In the city, children went home for lunch time: flowing down the steps and out of the school gates in a chattering, laughing stream that broke around Ronon and Jennifer before it reformed and tumbled onwards down the street. Older and younger, dark heads and copper, all dressed in the dull red tunics of scholars, they headed south towards the nearest residential quarter—separating into clusters of twos and threes as they clattered up the entrance steps of apartment buildings or disappeared down narrow alleyways. Ronon paused for a moment to look back down the slope at them. School children hadn't looked so very different on Sateda; the clothes weren't quite the same, but he remembered vividly how it had felt to hurry home in the midwinter, hands stained blue and green with ink, warm despite the chill with the prospect of his grandmother's hot, spiced agral stew.
"You okay?" Jennifer asked, and Ronon knew that he'd been staring at nothing for too long.
"Fine," he said, and managed to stop himself from shaking his head to jar loose the dust of old memories. "It's just up this hill."
Navigation was easy on Posturr, as it was on nearly every world that had once been a colony of Merthen. Complex class hierarchies—intricacies of social submission that not even Ronon, with a Merthená great-grandmother, could follow in their entirety—were reinforced by the layout of their towns and cities. Artisans kept with artisans, nobles with nobles, temples and their schools were always to be found in the southeast quadrant, and the markets—the one place where everyone could freely mingle with everyone else, with no rigid rules of etiquette enforced—were always at the heart of these colonial-era towns. Ronon hadn't set foot on this planet before two days ago, but instinct took his feet where memory couldn't. Jennifer didn't seem inclined to question whether he knew where they were going, happy to walk along beside him with her gloved hands buried in her jacket pockets and her breath steaming in the late-year air.
"It's like Christmas, isn't it?" she said, beaming up at him. "All the kids, and the red everywhere, and the guys selling those pastry things." She pointed at the three men hawking food on the other side of the street, their sales patter loud even over the street noise, and one of them waved at her in response, less from friendliness than the fact that he was eager to make a sale. Ronon refrained from asking why steamed keefa flour buns would remind her of Earth holidays, settling instead for a smile and humming a non-committal sound at the back of his throat. There seemed to be half a hundred ways of celebrating holidays there, and Ronon had learned long ago that asking for explanations would only lead to long-winded stories in which he couldn't muster much interest—he'd been there a couple of times now, but Earth still, always, seemed a very long way away.
Even with little by way of encouragement on his part, Jennifer kept up a constant stream of observations all the way along the street—it was a little like having to listen to McKay, only Jennifer's smile was readier and nowhere near so smug, and she was always much more careful to explain references that Ronon didn't get—about what Chippewa Falls looked like at Christmas, what she and Teyla had planned for Torren's first Solstice festival, about the experiments she planned to run if she managed to source a sizable quantity of nanak root at the market.
"Remember to haggle this time, okay?" Ronon told her, pitching his voice at just the tone he'd always used to cause maximum irritation in his sisters. He and Jennifer dodged around either side of a man carrying several large bundles of bleached cloth on his back, then under a clothes line weighed down with sodden, chilled bed linens. "Only a fool pays the first asking price."
Jennifer didn't seem irritated, though, just playfully jabbed him in the side with her elbow as they left the narrow confines of the street for the broad, stall-strewn expanse of the main square. "Oh, come on, I'm not that… well, okay, maybe it's not like I have that much experience of this sort of thing. But if the nanak can help alleviate some of the symptoms of dementia even half as well as they did with Rodney—I mean initially, obviously. But it's not like there are many patients back on Earth who're going to have parasites in their brains." She paled suddenly, and crossed the index and middle finger on her left hand with a care that told Ronon that it was probably considered a sign against either bad luck or brain worms amongst the people of Chippewa Falls. "Least, I hope not."
Ronon tossed a coin to the nearest street seller, and received two keefa flour buns in return, hot and steaming inside their twists of waxed paper. He gave one to Jennifer—try it; they're pretty good—and kept the other for himself, nibbling at each individual corner before working his way to the centre, the way he used to do when he was a kid. The flavour of the filling burst sweet and malty on his tongue; not as good as his Uncle Bahren used to make, but close. Jennifer ate hers in four big bites and beamed up at him, her smile made wider by the wads of dough stuffed into her cheeks. "S'good!" she told him, her words muffled, before blushing and swallowing.
It wasn't much of a midday meal, but Ronon was glad of the lingering warmth the keefa bun left in his belly. The weather was cold, and haggling for something even as commonplace as nanak root took time with Jennifer involved—the stall holders were always going to hold out for as much as they could get when faced with an inexperienced buyer who was looking for strangely large quantities of such a common-place item. Ronon would have done the same. Still, she didn't do too badly for only her second attempt at something like this, and soon Jennifer and the merchant Khortin were adding their thumb prints to a document which promised the exchange of five pallets of nanak root for three large boxes of Lantean-produced painkillers within the space of three Posturri days.
Ronon looked up to gauge the passage of time by the height of the sun; they might have time yet to go in search of some little toys for Torren. When Ronon was small, he'd had a little mechanical mirrqui that he'd been fond of, chasing its clicking progress across the kitchen's tiled floor with dogged devotion. Torren, now toddling and fascinated by the mysterious contents of his Uncle Rodney's tool kit, would love something like that. The sun was only starting to sink down behind the government citadel, silhouetting its high white towers in pale gold. They had maybe an hour, two, by the Lantean calendar, Ronon figured—plenty of time to pick up something nice and then head back to prepare for the formal dinner that evening.
He was just starting to turn back to Jennifer when something moving, fast and high up, caught his attention. Not puddle-jumpers—not quick enough, and the shape was wrong—and not darts, either; maybe half a dozen of them, streaking across the sky in the direction of the citadel. Right across the city, to the heart of the complex, where Teyla and the others were haggling with the Posturri leaders over mining rights.
Ronon's eyes widened, and he reached out without looking to take Jennifer by the wrist. "Run," he told her, and her time on Atlantis had taught her enough—she followed him without question, her booted feet clattering in syncopated time with his own over the cobblestones.
They headed due south, down streets thronged with shoppers and merchants, idlers and beggars. The explosions, when they started, were dull and distant, but almost instantly they sent a tide of people moving north and west and away, screaming and yelling and hampering his progress. Ronon had to leverage his body strength against the crush, shouldering people out of the way and ignoring how they cursed at him. He was glad that his hand was still locked tight around Jennifer's wrist, her pulse hammering against the tips of his fingers—in this panic, it would be easy for them to get separated, and he had brain and heart enough to focus on only one crisis right now. His team was up there, his team, and the closer he got to the citadel, the more detail he could pick out from the confusion of noise surrounding them: terrified screams; stone cracking apart against the force of explosive charges; the swift, repetitive staccato of gunfire.
Ronon tried hailing Sheppard on his comm device, but either he was still out of range or Sheppard's had been damaged. No response. He could hear Jennifer trying the same thing with Teyla, her panting report of nothing but static on the other end and the sound of gun fire and yelling. Ronon swore under his breath. He tapped the device again, switched the frequency to Rodney's, and tried one last time with the mix of insult and provocation that was always sure to draw Rodney out, no matter how preoccupied he was. No way he'd let their communication system go dead without a very good reason.
"No answer from McKay," he told Jennifer, breath burning on each inhale. "Faster."
It was like Sateda all over again, and when they finally emerged from the narrow street out into the bright, open stretch of Merurr Square, the citadel standing tall in front of them, the destruction level seemed about the same. There were great gashes in the citadel walls, levelling them almost to the ground, and smoke and gunpowder stung at Ronon's nostrils, the smell of them both sharp and acrid in the winter air. Simultaneous attacks from ground and air, it looked like, and if there'd been any soldiers stationed on the walls when the offensive started, they'd all either been killed or had fallen back into the heart of the complex.
The way was clear for Ronon and Jennifer to head inside, though they passed bodies and blood stains, the walking wounded whose collar bones had been smashed by bullets, the injured who sat slumped in small groups against the walls, conserving their energy in the desperate hope that they'd soon see a medic. Jennifer paused, once or twice, offering quick advice where she could—apply pressure here, keep elevated there, don't let him fall asleep—but there were too many of them and not enough time, and Ronon spoke her name softly. That reminder was enough to keep her moving; Ronon pulled his gun out of its holster and looked down at her. With the exception of the bright spots of colour in her cheeks, she was pale, and her lips were pressed into a tight line; probably, Ronon thought, she'd yell at him later for not leaving her behind to help; but Jennifer nodded at him, and he could see that she was holding her own sidearm in a tight grip. Good.
The citadel had been built over centuries, modified to meet the demands of each successive generation, and its layout was jumbled and confused. Ronon concentrated, trying to remember which sharply angling staircase led to the council room where the others should be, but Jennifer was ahead of him. "This way," she said, and he ran beside her up the steps; their red stone was stained darker by spatters of blood, and here and there they were pockmarked with bullets. When they reached the walkway that led to the chambers, Jennifer almost stumbled over a corpse—infantry, it looked like; his throat opened by a single clean shot—and let Ronon take the lead.
There were more bodies up here, and when Ronon glanced down into the central courtyard far below, still more lay splayed at unnatural angles, as though they had tumbled a great distance. The sound of gunfire was growing more sporadic, as if one side were gaining an advantage, and Ronon was frustrated that he didn't know which—that he didn't know if his team were alive or dead or wounded. The frustration was fuel to his anger, and there wasn't much of Ronon that cared about keeping control of his temper right now. Each furious kick of his heart in his chest gave him purpose, each thud of his boots against tile and stone brought him closer to his goal, and the fury that crouched low like a wounded animal against his breast bone spurred him on. The acid at the back of his mouth felt like the burning stench of rot on a hive ship; like the pain he'd felt on Sateda, towards the end—he could not let this be another ending.
The doors to the council chamber, when they reached them, were closed, and the heavy carved wood was deflecting all the blows delivered to it by the soldiers who were trying to break through. "Oh, thank god," Jennifer said, putting her sidearm back in its holster, but Ronon wasn't so easily reassured—the soldiers who were trying to get in were wearing the green and grey of the Posturri army, and he was pretty sure that whoever had barred the doors against them were the same people responsible for the smoke that was billowing out of the far side of the building.
He recognised one of the officers who was leading the attempt to get into the chamber—Major Cestina, a veteran soldier who had been assigned to meet them when they'd first arrived on Posturr. Her black braids were tangled and her face smeared with smoke and dirt; her uniform, formerly impeccably neat, was stained and torn, and when Ronon placed a hand on her shoulder, she turned to meet him with an expression on her face that was almost wild. "Specialist Dex," Cestina said when she recognised him. Her words were almost a gasp, as if she'd just run a great distance, and she had to work to bring her breathing back under her control.
"At least thirty," she answered without hesitation, brisk and to the point. There was a certain kind of soldier who survived to middle age on a world like Posturr, and Cestina was one of them. "Came in ptericraft, took us by surprise. Used charges to blow the council chamber open. Look like a Timmian faction—probably a coup."
"A coup?" Jennifer's eyes were wide.
"All the main oligarchs are in there," Cestina said. "All of them. Shit." She pushed her hair back and watched with something close to despair on her face while her troops tried to force the door open. One of them had found a makeshift crowbar somewhere, but despite their grunts of effort their progress was slow, and each passing second counted—counted for the survival of the leaders to whom Cestina had sworn her loyalty; counted for the survival of John and Teyla and Rodney.
Ronon looked at the door for a moment, calculated angles and the probable thickness of the wood, and then nodded to himself. "Tell your people to stand back," he told Cestina and flicked the switch to power his gun up to maximum.
"We have to get in," Cestina said, just as Jennifer said, "Ronon? Ronon, please don't do anything stupid."
"Not gonna," he said, and grinned at them, because that felt safest. "Just something fast." As soon as the troops scrambled back from the door, he aimed and fired, feeling the recoil all the way down to the soles of his feet, making his whole body shake. Gradually, the thick wood splintered and cracked and buckled inwards, and Ronon and Cestina together kicked the last of it in. Inside, there was smoke, and a jumble of destroyed furniture—broken and splintered seating, the great oval table at which delegates sat cracked along its middle, bright wall hangings rent and torn—but it was too quiet. Ronon went in, Jennifer and Cestina right behind him, and as the smoke started to clear, they saw why: through the hole which had been blown in side of the building, a group in dark brown uniforms were busy loading limp figures into a hovering transport. Ronon couldn't tell if they were alive or dead, but he was sure that he caught a glimpse of coppery hair that could only have been Teyla's, and he didn't want the aching sensation in his chest to be grief.
Jennifer shouted something, and Ronon fired, almost blindly, but it was a large room and it had taken them too long to break down the doors. One of the attackers toppled and fell, a scream cut off in his throat, but the craft was already starting to move away from the building, even while its doors were being closed, and then that was it—it was accelerating, fading into the pale blue of the sky, and it was gone.
The noise started once the ships were gone: the groaning of the wounded and the grinding creak of over-stressed masonry; secondary explosions in distant buildings; shouting as people began to count those who had been taken and to delegate responsibility for rescue and repair. Jennifer had gone straight away to help with the injured, without checking with Ronon first to see if it was safe. He approved of that.
He watched Jennifer work while he talked with Cestina. Her hands were deft and sure while she helped set a broken leg, talking all the while to distract the man from his pain. Ronon envied her—she had something useful to do, something to keep her focused and occupied. He could fight and shoot, could hunt and track across miles of open wilderness if called for, but right now all he could do was imagine the worst and wait for Cestina to get reports on where the ships were headed with his team.
"They took out the tracking stations," Cestina told Ronon, after a long and whispered consultation with a harried-looking messenger. "We can't follow their flight path. But the good news is we're pretty sure we know where they went—their uniforms were Timmian, and we have some eye witnesses who saw them heading north and west. My best guess is they're running to the mountains."
She nodded. "The Timmian's power base is the big landowners in the northern plains and the mountains—old colonial families; some of them were here even before my family. They know that country really well, and there are plenty of people out there who'll help them vanish."
"We have any bargaining power? People they'll listen to? Those are my people they took."
For the first time, Cestina looked a little exasperated. "They took mine too, Dex. We're doing everything we can."
Ronon grunted. They'd had contact off and on with the Posturri for the past few seasons, and from what he'd seen of Cestina and her troops, he trusted her to be honest with him, to do everything she was capable of to help him get his team back. But Ronon didn't know just what she was capable of in the field; for all their similarities, a diplomatic contest was a very different thing to a physical battle, and when it came to something like this, there were few people Ronon could trust outside of himself. Running had taught him that; Sateda had taught him that too. "We should contact Atlantis," he said. "They can send ships, equipment—be able to track them more quickly. More firepower. Lorne can—"
Cestina quirked an eyebrow, a little like Teyla at her most long-suffering. "Remember how I said that was the good news?"
Ronon stared at her. "What's the bad news?"
"Timmian forces took the Ring and placed a shield around it. It's some kind of new-found technology of the Ancestors, which can withstand the Water and prevent anything from passing through the Ring," she told him. "I've never seen anything like it before. No outside reinforcements can enter Posturr, and we cannot activate it to get a signal back to your homeworld."
Ronon fought back a sigh. If they couldn't dial out, Atlantis wouldn't know that there was something wrong until they missed their check-in time, and that wasn't for a few hours yet—and even that was presuming that Woolsey and Lorne didn't grant them some leeway in case negotiations ran over. He had no idea how long it would take for them to decide on a plan of action, and the Ancestors only knew what could happen to his team, or to him and Jennifer, between now and then. There was a little voice inside his head that sounded an awful lot like McKay saying of course things are going wrong; it's a day that ends in Y. He'd been hanging around the guy too long, but what the hell. He was team; he and Teyla and John were the closest things Ronon had left to a family. He had to get them back.
"Hey," he said, raising his voice a little so that it carried across the room. "Keller?"
"Yeah?" she called back, without looking up. She'd found a pair of forceps somewhere and was hunting for fragments of a bullet in a woman's bleeding, twitching thigh.
"We have to go looking for them."
"Just the two of us?" Jennifer found what she was looking for and pulled it free with a soft sound of satisfaction.
She sat back on her heels and looked at him for a moment. Her hair was coming free from its neat bun, and there was a smear of blood on her cheekbone. "Well, fuck," she said finally. "Okay, then."
Ronon wanted to go straight away, wanted to set off through the city gates with little more than his gun at his hip and the sun's travels through the sky to guide him. He had enough sense to restrain himself, though—knew that his grandfather would have clipped him over the ear for trying something so stupid, especially when he had people besides himself to think of—and so he waited until they'd gathered together supplies and arranged for transportation, until Cestina's busy network of spies and informants had brought her word on just who had been taken and where their probable destination lay.
"Better than we thought," she said, unrolling a map onto a tabletop that was liberally sprinkled with crumbs of brown bread and yellow cheese from their makeshift evening meal. "And worse. All the hostages are still alive, and look like they're going to stay that way for the near future. We know where they are, too." Cestina traced a route along the map with one blunt fingernail, tracking northwards from Posturri City across a landscape of wide-open steppe that was dotted with fewer and smaller settlement names, until it reached a great, barrier range of mountains. Beyond those mountains, settlements were even fewer, and the roads that snaked indifferently across core Posturri territory seemed to be absent—most transport there would have to be by river. Ronon was almost glad now that he hadn't set out on foot; even running the most direct route, it would have taken him weeks to reach those mountains. Cestina tapped the map at a spot in the foothills where its maker had inked in a small, blue square; they had titled it, in weak Ancient, 'Kesterr Inimico.'
Ronon looked up at her. "Fortress?"
Jennifer looked from Cestina, to Ronon, then back at the map. "How are we supposed to get in there?" She'd begged a damp cloth from someone, and her face and hands were now scrubbed clean, though the back of her neck was still grimy and her hair was in tangles.
"That's not what I'm worried about," Cestina said. She stood to close the window against the uproar coming from the square outside, as people flooded in and out of the citadel, seeking help and offering aid and shouting out the names of loved ones. "Train or merchant caravan will get you there fairly quickly. Look—from what my scouts have heard, they're keeping your friends as additional leverage against a direct attack, but holding the Oligarchs to give them legitimacy," she said as she sat back down.
Ronon frowned. "Definitely a coup." He hated these kinds of wars worst of all—the people who fought them rarely took to the battlefield because of real necessity, but because of greed, or zealotry, or both.
"Yes. And the Timmian are going to do it the old-fashioned, bone-headed Posturri warrior way," Cestina said. She forced a smile at him, but she looked ill, and her brown skin was tinged grey with tiredness. "Direct combat, then use the old regime as puppets for a few cycles to give the new rulers some kind of lineage. Force Tyrenn to marry Peisidates, manufacture a pleasing image of heritage and tradition for the populace—make it seem like they've taken power in an honourable way. They're massing troops at Inimico. At least three thousand so far, and they're already pulling in more from their hinterland."
Ronon settled back in his chair, studying the map again. Posturr was a densely settled world, by the standards of the Ring planets. In winter, when fewer hands were needed to tend crops and see to livestock, both armies could conceivably draw on five or six times the numbers they had in their standing armies. Tech would be limited, even by what Ronon had been used to on Sateda, but how advanced their artillery or their rifles were didn't matter so much when they could face off against you in these numbers—and the Timmian controlled off-world supply lines. It would be difficult to break through, but Ronon didn't want to think that it would be impossible. "What's the plan?"
Cestina shrugged. "My superiors are old-fashioned, bone-headed Posturri warriors. What do you think?"
"A war? Can't you stop them?" Jennifer said, voice climbing higher; she glanced over at Ronon for reassurance. "Persuade them that there's another way to do this? Our friends are—" Ronon had dealt with Sheppard so closely, understood him so well, that sometimes he forgot that most of the people on the Atlantis expedition were like Jennifer or Rodney—people who had never seen a battle close up, who had never known a war that wasn't refracted through a view-screen.
Cestina rubbed at her forehead. "This confrontation has been three generations in the making. Nothing is going to persuade the army chiefs to back down now, not after an outrage like this—people wouldn't let them. There are protests in the streets, lengthy descriptions of supposed Timmian outrages in the newssheets; even the temple preachers are quoting Sishahniu and talking about the glories of justified battle. The army has public opinion on its side, and support from some of the most influential people in the city. There will be war. That's inevitable. The only thing that's not decided yet is which side will win—but I promise you that my troops will do all they can to bring your teammates back to you safely."
"I already told you," Ronon said flatly. "Jennifer and me, we're going after them."
Cestina looked at him much as his older sisters had, when disapproving of his latest scheme to liberate a pot of keeven-berry jam from his aunt's kitchen—mouth pursed and eyebrow raised. "And I can understand why you said that in the heat of the moment, and I honour your courage in wanting to go after them, Specialist. But it's not safe for either of you. You're off-worlders with diplomat status—I'd volunteer for my own court martial before I'd be fool enough to let you go wandering into a battlefield, in countryside you don't know."
"We're going," Ronon repeated, and folded his arms.
Jennifer looked at him, then sighed, and smiled apologetically at Cestina. "He's really stubborn," she said by way of explanation, "and Teyla and Rodney and the Colonel, they're our friends. We're going after them whether you help us or not."
Cestina's mouth twitched. "Well. I'm sure my court martial can wait," she said after a moment's deliberation. "I'll get you supplies, and find a way to get you two up there—but you'll have to lie and pretend to be someone you're not. Everyone will be on edge—it won't be easy."
"Thank you," Ronon told her as they stood to leave. He hoped she understood how much he meant those words.
Posturr, like every other world that called itself civilised, had its fair share of bureaucracy. Gaining a place on one of the transports heading north, let alone rations packs and clothing better suited for the northern mountains in winter, took time and effort and a knowledge of which administrator it was best to befriend if you didn't want to spend the next week loitering aimlessly in the atrium of a supply depot. War was coming soon, and that meant half the standing army was in a rush to locate and distribute supplies, transportation and weapons, but Posturri admins could have been close kin to Woolsey—all request forms, it seemed, had to be filed in triplicate, and they appeared to work painfully slowly when compared to the enthusiasm on the streets for battle.
Cestina seemed to be on drinking terms with half the nearest barracks, though, and related by birth or marriage or service to the rest. She clapped people on the shoulder, told cheerful lies about Ronon and Jennifer being distant cousins of hers, recent volunteers from the southlands, and deposited them both outside of the main gravtrain station in downtown Posturri City early the next morning.
