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Steadfast, Loyal, and True

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The recruiting sergeants came through Ronon’s town when he was a month short of sixteen, but it didn’t bother him to lie on his application, putting his birthday a few weeks into his past instead of his future. They gave him two days to put his life in order and be at the pick-up site and told him not to bring anything but a shaving kit and one change of clothes – something sturdy, nothing fancy. Beyond that, he didn’t know what to expect, and he didn’t ask.

He sat on his father’s bed and told him what he’d done; there were weeks like this one, ever since the sickness that killed Ronon’s mother and both his sisters, when his father was barely out of bed at all. He didn’t say anything for a long time, until Ronon started to wonder if he were really awake, even though his eyes were open. But finally he said, “Will you need anything?”

“No,” Ronon said softly. “No, nothing. You don’t have to worry about me anymore. Just...take care of Gran.”

His Gran only snorted when he told her. “You won’t last a month,” she said, and waved a wooden spoon under his nose. “It’s not easy to go from the apron strings straight into the Infantry, you know. Your mother always spoiled you sick. I suppose you want to be some kind of hero now. I thought you had your heart set on going on to university?”

“No,” Ronon said to the kitchen floor.

“Good,” she said. “You have your mother’s airs. They’ll knock that out of you in the Infantry, you watch. They won’t suffer any nonsense from you, no matter how far above yourself you think you are. I doubt I’ll recognize you when you come back.” She sounded pretty pleased about that.

Ronon kissed her dry cheek and said, “Be nice to Dad, will you? He misses her.”

“Of course I will,” she snapped. “I’m his mother, and I spoil him sick, too. We can’t help it.”

He raked the leaves in the front yard that evening, and he lingered over the job until well after nightfall, hoping to see Melena walking home from classes, which happened later and later as the years passed and her studies forced her to spend longer hours in the library. This was her second year at university, the year when half of all students washed out – not that Melena ever would, but she had to keep long hours to make sure her scores stayed as high as they used to with no effort at all.

She never seemed stressed, though. She smiled the same girlish smile as always as she shrugged her book satchel high on her shoulder and put her feet up on his front gate and let him pull it all the way in and then push it out so that the metal hinges squealed as she swung. When it slowed down again, Ronon pulled it shut and latched it; she was as tall as him when she stood on the bottom of the gate, and when he covered her hands with his on the top, nothing but the slats of wood separating them, it was easy to kiss her.

“What, just one?” she said when he tried to pull away, leaning across the gate and closing her arms around his neck.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. “I’m leaving in two days. I joined the Infantry.”

Melena blinked. “In...in two days? What about your graduation boards? They’re only in the spring, and– “

“I won’t pass them,” he said. “I can’t.”

“I can help,” she said. “I’ll tutor you.”

“You don’t have time for that. I don’t need it anyway, I’m not – what does somebody like me need it for?”

“I don’t know what that means,” she said stubbornly, even though she did know. She would never admit it, that was all. “Someone like you – I don’t know what that means.”

“I’d never get through university– “

“You don’t have to, that’s not why. You should get your degree because you deserve it, you’ve earned it. You’re smart and you’ve worked so hard– “

“I’m bad at tests.”

“I can help you with the tests!”

“Stop it!” he said, louder than he meant. He’d never yelled at Melena before, and her mouth snapped shut with surprise. He rubbed his fingers over the backs of her hands and said, “Sorry, I just...think we need to talk about...this. About us. You have your future all planned out, and I.... This is a future I can have. I need one, too, I can’t just....”

She frowned, but she couldn’t look angry enough. She mainly just looked hurt. “I planned for you to be there,” she said quietly. “But you’re leaving in two days and you didn’t even talk to me before you did it, so things aren’t going quite like I planned.”

“I can’t end up like my father.” That was the one thing he was sure of, the thing he’d realized that made everything else fall into place behind it and make sense. “Ever since Mom died, he’s just – lost. You say you’re planning for us, but you can’t plan everything, and....” He couldn’t stop his voice from cracking a little as he said, “Do you think my mom would be proud of him? If she could see him now?”

Melena put her hands on his face and kissed him, quick and hard. “Ask me,” she said.

They’d been through this before. “No.”

“You’re so stubborn. Why won’t you just ask me?”

“Because you’ll say yes,” he said. He put his head down on her shoulder, smiling into her neck. “You’re my best friend. I’d do anything for you, I’d die for you, but I wouldn’t – be the right one for you. I’m just – it would be – the wrong choice.”

Her hand settled over the back of his neck, her nails stroking delicately against his skin. “You’ve always loved me more than anyone I know,” she said.

“I think you used to call it following you around like a starving puppy. As in, ‘quit following me around like a starving puppy.’”

She laughed softly into his hair. “But I don’t say that to you anymore, do I?”

“No,” he admitted. “Not for a while.”

“Don’t go. I’ll miss you too much. I need you here.” He didn’t know what to say to that; any answer at all seemed to go against his nature, or at least to go against what he hoped his nature was. “Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “This isn’t the sort of thing you’d do on a whim. So if you did it at all, it must be...really important to you.”

“You’ll be proud of me,” he promised. “When I see you again, you won’t even recognize me.”

“Yes, I will,” she said, and he hoped she was talking about the first thing, but suspected she meant the other. “Ask me,” she demanded again. When he couldn’t, she sighed, touched his cheek, and climbed off the gate to continue home.

It wasn’t til the day after next, the day he was supposed to leave for training, that he opened the back door to let the dogs outside and saw her, looking almost ghostly with her pale skin and her white shawl in the first morning light. “Sandwiches,” she said hoarsely, pressing a small bag into his hands. “For the train.” Then suddenly she was holding him tightly, ruining the sandwiches between them. “Ask me,” she said into his chest, soft and desperate. “Ask me.”

He put his arm around her shoulders and brought her inside for tea and muffins, then held one of her hands across the table while she ate with the other one. “You know we can’t marry each other,” he said.

“I don’t either, know that. You can say it over and over until the end of time, but that won’t somehow make it true.”

“Your parents hate me.” Grinning slightly, he added, “And my grandmother’s not too crazy about you, either.”

Melena rolled her eyes, but she was serious when she said, “Your mother loved me, though.”

“Yeah,” he said softly. “She did. I remember she never wanted anyone but you to take care of the girls when she and my dad went somewhere. She wouldn’t even let me watch them.”

“Well, you were bad at it,” Melena pointed out reasonably. “That time Jolia shaved the– “

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I was bad at it.”

“I remember you lurking at the top of the stairs, watching us,” Melena said, smiling at him. “I thought you were shy.”

“I was shy. Around you I was.”

She wrapped both her hands over one of his and said, “I don’t think you ever knew how much I hated to leave. All those times you walked me back up the hill, and you never realized, I envied you so much. I know things are hard here for you now, but I still think you’re the luckiest person I ever met. The way your parents loved each other, the way they loved you and Jolia and Nessa– Nobody in my family even likes anybody else – they only like me when my scores come in at the end of the year– “

“That’s not true,” Ronon said automatically.

She didn’t seem to hear him at all. “What am I even doing this for?” she asked, with a note of quiet hysteria in her voice. “I’m working so hard, I thought I was doing all this for us, but you won’t even say you want it, and now you’re leaving, and who gives a shit if I pass my boards at first-tier and get a titled position and buy a house in Yendikai, what the fuck does it mean if you’re not going to be there with me?”

He leaned over the small table and put his lips against her fingers. “You should...do all that for yourself,” he said in a small voice. “You – it’s like you said. You should have those things because you deserve them, not for....”

“Are you not even going to tell me that you love me?”

Ronon smiled at the little snap in her voice, but it faded as he said, “I just...don’t think that would make anything – any easier. I have to go, and I could be gone a long time. Nothing I say is gonna change that now.”

She freed one hand and wiped at her eyes, and when she had steadied her breathing and composed herself, she reached out and touched his hair. “Your hair’s a mess,” she said.

“I can’t seem to get it right,” he admitted. “Mom used to....”

“Let me do it,” she said.

He sat on the floor of the bathroom with Melena sitting on the edge of the tub behind him while she oiled his curls, twisting each of them carefully around her fingers to hold their shape. Her own hair fell forward and picked up some of the fragrant oils, and then when she leaned over and nuzzled behind his ear, so that when he pulled her to the floor to kiss her, her lips tasted the same way that the whole room smelled. She ran her slick fingers over his chest, then tangled them with his fingers, so that he was leaving marks everywhere, too, slick wet marks on her neck, on the inside of her wrist, and his fingers were too slippery to work the tiny hooks down the front of her blouse. She pushed his hands away, then kissed him while her slick hand worked inside his pants, which he thought he should ask if she was sure about, but he couldn’t speak, or think, or do anything but add more wet marks to her blouse, sucking on her breasts through the material.

“There, now,” she said after, touching up his curls with her fingertips and dropping kisses on his collarbone. “You look better.”

 

*

He’d been in the training camp for over two months when the next wave of recruits arrived. “They’re over-recruiting,” Andan said in a grim tone as they watched the train pull in from their windbreak under the laundry shelter. “What are we getting ready for?”

Wraith. Nobody said it, but it had to be. There hadn’t been Wraith on Sateda in Ronon’s lifetime, but that didn’t mean safety. It meant the time was coming.

Vendis snorted and spat his wad of chewing-leaf on the concrete floor. “They’ll tell us when they tell us. In the meantime, what I want to know is, where are they going to put these new fools?”

Ronon used the edge of his boot to kick the sticky green ball off the edge of the concrete slab and onto the dead grass outside the shelter. “At least we’re not the new fools anymore,” he said.

Vendis laughed and thumped him on the back of the head with his open palm. “Think you’re a veteran now, Puppy?” Ronon threw his hand off and glared. Vendis was all right, closer to a friend than most people here, but Ronon still wasn’t going to let him get away with that. He’d set the high scores for the training unit in every task so far; he wasn’t their fucking little brother.

Ronon blew on his hands and rubbed them together as he watched the new recruits emerge blinking into the winter sunlight from the train, shading their eyes to get a good look around the rough camp. Most of the people joining these days were farmers, displaced by plague and two seasons of unreasonable chill blighting the crops; maybe to them it didn’t look so bad, but Ronon could still remember the strange twist of his stomach, when it was him emerging from the dark train car and getting his first look around at all the bleak, squat, colorless buildings without windows, the practice fields segmented off with metal rails and ditches dug into the sandy dirt, the smoke from the kitchens hanging over everything all the time. It was nothing at all like where Ronon came from.

The door to the officers’ hall hit the outside of the building with a clatter, drawing everyone’s attention toward it, but it was the Marke Hartoren that kept them looking. Even Ronon watched – he could never help watching. It wasn’t just the Marke’s reputation – Ronon hadn’t known enough to match the man to the name when he first saw him, but that hadn’t mattered. He was taller than any man Ronon had ever seen, elongated even further by his severe black clothing and sharply pointed beard so that he looked like some lean, diving bird of prey, but even that wasn’t the main thing. It was the way he moved. Never too fast, never too slow, as elegant as a woman but with nothing feminine about him. Ronon didn’t know whether it was admiration or dread that made him unable to look away whenever the Marke appeared to survey the trainees.

He knew he wanted whatever Hartoren had, though: that control of himself, that certainty. Even with his name at the top of every task list that went up, Ronon still felt vaguely displaced, awkward in some unrecognizable way, as if soon someone would catch him playing soldier and be angry.

He lost half a bar standing there, watching the new recruits meet the Marke, the training captain, the camp legate – time that he’d meant to spend finishing his letter to Melena, before he had to use it finishing his laundry in time for supper inspections – and he still couldn’t quite make himself believe his own words. He still felt like the new fool.

Supper was a headache; they’d been overcrowded before there were fifty new recruits, and everywhere Ronon turned, someone was behind him or jammed into him or standing where he wanted to step. Their combined noise echoed off the tin walls of the mess hall until he almost wanted an evening shift on stick drills, in spite of the raw spots on his hands that were threatening to become torn blisters any day now. But he was scheduled for the obstacle course, which was worse: the ropes and bars were just as rough on his hands, and without even the chance to work out his irritability by taking a swing at someone. He didn’t care enough about his time to keep him distracted; he was a minute fifteen ahead of whoever had second place, not close enough to make him struggle for it.

