Many thanks to Halrloprillalar for beta and title help.
Ronon has a request.
Morale in the Workplace
A few weeks into the new team structure, Ronon walked into John's quarters without knocking and said, "I need you to mark me."
John looked up from a half-mug of cold coffee and a nearly finished report on PM-420. Stinging insects, bogs, and a stench that defied all preparation and reason; he was recommending it not be placed in the R&R database. Wiping it out of the system entirely would be preferable, and he wished he could do the same to his memory of it.
He saved the report, closed the lid to the laptop, ran Ronon's words through his head a few more times and decided that yeah, he really had heard what he thought he'd heard, and said, "You need me to what?"
"Mark me." Ronon said it like he was asking for a second helping of that asparagus-like vegetable Teyla had bartered for back on PS-392. No; closer to asking for permission to return fire or date his ex-girlfriend. Either way, completely inappropriate.
"Listen, Ronon, I don't know what ideas you've formed about our culture, but---"
"Mark me as part of your team, part of the...." Ronon gestured vaguely as if to encompass all of Atlantis within the expanse of John's quarters, which hadn't been large to begin with and were now positively cramped.
"Oh." That was different; John could handle that.
Something flashed through Ronon's eyes, and it took John a moment to recognize it as uncertainty. "Unless you don't want to." Now he sounded as if John had just ordered him to kill a puppy, though John wasn't sure Ronon had any particular scruples that way.
"No, it's not that--I mean. Jesus." He took a deep breath. "We could probably find you a...a uniform, something, if that would make you feel more a part of the team." He doubted they had any in storage that would fit, but was sure something could be whipped together.
"No. Look. Whenever any of us were taken on by a new...task master... if the old one had been killed or...was no longer worthy, we'd receive his mark." Without explanation, Ronon shrugged off his coat, letting it pool on the floor around his feet, and began to pull off his shirt.
"Wait, no, I get it, sure---"
But the shirt was already gone. Ronon turned and bent his neck over his shoulder like a heron, offering up the curve of his upper arm and long plane of his back for John's perusal.
Against his better judgment, John got up to look. Diagonally down from the tip of Ronon's shoulder was a dark smudge of indistinct shape, too symmetrical to be a birthmark. A symbol of some kind, unfamiliar, and apparently tattooed on the skin. It looked like a squashed pumpkin.
Ronon still had his neck craned around to eye it, as much as possible from its placement on his back; and for a second his expression turned hard and brooding, caught briefly elsewhere.
That was a little more than he needed to know. John cleared his throat and stepped back as Ronon's shrugged into his shirt. "Your last...task master--is that what you called it?--gave you that."
John gave him room to elaborate, but Ronon seemed to think he'd offered enough explanation, and John wasn't sure he was up for learning more about the idiosyncracies this comparison to a task master entailed. "Yes, well, I can't imagine Elizabeth would go along with us tattooing our team members."
"It doesn't have to be a tattoo."
Not helpful. He wished Teyla were there, with her knack for interpreting fucked-up alien mores; except that he had an image of her calmly saying, "If it would help Ronon to be marked by you, Colonel Sheppard, then you should follow his wishes."
"Is this really necessary?"
Ronon didn't answer, but his expression conveyed that yes, it was necessary, and that John wasn't making asking about it any easier.
"Um," John said. "I'll see what I can do."
They had a few days' break before the next scheduled trip offworld, so John spent an afternoon in the equipment room sifting through piles of jackets and military vests stacked on makeshift shelves in what had probably been an Atlantean dance club back in the day. He was right, there weren't any uniforms that would fit Ronon, even if he was willing to give up the large dead animal he called a coat. There were some standard-issue hats, but aside from the disturbing picture of one of them perched on Ronon's head, they reminded him of Ford. And that was a road better left untraveled.
Out of ideas, not that he had any good ones to begin with, he let it rest the next day and instead played basketball on one of the wide upper terraces of Atlantis with a couple of lieutenants newly hatched from the Daedalus. They kicked his ass. He tried not to let it bother him.
In the mess hall later that day, he saw Ronon over in the corner and almost took his tray over to sit with him, then remembered. He found a spot half-hidden behind one of the support pillars of the room instead. At one point he glanced up, his spoon full of something that he hoped was mashed potatoes, to find Ronon staring at him; and maybe they did have puppies on Sateda and Ronon was averse to killing them, because he looked as if John had just put a bullet into one of his. Shit.