"I'll be leaving on a later transport," she told them, dropping her voice low enough to prevent eavesdropping, though Ronon didn't think that anyone could hear her if she shouted in the middle of so much hustle and noise—half of the city, it seemed, had been called up as part of the army reserve, and the other half was busying itself with supplies and organizing transportation. The wet flurries of snow that were quickly turning the cobblestones slick and treacherous were good deterrents against anyone lingering and overhearing them. "Some loose ends have to be tied up here, and I'll probably be assigned to Marshal Athayna's command, but show those papers at the barrier and you'll be put on the next train north, no questions. Just make sure you change your clothes first—there'll be rest booths you can rent by the hour, for a few pinyins, just off the main concourse—and if anyone asks any questions, you're immigrants from Dysterenn. Everyone knows they're, well, behind the times. If anyone asks beyond that, mention my name. That should make them back off long enough for you to get up to the front."
She flashed a smile at them, dimples appearing briefly in her cheeks, and squeezed both their hands in farewell before she vanished into the crowd.
Jennifer blinked up at Ronon for a moment, then shouldered her pack. "Well," she said, "let's go do this," and walked up the steps that led into the station. Ronon followed her, craning his neck to look up at the ceiling. Worlds that knew the Wraith rarely let their cities strain upwards; they burrowed down into the earth because they feared attracting extra attention for being daring enough to reach for the sky. The Posturri were little different; but though the station building wasn't tall, it was made bright and airy and beautiful by the glass ceiling which curved serenely over the bustle inside: hundreds and hundreds of pieces of glass, stained in such vibrant colours that the light they cast on the people below made them seem as if they were walking undersea, or on a summer's day, or through a child's painting.
He looked down to see that Jennifer was as caught by the sight as he was: she turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. "Wow," she said. "You know, I forget this part sometimes. I really shouldn't."
"Forget what?" Ronon said, one step behind her as they navigated their way through the press of people on the main concourse.
"How good this can all be," she said simply, and Ronon looked back up at the ceiling and smiled to himself, before tossing a handful of coins to an attendant and following Jennifer into one of the small shared rest booths.
"This is, uh, cosy," was all she said, cheeks flushed a bright red, keeping her eyes averted with a care that Ronon thought was part the Earthers' weird body shyness. Part something else, too—maybe, Ronon still allowed himself to hope, an echo of a desire that made him want to look at her, something he'd tried to tamp down as much as possible when he was still with Amelia and before Jennifer had broken it off with Rodney. He respected her too much to tease her and make her feel uncomfortable—at least, not about something like this—and so while he stripped down to his underclothes before pulling on the heavy Posturri clothing, he made it clear by the angles of his body that he was not looking at her own revealed skin.
They changed without incident, and when they emerged from the booth, they looked like a pair of proper Posturri soldiers: Ronon in the dark grey and dull green tunic of a master sniper, Jennifer in the grey and red of a medic. Cestina had chosen their supposed occupations with care: both were just high enough within the force that they could travel without much fear of being questioned by a higher-ranking officer, just low enough that they could pass for a recently drafted hunter and doctor, respectively, and any ignorance of protocol more complex than the usual Posturri niceties could be explained without arousing too much suspicion.
The uniforms themselves posed the only immediate difficulty. Ronon tugged the tunic down again before slinging his pack over his shoulder and heading for the waiting gravtrain with Jennifer. "These things itch," he mumbled at her while they showed their IDs to the guy with the clipboard and went through the barriers to the train. He hadn't worn anything so uncomfortable since the time Lahela had knitted him a sweater as a First Moon present; Ronon hoped that it was because the Posturri army's quartermasters had taste in wool as poor as his oldest sister had had, or because of budget cuts like the ones Sheppard complained about every time he was forced to tackle his backlog of paperwork forced them to buy cheap cloth, and not because the uniforms' previous owners had had lice.
"Baby," Jennifer said automatically, but Ronon could see that she had rucked up the edge of her tunic and was scratching absent-mindedly at her freckled belly.
The gravtrain didn't look much like the streamlined transports Ronon remembered from Sateda, where rows of bunk beds had carried hundreds of settlers at a time across the planet's marshes and moors. This train was bulky and square, like an overgrown version of a puddlejumper, and its compartments had neither beds nor seats. Jennifer and Ronon found themselves inside one near the front of the train that was already about a quarter full, mostly with recruits whose uniforms looked as stiff and freshly-pressed as Ronon own; some of them had already wrapped the safety webbing around their lower torsos, but most sat around freely, either chatting in low voices or silent.
By the time the gravtrain finally left the station, rumbling slowly out through Posturri City's tight-packed trade district, and its more sprawling suburbs, and finally out into the open, tree-filled countryside, Ronon had managed to find him and Jennifer a space near one of the compartment's few windows. There was enough space to let him stretch out his legs, and he happily traded some of the too-strong cawsh cheese with twin Recruits First Class Gerriss and Pauel; they'd only been with the regiment a few months but already knew all of the gossip worth knowing, and accepted Jennifer and Ronon into their group without question. It was a little like being back on Sateda in the first months of training, Ronon thought, even while he was listening intently to everything they were being told: memorising command structures and the anatomy of power struggles; who was worth knowing if you needed extra ammo and whose command was incompetent enough to get you killed if you didn't guide them carefully; which of the admins you could joke around with and which of them was an uptight son of a bitch who'd almost cite you for daring to address someone outside of the soldier caste. It was learning how to navigate in a world where someone else's life depended on you; trusting a guy you'd only met a couple of weeks before; waiting out the slow times with idle talk and rarely-acknowledged tension.
Those days, when he'd been plain old Ronon ilen te Dex, struggling to earn his Commander's tattoos, had seemed so fraught, but now when Ronon thought of them, he remembered early summer sunshine and laughter and shooting tin cans off compound walls from a distance of sixty kethen, the bravado of teenagers given guns and responsibility and trying desperately not to show how terrified that made them feel, the sudden flurries of activity and the long afternoons of idleness. At the time he'd been nervous and gawky, learning how to grow up at the same time he got to grips with what McKay called the military-industrial complex's inefficient, illogical and irrational reliance on a procedural system which can best be classified as 'hurry up and wait'—and that had all been before Melena, or her parents, or Kell, or the Wraith. They were good memories, and uncomfortable ones at the same time. He'd felt freer, but he'd been stupid, too, and almost everyone he'd ever known then was dead. If a peace couldn't be negotiated, most of the kids on this train would be dead soon, too. The thought of it made him clench his fists against the anger of it—no point in indulging in rage right here, right now—and he tried not to let himself feel the full grief of it. Ronon had done all the mourning he ever wanted to do.
Maybe some of them knew what they were getting into, thanks to experience or caution or both; they were the ones who rolled their overcoats into pillows and slept almost as soon as the gravtrain rumbled out of the city. Sleeping was the most sensible way to spend two days' travelling time, especially when the Ancestors only knew when any of them would get a full night's sleep again. Gerriss passed out, too, and Pauel wandered off into the next compartment in search of whatever passed for toilet facilities, and soon Jennifer and Ronon were the only ones left awake.
"You doing okay?"
"I never thought that I'd miss my mattress back on Atlantis," Jennifer said with a wry grimace, "but I've been through worse. I'll live. You?"
Fine, he was going to say, but when Ronon opened his mouth, what came out was, "Worried."
"Yeah," Jennifer said, offering a tentative smile, and bumped her knee against his. "Me too. But they're all smart people. Well, Teyla's smart. Rodney and the Colonel can be, you know… They'll be okay, we'll get to them."
She made an effort to sound hopeful, and Ronon was glad of that; and he was grateful that she soon turned the conversation to other things, peering out of the soot-smudged windows and making observations about the Posturri landscape that they could see as the gravtrain rumbled along. "Wonder what kind of crops they're working on," Jennifer said.
Ronon craned his neck to see what she was looking at—groups of people working in the green and brown fields. Their clothing—reds and yellows and cobalt blues—stood out sharply against the pale winter landscape. Most of them stooped to their work, or were busy placing sacks of produce onto small hoversleds, and few of them looked up to see the train passing. "Winter crops. Probably cabbages," he said. "Sikahr—that tastes a little like that funny vegetable Sheppard hates. Broccoli? Beets and carrots. Still too early for any of the grains."
"Huh." Jennifer slumped back to sit next to him again. "I know I'm a town girl and all, but isn't it still too early for any of those things to be ripe? The ground's still practically frozen solid."
Ronon shrugged. "Yeah. But if this thing keeps going, any smart farmer'll want to cut their losses. Save what they can while they still have adult labour to harvest it, get it stored where army troops can't find it. Better a small harvest now than none at all in a couple months."
"That… makes sense," Jennifer said slowly, "in an awful kind of way. I suppose I'm only used to being in places where there's either a glut of food or none at all." She looked out the window for a moment, and then back at him. This was something Ronon had had to get adjusted to once he came to live on Atlantis—not just that there were people who looked at him and saw him, Ronon, but the direct way the people from Earth had of doing it. It would have been considered too blunt on Sateda, almost unmannerly, but Ronon had grown used to it—had almost come to like it.
"I forget sometimes," she said eventually, "how much you've been a soldier. And I shouldn't."
Ronon shifted a little, suddenly uncomfortable. "Been a few years, yeah," he said.
"Not how long—how much."
Ronon blinked at her, but if she noticed his uncertainty, she didn't give any sign of it. "Did you go on trips like this on Sateda?" she asked. "With the rest of your unit? Or were you only ever stationed in one place?"
No one else on Atlantis had ever asked him questions like that—Teyla and Dr Heightmeyer and Weir had all preferred to draw him out, let him speak on his own terms; Sheppard was too elliptical; McKay got too flustered every time he remembered what had happened to Sateda—and for a moment, Ronon couldn't answer her. A year ago, maybe, he still wouldn't have been able to answer her, unable to remember the details of his life on Sateda—his family and his sisters; Melena and Kell; Ara and Tyre and Rakai—without pain. But Jennifer asked without any pity in her eyes, and Ronon found himself taking a breath, and telling her about a journey very like this one that he'd made when he was still just a kid, sixteen and hungover and homesick, travelling away from Nithoo Island over a sea of boundless blue, waiting for his life to begin.
The ink on his neck still stung beneath the thick, greenish layer of salve—the army tattooist had been professional but quick as he pierced Ronon's skin with the traditional bone needles—but the quick thrum of adrenaline in Ronon's veins was more than enough to distract him from the pain. Here he was on a military transport as it rattled out along the rails from the cliff-side station, across the long red bridge that would take him and his fellow recruits over the bay to the mainland, his grandfather's carefully-remembered lessons and his aunt's connections in her old unit both good enough to get him into the army a year before most did. He had his regimental tattoo inscribed on his neck, stiff regulation leather boots creaking on his feet, and the brand new kit bag he'd slung into the overhead luggage rack contained everything that the army, his mother, and several over-protective uncles thought necessary for the time he'd spend training in the capital city.
Ronon had been sent away from home with the good wishes of his whole neighbourhood and the traditional seven coins slipped into his pocket by his Aunt Mikshi, having downed most of two bottles of freshly-brewed leekyre with some of his uncles. He was better prepared than most new recruits were to face the years of rigorous training that would see you either make a Specialist with a chance of promotion or stay in the ranks—and his stomach was still churning with more than the after-effects of last night's strong drink.
He'd imagined this moment a thousand times, but somehow Ronon had never realised just what it would be like to see his childhood home recede into the distance—Nithoo with its steep shores and blue-grey waterfalls, the tall green trees made for climbing and the cool, breezy valleys where the hunting was rich and abundant. He wouldn't see it again for months at the very least, nor would he see any of his family. As numerous as the ilen seret Dex were, they weren't a clan that was given to wandering far from the carved wooden shomes their ancestors had built centuries ago, and Ronon didn't think he had any relations in the city close enough to deserve the term 'kin.' He knew no one on this train; that much was certain.
The other inhabitants of his compartment were northern Nithoo, judging by their accents—a year or two older than him maybe, with hands roughened from farm work in ways a village boy's like Ronon could never be, and fresh tattoo marks on their necks identical to his own. It looked like they all knew one another too. They were sitting on one of the long benches that lined the sides of the compartment, and they were talking over one another loudly, laughing and joking, their still-coltish teenage limbs stretched out in front of them. Between them on the seats was spread what looked like a picnic feast big enough to feed twice the number of people present: pails of fresh, crisp greens and loaves of coarse-grained bread; wheels of golden perett cheese and crunchy dirkan and tubs of tart-sweet keeven berries. Despite the acid that still roiled in his stomach, it all looked and smelled good enough to make Ronon's mouth water.
They must have seen him looking at them from the corner of his eye while he tried to find an empty space to sit, because soon they were calling him over in a cacophony of voices that still managed to sound friendly. One of the girls cleared a spot for him and he sat, brushing his still too-short braids back from his eyes. "Ronon ilen te Dex," he mumbled, holding the palms of his hands out in greeting.
"Hey!" one of the guys said, laughing. "No need to be so formal here, Ronon. We're going to be in the same squad, I think we can forget the linear names."
Ronon could feel his cheeks heat—he'd only been trying to be polite—but if he'd given offence in some way, it didn't seem to be lasting. The other guy held out his palms, too, and said, "I'm Tyre Bux, and these here are this year's fine crop of graduates from North Nithoo Secondary Number 2—Rakai Sec, Morika Lich, Hemi Loc and Ara Aex."
Ronon nodded at each of them and tried his best to memorise names and faces as quickly as he could while they greeted him in return: Tyre and his high cheek-bones; tall, stocky Rakai; petite Morika; grey-eyed Hemi; Ara with a fall of dark hair so long that her twin plaits brushed her hip bones. Their smiles were all as warm as Tyre's, and Hemi was soon pressing food on him, despite the fact that Ronon's own kit bag contained enough food to keep him well fed until he reached as far as the capital and even beyond.
"So, you know anyone who's been to the academy before?" said Tyre, and for the first time the amusement on his face was replaced by something a little bit closer to amusement. His hands fidgeted in his lap, turning a dirkan around and around between his fingers, and Ronon realised that for all their confidence and good humour, these people were all just as uncertain as he was, just as nervous—that they might never have been into a settlement even as big as Nithoo Town before today, and that the prospect of training in the Central Academy gave them even more to hope for, and maybe even more to fear, than it did Ronon.
"One of my uncles. He was a Comms Specialist," Ronon said, finishing off a handful of keeven berries; he'd never been able to resist them, even though they always stained his fingers bright purple and made his tongue tingle. "Some of my mother's sisters. They fought in Third Squad."
Ara's eyes widened and she sat up straight in her chair. "Wait—does that mean your aunt is Mikshi ilenn se Dex?"
"Yeah," Ronon said, repressing the urge to scratch at his neck like a nervous kid. "Why?" He'd hoped it would take people longer than this to make the connection when they heard his surname; his aunts had given him a formidable legacy to live up to.
Ara rolled her eyes. "Well for one, didn't she help lead that attack on Mount Jirrit in the war against the Westerners?"
Ronon nodded. "But she doesn't talk about it. I read about it in the history text books, same as you, but Aunt Mikshi only ever said that they exaggerated."
"Even if they exaggerated," Hemi said, "her squad still took that mountain in three days—you can't make that up!"
"You think we'll get to do something like that when we graduate?" Morika said. "Something that'll make people remember our squad?"
"They'll have to hem your uniform trousers before they let you out anywhere," Tyre told her solemnly. "Short arse like you'll trip if you try to attack a Wraith. Ever seen a Wraith laugh? Not pretty. They've got these teeth that—"
"Ha ha," Morika said wryly, and threw the core of her half-eaten dirkan at him, making Tyre duck and laugh. "Like you've ever even seen a Wraith, farm boy."
Beneath their feet, the train rattled over the end of the bridge and a series of junction points, adjusting its journey so that it was running south and east towards the capital; and as they'd turned away from the sea, Ronon had thought he'd found, if not quite family yet, then friends. People who would cover for him when he missed roll call, and help him practice and practice until he could strip and reassemble his weapon in a matter of seconds; who'd mock him for a townie and laugh at his awkward seat on a dreeshak; who'd cheer him up after his first true heartbreak, and who would stand by his side when the Wraith came, when Ronon knew his first great betrayal.
The main gravtrain line turned west about a half-day's walk from Brunnum, the town where they were to be quartered, chugging away from the mountains and rolling down towards the sea. Like most worlds Ronon had been on, the need to make money quickly—in this case, to get the fish caught in Posturr's only large ocean back to the big cities as quickly as possible—trumped the need to make sure that soldiers had what they needed to do their jobs, and so he and Jennifer, along with pretty much everyone else on the gravtrain, found themselves clambering out of their compartments into the chill, grey light of a winter's morning, about an hour before sun-up. It looked like they were in the middle of nowhere—Ronon turned in a full circle and all he saw around him was the train, and a couple hundred foot-stamping, sleepy, cursing soldiers; scrubby trees and waves of blue-green grass still tinted pale with morning frost—but along the northern horizon, Ronon could see smoke from dozens of low-banked cooking fires, rising straight up into the clear, still morning air.
They followed along behind a group that seemed to know the quickest way to the town, along a trail that had been trampled into the waist-high grass. "You'll be okay?" Ronon asked Jennifer as he shouldered his pack. All the new arrivals from Earth were supposed to be certified capable of a certain level of self-defence and endurance, and to have been taught the basic survival skills they would need to keep them alive in most standard climates and environments. In practice, Ronon had found that most of the scientists couldn't be allowed out of the city without a baby-sitting complement—even letting them wander around inside the city was a stretch at times.
(He'd asked Sheppard about it once, but the only answer he'd received was a mumbled, "Budget cuts.")
"I'll be fine," Jennifer said. Her strides couldn't match the length of his, but she was walking easily, at a sensible, loping pace that would allow her to conserve energy while making good time. "After that time on Athos… well, once my ankle was better, I started to train a little with Teyla. She taught me how not to, well, die immediately in a horribly embarrassing way when faced with the great outdoors, and I think the opportunity to hit me with sticks made her feel a little, uh, less incredibly pissed off with everything. And me."
Ronon tried his very best not to grin, and ducked his head when he couldn't quite stop a smile from breaking through. "Uh huh."
"So I should be okay, once no one tries to make me eat a gr'tenak," Jennifer continued. "Just… I'm sorry, I'm trying my best to be more open to new experiences, but everyone has a line and mine is food that is composed of wobbling, slimy tubes." Ronon couldn't blame her—Teyla had made him try seasoned gr'tenak once at an Athosian feast day, and the best thing he could say about it was that it was probably high in protein.
"No tubes," Ronon said, nodding solemnly, and laughed when she threw her balled-up mittens at him in mock exasperation.
Brunnum was obviously established long enough to have acquired a street plan that mimicked those of other Merthená towns—market square at the centre, buildings and tents laid out in neatly-gridded rows, a small hospital and a smaller school—and judging by the lack of immediate odour, some kind of indoor plumbing. Its expansion from a small farming settlement into a garrison town was sudden, however, and recent. The blue-green grass of the streets had long since been churned into mud that reached almost knee-deep, and planks of wood had been thrown down to provide some kind of easy passage along Brunnum's main thoroughfares. They weren't on any organisational lists here, and there was no assigned billet waiting for them, but between Jennifer's smile and Ronon's stare—honed to a fine sharpness on Elizabeth Weir, a better bureaucrat than any of these idiots with clipboards would ever be, a woman who'd always had the good judgement not to look down on people just because their mothers came from the wrong family—they talked their way into a small twin bedroom over a cook-shop. The room smelled strongly of the fat used to fry snacks in the shop below, and the beds were so short that Ronon's legs hung off the end of his, but it was somewhere to sleep and offered relative privacy—more than most soldiers would get here.
Jennifer poked at the blankets suspiciously (There was this one time, she said, when Molly and I were backpacking in Spain, and there were these bedbugs? I ended up with welts the size of quarters on my—anyway, so now I have a thing), but declared the mattress better than anything she'd managed to get back on Atlantis, and stowed her kit bag away under the bed. They both made use of the pitcher of fresh water and sponge that sat on the room's one rickety table and cleaned faces and hands, and tidied back their hair, before going out to explore the town. It wasn't that Ronon cared so very much about his appearance while his team was still missing, but it was a rare army that didn't put an emphasis on neat presentation and he didn't want either himself or Jennifer standing out right now.
Brunnum's resemblance to Posturri City extended to the bustle and hurry in the streets, though there was hardly a person here who wasn't in uniform. The town's original inhabitants had been swiftly outnumbered by troops, and Ronon didn't see a single child on the streets—most likely they'd all been sent south and east for safety, as far as their parents thought was necessary to save them from the sight of their home becoming a base for war.
Ronon went with the flow of the movement through the town, Jennifer at his side, and they ended up in what passed for the main meeting square in a couple of minutes. He could see the look on Jennifer's face when she saw what a little group sitting outside of a bar was doing. They looked like veterans, mostly—older men and women, some with scars on their arms or faces, one or two missing fingers or a foot, most of them wearing heavy, dull grey army coats—and almost all of them puffed at pipes or talked amongst themselves while they sewed away at long lengths of sky-blue cloth. Burial shrouds, being prepared in bulk in advance, so that when people started to die in earnest, they could be sewn up and buried without delay. Jennifer didn't look comfortable with it, and her small hands curled into fists by her sides, but to her credit, she didn't flinch, and her jaw came up, as if she were readying herself for some powerful blow.
"Well," she said, "I suppose this means it's time I find myself a hospital to volunteer in, huh?"
Ronon looked down at her. "You don't have to," he told her. She didn't. If he found the others—Teyla and John and Rodney—when he got them back, he didn't count on it taking him more than a day or two, and she could wait that out. Jennifer might have been used to running the infirmary on Atlantis in the aftermath of an attack, or dealing with accidents in a hospital back on Earth, but that didn't mean she was used to dealing with the consequences of battle, with the reduction of hundreds and thousands of people to meat and gristle and white bone. Ronon saw it every night when he slept; he would never be used to it, and he didn't want her to ever know what it was like.
"Oh, please," she told him, and rolled her eyes just a little. "What kind of a person wouldn't try to help? I'm a specialist in emergency medicine: this is what I spent years training to do. I'm not going to sit around while you go off and be all stoic mountain ranger trapper guy to find the others."
Ronon didn't blink, and he resolutely didn't grin at her. "Not in the mountains."
"Ha, ha," Jennifer said, stepping around a particularly deep mud puddle, "consider yourself funnier than the Colonel at his best."
This time, Ronon grinned.