He showered afterward, and even handling the harsh lye soap as gingerly as he could, there were still streaks of blood from his cracked hands in the lather. He brushed his teeth, watching himself in the small, dingy mirror over the sink, wondering how anybody ever managed to shave with so distorted a reflection. Ronon had stopped shaving weeks ago, and he was just now getting out of the dirty and stubbled stage, into something that looked passably like a beard. He thought it made him look older, a little. He ran his fingers through his hair, which was a frizzy mess and he’d given up on it; soon it would be long enough to tie back, and that was all he cared about now.

Somebody jostled him from behind, slamming Ronon’s groin against the edge of the sink, and he swung around and shoved back immediately. “Hey!” Vendis yelled, scrabbling against the wall to keep his footing on the wet floor. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing,” Ronon muttered. “Just – everybody’s in my way. Sorry.”

“Oh, well, so very sorry myself, Your Excellency,” Vendis said, his mouth twisting. “They seem to have lost your reservations for the private suite.”

“I’m sorry,” Ronon said again, because he really did like Vendis better than most people around here. “That was my fault.” Vendis snorted, but his face settled back into his normal aloof but tolerant expression, so no harm done.

It was a cold walk with wet hair back to his barracks, but inside it was almost too hot, with the stove in the corner coughing up smoke and five extra people now living on cots in the middle of the floor. That’s where they were putting the new recruits, then, just casting aside pretense and making them live literally underfoot. It was so disorienting, and annoying, that it took Ronon a second to realize that there were strangers poking around in his alcove, where he never, ever left the curtain drawn back like that.

“What the hell are you doing?” he said.

One of the recruits raised his hands and said, “No harm meant, son.” He had what Ronon thought were prison tattoos on his palms.

“I’m not your son,” Ronon snapped. “I don’t even know you. Go away.”

“Now, nobody likes a growly puppy,” Andan said, and Ronon should’ve known he was involved in this somehow. Andan seemed to spend more effort looking for small ways to get under Ronon’s skin than he did on any task their trainers assigned.

Another of the new recruits, one closer to Ronon’s own age, gave him an apologetic smile and said, “We’re getting to know people, that’s all. And we keep hearing you lead the unit in everything.”

“If you want to see if it’s true, go look at the task lists,” Ronon said, jerking the curtain closed. “There’s nothing here for you to know.”

“Andan wanted us to see the picture of your lady doctor,” the tattooed man said, showing crooked teeth when he smiled. “She’s a doctor, yeah?”

Ronon clenched and released his fingers to help manage the tension that was taking over his body. “She will be,” he said shortly. “Stay out of my things.”

He turned around before he realized how close Andan had moved, so that suddenly he had those bushy eyebrows and those hard grey eyes just an inch below his own eye-level. It wasn’t really until that moment, until seeing Andan’s eyes right then, that Ronon realized how much the older man disliked him – not just enjoyed patronizing and irritating him, but honestly disliked him. Ronon couldn’t think what he’d ever done to earn that, not that it really mattered now. “I was doing you a favor, boy,” Andan said, jolly and false.

“Don’t,” Ronon advised – meaning favors in general, and also meaning this, whatever this was that Andan seemed willing to push him into tonight.

Ignoring that, Andan leaned closer and said conspiratorially, “Best if they know it’s a phase, you see? It’s all right, you’re not the first. You’ll marry your lady doctor and forget all about it eventually.”

Probably he shouldn’t have cared, but– “Forget what?”

Andan shrugged. “Your little...devotion to the Marke.” For a second there was utter, pure silence, a silence like Ronon hadn’t heard since he boarded the damn train two months ago – the sound of every man in the barracks waiting on Ronon’s reaction. He didn’t move; he didn’t know what to do. Nothing would make it unsaid, and nothing would make people forget. Damn Andan, anyway. He hadn’t been content to stick Ronon with that stupid nickname, he absolutely had to pin this on him for the rest of his career. Damn him.

It was Andan’s victory and he knew it; the rumor would be outside these walls in minutes, and by this time tomorrow it would have mutated and the whole camp would be saying – would believe – Reckless with his win, Andan half-turned, playing to his audience now, and added lightly, “Sixteen’s the age to try new things, though, isn’t it? Be good for you and your lady doctor both, I’d say, to try a few new flavors before you stick yourselves with each other for life. You could have a go at spreading your legs for a man while you’re here...and so could she.”

Ronon had never hit anyone in anger in his whole life, but that didn’t mean it was hard. It was surprisingly easy; he was still untrained enough that it was something new to realize that strength and speed measured by tests and tasks would translate into actually being able to fight. He knocked Andan to the floor with one punch, and he didn’t stop until three men pried him loose – not recruits, either, but military police.

They dragged him into the courtyard and forced him to his knees with the butts of their rifles, then lashed him by his wrists to the railing of the main field and left him there, and he didn’t feel any of it, didn’t feel anything but the bright heat of his anger.

But he was there for a long time, and he was damp and cold, and his arms started to hurt and he could feel the blood drying stiff on the palm of his hand – his own reopened blisters – and on the outside, too – Andan’s blood. Slowly, he became aware of the mud soaking through the knees of his pants, and the heavy ropes of wire sinking into the thin skin inside his wrists. The pain in his arms crawled further down his back and up his neck, and it got harder and harder to hold his head up, so that he was staring down at the dirt, utterly alone with the pain and resentment and humiliation and fury, and the fear of what came next.

He thought he might still be hanging there by breakfast for everyone to stare at, but it was still dark out when he heard the crunch of boots and saw the traveling beam of a flashlight pass over his face. He didn’t look up, though, struck by the weird feeling that he still had time to make this not real. All he saw were boots at first, until his visitor grew impatient and set his knee under Ronon’s chin, pushing his head up until Ronon was looking blearily up at the Marke in all his tightly leashed severity.

“Let him up,” the Marke said to his accompanying soldiers. “Bring him to my office once he’s cleaned off.”

The MP’s walked him back to the showers to rinse off and put on fresh pants, then disinfected and bandaged his wrists, all without speaking a word. Ronon didn’t say anything, either. He wouldn’t apologize. He wouldn’t apologize, not even if the Marke himself ordered it; he’d rather be discharged, or go to prison.

The Marke’s office was drafty because of a half-opened window; the Marke stood beside it to smoke, dropping his ashes in the dead grass outside. The MP’s left Ronon there, and the Marke gestured vaguely for him to sit in the chair across the desk – vague gestures were all Ronon could make out in the dim lamplight of the room. He put his sore hands cautiously on the arms of the chair and waited until the Marke had finished his cigar and thrown the butt outside. “So I’m curious,” the Marke said, his gravelly voice strangely cheerful. “Your mother, your girl, or your ass?” Ronon spent a shocked second trying to decipher the question, until the Marke snorted slightly and said, “The third one, then. It’s always one of the three.”

“Second,” Ronon said quickly. “It was...the second.”

The Marke nodded slowly. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s just, you don’t know how boring this job can get, and nobody ever brings me any decent gossip. Aren’t you going to ask how he’s doing?” It hadn’t really occurred to Ronon, actually. He shrugged, and the Marke made a soft, thoughtful noise. “You can hold a grudge, can’t you, boy?” he said, not quite a criticism. “Some men would be satisfied after that much. You broke his nose, which is nothing, that’ll heal. But you tore his retina, too. He probably won’t see out of his left eye again. Still angry?”

Ronon took the question seriously and didn’t rush his answer. “Yes,” he finally said. “Kind of.”

“You’re at the head of your unit,” the Marke said, and even under these circumstances, it helped Ronon sit up a little straighter, knowing that Hartoren himself knew Ronon by his actions. In all those years he’d listened to the wireless reports of the Marke Hartoren’s latest heroic deeds, Ronon had never imagined Hartoren would someday hear anything at all about him. “Not just recruits – enlisted men, too,” he continued. “You’re faster and stronger than two-thirds of them, you shoot straighter than nine-tenths, and I’ll be damned if I know anyone I’d put up against you in any task that required pure endurance – or sheer, stubborn bloody-mindedness, which might be the same head in a different hat. Every officer in the Infantry is watching to see where your career goes, Mr. Dex, and the fascinating thing is that I honestly don’t think you know it. So let’s rule out excessive ego right off; I find it unsettling how little attention you draw to your brief but remarkable service record. Which leaves the question open: why do you think you find it so fucking difficult to fit in with your own unit?”

Strangely, Ronon didn’t think it had ever occurred to him to ask himself so simple a question as why. “Because I’m the youngest,” he hazarded. “It hurts their pride to always rank under me.”

“Maybe,” the Marke said. “But I think there’s more to it than that. These men that you serve with now, they’re coming here more and more because there’s nothing left for them in the real world. They’ve lost families in the plagues, they’ve lost family farms, they can’t find work. These men aren’t the future of Sateda, Ronon: you are. These are just people trying to slip loose from their pasts. Their clocks are almost stopped in so many ways, and here you are, everything they aren’t: young and talented and rich, ready to start your life, all eyes on you. All their lives they’ve failed to be you, and it doesn’t matter that they just now met you. They know it.”

“I’m not rich,” Ronon said softly, thinking of his Gran. Your mother’s airs. “My father is a security guard for a residential enclave; my mother gave music lessons. I grew up around rich people, but I....” He stopped, wondering in a dull panic why he momentarily thought the Marke Hartoren would give a damn about his father.

But he sounded at least a little interested when he said, “Huh. Well, you have that look about you – the way you talk, the way you’re fussy about your clothes. Your girl’s in university, isn’t she?”

“Her parents can’t stand me,” Ronon admitted, and the Marke laughed out loud, an easy laugh that Ronon would never have imagined coming out of the cool, silent man that he was in public. Ronon didn’t know if Hartoren was married or not, but he didn’t think so. That seemed strange to Ronon; he was such a great man, famous and powerful, magnetic in front of a crowd and yet startlingly funny and kind in person. Ronon couldn’t imagine that there was ever a woman the Marke might have wanted who wouldn’t be glad to have him. “I didn’t know you– You know how I dress?” Ronon blurted.

The Marke moved away from the window and sat down, leaning closer to Ronon with his forearms braced on the desk. “Do you think I’m joking when I say we’ve all been watching you?” he said. “I know of three other Markes who’d snatch you up like chicken thieves if I turned a moment’s blind eye, and that’s not even to mention Special Forces. Kell Crudin would slice my throat for a chance at you, that duplicitous bastard. Even if I wanted to obey the letter of the law, you wouldn’t lose your career over this, Ronon; as fast as I discharged you, someone would be right there to offer you a place in a different regiment. Not that I plan to discharge you.”

“So...what happens now? Nothing?”

“Not nothing. It’s in my power to pull you out from the other recruits and assign someone to supervise you directly. Generally it’s a punishment, but you’re something of a special case. You’ll work hard for Soren, damn hard, but then you do that anyway.”

“Soren,” he repeated quietly. For one moment...stupid, but he thought.... Hartoren already talked about him like he was a personal project, and Ronon didn’t know how long it would take him to get over the shock of that. But of course, he was the Marke, and he had more important things to do.

“Solen Sincha. He’ll push you hard, but he’ll treat you fairly; he’s a good man. And you’re already damn near as much a soldier as he is.” The Marke stood up and reached across the desk, and after a moment’s hesitation, Ronon stood up too and gripped his arm. “You’re going to be an officer,” he said quietly, his thin, severe face utterly changed by the small, knowing smile. “I’ll be very much surprised if you aren’t going to be a Marke. And trust me when I tell you, half of that job is acting the way they expect you to act. Solen’s an old friend of mine; he’ll get you dirty, he’ll get you drunk, he’ll make you laugh til you cry, and when he’s done with you, you’ll be able to shout an order and men will line up to die without a second thought. Ancestors protect your soul.”

The Marke let him go with a bar and a half to sleep before breakfast inspections, and when Ronon entered his barracks, he could tell from the breathing and rustling that not everyone was asleep – probably still strung too tightly after the evening’s excitement. Knowing he was being watched, Ronon walked to his alcove with his best imitation of Hartoren’s patient gait; rushing would only imply that he was embarrassed or guilty.

