John was pretty sure he'd made a complete idiot of himself, so it was a relief to find Ronon didn't feel any need to talk as they made their way to the mess.
They were serving mystery vegetable pies again, with chunks of soft cheese in them that John thought came from those big hairy moose-things on M4X-217. Ronon seemed to be enjoying them anyway, and no one except Elizabeth was using cutlery, so that was cool.
John wasn't sure what had just happened. He'd just gone to Ronon's room to check the big guy was settling in and give him a plain white t-shirt he'd won off Parrish at the last scientists' poker night Rodney had dragged him along to. It was a pretty crappy 'hope you're settling in here' gift, but John didn't really have anything else – years in the military had trained him not to accumulate things. Ronon had been a little weird about the color, and yeah, it was gonna show the dirt and get messed up in about five seconds out in the field, but maybe he could use it for jogging or working out or something. And Jesus, when Ronon had stripped off his ragged old tunic and pulled the t-shirt on, the way it'd almost glowed against his tan, fitting so tight and smooth over his pecs…
John realized he'd made a small involuntary sound. Ronon looked up at him across a half-eaten pie (his third) and grinned. "Good, huh?"
"Uh, yeah," agreed John, feeling overheated – the pie was the last thing on his mind. He made himself take a bite and chewed doggedly, even though his mouth was dry and the filling tasted a little too strongly of the peppery greens that grew on the mainland. "Tasty," John managed, and wiped his mouth. He pushed back his chair and stood. "I'm gonna get a drink. Bring you anything?"
Ronon looked up at him, then shrugged. "Something sweet. Missed that when I was running."
John grimaced sympathetically, unable even to imagine what those seven years had been like; he was sure he wouldn't have made it. He nodded and headed over to the coffee urn, putting a coffee for himself and a herb tea for Ronon on an empty tray, then taking it all over to the dessert counter where Steinberg was presiding. "What's good, Corporal?" John asked.
"These honey pastries Bedrosian makes are a big hit, sir. It's a traditional Armenian recipe."
"Okay, gimme four."
"Uh, sorry, sir, the limit's two per person – Sergeant's orders. He says we have to keep some back to bribe Dr McKay 'cause the Ancient microwave-thingy's acting up again."
"Well, we can't have Rodney getting in a snit. He's down in the lab, so I can take him his share if you like, and tell him about the repair. Oh, and I'm eating with Ronon, so that's two of us."
Steinberg acquiesced cheerfully and wrapped up an extra couple of pastries. John got Rodney a cheese and veggie pie to go as well, knowing he probably hadn't eaten in hours. He piled it all on the tray and headed back to the table he was sharing with Ronon.
"Tea," John announced, handing it over. "And sweet things. I'm told they're good." He gave Ronon all four pastries.
"Thanks," Ronon said. He put a whole pastry into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. John debated telling him that people generally ate them in bites, then thought seven years and shut his mouth. "Mmmm." Ronon closed his eyes and licked his lips. John took a slurp of coffee, mouth desperately dry. Too hot – it burned him and he spluttered and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "These are really good," Ronon said appreciatively. "C'mon, try one." He held out a pastry in his fingers, obviously expecting John to eat it from his hand.
"Ah," said John, eyes flicking left and right to see if anyone was watching. No one was. Ronon was nudging the pastry encouragingly at him – any second now he'd be making airplane noises. John leaned forwards and took a bite, and oh yeah, honey and nuts and some kind of spice. Delicious. "Goob," he managed stickily.
Ronon grinned and said "Food shared is a bond sealed" with an air of profundity, then took a remarkably dainty bite and offered the last morsel to John.
Crap, this had the ritualistic feel of that oath Ronon had sworn in his room, after John had given him the t-shirt and Ronon had put it on. He'd stood there looking solemn with his hand fisted over his heart, dark against the white cloth. What was it he'd said? Oh yeah: "I will be the blade to your knife and the string to your bow." Probably some Satedan team-bonding thing. John figured he'd better go along with this as well – Elizabeth'd be pissed if he committed some big cultural faux pas. Besides, Ronon had this oddly tentative, hopeful look, and something in John didn't want to disappoint him. It was just a pastry.