The town grew steadily larger over the next three days, with each new batch of draftees and jaded soldiers that straggled in over the meadows from the distant gravtrain line; Brunnum would serve as a holding point until the army had built up to its fighting strength and the central government had made its formal declaration of war. Both sides might have been happy to launch stealth raids on the other, to turn a blind eye to skirmishes in settlements along the border between the Centrist and the Timmian spheres of interest, but Ronon was all too familiar with how the commanders here seemed to think: the only battle that would count, the only fight whose result would be reported, was the one that would come when the two armies faced one another formally on a pre-announced battlefield. Way too predictable; if this were Ronon's war, he'd have started it—and tried his best to finish it—long before now.
Ronon made sure that he was somewhere around the town square when the new troops reported to the admins in charge of billeting, who had long since had to divert arrivals away from Brunnum itself into the tent suburbs that had sprung up around it; the Posturri had something like the broadcast radio systems used on Sateda, or at least like what Sheppard had told him were widely used on Earth, but the single frequency used contained little more than what the governing castes wanted everyone else to hear. Right now, when even news of the weather in the next province might be a piece of valuable military information, the radio played only traditional Posturri music whenever it managed to pick up something more than static. Overhearing the conversations of the new arrivals, insinuating himself into their chatter, was the only real way for Ronon to find out what was going on the rest of the planet.
If Major Cestina was still in the capital, she and her troops hadn't made much of a breakthrough yet—Ronon drank hot sweet tea in the morning with a group of loud-speaking veterans and learned that the stargate was still in the hands of the Timmian, and that there had been no movements on or off-world since they had taken it. There had been a couple of skirmishes on the outskirts of the city, with the army trying to fight through the front line of the rebels to make it up the mountainside to the gate, but they'd fought one another to a standstill, and the only real movement was of civilians fleeing the city with their families and as much of their belongings as they could carry for the relative safety of the hinterland.
"And you know it's not because any of them give a damn about seeing the Oligarchs back in their rightful place," Captain Jhimpu groused, dropping another cube of sugar into his glass of tea. "Cowards who don't want to see honourable military service; don't want to have to take sides before everything's finished."
Ronon grunted in apparent sympathy, but he was thinking less of Jhimpu's troubles and more of what this would mean for him and his team. They were supposed to check in with Atlantis once daily, shortly before sunset on Posturr, and without receipt of so much as their IDC signal over the last three days, he was certain that Woolsey and Lorne had already got a rescue mission underway. He was also pretty sure that there wouldn't be anything they could do for a while—maybe Zelenka or Miko might be able to rig up a means of forcing open the shield on the Posturri gate, perhaps even send a MALP through, but that would probably take a while; and while Ronon didn't have McKay's ability to calculate time and distance on the fly, he didn't think that the Daedalus would be able to reach them quicker than ten days or so, a puddlejumper gating to the nearest planet to Posturr a day or two quicker. Ronon didn't know if that was time that John and Teyla and Rodney had.
He couldn't spend all his time listening to gossip in bars, though, or hanging around the entrances to command compounds. Even though he had no commanding officer to notice his absence from training, any intel officer worth their ink would notice an overly curious new officer who didn't seem to have any duties. Jennifer quickly ingratiated herself into one of the field hospitals—no one was ever going to dispute the arrival of a new medic in wartime, even if her dispatch papers had been 'mislaid' somewhere en route—but it was harder for him to just attach himself into a regiment and try to fit in. It wasn't that Ronon would have trouble pretending to be a soldier in this war—that was what Amelia had told him, when the two of them ended it, when she had said goodbye: that she didn't think he knew how to stop any more—it was that he knew how difficult it would be to pretend to be a Posturri soldier. Whatever the differences of culture and knowledge that he could fake his way through using memory and the excuse of a far-away birthplace, every company of soldiers that had been through training together, let alone seen battle, was bound together in a way that an outsider just couldn't fake. There was no use in peppering his speech with Merthená slang words and trying to pretend that he was a member of even a company as lowly and disorganised as the Fifth Sistahna.
What he could do was use the skills he had to make a space for himself here, just as he'd been doing on Atlantis since he'd arrived there, afraid and uncertain with his back raw from Carson's scalpel. He assigned himself to the shooting range, and over the next few days, in between trips out into the countryside around Brunnum, or a couple of hours spent in bars getting command officers and admin staff strategically drunk, he taught the rawest recruits how to survive, and how to give a quick and merciful death—the kinds of things that Ronon wished Kell had taken the time to teach him. No one questioned why he was there, just like Ronon had known they wouldn't—no one would think that anyone experienced would voluntarily want to look after kids so green they'd probably bleed sap.
"You got patience," Commander Bidhten told him with a grin, clapping him on the shoulder on the way out from his own daily practice. Ronon didn't like the man much, distrusting the quality of his smile, but he couldn't argue with the neat circle of bullet holes that Bidhten invariably left on the target. He smiled back at Bidhten, though the truth was that Ronon didn't think he had patience. All he had was the desire to make sure that as few blameless kids as possible got killed because of this; all he had was time to kill and a target to shoot at. Twice, he saw Jennifer standing at the entrance to the range. She didn't come in to practice herself—though Ronon knew that she had been working on improving the accuracy of her shot and her responses on the range back on Atlantis, and was slowly getting half-decent at it—but stood and watched while he coaxed a trainee into improving his or her stance.
The first time, she was gone by the time he was done, but the second time Jennifer waited until the recruits had left and then brought him a canteen of water. He was glad of it; even though the weather was still chilly enough to make Ronon pull back on his leather gloves as soon as he'd re-holstered his gun, he'd still worked up a thirst over the past few hours. "Thanks," he told her when he handed the canteen back. "You done for the day?"
Jennifer shook her head; her hair, now pulled back in the Posturri regulation three braids, swung against her shoulders. "I've got a couple of patients I want to keep a close eye on for the next two or three hours at least—alcohol poisoning and a burst appendix. And there's always more paperwork to file. But first, lunch. I've been dreaming of one of those keefa buns stuffed with that berry paste since about half an hour after breakfast."
Ronon raised an eyebrow at her, falling into step beside her as they walked quickly back in the direction of their lodgings. "You do know you're not really a doctor in the service here, right? Don't think the paperwork part matters so much."
Jennifer snorted. "It always matters. The basic stuff always does," she said. "You know that. That's why you spend half the day in that firing range."
Ronon ducked his head, suddenly awkward. "Passes the time."
"Uh huh," Jennifer said dryly as they clattered up the exterior stairs to their room. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"
He shrugged. "Okay."
"I remember you saying something once, to Teyla, about how your tour of duty with the Satedan army would have been ten, fifteen years at most. What were you planning on doing afterwards?"
Ronon cleared his throat. That wasn't something he'd thought about in a while; for all the good Atlantis had done him, for all the purpose it had given back to his days, there were still times in the dead of night when it felt like his life had stopped the moment that first dart appeared in Sateda's skies, and there was no point in dwelling on what he couldn't change. "I was going to teach," he said. "Back in my home town. Melena was going to teach in the Seventh District Hospital—it was one of the best places for her to train in orthopaedic surgery—and I was going to build us a house near this grove of kermin trees and teach classic novels and the poems of lineage to kids who didn't really care. Kinda stupid, huh?"
She surprised him by reaching out and taking his hand in hers; even in the cold and through the leather of their gloves, her palm felt warm against his. "I decided to major in pre-med because I wanted the small things that I did, every day, to count. And I think… I think you'd have been a really good teacher, Ronon—you are one now, with those soldiers. You've got patience."
She sounded unusually forceful, holding his gaze while she spoke, and Ronon felt almost embarrassed by that and didn't know why. "Okay," he said, feeling stupid, because he couldn't think of anything else to say, and because Jennifer was still holding his hand.
"Well," she said, and maybe her cheeks were pink with something more than cold; she sounded as if she were more than a little embarrassed herself. "Once that's settled, then. I think it's time for lunch, yeah?" She let go of his hand, and he led her inside.
It didn't take him long to learn the lie of the land. The plains of the northern part of the continent were good country for farming—better for grazing than for ploughing maybe, with that dark, dry soil that crumbled between his fingers—and a couple of trips out by himself in the early morning, before most of the camp was awake, told him where most of the main features of this stretch of the country lay. One or two low hillocks, the occasional stand of trees, a stream that trickled haltingly over the mostly-level ground. By the sixth day, over breakfast, he could sketch out the landscape for Jennifer on the bare wood of the dining table, telling her all the things that she might need to know and helping to fix the most important landmarks in his own memory.
"Have you seen the fort yet?" she asked him, frowning down at the bread crumbs that he had used to create the outlines of a temporary map.
"From a distance. It's a few hours' walk away, and it's hard to get close," he told her, buttering a slice of bread. "Their guards are pretty good." Ronon said it grudgingly, but he had to admit it. They weren't career soldiers, and even watching them from a distance he could tell that their training had been haphazard rather than professional; but these men and women were committed, passionate about the cause they were fighting for, and he could already tell that the Timmian would give a good fight to the Posturri regulars when the time came. Cestina had tried to explain the reasons for the rift to him when they were back in the city—economic differences; power struggles between the old elite of the central city and the newly-powerful families of the northern plains; the petty religious squabbles that gave a gloss of legitimacy to their spats—but Ronon knew that there were nuances to what was going on that he, as a Satedan, would never quite grasp. The Timmian would fight to the last, but at least they weren't good enough to have spotted him on any of the forays he'd made out to the land around Inimico.
"So we don't know that they are in there still?" Jennifer said. "They could have been moved, or they could be—it's been a while, Ronon. It's been too long." Her teeth bit into the soft curve of her lower lip.
"Yeah," he said, "I know." And he did. Maybe it was that they were locked up in a facility so secure even McKay couldn't find a flaw in it; maybe there were so many guards that Teyla couldn't fight her way through them, or Sheppard charm his way past them; but Ronon knew his team, he knew what each one of them was capable of, and it was worrying that he'd seen no signs of them yet. It was worrying that the fort over the horizon hadn't been shaken with an explosion, or sent up in flames; that three soot-smeared, gun-toting individuals hadn't staggered into the camp here with three different smiles for him, serene and lopsided and relieved. Ronon had lived with fear each and every day of the seven years that he'd spent Running—fear for himself and fear for others caught up in the path of his flight—but there'd never been anything like this. The worry for his family had been long in the past then; now, it was fresh and new and sat like a lead weight in the pit of his stomach.
"Well." Jennifer took a deep breath, and the smile she shot him was brave and scared all at once. "If they're there, we'll get them back. You know how to get there and you're all skilled at blowing the hell out of things."
"We'll probably have to do that," Ronon said, though he knew it would be difficult. Whatever else you might say about the Posturri, there was nothing wrong with either their construction techniques (the walls of their buildings tended to the solid, the windows small rectangles in the thick-set stone) or their quartermaster's ability to maintain a very precise inventory (the closest thing they had here to C4 was kept in locked boxes, sealed and numbered and stored in guarded warehouses).
"Then it's a good thing I disinfected a pretty funky case of foot fungus that Marshal Resperonn had going on this morning, huh?" Jennifer said around her last mouthful of bread and cheese.
"The guy in charge of arranging rosters for access to the military stores," Jennifer said, and swallowed; her tone was blithe, but her smile was broad. "He was talking about the schedule for the next few days with his aide, and I think he forgot that the woman irrigating his big toe could hear every word he was saying. So, I know what times will be easiest for us to get in and out with everything we'll need for our reverse jail break."
"Everything we'll need?"
"Yes, we, Ronon. I'm coming too. You're welcome, by the way."
"Thank you," Ronon said. He grinned at her, then paused for a moment before asking, "Foot fungus, huh? Was it gross?"
"Trust me," Jennifer said, with an elaborate shudder, and picked up her mug of stout tea, "you don't want to know."
The two of them went after the explosives that evening, not long after the sun had sunk down behind the horizon and the long winter night had begun. The day-time guards passed over hurriedly with their night-time counterparts; from where Ronon stood, almost a block away and hidden in the shadow of a low archway, they looked eager to be getting out of the cold and back to their billets, where food and beds would await them, maybe even a quick paid-lay if they were lucky. Ronon didn't blame them for that, though he did for the way they left their post without so much as a single patrol of the perimeter, or without noticing either him or Jennifer. Those were things you should always notice, coming off shift or going on.
"You know the plan, right?" he asked her before they moved out.
"Yeah," Jennifer whispered. "We've been over it. Distract the guards—small talk, isn't the weather nice, oh hey, see how I have breasts—while you go rooftop to rooftop, break and enter, and get back out with as much of the explosives as you can carry."
"You don't have to do it this way if you don't want to."
"Yes, I do, because first, Rodney and Teyla and the Colonel, and second, there's no way I'm going to sit by myself back in that room and do nothing. I've had enough of letting myself do that so, you know. Here we go." There was the slightest quiver in her voice, and even in the fading light, Ronon could see how the line of her back was poker straight and stiff. He must have been silent for too long, because Jennifer looked up at him and hissed, "What?"
"Nothing. Just—there's ways of doing this without you having to…"
"I did my undergrad at an Ivy League school. Trust me, I learned how to play keep-away from privileged male idiots with wandering fingers a long time ago."
Ronon raised an eyebrow. "One of the guards is a woman. Mightn't be a thing—"
"Yes, and I also spent a semester in Berkeley playing not-keep-away with a—we can talk about this later, okay? I'm going in."
"Okay," Ronon said, and ducked down the narrow, muddy alleyway that led behind the warehouses while Jennifer walked down the street and pretended to be in search of a good time.
Later, when they were back in their small, stuffy bedroom—several large bricks of stolen plastic explosives stowed away safely under Ronon's bed; the two of them bringing warmth back to winter-chilled fingers with mugs of hot, sweetened arak tea—he gave in to his curiosity and said "So you're, uh… how do you guys say it?"
"Hrm?" Jennifer said as she curled her fingers around the warm earthenware.
"Sheppard told me he was a… he plays for the two teams?"
"The Colonel's bi?" Jennifer squeaked, and her eyes were so round for a moment that it was almost comical; Ronon was pretty sure that if she'd had a mouthful of tea, she might have choked on it. Then she leaned back against her pillow and considered for a moment and said, "Huh. Actually, that's—well, I know he's in the Air Force and all, but some things make a little more sense now. And yeah, I am too. Is that… okay with you? I mean, I know what things are like on Earth, obviously, and Teyla's told me a little about what Athosians think about people who aren't straight, but Sateda—"
"Yeah. We didn't mind. Earth traditions seem cool. As long as you don't care about a traditional Satedan illehtan…"
"Bonding ceremony between me and a physical manifestation of my spirit animal."
Jennifer's mouth dropped clean open, and Ronon really wanted to keep his deadpan expression going for another minute because sometimes she really was too easy to tease; but he couldn't stop the laughter from bubbling up and "Oh my god, Ronon Dex, you suck," Jennifer yelped before she threw her pillow at him.
It took army command longer to get the artillery to the front than it did the infantry. Partly it was logistical—some of the bigger pieces, the ones that could launch shells over a range of miles, wouldn't fit into the standard compartments on a gravtrain, and hauling them across roads that weren't always paved took some doing—and partly it was because there was far more attention and consideration given to transporting the machines in safety than there ever was when it came to real soldiers, to real people. Ronon leaned out of the window of their room the morning of their seventh day in Brunnum, chewing on a hunk of bread and honey he'd charmed out of their landlady, and watched the artillery come rolling in—some of the bigger guns had names like Grinder and Straight Arrow painted along the sides in the rounded Posturri script—and was not at all surprised at how similar the leadership of the Posturri army was to that of Earth or Sateda.
Looked like Jennifer was coming to share his cynicism. The last of the convoy had hardly passed through before he heard her footsteps, quick and impatient, clattering up the stairs to their room. The door almost rebounded off the wall with the force of her entry, and she tugged her coat off and tossed it onto the bed with a resounding "Son of a bitch. Goddamned motherfucking ass-sucking shit-bag."
"Uh," Ronon said.
"I'm really sorry," Jennifer said tightly, and her hands were on her hips and she looked like she was trying not to cry. "But I didn't—do you know how long I spent with Doctors Without Borders once I'd graduated? I saw—I thought I'd seen everything, famine and drought and refugees fleeing, I watched surgical strikes on CNN and I read the papers and I've spent three years on Atlantis but I never had to take what was left of a fifteen-year-old who died because he wasn't taught how to use a grenade properly and sew him into a shroud and it just, it…"
"Sucks?" Ronon said gently. He sat on the edge of his bed and watched as Jennifer wrapped her arms around herself; she was shaking, just a little.
"It's all so pointless. I never realised—an earthquake happens and people die, but that's what the world is like and there's no one you can get angry with, but this—how can you and the Colonel, how can you…"
"It's pointless if you let it be pointless." Kind of trite, Ronon knew, but also kind of true—there was no other way he could think of all the friends' ashes he'd set free on Sateda's winds, even before the Wraith came, and still stay sane.
Jennifer swiped at her eyes. "And in the meantime?"
"Cursing helps." He let his hands rest in his lap; he consciously didn't let them curl into fists. "Alcohol too. Sometimes."
Her cheeks flushed a little. "I, uh, may have been spent too much time around the Marines."
"Maybe," Ronon agreed, wry, and he didn't hug her because neither of them could have withstood that right now, and this wasn't the time. "You tried saying 'goat-fucker'? Zelenka taught me that one. Don't know what a goat is, but it's got good consonants."
There were still tears in her eyes, but she laughed. "I'm sure I could work it in somewhere."
Against all odds, Ronon made the rank of Specialist—despite heavy coursework and intense physical training; the fierce cold of the capital during the winter, and the constant rain during the summer; summer festivals and mid-winter feasts that they spent in such a way to earn more than one reprimand from Instructor Kell, and even more sore heads. Hemi was now Specialist Loc as well, and together they were ranked co-leaders of Second Squad at their year's passing out ceremony. The others were all assigned to the same squad; and if they were still young and as much pre-occupied with love affairs and home sickness and mischief-making as they were with their careers, then Ronon was still proud of them when they stood to attention in front of him and Hemi for the first time: Ara and Rakai and Sheshan; Morika and Jeshet and Qerel; Tyre and Citahn and Sydehr and Lisoor.
However much Jeshet's favourite form of recreation might be to get into fights in seedy dance clubs down on the west side of the city, or however often Rakai and Citahn liked to wake up the whole dorm with their drunken caterwauling in the dark of night, they were still his squad. This group had stepped off the train with him the spring morning when they'd first arrived in the city, and they'd all stood in line with him while their new instructors ticked them off one by one, on a scroll of names, and ushered them in through the high, shadowed gates of the First Satedan Army Academy. Tyre and Ara had become his best friends, as close to him as his cousins back home—Ara disinfecting his cuts after sparring while he bandaged her bruised knuckles before tumbling back into his bunk with him, all laughter and loose-spilling hair; Tyre helping him with his maths in return for Ronon explaining the finer points of Satedan military history, taking him out drinking when Ronon and Ara had finally drifted apart and introducing Ronon to a good-natured young medical student called Melena—but he'd counted each and every one of them as a friend he would trust with his life.
Even weightier than that trust was the one he'd accepted on the day that he and Hemi had bowed their heads in the presence of their squad and their families and recited the oaths which confirmed them as squad leaders—the oath that said that he would lay down his life for any of the people in his command, if that was needed in order to bring his squad safely home. Kell had heard Ronon's oath, palms held open and flat as he accepted Ronon and Hemi formally into the army; he'd spoken of honour to them before dismissing them all to their first assignments; two seasons later, the first darts began to come through the ring.
Every radio in the capital had been broadcasting the Chieftain's speech, and heading from staff headquarters to the armoury, Hemi at his side, the only sound Ronon had heard in the nearly-empty streets were their boots on the cobblestones and announcements echoing hollowly from stone and brick: …and we know that Sateda will not bow to invaders. The time has come for us to put our bravery on the line… Ronon had gritted his teeth, hoping like hell that Melena had done what he'd begged of her and run; Ronon would die today, he knew that, and he knew himself well enough to know that the slight tremble in his hands was fear. …defend our nation, our planet. All that we have built over these past two centuries… But the oath he'd made to Melena was not so different from the one he'd made to his squad, and if he could fight well enough to give Melena extra time to get off world before he fell, well, then Ronon could close his eyes and swallow against the lump in his throat and tell himself that if this was to be his end at the age of twenty, then it was not such a bad one to make. …and we know that we are Satedans and that we will never choose not to stand our ground…
Ronon's squad stood their ground in what had been the city's business district, until its merchants and its accountants, its street-hawkers and its bankers, had been culled by the darts that screamed overhead. Every muscle in Ronon's body had ached, as if from a long fever, and under his armour his clothes had clung to him with sweat; there was blood under his fingernails and tears and soot smeared in equal measure on his cheeks and Melena was dead. Melena was dead, and those of his squad that still lived—Ara, Tyre, Rakai, Hemi—had been culled and somewhere in the clear blue sky over his head were facing a death more painful than anything that could be inflicted by a bullet. Somewhere to the north of him, his family was dying too, and all around him thousands of his comrades lay dead, thousands who could have been saved if only Kell Sarax had been born with a spine.
There was no reason for Melena to have died; no reason for Tyre or Hemi to have been snatched away from his side by the pale glow of a culling beam; no reason for Ronon's life to have stopped so suddenly in the middle of a warm Satedan autumn. The Wraith had come to kill, but it was Kell who had bared his throat to them and there was no point to that which Ronon could fathom.
He'd been Running long enough for scar tissue to have healed pink and smooth over the tracker in his back before Ronon realised this: that nothing was ever pointless. There was cause and there was consequence, and if Kell and the Wraith had combined to cause Sateda's ruin, if everyone Ronon had ever loved was gone from him and their bodies denied a proper cremation, then it all still meant this: that Ronon had the anger and the skills to survive, the determination and the rage to hunt down Kell and his cronies and every single stinking Wraith he could and kill them before he breathed his last. He could save others from the pain that he had endured, the grief that he nursed against his breastbone like he would a wounded animal. Even on Atlantis, Ronon had known this: things couldn't be pointless if you let them have a purpose.
Their first real intel came when someone defected—a middle-ranking veteran of the Timmian side who knew enough to be dangerous and who was more than willing to barter that knowledge into wealth and safety for himself. If someone had done that on Sateda—back in the days, say, of the Second Protectorate, days when the laws were enforced so harshly that even Ronon's grandfather had recalled with a shudder—either side would have executed them as a traitor and sent their family through the Ring, for producing someone so lacking in basic morals. The Posturri had fewer qualms about these things, it seemed, and Major Cestina—newly arrived in Brunnum as an attaché to one of the generals—passed the information on to them a few hours after the guy had been sent south in a secured gravtrain compartment.