He laid down and pulled the curtain closed with his sore, bandaged hand. He wasn’t sure how to present himself to Solen Sincha – what to wear, what to say, how not to come across like...himself. He resolved to say as little as possible for as long as he could. Watch and learn – that was what he was being sent to do, anyhow. He had a mostly full beard and cuts on his knuckles from the hard skull of a man he’d half blinded. That would have to be enough to start with.

You won’t even recognize me, he heard himself say, confident and hopeful. As if it were so easy to change. As if it would happen just because he wanted it to.

 

*

It took Ronon a while to get hold of his knife and cut himself out of the Wraith pod, and since he certainly wasn’t going to listen to McKay any more than he absolutely had to while doing it, that gave him a fair amount of time to think about life.

The unexpected conclusion he came to was that being on a hive ship (it was Ronon’s third time) wasn’t so different from anything else – or maybe, rather, that people dealt with finding themselves on a hive ship pretty much the same way they dealt with everything else. McKay, for example, got very negative very quickly, and then distracted himself from his own feelings by obsessing over stupid little details. Just, in general, McKay did that; he was always himself, even in a place like that.

What Ronon did was prioritize. He always liked to keep a list in his head of mission objectives, in order of importance, and he reassessed regularly, even though the funny thing was that the list hardly ever changed. Maybe he’d sort of imagined that at a really, really big moment things would shift around, but he couldn’t figure out how to make this moment all that much bigger, and nothing actually even budged. He guessed he was always himself, too.

The first thing on the list was to live. A good landing is one you can walk away from, Sheppard liked to say, and Ronon appreciated that about Sheppard – the way he had good, strong priorities, ones that fit in well with Ronon’s. That was why they got along so well. Sheppard himself was thing number two on Ronon’s list – not just Sheppard, but collectively, all the people Ronon cared about. So Sheppard mainly, who was Ronon’s superior and his friend both, but also McKay, because it wasn’t like they could find another one like him anywhere, and Teyla, who was...special in a lot of ways. Occasionally other people would strike him as important like that, as the second-most-important thing in the world, but only very occasionally. Mostly them.

Third was to kill as many Wraith as possible. That was pretty straightforward and hardly ever changed, even though it could get complicated sometimes, weighing that one against the first two, pinning down the exact meaning of “as possible” in any given situation. His fourth objective was – well, he found it hard to put into words, but he knew it when he saw it. It was to do something good – something right. He knew he was no hero – if he were a hero, it would be higher on the list than number four – but it was important to him not to give up on that part completely.

On the hive ship, it all sifted out very neatly. First, get off the ship, and second, bring McKay along, too. Third, cause as much damage as he could in the process, and fourth, save Earth. He’d never been to Earth, but he felt something for it anyway – a world that produced M&Ms, e-mail, and John Sheppard had to be someplace pretty special – and even if he’d never heard of the place.... The Wraith would almost definitely decide to make McKay watch, and there were just some pictures that nobody should ever have to look at. Probably they’d bring him to a screen in some dark room somewhere, and he’d stand in front of it and look at things he could almost recognize, that he could almost remember from back when it was his home and not just blackened ruins, and something somewhere was still alive.

Ronon wasn’t a hero, and it ranked several places behind saving his own life, but still, he wouldn’t wish the things he’d seen on any human being. Earth would fight back, like Sateda fought back, and one Sateda was enough. More than enough.

That mission ended well, though, and even a long, hungry flight home didn’t bother Ronon much, even though he was too keyed up to sleep (keyed up, not disturbed by being surrounded by the eerie, inert bodies of ex-Wraith, not freaked out, whatever the fuck that meant) and he kept checking up on Sheppard and McKay for no good reason. He was tired and thirsty and hungry by the time they reached Atlantis, but it was fine, everything was okay. Everything was good.

Dr. Weir brought sandwiches and thermoses of soup to the de-briefing, and Ronon ate all of his share and some of Sheppard’s while Sheppard had to give the preliminary; McKay tried to sneak the last of the chicken salad, but he got distracted by the meeting at the last second and Ronon, who was pretty much never distracted by meetings in any way, swapped it with one of the egg salad sandwiches. The look on McKay’s face when he bit into it would have been funny, if Ronon had more energy to be amused.

Everybody agreed that the situation was stable but delicate, and that “Michael” was a little bit of a problem, but not one they couldn’t sit on until morning, and that was that. He was on his way to bed when Teyla caught up to him in the hall and said crisply, “Ronon, may I have one more moment of your time?”

“What for?” he asked, because it wasn’t like he was in charge of anything, and anything he knew, other, more important people knew, too. People who’d either had more sleep than he had over the past three days, or got paid a lot more than he did.

Instead of answering she said, “Only a moment, to clear up some small confusion on my part.” She gestured toward one of the small conference rooms they never used; it seemed situated to be used by the engineering department, but McKay made engineering hold their meetings in the main lab complex with everybody else so that he could eavesdrop. Ronon considered arguing, but Teyla was a stubborn person, and he figured the argument itself would take longer than just answering her questions.

“Please sit,” she said gravely as she followed him into the conference room. Instead of pulling out a chair, Ronon sat on the edge of the table and started to say, How long did you say this would take?, but he didn’t make it that far. Before he could get his tongue around the first word, Teyla had her hands behind his neck and her knees on the conference table. He automatically put a hand on her back to steady her, but that didn’t really mean he was catching up, or that he was ready for it when she kissed him.

She kissed him for a long time, which was good, because he wasn’t catching up very fast.

When he finally did, he pulled his head back, looking blank and dumb at the beautiful woman kneeling astride his lap with her ass in his hands and her tongue slyly licking the taste of him off her lips. “Did you...really want to ask me a question?” he said helplessly.

“No,” Teyla said. “But I did want you to sit. You are very, very tall.”

That made him grin, and she smiled brilliantly back at him, and that woke him up enough to take her face between his hands and kiss her back, hard and juicy and hungry. He was so hungry for this; he couldn’t believe he hadn’t realized it before. There were so many things that...that he’d never allowed on the list at all, that he hadn’t given himself permission to want.

She pushed him down flat on the table and followed his mouth. He tweaked her ponytail playfully with one hand and let his other hand go back to cupping her ass, and she was – she was unbelievable, she was astonishing, strong and delicate, sweetly curved and muscular, bold and somehow gentle, the way she was stroking his chest, the way she kissed the corner of his mouth. Ask me, he thought, ask me, and he wasn’t sixteen anymore, so he said, “You want to come with me to my room?”

“Yes,” she murmured, her lips opening against his, her tongue pressing in for just a second. She ran her fingers from behind his ear down his neck, making him shiver, and said in a rough, unfamiliar voice, “It is too soon to lose you, I think my heart could not – that I could not bear it. I know you have endured much, and you are not always willing to be – to be open – with people, and that is why I have not....”

“I didn’t know,” he said faintly. “When...?”

He could feel her smile broadly against his mouth. “Long enough ago. More than long enough.”

Ronon sat back up, bringing Teyla with him so that she was seated firmly in his lap, her strong hands and her searching lips on his face. He slid to his feet, and she stayed wrapped around him for a moment before unwrapping her legs and getting their support underneath her. He kept his arms around her a little longer, just in case.

It felt strange, walking down the hall beside Teyla as if nothing were happening, as if nothing had changed. He was so conscious of her, of the unusual warmth coming off her skin, the twitch of muscles in her neck, her jacket brushing his arm. In the transporter, she put her hand around his and looked up at him with dark, liquid eyes, and he couldn’t look away.

Once they were safely inside his room, Ronon grabbed her around the waist and lifted her onto her toes; she anchored her arms around his neck as they kissed, then finally surrendered and let him pick her up again and walk backwards to fall on his bed. She threw off her jacket and then stripped his shirt off, and he felt his stomach contract as her hand smoothed over the broad surgery scar on his belly. He blew on her hair so that he could get to her ear and nibble it without taking in a mouthful of hair, too, and he could feel her pulse. He cupped her heavy breasts and ran his thumbs over the smooth skin above her shirt, and she made a low, luxurious humming sound and pressed further into his hands as he set up a slow, massaging rhythm.

She was one of the only people he cared about, and the most beautiful woman on the planet, too. There was no reason not to want this – and he did want it; he was heated and shuddering and sensitized from just this, and just imagining – how she’d feel, riding him, every inch of her sweat-slick skin under his fingers, the perfect, close fit between them that would be just like the way they pushed and pulled each other in the training room, only a million times more....

He wanted it completely, and he could have it. No reason not to. No reason at all.

He closed his eyes and groaned, turning his face away. “Ronon?” Teyla murmured, scattering delicate little kisses on his face. “What is it?”

He let his eyes flutter open, his gaze settling on her kiss-swollen mouth, and he couldn’t lie to her, or even shut her out. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, almost without a voice.

With the way she was lying across him, she had to be aware of all the ways he didn’t mean that. After a moment’s silence, she slipped sideways, tucking herself against his side with one leg wrapped across him. They both still had their boots on. “You know, I think, that you can say anything to me,” she said, propping her head up so she could see his face. She smiled a little sadly and said, “I know you have a good and decent soul, and nothing will outweigh that in my eyes.”

He took a breath and said, “I just think...that if it was right...it would be easier than this? It would feel....” Like something that was permitted. Like something he deserved.... “I don’t know. Easier than this. I want to, but....”

She settled her fingertips in the hollow of his throat; he thought it should make him nervous, but it didn’t. “Are you a virgin?” she asked gently.

Before he could think what the right thing to say was, some combination of trust and exhaustion took over, and he heard himself say with thoughtless honesty, “No, married.” He was furious with himself the second he said it, but from her face, she seemed to understand what he meant. His story wasn’t so unusual, after all, at least in broad strokes. “Widowed,” he amended softly.

Teyla snuggled closer under his arm and rested her head on his shoulder. “Tell me about her.”

That was.... He hadn’t been expecting that. “You don’t want to hear about....” he tried weakly.

She smoothed her fingers over his stomach and said, “I know you have your scars. I am not afraid to see them.”

*

He got his first leave four months after he enlisted, but he got off the train before he made it all the way home. “There’s another one in six hours,” he told Solen. “When you get to Gario, if there’s – anyone waiting at the station for me, can you tell them? That I took a later train?”

Solen gave him a strange look, but then shrugged and said, “Stay out of trouble, will you?”

“I will,” Ronon promised.

“That was a joke,” Solen said, cuffing the back of his head. “A little trouble would do you good. See you in two weeks.”

Ronon didn’t get in trouble – Solen was right, he never got in trouble. Instead, he went shopping. He drew credit from his Infantry account and bought three pair of pants and three new vests, one of which had red embroidery and cost as much as the other five items combined. He bought two clean shirts, because the dirt was never, ever going to come out of the ones he already owned – two shirts with complicated lacing up the wrists like you could never wear when you usually had less than a minute after they threw you out of bed to be dressed and ready for inspections. He paid a boy to shine his boots, but the leather was cracked and worn, and he had to give up and buy a new pair of those, too, stiff and black and glossy. He changed clothes in the restroom of the train station, jamming his old things to the very bottom of the pack, and then he spent almost an hour combing out his hair (which hadn’t been touched in weeks except to tie it behind his neck when he got out of the shower) and oiling it carefully.

When he was finished, he watched himself in the mirror while he scrubbed his hands clean, including the dirt sunk into his cuticles. He thought he looked all right – a little tired around the eyes, but otherwise okay. He looked like someone who wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen outside a training camp that was slowly sinking under the early spring mud.

Nobody was waiting for him at the train station, and he spent even more money that he wasn’t sure he should part with on a cab home, because it wasn’t too far to walk, but it was too far to walk in boots that weren’t broken in yet.

The lights went on inside his house as soon as the cab pulled up, and by the time Ronon had tipped the driver and gotten his things out, they had all come to the porch – his father, his Gran, Melena. He hugged them in that order – his father fierce but silent, his Gran pretending she wasn’t weeping, and then Melena. He picked her up by the waist and swung her around in circles, and when he put her down she ran her hands over his arms in the crisp, never-washed shirt with a gleam in her eyes that almost made him nervous and said, “You look so wonderful. You’ve never looked so....”

