Ronon Dex never stops running.
It's all he's known for a long time. It's ingrained now, a learned behaviour, something that fits him, defines him, characterises him: ducking, diving, weaving, speeding up, slowing down, feinting left, feinting right, always moving, always keeping ahead, always running.
Ronon Dex is a Runner.
Even though he's no longer hunted, he runs. Even here, in the tall spires of Atlantis, in the city deserted by the Ancestors (as everything in the Pegasus Galaxy was deserted by the Ancestors), he runs. Even here, where there are no Wraith behind him, he runs.
He runs, even when his feet are still.
When Sheppard asks him to join the team, he waits until he's done at least one round of Atlantis before he agrees, running effortlessly around catwalk and corridor, feeling the place, looking at it and these strange people who've taken the Ancestors' city. Sheppard joins him. Sheppard is thin and wiry and built for speed, not endurance, but the colonel keeps going and doesn't stop, doesn't ask for quarter, doesn't complain when Ronon runs him ragged. Ronon approves.
He measures Sheppard up, and although the man is softer than a commander ought to be, less imperious and infinitely less disciplined than any commander he's ever known, he thinks Sheppard might do. He'll be better when Ronon has trained him, of course, but there's something there to work with. It's enough to make him accept that, for a little while, he'll run with Sheppard.
He finds himself feeling honoured, because he's seen that no-one runs with Sheppard uninvited. Ronon watches Sheppard cross a room and sees how people react to Sheppard's lazy smile, how they seek it and treasure it, feel special because of it. He wonders if they ever see the tiny evasions, the feints left and right that mean Sheppard only connects where he wants to connect, that he touches only when he has control. John Sheppard is like the air he flies in: uncatchable, untouchable, unknowable.
Ronon sees that the real running that Sheppard does is done with stillness, with separation and distance, with words that say as much and mean as little as Sheppard is willing to have them mean, with the ice and steel that mostly Sheppard keeps well-hidden. With these things, with lazy slouching and careless charm, Sheppard is ducking, diving, weaving, speeding up, slowing down, feinting left, feinting right, always moving, always keeping ahead, always running.
Ronon wonders what Sheppard is running from, but thinks he'll never know. Still, he'll run with Sheppard, for a while.
Teyla runs in a different way. Oh, not just because she's a woman and they're built differently and usually run with their knees at the wrong angles and one arm across their chests to control the bouncing. He's seen her run towards McKay, on PX5-420, and she runs with all the same control and tension as he does himself. No, Teyla doesn't run like a woman. She runs with the weight of her people on her shoulders; she runs for alliances, and trade and the (she fears, illusory) safety that is the shelter of Atlantis; and for these things she is ducking, diving, weaving, speeding up, slowing down, feinting left, feinting right, always moving, always keeping ahead, always running.
Ronon knows what Teyla is running from, because they have the terrible knowledge of the Wraith in common. But he's envious that Teyla has something to run to. Teyla, he thinks, runs towards a future.
At first, Ronon thinks McKay sucks at running. McKay doesn't like running, chivvied along by Sheppard and Teyla, red-faced and sweating with the effort, shouting his discomfort and his fear.
"And why do you think that yelling at me will make me run faster than–-oh I don't know, these arrows whistling past my ears, Colonel? Like that doesn't give me a clue that we need to maybe get off this stinking excuse of a mediaeval midden, masquerading as a planet?"
"Just run, Rodney," says Sheppard, loping along behind him, protecting him, eyes flickering to try and see everything in the forest around them. What do they call it? Ah, yes. Watching Rodney's six, Sheppard would say. "Dial the gate."
McKay fetches up beside the DHD, hands slapping onto the panel, his chest heaving and breath short. But even now he doesn't stop talking. "Dial the gate? Really? There's a reason we need to do that and you need to remind me to do it rather than we just stick around and get stuck with the arrows that are still whistling past my ears?"
And then the Stargate activates and Sheppard turns to put one more burst of fire from his P90—a pop gun, thinks Ronon, derisively, not sure why Sheppard's so fond of it and wondering if he can get the colonel a bigger, better gun somewhere, one like his own—before grabbing McKay and hauling him through the gate. Ronon's own last shots are aimed at body height, punching their way through the thin-boled trees. There's a distant shriek and the arrows falter, and he follows Teyla through to the glass-stained quiet of the Atlantis gateroom.
