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A Sure Anchor

by Eildon Rhymer (aka rhymer23")

 

While visiting a place from Ronon's past, Sheppard and Ronon are attacked by snipers, but there's something there that's more dangerous and deadly than any human enemy.

__

 

The air was heavy with memory. Perhaps that was why Ronon failed to notice that they were being watched by men with hostile intent. Perhaps that was why he missed the first subtle indications that something was very wrong with Sheppard. Perhaps that was why he only noticed the signs when it was already too late.

 

He had come here as a child, sometimes with friends or family, and sometimes alone. He had come here with his first squad on an exercise, holing up in the ruins for four days and fighting off all comers, until sirens had announced a surprise attack by the Wraith and all games had come to an end. He knew the scent of the herbs that wafted up from the plain. He knew that headless statue buried behind red flowers and thorns. He remembered climbing through that window, shinning up that wall, and sitting on the tallest rampart, above the wreckage of a tower once even taller.

 

"It's nice," Sheppard said, leaning against a honey-yellow wall that came up to his waist. Wind from the plain stirred his hair, and his body was languid in the sun. "I never knew Sateda had--" His hand moved, encompassing everything around them, then fell back again. "--this," he said.

 

It was only natural to judge a whole world from what you saw around the Ring. All Sheppard had seen of Sateda was the ruins of its greatest city, but Sateda also had its forests and its wildernesses, its deserts and its frozen places. Ronon had made the same mistake, judging Earth from movies set in crime-filled cities where it was always garish night.

 

"Of course we have," Ronon said. He looked out at the view, not so different now from how it had always been, with squat raeliac trees still growing in lines on pale soil parched by the sun. The city was invisible, its broken skyline hidden by tall walls and the haze of distance.

 

Sheppard smiled, boneless against the wall. "'s nice."

 

Ronon had expected Sheppard to ask questions. He hadn't known how he would answer them, and quite how much he would say. Sheppard had talked about normal, inconsequential things during their long hike from the Ring, but had fallen silent during the climb up to the ruined fortress. Ronon had blamed breathlessness, had even teased him a bit for being out of shape, but Sheppard had only smiled.

 

"It's ten thousand years of our history," Ronon said, "and perhaps more. You can see the mounds down there from the earliest fortifications. Each new dynasty added its new style." He paused for a while, hearing the voice of an old teacher in his head. "It's Satedan history written in stone."

 

And perhaps he wanted those questions, after all. He seldom visited Sateda now, and when he did, he was always alone. Some places had too many memories for him to ever want to visit them again, or so he had thought at first. The people who had built these walls were dead, and there would be no new walls to replace the walls that crumbled. Ronon had come here with friends and relatives now dead, with comrades he would never seen again. It was a place to be avoided, or else to visit in sad and silent pilgrimage.

 

And yet he had asked Sheppard to come here with him on a weekend's leave.

 

"We had a vacation in England when I was a kid," Sheppard said, "just Mom and Dave and me; Dad had to stay behind in the end to work. Dave and I used to play in the castles - pretend swords and falling over dead - you know." He smiled again, shadows on his face. "But then things like that stop being games."

 

Ronon looked at the high walkway. It had crumbled more since his childhood, shaken by a war that had raged too close. "I used to play games here. Last one along that wall's a trelka."

 

It probably wasn't a serious challenge, and Sheppard didn't take it as such. He didn't ask what a trelka was. His fingers were playing with a tiny yellow plant that grew straight out of the stone. Ronon didn't know its name. Melena had been good at flower names, but Ronon's knowledge had only come later, and was limited to herbs that could cure, and plants that could keep you alive when you were living in the wilds.

 

"There were rumours of treasure underground," Ronon said. "We poked around a bit when we were kids."

 

"Treasure, huh?" Sheppard's brow furrowed. It sounded as if he was struggling to listen to voices on the wind.

 

Ronon was listening to voices of his own, that spoke through years of memory. "No-one dug seriously, though. Let buried things stay buried." He pushed himself away from the wall. The chamber behind them had fallen walls, and a small tree had rooted itself in an arched window. Ronon couldn't remember if it had been there in the old days. Even the most vivid of memories had faded parts, and parts that he had completely forgotten.

