even knowing what he knew, he wasn’t sure he had the strength to do any of it differently.

*

The fifth year he was on Atlantis, he started sleeping with John Sheppard.

It all happened so fast he almost wasn’t sure how it started. They were washing up in the gym showers after working out together, which wasn’t unusual, and then all of a sudden his hand was on the back of Ronon’s thigh, stuttering gently against wet skin as his fingers skimmed over Ronon’s ass. Ronon stared at him, frozen in amazement, because even in his fantasies it was always more...complex. It wasn’t just this, this easy, fond touch.

Sheppard grinned at him, a little abashed and a little mischievous. “You’re fucking gorgeous,” he said simply, and when Ronon realized that they were both hard, it all suddenly started to seem a lot more real.

He pushed Sheppard against the smooth, slick wall and kissed him hard, one arm going around his waist and the fingers of his other hand twisting in the chain of Sheppard’s dogtags. Sheppard’s hands smoothed up and down his back, over small scars and the large one and the hard knots of his backbone, and he kissed back exactly like Ronon had imagined a man would, strong and lazily confident and thrillingly selfish.

They broke apart, both trying to muffle their harsh gasping, and Ronon realized he was pushing his cock over and over against Sheppard’s hip without even realizing it, and he couldn’t hold back a groan. Sheppard shivered in his arms as the water evaporated off his skin and said, “I’m too old to fuck in showers anymore. How does a bed sound?”

He knew he should say something, even something as weak as are you sure about this? Even that would be something, although not as good as the really right thing to say, which was Rodney is my friend, it wouldn’t be right.

What he really said was, “Good. Whose?”

“Yours,” Sheppard said. “No, wait, mine. I’ve got lube.” Ronon leaned into him and kissed him again, mostly because he knew it would take him a minute to be able to walk on his shaking legs.

The whole thing was sort of messy and twisted and so unbelievably hot that he really didn’t have time to worry about whether or not he would know what to do when the time came. All he had was exactly what he’d never thought he’d have: Sheppard flat on his back, narrow dark-haired chest, hard beige nipples, dilated eyes, quirked-up mouth with his lips parted just far enough for Ronon to slide his tongue between, and it felt so fucking good, heat and the hint of tension under that lazy surface. He couldn’t seem to stop kissing the tendon of Sheppard’s neck or pressing into his nipple with a thumb, and he certainly couldn’t stop the disoriented, ungraceful jerk of his hips against Sheppard’s.

Sheppard worked his own pants open and slid his hand inside, incentive enough to make Ronon pause for a minute to watch his thin wrist framed in the open fly of his dark cargo pants, the shape of his hand moving up and down his own cock. Ronon wasn’t sure which of them was panting more harshly. He leaned both hands on Sheppard’s thighs, pushing them farther apart and pressing the fabric tighter across his cock. Sheppard whined low in his throat and let his hand speed up, until Ronon gripped him by the forearm and pulled his hand out of his pants. “I want to,” he said roughly, even though he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do.

Sheppard smiled at him casually and said, “Please tell me the end of that sentence is ‘suck your dick, John.’”

“Yeah,” he said. “That.”

He closed his fist tight around John’s cock, which had the dual advantage of making his shoulders writhe hard against the sheets and helping control his mindless thrusting. Ronon licked at the tip experimentally and decided he liked the heavy, salty taste, and even the strange, too-smooth texture without the folds of foreskin. It was sleek and aerodynamic and unadorned, like John. He licked what he could reach, keeping up a rhythmic squeezing with his hand, until John’s fingers tangled in his hair and he said, “Take it, take me in your mouth, put your mouth– God, you, you – you okay, Ronon? You like this?”

Ronon made a noise of agreement around the head of John’s cock that sent a hard shudder through him, and with just a little bit of focus it was easy to get his lips to meet his hand, so that he had all of John one way or another. He did like this, liked it a lot. He’d known he would. He sucked harder and used his tongue just behind the head, eager to show Sheppard that he wasn’t reluctant, that he wanted to feel Sheppard break apart completely and spill into him.