He thought better when he was moving. So the next day he spent an hour wandering around the corridors of Atlantis waiting for an idea or even the dawning gleam of an idea, until finally he found Teyla and wheedled a workout from her.
A half-hour later, staring up at her from the mat with his shoulders tightened up like rubber bands in a winch, he said, "Teyla, let me ask you something."
Teyla politely stood back, sticks lowered to her sides, and waited for him to rise. He rolled to his hip and tried to appear sprightly as he got his legs under him, sorer than he should have been from the basketball the day before. "Do you feel like you're part of our team?"
She considered the question. "I do feel like a valued member of Atlantis, yes. Perhaps more so now than in the past."
"Is there anything that helped you feel that way? Aside from us no longer accusing you and your people of collaborating with the Wraith and all." Ouch.
She didn't flinch at that, but she did look puzzled. "Anything that makes you feel...included," he continued. "Not just Atlantis, but our team, the four of us. I mean, you wear the uniform and carry our guns...." He trailed to a halt.
"Nothing that I can think of. Except for the trust you have shown me, yes."
"So there's nothing more...physical, maybe...that would make you feel...marked...as a part of our team?"
Teyla's eyes narrowed just a bit, and John thought that he might be treading on dangerous ground. "I'm not sure I understand your meaning, Colonel Sheppard."
"Nothing. Never mind." He looked around for his pair of Athosian sticks and finally found them in the corner, as if some idiot who didn't know what he was doing with them had had them knocked from his hands and tossed halfway across the room.
The night before they were scheduled to leave for PS-2R4, Ronon paid him a visit. John wasn't entirely surprised. He hadn't pegged him as the patient type. This time, however, Ronon knocked.
"I just wanted to let you know that it's okay."
"About the marking, I mean." Discomfort sat on Ronon like a wet dog trying not to shake itself dry, and it made John uncomfortable to see him like that, like he'd been the one pushing him in the lake.
"Look, it's not that I haven't been thinking about it, I just haven't found anything, you know, appropriate."
"No, really, it's okay. I understand. It's not your custom. I shouldn't have asked you."
"Oh. Okay. So we're good then." Except that John could see that they really weren't, that this meant something to Ronon. And that the not-okay now would potentially turn into a bigger not-okay down the line, and that was a dangerous rift to have in a team that needed each other as much as they needed each other out there in the wilds of the Pegasus galaxy.
"Hang on." He crossed to where most of his stuff brought back on the Daedalus was still piled in a corner of the room. It took a few minutes searching, but he found what he needed: an ID bracelet his sister had given him when he turned eighteen. It was cheap and he'd never worn it, because it was, well, a bracelet, but he'd kept it as a kind of good-luck charm and because it reminded him of his family. Not that he always wanted to be reminded, in which case it was an easy enough thing to hide under the laundry pile.
He brought it back and held it out to Ronon, who stared at it suspiciously. "What is this?"
"It's a...it's a bracelet of sorts, but not really, and anyway, didn't you want something to make you feel part of the team?"
Ronon picked it up by one end. It looked even more cheap and bracelet-like dangling from his fingers. Ronon brought it up closer and peered at it. "Is that your name?"
"Well, yeah....That's the kind of bracelet it is." Somehow the awkwardness of the whole situation was only increasing. "It doesn't mean anything. Just ignore that. But you wanted something, and that's something."
Great. Ronon was looking at him like he'd come out in spots.
"Okay," Ronon said finally. "What do I do with it?"
"You put it on your wrist. Like this." John stepped forward and Ronon let him take the bracelet from his fingers and even held out his arm when John gestured him to. He was so focused on fitting the clasp together around Ronon's wrist--his eighteen-year-old wrists had been a lot skinnier--that he didn't catch Ronon's expression until he stepped back and glanced up, and then it hit him in a weird, detached way how intimate the process had been, and how strangely Ronon was looking at him, as if something significant had just passed between them.
And then he didn't feel detached at all. Because Jesus, he'd just put a bracelet on another man's arm and it had his fucking name on it, and Jesus, what was he thinking.
"You know, I don't think this is such a hot idea," he said faintly.