 

Sheppard was still leaning against the wall when Ronon turned back. Something about his expression made him seem suddenly like a stranger.

 

"You okay, buddy?" Ronon asked, but only half-heartedly. Ghosts of people he had known smiled at him from shaded corners. Sheppard probably looked like a stranger merely because of the incongruity of seeing him here, in a place where Ronon had only ever seen people from his previous life.

 

"Yeah." Sheppard's frown deepened, then cleared away in a smile. "'m fine."

 

Ronon considered things for a moment. Perhaps just coming here was enough. No, he realised, he wanted more. "Wanna climb to the very top?" he asked. Sheppard seemed to like tall places, where the wind whipped around your body and tore the breath from your lungs.

 

Sheppard made a non-committal noise. Ronon walked back towards him, slotting in beside him at the wall. "If you like," Sheppard said. He frowned again, then smiled. "Could be good."

 

Something moved out on the plain below them. Ronon saw a shadow where no shadow should have been. There were animals here, of course, but… He placed a hand on Sheppard's arm. "Did you see…?"

 

Sheppard shook his head, still smiling. "Didn't see anything, buddy."

 

The movement came again. The wind prickled the back of Ronon's neck, moving over sweat-damp skin. Ronon drew his weapon. They made a clear target here, of course, standing against the walls of the outer bastion. "Down!" he said, his voice snapping commands, just as it had done on that long-ago training exercise, when similar movements had been spotted below the walls.

 

Sheppard shrugged, but remained standing. "There's nothing to worry about, buddy." He hadn't seemed to look, though, merely glancing casually at the plain. His attention seemed more taken by the sky above it.

 

It was probably nothing, of course. Memory made Ronon jumpy, and he had once held this place unconquerered for four days as other platoons had tried to take it. Sheppard was a good soldier, and if he saw no cause for concern… Ronon stood up, cautious, his hand gripping the edge of the wall. "Check the life-signs detector," he hissed. Sheppard said nothing, merely laughed lightly. "Sheppard!" Ronon snapped. Worry crept cold and sudden. "Just do it."

 

Sheppard turned towards him, his face bland and blank.

 

The gunshot snapped out a moment later, and Sheppard staggered backwards, dropped to one knee, and then sat down on the ground, his legs tangled beneath him. There was no blood, not at first. Sheppard looked up at Ronon, a faint smile flickering across his lips. Then the smile faded, and he just looked confused.

 

Ronon crawled towards him, his head hunched down. "Are you hit?" But he could see the truth already. The blood was already welling up from a hole in Sheppard's shoulder.

 

A small furrow appeared between Sheppard's eyes. "I guess so." His smile was rueful.

 

A gun sounded again, still distant, and a bullet struck the stonework behind them. "Snipers." Ronon spat it like a curse as he tugged at Sheppard's pack. The bullet had passed through the shoulder strap, and Ronon pulled out a knife and sawed through the strap completely, so he could remove the pack without manhandling Sheppard's arm. When the strap was severed, the pack was easy to slide over Sheppard's limp, uninjured arm. Ronon tore at the fastenings, pulling out the first aid kit from inside. There was already too much blood on his fingers.

 

Another bullet struck the wall. Sheppard reacted only slightly to the sound of gunfire; Ronon had expected Sheppard to push him away, to grab his gun and issue orders for them to secure the area before tending to him.

 

"We need to get to better cover," Ronon said, because Sheppard wasn't saying it. This patch of the outer walls would be watched, and they'd be shot the moment they stuck their head over the parapet. They needed to go elsewhere, to strike from somewhere they weren't expected. Ronon had played this game before, in this very place.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard said, nodding. He looked very pale, paler even than the dust of the sun-baked stone. But he didn't move, not until Ronon tugged him, and then he tried to stand up, and would have done so if Ronon hadn't grabbed him down again.

 

"Cover," Ronon said firmly, suddenly more tense, more afraid than an attack by snipers could ever make him.

 

Sheppard nodded. His good hand closed on Ronon's coat, and Ronon had to all but drag him to safety, both of them shuffling on their knees, crawling one-handed. They passed through the doorway of the ruined chamber that had been behind them as they had stood looking out over the plain. The walls were crumbling, but were high enough for Ronon to stand up without exposing himself to attack. Sheppard stayed on his knees, listing sideways until his good shoulder softly struck the wall.