Once, years and years ago, he’d been a good man, a good soldier, a good friend, but he’d outlived all of that, and he had the strength to miss it, but not to change back, not now that he knew how fast all the good in your life could be gone, how it could all change in an instant, how sorry you could be for all the missed chances from your past and the lost pieces of your future. He might never have this again, Sheppard’s fingers pressed hard into his scalp, Sheppard’s legs splayed open and the back of one foot rubbing up and down Ronon’s crotch, Sheppard’s stretched throat vibrating out helpless sounds in the same rhythm of the soft underside of his cock dragging over his tongue. He might never have another chance; things could fall through, fall apart, fall away so damn fast once they started to go wrong, and he wanted it, wanted it more than he knew any words for, more almost than he could even contain, no matter who he was disloyal to and no matter who got hurt.

A lot of the time Ronon wondered: if he met his twenty-year-old self in the halls of Atlantis tomorrow, that good man who did his duty and believed you earn your own way, would he even recognize that person? Would they have anything in common now, twelve years and half a hundred planets and an endless, lonely lifetime apart?

He did come in his pants that time, his thighs clenched tight around Sheppard’s squirming foot, and when Sheppard finally did the same Ronon swallowed readily and kept on working two lubed fingers in and out of Sheppard’s ass until the last aftershocks died away. He kissed his way up Sheppard’s chest, getting everything sticky wherever his mouth and his fingers traveled, and Sheppard cupped the back of his neck with faintly trembling fingers and said, “Wow, yeah. Yeah.”

Ronon kissed his neck where the pulse was fading gently back to its baseline. “John,” he murmured, because it was such a beautiful name, cottony-soft consonants and drizzling, open vowel, and hidden and mysterious like a rare wild thing.

John rolled against him, nuzzling sleepily at the flat of his shoulder. Ronon tensed, trying to find the words that would make John uncurl his fingers and his legs and his secretive, curving, amused mouth and let Ronon go. “Spend the night,” John urged against his skin, smiling as he drowsed. “More sex in the morning.”

“What about....” He almost couldn’t ask, because of John’s heartbeat lined up with his, John’s warm breath pulsing against his ear, one finger trailing teasingly just along the underside of Ronon’s jaw. He almost couldn’t, but he reminded himself that there was no virtue in doing something when it was easy, only when it was difficult, and he wanted to have virtue. He wanted to still believe in something, even if it was only himself. “What about McKay?”

John’s muscles tensed slightly against his body, and Ronon tensed in instinctive sympathy, his arms tightening around John. “That’s not.... Look,” John sighed, and twisted around so his back was to Ronon’s chest. Ronon tried his best to cradle John against him with one arm while he used the other hand to work off his pants, which had become cool and sticky and uncomfortable. John waited until he’d completed the task before he went on. “The Rodney thing was never supposed to go on as long as it did. I was never going to be– Rodney’s a slut,” he said, and Ronon had seen Laura Cadman punch a Marine in the nose for using that word, but John said it with such enormous tenderness and humor that Ronon was even jealous of that. “It was convenient for both of us, he got off on it; I think he was flattered. Not that he used me or anything. I mean, God knows I wanted it, too. But there comes a point when you’ve got to move on.”

Something in that last sentence, some too-defiant and yet strangely fragile tone.... “He broke up with you,” Ronon realized out loud.

John snorted. “No, he’d have kept on forever, probably. He’s a creature of habit. But that wasn’t going to make him any more.... Hell, neither one of us is getting any younger, or any less crazy; we couldn’t be using up our last good years dicking around playing house with each other, not if we wanted any chance at all at...whatever it is everyone says we’re supposed to want. I just figured we at least owed it to ourselves to give it another chance.”

Ronon turned all that over in his head, trying to make sense out of it. “You’re talking about love,” he finally translated. “He wasn’t in love with you.”

