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The Difference

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She's only with them for a few minutes before Zelenka claims her, fingers careful and chaste on her waist, and Ronon watches as she smiles and walks away with him, swaying a little to the beat of unfamiliar music, something Sheppard had murmured was called The Rolling Stones.

Ronon remembers the concept of popular music, though they had nothing like this on Sateda, and he remembers asking Sheppard about his guitar, getting a flushed face and uncertain, crooked smile. Sometimes, he'd said, shaking his head when Ronon asked if Sheppard played. But Sheppard had shown him how to set his fingers against the strings, taught him the way to create sound with simple curls of his hands, chords flowing together into nothing that approached music, but Sheppard had said, it takes practice.

Everything takes practice.

Tonight, he can hear what Sheppard had tried to explain, undercurrents of low drums and something sharper than the pipes he remembers from home; he thinks he'll ask Sheppard about them, learn them, too, let his hands flow over the strings and create something that makes her smile like she smiles now.

"You're staring," Sheppard says beside him, sotto voce, and when Ronon turns to look at him, Sheppard's head tilts. "You should ask her to dance."

"I don't know this way of dancing."

Atlantis is dark tonight, corners shrouded in shadow, people moving in darkness the way they don't in the light. Uniforms had been lost, leaving familiar people unfamiliar, and even Sheppard is someone different, the military stripped from him in a way that's disconcerting and intriguing both. Beneath the fragile green of his shirt, Ronon can see the tags hidden, a bare rectangular outline that he sometimes touches, as if to remind himself that even here, there is no such thing as off-duty.

"It's easy. Just hold and move." Sheppard's mouth quirks in a strange smile, then he turns, picking up a glass of something yellow that tickled Ronon's nose when he tried to drink it. "Ask her. You'd be surprised how much you can learn just from asking."

Sheppard's not with him long; a pretty, unfamiliar woman from one of the many, many labs approaches, and Ronon divides his attention between Weir and Sheppard, watching Sheppard with the small woman, the way he sets his hand and the way he curves his smile, the slow spinning arc of her body. It's not complex, not like the dances of his youth, none of the formality or the careful distance, no eyes watching to see if he steps too close, touches too much, taking him aside to ask his intentions.

The Atlanteans are a surprisingly uninhibited people, touching their bodies together with only thin cloth between them, even among those who have no desire for more than a single dance. Slow or fast, sudden bursts of pure energy, and he thinks of the long, carefully decorated tables of home, the slow, stately music, the girls who danced with him, safe inches away, telling him with their stiff movements that he would not be acceptable, not yet, not until he was more than just a soldier.

When Sheppard returns, Ronon picks up his glass and sips, trying not to sneeze. "We did not have events like this. We do not--they did not touch others if they did not have intentions."

Sheppard leans an elbow on the table, looking at him with wide, interested eyes. "Intentions."

Sheppard is too easy, too free with his attentions, but the woman he left does not seem offended by his return to Ronon's table, already having found another partner. It's--wrong, somehow, that she moves so easily between different men, that Sheppard touches her like they are familiar and yet goes to another soon after, even as Sheppard stands up with grin, following another unfamiliar female body, touches her waist and shoulders, brushes his body against hers, and have it mean nothing.

His eyes follow Dr. Weir as she dances with someone else and wonders if he'll ever understand Atlanteans.

"Intentions," Sheppard says when he comes back, flushed and faintly pink. Sitting down, he takes back his glass, drinking it in one swallow. The amusement is as obvious as the curiosity.

"On Sateda," Ronon says, "we did not touch one of the opposite sex unless there were--intentions."


"No." Staring at his empty glass, Ronon frowns. "Unless you wished to further your acquaintance with her. Unless you were--interested."

There's a second of utter blankness before Sheppard grins, bright and blinding. "You mean *marriage*?"

Sheppard doesn't laugh, however, settling back in his chair, turning his gaze to the crowd, a flickering evaluation that returns to him in speculation. "This makes you uncomfortable?"

"No." Perhaps. He's been on a hundred worlds, watched their customs and practices, knows that his people's ways are not everyone's, but the Atlanteans are different; the familiarity that should not exist between commander and subordinate yet does; the leader that moves among her people like she is one of them, treated as one of them in this place; the mix of scientists and soldiers in easy camaraderie that makes no sense to him. "It is different."

"Yeah," Sheppard says, leaning back. Picking up their glasses, he stands up, shaking his head in good-natured refusal at another woman's approach. "You want another glass?"

"Yes," he says, and Sheppard vanishes into the crowd as something with a hard beat starts. Bodies separate more, moving faster, reminding him of nights in the camps, when his fellow soldiers would burn off energy like this before campaigns. Sheppard's soldiers are prominent among them, people he knows, slipped out of uniform and free with each other in ways they have never been before.

When Sheppard returns, Ronon takes the glass, frowning at the way Sheppard leaves with another woman, touches her like they are alone, smiling at her as if--

Atlanteans are different, he thinks, remembering Sheppard like this on missions, smiling and too free and easy for an unattached male. Sheppard has touched women and it meant little, and he's touched them and it meant something else. But never what it should.