He leaned in and took the last piece from Ronon's hand, realizing as his tongue slid over Ronon's fingers that this maybe wasn't the best thing to be doing in the goddam mess hall. It was stunningly intimate, and oh fuck, Ronon was watching him avidly, pupils dilated. John felt a jolt of arousal and shifted awkwardly in his seat, readjusting his pants. His skin prickled and the back of his neck was hot. Oh man, why did this always catch him unawares?
He lurched awkwardly to his feet, almost knocking over the chair. "Um, gotta go." John grabbed the wrapped package of food from the tray. "Need to take Rodney some supper." Aware that he was acting like a spooked horse, John paused, biting his lip. Act normal, he had to act normal. "See you in the morning." Ronon was eyeing him speculatively. "For a run," John clarified. He turned to go before he could make any more of a dick of himself.
Ronon was now looking distinctly amused. "Okay," he said, and picked up the last pastry. John fled.
Rodney was even worse than Ronon with the blissed out moans as he tucked into Bedrosian's pastries, but John noted sourly that Rodney's noises had a very different effect on him. Mostly they made John wish Rodney would keep his mouth shut when he chewed. This was not good. John sat down heavily on a lab stool and rubbed his eyes, sighing.
"What's up with you?" asked Rodney, frowning. "Did you miss out on the last of the baklava?" He curled one arm protectively around his plate. "You can't have mine; I'm starving."
John raised his eyebrows, but couldn't muster the usual sarcastic retort. "Nah, I'm just freaked out about Ronon. He was kind of hitting on me."
Rodney stared at him, mouth agape, then blinked. "And you're telling me this, why?"
"C'mon, Rodney, you're supposed to be my friend," John said, glaring at Rodney, who was chewing his way through the second pastry.
Rodney swallowed and licked his fingers. "Oh, am I?" He looked smug for a second, then frowned. "So that means I have to help sort out your love life?" He shook his head doubtfully. "I'm not sure it's doable. Anyway, why would you come to me for relationship advice? Especially gay relationship advice. I'm only just getting used to you not being the lady-killer of two galaxies and I'm still traumatized after being bodynapped by Cadman and made to kiss Carson!"
"Point," John said, nodding. He really was off his game tonight.
Rodney snapped his fingers and poked John in the arm. "Teyla," he said. "That's who you need to talk to."
"Yeah, I guess," John agreed, a little half-heartedly. Obviously a better choice than Rodney, but he could never shake the feeling she was laughing at him on the inside but was way too polite to show it.
"Definitely Teyla," repeated Rodney firmly. He picked up the vegetable pie. "Oooh, moose-cheese!"
The next day, John arranged a sparring session with Teyla, hoping that beating him up might put her in a good mood. It was well into the dinner hour before they managed to fit it in, so by the time John lay gasping on the mat, inventorying his aches and pains, they had the gym to themselves.
Teyla dropped gracefully down to sit cross-legged beside him, and handed him a canteen of water. "That feint at the end would not usually have deceived you, John. You seem a little distracted today."
John struggled up to prop himself on one elbow and accepted the canteen, drinking thirstily. "Thanks." He handed it back to her and pulled himself up to sit, wincing and twisting to and fro to check how bad the bruises over his ribs were. "Yeah, I…" He glanced sideways at her, and she cocked an eyebrow. "It's Ronon."
"You are worried about Ronon? He seems to be settling in well."
"Maybe too well," said John ruefully. Teyla looked mildly intrigued, so he continued. "Yesterday I took him a spare t-shirt. It's just, he doesn't have much, and I didn't need it."
Teyla smiled at him. "That was thoughtful of you, John. I know how attached you are to your black shirts, and missions are hard on our clothing."