But Ronon was looking at the bracelet, twisting his wrist to study it from different angles. "I like it."
"Trust me, this is a really bad idea. Look, I'll find you something else, something...better." Something that wouldn't make him the laughing stock of the entire fucking city. He reached forward to unclasp the bracelet, but Ronon pulled his arm back. Again, John felt that weird frisson of uncomfortable intimacy.
Ronon sounded so sincere. Like he actually appreciated having John's name wrapped around his wrist. "Um," said John.
"See you tomorrow." Ronon was still checking out the bracelet as he left the room.
"Sure," John said, to the whoosh of the door closing.
PS-2R4 was populated by warring city-states of moderate technology; not advanced enough to solve their problems with the Wraith but nothing to sneeze at, either. A scout team had been sent three weeks ago to soften them up for further negotiations, enter John and his team; only the leader of the mountain city freaked in the middle of talks, which prompted a fit of hand-waving and dire speeches from the leader of the lowland city, and two days into a standoff involving more pointed guns than anyone was happy about, John found himself with the rest of his team in the middle of uninhabited woods twenty miles from the puddlejumper.
They made it seven miles before nightfall, at which time McKay collapsed across the trunk of a giant fallen tree and refused to move. Ronon and Teyla voted to keep going; Ronon because he had no sense, and Teyla because there was still the possibility they were being followed by some of the still-ruffled lowland dwellers. But John called a halt, because carrying McKay through thick foliage in the dark was not his idea of a good time, and they all needed a break.
"Look, it's warm enough we don't need a fire, and we'll make better time tomorrow if we get some sleep. I'll take first watch, Teyla, you take the second. Ronon, you've got third."
To his credit, Rodney offered to take a watch, but John could tell it wasn't a very sincere offer. Besides, McKay was beat. John did take over Rodney's tree; he settled his back against the trunk and listened to the others settling down, nighttime forest noises rising to the surface until he wondered how anyone could sleep through all of the racket.
He had to admit he enjoyed these opportunities. Not the whole negotiation meltdown, per se, or even the prospect of hiking thirteen more miles to get back to the puddlejumper, god willing the cloak was still in place, but breaks on Atlantis still weren't really breaks; there was always too much going on and too much to do, and not enough opportunity to listen to very loud crickets chirping.
He woke Teyla a couple hours later and they changed places. His pack made a decent enough pillow after mashing it into place, and it wasn't long before he was out. Until at some point in the night when he woke, blinking, feeling more than seeing some large mass looming above him, casting a faint shadow from the light of the planet's moons; he grabbed his gun, blinked some more, then hissed, "What the hell are you doing?"
Ronon didn't answer. He was just a couple feet away, pistol resting against the side of one bent leg, staring out into the night.
John wondered what time it was; it still felt early, and when he checked he could see Teyla still at her watch by the tree. "Why aren't you sleeping?"
"Go back to sleep," Ronon said.
"What the hell?" John had the weird, cold feeling that Ronon was watching over him. Which possibly meant that he hadn't even slept at all; and that was creepy to think about, that Ronon had been awake the whole time he'd been on watch.
"Just go back to sleep."
John glared. It was lost in the darkness and likely on Ronon, too, even if he could see it. He hadn't realized giving a man a bracelet made that man his permanent bodyguard. Of course, he'd never given a man a bracelet before.
"Fine," he muttered, and turned over. He punched his makeshift pillow a few more times, and then, surprisingly, drifted back to sleep almost immediately.
By noon the next day they were worn and deflated, but there were only a few more miles to go and Rodney was already scanning for the puddlejumper's exact location. John held back with him as Teyla and Ronon went ahead, disappearing after a few minutes but still in range.
Then he and Rodney rounded a corner and there were Teyla and Ronon at the bottom of a vaguely defined path leading upward, Teyla examining Ronon's wrist.
"Shit," John said. McKay gave him a look. Ahead, Ronon and Teyla broke off their little tete-a-tete, Ronon continuing up the hill while Teyla waited for them.
"Trust me," John said, when he reached her. "No explanation I can give you will suffice."
For Teyla, she looked positively amused. "An interesting gesture, Colonel Sheppard."
"Look. He wanted something to make him part of the team. Said it was something all of his task masters did, like some kind of initiation or symbol."
Teyla's gaze sharpened. "He said that?"