"The interviewers were more concerned with asking him where the Oligarchs are being kept," she told them. They were sitting at a table at the back of one of the noisy, smoky rooms that served as bars for the soldiers. Three earthenware mugs of ale sat untouched in front of them. "But he said something about the off-worlders, too. Most important thing is, they were all still alive as of yesterday morning."
Jennifer's relieved sigh matched Ronon's own. "Did he speak to them?" she asked Cestina. "Is there anything they—"
Cestina shook her head, making her long braids tremble. "No. He never saw them directly, I don't think. He's sekthri caste, so he wouldn't guard—Verlin just filed the paperwork on which division stood guard over them each day. But…" She dug through capacious pockets of her black leather overcoat, eventually producing a much-folded piece of paper with a low cry of triumph, and handed it over to Ronon. "He did draw a map of the interior of the fort, much more up-to-date than anything we had before now."
Ronon smoothed the paper out onto the tabletop and peered down at it in the dim light provided by the oil lamps overhead. Concentric rings of walls, just like standard Posturri or Merthen´ defensive architecture. Broad strokes of charcoal on the page to show where the walls had been doubly reinforced, or where there were gun placements; circles to show where there were guard towers. A faint circle around the walls that represented a moat, though Ronon wasn't sure if it was kept filled or if it was dry; water wasn't easy to come by on plains like this, and Inimico's defenders might have preferred to keep back their water supply to use in case of siege. Overall, the fort might not have had the advanced weaponry of Atlantis, or its Ancestor-created defensive systems, but Inimico still looked like it would be difficult to breach with anything fewer than a couple of hundred troops—ones trained by Ronon and Teyla, at that.
"This is them?" Jennifer asked, pointing at several small dots printed with care in the middle of what looked like a large room in the centre of the compound.
Cestina nodded. "The Oligarchs, at least, and I'm betting that your people are either in the same room or in an adjacent one. It would make sense to keep valuable prisoners in the most secure part of the compound."
"So when are your people going in?" Ronon made sure he had the layout fixed in his memory, and passed the paper back across the table to Cestina. It wouldn't take long to pull together a small strike team, he thought—maybe a couple of locals who knew the fort better than most and who could blend in—and Ronon was pretty sure he could make them bring him with them. He could be persuasive, when he wanted to be.
Cestina sighed and looked almost embarrassed. "The High Command has not seen fit at this time to send in a team to retrieve the Oligarchs," she said, a sing-song note to her voice as if she were reciting from memory something that she had heard over and over.
"But, but you know where they are!" Jennifer said. "You can go in now, get them out, and there doesn't have to be a war! There doesn't have to…"
Cestina laced her fingers together. Her voice was soft and pitched low, but there was a tone to it that made both Ronon and Jennifer quieten. "I don't know that you get how politics work here. The Oligarchs lead us, yes, but for the last three centuries, their power has become less real and more symbolic. The merchants and the nobles, the castes that traditionally form the oligarchy, have lost power, and it's the sekthri and the military, they—we—are the ones who have been calling the tune for a while now."
"Literally," Ronon said. He sat back in his chair and frowned. "So you're saying they don't want to go in because what—they want to get rid of the Oligarchs once and for all? Or because they want to force a fight that'll leave them in power?"
"Can they do that?" Jennifer asked. Her mouth was rounded in shock.
"Who's going to stop them?" Cestina said. She sounded matter-of-fact, but in the fine lines around her eyes and her mouth, Ronon could see how much this was paining her to admit. She was career military in a way that even he and Sheppard might struggle to understand—someone who had worn military colours with pride for almost as long as Ronon had been alive, and who had known since birth that that was what she would grow up to do. Realising that the officers she had followed for years through half a dozen battles would happily let people die in order to secure their own power had to be a blow strong enough to stagger. "Listen, it goes like this: the Timmian try to take out the Oligarchs to take over their role; the army tries to make both of them redundant; and no one realises until the two biggest armies this planet has seen in decades are gathered together. It's like a three-player game of sesoster—you try to make one of your opponents think the other is the real threat, and all the while you're making sure their moves weaken them both. It's already too late."
"Bullshit," Jennifer snapped, then clenched her mouth closed tightly, as if the curse had escaped her lips unawares. Ronon couldn't blame her.
"It's never too late."
Cestina narrowed her eyes at him. "Starting a war is easy enough," she said. "Stopping one is something else entirely. You think you two are going to be able to do something that I and my best people can't?"
"Stopping this war is going to be your fight," Ronon said, trying his best to keep his voice level and even. He placed both palms flat on the table in front of him; this wasn't the time to make her think he was a threat to her, however angry he was feeling. It was his team he had to think of, first and always, and his feelings were less important than getting them back. "And whether you try to do it or not, that's your decision. I'm not doubting your abilities either way. But that's my family locked up in that fort, and I'm not going to have anyone tell me it's too late for them."
"I'll make a copy of the map," Jennifer said, rummaging in the leather satchel she carried at her hip for a scrap of paper and a bit of charcoal. "We can get there from here."
"I can't let you go to Inimico," Cestina told them. She scrubbed wearily at her face; when she pulled her hands away, Ronon was struck once more by the black circles of tiredness that dulled her brown eyes.
"We're going," Ronon said. Now that he knew where his team was, there was no way that he could wait any longer to find them.
Cestina rolled her eyes and sighed. "Yes, Dex, I got that. I meant that I can't let you go haring off there by yourselves. Three heads will be better than two, and if we're caught, I'll at least have a better chance of persuading the Timmian that it's an international incident rather than an interplanetary one."
"Optimistic," Ronon said, and grinned at her, because that was probably more acceptable than reaching across the table and hugging her.
"Is he always like this?" Cestina asked Jennifer. She still sounded tired, but there was a wryness there which made Ronon hope that she really would come through and help them—his team was so close that he thought at times he could sense their presence just over the horizon, as if the time he had spent with Teyla had given him a heart-held version of her gift for sensing Wraith, tuned instead to thoughts of family and home.
"Oh please," Jennifer snorted, "at least you don't have to share a room with him. Colonel Sheppard introduced him to knock-knock jokes last month."
"Hey!" Ronon protested. "Could be worse—McKay taught me some limericks."
"Oh my god," Jennifer groaned.
"There once was a man from Nantucket…"
Cestina was as good as her word, meeting them shortly after dawn the next morning on the outskirts of Brunnum. She'd commandeered a hovertransport from the army's motor pool, telling them that she needed to check on the progress of the supply convoy that was expected to arrive from the southeast in the next day or so. The transport was as ugly as one of the gravtrains, its dull grey paintwork meant that it wouldn't blend easily into the blue-green Posturri foliage, and it seemed incredibly slow to someone who had grown used to the luxury of spaceships and puddlejumpers over the past few years, but the machine would be good enough to get them to where they wanted to go. Just as important, it was large enough to transport back all the Timmians' captives, and able to travel over the uneven territory of the route they'd have to take between Brunnum and Inimico much more quickly than any of them could on foot.
There was no way that they'd be able to make it across the rolling plain that lay between the two settlements without being spotted by scouts from either side, especially not now that both sides were beginning to dig in, waiting for the formal declaration of hostilities that would allow the first bullets to fly. Instead, they'd have to travel in a wide arc to the west, an hour or two away up towards the Brenni River, before curving back to the east, as if they'd come in over the northern mountains—from core Timmian territory. Risky, but the best chance they had.
From somewhere, Cestina had managed to beg or borrow enough blue cloth to make tunics for all three of them—they wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny, but they should fill the task of hiding the Posturri Loyalist colours of their regular clothes long enough for them to get inside the fort. Cestina, the only one of them competent at manoeuvring the transport's complicated steering system of levers, drove. Jennifer sat beside her on the front seat, a brown leather medical bag clutched in a white-knuckled grip on her lap, while Ronon sat in the back of the transport, looking out at the countryside rolling away behind them and keeping an eye on their six.
They'd decided that Jennifer was their best means of bluffing their way into Inimico. In war time, trained doctors were always scarce enough that it wouldn't be overly unusual for someone to be ferried in from outside; Jennifer certainly had the medical skills to be convincing, and with her hair pulled tightly back from her face in three thick braids, and worry furrowing a deep line between her eyebrows, she looked much older than she really was. If they let Jennifer in, the guards would more than likely overlook Cestina and Ronon, filing them away mentally in that category that Major Lorne always referred to self-deprecatingly as 'dumb grunts.' A mistake for the Timmian, but exactly the break that Ronon and the others would need.
The trip passed mostly in silence—like the longest of puddlejumper missions, when the tension had become palpable, all conversation had long since grown threadbare and even Rodney had quietened because Teyla had threatened violence with a pencil if he hummed the chorus of 'A View to a Kill' one more time—but Ronon was glad of it. It gave him time to think and breathe and steady himself, to prepare himself for the worst and make sure he was able to take advantage of the best. Cestina was a smooth driver, taking them low along the bank of the river—mostly devoid, in winter, of barges or anglers—before upping their speed as she took them back over the frost-covered plain to the northern walls of Kesterr Inimico. The countryside was mostly empty. Ronon saw one or two people out on the plains, but they didn't seem to be working on the land; most likely, he thought, they were heading for the relative safety of the fort.
The first real obstacle they encountered was a patrol of Timmian soldiers, about twenty minutes out from the fort. They were all visibly armed, and had the half-bored, half-nervous look about them that Ronon always feared most in soldiers: it meant they were just inexperienced enough to be dangerous, and spoiling for a fight enough to have an itchy trigger finger. But Cestina must have been paying her network of informants well; not only did she have the most up-to-date passwords which made the patrol wave them on without suspicion, but they also had supplied her with little bits of gossip and fragments of small talk that she used to lace her conversation with the patrol's red-headed leader. Cestina smiled and joked, as easily as Teyla did when she was playing the diplomat, and soon Sergeant Kirill was waving them on in the direction of the fort and telling them that the mess was serving some pretty good agral stew today.
Inimico itself loomed up suddenly over the horizon and swiftly grew into a towering presence over the plains. Built of great slabs of grey and white stone, it looked weathered but formidable; in the cluster of towers that stood at the fort's heart, Ronon thought he saw an echo of the Ancestors' architecture, a similar reaching for the sky. The guards at the northern gate were sloppy, trusting too much in the patrols to have weeded out any infiltration, looking too much to the southern horizon from where they thought any major attack from Brunnum would have to come. One of them took a cursory glance at the orders Cestina had had forged who knew where and waved them on through.
Inside, the fort didn't look that different to Brunnum, or most other military compounds that Ronon had been in—though maybe a little more disorganised, with crates of supplies that had not yet been distributed or stored sitting outside warehouse doors. Ahead of him, Ronon could see both Jennifer and Cestina taking in as much of their surroundings as they could without raising suspicion—Jennifer to help in their rescue and escape; Cestina to help with the eventual Posturri attack on Inimico, whenever it came. Ronon trusted their awareness of their surroundings, and he himself was looking for only one thing: the central holding rooms which the Timmian traitor had marked on the map. They were in one of the lower towers, he thought, trying to reconcile the memorised map with the building layout that he saw in front of him.
"There," he pointed, "that one," and Cestina nodded, guiding the transport around behind an empty storage shed, just opposite a side entrance into the tower, and smoothly parking it.
They all clambered out, Cestina straightening her tunic and Jennifer shouldering her medical kit as nonchalantly as if it didn't contain a silenced gun and a stunner. Ronon carried a stunner, too, tucked away beneath the forgiving fabric of his tunic, though he was pretty sure that he'd rely more on his own blaster if he did have to shoot.
Jennifer led the way up the stone steps into the tower, with Cestina and Ronon lagging a step or two behind her—a Timmian doctor being chivvied along by her two travel-weary escorts, or so it would seem. She marched along as if certain of where she was going, and Ronon had to admire how that assumed look of confidence distracted anyone they passed in the corridors from how her hands were shaking ever so slightly. "Down here," she said to Cestina, making it sound as if she were making a statement, not asking a question, and Cestina nodded. Up another flight of steps and down to the left, and there it was: a tall, heavy-looking wooden door with two guards lounging in front of it, both of them looking a little more than half-asleep.
"Afternoon," the taller one said as they approached. "Can I see your—"
Cestina moved almost faster than Ronon did, a lifetime's experience helping her stun the one on the left before Ronon's eyes could track her movements. He took out the one on the right, and helped Cestina bind their hands and feet and lock them into a small storage cupboard just off the main hallway, while Jennifer unlocked the door. She peered inside—gun unholstered and at her side, Ronon noted with approval; she'd been learning—then turned to grin at him.
"In here," she said before disappearing inside. "They're all in here."
It was like walking into a dormitory, or an infirmary—two long rows of neatly-made beds arranged along the walls, each with an occupant who would have looked as if they were sleeping if it weren't for the IV needle inserted into the back of one hand. There was no sign of any medical personnel, though there was a stack of files sitting on a desk pushed up against the near wall, a cold and near-empty mug of some kind of tea sitting on top of it. Each needle was connected to a bag full of a viscous-looking reddish fluid; most of them, Ronon was glad to see, were nearly full, which meant that maybe they'd have a little longer to work before anyone came to check on the comatose prisoners.
"You know what this stuff is?" he asked Cestina, nodding at the IVs. Jennifer had already taken one down from the hook where it was suspended and was examining it while she took Teyla's pulse with the fingers of her free hand.
"No," Cestina said, but the look on her face told Ronon otherwise.
"You know what it is."
Her jaw clenched tight, and Ronon could see her hands clench into fists. "I've heard rumours," Cestina admitted after a moment. "Experimental medical treatments. There were reports of a small Wraith ship that went down over Corindhya a few years back—the crew died but they used the bodies and the ship for something… No one would ever admit to it, on either side."
Ronon stared at her. "Those sons of bitches are injecting Wraith poison into my people?" Cestina looked as if she were about to double over and be sick all over the scuffed toes of her combat boots; Ronon wanted to find something to shoot.
"I can't tell what this substance is without access to a lab," Jennifer said, calling him back to the task at hand, "but if what she's saying is true, my best guess is that it's some kind of adaptation of the enzyme the Wraith use to induce a very deep sleep in the victims they keep on their ships." She slipped two spare IV bags into the bag at her own hip, probably for analysis when they got back to Atlantis, and then started to remove the IV lines from the hands of the sleepers, starting with Teyla. Ronon hurried to help her, followed shortly afterwards by Cestina—gently sliding the needles free of bruised and tender-looking skin.
Jennifer worked faster than either Ronon or Cestina, and soon his team and all twelve of the Oligarchs—still dressed in the stiff red and green and yellow brocades of their official robes—were free of the tubing. Ronon tried not to notice how cold Sheppard's hand was in his, or how shallow the breathing of the Oligarch Laniya was, but there was no ignoring the fact that none of them woke up straight away.
"It'll take a while for them to wake up," Jennifer said, "and no, I don't know how long it will take. If it is based on this sleep-inducing enzyme, it shouldn't be too long, but I have no idea how the enzyme was modified or what side effects it's having on their systems. We can't rely on any of them being conscious enough to get out of here on their own, and I'm worried about Rodney's pulse rate—it's too uneven."
"So how are we going to get them out?" Cestina said.
"Got the plastic explosives," Ronon pointed out. "Don't think it would take much to get rid of that wall."
Jennifer looked over at the end wall, considering. "Much as I like the symmetrical irony of it, we're two stories up and we've got fifteen unconscious people to get out of here without anyone noticing. How would we get them out?"
"The hover-transport," Cestina said, a half-smile dawning on her face. "If we're going to copy them, do it right—blow the wall and raise the transport up high enough that we can move them across into it."
"It designed for that?" Ronon asked.
Cestina shook her head. "But I've seen the grav field boosted for short periods of time. Gives you extra height, but the further you go, the less time you can stay up. This high up, we'd have maybe five minutes before the field destabilises."
"Can you do it?"
"If you can take out that wall in the next ten minutes, I can have the transport ready and waiting to go," Cestina said, pushing her braids back from her face.
Ronon shrugged. "Sure." He was no combat engineer, and didn't have Laura Cadman's talent for using a pound of plastic explosives to create elegant and lethal destruction, but he knew enough to be able to take out the side of the building without harming any of the people who lay unconscious in this room. He couldn't vouch the same for anyone standing underneath any falling masonry; though looking down at the ashen, drawn faces of his team, Ronon found that he didn't care so much.
Cestina headed back down the corridor, while Ronon moved to set the charges along the far wall. He could hear her boots clicking along the tile and echoing as she headed down the stairs, moving as fast as she dared while avoiding drawing suspicion to herself.
"Do you need any help?" Jennifer asked him. Ronon looked over his shoulder; she was methodically rearranging the beds into a single line—which luckily could also be propelled along using the grav repulsors that the Posturri had so deftly reverse-engineered from Ancient tech—so that they would be out of the way of the worst of the blast, but could still be quickly transferred into the transporter once Cestina was in position.
"Nah," he said, looking back over the position of the plastic explosives one last time. The walls were strong, but he was pretty sure he had positioned the explosives at its weakest point; they should blow a hole large enough to let them get everyone out without destabilising the building enough to hurt anyone. "Should be good. You ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Jennifer said, and her smile was given an edge by the same adrenaline that Ronon felt coursing through his veins, sharp and thick.
"Okay," he said and set the charge, running to the other end of the room and ducking down, with Jennifer, behind a metal supply cabinet. "Cover your ears," he told her, and started counting down. Three, two, one, and he breathed in just before the world shook itself apart around him. He could feel the percussive wave of the detonation shake itself through him, rattling his teeth and making his sternum ache, and when Ronon opened his eyes again, it was to see a world so dulled by pale plaster dust that his sight seemed almost as vague as his hearing. Jennifer was up before him, though with her smaller frame she must have been even more shaken by the blast, giving a cursory examination to each of her fifteen patients. None of them seemed to have been hurt, though the dust that had settled on them had turned them all as pale and strange as Wraith.
While she started to move the gurneys up towards the hole that had been blasted in the wall—as large and regular as Ronon had hoped for—he ran to look out, to see if Cestina had managed to get the hover-transport working. In the courtyard below them, Ronon could already see one or two of the Timmian infantry, brought running by the explosion. Luckily their first reaction seemed to have been to point and stare rather than to run towards the commotion, and there was Cestina in the transport, rising up to meet them with the tailgate already let down. "Hurry!" she yelled at them, her voice caught and carried away from her by the wind that was starting to kick up and shake the transport a little from side to side.
"We got it," Ronon said, and he went back to help Jennifer move the last of the beds over to the opening in the wall. Jennifer was the first to cross the small gap into the transport and Ronon started handing the still-limp bodies over to her—as gently as he could but not as gently as he would have liked, because there was a clock in his head counting down and there were so many of them to move across. The twelve oligarchs went first, Jennifer placing them in a huddled heap at the front of the transport, mindful of ageing limbs, and then there was only his team left—his family—John and Rodney and Teyla with her hair tangled across her face. From down below, Ronon could hear the echoes of shouts, and then the transport started to shake in front of him, almost making Jennifer stumble as she reached to take hold of Teyla. "Is the grav field failing?" Ronon yelled at Cestina.
"They're shooting at us," Cestina yelled. "Armour's too thick for it to pierce through, but if they damage a generator, we're finished. Come on, come on."
McKay across next, Jennifer hastily laying him on his back next to Teyla, and then Ronon had to leap with Sheppard—hearing the first sounds of chasing troops starting to clatter up the hallway, seeing the first signs of tremors too strong to hold against starting to pull the transport back down to Earth. Jennifer took a hurried step backwards but couldn't keep her balance as Ronon yelled "Go, go" and Cestina threw the transport forward into top gear. Jennifer sat down suddenly on the grooved metal floor with a heartfelt oof, Sheppard sprawled across her lap. Ronon was left teetering on the very brink for the moment, and he could see Jennifer's eyes widen, hear her scream his name, before momentum sent him toppling forward and he ended up on his knees next to Sheppard and Jennifer. The impact was painful enough to force a groan out of him, and he knew that he'd have bruises on his kneecaps come the morning.
From behind him, Ronon could hear the mechanical whine of the tailgate being raised. When he looked back over his shoulder, he watched the angle and tilt of the compound as Cestina—with skill and timing of which Sheppard himself would have been proud—used the momentum and height that the transport still had to angle them out and over the compound's walls. The arc they were travelling in would have taken them down smoothly, if it hadn't been for the bullets that were peppering the transport's sides; Ronon hadn't realised how accustomed he'd become to travelling by puddlejumper with all the benefits of inertial dampeners and seat belts until now, as the transport shook and shuddered and he felt his stomach turn over.
"We're out, we're out," Cestina yelled. Ronon could see her working the transport's controls with a white-knuckled grip, trying to coax every last bit of speed from its engines. "Try to return fire! Some are following us."
"Got it," Jennifer yelled, digging a gun out of her satchel and moving to the rear of the transport. She used the tailgate to steady her aim and then started to fire, unhesitating and unwavering. Ronon was just about to join her—it would feel good to shoot at the sons of bitches following them, to hurt the people who had tried to take away the family he'd built for himself—when he heard a groan and the sound of someone stirring at his feet.
He looked down to see Sheppard peering up at him blearily, blinking eyes that were gummy with sleep; in the days since his capture, Ronon noticed suddenly, he'd been working on one hell of a black-and-silver beard. The plaster dust from the explosion that was caught in his hair made him look much older than he was. "Hey, buddy," Sheppard said.
"Hey," Ronon said and smiled down at him.
"You blow some shit up?"
"Yeah," Ronon said, and smacked Sheppard lightly on the shoulder. "Pretty good."
"Cool," Sheppard said, and then rolled over and vomited bile all over Ronon's boots.
Class let out for the weekend with Kell's customary half-serious, half-playful admonitions to them not to spend all their weekly allowances in certain establishments in the Upper Quarter. The kids from the city headed out straight away, boots clattering on the wooden floor in their haste to pay the appropriate end-of-week visits to family and friends, but at least three-quarters stayed, waiting with anticipation for the distribution of this week's batch of letters from the burlap sack that the quartermaster had hauled into the room.