 

"Sheppard?" Ronon said. As if their attackers knew that they were now out of range, the gunfire ceased. Ronon's voice sounded too loud in the sudden silence.

 

"I'm fine," Sheppard said, "I'm good," but the battle had only just begun, and he just stayed there, making no attempt to move.

 

Ronon had dealt with many things over the years. You had to focus on the things you could do something about, and ignore what you couldn't. He jerked his chin at Sheppard's wound. "Need to get that bleeding stopped."

 

Sheppard nodded vaguely. He shifted position so that he was sitting with his back against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him. Ronon had been forced to drop his weapons and the first aid kit when dragging Sheppard to safety, and he crawled out now on hands and knees to retrieve them. The gunfire had stopped completely. Ronon crawled the few extra feet to the outer wall and experimentally held Sheppard's pack up over the top of the parapet. The bullet struck it hard, jerking it in his hand. The sound of it firing was closer than before, he thought.

 

Sheppard hadn't moved when Ronon returned. He let Ronon unbutton his shirt; let him gently peel it away from his injured shoulder. "Need to check for an exit wound," Ronon explained as he pulled Sheppard forward. Sheppard let himself be pulled, his forehead resting briefly against Ronon's shoulder. There was no exit wound. "Can you move your fingers?" Ronon asked, and Sheppard turned his head to look at him, his eyes closing slowly, then opening again. His right hand didn't move, but maybe he hadn't tried.

 

Ronon ran through the things he knew about field medicine. The wound was solidly in the middle of Sheppard's right shoulder. The lack of an exit wound was bad, because the bullet was still in there somewhere. A shoulder injury was no minor thing. There were too many bones there, and major nerves that controlled the movement of the arm. The location of the wound was worryingly close to Sheppard's lung, and it was bleeding freely, more freely than Ronon would have liked.

 

"Need to get that bleeding stopped," he said again. Everywhere outside their roofless room was still silent. Sheppard said nothing at all as Ronon cleaned and bandaged the wound. "You want something for the pain?" Ronon asked, but Sheppard shook his head minutely. His eyes were focused somewhere else, on the air behind Ronon's head, but when Ronon turned round, there was nothing there. "Buddy?" His voice sounded almost hoarse.

 

Ronon knew how to fight, and he knew how to defend a base. He knew how to treat an injured comrade, and had done as much with Sheppard in the ruins of Michael's compound. He knew how to take orders, and he knew how to give them, too. If he had been in this situation with McKay, he would have taken command instantly, but this was Sheppard. Ronon felt lost. It was the first time a combat situation felt as if it had spiralled completely out of his control.

 

"Sheppard," he snapped, and then, "Colonel?" He almost said 'John', but used Sheppard's title on a sudden impulse.

 

Sheppard made a faint noise. He looked at Ronon, frowned a little, and said, "We're under attack? They're still out there?"

 

"Still out there," Ronon said, letting out a breath. "They're sniping the walls. Don't know who they are, or why they attacked us."

 

Sheppard pushed himself upright. Blood was already seeping through the bandage, but when he stood up, the shirt flopped over the wound, hiding it. "We need…" He faltered for a while, the furrow deepening between his eyes. "Fight," he said. "Assume defensive positions." He brought his good hand up to his face, pressing away the furrow. "You know the terrain."

 

Ronon nodded; even managed a quick, grim smile. "I know the best place to defend from. Two men could take on an army." Sheppard's hand remained on his face, two fingers pressed between his eyes. "Come on," Ronon said.

 

They began to move, Ronon leading and Sheppard following. The enemy was still silent. It should have been a time of intense memory, Ronon thought, but all memories had retreated and almost gone. He was solidly in the here and now, fighting a very real situation that had nothing to do with the past. Old war games had taught him how to defend this place, but this was now. You could die if you let the past overtake your thoughts.

 

"The tower," he said. "It's got a good view of the approaches, but it's sheltered. You can watch through arrow slits, hard to hit from outside."