We weren’t in love,” John said, too quickly and too sharply. “We aren’t. And I ended it weeks ago.”

“That’s good to know,” Ronon said, lowering his mouth to John’s shoulder, twining his fingers through John’s and pressing their tangled hands softly against the steady motion of John’s chest.

If he’d had any pride left, he wouldn’t have kept on sleeping with a man who was so obviously in love with someone else – not unless it was just sex, and Ronon didn’t even try to make himself believe it was just that. As good as the sex was – as incredible as the sex was, he knew better than that.

But he didn’t have much pride left and he did keep having sex with John. It was never enough, never quite meeting Ronon’s desires at the same pace it created more of them, but the truth was, he never seriously considered putting a stop to it.

“Best sex of my life,” John liked to crow when they were in bed, sweaty and euphoric and slightly manic as he stroked Ronon’s arms and bit his neck and gripped his thighs, thumbs rubbing up and down the arteries there.

“Yeah,” Ronon said, and he didn’t say what he was really thinking, which was that he might well be willing to give it up forever if just one time instead of best sex of my life, John would give him that dazzled smile and say I saved up all my last good years for you.

*

The sixth year he was a Runner, he started robbing people.

It wasn’t hard. Most of the time, all it took was a certain narrowing of his eyes, a certain way of standing, and they gave him whatever they had. When he met someone who wanted to play hero, he knew about ten million ways to put them on the ground without any lasting damage. It didn’t seem like a very big deal.

Taking things that didn’t belong to you wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair, but then, what was? Anyway, he only stole what he couldn’t reliably scavenge on his own: ammunition, mainly, and sometimes extra weapons. Clothing when he could find something that fit, or more often clothing to use as scraps for patching and mending his own. Tools and things. Things he needed. At least at first.

After a while.... It was just so fucking easy. And it was nice to own things, just to have a piece of jewelry or a recording device or a cup to drink out of instead of dipping his hands in a stream. It started to slow him down eventually, all the little things he collected, the bits and pieces of other people’s normal lives that he tucked away to turn over in his hands when he had a peaceful moment alone.

He robbed a family of refugees on Sheldali, and it got messy. The father nicked his arm with a lucky shot, and Ronon cracked his jaw hard with the butt of his gun in disarming him, and in their short, desperately silent struggle, he managed to collapse the man’s windpipe. It all happened very quickly.

He didn’t really want anything from any of them after that, but he looked for a long moment at the man’s young wife, huddled behind their pack-torrys weeping with her two children gathered close to her, and he knew it wasn’t going to make her feel any better if he walked away now. At least if he took the family’s valuables, she’d always be able to tell her kids that their father died for a good reason – trying to protect them from a bad man.

Most people didn’t even get that much, he reasoned. Most people didn’t get to die for any reason at all.

He left them all their food, though, and some of the things that looked sentimental. He tried not to look at the woman he’d widowed.

He tried not to wonder if something like this had ever happened to his own mother, walking the long road from Garripre Province, hoping to find a new life at the other end – but he did wonder. He thought about it a lot.

The incident changed him. It didn’t make him a better person, but it made him a better highwayman. He moved faster after that, picking out the ones who looked brave and forcing them down with the barrel of his gun to the back of their heads and growling low, graphic threats until he was sure they wouldn’t do anything noble and stupid.

The irony of the whole thing, he thought, was that people were safer getting robbed by the former Specialist Ronon Dex than they were being kind to him. If he’d been able to explain that to his victims, he thought they’d find it ironic, too.

*

The sixth year he was on Atlantis passed quickly, and it wasn’t peaceful by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the closest thing to peaceful that Ronon could imagine.

John didn’t go anywhere, and after a while things got easier between them. You couldn’t keep up any real level of regret and self-doubt beyond a certain amount of time; eventually, all Ronon could do was roll over in bed and observe John snoring obliviously next to him and know that whatever it could have been or should have been, whatever he might have wished it was like between them, this was how it was. And it was pretty good.