John shrugged. "Wasn't a black one, just a plain white tee I won off Parrish at poker a few weeks ago. Thing is, Ronon's been acting odd ever since." He shot Teyla a look, frowning. "Thought you might have some idea what's up, being from Pegasus yourself." He sighed. "Rodney was no damn help at all."
Teyla looked thoughtful. "Tell me what happened."
John leaned forwards and propped his arms on his knees. "Like I said. I just dropped off the t-shirt, but he seemed all hung up on the color – which, I know, it's gonna show the dirt big-time, but whatever. Then he put on the tee and went all solemn on me, hand on his heart and all that. He said he was from one of the Satedan clans – the sickle clan? – and some stuff about following where I lead. And then he said he'd be the, um, the blade to my knife and the string to my bow. Kind of weirded me out – all I did was bring him a t-shirt."
Teyla looked grave. She had that especially zen vibe going on, like she was trying to calm him down by osmosis. Okay, so it was going to be bad. John steeled himself – he must have really fucked up somehow. "My people did not trade much with Sateda," Teyla began. "We had little they needed, before the Wraith came. But with Ring travel between the known worlds, many customs are echoed across Pegasus." She tilted her head and gave him a small smile. "To you, the t-shirt was a small thing, inconsequential. But think about it, John. White is not a color much in evidence here. It's difficult to make, and as you say, impractical for everyday use. For many cultures it is ceremonial, used to mark important occasions, or when worshipping the Ancestors."
John nodded. "Yeah, I guess it's not so different on Earth. Like, I had had to wear it for my confirmation." He waved one hand vaguely. "That's kind of a religious rite of passage for teenagers. Anyway, you have to wear white – I felt like a jerk, all dressed up."
Teyla looked interested. "Yes – religious ceremonies and rituals of many kinds. Like Namings."
"Namings. Yeah, we call those baptisms." Struck by a thought, he added, "Oh, and weddings of course. In the States, most brides wear white to get married." There was a pointed silence from Teyla. John squinted at her, horrified. "Oh crap, no, you don't mean…? Ronon's hardly a bride, c'mon!"
Teyla merely arched her eyebrows, and John's chest went tight, his heart racing. She leaned forward, concerned. "Breathe, John," she said. "You have not inadvertently married Ronon, no, but I suspect he thinks that you are now betrothed."
"Oh, fuck," groaned John, burying his head in his hands. "No wonder he was hitting on me today." He glanced at her, frowning. "He was definitely flirting – he fed me cake in the mess hall." She was smiling openly now, and he glared at her. "It's not funny!"
"It is a little funny," she disagreed, but her smile was sympathetic.
John banged his head on his bent knees. "Jesus fuck. What in hell am I gonna do?"
"Do you not find him attractive?" Teyla asked. There was no judgement in her voice, just curiosity.
"I. We don't. I can't," tried John. He shook his head, frustrated. "It's a rule in our military. I'm not supposed to have sex with men. Men in the military aren't allowed to…with other men, I mean. Women too – no same-sex relationships. Yeah, it's stupid, and for Christ's sake don't get McKay started on the topic, or we'll never shut him up."
Teyla frowned. "So this never happens, in your armed forces?"
"Oh, it happens plenty," John said wearily. "But they made a new rule ten years or so ago. Supposed to be more liberal, called 'don't ask, don't tell'. Before that it was just flat-out forbidden. Now, you only get punished if you're caught, and no one can ask you."
Teyla nodded. "I have heard mention of this at women's poker night."
John held up a hand. "Please, no details."
"You would punish one of your own soldiers if you found out they had breached this rule?"
"Hell, no. But it might mean I had to lie under oath, and I'd rather not be put in that position."
"I see." Teyla considered his words. "So, even though Ronon is not a member of your military, you yourself are constrained by this rule?"
"Yeah." John sighed. "And there's more. There's also a rule against fraternization. That's when soldiers in the same chain of command are in a relationship. And Ronon's on the team now, so he's under my command. I can't…that one actually means something; it's not so dumb."