Ronon had the usual thick missive from his parents, addressed this week in his mother's spidery cursive script; a package of his favourite keeven berry cookies, baked by one of his aunts, which had been a little crushed on their journey but which were no less delicious for it; and a letter from Lahela, which he stuck in his coat pocket with a grin for later reading—if his sister had taken the time to write to him, there was some really good gossip from home worth savouring; maybe Naohle had finally decided to apply for the academy, and his youngest sister would be joining him here in the city at the beginning of the next term. Rakai had nothing this time, nor had Hemi, but Ara was passing out pieces of crystallised fruit to all present, mock-complaining about how her father kept sending boxes of the stuff to her even though he knew she didn't like it.
Tyre was the last of them to get something—a small, cheap-looking envelope so thin it couldn't possibly have held more than a single sheet of paper—but he ripped it open then and there and read it hurriedly before letting out a whoop of delight. The smile on his face was so broad that Ronon couldn't help smiling, too. "They finally let you into that course?" he asked. Tyre had applied for command-level training, but the available spots were few and applied for by the best cadets from every academy division in the city—even some off-worlders applied—and though Ronon knew that Tyre had the ability and the courage to lead well, privately Ronon was a little worried that Tyre's marks in Ancient Satedan would prevent him from gaining the place he really did deserve.
Tyre shook his head, and when he spoke his voice was bright with happiness. "Haven't heard back about that yet—it's from my father. I have a new little sister, as of four days ago. Came a little early, but my mother is well, and they're naming her Aleis, after my grandmother."
"A sister!" Hemi exclaimed, and hugged him; Rakai fist-pumped the air; and Ronon thumped Tyre on the back almost hard enough to knock him over.
"Congratulations!" he told Tyre, feeling the stretch in his cheeks from his own grin. Ronon knew how worried Tyre had been; it had been a late pregnancy, unplanned, and there had been some worry about whether Jessehn Bux's heart could take the strain of it, enough to make her doctors prescribe bed rest for the last five months, and to put fine lines around the mouth of her son who was so very far away. "I'm happy for you."
"Thanks. I—thank you," Tyre said, folding up the letter very carefully, smoothing out creases in the paper, and tucking it into the inner pocket of his coat. "Man, I'll have to leave tomorrow if I want to get back in time for the Naming Day. You want to come with me, Ronon? We can stop off, see your family, on the way back."
Ronon shook his head regretfully. "Wish I could, but I have that engineering exam in two days. Can't miss it. But," he said, letting his grin turn wicked and folding his arms, "I know how we can help you celebrate."
Tyre's eyes widened and he shook his head. "Oh, oh no way, no. I'm not going to drink any more of that drehka piss with you—"
"I'm going to buy you a bottle of ruus wine, my friend, and you are going to wet the baby's head with it."
"Count me in," Ara said, idly re-plaiting one of her braids that had come loose.
"—because last time we drank it we ended up singing along to the awful music in that hole in the wall place off Market Street, you puked in a tank of fish, and we were both hung over for two days straight."
"That was a good night!" Ronon protested. "And we're going to have another one, so come on. We're going. No buts."
Half a dozen of them ended up crowded around a table in the dingiest dive bar that Ronon and Rakai knew of—and between them, they knew intimately every single one in the long stretch between Market Street and Chieftains' Avenue. The wooden tables were scarred and chipped, the air smoky, and the floor underneath Ronon's feet was sticky with spilled beer and dirt, and he'd sung and laughed with the rest of them until his voice was hoarse and the palms of his hands stung from clapping out the rhythm. They sang most of the filthier marching songs; sea shanties from the farthest islands; every popular, saccharine ballad whose words they could half remember—The Bard of Sateda and My Sweet Home by the Bay and Dark Aleis So Lovely, in honour of the new-born. They finished with a chorus of the Satedan national anthem so rousing it had people on the street outside joining in.
People drifted away slowly as the evening grew late, back to the barracks or to other bars, other parties, and in the end it was just Tyre and Ronon, ambling back to their quarters along streets dimly lit by gas lamps and distant moonlight. The wine had given a pleasant warmth to Ronon's blood, made his shoulders grow loose and his feet just a little clumsy, and he was glad of the fact that he and Tyre had flung their arms around each other's shoulders: part comradeship, part stability. Ronon hummed the chorus of Dark Aleis under his breath, words half-forgotten by a brain fogged with ruus wine, and tried to remember if they should turn to the left or to the right at the next fork in the road.
Tyre wasn't paying much attention to either the song or the roadway, though; he looked down at his fumbling feet and talked to himself about how great it was to have another little sister, wondering if she favoured his father or his mother more, enthusing about whether he should bring her a giant stuffed ishak as a gift for her Naming Day, or if something more traditional would be better.
"Because I," he told Ronon, thumping his chest with his free hand, "I am a big brother now."
Ronon paused in his rendition of Dark Aleis' virtues and frowned. "Y'already a big brother. Have two brothers an' a sister. Siblings littler'n you, so you are bigger'n them."
"Yeah, but you know what I mean," Tyre said confidentially, and though he was whispering his voice seemed to echo off the walls of the buildings around them. "It's for brand new, all over again, because she's very very small. Like… tiny."
"Babies are small," Ronon agreed amiably, nodding his head even though it was starting to swim quite a bit. His stomach was starting to feel a little weird, too.
"Really small," Tyre said, beaming, and then he doubled over and was sick in the gutter in such a noisy, technicolour manner that Ronon was vaguely impressed. Ronon wrinkled his nose against the smell, but he had to grant Tyre this—if you did have to vomit after only a bottle or four of ruus wine, then you might as well make it projectile vomiting.
"See, this is why I should never go out drinking with you." Tyre was doubled over, hands braced against his thighs, and he groaned a little when Ronon patted him on the back. "S'always disgusting stuff in the gutters. Bodily… stuff."
"No bodily fluids means it wasn't a good night," Ronon said, then hauled Tyre upright and steered him left, in the direction of the barracks and beds that, if made up with linens that weren't entirely clean, still offered a far better night's rest than cold, damp cobblestones. "We're gonna go home and drink a whole okí of black stout tea and hope that Kell doesn't see us—"
"—and in the morning you'll get me on my train and pretend I never did that thing with that guy in that place?"
"Sure," Ronon lied cheerfully, and the two of them walked home together, each holding the other up, before passing out in a flowerbed just inside the main gates. Sergeant Meeshik yelled at them a lot the next morning, and even though the top of her head barely reached Ronon's chest, her lung capacity probably made up half her body's volume. She had a wide vocabulary, too. The morning sunshine was way too much for either Tyre or Ronon to handle—Tyre's eyes were almost closed, and Ronon's brain throbbed afresh each time he blinked—their clothes reeked of stale alcohol, and Ronon's stomach was churning so bad that he wasn't entirely certain that that smell wouldn't be augmented with fresh vomit soon.
"You are the two sorriest recruits I have ever had the misfortune to teach," Meeshik finished, her voice rich with disgust, and they mumbled, "Yes sarge, sorry sarge," and tottered off to get cleaned up and changed in time for Tyre to catch his train.
"Hey," Tyre said as they tossed their filthy clothes into the laundry chute and headed for the communal showers, "thanks for, you know…"
Ronon's mouth quirked up. "Getting you incapable and watching while you puked and passed out in a flower-bed?"
"No. For the other stuff," Tyre said, and grinned, before ducking into the shower and starting to scrub off the traces of sweat and dirt and ruus wine and good Arelian brandy.
Ronon had smiled because he had known what Tyre was saying—that he was saying thank you for a friendship which had given both of them a firmer place to stand while they were tested by school and Kell and their distance from home; that he was grateful for the ways they had tested one another, kept one another moving, this past year and a half; that he was glad of the way he had people he could celebrate the good things in life with, and know that they would share that same joy with him.
Then he'd stepped into the shower and reached for the soap, and Tyre had let out one brief moan before retching again over Ronon's bare feet.
Looking back at it over the distance of years, Ronon knew that what made someone a friend of his heart was not so very different then from now; knew that the Tyre he had known then was a man he would always count as his friend; sensed that what he had found on Atlantis, with Sheppard and Teyla and McKay, was what had given him the strength to keep running, had allowed him a space where the world stood still.
Cestina coaxed the engine on to speeds that were probably beyond the transport's tolerance; Ronon could hear a high-pitched whine start up as the transport raced out over the open plain, south towards Brunnum and safety. There was no way for them to feint this time, and no point; they needed the safety that only the Posturri army and its firepower could provide. He helped Jennifer shoot at their pursuers, reloading and firing automatically until even the most dedicated of them dropped back and they seemed to be running free and clear.
"You okay?" Jennifer asked him. The wind kicked up around them by the speed of their passage had pulled some of her hair free of its braids, and the fine strands whipped around her face. She looked exhausted, and there were fine lines around her eyes that hadn't been there before, but her jaw had lost that tight, set look it had worn since that afternoon in Posturri City.
"I'm okay," he told her, and slumped back to sit against the tailgate, blinking hard as the adrenaline started to leave his system. He looked down at his soiled boots, covered in plaster dust and John's vomit. They stank almost as bad as if he'd been on a Wraith ship, where things squelched. "Ugh."
Jennifer's mouth twisted with wry amusement as she followed the direction of his gaze. "I'll get you a new pair once we're home," she said, slumping down to sit next to him and curving her free hand around his so that they were palm to warm palm, fingers interlaced. Ronon exhaled because they were closer to home now than they'd been before—the buildings of Brunnum rising up rapidly before them, first safe harbour on their journey home.
It was still winter, and it was still cold. The rain stung as it fell against Ronon's upturned face, running down beneath the collar of his coat to trace along his spine, and when he turned to see her walking out of the infirmary, it plastered Jennifer's hair to her skull in thick locks of dull brown. She stood next to him, arms folded, and for a moment she seemed content to do nothing more than what he did: to look out at the rain falling over the town, to watch people hurrying back and forth on errands and army business before the deepening evening cold transformed the rain into treacherous ice on the ground.
"They're all doing better," Jennifer said eventually. "I passed on a sample of the drugs to some of the other doctors, gave them something to work from when they're examining the Oligarchs. I don't think any of them will suffer long-term systemic toxicity, but it's hard to be sure—and Dr Beckett might have had the experience to tell, but without access to a fuller range of tests, I don't know that the drugs won't have some kind of reaction with the traces of Wraith enzyme that have lingered in Rodney and Teyla's systems."
Jennifer looked as tired as he felt, dark purple circles like fingerprint bruises beneath her eyes, but she was smiling. "Judging by his vitals, I think the Colonel will probably wake up first; probably be up out of bed first, too, even though he shouldn't be." Her eyebrows quirked upwards with amused disapproval. "Teyla's sleeping better, and now that Rodney's pulse rate is back to normal and I've got him on some anti-inflammatories, I'm not so worried about the risk of pericardial effusion."
"Good," Ronon said, and each exhale of his today was easier, better, knowing that his family was back with him, knowing that they were safe.
"I just wanted to," Jennifer began, and then stopped, making a low noise of frustration in the back of her throat. "I wanted to say that I—oh, screw it," and then she was grabbing him by the lapels of his coat, by his hair, tugging him down to her mouth even while she stood on tiptoe, and she kissed him. At first Ronon wasn't quite sure what this meant for Jennifer—people from Earth could be weird about this kind of thing, would think it weird to kiss when Ronon thought it perfectly natural or want to have sex at times when he thought it was completely inappropriate—and the two of them had been dancing around this thing between them for so long that for a long moment he didn't know if this was relief or desire on her part. He still didn't know if what she wanted was him.
But then she whispered Ronon against his mouth, and the palms of her hands were hot against his skin, and the feel of her chapped lips against his while she kissed him with single-minded intensity made his toes curl inside the stiff leather of his brand-new pair of regulation Posturri army boots, and he knew. Ronon opened his mouth and let her kiss him, and then he kissed her back, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her flush against him. He wondered, idly, if she could feel his pulse against her fingertips—if she could sense how this proximity to her, long desired and almost as long despaired of, made a syncopated rhythm of his heart; if she understood just why he was smiling against her mouth.
"So," she said when she pulled back. Jennifer's cheeks were flushed and she was pointedly looking at the muddy ground, at the grey skies and busy street, anywhere except at Ronon. "That was—I mean—"
"Jennifer?" Ronon said, as softly as he knew how. He tugged gently on the end of one of her braids until he won her attention away from her embarrassment and back to him.
"Stop over-thinking things."
She made a frustrated sound in the back of her throat. "You say that like it's easy," she said accusingly.
"Uh huh," he said, and kissed her again, and wasn't surprised to find out that it was.
When they went back inside, it was to find that the well-ordered peace of a Jennifer Keller-run infirmary had been over-turned. Cestina had gone to report to her superiors not long after they'd arrived in Brunnum, leaving her human cargo to the care of medics and the pock-marked transport parked haphazardly in front of the infirmary, its engine making faint pinging noises as it cooled. She'd anticipated that she'd spend at least the next few hours there, being either debriefed or dressed down, depending on the prevailing mood of the generals, and possibly enduring a trip to the brig while Beswandian and Krithiyah figured out how to resolve matters now that the Oligarchs had been rescued and returned safe from lasting harm. For once, though, Cestina had been wrong, and the pale, scrubbed-wood floors of the infirmary were covered in winter mud that had been tracked in by generals and their aides and a large, anonymous coterie of admins and scribes brandishing clipboards and bundles of paper. Cestina stood in the middle of them, looking mutinous, and the hubbub of clashing voices was loud enough to make Ronon wince.
"What the hell do you think you are doing in my infirmary?" Jennifer said, striding forward to meet them, displaying maybe more of a doctor's unthinking focus than prudence. A couple of the more snot-nosed admins were looking at her as if she'd stepped in something nasty outside; Ronon thought it was kind of hot. "My patients need rest and quiet. Out!"
"Your infirmary?" General Beswandian said coolly. He was portly and elderly, though in his height and his long braid of dark hair and the architecture of his face still traceable under the pouches of fat, Ronon could see the kind of man he must have been once—handsome enough to have been striking, physically powerful enough to have survived this long in an army that could be very unforgiving to failure. "Forgive me, reth-Doctor Keller. From what Major Cestina has been telling us, I had understood that you were not even Posturri—that you had pretended to be our kin in order to steal a place in our army." His tone of voice was very, very mild, even though he was accusing Jennifer of deception, one of the worst insults to make against someone ethnically Merthená—Ronon thought that Weir might have paused to admire his control before attacking him in turn.
Jennifer flushed red, but to her credit, she didn't back down. "I'm the doctor in charge here, so no matter who I am, this is my infirmary. And more to the point, these are my patients, and I'm in charge of their care."
"I'm sure," Beswandian said, "that once they have recovered, our leaders will be very glad to hear that you have been so concerned for their care. That you rescued them from the very brink of death is a testament to your medical skills, however misguided the methods of you and your companions may have been." He nodded at Ronon, as if to include him in his lies, and smiled; Ronon's answering expression was more a baring of his teeth.
Jennifer didn't get it straight away; Ronon could see that in how her brow creased. "But they weren't close to death," she said slowly. "I don't know what the long-term effects of the drug will be on their system, but the Timmian wanted to keep them alive, not kill them."
Beswandian smiled fixedly at her; his dark eyes were unfriendly. "Well, my comrades and I just came to thank you in person for your effort," he said after a moment; Ronon had heard members of the IOA inject levity into their voice more successfully. "I'm sure you'll understand how grateful we are to have our respected Oligarchs returned to us again. Perhaps we will meet again in the future, if you and your companions ever make a return trip to Posturr." He bowed shallowly to her, then turned on his heel and left, the other officers and bureaucrats flowing out in his wake until only Cestina and the still-sleeping patients were left with them.
"Okay," Jennifer said, hands spread wide, "clearly I'm missing something here, because what the hell?"
Ronon watched Cestina's face carefully. "They're going to go ahead with it, aren't they?"
Cestina didn't speak, or even nod, but the look on her face told Ronon everything he needed to know.
"What?" Jennifer said, looking from Ronon to Cestina as she understood what was happening. "But—but we got them back! We got them all back, alive and well. There's no excuse for them to go to war now."
"It's not that simple," Cestina said.
"They're going to kill people for no reason!" Jennifer said. "How is it not simple?"
"They're going to go on planet-wide radio and say that they've carried out a brave rescue mission," Ronon said, still watching Cestina's face closely for reaction and confirmation. "They've recovered the Oligarchs from the clutches of the murderous and traitorous Timmian rebels, just before they were to be executed, and though the Oligarchs are too weak still to speak to their faithful followers, this glorious victory is exactly what should inspire all right-thinking Posturri to wipe out the threat to their way of life once and for all. Am I right?"
Ronon knew just what such a broadcast would sound like—let the form of the words shift the tone of his voice so that he sounded just like one of the newscasters who'd spoken so frequently and so urgently to ordinary Satedans towards the end of the Second Peninsular War. Ronon had grown up listening to broadcasts like that; he remembered sitting by the fire as a seven-year-old, watching the flames and listening to a city-accented voice list out Central Sateda's glorious victory against the separatists. Listening to voices like that was what had urged his cousins Naoall and Heymi to enlist; listening to voices like that was what had gotten them killed, and bought little more than a barren finger of land stretching out into the deep green sea.
Cestina looked stricken, in the real sense of the word—as if she had been hit hard, and all the bones in her face ached with the force of it. If Ronon were less angry right now, if he didn't have to breathe around the tight knot of anger, both old and new, that coiled hard in his chest, he'd feel such sorrow for her loss. "The broadcast's already gone out," she said. "And orders to bring in more draftees as soon as possible—they're going to attack Inimico at first light tomorrow. You'll probably pass the first of the new transport trains on your way back to the city."
"What?" Jennifer unfolded her arms and let them drop to her side. "We're not going anywhere right now—none of these patients can be moved anywhere, not until I'm absolutely certain that their cardiac—"
"You have to go now," Cestina interrupted her. "Right now. When Beswandian told you that he looked forward to seeing you on a return trip to Posturr, what he meant was that you have to get off-world as soon as possible. I've served under the guy for five years, and I know what he's like; I know what he's capable of. Don't flatter yourself that it wouldn't be easy for a sniper to take you out with two bullets—you know too much, and you're off-worlders with no one to back you up right now. All Beswandian or his allies have to do is make their apologies to your leaders and say how sorry they were, but what with the confusion and the cross-fire in the battle…" She threw up her hands, and in their scarred and empty palms Ronon saw desperation and grief—the same things that his own hands had carried with him for seven long years.
Ronon rubbed at his forehead and tried his best to think. Politics weren't his strong point; he could tease apart the nuances in order to understand them, sure, but all the deceit, the deception, it felt unclean, made it feel less like you were dealing with people and more like you were dealing with Wraith. The best thing he could do would be to ignore all that: to focus on what he could do, and on his team, and how he could best get them home. He took a breath. "Have your people taken back the gate yet?"
Cestina shook her head. "But I'd bet that they're planning on attacking the Timmian forces there at the same time they hit Inimico. Symbolism." Her lip curled upwards in a moue of disgust.
"So we have to go right away, but there's nowhere for us to go?" Jennifer said. "How does that general think we're going to get off-world if the gate's being controlled by a group of crazy people with guns?"
"Don't think he's that concerned," Ronon said, folding his arms. "He just wants us out of the way."
"Well, I'd kind of like to be out of the way, but I don't know how I'm going to do that with three unconscious people while trapped between two hostile armies." Jennifer's jaw was set, but from the tight lines around her eyes, Ronon thought she looked as if she were more upset than truly enraged.
"Gonna have to find a way," Ronon told her bluntly, but let the tips of his fingers brushed lightly over the back of Jennifer's hand in a gesture his grandmother had often used to soothe him when he was tired and anxious. He turned to Cestina. "I'll need a day, and a way to get back to the city, that's all."
Cestina made a low noise of frustration in the back of her throat. "Listen, Ronon, I like you guys. I even feel a little bit guilty for what happened to your team, but you're not my first responsibility. I haven't the time; I've got to go out to the front—my own people are out there right now."
Ronon got that; he did. If some Hoffan or Oirawj had come to him when Sateda was falling and tried to plead their own pain, had wanted his help to secure their own safety when he had just watched Melena die, he certainly wouldn't have been able to spare a thought for them, and he didn't even know that he could have reacted with as much control as Cestina was displaying right now. Almost everyone who have lived on Sateda had died, and if the people of Posturr didn't face such an immediate threat, then Ronon knew that there were other kinds of death to be faced—the kind of death that Kell would have brought to Sateda even if the Wraith attack had been diverted, a death of the spirit, a death of who they were. He would have given anything to prevent that, and he knew that Cestina, facing down loyal Posturri and Timmian alike, would do the same. But here he was, with his family defenceless and relying on him, and there was nothing Ronon could say other than, "Please."
Cestina looked at the still bodies lying in beds the length of the infirmary for a long moment, then at Jennifer, then at Ronon. She was weighing something in her mind, that much was clear, though Ronon couldn't tell what way the scales were tipping until she sighed and said, "Okay, I'll arrange some small paperwork mix-up that will have the generals think you're gone. But that'll give you twenty-four hours at the very most to make what arrangements you need to and get out of here. This isn't a big town; you'll be noticed."
"Don't worry," Jennifer said, nodding fervently, "we'll be gone, absolutely."
"Yeah," Ronon said. "Thank you."
Cestina shot him a smile that was cracked and flawed with exhaustion, and Ronon made the gesture that Sheppard had taught him: held out his shooting hand, flat to show that it held no weapons and offered no threat, and waited until Cestina understood, and clasped it in her own. "Thank you," he said again, and she nodded briskly to them both, and left to save as many of her people as she could while Ronon and Jennifer got to work on how to bring their own home.
No matter how much time you spent on the firing range—and the Satedan army made sure you spent a lot of time there—nothing could prepare you for the sound of a real battle—the swift, sharp staccato of bullets and the distant boom of artillery, the occasional thud of a grenade and then the lull before there came the dull grind of machinery pushing forward through the churned-up soil. And layered over all of this, the sound of metal on metal and metal on stone, was the sound of people: orders being yelled out, information relayed in clipped voices that were sometimes half overwhelmed by the noise of gunfire, the screams of the maimed and the dying. There were other things too—sights he couldn't forget, smells, the grit of sandy soil and gun oil beneath his fingernails—but it was the sound that struck Ronon most. It was hard to think with it at first, atonal and arrhythmic, waves of it making his ribcage vibrate and disturbing the beat of his heart, and it was not getting any better now that he was here—trapped on a ridge with hostiles on both sides of them, no way of knowing if back-up was on the way, and his commanding officer lying dead at his feet. Commander Rakahr's death had been quick, as these things went, but there had still been a lot of blood, and the knees of Ronon's trousers were soaked in it.