"A bust," says Sheppard, and shrugs.
McKay's still talking, still complaining; his hands waving about to help the complaints along, to frame them, to give them due deference. Sheppard lounges to one side, listening and grinning, letting McKay vent. When Beckett appears, McKay talks faster, his voice rising, growing more impassioned, calling Beckett a voodoo-doctor, a sheep-sodomiser—Ronon wonders what a sheep is and resolves to ask Teyla, later. He knows what sodomy is: he's a soldier, after all, but knows Sheppard won't claim a commander's due—a bare-kneed kilted conman whose skills would shame a shaman. Sheppard's grin grows wider. When Weir approaches them, McKay slows down, just a little. McKay respects Weir, Ronon thinks, screwing up his eyes as he watches.
That makes Ronon wonder. He watches, weighs what he sees.
He sees that McKay runs as well as he does himself, as Teyla does, as Sheppard does; but differently and at different speeds for different people. McKay runs with his mouth, his speech and frantically-moving hands ducking, diving, weaving, speeding up, slowing down, feinting left, feinting right, always moving, always keeping ahead, always running. Ronon thinks that McKay is running from fear and hypo… hypo-something that means he has to eat a lot, and failure and fright and lemons (whatever they are) and the need to be recognised.
"Doctor McKay does not really mean it," says Teyla, explaining these strangers, as she often does. "It is just his way; as you will come to know, the more missions you do with us."
Ronon turns to look at Sheppard and sees the grin. When Sheppard puts his hand on McKay's arm, McKay stutters to a stop.
"Well done, Rodney. You did good, getting to the DHD so fast."
McKay smirks, puffs out his chest, and preens, looking so like the chi-chi bird in its spring mating dance that Ronon almost forgets himself and smiles. McKay does smile at Sheppard, and when Sheppard smiles back, one eyebrow hitching and his eyes full of lazy humour, then Ronon knows. He follows them to the Infirmary for the post-mission checks, Teyla beside him, and weighs up what he knows.
He doesn't know what Sheppard is running from. He thinks he knows what Rodney is running from. And now he knows that they're like Teyla.
They have something to run to.
He watches them ahead of him in the corridor, bickering, shoulder to shoulder. He wonders if they know, yet, that they're running together.
Ronon Dex is not a talkative man.
He was never much of a conversationalist, even before the long years of lone Running, and now he's learned the value and comfort of silence. It helps him focus; keeps him watchful. He likes it. He can hide in it and watch people underestimate him.
He's confused, at first, when McKay joins him in the silence. It's not right, it's not normal. Ronon always knows where McKay is, because any fool can triangulate on McKay's position by using the noise, and Ronon's no fool. McKay is all noise. McKay is loud, brash, his voice the first and last to be heard, and almost every gabbled sentence that McKay speaks has an unvoiced you moron tacked onto the end of it. Except when he's talking to Sheppard, maybe. Then it's only every other sentence. McKay respects Sheppard, Ronon thinks; although perhaps not as much as Ronon does and for different reasons.
Ronon watches for a day before he realises that it's not McKay's silence that has the most significance, unusual though it is. What's more significant is that Sheppard is all light words, meaningless chatter, smiles and jests and charm.
And grim silence underneath.
McKay is alone in the mess hall when Ronon finds him. Sheppard is sitting with Lorne. Teyla is nowhere in sight.
McKay looks surprised when Ronon sits with him. "Didn't you get the memo?" he asks.
"No," says Ronon. "What memo?"
"Atlantis is holding a Shunning. And guess what? They're shunning me." He glowers at Sheppard, who's talking to Lorne and won't turn his head to see Rodney.
Ronon sits back and scratches thoughtfully at his upper right leg. The tavern on Belkan had many guests, and he has, unfortunately, brought a couple back with him. Beckett's ointment is helping. He wonders if Teyla, too, has guests and ointment.
"Did you mean to do it?"
"Did I—? Of course I didn't! I thought it would work!"
Ronon almost smiles to hear the unspoken you moron. McKay looks a little better already. "Then there is no more to be said."