Teyla looked at him sideways. "I notice that you have not denied being attracted to Ronon."
John snorted. "Oh, come on – have you seen him?"
Teyla smirked. "He is, indeed, a fine physical specimen. But what of his mind – do you like him as a person?"
John frowned. "I don't know him – hasn't been time yet. Guess my impressions are pretty superficial. Runner, fighter, doesn't talk much." He thought back to Ronon, hand on his heart as he swore fealty. "Loyal. Dunno why, but I trust him." He smiled wryly. "He likes sweets."
"He and Rodney have at least that in common, then," she replied, deadpan.
"Oh, man, that could get ugly," said John, grinning. Rodney's cunning and Ronon's hand to hand skills? He wouldn't like to bet on the outcome if they were after the same muffin.
Teyla gathered her bantos rods and stood in one fluid movement. John dragged himself up with decidedly less grace, various bruises making themselves known. "Ouch," he complained.
"Do you need to see Dr Beckett?" asked Teyla, looking concerned. "I did not think that I had–"
"Nah, I'm okay. Hot shower'll sort me out."
They made their way to the door, but before he could open it, Teyla put a hand on his arm. "You must talk to him, John," she said, and there was that big sister look again, like she knew how he was going to react to that idea and wasn't having any of his nonsense.
"Aw, Teyla," he whined anyway, looking down at his feet. "I'm no good at…I dunno."
She smiled, but there was an edge of steel underneath. "I am sure you will do the right thing," she said, and slipped out the door, leaving him standing there.
"Well, fuck," said John.
He fretted about it for most of the next week. Maybe Teyla had said something to Ronon, although he figured he wasn't getting off that easily. Whatever the reason, Ronon didn't make any more moves and just did all his usual things: beating up marines, killing Wraith, stealing food off Rodney's tray – and he'd been right about that; it nearly ended with a fork through Ronon's hand and Rodney skewered on one of Ronon's knives before Teyla got them to call a truce. He and Ronon still went running in the mornings and it wasn't even awkward; they'd never talked much when they were running, anyway. But John was preoccupied, and even Rodney noticed, in the end.
"Look," he said, turning away from his laptop to eye John severely. They were in the lab, and John was trying to get Rodney to take a break and come race the RC cars. He was feeling antsy. "Will you please just fuck him and get it over with?" Rodney waved a hand. "I mean, all this manly brooding, it's wearing on the nerves."
"Jesus, McKay," hissed John, "keep it down, for Christ's sake." Zelenka was the only one nearby, though, and he just rolled his eyes and flapped a hand. Radek was all right.
"You did talk to Teyla, I assume?" sniffed Rodney, turning back to the research report on his screen and frowning. He raised his voice to include Zelenka. "Who gave permission for this load of shit project about the Stargate's translation algorithms? All we need to know is that they work!"
"Until they no longer work," Zelenka said tartly. "And Elizabeth authorized it." Rodney subsided, muttering, then poked John in the arm. "Well?" he stage-whispered.
"Yeah, I talked to Teyla," John admitted.
"And?" Rodney hummed under his breath as he speed-read the report.
"She said I have to talk to Ronon," muttered John, aware he sounded sulky and infantile.
Rodney winced sympathetically. "Damn. She didn't think that just fucking him might work?"
"Yeah, because that's how Teyla rolls," John said sarcastically.
"Well I don't know, do I?" Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "She can be startlingly direct at times."
"What, you mean on the mission yesterday when she pushed you into a mud puddle? Will you get over that already?"
"It got into everything! I had to wash my entire kit and that laptop's going to need a major overhaul."
"You were about to step on an exploding lizard!"
They glared at each other. From the other end of the bench, Radek muttered. "And this is why I do not willingly go off-world."