There was a loud explosion from the northwest, and Ronon raised his head just enough to see what had gone up—an outcropping of wall that had been there five minutes before was gone, the ruins of the Ancestors no match for Tikdedu explosives—and cursed for the hundredth time the government which had seen fit to send him and his people here, to a backwater moon to fight for technology that no one could use, to sacrifice good soldiers for abstracts like honour and bravado. Ronon's commanding officer was dead, he was in charge now, his platoon was coming under heavy fire, and he hadn't a clue what to do next. His mouth was dry, and he was glad his hands were clamped around his gun because there was a shake to them that betrayed that he wasn't a battle-hardened veteran: this was his first assignment, fresh out of the academy, and he'd never seen the abstract turn real like this before. People were dying, and now it was his responsibility to see that they live.
Ara was lying to his right; Hemi was to his left, relaying whatever patchy information she was still receiving over her comm piece. "At least an hour before Fourth and Fifth Squads get here," she yelled into his ear. "They're down to three-quarters strength. Tikdedu forces have sustained significant casualties, but they've gained control of the most of the ruins and have the upper ground. I've informed command about Rakahr. They want to know if you can complete the attack, or if you want to fall back, sir."
No one had ever called Ronon 'sir' before; no one had ever asked him to make this kind of decision. Somewhere behind them was the rest of his squad, waiting for him to tell them what to do, and the order that he gave right now would decide whether or not many of them would live or die. Ronon closed his eyes for a moment and mentally reviewed statistics and battle plans: the total strength of Satedan forces and how many more they could bank on coming through the Ring; estimated Tikdedu forces and how many more they might have in the spaceships hanging invisibly in the pale red sky; the layout of the compound and what it might mean for Sateda to have this expeditionary force fail. He weighed the chances of a rout if they turned tail and fled against his faith in what his people could do, and made his decision, took a breath and opened his eyes.
"Specialist Loc," he told Hemi, clearing his throat. He'd heard Rakahr give reports before, brief formal updates to whatever tech had been assigned their platoon's communications back in base camp, but he had no idea if he would be able to achieve Rakahr's crisp professionalism. "Advise command that we can hold the ridge for the next hour, but request that back-up arrives before we launch the attack on the compound. Request extra supplies of plastic explosives and ammunition, and inform them that it is my opinion that the compound can be taken from the east if back-up arrives as soon as possible."
"Understood, sir," Hemi said, and she shot him a quick grin before she tapped on her comm device and started to relay the message in the coded dialect of Ancient Eastern Satedan that was used for all official communications. Maybe, Ronon had thought, she was as surprised as he was that his voice hadn't broken while he was speaking.
They captured the compound, and agreed a treaty with the Tikdedu that shared the technology between them. The Chieftain and his council declared the campaign a success for all Satedans. Ronon didn't know if he could count the three days he'd spent on that moon as a success or not, but he brought nearly all his people back home safe, and he'd learned the true cost of loyalty—not on his own part, but on the behalf of those who had listened to his shouted orders and followed them without question.
Ronon made sure Rakahr's body was brought back to Sateda for cremation. He attended the ceremony, too, watching from the other side of the temple compound as the flames first licked tentatively at the wood before seizing hold so violently that the fire seemed like a thing alive, with a voice that roared in Ronon's ears. It was a proper soldier's funeral, and before Ronon left, he cut off one of his locks close to the scalp and threw it into the fire, murmuring a wish for Rakahr's safe passage home; the man deserved that much.
His field promotion was only made official several weeks before the fall of Sateda, thanks to the impossibly slow process of verification and paperwork; between the time he brought his people home and that last battle, Ronon got better at leading, but he never found it easy. The one good thing about being a Runner was that Ronon had had only one responsibility—apart from the few times he had been stupid or desperate enough to seek out a settlement, the only person depending on the consequences of his decisions was himself. Coming to Atlantis, being on a team again, being part of a community—that had required he find a measure of trust in who he was that he'd almost forgotten he was capable of—and Atlantis, Sateda, Posturr, Earth, every world he'd walked on had made him all the more glad that there were people willing to command. Teyla and Sheppard, Carter and Weir and Cestina: they knew the cost and they knew their own flaws and they went back for their people anyway.
Jennifer handed the Oligarchs over to the care of the three medics who had been hovering anxiously in the corridor outside since the generals had left. Despite the fact that most of them were elderly, she told Ronon, she wasn't overly worried about them waking up—it was just a matter of when. She explained to the medics with calm efficiency what she wanted them to do, went through ideal pulse rates and breaths per minute and the slight chance of hypoxia, before leaving them to work on the Oligarchs and dragging Ronon over to help with their team.
"Colonel Sheppard's already come around once," Jennifer said, "which is what I would have expected—his metabolism is still fast for a man of his age, and he hasn't previously had the enzyme in his system. We're just going to have to… provide the impetus for him to come around again." She sounded far too chirpy, as if she was fighting to reassure herself about what they were doing.
"Which means?" Ronon said, squinting at her.
"I am going to shine a very bright light in his face and you're going to yell at him and slap him pretty hard." Jennifer held up a flashlight in one hand, but was determinedly not looking Ronon in the eye.
"Slap him." Ronon felt his eyebrows go up. "Doesn't sound very medical."
"It's not very technological, maybe, but it should work. They're not in a sedative-induced coma, just kept in a state of profound, non-REM sleep by an artificial hormone that I think works something like melatonin."
"Naturally produced, melatonin is the hormone in your system that makes you sleepy. Bright lights counteract melatonin in your system, sending your brain the signal that it's time to wake you up. The slapping is just going to… assist."
Ronon snorted. "Bright lights aren't gonna work on McKay."
"Yeah," Jennifer said, looking amused, "I vaguely remember. That's why we're starting with the Colonel."
Sheppard was a notoriously light sleeper, but it still took about five minutes of shining the flashlight full force in Sheppard's face and calling his name before his eyelids started to twitch, and one good backhand from Ronon across his jaw before Sheppard's eyes opened and he croaked out, "Son of a bitch."
"Oh, thank god," Jennifer said, eyes wide with relief, and hurried to the neighbouring bed to shine the light in Teyla's face and try to shake her awake.
"Hey, buddy." Ronon punched John gently on the shoulder. "How you feeling?"
John reached up with an unsteady hand and rubbed at his jaw. "Last time I had a hangover this bad was when I woke up outside Osan Air Base with noodles in my hair and a tattoo on my ass. What the hell happened?"
Ronon shrugged. "Attacked, kidnapped, injected with Wraith drugs," he summarised. "We got you out, but I had to hit you to make you wake up."
John let his head fall back against the pillow. "What day is it?"
"Earth calendar?" Ronon closed his eyes for a moment and calculated, trying his best to match it with the rhythm of Lantean days and the number of nights they'd spent on Posturr. "Monday, " was his best guess.
"Figures," John mumbled. "This shit nearly always happens a Monday. You get Teyla and Rodney out okay?"
From the next bed, Ronon heard Teyla say, "I am well, John"; from a little further away came the sound of Rodney, high-pitched and irritated, asking if Jennifer was trying to emulate Carson's less-than-stellar bedside manner.
"Great," John said. "The gang's all back together. So you mind telling me what the hell is going on here, the complete version?"
"Long story," Ronon said, and he knew he was grinning like an idiot, but he couldn't help it—things might be bad, but he and his team had gotten through worse before.
"Yeah, well," John said, struggling to sit upright and flopping back against the pillows with a frustrated grunt when he realised that was still a little beyond him, "I think you'll be able to tell it by the time we're up and ready."
Ronon thought he'd done a pretty good job of summarising it already, but he went through it once more, ticking it off on his fingers as he went. "Posturri government got attacked by some rebels. Oligarchs and you guys were captured as collateral, brought back to their headquarters, kept sedated. Me and Jennifer went in after you, with Major Cestina—you remember her?"
John and Teyla—who had managed to sit up on the edge of her bed by now—nodded.
"Sneaked in, got you out, came back here to the Posturri army camp. Army brass is trying to use the kidnapping to force a war and a military coup. And you puked on my shoes," Ronon told John, raising an eyebrow.
John didn't have the grace to look very embarrassed. "Sorry about that, buddy," he said, blithely, before raising his own eyebrows in turn. "That why you hit me?"
Jennifer shook her head. "When Ronon says you guys were sedated, what he means is that the Timmian—the faction who took you—have been experimenting with drugs derived from Wraith hormones. They've managed to modify the same substance that the Wraith use to, uh, to… to store people, to keep you unconscious."
"Like the enzyme?" Rodney yelped. He looked almost green, his mouth turned down at the corners, and neither Teyla nor John looked much better. Teyla held out her hands to look at the palms, and she had confided fragments of her nightmares to Ronon enough times that he could guess what she was looking for—slits in the skin there that would mean that she hadn't really won he way free from Michael after all; that control of her body had been taken from her again. Her hands trembled before they curled into fists, and Ronon was glad when Rodney managed to haul himself out of his bed and move to stand beside her on unsteady feet.
"No, I think it's derived from something different—something without lasting side effects," Jennifer said, pushing a stray braid of hair behind her ears, "though of course I can't be certain until I get you all back to Atlantis and run some tests."
"Atlantis," Teyla said, as close to blurting something out as she ever came; Ronon guessed that she had seized on the thought of home—of Torren. "Is there any news from them? Why have they not sent back-up?"
"The Timmian took the stargate," Ronon explained. He snagged a chair and sat down on it, turning it so that he could fold his arms on the back of it. "Cestina reported that they've got it covered with some kind of shield. We can't dial out, and I don't think anyone from the other side can dial in. Figured it was better to come get you guys than waste time trying to get out. Been a few days, though—Zelenka and Woolsey'll be working on something."
"Grateful as I am that you got us out of that hell-hole," Rodney said, "can I please just take a moment to point out that I'm not entirely enthused that we have to rely on the Bobbsey Twins to find a way of working around a unknown block on a stargate that is—where the hell are we, anyway? The odour of animal droppings doesn't exactly help me narrow it down to less than, oh, half this galaxy." His voice had only half its usual snip though, and Ronon could see the way he was looking at John; the way his right hand was twined with Teyla's left on top of the blankets.
"Couple days' travel from the city," Ronon said. "Hour and a half, maybe, in a jumper."
"Which of course, we don't have. Wonderful. Right, well. Let's make a start on getting back then, shall we?" Rodney clapped his hands together. "The sooner I get coffee back in my system, the quicker I can flush this Wraith crap out of it."
"Rodney—" Jennifer started, at the same time that John said, "McKay."
"Oh, what? What? Is anyone seriously going to argue with me and say that it is not in our best interest to get back to Atlantis as soon as possible? Hmm?"
"As your medical doctor, Rodney, I can't let you travel anywhere without making sure that you're fit to do so, and that it's going to be in a safe manner," Jennifer said, her words almost drowned out by John's clipped, "Because we are not going anywhere until we've done as much as we can to help the Posturri get back at these sons of bitches." John's jaw was as set as Rodney's, and Jennifer looked as if she was close to screaming with sheer exasperation.
Ronon risked a small smile at Teyla. She rolled her eyes, which meant that she was amused as he was. "Sheppard," he said, just to test where John was going with this, "you did hear that guy give us a day to get off-world?"
"Yeah," John said, swinging his feet off the edge of the bed; his bony, bare feet looked strangely pale and vulnerable. "I heard how he was a dick."
"John," Teyla chided softly.
He flapped a hand at her. "I've got idiots on one side of me kidnapping me and my people and pumping us full of stuff that'd make Nancy Reagan's head spin, and assholes on the other trying to manipulate what happened to us because of politics, and I don't know if you've noticed but I'm generally not cool with that."
"Yeah, couple of times," Ronon said wryly, and was rewarded when John snorted softly and let his shoulders relax just a little.
"I must confess," Teyla said, "I am not comfortable with how we have been used as an excuse to create conflict among these people." She looked less uncomfortable, and more furious; probably, by the set of her jaw, as angry as John was. "Or how they have forced us into a… I forget the term?" she said, turning to Rodney.
"A Catch-22," Rodney told her, before clarifying when he saw Ronon's blank look, "A situation where you have the illusion of choice, but really? Not so much. No way for us to get off Posturr when the gate's controlled by hostile forces, no way for us to stop what's going on either, not when faced with two full armies."
"We could try to get back to Atlantis," Jennifer pointed out. She moved to stand beside Ronon; he let himself lean into the warmth of her body, just a little, grateful for how that made him feel just a little more rested. When John noticed and smirked at Ronon, Ronon stared back at him until John had the grace to look a little shame-faced. "If Dr Zelenka or Dr Kusanagi have managed to come up with something; or maybe send a transmission? I've got a stockpile of emergency supplies in the infirmary, people who are trained in dealing with disaster situations; we could help."
"Yeah," John said standing up, "but the thing is that I'd prefer to not have the disaster situation in the first place, and I'd like it if we could do whatever we can to stop it from happening."
Jennifer folded her arms. "I'm sorry, Colonel, but I don't see how we can—or should—presume to interfere in what's going on here. We don't know better than the Posturri how to best stop what's going on."
"Maybe not," John said, placing his hands on his hips, "but we can sure as hell help them call a halt to this first round of bullshit."
"Perhaps," Teyla said, her tone just forceful enough to make John quieten, one which bore—for Ronon—way too weird a resemblance to the one she used when she was disciplining Torren, "rather than attempting to become involved in their battle, or presenting them with supplies which may not be wanted, it might be best to ask the Posturri if they would like our assistance in whatever matter they see fit?"
"Sounds reasonable," Ronon said, trying not to grin at how Jennifer flushed and John rubbed at the back of his neck. He stood up. "You think I should go find Cestina?"
"That might be best," Teyla said. "She has always seemed like a very competent officer. I am sure she would welcome our assistance in helping her people."
"And we do owe her for all the help she's given us," Jennifer pointed out. "There's no way we could have gotten you guys out if it hadn't been for her."
"Hey," Ronon said, "I think we could've done it," but subsided into mumbling when Jennifer glared at him. Okay, maybe they couldn't have. And maybe, no matter what else happened, when they got back to Atlantis, Ronon thought, he would cut off a lock of his hair and cast it into the sea in Cestina's honour.
Jennifer joined Ronon outside while the others were cleaning up and changing into clothes that weren't stiff with week-old sweat. "I just, uh…" She wrapped her arms around herself and shifted her weight from one foot to the other—probably struggling against the same sense of shock Ronon had felt when he'd first stepped out of the heated infirmary into the chill blast of the winter wind. He'd bet that the flush on her cheeks wasn't caused by the cold. "Thought it was best to leave them to get washed up in privacy."
Ronon smirked. He knew what the other three were like when they were exhausted and stressed out and had been apart from one another for too long. "They getting all touchy-feely?"
"Oh my god, yes," Jennifer blurted out. "I didn't know they were all… and like, polyamory, fine, whatever, but it was like being in the same room as a six-armed touch-starved octopus."
"Hey, you try being stuck in a puddlejumper with them for eight hours." The other three hadn't been together that long—couple months, maybe; they would have welcomed Ronon in too, and there had been that one time with John and the blowjobs, but it had already been only Jennifer for Ronon—but there'd been a couple of occasions on lengthy trips where Ronon had had to borrow Sheppard's headphones, for the sake of his sanity.
"I will try not to imagine," Jennifer said, mouth twisted in wry amusement. "So. What are we going to do?"
Ronon scratched at his cheek. "About what? We've got a couple of different problems right now."
"Yeah, I just…" Jennifer paused and bit her lip and then blurted out, "I'm sorry, it's just that I've nearly always had people to protect me from the violent side of things before. I've never been here before, and I don't think I ever really got just how difficult it is to do it for yourself—to try and figure out what the best thing to do is."
"Hey," Ronon said, and reached out to cup her cheek in his hand. There were dark circles under her eyes fit to match his own, and she leaned into his touch as if she was running low on the energy needed just to keep herself upright. Ronon had had days like that, especially back when he first began to Run—when you didn't know if you'd see the next sunrise because you didn't know if you could trust yourself. "We'll be okay," he told her and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek.
"Okay," she whispered, and turned her head to meet his mouth. This kiss didn't have the heat of the one a short hour ago; this one was slow and sweet and almost chaste; but Ronon was glad that he could give and receive such simple comfort in the middle of a winter's day. He'd gone such a long time without being able to do that, and it was strange to realised you missed something only after you'd gotten it back—strange how he'd adjusted to wanting her without truly being aware of how much. Strange, too, that it could spark off so much adrenaline in his veins—and oh, he realised, maybe there was something more to all this, something lasting. Maybe where Jennifer was concerned, his heart was in real trouble.
They were still kissing when the door banged open and Ronon looked up, startled, to see the others walk through, Rodney in the lead. "Oh, for the love of—could you two not get a room?" he said when he saw them, rolling his eyes. "There is such a thing as appropriate behaviour in public, you know. Now come on, mush mush, we've got a military coup to neutralise."
"Never heard of irony, has he?" Ronon asked Sheppard, who had the good grace to redden. Teyla, however, just looked smug, and Jennifer pressed her face against Ronon's shoulder while she laughed.
McKay, being McKay, grumbled the entire time it took them to get to Fifth Squadron's Command Headquarters, which was Ronon's best guess for where Cestina and her group might be. "There is mud everywhere. Of course there's mud everywhere. Haven't these people ever heard of the joys of paving? Cobblestones? Asphalt?"
"You want to walk back to the city?" Ronon asked him, wearing his best McKay-wrangling face. Rodney stared at him for a moment before ducking his head and saying that no, no, he supposed this would be fine.
Amid the hubbub of preparation for battle—distantly, Ronon could already hear the sounds of the first artillery guns breaking open the still air of the plains; it made his skin grow tight with memories of Sateda—no one took much notice of them heading across Brunnum's centre, though they must have stood out. Ronon and Jennifer were both still in proper Posturri uniforms, but the clean clothes that the infirmary staff had found for the others were worn and mismatched. Teyla's, in particular, had obviously been tailored for a much taller person; she had had to roll up the sleeves of her coat and tuck the ends of her trousers into her boots, but there was little she could do to stop the ends of the coat from trailing in the mud.
Ronon slowed his pace and dropped back to talk with Teyla, letting Jennifer and John take the lead. When he looked down at her, he saw that she still seemed half-asleep; her face was pinched and pale, and despite her coat her arms were wrapped tightly around her middle, as if she were cold. Ronon put a hand briefly on her shoulder. Teyla looked up at him and smiled, but didn't protest the gesture, which told Ronon that she must be even more tired than she looked. "You need anything?" he asked her.
Teyla pulled her coat more tightly around her and sighed. "I think I would be most grateful to see Torren again. And also for a long, hot shower, my bed, and a marathon session of The Ancestors Also Cry."
"I'll never understand why you're so into that show," Ronon said, stepping around a mud puddle that looked deep enough to make even him stumble. Teyla was addicted to the show as half of the Ring worlds were, and she was slowly getting most of Atlantis' population hooked. Even Woolsey watched it, though when Ronon had caught him viewing an episode of it on his laptop one day, Woolsey had blustered his way through some excuse about how it was helping him understand Pegasus' social mores.
Ronon personally thought it would take a lot more than fifty minutes of content that had made Sheppard say 'Whoa!' while his eyebrows skittered towards his hairline the first time he saw it to make Woolsey understand an entire galaxy's worth of people.
"I find Kalax and Merehn's relationship to be very… engaging," Teyla said, cheeks dimpling. "And it has won several awards!"
"You think that girl playing Kalax is hot," Ronon said, smirking, "which is why you ignore the fact that she's had a long-lost murderous identical twin."
"I will not dignify such assertions with a response, Ronon Dex," Teyla protested, but there was some spark in her eyes now, and a smile lingered on her face.
There was an admin standing in front of the Squad Headquarters, clipboard in hand—the kind of person who would ordinarily be ticking off the names of those who entered and left the building on a list, but who was now so distracted by whatever news he was hearing over the portable radio he was holding up to his ear that he waved them through without much more than a quick glance. "Everyone's getting nervous," Ronon murmured to Jennifer, stooping to avoid knocking his head against the low lintel.
"I don't blame 'em," she replied. "That last round of fire was awfully close."
"Can't be more than a few miles away," John agreed, just as they stepped into the building's main room—once it had served as Brunnum's first schoolroom, where children in red tunics had sat and learned to write and figure, the same as kids back in the capital. With all the kids gone south, this long, whitewashed room was home to Major Cestina and those in her command. The room's tables had been pushed together to provide a work surface that, though too low to allow anyone full-grown to sit at them, was still large enough to allow ample room for the reams of paper that Posturri bureaucracy seemed to demand. The walls' decorations had also been altered, with children's finger paintings covered over by maps of the local area.
Cestina was in the heart of it all, arguing in low but persistent tones with a tall, solid-looking man who wore, like Ronon, the green and grey of a sniper. Ronon couldn't remember his name, but he was pretty sure that the man was a second or third in command of Cestina's—not high up enough in the hierarchy to have much influence of his own, but who had advanced sufficiently to make clear that Cestina valued his opinions.
Neither of them looked very happy with one another just now, though the sound of their conversation was drowned out by a tech who was announcing to the room the troop movements he was hearing over the comm device in his ear. "Fourth Company has advanced to Messidates Esker," the tech said. "They're pinned down behind the buildings there." Ronon thought he knew where that was—a wooden farmhouse and a cluster of barns, nestled on a long, winding ridge of land about halfway between here and Inimico; he knew he was right when another tech moved a small yellow flag pin northward on a map that hung on the wall. It was one of the few that had gained that much ground, and it looked more than a little out of place amongst all the blue Timmian dots.
She looked up when Ronon cleared his throat, and if she was probably too close to full-blown exhaustion for her face to express real surprise, then her eyebrows still rose and the corner of her mouth curled wryly. "Specialist Dex," she said, "I thought you'd be on your way back to the city by now."
"Major Cestina," he acknowledged her with mock-formality. "You remember Colonel Sheppard, Teyla Emmagan, Dr. Rodney McKay."
Cestina nodded at them. "The names do seem somewhat familiar," she said in a voice tinged with dry irony. "I'm glad to see that you're all doing better." She gestured for them to sit at a cluster of chairs set around a small table on the low dais that must once have been the teacher's. Where there had once been books and papers and pots of ink was now a motley collection of candle stubs, broken bits of charcoal and enough assorted small weaponry to keep even Sheppard feeling happy.