Nervously, he glanced over his shoulder at his family. “It’s just the work,” he said. “It’s a lot of work.” He’d gained eighteen pounds since he left home, from added muscle and a steady diet of doughy biscuits and salty gravy. He thought it suited his tall, rawboned body, particularly now that he owned clothes that were made to fit and not just ripped out and resewn at the seams. Melena looked like she agreed.

She stayed for tea and an abbreviated conversation, but it was already late, and soon enough Gran said, “You made the girl wait half the day for you, and now you’re putting her to sleep. Walk her up the hill, now, and you come on back.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ronon said.

It felt like old times, holding her arm in his while he walked her up to the gates of her enclave, not wanting to shatter the night silence with talk. He could almost believe he was just himself again, and she was the girl up the hill who babysat for his sisters, the one who was way too good for him but that he could still never stop thinking about. At the gates, he put his hands on her ribs and kissed her, the slow and thorough I-missed-you-so-much kiss he’d been planning almost since they parted. She slid her hands over his shoulders and leaned backwards, until she had him pinning her against the brick column. He braced one hand beside her and traced the backs of his fingers down her face, smiling down into her shining eyes.

“I think I like the beard,” she said thoughtfully, rubbing the tip of it between her fingers. “It makes you look a little dangerous.”

“I am dangerous,” he said gravely. “That’s my job now.”

“You’ll always be the music teacher’s son to me.”

She said it fondly, but Ronon still wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “You don’t – see me differently now?” he said. “I thought you might...think I’d changed.”

Melena looked him up and down carefully. “I think you’ve changed,” she admitted. “That’s not a bad thing, is it? I’ve...I’m sure I’ve changed, too. But that doesn’t mean...we have to change. And the things we want – if you really want something, with your whole heart, then that doesn’t change, does it?”

“What did you have in mind?” he teased softly, blowing into her ear.

She slapped his chest playfully, then nibbled his neck, which came conveniently to the level of her lips. “I want to be a doctor,” she said. “I want you to come up to my actual house instead of dropping me off here like you’re the staff, and more than I previously even thought possible, I want to take you to bed.”

“That’s not a great idea,” he said. “My grandmother is definitely going to wait up until I’m back.”

“It’s just slightly possible that I want it more than I want your Gran not to tell the whole district that I’m a cheap whore,” she said with a wry little smile. “But that might just be the influence of this new body of yours.”

“It’s my same body,” he pointed out.

“It really isn’t. Also, the other thing I really want – I want you to ask– “

“Melena, will you marry me?”

He didn’t go inside the gates, but she kept him there kissing her against the column for a long time anyway, so that Gran muttered bitterly at him when he did finally come home, his brand new shirt wrinkled and untucked and his vest half unlaced. Ronon kissed the thin, cool skin of her cheek and said, “It’s okay, Gran. We’re getting married.”

“Oh, and of course you don’t think that makes it worse,” she said, throwing up her hands. “At least if you just tumbled her and had it out, you could both lie about it later.”

“Have you always been this much of a romantic?” Ronon asked dryly. It kind of made him scared to wonder what his grandfather, who died long before he was born, had been like.

“At least you’re a soldier now,” she said blandly, returning to her knitting. “I suppose you don’t have to be better quality than the other men if you know how to shoot them.”

“There aren’t any other men, Gran.”

“Oh, on the whole planet, there aren’t any other men? Or do you just think you’re the best of all of them?”

Ronon grinned at her and said, “Tonight I sort of do, yeah.”

*

Both of Ronon’s first tattoos were hand-tapped, of course – electric needles were for civilians looking for a quick thrill before they sobered up; everything about Infantry life required more commitment than that. But he’d paid to have them done. Only a few regiments employed their own inksmiths anymore, and hardly anyone studied the craft except professionals.

“Where’d you learn how to do this?” Ronon asked suspiciously when Rakai tied the sleeve around his arm and unrolled his bundled tools, eight perfectly smooth sharpened tindia wingbones of different widths, as perfect and outdated a set as you might see in a museum, behind the glass.

Rakai shrugged. “We all had to pick up a trick or two along the way. Fix things, make things, kill things – whatever needs to be done to make a living.”

“Does the pattern have significance?” Teyla asked, and Ronon could hear the stiff disapproval she was trying to hide, but he figured that to anyone else, it just sounded like Teyla’s regular stiffness.

“No,” Ronon said shortly. “It’s just traditional.”

Tyre looked at him oddly, then turned to Teyla and said, “A hundred years ago, there was a mercenary company called the Vandal Hurricanes, and they used to wear these marks.”

“They were bad guys,” Ronon said.

“Those were desperate times,” Tyre said with a little shrug. “They rose to power shortly after the last great culling on Sateda, and they doubled in size over a single year. They sacked three cities and effectively brought down what was left of the Satedan government. People lived in more fear of the Vandal Hurricanes than they did of the Wraith, for a little while.”

Teyla frowned. “Then are these not marks of shame?”

Ara and Rakai and Tyre grinned at each other. Ronon kept his eyes down on the table, watching the tip of the bone needle as Rakai rolled it back and forth carelessly on his ink blotter. “Nobody thought they could be stopped, least of all by the Infantry, who had taken heavy losses in the culling. We were scattered, cut off from each other, wounded and hungry, no paychecks coming in. But we did it. We broke their backs in three separate battles, then cut their heads off at Aruta Hill. The three Markes who led the Aruta Hill engagement all took on these tattoos as a sign of everything they won from the Vandal Hurricanes – their power, the fear they inspired in those who would oppose them, their ucuso.”

“Their luck,” Ronon translated before Teyla could ask. “Their...destiny.”

“And now members of the Satedan Infantry wear them to commemorate this great victory,” Teyla said.

“Well, not now,” Ara said with a laugh. “Now members of the Satedan Infantry wear dirt and worms.”

Teyla blinked, not sure how to respond to...the way that Ara could be, sometimes. “It’s a little more complicated than that,” Tyre said. “It’s known as the Hand of Victory, and in our time, the only soldiers who would have the balls to wear these signs were those who had fought in a remarkable battle, one they should never have been able to win, but did – veterans of Aga 12, the siege of Yojoa, that sort of thing. The Marke Hartoren took on the Hand of Victory after he led the raid on the hive ship during the Keperye culling.” His hand came down on Ronon’s neck for a moment, and Ronon could feel his eyes, satisfied and affectionate. “And our Ronon’s no idle braggart, so if that’s the tattoo he wants, it means he’s won a battle that would put Aruta Hill and Aga 12 in the dark. Maybe he’ll tell us about it sometime.”

Ronon smiled a little with the corner of his mouth. “Not much to tell,” he said. Nothing they didn’t already know, anyway.

It felt like one battle, like one huge, endless event – seven years, gone like a bad dream, and nothing left of it now but a handful of pale scars that didn’t even stand out among those he’d earned before and since. There really wasn’t anything to tell; he didn’t have war stories from his Running years, mostly because even in his own memory, everything was indistinct – choppy and disorienting images and the utter blackness of far too many nights on lonely planets with a fire so small he could spread his arms out and not be able to see the tips of his fingers. Those years had sharpened his every sense to the limits of his capabilities, but on those rare occasions when he tried to remember anything, it felt like he’d spent the whole thing stone blind.

But he’d sure as hell be able to see it from now on.

*

Solen let slip about his promotion two days before it was official, just to Ronon and twenty or thirty of their closest, drunkest friends in a bar in Aboru Valley. For a moment Ronon was surprised, because Solen had gone almost eight years in his current rank, which put him long past overdue and into the category of un-promotable. But then Ronon was sorry he’d thought it; he should have had more faith in Solen.

Ronon grabbed him, kissed him hard on the cheek, and said, “You’re fucking taking me with you, though.”

“Sure, sure, yeah!” Solen laughed, rosy and happy. “I’ll give you a commission, why the fuck not? If I don’t, someone else will by the end of the year. I’ll make you my second lieutenant, how’s that for you?”

“Second lieutenant?” Ronon said, pretending to be insulted. “After I kissed you and everything? What do I have to do to make first?”

Solen laughed so hard he snorted and coughed on his beer. He wiped his face on his sleeve and said, “Fuck, if I got you on your back, they’d probably make me a Marke.”

Unit 344 wasn’t a prestige posting, and truthfully if it hadn’t been a matter of staying with the commander he knew, Ronon would probably have held out for something a little more strategic for his first officer’s commission. “I feel like I’m doing this for friendship,” he wrote in his letter to Melena, which he sent clipped to a photo of himself in his full commissioned uniform; the Infantry didn’t crack open the bank for enlisted men, who had to supply their own clothes, with epaulets attached to the shoulders that displayed their hiring date and deployment information. Ronon had burned his the minute he signed his name to the commission paperwork. “Should I be more worried about my career? Would you pick a hospital because of other doctors you knew who worked there?”

She wrote him back and said, “Why would you go to a regiment where you’d have to prove yourself all over again? Solen knows what you can do, and he trusts you. Also, I feel like ‘better posting’ when you say it means more dangerous, so you know I have to disapprove. Actually, if you could get demoted to floor mopping, I’d be extra, extra happy for you. But of course, you have to go and be good at this. (It helps a little that you look so sexy in the uniform. Yes, I am willing to compromise my principles for prurient reasons. Everything is really stressful here right now, and I wish you were here. I’d clarify that further, but I still think my mother might be reading all of these before they go out. Ha, that should make me want to go into more detail, shouldn’t it? It would serve her right if I did.)”

Second lieutenant meant that Ronon was in charge of most of the unit’s day-to-day business, from work rosters to evaluations to discipline, and in a further worrisome development in terms of his career as a whole, he enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than he thought he would enjoy being first lieutenant. That position was held by a woman who’d come up in the 344th. Her name was Morika, and she was almost six feet tall, with large green eyes and golden skin and dreadlocks, beautiful enough to be Ronon’s number one concern when it came to keeping order in the unit. She handled most of Solen’s administrative concerns, payroll and supply and communications with the rest of the regiment – all the boring stuff. Ronon had been with the unit for two months before he ever saw Morika fight, which she did exactly the way she did everything else, with quiet grace and economy. They never really talked, except in staff meetings.

The worst thing about being an officer was that he got less leave now than he used to – only two days’ less in raw terms, but he wasn’t allowed to take it over Regency Day or anywhere within a week of Consecration. Being in camp over the holidays was about as depressing as anything Ronon could think of, and even being allowed to transreceive home almost made everything worse. He said I love you so many times that his throat was sore by the end, and the food in the mess hall was more unpalatable than ever – how could they even ruin sugar-nut pie, how was that even humanly possible?

He knew he wasn’t going to be able to settle in for the night, so he took advantage of his rank to stay up past curfew and get some target practice. But when he got to the practice hall, the lights were already on and Morika was there, walking on her hands on the balance beam. Ronon leaned in the doorway and watched her flip off the end, and the little start she gave when she noticed him there was maybe the first time he’d ever seen Morika look surprised by anything. “Sorry,” he said.

She wiped her hands on her thighs and said, “I thought you’d sneak out for a drink with the rest of them tonight.”

“Just because I don’t plan to penalize anyone for it doesn’t mean I can come right out and act like I approve. You really think I’m that bad at my job?” He said it as casually as he could, but he found there was a tight feeling in his chest when he thought about that. He didn’t know Morika well in a personal way, but they’d been working together for several months, and he’d been sort of assuming that she thought he was doing a good job. He thought he was doing a good job, and Solen didn’t have any complaints, so why would Morika?

Morika shrugged. “I think you work pretty hard to make them think you’re one of them.”

“I am one of them,” Ronon said. “Yeah, I’m commissioned now, but I’m Infantry first, just like we all are.” She raised an eyebrow and looked him up and down, surveying Ronon’s clothes, which were just his ordinary off-duty civilian clothes, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a sturdy, unpatterned red vest, leather boots instead of the indestructible, synthetic, twenty pound monstrosities that regs required. She was barefoot, but still in her uniform pants and the fitted, sleeveless shirt that belonged under her uniform jacket. “Oh, come on,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You can’t tell some deep thing about my loyalties by what fucking shirt I’m wearing. Cut me some slack, it’s Consecration Eve.”

“Yeah, it is,” she said. “Blessed Consecration.”

“Yeah, you, too,” he said, not mustering up much seasonal cheer.