 

Sheppard said nothing, but Ronon could hear his footsteps and knew that he was still following. Sheppard was badly hurt, of course, but excluding him from this was an impossibility. It wasn't in Sheppard's nature to consent to be left behind, and he never wanted coddling. Besides, he would be safer in the tower than out on the exposed parapet of the outer walls, next to where the enemy had last sighted them.

 

The first explosion came as they crossed the paved stones of the upper courtyard. There was a crash of falling masonry, and Ronon turned to see the spreading pall of smoke. "Is that where we just were?" Sheppard asked, sounding mildly interested.

 

Ronon nodded, suddenly unable to speak. A second explosion followed, and the crash was even louder. He didn't see what had fallen, but the view was suddenly different from how it should have been. His hand gripped his weapon hard enough to tremble. He wanted to hunt them down, to tear them apart, to destroy them for this. He…

 

No! He scraped his hand across his face; Sheppard's blood was still there in the folds of his knuckles. "The tower," he commanded. But he saw things clearly now, now that his eyes were fully free from the ghosts of old memories. He saw the footprints in the soil that clung to the gaps between the paving stones. He saw discarded bones and fruit cores, and the remains of several fires. Inside a shallow doorway, he saw a shovel and a pick.

 

"They came for treasure," he said, the realisation twisting in his chest like a tight fist. Off-worlders scavenging the shattered heritage of Sateda. Carrion birds who attacked anyone they thought was trying to steal their pickings. He should have seen the signs.

 

"Treasure?" Sheppard echoed.

 

Ronon turned to him, suddenly furious, but Sheppard stumbled and almost fell. Ronon caught him, an arm around his middle. He expected Sheppard to pull away, but Sheppard accepted it.

 

I should have seen the signs, Ronon thought.

 

"What's the matter?" he asked Sheppard. "Listen, Sheppard, you need to snap out of it." They walked a few more steps. "I need you the way you should be."

 

"I'm fine," Sheppard said, his voice close to Ronon's ear.

 

"No, you're not." Ronon fought the anger. They reached the gateway of hard black stone, made from rocks dragged from thousands of miles away by some ancient lord. Beyond it was one of the last areas of the fortress that still had a roof. From the sun-drenched courtyard, it looked as black as night.

 

Sheppard turned slightly in Ronon's grip. "There's someone…"

 

Ronon whirled round, abandoning Sheppard. He fired his weapon, twice, three times. A bullet smashed into the gateway. Sheppard fell to his knees, but Ronon didn't think he was hit. By the time both their attackers lay dead, Sheppard had his pistol in his hand and was holding it out with a determined frown on his face. "I'll go left," Ronon said - a suggestion that normally would be understood without any need for further words. Sheppard's frown deepened. Ronon helped him up, leading him into the shelter of the gateway, depositing him in the darkness.

 

Something whistled overhead and landed with a roar of flame and smoke. "They're destroying it." Ronon smashed his fist into the gate post. The sound of falling masonry was almost deafening.

 

Sheppard would have a plan, of course. Sheppard always had a plan.

 

"We need…" Sheppard was massaging his brow again, rubbing it with two fingers, leaving streaks of blood and dirt. "There's something here," he said. "Voices. I can't…" His hand fell to his side again. "Ronon, I need to get out of here. You have to help me get out of here."

 

There was only one way out of the fortress - a winding path that went steeply down to the plain. It was bound to be defended. The tower offered the best chance to cut down their attackers one by one, but all the direct routes to the tower had long since fallen. They would have to go down into basement first, then move through it until they reached the winding stair.

 

"I can't…" Sheppard said. He slumped back against the gateway, but managed to stay standing. The pistol began to slide from his hand. He lunged for it weakly, but failed to catch it.

 

I don't know what to do, Ronon thought. It was an unfamiliar thought in the middle of a battle.

 

Sheppard blinked down at his fallen pistol, then slowly stooped to pick it up. Two more men appeared on the far side of the courtyard. Ronon tightened his grip on his weapon, then loosened it. He and Sheppard were well hidden in the shadows, and the enemy wouldn't have seen them. He nodded to Sheppard to follow him, and headed deeper into the room. After just half a dozen steps, it was impossible to see anything, but Ronon knew the way by memory. He still remembered the fear of that first time, though, when with every step he had fought the conviction that the ground wasn't going to be there when he next put his foot down.