"Oh," says McKay, gloomily. "It's all been said. She said it was my ego and he said it was trust, and I said I was sorry. Much good that did me, by the way, and it's not like they'll want me apologising and grovelling next time they need me to save the day, oh no, then it'll all be 'Raawdney, you can do it, Raawdney; we depend on you, Raawdney', because he puts that stupid drawl into my name every time even though he knows it annoys the hell out of me, and he'll be there asking me how long, how fast, when, how much—" McKay stops for breath, and although Ronon nods encouragingly, thinking that he's cracked it and McKay's rediscovered his noise, McKay soon deflates and subsides. "I thought he'd like a gun," he says.
"Sheppard is a warrior," says Ronon. "We do like guns."
"Not this gun," says McKay. "He's angry."
"He'll get over it."
McKay's bitter. "When I've tried to earn it, yes. He said so."
Ronon has no answer for McKay. Teyla is angry too, Ronon knows, and for the same reason as Sheppard. He has no answer for that, yet, either. So he grunts and concentrates on his food, ignoring McKay's querulous remarks about forks and thinks it will all blow over sometime.
He catches several of Sheppard's sly glances at him and McKay, several of the frowns that seem to him to have little to do with anger.
It'll blow over sometime. Sometime soon, probably.
Ronon Dex does know about table manners.
Before the Wraith came, Sateda had been a rich world, an advanced world, with machines and smoky manufacturies, and advanced weapons and good government (well, of a sort). Until he became an exile and a Runner, Ronon Dex had never realised how impressive Satedan technology had been. Ronon is proud that none of their neighbours had anything close to it, and nor had many of the hundreds of worlds he'd seen when he was running, although since his arrival here on Atlantis Ronon has heard rumours of a people called the Genii. The Genii sound like they might come close. He's looking forward to meeting them. Sheppard says that he's looking forward to seeing them again, himself.
So, despite everything McKay says about 'savages' and 'uncivilised' and 'uncouth'—that last being a new word that, when he first heard it, Ronon enjoyed rolling around the silence of his mouth—Ronon Dex is perfectly able to use a knife and fork and always has been. It's just that he still can't quite believe that he has the luxury of time to waste on such inessentials.
True, he often uses knives for more deadly things than handling vegetables and this strange purple meat that Major Lorne's team bring back from a trading mission. Lorne doesn't quite explain what it is or how he got it, but Ronon notices that when he's asked, the tips of the Major's ears go pink and the glances he sends Parrish, the scientist on his team, grow increasingly strained. The scientist looks the other way and blushes.
Ronon is with Sheppard in the colonel's office when Lorne reports. They still aren't on active duty, and Sheppard needs watching: he hates paperwork and without someone to keep him there, he sneaks away. Teyla says it's Ronon's turn. Ronon thinks it would be simpler to kill Colonel Caldwell, but Teyla says that Earth would just send someone else.
Ronon can only read Satedan. He can't help with the papers, but he can keep people from bothering Sheppard while the colonel mutters and groans and pulls at his hair, and says interesting things about Caldwell. Ronon isn't sure that Caldwell is young enough and flexible enough to carry out Sheppard's suggestion. He wouldn't mind seeing the attempt, though.
Sheppard laughs, but he's sharp, underneath. Ronon sees that with the look he gives Lorne when the major arrives with the purple meat and the pink-faced scientist. But all Sheppard says is that he isn't asking any more questions and he doesn't want to be told the answers and why doesn't Major Lorne spend some down-time with his teammates and teach them how to deal with the vicissitudes of military life without turning all scarlet o'haha on them?
"What? Oh, Scarlett O'Hara," explains Sheppard, after Lorne has saluted and gone, taking his scientist with him. "It was a joke. It's a name of a girl in a movie." Sheppard smirks. "Gable's cool, like me."
"It's a girl's movie," warns Sheppard.
Ronon waits until Sheppard sighs.
"Okay, okay. I'll get it, all right? Someone's sure to have a copy somewhere. Just don't blame me if you cry at the end."
Ronon likes movies. He thinks that if the Atlanteans brought nothing else good to Pegasus, they at least brought movies and popcorn. McKay says Ronon's a deprived savage and, no, the pictures won't steal a bit of his soul. Ronon's not sure he has a soul, but he supposes McKay means well with the reassurance.