John sighed. "Anyway," he continued, lowering his voice, "you know it's not an option for me." He held up his hand. "And don't start sounding off about Canada 'the glorious and free' and all that shit. Besides," he folded his arms and looked down at his feet. "There's the fraternization problem as well. That's…there are reasons for that one."
"Maybe," said Rodney. "God, you really do have to talk to him, don't you?" John scowled and huffed out a long-suffering sigh. "Okay, look," Rodney said, frowning. "I see the point of not letting deadshits abuse those under their command, but we're not talking about that here. Ronon's more than capable of looking after himself."
"It's not just that, though," sighed John. "It's complicated." He leaned forwards on the lab bench and sank his head into his hands. "Plus, Teyla reckons he thinks we're betrothed," he muttered through his fingers.
"Oh my god," said Rodney, wide-eyed. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do–" John retorted, affronted, then the fight went out of him. "I just gave him a t-shirt, is all."
"Wow," said Rodney. "Imagine what he'd do if you gave him something really good."
"Yeah, I cracked that joke at the time," said John.
"What'd he say?" asked Rodney, staring at him in fascination, report forgotten.
"That he'd do whatever I wanted," admitted John, rubbing the back of his neck. A few yards away, Radek spat a mouthful of coffee over his keyboard and doubled up, coughing.
Rodney turned and glared at Radek. "You're fixing that yourself, and serves you right for eavesdropping!" He swivelled back and grabbed John's arm, hissing at him excitedly. "This is like the best porn scenario ever." He paused and frowned. "Except of course that it involves you and Ronon rather than Ronon and Scarlett Johansson."
"Gee, thanks, Rodney," said John. "You've been a big help."
"Any time," said Rodney. "What are friends for?"
"Sheppard," said Ronon, stepping back to let John into the room. John had a moment of déjà vu. This time he'd been careful to have nothing white on him, even going so far as to change his socks. Shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted of course, but still.
"Yeah, thanks, Ronon. Um, I... You can call me John, you know."
"Okay," said Ronon easily.
"All righty," said John, feeling supremely awkward. "Ah…look, can we sit down? There's something I gotta explain."
Ronon gestured to the bed. John looked around but there was no other furniture in the room. He wondered if Ronon liked it this spartan, or if no one had organized any for him yet. He made a mental note to check.
They sat side by side on the bed. John looked down at his hands. "It's that thing with the t-shirt. You might have gotten the wrong idea, there. I didn't mean…"
Ronon went still beside him. Crap. "Didn't mean what?" he asked quietly.
"I didn't know," John said, a little desperately. "About white, what it's used for here." He risked a quick sideways peek at Ronon. "Teyla told me." Ronon grunted, but otherwise said nothing.
"So, what, you think we're…" he couldn't say betrothed, damn it. "Engaged?" He hoped the Gate got that right and didn't use the Satedan word for a busy phone line. If they'd even had phones.
"Yeah," said Ronon. "That's how it works. We exchange gifts of white clothing, we pledge, then there's a feast." He looked reminiscent. "Feast wasn't bad. Those sweet cakes were really good."
"Whoa there, buddy," said John, holding up a hand. "I just wanna point out that it's supposed to be an exchange. Like, I'm supposed to know what the fuck's going on and do my part?" He told himself to calm down, but hell, he'd been blindsided into a betrothal. He was due a little righteous anger.
Ronon shrugged. "Figured you were new here, a bit slow. Figured you'd catch up eventually."
John took a deep breath. "But what made you think I'd be, that I'd want…?" Ronon turned his head and gave him a sardonic look. "Oh, what – you think you're irresistible?"
Ronon stiffened and turned back to stare at his hands, clasped loosely on his knees. "No. Been living rough, hiding and fighting. Know I'm a mess. But I hoped, anyway."
"Ronon, buddy. I'm sorry, I'm crap at this stuff. Look, I wasn't putting you down, I just. Why me?"
Ronon's eyes flicked across at him. "I like you. You're hot. You make me laugh." He shrugged.