"Close enough. And so I gave him something to make him part of the team. Kind of. And okay, not really, but I was desperate. I don't remember any good suggestions from you when I asked you about it."
"Had you asked me directly, I might have been able to help."
McKay came up on them just as John said, "It's just an ID bracelet. It's not even a very nice one, to tell you the truth. I didn't have anything else."
"What? What are we talking about?"
"Nothing, McKay," John said, but then Teyla said, "He appears to value it quite highly," and then Rodney said, "What" again very loudly and John snapped and told him. Then Rodney gave him a look and said, "Funny, I don't remember you offering me jewelry when I joined the team."
"Forget it," John muttered, and shifted his gun to his other arm before setting up the hill.
The day after they returned from PS-2R4 he went running to work the kinks out, following the curve of Atlantis's outer corridors to the upper tiers of the city, where it was another sunny day here on the planet of the Ancients, the smell of the sea a sharp yet pleasant constant.
After four miles he slowed to a walk, but he didn't feel like turning back just yet. Elizabeth had been predictably understanding about the failed negotiations; sometimes he wished she would yell a little more, though, that she would put the blame on him. It would make him feel less like he was responsible only for a diplomatic gaffe and more like one of their chances of expanding their options against the Wraith had just been squashed, whether or not it was his fault.
He heard the noise first, and then after ducking behind one of the tier supports and glancing back, saw a flash of cloth, and again a slight scuff against the smooth floor. And he hadn't even brought his gun. He had his radio, though, and was just about to call it in when the lurker came into view and it was Ronon.
"Jesus," John said, leaning against the support as Ronon approached. "Are you following me?"
"Yes," Ronon said.
He came closer, and all of a sudden John felt an unwelcome flash of physical intimidation; and it had been a long time since he'd last felt that from someone not the enemy. "I understand that it's possibly okay to follow other people around in your culture, but it's a little freaky in mine."
Ronon kept walking toward him, and when he finally stopped he was a lot closer than the distance between two more-than-acquaintances but not quite buddies allowed for. John resisted the urge to step back, even when Ronon was so close he could smell him, the faint trace of sulphur from a blown-out match.
And then Ronon's lips were brushing John's cheek, and he felt the scratch of Ronon's beard and the bite of teeth on his ear lobe, nibbling.
Freaky had just become inadequate. John pulled back. "Maybe we need to make a list," he said, wondering that he retained any measure of matter-of-fact-ness. "You know, detailing exactly what's okay and what's not okay in our culture."
"Is this okay?" Ronon asked, and spread his hand out on John's chest, over the t-shirt damp from running; and the combined heat of John's body and the heat of Ronon's hand worked like suction to anchor him there. In the meantime Ronon had moved to the other side to kiss his neck and lick the sweat left from his run, and that was a turn-off and really fucking hot at the same time, which John blamed for his apparent disinclination to get the hell out of there.
Then he realized Ronon's hand was on his bare back and that his t-shirt was bunched tightly below his chest, and that he could feel the metal of the ID bracelet on Ronon's wrist pressing against his skin.
Ronon stopped kissing him and was still. Deferent, as if waiting for permission.
"Jesus." John's knees buckled and he fell forward onto them. That hurt rather a lot. He wondered if he could just stay there for a while, at least until the pain streaking through his knee caps settled to a more tolerable ache.
Somewhere above him, Ronon said, "Do you want me to stop?"
Yeah. He wanted him to stop like he wanted a fucking colonoscopy. "Yes. No. Give a guy some warning next time, won't you? That was...a little weird."
He got back to his feet and had the urge to brush himself off, though the hallways of Atlantis were practically sterile. His knees still throbbed, and other parts of him were throbbing as well, and he felt hot and disheveled and completely off-balance. "Do your people do this with all their task masters?"
Something flashed over Ronon's face. "No. Not always."
"I see." He wished he had something more intelligent to say, but it all pretty much boiled down to that; only he didn't see, not really, and wasn't sure he wanted to. "I think for the moment that yeah, we'd better stop."
Ronon didn't answer right away. "Okay."
"It's not that I'm not...appreciative." Ronon wasn't making this any easier by pulling the silent treatment. "I just think that there's been a misunderstanding. And that maybe...I'd better take that back." His eyes flicked to the bracelet on Ronon's wrist.