 

"Go to your left," he whispered, "until you're at the wall. There's a door in about twenty steps." He heard Sheppard obey. The next explosion was shockingly loud, and dust cascaded from above him, landing on his head.

 

"Is this…" Sheppard coughed on the dust. His voice was firmer when he spoke again. "Is this a good idea, buddy?"

 

Ronon thought of the devastation of Michael's compound, when Sheppard had drifted ever further away from him as he lay trapped beneath the rubble. "Probably not," he said, but outside had an unknown number of enemies, and he couldn't rely on Sheppard. The realisation was a hard-fought one, but everything became easier now he had come to it. He couldn't rely on Sheppard.

 

They reached the doorway, and Ronon felt his way through. They were deep enough inside now that he dared risk a flashlight. The stairs down to the basement were on the far side of the next room. The narrow light beam showed the way, illuminating their path and little beyond it. Ronon wanted to check on Sheppard, but didn't want to dazzle him.

 

The basement stairs smelled different from the way Ronon remembered them. From far away, there came the sound of voices. The next explosion was almost quiet, perhaps missing the fortress completely. The air grew colder with each step down. Ronon had never liked the basement, and had always hurried through it to reach the glory that was the highest tower.

 

"You okay?" he asked, half way down the stairs.

 

"I'm good." The expected reply was empty, and meant nothing at all.

 

The basement was completely changed from the way he remembered it. As the beam of light travelled around the darkness, it showed a well-used makeshift fireplace, then a huge pile of rubble almost up to the ceiling. The dark stone tiles had been removed and arranged in a haphazard pile on the far side of the large space. Ronon edged forward, the beam wavering, and looked down into the pit that the treasure seekers had dug. A stair went downwards, and there at the bottom was a door.

 

It was a door like no native of Sateda had ever built. It was a door like the doors on Atlantis.

 

The next explosion was right on top of them. Ronon saw that the ceiling was falling, instinctively moved to push Sheppard out of the way, and then there was nothing but sharp pain and then darkness.

 

******

 

end of chapter one

 

******

 

The pain was dull and distant, but John had a vague impression that it ought to be far worse. He saw a dusty floor and his own hand on it, covered with pale dirt. When he rolled over, he saw thick smears of blood beneath him. Fragments of stone and dust were raining down on him. He coughed, and the pain from that, at least, was sharp.

 

What happened? He had to struggle to produce the thought. A stronger urge told him just to lie there. Distant voices whispered wordlessly at him, telling him that everything was okay, and that everything would always be okay, as long as he just lay still.

 

Memory was hazy. Ronon, he thought. Ronon had been there. John struggled to sit up, and found himself at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. Light was faint, coming through cracks from above.

 

Pillars, he thought. They fell on us. He and Ronon had been standing on the edge of a pit, looking down at these stairs. They must have fallen in. Pillars and beams and large stone slabs sealed the top of the pit like a lid. Then came the sound of a distant explosion. Stone shifted harshly above him, and the quality of the light changed as some gaps became bigger and others sealed up.

 

"Huh," he said, moistening dusty lips, but all the other things that he might have said or done retreated from him. Sharp things rained onto his face. By the time he thought to bring his hand up, both eyes were screwed tight. He blinked fiercely behind his shielding hand, his eyes watering. Grains of dust trickled down between his shoulder blades when he moved.

 

Stone grated against stone. People were shouting, their voices harsh and urgent. He lowered his hand, and peered upwards, still blinking hard. It won't last like that for long, he thought, dragging the words out with difficulty. It's going to collapse in on us.

 

Where was Ronon? That thought was even harder to drag out, but he squeezed his hand into a fist, as if that could hold onto it. Perhaps it could. He turned his head, and Ronon was behind him, lying face down with his right arm outstretched. John reached out to touch him, but his arm didn't want to obey. Pain stabbed his shoulder. "Shot," he said. There was something strange about his voice, as if it shouldn't belong to him. "I was shot." But he didn't think it was bad. Nothing to worry about, came the thought, loud and clear, flooding his mind. His fist slowly unclenched. There's no need to worry about anything.

 

The voices came nearer. "Look what you've done," someone said.