"Well, Ronon," she said once they were all seated, "I presume this is the part where you tell me why you've decided on doing things the hard way once again?"
Rodney's snort was cut short when Teyla kicked him in the ankle.
"Yeah," Ronon said, mouth twitching with amusement, "something like that."
"I think," Teyla said smoothly, and it was only because Ronon knew her so well that he could see the slight hint of tension in the set of her shoulders, the frustration that came from being a trained diplomat and part of a team who so frequently refused to be anything like diplomatic, "that first I should say that I—and Colonel Sheppard, and Dr McKay—owe you our thanks and our gratitude for your part in rescuing us. We appreciate you risking so much for the sake of those who are strangers to you, especially when you have so many other serious concerns occupying your time."
"Yes," Rodney said, fidgeting, "what Teyla said," and John offered Cestina his best grin. There was a reason why the team had an unspoken policy of normally leaving the talking side of things to Teyla. Teyla's smile became just a fraction more fixed, and Ronon was sure that when they got back to Atlantis, she was either going to bring them all to the gym and hit them with sticks, or make them sit through yet another refresher lecture on why diplomacy mattered. Or maybe she'd just settle for making cutting comments while hitting them with sticks. Ronon had way too much experience with that.
Cestina inclined her head in a Posturri gesture of respect. "What happened to your team happened on my watch, Speaker Emmagan. Not to help would have been a failure of my role." Ronon understood the nuances of that: on Posturr, with its traditional castes and its hierarchy, your role was your duty, was your self. For Cestina not to have ensured the safety and the rescue of people she considered guests of her people would have been a very personal failure. Ronon understood how that felt, too, and he couldn't stop himself from glancing over at all of them—Jennifer and John, Rodney and Teyla—reminding himself once again that they were all safe and that he could breathe. It was always harder to breathe after days like today.
"And we greatly appreciate how well you carried out your responsibilities," Teyla said, the slant of her smile angled at just the right point between acquaintance and friendship. Anyone else might have looked ridiculous, trading polite nothings while wearing a coat three sizes too big for her, but not Teyla, and Ronon felt oddly proud of that. "Which is why we came to see you. While we appreciate General Beswandian's… generous best wishes for a speedy return to our home, we feel it would be remiss of us not to offer some small token of our gratitude for the efforts of you and your staff, by way of recompense."
Cestina arched both eyebrows. "A small token?" She sounded wary, as if the conversation had taken a turn that she hadn't expected, and now she was afraid of a misstep.
Teyla nodded. "Ourselves," she said simply.
Cestina blinked; Ronon thought this was the first time he had ever seen her nonplussed. "I'm afraid I don't follow."
"If you need us," Ronon answered, leaning forward and bracing his forearms against his thighs, "we can help."
"We all have some experience of combat—John and I have both led groups, and Ronon is a skilled tracker," Teyla clarified. "Rodney here is quite adept at the use and repair of many forms of technology, and as I'm sure you have seen, Jennifer is a highly-trained doctor. Should you need any of our skills to help you in your… efforts"—she was very careful, Ronon noted, not to state explicitly that what Cestina was aiming to do and what the army command wanted to do were two very different things—"we would be more than happy to place them at your disposal."
Cestina took a breath. She still seemed wary, and her gaze took in each of their faces in turn. Ronon couldn't blame her for not wanting to take them up on it straight away; he'd probably have been the same if he were in her shoes. She had a lot to cope with right now, had had a lot of betrayal to face over the past few days, and she didn't know these people the way Ronon did—didn't know the bravery all four of them were capable of, the ingenuity and the loyalty. "Well," she said after a long moment, "that's an interesting offer."
Out of the corner of his eye, Ronon could see Sheppard shrug. "Hey, you don't have to accept it. But if you could use an extra few pairs of hands around here, well, we also have kind of a vested interest in kicking the shit out of these guys."
Cestina looked more than amused by that than anything else; not a bad approach to take with John. "My vested interest, Colonel Sheppard, is in ensuring the safety of the Posturri people. If you are willing to help with that, well, I would be glad of it."
"Great," Ronon said, leaning back in his chair. "So what do you want us to do?"
It turned out that Cestina wanted them to wait. Ronon wasn't happy with that—times like these, what he wanted more than anything was to stay moving, to help—but he knew that there really wasn't any way that they could help yet. Cestina seemed to have won whatever argument she was having with her second-in-command, and now she was standing in front of the bulky central comm station, listening to incoming reports from the battlefield at the same time that she was trying to sound out some of the other commanders in battle, to see which of them would go with the generals if pushed and who would stay loyal to the Oligarchs. Her ultimate plan, she'd told them, was to have enough soldiers willing to hold off those loyal to the generals while she and some others fell back to Posturri City with the Oligarchs—the Oligarchs may have had no more sway there than they did anywhere else on Posturr, but the military was a whole lot less popular. It was the best place any of them could think of to make a stand.
McKay was the only one of them who'd found a way to keep himself active and distracted. He'd berated one of the comm techs until the kid had turned his tool kit over to Rodney—the tech had protested that Rodney was an off-worlder, not a member of the sekthri caste, but Rodney had just rolled his eyes and said that he'd faced down unionised workers in Chicago before and won, and why the hell did he think that Rodney would back down just because some pimply-faced kid said his surname didn't allow it? Ronon almost felt sorry for the tech, who had gone pink in the face and was swallowing so hard that his Adam's apple bobbed, but Rodney didn't seem to notice the kid's discomfort. He was on his knees in front of the comm console, face and hands buried in the machine's innards, and from this far away, all Ronon could make out of McKay's mumbling was that he was trying to boost and improve both incoming and outgoing signals.
"Yes," Ronon heard Cestina say, "I'm telling you that… no, we can't wait to take action. It has to be now." He was impressed with how level her voice was; the only sign of her tension was in the way her hands fisted and flexed convulsively, over and over, as she paced back and forth with the earphones pressed to her ears. If she hadn't been destined to be a soldier, he thought, she might have made as good a diplomat as Teyla. "Then let me ask you this—what do you think will happen, Meisahn, when you do get over that hill?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Ronon could see Jennifer sigh. "I never thought there was a time when I'd miss that viewscreen in the gate room—I want to know what's going on."
"Never thought there was a time that I'd miss CNN," Sheppard muttered, and Ronon turned to see John and Jennifer look at one another and snort.
"Please stop talking now," Teyla told them in a level tone, and so when Cestina flung down her headset in frustration, they all presented her with reasonably composed faces.
Ronon raised an eyebrow. "They sticking with the generals?"
Cestina shook her head. Her gaze was fixed on the floor, though Ronon would have bet good money that she wasn't seeing it right now; she was seeing something else, weighing the costs, pondering the ifs and the hows. "Some. They're not convinced. More would stand with me, but the fighting is too fierce right now—there's no way the Timmian are going to agree to a ceasefire, not only a few hours after we attacked them, and not when they're fighting so strongly."
"Your people in trouble?" Ronon asked.
"Not yet," Cestina said, grudgingly, which was all they needed to hear. The Posturri army might win in the battle in the end—probably would, Ronon estimated, given their superior firepower and resources—but it would be a scrappy, dirty victory, and given how thoroughly the Timmian had dug into the hilly hinterland, there was no guarantee that the Posturri would win the war. There was no guarantee that there would be enough like-minded people left standing at the end to help Cestina formulate some kind of resistance to what the generals' cabal was planning.
Ronon looked back at Sheppard. Sheppard tilted his head to one side, shrugged his shoulders just a little, wrinkled his nose—probably won't be able to organise a counter-coup, he meant; still have to do something. Ronon thought the same, and he turned back to Cestina. "So. What now?"
Cestina scratched at the nape of her neck; she pursed her lips, clearly exasperated. "Can't rely on support so there's no way we'll be able to get back to the city. We'll need the Oligarchs there; if we can't get people to rally around them. But I can't think…"
Next to him, Jennifer shifted suddenly in her seat, and Ronon thought for a moment that she was going to raise her hand before she spoke. She looked around at them all and then said, "I, uh. I have an idea, I think?"
No one had paid much attention to them when they were heading from the infirmary to Cestina's headquarters, but they definitely attracted more than one person's attention on the way back—if only because of the determined way Cestina was marching along at the head of their group, Jennifer walking beside her, explaining things with quick flying hands and quicker words. Ronon walked behind them with the others—John and Teyla and Rodney, one or two of Cestina's most trusted subordinates—his boots squelching and slurping their way through the thickening, freezing mud. He didn't think that any of the looks they got were hostile, or overly interested, but with Beswandian and the other generals trying to get any possible threat to them out of the way, Ronon didn't think they could afford to take any chances. He lengthened his strides.
"You think this is going to work?" John asked Ronon under his breath. Ronon looked down to see John pull his left boot from a particularly deep mud puddle with an expression of deep distaste on his face; pity he hadn't thought that earlier, before he'd puked on Ronon's. "Kind of a long shot."
Ronon shrugged. "If anyone can do it, Jennifer can," he said simply.
"It's not her I'm worried about," John said. "I'm worried about all the rest of it. It's still Monday."
"The only day that's worse," Rodney said gloomily, trudging past them, "is a Thursday."
Ronon raised his eyebrows at John, but John just made a face. Ronon decided that, as Weir had been so fond of saying, not asking was the better part of valour.
They clattered up the steps into the infirmary, Cestina and Jennifer still in the lead, and pushed through the swing doors into the main ward to find that though there was a small, nervous-looking cluster of medics and nurses talking in low voices about what they should do next, none of the generals had tried to make a move to dispose of the Oligarchs just yet. All twelve of them were still lying, quiet and unmoving and undisturbed, in the twin rows of beds, and that was good—that gave them time and something to work with.
"Out," Cestina told the medics, and then made shooing motions with her hands when they stood there, looking at her indecisively. Didn't have a clue what was going on, Ronon thought, which was another plus—wasn't likely that the first people they'd go running to would be Beswandian and his allies—as was the fact that they were looking at Keller as if she might be able to make sense of the fact that most of their planetary government had just turned up semi-comatose in an infirmary on the edge of a battlefield. "Am I not making myself clear? Shoo!"
"Uh," one of them said, Adam's apple bobbing nervously, raising his voice just enough so that it could be heard over the boom of artillery in the distance. "Physician Keller?"
Jennifer smiled at him. "It's fine, Peisin. Major Cestina and I just need to do, um. Well, it's classified, really, so if you guys could just wait outside for a moment we would really appreciate it."
"I don't know if that's such a good idea," Peisin said warily. "I think it'd be best if some of us stayed to help you—I've been monitoring their vital signs, and I'm a little worried that—" He was brave, Ronon had to give him that, and loyal, even if he was also showing signs of a tendency towards a possibly fatal stupidity. Ronon leaned against the wall nearest the door and folded his arms. It'd be best if this was done quietly; he just hoped that Jennifer could manage it.
"We'll be fine," Jennifer said gently while she herded them through the door with a skill Ronon had watched her hone since she'd become Chief Medical Officer and had had to learn how to deal with the infamously contrary staff of the Lantean genetics and medical research labs. "It's just a little thing—politics, red tape, you know—won't take more than a few minutes. Why don't you guys go and grab some dinner? I know you all must be hungry, and I bet this is a good time to hit the mess hall." She sounded a little nervous, but Ronon hoped that the medics would interpret that as anxiety because there was some hard-ass military officer from the capital here to inspect things, and not because they suspected that the doctor who'd been working alongside them for the past week was actually one of a group of off-worlders conspiring with a faction of the army to make sure that a coup was thwarted.
Ronon didn't like intrigue. It made his head hurt.
Luckily, the smile on Jennifer's face, and the relaxed way John slouched down into a nearby chair, as if he was any old army grunt waiting for his shift to be over, seemed to convince them, and the medics filed out. Peisin was the last of them to leave, reeling off a list of statistics and readings that Jennifer seemed to take in and parse without difficulty. She nodded, and thanked him, and as soon as he was through the door and down the steps, Jennifer locked the door behind him and helped Ronon and John to push a heavy desk up against it. It wouldn't keep anyone really determined out of the infirmary for long, but it would buy them an extra minute or two.
"You sure you can do this?" Cestina asked Jennifer when she straightened up.
"I can try," Jennifer said, "but I can't promise anything." She shot Ronon a weak smile, and when she moved to walk over to the sleeping Oligarchs, he grabbed her hand and squeezed it briefly—there was little other comfort that he could give her right now, but she returned the pressure for a moment and though her posture didn't relax—the line of her back was still too straight, the set of her shoulders too brittle—Jennifer's smile was a little warmer.
They all gathered around at a careful distance while Jennifer talked them through what she was going to do; while she spoke, she readied the syringes and prepped a small tray of instruments whose use Ronon could only guess at. "Before I do this," she told Cestina, making sure that there were no air bubbles trapped in the syringe she was holding, "I have to remind you that there's no surefire guarantee that this will work, that I'm not able to do anywhere near the range of tests I would like to do, and that… well, this could all go horribly wrong."
Cestina blinked at her. "And that would be unlike the rest of today how, exactly?"
"Point," Jennifer said. "Okay, let's start with—"
But when she turned to the beds, it was to see that in the third bed from the left, one of the Oligarchs was struggling to sit up against her pillows. Small and elderly, she looked as if she'd barely had the energy to open her eyes against the force of the hybridised enzyme in her system; where her arms poked out of the sleeves of her tunic, they looked thin and brittle as old sticks, and her braided hair was sparse and greying. When she spoke, however, her voice was deep and resonant and had all the force of someone who was used to being obeyed. "What," she said, "in the name of all the Ancestors copulating is going on here?"
"Ah, Oligarch Tyrenn," Cestina said, in a tone of voice which told Ronon that this wasn't an unexpected mode of communication on Tyrenn's part. "I'm glad to see you back with us."
Tyrenn flopped back against her pillows and narrowed her eyes at Cestina. "Don't try to fob me off, Major. I am not fond of people who try to fob me off."
Ronon grinned to himself. He was pretty sure he liked this woman.
It took them a while to get through even a summarised version of what had happened since the attack on the citadel and the mass kidnapping of the Oligarchs, and they were slowed even further when the Oligarch two beds down from Tyrenn also stirred and woke. Oligarch Heira took a little longer to come around than Tyrenn had done, and though a good two decades younger than her, it also seemed as if the filth the Timmian had pumped through her veins had hit Heira harder. Jennifer was so very careful with Heira at first, so quietly observant, that Ronon thought she feared there might have been cognitive damage. Yet if Heira's eyes were still slow to track Jennifer's fingers, she seemed to be able to comprehend what was being told to her without any difficulty.
"I always knew there was something about Beswandian," she said, rubbing her temples with both hands. "But I never thought he would be so foolish as to—"
"Not foolish," Tyrenn interrupted her, "Greedy. He wants power, his family background means he'll never be promoted to the Oligarchy, and this is the next best thing. He's an ass, but he's not a fool."
Heira said something in response, but her words were drowned out by a whine and thump outside that could only have come from an artillery shell, much closer than it should have been. The glass in the windowpanes rattled, and the look Ronon exchanged with Cestina told him that she feared that was way too close, too. There was a stretch of miles between Brunnum and Inimico, and if Timmian artillery was now close enough to make itself felt in the town centre, then maybe the tide was turning against the Posturri.
Tyrenn sat still and stared out the nearest window for a long moment. Ronon couldn't tell if she was watching the sky, the heads of people hurrying past, or was just lost in thought. For a moment, her hand trembled where it lay on top of the bed sheet, brown against the crisp white linen. Then she stilled it and turned back to them. "Well, Major," she said to Cestina, "how are we going to stop this?"
"We were hoping you could help us, ma'am," Cestina said. She was standing loosely at ease, hands clasped behind her back.
"Oh, you have a plan," Tyrenn said dryly, resting back against her pillows again. "I was beginning to wonder when you'd spring some hare-brained idea on me." Her voice still sounded steady, but in the gathering lines around her mouth and the limp way her hands rested in her lap, Ronon could see that she was tiring quickly. He wondered all over again if they'd be able to pull this off: if the public presence of even two of the Oligarchs would help rein in the army's excesses, would help stop the war that they'd been used as excuses to start, given that neither of them looked like they'd be able to make it out of bed for a while yet.
"If you're willing to work with us, ma'am, we believe we stand a good chance of at least making them reconsider what they're doing."
"Well, that'll be the first time anyone's managed that with Beswandian, then," Tyrenn said tartly.
"Children," Heira murmured, her eyes closed. "They never learn."
"Indeed. Oh well. At least the tall one is pretty," Tyrenn said, peering at Ronon.
John looked vaguely offended, which made Teyla laugh behind her hand. Ronon just grinned.
One of Cestina's aides managed to commandeer a small vehicle from somewhere—"Probably best not to ask, ma'am," he said, when Cestina wondered where he'd found it—and Ronon and Rodney carried the two Oligarchs out to it, both swaddled in blankets against the deepening night-time cold. Rodney complained about his back the whole way until Tyrenn peered at him and said that he reminded her a little bit of her second spouse about the nose. That made Rodney flush a particularly vibrant shade of red, and kept Heira snickering for most of the short ride from the infirmary to the centre of Brunnum.
The vehicle rolled slowly over the frozen ground, letting those of them who didn't fit inside it to keep pace behind it. It was getting late, and the gathering darkness was helping to put an end to hostilities out on the battlefield for the night—however far either side had progressed, that was where they would dig in for a few hours of uneasy rest, until the sun rose above the horizon once more. Ronon was acutely aware that not far to the north of them, hundreds, if not thousands, of unknown soldiers were lying out there—cold and wounded, dying or dead—their blood mixing with the dark Posturri earth. The thought made him feel cold.
The streets around them were mostly emptied of people now—troops gone to the front or catching up on sleep before they were deployed in the morning; support staff unwilling to brave the cold, particularly on streets that had mostly not yet been lit with gas lamps as the bigger cities on Posturr had. The calm let them slip through the streets without anyone noticing that two of the planet's supposedly kidnapped heads of government were being driven around the town by a small group of determined-looking soldiers.
Just before they turned into the main square, Cestina, who had taken point, held up her hand in a silent warning. They halted, and Ronon came up behind her as quietly as he could over the frozen ground, cocking his head at her in silent question. She pointed without speaking at the building located diagonally across the square—two storeys built of cut and dressed stone, a better standard of construction than the slightly haphazard, rushed buildings which made up most of Brunnum—the building where the generals ate and slept, and from where the war was being run. Unlike the rest of the buildings set around the square, there were lamps set at intervals in brackets along its walls on the ground floor, and most of its windows upstairs were lit. The rest of the town may have been trying to get an uneasy night's sleep, but the command staff was still awake. That might make things better for them, Ronon thought. Or worse.
There was movement in the shadows around the headquarters—a definite bad sign; at least four guards, he thought, peering closer, quiet and unobtrusive and good at their work—barely more than a dark suggestion of a figure here and there—but undoubtedly armed. Ronon had his blaster and all of his knives, and even a bit of the leftover plastic explosives hidden in an interior pocket of his coat, but he wasn't sure what weapons the others could call on. Jennifer had a gun and knew how to use it; Cestina was certainly armed, and was a good shot; the two captains she'd brought with her were surely the same. The Oligarchs, however, certainly couldn't be called on to fight, and while John, Rodney and Teyla had recovered from the effects of the sedatives better than Tyrenn and Heira had, the Timmian had probably taken all their weapons from them. John might have had a knife or two hidden on him somewhere, but Ronon doubted it—Teyla had given out to him pretty good the last time he'd tried to hide a knife in his boot and ended up stabbing himself in the heel.
Ronon wouldn't bet against Teyla, at least, being able to take care of herself using nothing more than her bare hands, but given the dangers of what would happen if even one of those guards managed to get away and raise the alarm—of what would happen if they couldn't get into that building—Ronon would much prefer that they went there as armed to the teeth as they could possibly be. He was considering the odds of them just trying their best, storming the building and trying to take it—and if he fell, well, he'd seen more sunrises since he got to Atlantis than he'd ever thought he would, and he'd risked himself before for things of far less worth—when Cestina snapped her fingers under his nose.
He looked down at her, and read the series of gestures she made to him—transport, Jennifer and McKay go to front of building, stall and bluff; rest of around the back, try to take out the guards quietly, get their weapons. Ronon thought for a moment, then nodded. It was the best plan they could come up with right now, given how much time they had and how few resources. Leaving Cestina to keep an eye on the building, he fell back to the others and whispered what they were planning.
John shrugged and nodded. "If you think we should go for it, buddy."
"Best option we have," Ronon said.
"I agree," Teyla said, "but we must be quick. We cannot be certain that this street will remain quiet for much longer."
"I would just like to take a moment to point out that I am, in fact, being used as the sitting duck in this scenario," Rodney said, in a voice that was a whisper in name only. "And if—"
Ronon put a hand over his mouth and let him mumble on in outrage while Ronon asked Jennifer, "You think you can do this?"
"Only one way to find out," she replied. She sounded rueful, but the line of her back was straight and set, and Ronon could tell she was as ready as he was. He stooped to quickly kiss her cheek, and in the moonlight he could just see the pleased curve of her smile before he broke to the left with John and one of Cestina's people; Teyla, Cestina and the others went to the right. In the dark, without the lights of the transport to guide them, the going was tricky; but though Brunnum had been hastily expanded to meet the army's demands, its builders had kept to the traditional regimented layout, and Ronon found his way along the side alley, to the right and to the right again, without any real difficulty.
The back of the headquarters was dimly lit compared to the front, but Ronon could still see well enough to pick off the first guard he saw—a tall, thin gangling guy who barely had time to huff out a breath in surprise before Ronon cuffed him about the head hard enough to make him slump to the ground. John stripped the guy of weapons—two well-cared-for knives, a submachine gun that John picked up with a low grunt of satisfaction—before he and the Posturri soldier dragged the unconscious man backwards into the shadows. They worked their way around the building slowly—Ronon didn't think there were any soldiers stationed on the roof tops, but you could never be too careful—and left three more sentries hog-tied and unconscious in the shadows of the neighbouring building. Between them, they all now had enough weaponry to make even John feel well-armed, and just as they dragged the last of the guards away, there was a faint, muffled echo from the other side of the building which told Ronon that Teyla and Cestina were doing the same.