Ronon doesn't care how Lorne traded for the meat. It has an interesting taste. He eats it with gusto, savouring its spiciness, scooping it up with his fingers.
"Colonel Sheppard says that this is called corry," says Teyla, poking at it with a fork, to make sure it's actually dead. "He is getting the cooks to make him a turkey sandwich, instead."
She glances at Ronon and smiles, everything about her the colour of the sweet, strong honey made by the bees from the upland heather covering the hills north of Sateda City. Ronon wonders if the bees are still there. The honey had tasted of flowers, he remembers. He wonders what Teyla will taste of, and thinks that he will know, one day, when she has truly forgiven him for what he had to do on Belkan. He grunts. He doesn't think much of Sheppard's turkey sandwiches.
"I think that he may be very wise," adds Teyla, and the notion surprises both of them. Ronon likes to hear Teyla laugh. It's a rare thing.
"S'good," says Ronon, through a mouthful of the corry. He scoops up more. "Hot."
"Well," says Teyla, and her smile twitches. "On Athos, we used to drink a bracing tea against the chill of dawn, as spicy as this. I am sure that I can eat this."
Ronon nods and dips his fingers into the corry. As he eats, he lets his gaze roam the room, looking for Sheppard. He thinks the colonel is still too thin, too attenuated, too stretched, like the long thin insects that skitter through the bushes of his homeworld the way Sheppard had skittered through Atlantis until Ronon brought him down. Wraith-horses, they'd called them, when Ronon was a child; the insects as thin as sticks. Sheppard shouldn't be skipping real food, but Sheppard is his commander and must do what he wishes. Ronon will not go easy on him in combat training, though. If Sheppard will not accept advice, he must accept the consequences and it will not do to coddle him.
"He is well, really," says Teyla, showing that once again she knows what he is thinking. He believes this is something all women can do. It's why women have such a weight of knowledge in their eyes. "I asked Doctor Beckett. He told me that Colonel Sheppard is fine. It will not be long before the colonel is cleared for off-world missions."
He nods, and turns his attention back to Sheppard. The colonel is standing at the head of the queue and yes, of course, McKay is there beside him. Sheppard is listening carefully to something McKay is saying—Ronon can hear the complaining note, even from this distance, but can't make out the words—but Sheppard is smiling, so the complaining is just McKay, a nothing-special complaining, an all-is-well complaining. Ronon knows that the pitch and volume would be far greater if McKay was being serious about it.
Ronon is surprised when they join him and Teyla, because the colonel's tray is loaded with a plate of corry as well as the sandwich.
"Beckett's told the cooks I have to be fattened up," says Sheppard, seeing Ronon's look. "I feel like Hansel."
"You look like Gretel," snorts McKay. "It's the hair. Have you tried pigtails?"
Sheppard just grins.
"Are they members of the expedition?" asks Teyla. "I have not yet had the opportunity to meet all the new arrivals from the Daedalus."
McKay snorts and shovels food into his mouth while Sheppard tries to explain about children lost in the forest, eaten by a witch. Ronon's surprised. He thought that the Earthers knew nothing of the Wraith before they came to Atlantis, but he's obviously wrong.
"Ah, a children's story," nods Teyla. "We, too, have traditional tales that we tell our children. The stories hold valuable life lessons."
"Like not getting fed on by the Wraith," mumbles Ronon. He rubs the flat bread that came with the corry around his plate, to get the last rich spiciness.
"There's no arguing with the value of that," agrees Sheppard.
Teyla smiles at Sheppard. "These fairy tales are like the stories you told the children when we first came here?"
McKay sniggers. "You sat there with infants clustered around your knee, telling them to clap their hands and believe in fairies? I wish I'd seen it!"
"It was Jinto and the others, and I told them the plot of Halloween," says Sheppard, still smiling. "Hey, I never did get around to Nightmare on Elm Street. Too scary, I guess."
"Are you going to eat that corry?" asks Ronon, looking at Sheppard's plate.
"I got it for McKay, but you can have some." Sheppard tips half the meat onto Ronon's plate. "And it's curry. With an uh in the middle."
Ronon nods, accepting both the correction and the curry.
"That," says McKay, with a dangerous glint, "was mine."