Atlantis was a galactic power by that time: eight hundred citizens, about 720 from Earth and the rest from here and there and nowhere at all, like him, but influential way beyond what the numbers would imply. John had two Lieutenant Colonels under his command, Lorne in charge of the city’s defense and Foster in charge of the peacekeeping force.

Weir asked him to serve under Foster when the restructuring happened, early that year, and he thought at first there had been some kind of mistake. He thought she meant diplomats, like her, and he said, “I don’t think I’d really be good at that. I don’t know anything about...peace.”

She quirked her mouth at him and said, “The name may be slightly misleading. This is the kind of peacekeeping where we beat people severely until they learn to behave.”

“Oh,” he said, and grinned at her. “I can probably do that, then.”

She put him at the head of a team of fifteen soldiers, mostly kids, mostly new to Atlantis within the last year or two. Nobody exactly knew what to call him; they weren’t sure how to follow anyone who didn’t have a rank, so they took to calling him Sergeant Dex, which made them comfortable, but Ronon extremely nervous for a while. It seemed like something that probably wasn’t allowed, answering to a title you hadn’t earned. On the other hand, he was having regular sex with the military commander of Atlantis, so he didn’t really expect to get in a lot of trouble for it.

He liked being out in the field again, and not those boring trade negotiations that used to make up 75% of his work on the old off-world team. By the time Atlantis got to the point of sending him in, he could be sure that something interesting was about to happen.

It made being home better too, just having something to compare it against. Once he was risking his life again on a more regular basis, he didn’t feel bad about guarding his right to certain perks, like time off. He thought about asking for better quarters, but he didn’t have enough stuff to put in them, and he knew Sheppard felt like he needed to still live close to the Gateroom and the command suite, close to where he needed to be when disaster struck. Not that Sheppard was exactly living with him or anything, but...he was around a lot, enough that Ronon felt like he needed to factor that in.

He didn’t want John to be around less. Ronon liked waking up with him, listening to him mutter vaguely in his sleep as he crawled over him to get out of bed. It made him happy when he came back from breakfast to find John damp from the shower and squinting at the screen of his laptop as he tried to check his e-mail. Ronon took a careful handful of John’s thick, dark-and-silver hair and pulled his head back until he was blinking innocently up into Ronon’s face. “Put your glasses on,” he said.

John scowled stubbornly and said, “You and Beckett, I swear there’s a conspiracy afoot. I can see just fine.”

Things like that, little things, but Ronon liked them. He wouldn’t want to move anywhere that they were less likely to keep happening.

Another advantage to having sex with the guy in charge was that he and John always had the same days off on the monthly roster. Nobody ever said anything about it, except for Teyla, who noticed immediately and conveniently chose those same days to need emergency babysitting help. It bugged Ronon for a while, early in the relationship when every minute he was doing anything except having sex with Sheppard was by definition a wasted minute in his day, but that phase of the relationship cooled off, of course, and also Tegan got older and more interesting to hang out with.

She was two that year, and disconcertingly mobile; she could really trundle along on those stubby little legs. Ronon spent most of his babysitting time hauling her out of things he didn’t even know she could get into. John leaned in the bathroom doorway, watching with a smirk as Ronon held the kid up by her feet and said in his third-most-serious warning tone, “I have a stunner, you know.” Tegan just kept laughing hysterically and pinwheeling her arms in circles until Ronon gave in and held her over his head the way she liked. After that, the only thing that could get her to calm down was a long walk clinging to his back, her little fingers knotted up indiscriminately in his shirt and his hair.

“I have a proposition for you,” John said when he got back, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake Tegan as Ronon untangled her and put her on the bed.

“No, we’re not having babies,” Ronon said, and then regretted it when he saw the stunned look on Sheppard’s face. It was a joke – he was pretty confident Sheppard recognized it as a joke – but still, even to Ronon’s ears, it sounded...weird, out loud.