"Yeah, okay," said John helplessly. Pretty good reasons, actually.
Ronon smirked sidelong at him. "And you think I'm hot," he said, elbowing John in the ribs.
"Ow," complained John, twisting away. Christ, they'd be passing notes in class next. But, okay, busted. He took a deep breath. "There are things about my people you don't know, though. It's not so easy, no matter what I want."
"Because you're my taskmaster?" asked Ronon.
"Yeah," admitted John, a little startled. But he'd never thought Ronon lacked smarts; trust him to cut right to the chase. "There are rules, in our military. I'm not supposed to…with anyone under my command."
"You don't see us as equals?" Ronon asked, his face unreadable. "On Sateda they used to say 'all men are the same height in their graves'."
John shook his head. "Of course you're my equal. Hell, you're way out ahead of me on most fronts. Just, in the team. I'm the leader there. There has to be one boss, in the field."
"Yeah, I know," said Ronon. "But we're not in the field now." He raised an eyebrow. "It wasn't a rule in the Satedan army. They taught us it was good for loyalty and to weld a unit together."
John shrugged. "My people see it differently. Thing is, it could affect my judgement, or yours, when we are out in the field. That's why there's a rule – if either of us had to make a hard choice."
"Save me or the others?" Ronon's eyes searched his face.
"Yeah, I guess, but more like save you or the city. Save you or stop the Wraith getting to Earth."
"You worried you'd choose me?" Ronon shook his head. "You wouldn't choose me over the city, or your world. I wouldn't have chosen you over Sateda."
"How do you know? Hell, I don't know what I'd do if we were. If I was more…involved. More invested." He took Ronon's arm. "Would you have chosen anyone over Sateda?"
Ronon stared back at him, then shook off John's arm and looked away. "Wasn't a real choice. No one could save Sateda." He clenched his hands. "I knew a bastard who fucked us over to get away, but it wasn't for anyone, just for himself." He looked up at John, his face fierce. "I'm not gonna betray your people, Sheppard. No matter what."
John blew out a frustrated breath. How in hell had they gone from a little misunderstanding about flirting to talking about commitment with a capital C? This was like the 'guy's worst nightmare' of heart to heart talks. And he hadn't even gotten a kiss out of the deal.
"So that's it?" Ronon asked softly. "You want your shirt back?"
Jesus. John shut his eyes and took a breath. "No, buddy, keep the shirt. But the rest of it, I still can't…"
"You think it'd make any difference, whether or not we're fucking?" asked Ronon, eyeing him calmly. "To what you'd choose?"
"I think it might, yeah," John said. He gestured. "Not just…fucking, but…all the rest."
Ronon grinned. "You really are crap at talking about this, aren't you?"
John made a face.
Ronon shrugged. "Every man dies," he quoted. "Not every man really lives."
"Another Satedan proverb?" asked John.
Ronon shook his head. "From that movie Carson made us watch last week. Braveheart."
John snorted. "Guess I walked right into that one. So what do they say here?"
"Life is short and the Wraith are many," intoned Ronon seriously. Then he grinned. "Not quite so many since they made me a Runner, though."
"Yeah, you're a badass all right," agreed John, punching him in the arm. Ronon caught his wrist and pulled him closer, started to lean in. "Ronon…" John said, a note of desperation in his voice. He wasn't sure if he was desperate to be released or desperate to be kissed.
Ronon dropped his arm and lurched up, wheeling away from John. "Sorry," he rasped. He turned after a while and leaned back against the wall, calm again, his arms folded. John stood, feeling like a heel. "I'm stubborn, Sheppard," Ronon said. "I waited seven years. I can wait a while longer."
"I'm not asking you to wait," said John.
"Yeah, I know," said Ronon. "'sides, we barely know each other."
John pointed at him. "Yeah, about that. All this talk of life and death, it's a little premature, don't you think?"
Ronon shrugged, then grinned. "That's what betrothals are for," he said.