He set up the targets and loaded his gun, unwilling to look back over his shoulder to see if she was still there or not, until she finally said, “Hey,” and he had an excuse to turn around. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking amused. “There’s nothing wrong with your shirt.”

“I know there’s not,” he said.

“I’m just jealous, all right?” He tilted his head in puzzlement, and she said, “You’re prettier than me.” Ronon narrowed his eyes and glared, and Morika laughed, a bubbling, soft, low laugh that Ronon would never have been able to imagine coming from someone so serious. “Oh, come on, don’t sulk about it,” she said. “I just mean – it’s awkward, sometimes – to be pretty. For me, I mean. If I were to walk around camp with my hair oiled and my nails perfect and wearing my off-duty skirts, nobody would know what the hell to make of me, but who cares if you do it; that’s just how you are.”

“I think there’d be some confusion if I went around in a skirt, too,” he said.

“That wasn’t the point.”

He knew that, but instead he said, “So what is your point? If I were a real soldier, I’d cut my hair short?”

“There wasn’t any point. I’m just making conversation.”

“Well, you’re not very good at it.” And he shouldn’t have felt any need to defend himself, but still for some reason he couldn’t keep himself from saying, “I tried to stop doing anything to my hair, but it turned – just, it wasn’t working.”

“So cut it off,” she said.

“That’s not gonna work, either,” he said with a shy smile. “My girl would kill me if I did. I like yours, though. Is that hard to do?”

“You know,” Morika said, “somehow I never imagined that I’d spend my first Consecration as an officer getting drunk and doing my second lieutenant’s hair.”

“Are you drunk?” Because if she was, that was especially impressive work on the balance bar.

“Not yet,” she said. “So come on.”

*

Inaula was famous for two things: cheese and leather, and conveniently, Ronon’s team contained two people who cared about one and two who cared about the other.

“I thought you were lactose intolerant,” Sheppard said to McKay while they were synchronizing their watches – oddly, Ronon thought, since the two of them were the only ones wearing watches, and they were going to stay together. It seemed to be just one of those things they had to do whenever they went through the Ring. Maybe it was for luck or something.

“No,” McKay said disdainfully. “I am very much pro-lactose. Oh, do you think they have anything that tastes like gruyere? I’ve been wanting to try my hand at fondue for my next date with Katie, except that every time I request– “

“So, let me get this straight. There’s an irritating but non-life threatening medical problem you don’t have?”

“Look, Restless Leg Syndrome is a real condition, a neurological condition. It’s related to Parkinson’s!”

“Well, at least we agree that it’s all in your brain.”

Ronon jerked his head in Teyla’s direction. She raised an eyebrow, nodded once, and followed him without a word. “You’d be mad at me if I choked McKay to death on a wheel of cheese, wouldn’t you?” Ronon said when they were out of earshot.

“Rodney is a very important member of our team,” Teyla said primly. Then she cast a sly, sidelong glance up at Ronon and said, “I might also ask, how confident are you that if Rodney’s services were not available, you would not inherit the task of keeping the Colonel entertained on missions? Because it is not a risk I am willing to take, myself.”

“Good point,” Ronon said, grinning down at her. “I wasn’t thinking about the human shield angle. We better keep him.”

Ronon was the one shopping for something in particular – he had a coat that he liked, but it turned out to be not as warm as he thought it was going to be when he bought it, and he really needed one for harsher climates – but nothing appealed to him for some reason, and it was Teyla who seemed to want to try on everything in every store.

No, not everything, Ronon realized with a kind of wistful amusement: only the fanciest things, creamy-soft skirts that swayed when she walked, shirts with patterns cut out of the back, narrow, high-heeled boots with glossy patterns in shell and snakeskin laid into the sides, and one...top thing that hooked up the front and did things to her body that made the back of Ronon’s neck sweat. When she showed it to him, standing forward and sideways and putting her arms behind her back to show him from every angle, Ronon just made a gruff, dubious noise and shook his head slightly. “No?” she said, sounding disappointed.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said, feeling guilty now. But honestly, she could not wear that home; it was a matter of his own survival, and Ronon was always willing to fight dirty for that. “I like the other one better. With the chain on the back.”

They bought iced cruim at a stand on the corner and sat down at the base of the obelisk commemorating some Inaulan lawgiver. “Can I ask you something?” Ronon asked, and then clarified, “Without making you mad.”

Teyla took a long drink of her cruim and said, “I do not think I will be mad. Although I may choose not to answer your question.”

Yeah, there was a pretty good chance of that. But still, he had to ask. “Who are you sleeping with?”

She froze in the act of lifting the cup, for only a second. Then she took another drink, probably just to stall, and said, “What makes you think...there is anyone?”

He shrugged. “You just...it seems like it. Seems to me like it. You’ve just been – really happy lately. The way you walk, the way your – your eyes look. I mean...I’ve known you for a while.”

“Yes,” she said, looking down at the grass. “I suppose you have.”

“So...who is he? I won’t say anything to him. Or anyone else.”

“He is...a friend,” she said, in a tone that clearly meant he was one hell of a lot more than that. Ronon thought he’d prepared himself for that, but apparently he’d still been holding out hope that it was just some...tension-release thing or something, because he could feel it right between his ribs when he had to put away that hope for good.

“Someone I know?” he asked, even though it wasn’t really a question. Teyla didn’t have any friends he hadn’t at least met in passing.

“Do you remember a man named Kannan?”

Ronon did, more or less. He was a quiet guy, tall and lean and dark-haired, who talked in a soft voice and made Teyla laugh; he’d been around a fair bit, during the weeks that Ronon lived among the Athosians, when the Ancients had kicked everyone out of the city. “You love him?” Ronon asked.

She whipped around to look at him, glaring, but before he could apologize, her face softened and she said, “He makes me happy. More than that...I cannot say. I think it is only love once it has stood the test of time.”

“Well...good,” Ronon made himself say, trying hard not to think about love and time and moving on, which he was completely failing to do on not one but two different fronts now. “It’s good that you’re happy.”

In the early evening, they found a store that specialized in coats, and Teyla lost her heart to a soft, flowing black one with a high waist. Ronon nodded as she turned in it and then said, “Hey, the – other thing, with the hooks? I.... That one was pretty. You looked good in it. If you wanted that one, you should go back and get it.”

“I think I prefer the coat,” she said. “It is much more practical.”

“Oh,” he said with a hesitant grin. “I didn’t know that was the look you were going for.”

She wasn’t as supportive of the coat that Ronon fell in love with, which was made with patches of textured leather in different shades of matte black and dark red and had a slightly high collar and a yoke around the shoulders that was lined with just a little bit of gray fur. “Hm,” she said, fingering the fur trim.

“You better get used to it,” he said, “because I’m keeping it.”

“I suppose I prefer...simplicity,” she said, testing the stitching with her fingernail.

“You like the boring ones,” Ronon interpreted, with just the hint of a dangerous little smile.

She raised her eyebrows at him, then let her hands drift down the front of the coat, over his chest. “A garment like this is an investment. It is one thing to want it, and another to be sure you can live with it over the years to come.”

“Practical,” he said wryly.

“I find that my practical decisions have, in the past, repaid me more reliably than my...more extravagant ambitions.”

He knew exactly what she meant. Extravagant ambitions – that shit would break your heart.

*

The invasion of Tanoa was hard, cold, filthy, agonizing work, the unhappy marriage of cramped, complicated ground tactics and sheer gore. By the fifth week, Ronon felt like he’d been living down under the dirt embankments for half his life, and his soldiers were starting to panic. He could hear them whispering when they thought he wasn’t near enough to hear – there weren’t enough reinforcements coming in, there wasn’t enough food, they’d been left to die here, in the sleet and rain and mud of mining-rich but miserable Tanoa.

The bodies of the dead were stacked up in tents behind the security line, but they’d been cut off from the Ring for ten days, and nobody was about to give in and bury the dead on Tanoa. That would be the same as saying that none of them were ever going home again.

Ronon did his best to keep everyone focused and busy, to keep the same rules and habits for his unit that they lived under back in their own home camp. He tried to do the same thing for himself, but Tanoa was huge and harsh and ugly – just looking out across the wind-blasted landscape seemed to drain the life out of him, and he found himself becoming terse and bitter, fair but not kind to his own troops, too antisocial to join his counterparts in the makeshift officers’ pavilion. Solen and Morika would go there in the evening, eat their dinners from tables instead of tin plates balanced on their knees, but Ronon couldn’t make conversation and didn’t want to heat enough water to clean himself up anyway. He spent most nights writing long letters to Melena, uncorking his anger and grief – the names of the dead, what was left of them after the bombs, crawling on their stomachs from place to place with no natural cover, firing so many times that his fingers kept twitching even when there wasn’t a gun in his hand, the stench of waste and rotten food scraps that got into everything, how he loved her, how he wished he could see her just one more time. Afterwards, he burned the letters. Even if there had been anyone to take them home for him, he wouldn’t have wanted her to read them.

His last engagement in the regular Infantry was as part of a hand-picked team on Tanoa, Ronon and Morika and about thirty other low-ranked officers and veteran enlisted from eight different units. The Marke Gamant deployed them to break a Tanoan supply line where the train was scheduled to switch tracks, according to Special Forces intelligence – a small force, moving fast, while the Tanoans were distracted by their grim deadlock. Ronon would’ve been happy to go even if it were all but a suicide mission, just because they had hardly gotten anywhere since they dug in on Tanoa. But the raid was being led by Kell Crudin, who was the Special Forces equivalent of a regiment commander and had a reputation for being cagey and critical, the absolute last person who would get himself into a doomed mission, so Ronon had a certain amount of hope.

At first it went exceptionally well; the overmatched Tanoan security force got taken totally by surprise and surrendered right away, but someone managed to signal reinforcements, and an hour later it was the Satedans who got caught flat-footed. It was just a lightly armed foot patrol, fifty or so strong, but they came in like a lightning bolt and fought like monsters, close and ugly. Ronon had his gun in his left hand, but he was too penned in to do much of anything with it, so he did what he could do, hacking desperately on every side with his sword, trying to drive them back so that Morika and the other snipers on the roof could get clear shots at them.

He took a few of them down, but then someone slammed him from the side when he raised his sword again, and they both went down to the ground and rolled. Ronon lost his sword and got slashed by a wide, serrated knife, in at his collarbone and straight down like he was being sawed apart at the shoulder. He swung his gun and smashed it across the Tanoan’s cheek, which bought him a moment’s disorientation, and he kicked the man off of him, but he managed to grab for Ronon’s gun and pull it out of his hand as he went. Ronon rolled for his sword, and it was agonizing to pick it up with his damaged arm, but he wasn’t thinking about pain at that particular moment. The soldier aimed Ronon’s own gun at him, and Ronon swung hard at his legs, then once more as he screamed and started to pitch forward, so that he landed across the edge of Ronon’s blade. He jerked it upwards with all his strength, peeling skin and muscle until he was soaked in blood and his sword was caught on the bones of the dying man’s ribcage.

Vaguely, Ronon could hear people yelling his name, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t even think. Other people’s hands heaved the corpse off of him, intestines spilling out on the sparse, frosted grass and the grainy dirt, and other hands pushed him up, put pressure on his shoulder, touched his hair, repeated generic words in worried tones. “‘M all right,” he muttered. He tried to put his good hand on the ground to help himself get up, but his muscles were shaking and he couldn’t make his arm straighten out and bear his weight.

“I’ve got him,” someone said, fitting broad shoulders under Ronon’s arm and levering him unsteadily to his feet. “Everyone back off – get back to work!”

He didn’t really recognize the man who got him inside for a minute, and then only by his sleek black uniform, unmarked by any rank or deployment insignia, a Special Forces uniform – Crudin. He got Ronon into the office of some railroad employee, set him by the hearth and cut the blood-wet jacket and shirt off of him. “Yeah,” he said gently, exposing the wound on his shoulder for a moment, wiping blood away before covering it again. “That’s going to scar.”

“I’m okay,” Ronon said thickly. “Where’s – who did we lose? Is Morika okay? I need to– “ He was still shaking, his teeth clicking together every time he tried to talk.