 

"You said you wanted to blast your way through," another voice said, then there was the sound of stone giving way, and someone cursed.

 

"It's not safe," the first voice said. "If they're under that, they're dead already."

 

"I'd rather finish them. Melling's dead up there."

 

There was a loud crash, drowning out the sound of shouted curses. The voices didn't come again. John was suddenly very aware of his breathing, but there was too much dust in the air. He coughed, and then came the rhythmical sound of stones shifting, as if someone was walking towards him over a field of rubble, or maybe a large pile of fallen masonry was getting ready to collapse.

 

Nothing to worry about, he thought. The sound ceased.

 

Very slowly, John clenched his fist until it started to tremble. On impulse, he moved his fist, pressing it against the place where he'd been shot. Pain surged over him like a boiling wave, and his hand was soon wet with blood.

 

Ronon hadn't moved. John reached out that blood-stained hand, relaxing the fist just enough to push Ronon's hair out of the way. Ronon was unconscious, bleeding from a gash just above the hair line on the side of his head. Above them, the masonry shifted more than ever, and the fine rain of dust became a torrent. It stirred memories of being trapped under Michael's compound. He'd been so afraid then, so scared that he would die slowly, buried alive by the wreckage, and that Ronon would die with him because he'd refused to leave. Dying with a gun in his hand, fighting Michael's hybrids, had been better, a hundred times better.

 

"Of course there's something to worry about," he muttered angrily. Pain was still fierce in his shoulder, and it kept him focused as he looked around. They were at the bottom of a short slight of stairs, and just ahead of them was a door, just like the doors of Atlantis. John pushed himself to his feet, fighting dizziness, fighting worse things that wanted to keep him from thinking about their situation. He clapped a blood-stained hand on the control panel to the right of the door, and the door opened. A large piece of masonry crashed down onto a higher step, and rolled down the stairs. John almost didn't think to step out of its way, and almost didn't manage it when he tried.

 

He frowned, pressing his lips together. "Ronon." He crouched down, shaking Ronon's shoulder. Above him, not so far away, someone screamed, their scream ending in an enormous crash. There was so much dust on Ronon's body that he looked as if he was turning into stone. "Ronon." John swallowed. Nothing to worry about, his mind tried to tell him. Ronon stirred weakly. "Buddy," John said, focusing on the pain in his shoulder and his memories of Michael's compound. "You need to help me with this."

 

Ronon pushed himself up onto hands and knees. His head was sagging, but his hand was already instinctively groping for his gun. John tugged at him one-handed. "It's going to collapse on us. Come on."

 

But the door was already beginning to close automatically. Stone grated above them, the noise growing louder and louder until it was as if the entire building was roaring.

 

John heaved at Ronon with both hands, and Ronon came, looking above them with a face that was suddenly more scared than John had ever seen him. The door closed on their bodies when they were half way through, and Ronon bellowed, struggling to open it, but John just touched it, and thought, Open, open, but nothing happened. Then Ronon was dragging them forward, hauling them through the narrowing gap, but John was drifting, fading. His hand tingled where it had touched the door. Nothing to worry about, he thought, as he saw his bloody palm print on the silver door. Nothing.

 

Their feet slid free, and the door hissed shut. The noise on the other side was like the world ending, but John just lay there as his eyes slid shut.

 

******

 

Ronon's head was throbbing, and the roar of the building collapsing on the far side of the door drove spikes of agony into his skull. Vision was blurry, but he dimly saw that they were on another flight of stairs, this one lining the perimeter of a large room. There was only a fragile handrail, and the steps themselves overhung the drop onto the floor below.

 

Sheppard lay slumped on his side, his face close to the edge. Things were still falling on the far side of the door. "Hey, Sheppard," Ronon said. "We need to get away from here."

 

Sheppard eyes fluttered open, and he nodded. He pushed himself up with one arm and moved until he was sitting on the top step. He leant slowly to the right, as if he was meaning to lean against the wall, except that this was the side with no wall, only a drop big enough to kill him.

 

"Whoa, buddy." Ronon grabbed him, pulling him away. Instead, Sheppard sagged towards him, his head leaning sideways as if it was seeking Ronon's shoulder. Ronon tightened his grip. There was no more noise outside the door. Ronon's didn't dare try to open it again, in case the weight of masonry came surging through.