Sheppard recovered quickly, though, and shot him a sly grin. “No, but wouldn’t our kids be beautiful?”

“What’s your proposition?”

“I have been informed that there are about a dozen people on base who haven’t set foot in our galaxy of origin in about four years, and apparently this is a huge mental health risk or something like that, possibly even a security risk – you know, if we go native or whatever. We might forget and sell the Lost City of the Ancients for tava beans. I don’t know. But I have a buddy who owns a surf shop near San Diego, only he’s in New Zealand filming some kind of surfing reality show for ESPN, so– “

“John. What the hell are you talking about?”

“I have to go Earthside for a couple of weeks. I’m staying at this friend’s place on the beach; it’s great weather, good view, really private. You want to keep me company?”

“If...if it’s okay with Weir, I guess,” he said.

Earth looked a lot like Ronon expected it to look, from seeing it in the movies. They came through the Air Force base in Colorado, then flew to Los Angeles and rented a car there to drive south along the coast.

“I don’t know anything about cars,” Ronon said when he saw the one John had chosen, “but even I can tell that’s not a car. That’s just porn.”

“I know,” John said gleefully, running a reverent fingertip over the Ferrari’s black finish. “Just how I like my men: dark, foreign, and takes just the right touch to handle.” Ronon gave him his best unimpressed look.

They got pulled over twice on the PCH; the first police officer was an ex-Marine, and when he found out John was a Colonel, he waved them on. The second was a woman, and John smiled at her and Ronon slouched and they didn’t get a ticket that time, either. John was pushing the needle almost to a hundred again practically before the cop car was out of sight. “I get it now,” Ronon said. “Everything goes over 200 miles an hour when you’re driving, doesn’t it?”

“You know it,” John said, low and sly, and Ronon was sorry they wouldn’t be able to take the car home with him, because no porn could compare to this.

After they’d been on the beach a week, Ronon got sick of getting bugged about it and agreed to go back to LA and shop. It was kind of surprising; he’d figured Sheppard would be the one most eager to take advantage of the quiet and the sun and the waves, but it seemed like Sheppard wouldn’t rest until Ronon bought something. Ronon hadn’t even realized he had any money.

“You’re an independent military contractor,” John said. “They pay you for that, you know.”

“I know,” he said, even though actually he’d had no idea. John took him to a bank; it turned out he had quite a lot of money, for six years’ service.

He still didn’t really think he needed anything, but John was starting to get pissed off. “I don’t know,” he finally said in desperation. “Maybe some music?” So John took him to Tower Records, which was the biggest fucking store Ronon had ever imagined. It was bigger than the Gateroom. He had no idea where to begin.

John showed him how to scan the backs of the CDs at the listening stations to hear what was on them and then turned him loose and said to come to the Starbucks across the street when he was done. He still had no idea where to begin.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” John said when Ronon finally met him at the coffee place. “You were in there four hours, and you have that little tiny bag?”

“I bought two,” he said, pointlessly, because John was already dumping his two CDs and the receipt on the table to check them out.

His eyebrows climbed up, and he fanned them like playing cards in his hand so both their titles were visible, holding them up like he was showing them to Ronon, who obviously already knew what they were. “Nine Inch Nails,” he said, slowly and clearly like he was talking to somebody deaf and senile, “and the Ultimate Lionel Richie Collection.”

“Yeah?” There was obviously some great and hidden meaning in all this that was totally eluding Ronon. “Those were the ones I liked.”

John shook his head and said, “You blow my mind sometimes.” Ronon chose to take it as a compliment, and ate the rest of John’s biscotti.

That night Rodney called, and Ronon laid in bed pressed close enough to John’s side that he could hear the whole conversation; John even held the phone a little way away from his ear to make it easier. “Where are you, anyway?” John asked.

“Crashing an engineering conference with Radek in Vienna. I’ve never been to Vienna.”

“Are you behaving yourself?”