Ronon digs his fingers into the curry, and stares McKay down. He scoops up a generous portion and shovels it in. He licks his fingers clean, drawing them slowly out of his mouth, savouring the taste. He has to work his tongue under the nails a little, to get the last of the juices. He tips his head back and sucks hard.
When he looks at them again, they're all staring at him.
McKay's mouth is open and he licks his lips. Teyla's face is pink under the honey-gold, and Ronon thinks again that one day she will taste of flowers for him. Sheppard has one eyebrow quirked upwards and a lazy smile on his face.
"You want to be alone with that, buddy?" he asks.
"You can have some more," says McKay, cutting across Sheppard, and he's hoarse, as if there's something wrong with his voice. He swallows and licks his lips again. "Really, take it."
"Rodney," says Sheppard, and Ronon looks up, startled, the upward scoop of curry-laden fingers halted. There's the hint of chill beneath the light tone.
McKay shivers. He looks at Sheppard, and after a minute, he shakes his head and grabs at Sheppard's plate. "I'll have the rest," he says. "I'm just this far from a reaction."
"Yeah," says Sheppard. "I noticed. You'd better eat up, Rodney."
Ronon resumes eating, since chewing hides the grin. Teyla looks away, but he can see her mouth curving.
"Didn't you get any pudding?" asks McKay, when Sheppard's finished the sandwich.
Sheppard shakes his head. "None left."
"Oh." McKay hesitates, then pushes the second of his two pudding cups over. "I suppose you can have this one."
Sheppard looks at him for a moment, then smiles. "We'll share."
Specialist Ronon Dex is a warrior to his toenails.
It was the family business. His father and his father's father and his father's father's father and back ten generations, had been warriors. They were all big men, bred to fight. It was in his blood.
Today is the anniversary of his first blooding. He had stood with his hand turned palm up, held by the hands of his new squad-mates. His Task Master had sliced across the palm to mingle their blood. Kell had watched him for signs of weakness, but had seen none. He had seen none on Belkan, either.
"Sheesh," says Sheppard when Ronon tells him of the ceremony. "And I thought getting flicked with wet towels and being left buck-naked in the parade ground was bad."
Ronon doesn't know why he's telling Sheppard this. But from the very first, Sheppard has been interested in Ronon's skills and training. At the beginning, Ronon thinks he is being tested, measured up against whatever standards Sheppard holds. But soon he realises that Sheppard genuinely wants to learn, the way he learns by Teyla beating him with sticks. Ronon doesn't mind training Sheppard. Sometimes, though, he wonders if it helps to use the sticks.
"It was expected of me, that I should serve Sateda," he tells Sheppard, after letting the colonel get back up again from the mat. "From before I could walk, my father would tell me that I must follow in his footsteps."
"Yeah? Mine too." Sheppard is bending over, his hands on his knees, catching his breath.
Ronon has not been easy on him. He is annoyed that Sheppard sent him off with Teyla looking for Major Lorne, while he and McKay went after Ladon to M6R-867. Lorne was on M6R-867 anyway. Ronon should have been there.
"He was taken by the Wraith just after I joined the regiment," says Ronon. "He killed many of them first."
"Mine got shot down over Vietnam just before the war ended, but he got away without a scratch," says Sheppard. "They didn't tell me until after they'd got him out—I was only about six, maybe seven. He got some medals outa it."
Sheppard straightens up, signals that he's ready, and starts the slow, careful dance around the training mat. Ronon waits until Sheppard rushes him before throwing him down again and bouncing him around a bit. Sheppard lies back and wheezes.
"I am glad that mine saw me in my first fight," says Ronon. "He was proud, I think."
"Yeah? Mine—not so much."
Ronon takes his foot off Sheppard's chest and lets him up again.
"Enough for today," says Sheppard, still wheezing.
"You shift your weight before you rush me," says Ronon. "It signals your intent, every time."
"Really?" Sheppard frowns, then nods. "I think you're right. I'll try and watch that, tomorrow."
"Why not now?"
"I'm going to see McKay. He's a bit shook up at almost getting himself nuked yesterday, so I thought I'd go turn on a few Ancient gizmos for him and listen to him complain about it. Just until he calms down."
"He is no warrior," says Ronon, remembering his grievance. "You should have taken me with you, instead. And Teyla," he adds.
"Yeah, well, it all happened too fast to wait for you to get back."