“Hush,” Crudin said, lifting a flask of something strong to Ronon’s lips. The rim of the flask tasted metallic, copper like the tang of blood, and he gagged a little but managed to swallow the alcohol. Crudin’s put his arm around Ronon’s back, pressing harder on the bandage, and grumbled, “Fucking Infantry. The run me in circles for two years, then almost get you cut up like butcher’s meat. Fuck them, I’m done waiting. You’re mine, I’m taking you.” He ran a hand over Ronon’s hair, then settled it warm and heavy against the skin of Ronon’s good shoulder. “I’ve got you,” he said quietly, with a horrible, unraveling kind of gentleness.

It all crashed down on Ronon at once – the pain in his shoulder, the body tearing apart on top of him, his face, his screams, the smell – and he vomited on the stones of the railroad office hearth, then started to cry and couldn’t seem to stop. Kell just kept on stroking his hair and his arm and murmuring, “I know. I know,” until Ronon slipped into something like sleep, slumping into his arms.

*

They got the Ring back not long after that, so Ronon only spent a few nights in field surgery, then they moved him straight through to Honor Ford, a comfortable room with a view of the Longwash outside his window and the hard, rust-colored skyline of Yendikai behind him and out of sight. His father came to see him, but had to go home almost right away, because Gran’s health wasn’t good enough to leave her alone for much time at once.

Melena stayed until he was discharged, which was just over a week. “I’ve applied for a position here,” she said, sitting on his bed and watching him without offering to help as he dressed himself laboriously with his arm immobilized against his body.

“Infantry doesn’t pay that well,” he said.

“No, but this way I won’t have to take any time off work the next time you end up here.” Ronon gave her a sharp look, and she shrugged and said, “I know, it’s not funny. If I don’t laugh at it anyway, I might fall apart, okay? The truth is – I think I’d like doing this. I don’t know, I feel...protective now of all these soldiers. It’s almost like they’re all a little – piece of you, somehow. I think maybe I won’t miss you so much if I’m here,” she said in a very small voice, looking down at the carpet.

Ronon put his good hand under her chin and lifted her face up toward him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this scares you.”

“I’m not good at being helpless. And I hate the way you...won’t really talk to me. You haven’t said anything about Tanoa since you got back – how this happened, or – or anything. I thought we told each other everything?”

Not this. Even if he knew the words for it, he’d rather die than say them. “It was just...combat,” he said. “People get hurt. But I’m okay now. I’ve been thinking...we should go ahead and do it. You’re finished with school, I have a commission. There’s no reason to keep waiting. Maybe this spring....” She nodded, but she didn’t seem that enthusiastic. “Don’t get too excited, now,” Ronon said dryly. “It’s just a wedding.”

“I know,” she said, smiling gamely. “I am excited. I’m just – tired.”

“Can you – help me, here?” he said when he’d managed the tunic but not the jacket on his uniform, and she jumped up right away.

Even with three good hands, though, it was tricky work to unhook his sling and get his sleeve over his arm without moving it too much, and Ronon had to bite his tongue on several noises of pain. Melena didn’t miss them, though, and she said, “Just forget the jacket. I’m not going to risk your arm for it.”

“Kell Crudin is an important man,” Ronon said impatiently. “I’m not going to meet him looking like some new recruit.” Melena rolled her eyes, but she did keep at the project, until between the two of them, they managed. She buttoned his jacket for him from the top down, and before she did the last buttons, she slipped her hand inside to touch the bottom edge of his scar, over his pectoral muscle. He kissed her temple gently.

“Does this hurt?” she asked.

“No, Doctor,” he said. “But I’d appreciate if you didn’t press any harder than that on it.” She gave him a mischievous little smile and turned her hand, brushing the scar with the backs of her fingers, then tracing over his nipple with the tips. He pulled her closer with his good arm and kissed her, but he had to stop when she kept going down his stomach. He pushed her hand away from the hooks on his waistband and said, “No, forget it, you’re not sending me off to a meeting with the highest-ranked officer in Special Forces – like that.”

“I just wanted to see how much better you were feeling,” she said lightly.

“Better,” he growled, and the playfulness turned bright and hot in her eyes. She pulled him down to kiss her again, sliding her tongue over his lips and her fingernails over his first few vertebrae.

The walk across the courtyard from the Hope Ford hospital facilities to the command offices helped him pull himself together a little after that, and by the time he was in Kell’s office, he could salute with his off-hand and go to rest with his mind on nothing but what came next. Whatever that was.

Kell didn’t waste any time. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and said, “I’m having you transferred to Special Forces.”

Ronon raised an eyebrow. Special Forces was connected to the Infantry but not exactly a part of it – they didn’t use the same ranks or insignia, weren’t wholly inside the chain of command, and the Infantry couldn’t just bump you into Special Forces like it was just another regiment. They needed his permission. “I wouldn’t make a good spy, sir.”

“I never thought you would. I don’t need spies at the moment, but let me tell you what I do need.” He pushed a large sheet of paper across his desk, and Ronon took a step closer and bent down to read it – or try to read it. It was a star chart, but alongside each symbol that designated a Ring was a line of code, usually more than one line, letters and numbers that meant nothing to Ronon. He looked back up and waited for Kell to explain. “I have a department under me made up of statisticians and mathematicians. Ostensibly they’re code-breakers, but I’ve had them working on this project on the side for three years now. This is a list of every known major culling in the last fifteen years, and you’d be amazed how many patterns emerge from the data. I’m going to tell you what no government in the galaxy wants to tell anyone, for fear of mass panic: I know where the Wraith are going next, and I know when they’re coming here. It won’t be less than two and a half years from now, and it won’t be more than three.”

Ronon nodded shortly, his mouth too dry to speak. Wraith. He’d thought about it, of course – everyone thought about it. He’d even known it would probably be in his lifetime, but – three years? That was nothing, that was barely more time than the lifetime he’d already spent in the Infantry – a third the amount of time he’d been in love with Melena. He didn’t want to know that. Who would want to know for sure? He had to get married now, he had to try to start his life, always wondering in the back of his mind if either or both of them would be dead two years later? Fuck Kell Crudin for telling him this. He didn’t want to know.

When he didn’t ask any questions, Kell finally gave up waiting and said, “This isn’t some kind of morbid hobby of mine, Lieutenant Dex. I intend to do something about it.”

“Do something?” The words almost didn’t make sense, plain and simple as they were. “You can’t...fight the Wraith.”

“Do you believe that?”

He’d never heard anything different. When the Wraith came, you ran. Got underground if you could. Prayed. Maybe he’d been wrong, what he thought before about Kell Crudin and suicide missions.... “I don’t know,” he said.

“When I’m finished with them,” Kell said, “the Satedan Special Forces will be something the galaxy has never seen: a force of the finest soldiers on any world, specifically trained and armed to do nothing but kill Wraith. I think you in particular should grab hold of this opportunity with both hands.”

“Me in particular?”

“You’re not going to make it in the Infantry, son,” Kell said, not unkindly.

It still hit Ronon like a fist. Nobody had ever said that to him – they’d said he was the best, that he could author his own career, that he’d be a Marke someday. Since the day he signed with the recruiting sergeants, nobody had ever said he was going to fail at this. “I have the strongest task and service record of anyone in the Infantry at my rank,” Ronon said tightly.

“Oh, I know. And it’s bullshit to compare you to your rank, because you ought to be about three steps higher than you are anyway – you would be, if you didn’t insist on yoking yourself to that lazy drunkard Sincha. But that won’t matter if you crack apart on us, and at the rate you’re going, I give you a couple more years. You’ll be back here on a distress suspension before the Wraith arrive, odds favor.”

Ronon didn’t know whether he was more ashamed or angry, but either way it took him a minute to rally and say, “I’m sorry – sorry about what happened on Tanoa, but it won’t happen again. I don’t know why.... I’ve been in combat before, I don’t know why– “

“Oh, love of the Ancestors!” Kell said, harsh and impatient. “What do you mean, you don’t know why? You fell apart because it was fucking horrifying – it was horrifying just watching it! Listen to me, Ronon,” he said, pulling himself back under control. “I know your career; I know you. You’re a good man, trusted by the people who outrank you, idolized by the ones under you. You don’t get in fights, you don’t whore around, you have brains and compassion and self-respect. You didn’t join the Infantry to raise some hell before you die, you did it for your future – to make a difference, to take care of your family – your grandmother, your fiancee, your children someday. I have kids myself, you know – three of them. Married to the same woman twelve years now, and I love her more every day. Men like you and me, Ronon, we’re the exception rather than the rule in the Infantry. We’re just not like them.”

Why do you find it so fucking difficult to fit in with your own unit? Ronon licked his lips and said, “I’m...not. Different. I do my job the best I can, just like everyone else in the Infantry.”

“You are different,” Kell said. “You’re better. You’re a better soldier, and you’re a better man. If you’re lucky, Infantry life is going to get you killed. If you’re not lucky, you’ll wind up with so much blood on your conscience that you won’t be able to live with yourself. You already have nightmares, don’t you? Your hands shake sometimes, when you think about Tanoa? You can’t talk about it – you flinch when you touch someone, because you expect to feel blood under your hand?”

Ronon tried hard not to look away, but he finally had to – just to the side, just a little bit, and just for a moment. He switched his eyes back to Kell and said, “I’m not a coward.”

“It’s not about courage,” Kell said. “You have too damned much of that. The problem is, you’re not stupid enough to stop thinking about the kill, and you’re not crazy enough to develop a taste for it. Usually people like you serve a year or two in the field and then get shunted into admin postings, but you have the bad fucking luck to be the best combat soldier in three regiments, and they will never let you go. How many more can you look in the eye while you run them through, Ronon? How many more years of this can you fit into your nightmares?”

He didn’t know the answer to that. It felt like those were questions he’d been trying to ask himself ever since his first days on Tanoa and just never knew the right words for. All he knew was that there was almost nothing in the world that mattered to him more than being in the Infantry – and that he’d rather be dead than go back to Tanoa now.

“I can give you the Wraith, Ronon,” Kell said in a strange, soft voice, almost a whisper of awe. “No more throwing your heart and soul away on – on miserable, petty land-grabs and mineral rights disputes. You’re the best combat soldier – the best warrior – hell, of your whole generation, maybe, and only a madman would say you were born for nothing more than this. I can give you the Wraith. I can teach you how to use everything you were born with to do the only thing that’s worth doing. This is your choice, son. You joined the Infantry because you wanted your life to have a purpose, didn’t you?” Ronon nodded. “Well, I’m giving you a choice of purposes. You can spend your life butchering men and women you’ve never met and don’t give a damn about, at this year’s Tanoa and next year’s and the one after that, for as long as you can bear it without putting your gun in your own mouth, or you can let me get you ready to save the fucking world. You’re smiling,” Kell noted after a short pause.

“Just...you’re a hell of a salesman, sir.” There was real relief on Kell’s face, victory and gratitude both, and Ronon felt a flutter of pleasure in his stomach. It was – flattering. To be wanted the way Kell so obviously wanted him to say yes. “One thing, though,” Ronon said, mostly to see if he could get away with it. Kell raised an eyebrow and waited. “I want to bring Morika Oth with me.”

Kell looked at him for a minute, then bowed his head in agreement. “Congratulations, Specialist Dex,” he said. “Welcome to the first and last great war of our age.”

*

The Athosians gave Ronon his own tent, so it wasn’t like he was sharing Teyla’s, exactly. It was only that he was with her so much of the time, and usually late into the night, that he kept going to sleep there. They used to share smaller shelters than that on missions, so there was nothing weird about it or anything. They mostly slept on opposite sides of the fire pit, at least for the first few weeks.

After Ronon had been there a month, hammering roofs and uprooting trees and trying to make himself useful any way he could, Teyla seemed to notice that he was moving a little slower than usual, stiffening up just the slightest bit. “We only ask so much of you because you appear not to mind it,” she said.

“I don’t mind it.”

“No one would ask you to overtax yourself.”

“I don’t mind it,” he said again. “Gives me something to focus on.”