Other people come and go around him, and Ronon watches Sheppard and Cadman, Sheppard and Brown, and Dr. Weir with Lorne's hands on her, with other men's, and he wonders at these people, to whom intimacy of touch means so little.

When Sheppard returns, he falls into his chair and takes his drink at a gulp, and Ronon stares at his own full glass and wonders what he can say to this.

"You remind me of my grandmother," Sheppard says abruptly, and Ronon sees the edges of something darker than a smile. "She used to chaperone school dances. To keep the kids from getting fresh with each other." At Ronon's bewildered look, Sheppard slumps more comfortably into his seat. "Never mind. It doesn't mean what you think, this." He waves a casual hand at the people dancing. Ronon snorts softly.

"It doesn't mean anything."

Sheppard's head tilts. "Maybe. When it does mean something, you'll know the difference.." But he doesn't pressure Ronon to dance any longer, slumped beside him with a glass he only sips, watching the crowd as Ronon does.

More people come to their table, bright and happy, smelling perfumes and colognes, and then McKay is standing before them, smelling of honest sweat and oil and something sharply chemical, slices of burning circuits, and Ronon faintly remembers that McKay was working on the jumpers before Sheppard coaxed him here by radio with promises of food. "You said food."

Sheppard rolls his eyes and stands up. "Come on."

They vanish, and Ronon's not sorry, wondering if he can slip out now and go to his room, immerse himself in quiet, without these bright, distracting people, forget what he's seen so he can look at them tomorrow and not see too much bare skin, too much touching, remove them back to people he knows, not quite so--alien.

Dr. Weir eventually comes over, and Ronon fights the urge to get to his feet, pull out a chair for her, offer her refreshment, merely nods as she takes Sheppard's seat, appropriates Sheppard's drink. "Having fun?"

"It is interesting."

Her head turns, mouth curving into a slow smile. "Different from home?"

Different from home, from other worlds. He shrugs, turning his eyes from a couple too close, touching too much; uncomfortable, but these are not his people, and this is not his home.

"I wonder where John went." Her head lifts, looking around. "He promised me a dance before we close up." And like that, Ronon imagines Sheppard and Weir, moving together like the couple before him, bare arms and thin shirts, hands touching, sliding over sweat-slicked skin, Weir's head back, and he fights the urge to excuse himself before he says something he'll regret. She takes it so easily, these touches that mean nothing, that have nothing to do with her, just bodies and motion and self. She's better than that.

"With McKay," he says. "Getting food," he clarifies, but her smile only widens, eyes turning down.

"Right." Stretching, she glances at her wrist, then sighs. "And I'd better be getting to bed. First shift is going to be hard enough." Standing up, she blinks when habit overruns reason, forcing him to his feet.

"I will walk with you," he says, and her eyes widen a little. "It is custom among my people. To walk a woman home when she comes unaccompanied." It's almost true.

She hesitates. "John said Sateda customs were different." But she nods, and he falls into step beside her, the doors opening before them, and Ronon suddenly wonders what else Sheppard had told her.

The shadows hide as much as they reveal, bodies that he tries not to see, touching that is not the dancing inside. He thinks of it when they pass a quiet hall, other bodies, other people, and then, a frozen second of Sheppard and McKay on a quiet balcony. He stops short, feeling Elizabeth freeze beside him, and suddenly, he understands what Sheppard had said. When it means something, you'll know the difference.

"Come on," Elizabeth says with a brush of fingers against his arm, and he feels his entire body tighten at the touch, casual and friendly and maybe not, maybe something else. He looks away quickly before they see him,

"So that must have been different for you," she says as they enter the quiet hall of the residence wing, close enough for him to feel the warmth of her bare arm close to his.

"Yes," he says warily, and she smiles at him.

"Don't worry. John just wanted you to be comfortable. Are social events different on Sateda?"

"Yes," he says. Brightly lit rooms and the neat lines of his unit in their uniforms, straight and stiff, women in their long formal dresses, the brush of fingertips that signaled intention, interest, the way it was easy and young, without the complexities that the Atlanteans seem to thrive on. And he remembers his grandmother, murmuring about the easy morals of other worlds and smirks. "It is very different."

She nods, keeping a very correct few inches between them. His eyes keep being pulled by the low cut of her shirt, the bare length of her arms, the easy swing of her body. His grandmother would not have approved. "Rigid social structure?" she asks, and he remembers that she is what McKay calls a social scientist, that her study is of people.

"Yes. We did not--interact so freely."

She smiles, head tilting, and he wonders if she guesses what it means that he wants to see her home, but she nods and asks him questions, careful and thoughtful, like Sheppard does, and he finds it strangely easy to answer.

At her door, she stops, looking up at him for a moment, then glances away. "I'd like to hear more some time," she says, eyes flickering between him and the wall, and Ronon thinks of the way Sheppard pressed against a dozen people tonight, but he only meant it once.

"I would like to meet you for dinner," he says slowly, reaching to touch her hand. Beneath his fingers, her skin is warm and surprisingly soft, and it's simple, like perhaps any of Atlantis would touch her. "We could talk more."

She looks at him, wide-eyed and surprised, then nods slowly, a smile curling in her eyes. "I'd like that," she says, and Ronon feels himself begin to smile as the door closes between them.