"You want it back." Ronon's voice was flat.
Ronon undid the clasp. He held out the bracelet and John felt it pool in his outstretched hand. "It wasn't a misunderstanding," Ronon said.
John closed his hand over it. "No, I guess it wasn't."
He woke the next morning to cold feet and what felt like an icicle forming on his nose. Even his eyelashes were frosty.
He reached across the bed for the radio. "Rodney, what's going on?"
There was a burst of static, a few seconds of silence, and then in a tone no reasonable person would call dulcet, Rodney said, "Why are you bothering me? Can't you see the climate controls are down?"
John tossed the receiver on the bed as he reached for his pants, found a t-shirt wedged at the foot of his bed and pulled it over his head. It was stiff and cold. He hissed when it touched his skin. He was almost out the door when Rodney came back over the radio. "Where are you? Why aren't you here yet? Am I the only one in this city capable of operating in a crisis?"
The control room was chaotic, considering it was only Rodney and two techs. When he walked in, Rodney handed him what looked like a miniature carburetor, about the weight of a full-sized one. "Hold this."
John held the carburetor. He wondered how long he'd have to hold it because he could already feel veins popping out in his arms; he tried not to look relieved when Rodney finally plucked it from his hands and inserted it gingerly back into an open panel.
"What was that?" John asked, and then a moment later Elizabeth came through the door and said, "Rodney, what's going on?"
"Will everyone stop asking me that? The climate controls have fritzed. I would think that would be obvious." He turned to John. "Come here. I need your gene."
"Why? The systems work for you."
A pained look flashed over Rodney's face. "Yes, but they still like you better." Apparently that continued to gall him. He tugged John over to the panel, which was lighting up in sickly patterns like a Gameboy with batteries about to go.
"Push this," Rodney instructed him, and John pushed. Lights blinked less feebly. "And this," Rodney said again, and John pushed that button, too. The entire panel lit with a burst of color, then eventually settled into the more soothing, operative blinking that John interpreted as normal working condition.
A hiss of air sounded above him, soon fading to a background noise that he'd never noticed until it was absent. Already his nose was beginning to thaw.
"Rodney, what on earth?"
John let Rodney and Elizabeth hammer it out while the two techs stood against the wall, wide-eyed. Judging that his gene was no longer needed and that McKay could hold his own with Elizabeth, he wandered back through the corridors, reassuring those he passed that everything was fine, Rodney had saved the day, and that the rumors of snow in the mess hall were untrue. Not that he had any idea; for all he knew they could have been skiing.
It was early, though, and most people not on shift were asleep. They'd set their schedule roughly by the cycle of the planet, so the day was just about to dawn. John wandered over to one of the outside terraces, watched the sun rise up over the water, thought, So that's pretty fucking gorgeous, then wandered back in, ending up some time later outside the quarters they'd assigned Ronon.
He didn't knock.
"Look," he said. Ronon was sitting on the edge of the bed with one boot on, the other pulled up halfway. "You don't need a--a bracelet, for god's sake, to be a part of this team. Teams are, about, you know, doing your job. Teamwork. Working, um, with the team. Not being tattooed by them."
"Why did you give it to me?"
That stopped him short. "Okay, to be honest, I'm a little shaky on the reasoning behind that myself."
Ronon, he could tell, wasn't going to make this easy on him. "You don't trust me."
John paused, confused. "Is that what we're talking about? I went to bat for you with Elizabeth. I got you a starting position on the team. What makes you think I don't trust you?"
Ronon shrugged. He didn't say anything. You're full of shit, John heard in his head, and didn't know if it was in Ronon's voice or his. Yeah, not making this easy. "Fine," John said. "Then give me a chance."
That's when he realized they were talking about something completely different. Ronon knew it, too. The city's temperature must still have been lower than normal levels, because John's hands were shaking, just a bit. The back of his neck was cold. He wasn't sure he could put this down to curiosity and the fact that he hadn't been laid in a while; on the other hand, neither of those were anything to turn his nose up at. If that's what it was.
"This is crazy," John tried, but that wasn't flying. Obviously Ronon didn't think it was crazy at all. So he crossed the room, put his hands on Ronon's shoulders and kissed him. It was just like kissing a girl, except that he didn't remember any girl kissing him back quite so forcefully and with quite so much tongue. Apparently he'd been dating all the wrong girls.