She poked the fire for a moment, turning over ashes, smooring it down to warm red embers, and after they’d sat in tranquil silence for quite a while, she sighed and said, “Take your shirt off.” He raised his eyebrows, but the look she gave him back was pretty unamused, so he figured he’d better do what he was told. He sat cross-legged and shirtless while Teyla produced a stoppered clay jar from one of her trunks and settled behind him on her knees. Inside the jar was a substance somewhere between a gel and a cream, with a sweet, minty smell to it. It started to warm up immediately when she slathered it across his back, and he couldn’t hold back a groan when she knelt up and used her weight to bear down, the heels of her hands pressing hard into his shoulders and downward.

His eyes fluttered shut, the tent reduced to nothing but a dim red glow and the smell of candy-mint, her ungentle hands and his own shallow breathing. It wasn’t anything but a relief at first, the heat sinking into his muscles and loosening everything there, but once the soreness was mostly gone, it was hard to...keep thinking about medicine.

Not that he had much of a choice. He curled his hands into fists and rested them on his knees, trying to moderate his breathing as her hands worked downward in tandem, bracketing his spine, then pushed sharply upwards from the small of his back. After the way he’d ended things last time, he thought he’d given up the right to....

Teyla tipped her head forward so that her mouth and nose rested in the crook of his neck, and he jerked a little in surprise. She put a steadying hand on his arm, then slid it up to brush the tattoo on that side of his neck, then further up again, tracing the edge of his beard from beneath, touching the shell of his ear.

She moved back just enough to get her hands around his torso again, gliding slick and warm up his sides, and then her arms came around him and she was leaving fire-polished trails over his chest and his abdomen, a streak alongside his shoulder scar, one forming a cross with the surgery scar. He could feel her breath hot on his neck, and her breasts pushing against his back as she struggled with her own breathing.

Just when he thought he was maybe on the verge of being able to ask what she was doing, or at least what she wanted him to do next, she surprised him by reaching down for a blanket beside him and shaking it out, settling it across his lap. “I know you are – still loyal,” she said against his shoulder in a ragged, plaintive voice that made Ronon ache in whole new ways. She slid her hands under the blanket and unfastened his pants, and he stopped breathing altogether, but he still didn’t realize exactly what she wanted until she put her hand around his wrist and pried his stiff, unresponsive hand off his knee and guided it near his cock. Then she let go, adjusting the blanket around his waist and anchoring her own arms under his, her hands on his chest where they rose and fell sharply with his abrupt exhale. “Please,” she murmured just below his ear. That wasn’t what made Ronon decide to do it – he’d already decided that – but it was what shook him out of his stupid haze and made him actually uncurl his fingers and begin.

He wrapped his hand around his cock and squeezed, and it felt good but he realized right away he was going to need more, and no sooner had he thought it than Teyla was pushing the jar closer to his leg. He slipped his hand out from under the blanket and scooped some up with his fingers and, yeah, that was it exactly. But he didn’t know what he was supposed to think about – everything felt wrong, every thought in his head made it worse, made this feel like either way too much or not half enough, so he just kept his rhythm fluid and steady and let his mind fall into hunting-mode, all awareness, no stopping to think allowed. He moved his legs apart a little bit, crossing them at the ankles in a looser circle, and leaned back without thinking about who was there to hold him up.

His specialty, really, was doing this without thinking, so it wasn’t hard to tune out all the obvious questions – like was this a smart thing to do? and why would Teyla even want it like this, anyway? – and let muscle memory do its job, the basic up-and-down turning into a smooth twisting motion across the top, adding an extra little bit of textured pressure with his knuckles just under the lip of the head. And then it was just a blur of feeling, and the only thing that felt weird, momentarily, was the way her fingers dug into his chest when he arched his back and growled a little, but even that was easy to forget, since a moment later he was hanging onto his cock with all his strength, trying to protect the nice-looking blanket from the come pulsing out from between his fingers.

When he opened his eyes the fire had gone to nothing but sunset-red coals. He shivered a little, the spring night needling his bare skin, and Teyla shifted her arms around him, holding him tight and warm and lowering him to his side with his head on her thigh. She stroked his lips and his forehead and his hair, and he could feel her soft hair brushing his shoulder, and he wanted to say something, but he was afraid he knew the answer already.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, sounding broken and strangely young. “I am so sorry....”

“No,” he said. “No, you don’t have to. It’s okay.” He thought about not saying anymore, but...if it would help Teyla, he thought he kind of had to. “I’m lonely, too,” he said, and she bent her head lower over him and tightened her arms around him and started to shiver herself.

*

Everyone scattered to the winds when Special Forces came through, even other soldiers; Ronon never stopped thinking it was funny, how a path would clear in front of Tyre wherever he walked, as if he were a much taller and stronger man than he was. But he was Tyre, sharp and canny and unpredictable with a predator’s smile and a predator’s grace. It didn’t hurt that he was usually followed by Ronon and Rakai, who were much taller and stronger men.

“You’ll be open late tonight,” Tyre said, tossing an envelope full of cash at the bartender. “A round for everyone here, so they can all toast my friend and his bride!”

“I really can’t stay all that late,” Ronon said. “We’ve all got to be on the train at a quarter-six, and I’m gonna look like hell if I don’t– “

That earned him a punch in each side from Rakai and Ara. Rakai made a rude noise, and Ara said, “We’ll get you on your fucking train, okay? We promise. Tonight you’re still ours, so quit whining and start drinking!”

“Hey, there’s gonna be a photoprinter there and everything, you know,” he protested, knowing it was pointless. “Do you know what her parents are going to shit if I ruin the wedding photos?”

“Fuck ‘em,” Rakai said. “You fuck their only daughter, you think they need a reason to be mad at you?”

“Just for that,” Tyre said, “we’re making you drink doubles all night long. No back-up plans tonight, love, and no saving our asses! Just drinking until we fall on them. To Ronon and his Lantern Hill girl!” he said, grabbing the closest drink off the bar, which might or might not have been put there for him to grab. “Proof positive that losing it to a Specialist can ruin the most elegant lady on the planet for life.”

Ronon growled and gave him a shove and scuffled Tyre to the floor while everyone shouted “HEY, DRINK!” and drank in his honor. Ronon had a drink, too, after he’d downed Tyre and smacked him around a little – the first of many.

By the second round, most everyone who wasn’t military had snuck out quietly. Ronon couldn’t really blame them; he was usually a few drinks behind most of his friends, so he’d had plenty of opportunities to observe what happened when Special Forces went out to celebrate, and plenty of chances to apologize and buy off the bartenders afterwards, too. Hell, even when they were stone cold sober, most Specialists had something vaguely intimidating about them, some combination of learned ruthlessness and earned arrogance that just came with the job. They wore uniforms and body armor when they were on mission, but they wore leather and knives and Wraith bones for jewelry when they were on their own, and nobody forgot them or ignored them, at least not more than once.

He wasn’t even one drink behind the pack tonight, though – nobody was going to stand for that. He was on top of the bar by eleven o’clock, singing “The Empty Flask” at the top of his lungs with Hemi and Tyre, and he barely knew where he was by twelve, except that he was dancing with Ara and he’d never been happier in his whole life. He was sure there was a reason for that, but he couldn’t quite recall at the moment.

They collapsed in a chair, Ara on his lap, and Ronon fumbled for the drink on the table beside him and nearly knocked it over. Morika was sitting on the other side of the table, and she was nursing a tankard but she must have been sober, because her arm shot out and she caught Ronon’s glass neatly before it went over. Ronon pointed at Morika but spoke to Ara, saying with deep seriousness, “She’s not drunk enough yet.”

“Oh, poor Morika,” Ara said, with her dazzling smile and her harsh, mocking voice. “And she needs it more than anyone, too. Need to borrow a little cash, Rika?”

“Fuck you, Ara,” Morika said shortly.

Ara leaned backwards, trusting Ronon’s arm to support her, and laughed loudly and giddily. She sat up again, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and said, “Poor, sad Rika. Try to have a little fun, yeah? Ronon, take her dancing, would you?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ronon said amiably, swinging Ara off his lap and coming around to Morika’s side. “Come on,” he said, taking her wrists in his hands. She shook her head, not looking at him. “Come on,” he said again, pulling at her. “Don’t be scared, I’m not that drunk, I won’t let you get hurt. Don’t I always have your back, love?”

“Don’t,” she said shortly, trying to pull her wrists back, but Ronon kicked her chair out and grabbed her by the waist. He thought she’d give in and let him have a dance then, but she fought him like a snake, twisting and spitting at him until he let her go.

“Rika, what’s wrong?” he said, starting to reach for her arm but stopping himself in time. “Are you mad at me?”

Ara slid behind him, throwing an arm over his shoulder and ducking under his other arm. “You’re such a stupid bitch, Morika,” she said, her voice all pleasure and poison. “You know our pretty, pretty professor would never marry a soldier girl – he’d never even fuck one! You’d settle for that, but he’s not the type who’d ever settle for you, is he?”

Fuck you!” Morika yelled, and it was all Ronon could do to get out of the way before she flung herself at Ara and slammed her down to the table amidst the crash of chairs and glasses.

It seemed to happen pretty fast, but apparently people had time to get their bets in, because there was money changing hands by the time Tyre and Rakai dragged them apart, Rakai wrapped around Ara in a bear-hug, Tyre holding Morika’s arms roughly behind her.

“Stop, stop it,” Ronon said, holding out one hand toward each of them. “Please, come on. You guys are my family. I know you’re all mental, but can you – not crack up on me right before my wedding, please? I need you guys.”

The rest of the night was always a blur in Ronon’s memory afterwards. He knew they left the bar, but he wasn’t sure where they went – hopefully somewhere mostly private, because he remembered Ara and Rakai fucking each other hard and competitive (nothing new there), and he remembered his own arm around Tyre and Morika tangled between both of them. He thought he pushed her dreads aside and nuzzled her neck while Tyre kissed her for hours, years, and he thought he remembered holding her hips in between his hands while Tyre straddled her thighs and worked his hand inside her pants. He was almost positive he remembered her high, plaintive cries, and Tyre’s mist-faint kiss brushing the corner of his eye.

He had no idea how they got hold of an inksmith so late at night, but they were wearing bones and weapons, five Wraith-killers from Special Forces with blood in their eyes and the smell of rum and sex all over them, and what they wanted, they got. “This one,” Tyre said, pointing to an Ancient symbol that Ronon thought he remembered from school meant something like loyalty or devotion. “That’s a good omen for a marriage, isn’t it?” Tyre murmured just for him to hear, and Ronon sort of thought there was something wrong with the logic, but he agreed anyway, because he’d always been loyal to Melena, always devoted to her and no other woman, never wanted anything else.

At the last minute he balked at the placement, because the other four had gone first and gotten it on their necks, but he couldn’t do that. He wasn’t sure why, just that Melena would be pissed at him – something about the photoprints? – and he tried to get out of the chair, insisting that he wanted it on the back of his neck instead, where his hair would cover it. But Tyre put his knee between Ronon’s legs and his hand on Ronon’s chest and his other hand over Ronon’s mouth, pulling his head to the side and leaning down to whisper into his ear, “No, like this, you’re ours. Let everyone see how all of you are mine,” and Ronon shuddered and closed his eyes and gave in. He didn’t feel the needles at all.

Because Special Forces always carried out their objectives, they were all even on the train at a quarter-six, half-conscious with their good wedding clothes spilling crumpled out of their baggage, but there. Kell was the last to come aboard, and he looked around the car, taking them all in, and then sat down and shook out his newspaper with a small, wordless smile.

The jacket Ronon had chosen months ago for the wedding had a high collar on it, high enough to hide the tattoo, even though it rubbed the raw marks painfully even through the gauze Melena taped over it. She winced a little when they were finally alone and she could unbutton his jacket and loosen his shirtcollar and peel the gauze back to check on it. “That has to hurt,” she said.

“Nah,” he lied. “I’m...I’m sorry, though,” he said, because now that he was just hungover and not drunk out of his head, he could figure out exactly why he shouldn’t have done this.

Melena sighed and brushed his hair back behind his shoulder. “Never mind,” she said. “I know there will always be...things you can share with your friends that I wouldn’t...understand. In the same way. I mean, yes, I wish you hadn’t all decided that this was the appropriate moment to make a point of that, but – I did already know.”

“They don’t know me like you do,” Ronon promised, wrapping her hands up in his. “Nobody does. They’ve got my back, but Lena, you’re inside me. You always have been.”