“Oh, hell, no,” he said, expansive and happier than Ronon thought he’d ever heard McKay sound. “They hate me here. Radek’s going to be mad at me for months. What about you? Space Mountain, I assume?”

“Nah, we’re just hanging,” John said. “We may go to the zoo tomorrow – you know, be able to say we did at least one thing that was educational. I’m trying to get him to spend some of this small personal fortune of his, but the only progress so far is two CDs and an admittedly very large bag of M&Ms.”

“You went CD shopping?” Rodney said, as if they’d gone out and bought vials of smallpox. “How unbelievably 1990s of you. There’s this thing called iTunes now; you might want to look into it.”

“He doesn’t own anything,” John snapped, his eyes gone unexpectedly serious. “He doesn’t have anything. I just thought it would be nice for once if he...had something for himself. Doesn’t matter if he doesn’t need it.”

“Oh,” Rodney said, quashed. “Well. I’m sure he’ll cherish them forever. Have you at least gotten around to telling him you love him yet? You should know that if you chicken out, I win a truly obscene amount of extra storage space on the civilian server.”

John went bone-pale, and Ronon turned his face into the pillow to muffle his snort of laughter. “Your help with my love life I definitely do not need, Rodney,” he growled.

“Something you wanted to tell me?” Ronon asked innocently when the phone call was over.

John made an exasperated noise at the ceiling. “Well, it’s going to sound a lot less charming and spontaneous now, isn’t it?”

Ronon rolled over on top of him and kissed him, and then kept kissing him and kept kissing him long after he would normally have stopped, until they were both fumbling between their bodies, trying to push up John’s t-shirt and push down both of their boxers without breaking apart at the lips. With both their right hands on both their cocks, they didn’t have to stop for anything after that, and John gasped and murmured brokenly against his mouth when he came.

“Why do you care so much about the money?” Ronon asked against his temple afterwards, running his sticky hand up the sleek curve of John’s lower back.

“I don’t. It’s not the money, it’s.... You’ve been here five years, and you just.... It’s like you’re still not settled. Like you want to make sure you can just get up and go any time you want. And if that’s what you need, okay, but I thought...I wanted.... You should know you don’t have to. I mean, if you don’t know already, you should know. It’s okay to take your coat off and stay awhile.”

“It’s not that. It’s just that I have everything I need. Anything else just feels...greedy.”

John ran his fingers over his beard and said intently, “You can be greedy if you want. You’ve earned the right to live a little bit past subsistence level, I think. Isn’t there anything that you just...want?”

Ronon kissed him softly, even that touch sparking almost-pain through his body from the raw places they’d rubbed on each other’s lips. “I’ll think about it,” he promised.

The next day they went to the zoo, and on the drive back, Nine Inch Nails playing and John courting triple digits in speed again, he said, “I thought of something that would be good to have, but I don’t know if it’s doable.”

“Try me.”

He almost didn’t know the words for it. He did know the words; he’d poured over the advertisement all morning during breakfast, pretending he was reading the entertainment page, rehearsing in his head how he should ask for it, how much it was worth to him. “Well, I’m getting pretty sick of listening to McKay complain about how watching King Kong on the small screen is like not watching it at all. So I think we should either take it away from him or get a bigger screen.”

“You want to buy a tv?” John said, bemused.

“Plasma,” he said. “Flat-panel, sixty-seven inch, rear projection. I mean...everybody could use it. It’s not just for me.”

“Jesus Christ,” John said, but he sounded happy. “We’re going to need a bigger fucking apartment.”

“You think it’s too much?”

John glanced over at him, his eyes sparkling and serious all at once. “No,” he said. “I think if it’s what you really want, it’s not too much.”

*

The seventh year he was a Runner, he really just didn’t care about anything anymore. He didn’t want to die, but that was about as much as he could commit to.

He wanted to be left alone, but that wasn’t going to happen, not as long as he still had that thing inside of him, so he settled for finding the most remote, inhospitable planets he possibly could, figuring it might at least slow them down, or at best maybe make the Wraith decide this just wasn’t worth the effort anymore. After seven years, weren’t they sick of the whole thing yet?