Sheppard sings in the shower, as usual, and not for the first time Ronon wishes that Teyla would allow him to borrow her sticks. After the showers, he follows Sheppard out of the gym. It's not that he wants to escort Sheppard everywhere, precisely, but the previous day Sheppard had gone into battle without him. Ronon is concerned that he has failed in his duty to Sheppard, to the commander who asked him to join and who didn't demand his blood in payment. Dereliction of duty is not something that Ronon takes lightly.
"So," he says. "That was the Genii."
Sheppard nods. "Yeah."
Ronon thinks about how Sheppard was able to take the Genii without his help. He snorts softly, derisively. "They aren't so tough."
Ronon Dex is never afraid.
That's a lie.
He's afraid, wrapped in the warm cocoon. He's afraid that the Wraith will once again condemn him to Running, and he's afraid that he will let Sheppard down by not saving McKay. Listening to McKay, though, he's almost sorry for Sheppard's regard. He thinks others are more worthy. He wonders if by not saving McKay, he's saving Sheppard from himself, but in the end he doesn't give in to temptation. He gets his thanks in the grip Sheppard has on his arm, warm and living, and in watching Sheppard watch McKay.
"You can say nothing," says Teyla, later, when they are back on Atlantis and Ronon has time to wonder at being alive and unafraid again.
He and Teyla watch McKay and Sheppard across the mess room. He notes each subtle touch, each glance as they talk. He sits back in his chair, and considers.
"You can say nothing," repeats Teyla.
"I don't talk much," says Ronon. "I don't have much to say."
"The colonel would be taken away from us."
Ronon laughs at that, because just let anyone try! The Wraith haven't succeeded in that yet, and if they've failed, the puny Earthers won't succeed. Teyla's mouth turns up, and she laughs a little and shrugs.
"Well, they will try," she says.
"Caldwell will do nothing," says Ronon. "Caldwell will see nothing."
"I was not certain that you had seen it. You said nothing."
Ronon won't speak of what he sees when Sheppard's hand brushes McKay's, or of the half-smile McKay gives Sheppard in return. He looks at her, surprised. "I saw it months ago. All that's happened is that they've stopped running."
Then he's afraid when Sheppard agrees to give Beckett his chance. Beckett thinks that Michael is redeemable, a sort of almost-human. Ronon is afraid that Sheppard agrees. Beckett's a fool, but Ronon doesn't want to think that badly of Sheppard. Because this is the same Michael who threatened to feed from Teyla, who touched Teyla; and not even Michael's actions on the hive ship wipe out that offence, not even though Ronon and McKay and Sheppard are alive because of him.
"It is a terrible thing," says Teyla, quietly.
They use the hive ship's own weapons against the Wraith. Ronon doesn't think it's so terrible. He's a warrior, and a warrior uses whatever weapons he can against the enemy. He eyes Sheppard with a little more respect, because Sheppard understands that too. Sheppard knows that morals have no place in fighting, although, like Teyla, he knows that terror does.
Ronon feels a moment's pride in his achievements. He begins to think that he would have made a decent Task Master. Sheppard is learning well.
One day, Sheppard will be as good at fighting as Ronon is himself.
And he's afraid when the Wraith take him again.
He's not afraid of ghosts, although Sateda's soaked with them, running with them, gibbering on every corner and in every dark and dank tunnel in the armoury.
He's not afraid of the past, although he stares for a long time at the window where she stood and died her clean, Wraith-free death. He's not afraid of the place where he left her, where there were a few green things about her, on the small grassy space outside the hospital. (There are the tumbled bones of dozens of dead there now. He doesn't know which are hers.)
He's not afraid that Sheppard won't find him—somehow he's found trust enough to believe that Sheppard will always find him and come for him, because Sheppard leaves no-one behind.
He's not afraid of death, because as a Runner he has faced death many times and often thinks that he will welcome it when it comes. (Well, accept it. When it's inevitable and not even he can run any farther.)
He's not even afraid that he won't be able to take the hunter-Wraith with him when he goes.
But later, when it's over, and he's lying in the Infirmary with his family about him, and everything he once knew shaking about inside his head, he realises that he is afraid.
He's afraid because he's suddenly stopped running.
He's afraid he's forgotten about living.