They got to the front of the building quicker than Ronon had thought they would, and he peered around the corner in time to see Jennifer and Rodney stepping into the bright pool of light that ringed the front of the building, the transport gliding to a stop behind them. Ronon could see the guards step forward to ask them their business—four of them, he counted, all of them armed and alert, though they didn't seem to be overly wary. Jennifer and Rodney were both dressed in Posturri uniforms, and the light was dull enough that the odd, mismatched nature of Rodney's uniform wasn't immediately apparent.
In the shadows at the far side of the front steps, Ronon caught a glimpse of a flash of copper, and knew that Teyla and the others had to be in position. They could take the remaining guards; the only question was how easy it would be. Jennifer was armed, but Rodney and the Oligarchs weren't, and none of them was wearing any kind of body armour; Ronon couldn't risk them getting caught in the crossfire, and even he couldn't take out four people quickly enough that they'd have no time to get off a shot that could maim or kill a member of his team.
He estimated the distance across the square, and wondered if there was a chance that he could sprint across it, draw the sentries' attention and possibly even their fire after him, leaving Cestina and Teyla free to lead the others into the building. He didn't know if he'd make it in time, but it might give the others just enough for what they needed—and then Ronon remembered the small chunk of plastic explosives that he still had stowed away in his coat pocket. Wouldn't be enough to do anyone any serious damage, but it would certainly be enough to cause a distraction.
Ronon dug it out of his pocket, unwrapped it, and showed it to John, who raised his eyebrows in an expression that Ronon had long since come to recognise as code for if you're sure about this, buddy. Ronon refrained from snorting; not like John wasn't always in favour of explosion. He peered back out into the square, where it seemed Jennifer was taking a good tack—from what he could hear, she was explaining that although her patients were mildly infectious, they had some information for General Beswandian which was probably important.
"Uh," one of the sentries said. Ronon could see him rock back on his heels a little bit, as if he knew he shouldn't move but his subconscious was trying to get his body just that little bit further away from someone who had Grindian Fever. It wasn't lethal, but it had a couple of nasty, lingering and infamous side effects—including one or two that could be very embarrassing for a young man with healthy appetites. Ronon didn't know where Jennifer had heard about the disease. He didn't think anyone on Atlantis had ever caught it—it was the kind of disease that tended to be caught by students and apprentices with more free time than sense—but maybe she'd overheard some of the lewder stories that the Athosians liked to tell on festival nights. It was exactly the kind of thing that would distract and unnerve any guard when mentioned, and McKay wasn't doing a bad job of pretending to be a consummate sekthri diplomat concerned with the threat of contagion and forms not filled out in triplicate—he'd found a clipboard somewhere, most likely in the transport, Ronon guessed, and was brandishing it around with spectacularly pissy aplomb.
"Do you realise," Rodney told the guards, his index finger jabbing at the pages in his hand, "just how much paperwork is going to be involved if we have to bring these people back without them getting to see the General? At least Form B9-V, at the very least."
"Maybe even Form BS-4," Jennifer added. Her face was admirably straight, but Ronon could tell they were starting to overplay it just a little—the sentries were shifting from foot to foot, and Ronon knew that any decent soldier's train of thought would be going from don't piss off the pencil-pushers to these idiots aren't worth the trouble. Time for him to act before the guards moved from dismissal to suspicion; and so Ronon took careful aim, tossed the plastic explosives high and clear towards the furthest corner of the square, pulled out his gun and sighted, exhaled and fired.
The plastic explosive that the Posturri manufactured was of decent quality, and had a blasting power roughly equivalent to C4. It was also much less stable, and while Ronon wouldn't usually have been glad to carry around an unstable lump of high explosives in his pocket, right now he was thankful for it. It took only one bullet for the explosives to go up with a satisfyingly loud noise and a sharp, bright burst of light, rocking the ground beneath Ronon's feet ever so slightly.
Just as startled as the guards, Rodney yelled and Jennifer shrieked, but both of them had the good sense to duck—and when the guards ran down the front steps in the direction of the blast, they were right in the line of fire for Ronon and John. Ronon managed to stun them all with his blaster—no reason for him to kill some guys just for doing their job, guys he might well have fought alongside on the battlefield if things had turned out a little different—though not before the fourth one had turned and aimed a couple of wild shots in their direction. He came close to hitting Ronon, and John shot him in the shin to disable him before Ronon took down. Not much more than a flesh wound, though, and Ronon felt okay about leaving Cestina's aide to doctor him, and to secure the others, while the rest of them moved into the building.
They didn't have much time. There was no way that that explosion had gone unnoticed; even if people a couple of streets away had thought it was a shell belatedly exploding on the battlefield, those closer should be able to tell the difference, and inside the command headquarters, the lights inside were already flaring brighter. Rodney and Cestina helped the Oligarchs from the transport while Teyla and John took point up the steps and inside.
It was warmer in here, and bright enough to make Ronon squint a little. The entrance hall was a square, spare room with little furniture apart from a desk which stood near the foot of a staircase, bare apart from an incongruous, half-eaten piece of epfa fruit. The bitten fruit was turning brown; whoever had begun it hadn't been here for a while, and all the doors which led off the entrance hall were closed, the corridors that led off from it empty. So far, so good.
Ronon looked down to find Jennifer by his side, wielding a submachine gun that Teyla had handed to her. "Where do we go from here?" she asked him.
Concentrate. Ronon looked at Cestina and raised an eyebrow.
"Ground floor," Cestina said, "To the back. Their situation room runs the length of the building."
Ronon nodded, and Teyla checked the clip in her gun one last time. "Shall we?" she said, as calm as always, and Cestina grinned at her—the first smile on her face in a while, Ronon thought—and said, "I think we shall."
From overhead, Ronon could hear the sound of muffled boot steps, a double-time tempo that told him that the explosion outside had some people on the move. They couldn't afford to wait to see who would come clattering down the wooden stairwell, even if it was just a group of startled bureaucrats, and so he pushed on with the others, heading across the entrance hall with Cestina and John in the lead and himself on point, the Oligarchs guarded in the middle of them. Cestina indicated the right doorway, a set of heavy, carved wooden doors that swung open with surprising ease beneath Ronon's hand.
He went in expecting some kind of resistance, but his eyebrows went up when they found only the generals—Beswandian and Krithiyah and a red-haired woman whose name Ronon didn't know, but whose back was ramrod straight—sitting around a large, oval table. In the fireplace behind them, flames burned bright and hot, and the table was covered with a scattering of maps and papers, glasses of ruus wine and a portable comm unit. Turned on low to broadcast only, it filled the room with a low, disjointed murmur of voices from the field: dispatches and reports from officers who were lying somewhere out beyond them in the mud and cold of a winter's night. Fifth Squad, the comm unit reported, Enemy launched a surprise night raid over no man's land. Requesting immediate assistance and relief. Bivouacked at the river bank three hundred ells outside of Brunnum, serious casualties, at least a third of— There was a burst of gunfire, thick with static and distortion, and the broadcast faded away, only to be replaced by another voice—male, this time—just as frantic and as desperate.
Beswandian set down the pen he was holding and leaned back in his chair, settling his hands on the curve of his stomach. He didn't look as if he'd expected to see them, but he didn't look overly perturbed, either. "Major Cestina," he said, voice smooth and even, "Specialist Dex, Doctor Keller. I thought you would be part of the way back to the city by now. Wise heads know that it's best to get underway before nightfall."
He must have had a lot of practise at stuff like this, Ronon thought. That had hardly sounded like a threat at all. It hadn't escaped the others, either; from just behind him, Ronon heard John snort softly.
"I appreciate your concern, sir," Cestina said, just as mild. "I'm glad to hear that you have our best interests at heart." She held her gun easily in front of her, as casual as if she'd almost forgotten it was there, offering Beswandian as subtle a threat as he had made to them.
The female general snorted. "This is ridiculous and a waste of our time. Get some guards in here and—"
"Respectfully, ma'am," Cestina said, "you might not want to do that."
"Major," the woman said, leaning forward, "don't think you can give me that 'respectfully, ma'am' b—"
Ronon chose that moment to step deliberately to one side, letting all three generals get a clear view of the two women who stood behind him. They could have looked ridiculous, Tyrenn and Heira, with their hair ruffled and their clothes wrinkled and sweat-stained, blankets wrapped around them like cloaks; but they both kept their backs straight and carried their heads high, and in the set of their chins Ronon could see the determination that had led both women to be leaders of their country. He was pretty sure this was going to be entertaining.
"I would think, General Cienel," Tyrenn said, "that you would be grateful for an officer as conscientious as the Major here. Someone able to carry out their duties as a Posturri soldier while still retaining their respect for their superiors… well, such people are sadly often a rarity." She walked forward and sat in the empty chair at the table, her back to the fire, so that she could see everyone in the room. Heira glared at Rodney until he rolled his eyes and carried a spare chair over from the corner of the room and presented it to her to sit in.
"I am not the hired help," Rodney grumbled as he sidled back over to stand with the rest of them.
"Could've fooled me," Ronon said, just as John muttered "Life hard, McKay"—that earned them both a glower from Teyla and Jennifer, but Ronon thought it was worth it.
Beswandian recovered quickest. "Oligarch Tyrenn, Oligarch Heira. We're all very glad to see that you've made such a swift recovery from the abuses of the traitors. The entire nation has been—"
Tyrenn laced her fingers together and rested her hands on the polished tabletop. "General Beswandian," she said vaguely, "I would be careful about my use of the term traitor. It has so many possible definitions, and I really like to use it only when I'm absolutely certain that I am doing so correctly."
Beswandian's jaw worked tightly, and Ronon saw him shoot a look at Krithiyah.
"Oligarch Tyrenn," Krithiyah said, mouth curving into a smile, "I'm not sure what the Major here has been telling you—"
Tyrenn frowned at him. "I'm not sure why you would think that the Major has been telling me anything about traitors, Krithiyah."
"Have you been telling us anything about traitors, Major?" Heira asked. She sounded almost perky, the tone of her voice incongruous in the way it contrasted with the anger in her eyes.
"No, ma'am," Cestina said. Her voice was bland and dry. "All we've talked about are the plans of the generals here to help bring an end to this sorry business now that we've got you all back safe and sound."
"As a leader of the Athosian people, Oligarch Heira," Teyla added smoothly, "I was quite impressed with how concerned General Beswandian was for the safety of all involved. Many superior officers would not have taken the interest which he did in the health of all the Oligarchs." It was never wise to forget that Teyla could have a mean streak when she wanted; she slid that dig home as elegantly and neatly as a dagger between the ribs.
"Well," Beswandian said, and Ronon could practically see the gears turning in his head, trying to figure out how he could keep his skin and his power when off-worlders and army officers and Oligarchs all knew what his group had been planning; trying to figure out what they were all aiming for, knowing what was going on and pretending that they didn't, even though Tyrenn and Heira possessed the power to have all three generals arrested on the spot. "We were merely carrying out the duties we were born to; and now that two of your number have been restored to us, Oligarchs, we know that we made the right decision to—"
"All of them are awake," Ronon interrupted him, folding his arms and hoping that none of the others would contradict him. If seeing Tyrenn and Heira had been a surprise, then Beswandian hadn't known they were awake, and didn't know the status of the others—and if he thought that all of the Oligarchs were up and active and knew what was going on, it might make him back down. "We left them getting dressed."
"And I expect all ten will be up and about shortly," Jennifer said, smiling at the generals, and Ronon was glad that she'd picked up so quickly on what he was trying to do. "I saw no sign of long-term effects when I examined them."
Krithiyah was holding himself as stiffly as if every bone in his body ached, and even in the dim light cast by the open fire and the oil lamps, Ronon could see that his hands were white-knuckled on the arm rests of his chair. "How… pleasing." He didn't look pleased, though, and Cienel and Beswandian looked as sour as if they'd been sucking on a mouthful of bithnu fruit.
"I knew you would think so," Tyrenn said happily. "Now, generals, I know it's late and I'm sure we're all tired, but I do think that our first order of business should be putting an end to this sad excuse for a war, don't you?"
Cienel shifted in her seat. "But ma'am, we are close to finally defeating the Timmian. We have them on the run, and we anticipate that by the end of tomorrow, we will have captured Inimico—the pure Posturri people will have had their revenge on the traitors who dared to kidnap and maim the Oligarchy." Ronon thought she sounded way too rehearsed; he wondered if these were words Cienel had planned to broadcast to Posturr when the war was done: palatable lies to pave the way for the announcement of a new triarchy composed of the heads of the military. Cestina shifted from foot to foot next to him; Ronon wondered if she'd picked up on the same thing.
Tyrenn stared at Cienel for a long moment, then leaned over the table and turned up the sound on the comm unit, just enough so that the walls of the room reflected back snatches of sentences, mumbled words: requests for back up and supplies, scattered parts of units communicating with one another, whispered prayers to the Ancestors, screams, once or twice the sound of a gunshot. Listening to it was enough to make his skin crawl, as if he'd been touched by the clammy hand of a Wraith, and only Jennifer's warmth next to him, the presence of his team all around him, was enough to make him remember that he'd come through it all—that his eyes were still open and his heart was still whole.
"I do not want any more people to die in my name, General," Tyrenn said, and for the first time, she dropped all pretence at politeness and goodwill. Her voice was as cold as the air outside, clipped and sharp. "This stops, and it stops tonight. Do I make myself understood?"
Cienel's tongue darted out to lick her lower lip. "Oligarchs, with respect—"
"With respect," Heira interrupted her, arms folded across her chest, "you're lucky that I don't have the Major here throw all three of you in the stockade."
"But since you all three of us will undoubtedly cooperate with us in negotiating a peace with the Timmian, I'm sure you will see why we are not going to do that," Tyrenn said. She was smiling once more, but the edge of her voice held a promise: refuse to do as I say, and a worse place can be found for you than a military prison.
"I see," Beswandian said slowly. He exchanged a look with Cienel and Krithiyah, and then said, "I'm sure we'll be happy to help you in whatever way we can."
"Good," Tyrenn said, nodding. "Let's get started, then." She knew that Beswandian and the others were ceding to her—knew, as the others had hoped, that whatever the generals might attempt when the Oligarchs were incapacitated and powerless, they wouldn't be so bold when the Oligarchs were free to act. The weight of tradition and class and expectations were on their side; when Tyrenn and Heira rose from the table, the generals stood too, automatically, though none of them looked happy about it.
Ronon stood and watched them watch the Oligarchs, and wondered how much time the Oligarchs would have to weaken the generals more permanently, before they tried to gain power again, and tried more ruthlessly. These people were just like Kell, in so many ways: self-serving and greedy; cruel not because they wanted to hurt people, but because they did not care enough to keep them safe. Ronon had walked into that room and shot Kell without hesitation or regret because he'd known as soon as he'd looked at him that Kell carried no remorse within him—and these generals, they'd heard the voices of the dying but Ronon knew they'd still try again and they'd cause more destruction. They walked freely out of the room after the Oligarchs, and Ronon closed his eyes, and thought of the pale blue of Sateda's skies, of the weight of Kell's betrayal, of seven long years spent existing alone. Of the three hundred of his people who had survived.
Tyrenn had a unique way of bullying people into doing what she wanted. Within a few minutes of walking back out into the entrance hall—now half-filled with uncertain Posturri soldiers, who'd gathered in the wake of the explosion but who hadn't known how to proceed when they realised that the group which had burst into the building was headed by their lawful leaders—she'd talked some of the army's highest level bureaucrats into finding fresh clothes for herself and Heira, serving them large earthenware mugs filled with steaming hot split pea soup, and reporting to them in detail on the army's progress. Tyrenn was probably so effective because she seemed to know instinctively what each person was best suited to: Rodney, for instance, she set to the task of modifying the generals' portable comm unit to serve her purpose, and John the job of aggravating him until he figured out what each circuit did and how they should be adapted.
While Rodney worked and John prodded him with the toe of his boot, Teyla and Cestina commandeered the only two comfortable, wing-backed seats in the entire building. "The Major and I are merely resting our feet," Teyla told Ronon with every appearance of innocence; but he noticed that while both of them may have been tired enough to be glad of the chance to rest against cushions, they seemed to be more interested in talking to one another in low voices and keeping an eye on the generals, who were passing on orders from the Oligarchs to aides and messengers on the other side of the room. Once, when Beswandian looked over at the two of them, Teyla and Cestina smiled at him, identical curves of the mouth that said we're watching you.
Beswandian had the good sense to blanch at that; proved he wasn't entirely stupid.
In the absence of chairs, Jennifer and Ronon sat slumped against the wall. The floor was hard and cold, and Ronon's back was starting to ache now that the fierce, quicksilver burn of adrenaline was wearing off, but he was so glad for even this much rest that he could have slept sitting up right there. It had been a long day—a long week—and when Jennifer leaned into him, Ronon bent his head to press a kiss against her temple.
"You doing okay?" she asked him, voice thick and slow with exhaustion.
"Not really," he said, too tired to lie, even to himself.
"Well yippee," Jennifer mumbled. "Makes two of us."
It required more than Rodney's usual quota of muttering and aspersions on the ancestry and mental capacity of whoever had designed the comm unit—probably because he had no tools more complex than one of Ronon's knives and a screwdriver that John had produced from somewhere about his person—before he had it working properly.
"You should just reverse the polarity," John said, an earnest look on his face. "I read somewhere that that helps."
"Bite me," Rodney said, before carefully reattaching a wire no finer than a hair on Ronon's head and sitting back on the floor with a low grunt of triumph. "Okay, so, it should work now. But if this thing blows up or melts or I've invalidated the warranty in any way, shape, or form? I'm so not going to be held accountable."
"We will bear that in mind," Heira said wryly as Tyrenn picked up the headset and settled it over her ears.
Rodney flicked one final switch, and the low murmur of voices from the unit stopped. No longer just a receiver of the voices from the battlefield, the comm now let Tyrenn speak first on a controlled diplomatic frequency to the Timmian leaders still present in Inimico; then her calm and round-vowelled voice spread far and wide through the cold night air, over the distance between Brunnum and the fort where so many soldiers still waited. She announced her safe return and that of the other Oligarchs, thanks to the brave efforts of the Posturri army, and that with the help of the army's leaders, she and Oligarch Heira had negotiated a ceasefire which would ensure peace and stability for all the Posturri people.
Ronon's mouth twitched a little when he heard that, but it wasn't as if it was unexpected. He'd heard more blatant lies from both the Chieftain of Sateda and officials of Earth's IOC; it was the kind of thing politics demanded of people, and it was the only way that Tyrenn and Heira would be able to get the army to back down from escalating the confrontation after days of listening to wartime propaganda, years of regarding the Timmian minority with suspicion and fear. Lie to make them fight; lie to make them stop, and Ronon wasn't surprised that Rodney rolled his eyes as he listened, or that John snorted softly, or that Teyla and Cestina both wore similar looks of disapproval, with grooved lines of tension around their mouths, though none of them protested.
Jennifer, on the other hand, turned to Ronon and said, "This is horseshit." She had just enough presence of mind to hiss under her breath at him rather than raise her voice.
He shook his head at her; from across the room, Heira was watching them, and while he was sure the woman was genuinely grateful to them for rescuing her, he didn't think she'd relish anyone raising objections to the Oligarchy's decisions—not just now, at any rate. "It's okay," he murmured. "They know what they're doing."
"I just—you don't feel uncomfortable about this?" Jennifer asked him. "This truce isn't a victory, the army didn't help rescue the Oligarchs, and those generals are traitors. It's all lies and no one wins."
Ronon shrugged. "Sometimes telling a lie buys you the time you need to tell the truth."
Jennifer screwed up her mouth to one side, before sighing and relaxing back against him once more. "Maybe you're right, but that seems far too trite and not at all satisfying," she said.
"Sometimes things suck," Ronon replied.
"Optimist," Jennifer said, but her jaw was set firm, and Ronon didn't think she'd back down if her help were needed—the time they'd spent together since they'd arrived on Posturr had taught him that if Jennifer wouldn't ever be the kind of person who would be truly comfortable with situations like this, that since she had come to Atlantis, she had grown to be the kind of person who could still do it and not balk.
Across the room, Tyrenn finished speaking. She tugged off the headset and nodded at Rodney, who flicked the off-switch. The room was silent now, and all they had to do was settle in and wait for morning, to see if the truce would hold.
Morning dawned cold and crisp on Posturr, the air stinging the inside of Ronon's nose with each breath, the sky clear and luminous as a stretch of beaten-thin gold. From the flat roof of the command headquarters, he could see clear across the battlefield, and the spired smudge on the horizon that was Inimico. The land bore no resemblance to what it had been a few days before—rolling plains that would one day soon be turned over by the plough by Posturr's expanding population—but looked instead like some of the more barren moons that Ronon had visited when he'd been Running and was looking for an unpopulated place to snatch a few days rest. The ground was pockmarked and cratered with shellfire; the blue-green grass churned under by running feet and the slow-moving, ungainly tracked machine guns that were the Posturri equivalent of tanks.
The dark soil looked as if it had been scarred and marked so badly that it would never heal: but as he watched, Ronon could see movement, distant but drawing nearer, as troops moved in lines both coordinated and straggling back towards Brunnum and rest.
"I'm not stupid enough to think this is the end of it," Cestina said next to him, gesturing out over the rooftops. "But right now, I'd kind of like to pretend that it is."
Ronon looked down at her. Her face looked bruised and puffy with tiredness. With the exception of Tyrenn and Heira, who seemed to have reserves of energy that would be vaguely astonishing in people half their age, everyone else downstairs had seized on the opportunity to snatch a few hours sleep. Only Cestina and Ronon had stayed awake, both of them sharing an unspoken desire to see the sun rise.
"You did good," Ronon said, resting his forearms on the rail that ran around the roof edge. He could guess the kind of voices that Cestina was hearing in her head right now, the self-reproach that would keep sleep distant for a while yet, and while Ronon couldn't stop that, it was important that he counter it. "Got your people back, did what you had to do. The rest of it will come, if you give it time." That was what Atlantis had given him.
Cestina looked at him for a long moment, then huffed out a smile and patted him on the shoulder. "Thank you," she said. "For all of it."
"Y'welcome," Ronon mumbled, and then let her lead him back down the stairwell. From below them, he could hear the sounds of the others waking—Rodney complaining about the quality of the pillows someone had found for him; Teyla calmly explaining why he was going to stop whining in a more irritating manner than her toddler son—and smell the hearty, warming scent of porridge and fresh loaves and stout tea. Below him, his team was waiting, his family; and he'd kiss Jennifer and they'd all break bread together before heading back to the city that Ronon was slowly coming to truly think of as home. His footsteps were light as he made his way down the steps; there was, he thought, something to be said for having something to run towards.