“I know,” she said, the corner of her mouth curving dangerously, beautifully. “That’s why they’re so damned jealous of me. It’s annoying, but I suppose it’s a compliment, in a way.”

“I love you,” Ronon said, pulling her close and bending his head down to her shoulder. “I’m going to be married to you forever,” he marveled, just to hear it out loud, just to let everything else in the world dissolve into nothing inside the reality of that. “You’re my wife forever, nothing can change that now.”

“Come on, come here,” she said, her voice softly gleeful as she pulled him to the bed, trying to ignore the clumsiness of her long skirt as she wrapped her legs around his hips. “You’re never getting rid of me now,” she said between breathless kisses, her mouth curving against his in a joyful, wicked smile. He laughed and ran his hands up under her skirt and around to cup her ass and pull her tighter against him, and that was the only kind of loyalty he cared about that night, the only dedication that could possibly matter at all.

*

Ronon didn’t care for Earth clothes. Most of them were angular and dull; uniforms were designed not to say anything much about you beyond the obvious, but he had no idea why the Earth civilians and the off-duty military always seemed to design their wardrobes to look as much like uniforms as possible.

It was just a matter of bad taste, though, and he didn’t give it a lot of thought – didn’t think he really cared one way or another until they put him in an underground room on Earth and wouldn’t let him out to help his friend until he put on the clothes they gave him.

He yanked his own clothes off roughly and tossed them in the corner, then stared at the new set lying folded on a metal chair, and something – something started to happen to him, some slow drumbeat of banked panic that he didn’t understand. They were just fucking clothes – ugly clothes, okay, but....

He approached cautiously, as if they were rigged to explode, and he picked up the pants. They weren’t – so bad. They went on easier than leather, but they had something like a shape to them that held, not just flat and straight like Earth uniform pants. He buttoned and zipped them, then glanced at himself in the mirror. He didn’t know what he was being so jumpy about. They were fine, they were okay. They were just pants.

But he still must have been a little – something, because he was slow in untying his wrist guards and laying them on top of his belt and holster, and his heartbeat picked up erratically again when he took off his necklaces and added them to the pile. He looked at the mirror again, and his fingers went thoughtlessly to the Hand of Victory, which stood out a lot more once it wasn’t half-covered by the wrist guards.

He shook himself off. He was acting like a crazy person, and it wasn’t like he didn’t have anywhere to be. He told himself to hurry up and pulled on the shirt, and suddenly he was overwhelmed by sense memory. Just the feel of it, soft-crisp and clean, cool against his skin, and he was there again, he was home. It wasn’t any different to the touch than the shirt he’d worn when his mother died, when he left for the Infantry, than the new shirt he bought when he came home again – the one he wore at his wedding. He fumbled with the buttons on the cuffs, and that felt familiar, too. Much as he’d preferred the kind that laced up, most of the time he hadn’t had time to mess around with that. Most of his shirts buttoned at the sleeve – or did, before he’d stopped wearing civilian shirts altogether and begun to live in the sleek, fitted styles that Special Forces always favored. He touched the tattoo on his neck that this jacket wasn’t cut to hide.

The jacket wasn’t any better – didn’t feel any less Satedan than one of his old formal jackets or informal vests – but Ronon gritted his teeth put it on anyway. He started to button it, but that was too much, he couldn’t handle that somehow, and he left it undone like he never would have back home.

Ronon looked down at his arms, his hands – looked in the mirror at himself and felt everything slide out of place, all the pieces come unhinged. His old life, his new life. Infantry, Special Forces, the Runner, the Lantean – Hartoren and Solen and Kell, Sheppard and Tyre – Lena and Teyla. The rail station at Tanoa, the house at the bottom of Lantern Hill, the bombing of Honor Ford, the ruins of Yendikai. I can give you the Wraith. We could use a guy like you, and you look like you could use a place to stay. I’m going to be married to you forever. The way I see it, now that we’re back together, you belong with us. You have your mother’s airs. It was all coming undone, or maybe crashing together.

He braced one hand on the wall to steady himself, and when he looked up, he was looking at his reflection in the mirror. He touched the mark on his neck, one more sliver of his history that didn’t seem to line up with everything else anymore, one shard out of a thousand that didn’t end up adding up to a whole self. Loyalty. I know you are still loyal.

McKay.

He straightened up and turned his back on the mirror, still feeling like someone had pried his skin off, turned it inside out, and given it back to him to wear, but he still had the same armor he’d had since he was sixteen years old: his anger.

“I’m gonna need something for this,” he said, hefting his gun in his hand as he came out of the room.

Sheppard let his chair drop to all four legs and stood up. “Finally. I was starting to wonder what was going on in there.”

“Don’t talk to me right now,” Ronon growled. “Somebody just find me a fucking holster so we can get moving.”

*

He wore his Special Forces uniform to see Kell, but he stopped on the way home and changed, because Melena was leaving and he wasn’t, and that meant this might be the last time they ever saw each other. He didn’t want her to remember him as the soldier she’d never wanted him to become. If she never laid eyes on him again in this life, he wanted to be, today, the man she’d married.

He didn’t want to be an asshole, either, but he was carrying around so much terror and anger that he could barely stand up underneath it, and then when he got home and saw her by the window, so soft and pensive, her curly hair shining in the morning light, the knowledge of everything he was losing hit him at once and he had no grace left, no kindness, nothing but contempt for what his life had become. Save the fucking world. Right.

“What are you doing?” he snapped.

She turned to look at him, but that brain of hers was a million stars away – or a mile and a half, the distance from their front door to the Hope trauma ward. “I’m listening to the Chieftian’s speech,” she said, still distracted.

“Why aren’t you packing?” he said, tossing her luggage on the bed and throwing whatever of hers came to hand into it. She wore her uniform now more often than he wore his. She hardly had anything else to pack. “I traded every last thing we have to get you on Kell’s personal staff.”

“He’s a criminal!” she snapped, as if Ronon didn’t fucking know that by now. Everything Kell had ever promised him had been a lie or a swindle, and now all he had left in the world was stacked up on the chance that this one time, Kell wouldn’t let him down. “He’s using people’s fear for his own gain.”

“He’s a commander, and his staff gets to go through the Ring.”

“The hospital’s going to need me,” she said, already beginning to cry.

Ronon swiped a candlestick off the dresser and slammed the drawer shut. What he wouldn’t fucking give for enough time to sit down with her on their bed, to hold onto her and pretend he wasn’t crying with her. Instead he yelled at her. “There’s not going to be any need for hospitals, Melena! That’s just a bunch of words, meant to make the people who don’t get to leave think there’s a chance for them. We shot down two ships that came through the Ring – two small ships. Do you really think that’s all they’re going to send?” It had been two years and nine months since the day that Kell had promised him the Wraith were on their way, and that Ronon could have his life back, if only he’d promise to be there, standing against them when they did.

“Of course not,” she said, breathing in jerkily. Trying to stay calm in front of him, to be strong.

“Ships as big as our city have attacked other planets. No one that stays here is going to survive.”

She did start to cry then, in spite of it all. “Then why are you staying?”

He stopped moving for a minute, hearing Kell’s voice in his head. I can teach you how to use everything you were born with to do the only thing worth doing. So Kell was a liar and a con artist. Could it still be that he’d made Ronon believe that one thing and keep on believing it right up to the end? And if so, what did that make all of this – delusions of grandeur? Some kind of stupid fucking vanity? “I have no choice,” he said tightly. Because there was always duty. He’d lost the rest of them – Ara, Tyre, Morika, Rakai – he’d already lost almost everything that mattered most, but he had a squad waiting for him, seven other Specialists who weren’t even thinking about running now. He must owe something to them.

“Yes, you do!” She could always sense it when she was hitting her target with him, and suddenly she wasn’t crying at all, just coming toward him and harrying him like exactly what she’d always been: the piece of his soul that he might not ever let speak out loud if it wasn’t for her. “You believe in this fight! You know that they’ll eventually find us, no matter where we go. Our only hope is to show them that we’re not worth the effort, to go feed on some other planet that won’t fight back as hard as we will.”

He tried to walk away and she grabbed him by the arm, calling his name. He looked down at her hand on his sleeve, then back at her face. “You can’t run forever,” she said, and he didn’t know how to answer that. He didn’t plan to run at all.

All he could do was look into the face of the one woman he’d loved since they were kids, the only thing he thought he’d ever be willing to give his life for, and hope that if this was the last time they ever saw each other, she wouldn’t remember him as a soldier, or as a coward, either.

If all he ever was to her was the music teacher’s son...he thought, after all, that would probably really be enough for him.

*

When the moon was full on their homeworld, the Athosians celebrated their Tendol feast. It was okay, in Ronon’s opinion; ruus wine was a little sweet for his tastes, but he liked the dancing, and it was always nice, in a life like this one, to see people smiling for no real reason. They’d partied twice as hard on Atlantea with its two moons, but on New Athos they were back down to just the one, which was ironic, because traveling by Gate rather than jumper, it was actually easier for Teyla to be there for each one now.

The full moon after the winter solstice was always a Grand Tendol. Ronon had never been to one of those, but he got the impression that they were a little more solemn than the regular ones, more like Regency Day back home. He didn’t know for sure if there was still dancing.

He knew Teyla was going because he saw her name on the clearance roster for Gate activation. What he didn’t know was how the fuck she’d gotten Sheppard to clear her to go by herself. Maybe she went over his head; she and Carter were pretty tight lately. Actually, a lot of the women on Atlantis seemed ten times more fascinated by Teyla than they had before she was pregnant.

She was struggling with the laces at the waist of her green and gold velvet dress when he showed up to see her. “Need a hand?” he said, gently taking the laces from her fingers.

Teyla frowned in frustration – not with him, he didn’t think. He undid what she’d already tried to do, loosening the bodice all the way and untwisting the laces before starting again, running them back and forth, overlapping each other. “I do not know that it will fit at all,” she said in resignation.

It was pretty tight – not just around the new shape of her belly, but in the chest, too – but the laces were pretty long. It might not fit exactly like it was supposed to, but Ronon thought he could make it work. “I got it,” he said.

When he was finished, she turned around to face him, smoothing her unbound hair back in an unlikely nervous gesture. Since when did he make her nervous? A lot of things, but never that. “You think this is a good idea?” he said quietly. She raised an eyebrow. “I mean....” There was really no good way to say it. “What’s the point?”

“New Athos is our home now,” she said, lifting her chin. “I am going home for the Grand Tendol, as I always do.”

“There’s nobody there,” he said gently.

“Nevertheless,” she said, so crisp she was brittle.

She tried to turn away, moving her attention toward the hiking pack on her bed, but he caught her face in his hands. She jerked a little, but didn’t exactly jerk away. She just looked up at him, that brain of hers for once not a million stars away at all, but right here with him. “It’s probably not safe for you to go alone,” he said. She rolled her eyes and began to lean back, out of his grasp. “How could it not hurt more?” he said, the words spilling out in an awkward hurry. He wanted her to stop right away. He wanted to leave his fingers on her skin for as long as possible. For as long as....

“If there is no one but me to carry on my people’s ways....” she began, trying for reasonable. But she couldn’t finish her sentence. Her eyes flooded in the space of a blink, and just that fast, there was a tear on each one of his hands. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to lift her sleeve up to her eyes. “I am prone to – pregnancy has given me a tendency to– “

He got there first and rubbed the tear tracks away with the edge of his long sleeves. “Don’t go alone,” he said. Her eyes flickered up to his, and it was still terrifying, and it still hurt, maybe more than a little, but – whoever told him that it was supposed to be easier than this, anyway? What did that even mean?

He breathed in, thinking courage, thinking victory, thinking devotion, and then he breathed out again and said, “Ask me.” She tilted her head, looking at him strangely. Ronon felt himself smile down at her, and he said again in a gently teasing voice, “Ask me.”

If she knew what.... She had to know. He had to believe she knew it as well as he did.

The silence went on and on, just long enough to test his certainty a little. But then she looked down shyly and up again slyly, bit her lip fleetingly, and said, “Will you come to the Grand Tendol with me, Ronon Dex?”

“Yeah,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist as she put her hands up to his hair. The velvet slid against his skin, and underneath the softness and the hardness that had always been Teyla to him. “Yes,” he said.