"Wildly guessing here, but if there's a right way to resolve this situation, my bet is that this isn't it." He didn't seem to want to leave, though, or take his hands from Ronon's shoulders. And if it wasn't the right thing to do, it didn't entirely feel like the wrong thing, either. So instead John asked him, "Do you have anywhere you need to be?" and didn't wait for Ronon's no before kissing him again.
He liked the fact that he could lean in all he wanted and Ronon would take it. He nudged him back enough to get a knee up on the edge of the bed, lodged between Ronon's thighs, and that was nice; he liked how Ronon leaned back a little, shifting his crotch to press against his lower thigh.
"Two things," John said, a little huskily. He cleared his throat. "One, this kind of thing doesn't always go over well in my culture. So if we could keep it, you know, kind of quiet, that would be great."
Ronon's look said that at the moment he didn't give a shit about what was or wasn't kosher in John's culture, and that he was wondering when John was going to get around to doing something about what was currently parked against John's thigh.
"Um," said John. "Right." He soldiered on. "Two, this isn't intended to be any sort of...marking."
Ronon did hesitate at that, and John could see that he was revising his expectations somewhat. That was a little deflating. But still the appropriate position to take. He was pretty sure. "Okay," Ronon said.
"Because I'm not your task master, or whatever it is you call it."
Ronon's mouth twitched with what might have been humor. "Do I still have to follow your orders?"
"Yes," John said firmly. "Or rather no, not at this moment--and you know what? Let's skip the wrong and abusive bit for now. I'll show you the training video later."
Ronon was already pulling his shirt off, so those last words were muffled, not that he figured Ronon was listening. Nipples tingling from where the t-shirt had rubbed against them, head already buzzing with coital non-thought, John swung himself up on the bed.
If he ever did meet any of the Ancients formerly of Atlantis, John planned to tell them their beds were first rate. They held where they should, gave right where he wanted, were easy on the back and, John was discovering, were pretty great for sex, too.
Ronon had already kicked off his boots and was working on his pants. John helped him. He lost himself in helping him. There didn't seem to be any hurry until there was; and then pants off, dicks out. He was sure he'd seen this film before, but the real thing was better. He found a fold of skin on Ronon's stomach and sucked on it for a while. Rubbed his chin over it, reached Ronon's cock, took it in.
John Sheppard, boys and girls, sucking cock and liking it. Ronon twitched a little under him and made a sound deep in his throat like the wail of a rusty siren, and John changed that to, really liking it, a lot. He could tell Ronon was just about let loose and had a moment of anticipation and just a smidgen of fear--and that was kind of hot, too; but then Ronon pulled himself back, reached for John's dick and they were both going at it in a pretzelized tangle of legs and hands and long, strong fingers.
Ronon came first, and John allowed himself a smirk for both his longevity and apparent skills. Then he was coming too, blindingly quick, leaving him some time later in a soft, wracked-out shell of a human body.
"So," he said.
Ronon's hand was splayed across his stomach, lightly sticky. It was heavy and warm, which summed up what John felt all over; he closed his eyes, knowing it was a bad idea, but then just let himself enjoy the hum of this particular complacency.
When Ronon reached over him to the floor next to the bed, he stirred and troubled himself to open his eyes. Ronon shifted back on the bed, a long, shiny, bracelet-like thing dangling from his fingers.
"Where did you get that?"
"From your pocket."
The bracelet swung from Ronon's hand, glinting and hypnotic, and for a moment John was mesmerized by it. It seemed so small and feeble. He took it from Ronon and Ronon let him. He turned it over in his hand, rubbed the links of the chain, brushed the pad of his thumb over the engraving of his name, then gave it back. "You can keep it," he said.
Ronon didn't say anything. He closed his hand over it.
"But for god's sake, don't wear it."
That might have been a smile. "I get it," Ronon said. "No marking."
"No marking," John agreed. He liked this ease between them. It was a start, anyway. He searched for a pillow and found one, folding it under his head to find the right angle. The Ancients might be well conversant on beds, but they had something to learn about pillows. He wondered if now was the time to tell Ronon that he liked to angle his legs diagonally across the bed. "Though I did give you a pretty serious hickey."