He tried a couple of places, but it was more of the same. Everything was more of the same, all the time, and he just didn’t give a damn anymore. He didn’t feel anything but used up and tired.

The strategy finally paid off for him when he found an apparently uninhabited planet that – it didn’t take him long to realize – was uninhabited because the sunlight was poisonous somehow. He spent a few days in a deep cave, dry heaving and dizzy and disinterestedly watching lesions bloom dark on his skin. There was edible moss down there, and some really ugly mud-dwelling animal, like a fat, blind white lizard that slithered more than it walked on its tiny little legs. Not appetizing, but he could live on it, and it was better than going back out there and getting sick again, or moving on to one more place, one more fight, one more nothing much that mattered.

Eventually he got bored enough to sit in the upper levels of the caves where he could watch the wildlife come and go. He didn’t move much, and they didn’t know enough about humans to be afraid, so he got a pretty good view of various things he’d never seen coming and going. Once he tried to kill something that looked kind of like an opossum by throwing some rocks, but he only stunned it momentarily, and after that the place was quiet for a long time. He gave up easily.

It was that opossum-thing, though, that made him realize how he could get outside again. He watched it rolling around in the mud for what must have been weeks before it occurred to him there must be some reason it did that. Once he understood that the mud blocked whatever part of the sunlight was harmful, he made himself move again, started laying traps and setting up a few high blinds where he could watch the Ring for activity – because as much as he might wish he could just lurk in the mud and the darkness forever, not bothering anybody but slimy, unappetizing vestigial-legged lizards, he knew he’d already had three weeks, and that was more than he usually got. He knew his vacation was almost over.

All he had left to do was rest up while he could, and wait for the inevitable.

*

The seventh year he was on Atlantis, Ronon and his kids cleaned up a hostage situation on Kjorest and a lucky shot from a sniper blew out his left knee. He and three other guys got separated from the main force and the Gate, and the blood loss and the exposure knocked him out cold.

When he woke up in the Atlantis infirmary, the first person he saw was John sitting by his bed, and he was a little bit terrified John would say something frightened and fond – right there out loud in front of everyone – and a little hopeful, too. What John actually did was lean back in his chair, smirk, and say, “Not as young and spry as we used to be, are we?”

“Fuck you,” Ronon croaked, smiling back at him.

John briefed him on how the mission had wound down: no other losses, crisis resolved but Weir had refused all further military aid to the Kjoresti until they cleaned house. Beckett briefed him on how much physical therapy he was going to need until he could walk again: lots. He’d been in surgery for five hours, getting the pieces of his knee that could be saved put back in their correct places, getting the rest replaced with high-grade ceramics that the doctors promised him would last forever, a lot longer than his own bones would.

Before he left, John brushed an almost-absent hand over Ronon’s cheek and said, “No more dodging bullets, okay, Hercules?”

As Ronon understood it, he wouldn’t be walking to the bathroom under his own power for at least two weeks, let alone dodging anything, but he just nodded.

The physical therapy was hard, a lot harder than he expected it to be. Usually anything that started with “physical” was pretty easy for Ronon, but the slightest bit of pressure on his knee was excruciating. He’d rather have had his teeth pulled out with pliers than stand up, but he knew he didn’t have much choice. It wasn’t like spending the rest of his life in bed was an option; even if had been an option for some people, it wouldn’t have been for him.

At first he could only keep it up at all for ten or maybe fifteen minutes at a time. After a month he could walk back and forth on even ground without a cane for almost an hour – slow, shuffling, old man’s steps. It was embarrassing, as well as painful, and the only mercy in the whole thing was that John didn’t fuss over him, just came with him to talk to the doctors every so often and nodded thoughtfully while they discussed his progress and how it was really, in spite of how they knew it must seem, exactly on schedule.

On the rare nights that the pain and the frustration and the need to depend on everyone around him for every little thing became too much, John let him cry in bed without drawing attention to it, just rubbing his back calmly. On the much more frequent mornings when Ronon tried just refusing to get out of bed at all, John was having none of it. Nobody was more stubborn than John Sheppard, absolutely nobody. That whatever-makes-you-happy-we’re-all-cool-here routine of his was a total lie.

One of those mornings when the struggle between Sheppard’s stubbornness and Ronon’s passionate desire not to do a goddamn thing that involved his leg and the floor had been particularly difficult, Ronon lost particularly badly; John insisted on walking with him all the way to the infirmary, matching slow step for slow, laborious step. The next day he did the same thing, even though Ronon had been meek as a lamb. That pissed him off.

It pissed him off so much that they were almost in the hangar before he realized they weren’t walking toward the infirmary. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“We’re running away from home,” John said. “Don’t worry. It’s on the up-and-up.”

He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d gotten into a Jumper with Sheppard; it brought back vivid memories, and he almost expected to turn around and see Teyla behind him with her secretive smile, to hear McKay delivering a stern lecture that nobody cared about. Instead he watched Sheppard’s hands on the controls, and that was familiar, too. After all these years, Sheppard still flew a Jumper the same way he always did: with a light touch, feeling his way through everything inch by inch like a first time.

They landed on the mainland, just a stone’s throw away from the ocean. When John took his hands to help brace him against the long step down into scrub grass and sand, he looked around at the vast ocean, the long, thin ribbon of beach, and he said, “You weren’t kidding about running away from home.”

“Nope,” John said. “Now, if you can walk up that hill and down the other side, you’ll be glad you did.”

Over the hill and down the other side there was a house, golden wood with dark patterns in the grain, beams holding up the sloping roof that looked like it was thatched in dark green leaves. It would have blended in well with the trees beyond it, but it stood out bright and warm on the marble-white sand. “You’ve got a friend with a place on the beach?” Ronon said, a little uncertainly. He wanted it to be – but he didn’t want to seem disappointed if it wasn’t–

“Yeah,” John said lightly. “You.”

There were apparently therapeutic benefits to walking every day through the sand. He had to work harder to take his steps; he couldn’t cheat by scuffing and dragging his feet the way he could in the halls of Atlantis, and his time got set back badly, an hour in Atlantis turning into fifteen minutes on the mainland. “Don’t worry about it,” John said as he made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. “We’ll stay as long as we have to stay. It’ll be an hour again eventually.”

“Don’t they...need you at home?” Ronon said. It seemed like the right thing to say.

John shrugged and said, “What are the chances that the place will blow up in the next few weeks? Don’t answer that.”

They went to bed as soon as it got dark every night, sometimes fooling around first, but more often just lying in each other’s arms with the windows open and the cool ocean wind over their skin. “I meant it,” John said, pressing kisses into the palm of Ronon’s hand. “I really need you to work on spending less time in the line of fire. I know it’s not like I can protect you from everything, but.... Oh, hell, I’ve got to try, don’t I?”

“What about you?” Ronon said. “Do I get to protect you?”

“Me?” John said, sounding amazed at the very idea. “When am I ever in danger?” Ronon snorted. “No, seriously. I’ve lost track of how many nuclear explosions I’ve walked away from, that’s how much of a badass I am. You’re crazy to worry about me; I’m unkillable. I’m like cockroaches, I’ll be here forever. Wait. Not like cockroaches. Like...like something else very, very strong and resilient. And dashing and sexually irresistible.”

“I’m pretty tough, too,” Ronon reminded him. For the first time since Kjorest, as soon as he said the words, he believed them. “Do we get to keep this place once my knee is better?”

“Sure,” John said. “You can have another one, if you want. The real estate market in this galaxy is fantastic. What do you like – Cape Cod, Victorian? How do you feel about adobe?”

“I’m good with this one,” Ronon said sleepily. “I’m good."