 

The light was faint, seeming to glow from the walls in ambient silver-blue. Ronon knew without asking what this place was. The fortress had been built over thousands of years, each generation adding their own touch, but it was older than anyone had known. Beneath the oldest fortress built by Satedan hands was a fortress built by the Ancestors. It seemed fitting, really.

 

"Sheppard," he said, and Sheppard responded to his name, at least. He let Ronon raise him to his feet, and let himself be led down the steps. The light followed them, brightening as they passed, then fading behind them. Sheppard reacted to that, turning his face towards the light. He almost fell several times, and Ronon found his own vision blurring, waves of dizziness radiating outwards from his head. "Concentrate on walking," he rasped, "or you'll kill us both." He thought Sheppard's steps were steadier after that. At any rate, they reached the bottom unscathed.

 

By then, the top of the room had faded into near-darkness. It was a tall square hall, with stairs lining three sides of it. The lower walls were decorated with a leaf-like frieze, with specks like sparkling diamonds. Sheppard was sagging in his arms, though, and that took priority. Ronon lowered him gently to the ground, placing his back against the wall. He fought the urge to sink to his knees himself, to bury his head in his hands and hope for oblivion to find him.

 

Sheppard made a faint sound. "Nothing…" he began, then it faded into a frown.

 

There had only ever been one possible course of action in a dangerous situation, and that was to focus on the things that he was capable of doing. "We need to look at your wound again, buddy," Ronon said, for he had felt the wetness of blood as he had helped Sheppard down the stairs.

 

"It's nothing," Sheppard said. "It's only a--" He broke up, chuckling. "I sound like that Monty Python movie. Nothing… nothing to worry about, though."

 

"You know that's not true." The pain in Ronon's head was fading, pushed away to those places where he put things that he couldn't do anything about. "Here, let me."

 

The bandage was soaked through, filthy with dust. Ronon made to remove it, then cursed aloud, knowing without even looking that the first aid kit and the rest of the contents of the pack was gone. Their clothes were deeply ingrained with dust, and he couldn't make any sort of sterile bandage out of them. He had no choice but to leave the sodden bandage in place.

 

"This is bad, Sheppard," he said. Sheppard looked at him, blinking slowly, and a faint smile danced across his lips. "Listen, Sheppard." Ronon grabbed him firmly by the uninjured shoulder. "This is bad. Do you understand me?"

 

The tip of Sheppard's tongue came out, moistening his lips, leaving behind a streak of colour when the dust came off. "Not really," he said. "Part of me does, but…" He moistened his lips again. "I need to get out of here. You need to help me." He frowned. His right hand would have come up to his wound, if Ronon hadn't stopped it, gripping the wrist in his own hand. "You… you okay, buddy?" Sheppard asked.

 

"Good enough," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard's hand was struggling to escape, the fingers curling inwards as if Sheppard was trying to make a fist. "It's worse now. I think it's in here with us. It's closer. Stronger. Help me."

 

Ronon let Sheppard go, and Sheppard's hand fell back to his side. Anger was threatening to take him over again. He wanted to shake Sheppard, to tell him to snap out of it. They should have been working together side by side, despite Sheppard's injury - two comrades, in it together, just like they had always been. If Ronon had been trapped in this situation alone, it would have been more bearable. He knew how to deal with things alone.

 

He forced the anger down again. "How can I help you?"

 

Sheppard smiled, lost again. "'m fine. I don't need help."

 

Ronon scraped his hand across his face. Think. Think. His thoughts were sluggish, his vision blurry with the effects of the head injury. By the sound of it, half the fortress was now blocking the way they'd come in, but a place like this was bound to have more than one entrance. The priority was to find a way out. No-one from Atlantis was going to check on them for at least two days, and Sheppard…

 

He looked at the blood-stained bandage. Sheppard quite possibly didn't have two days. A wound like that was serious. Added to that, they had no food or water, and Ronon had received a head injury bad enough to knock him out.

 

"Listen," he said. He took hold of Sheppard's good shoulder, trying to force Sheppard to look at him. "I need to know what's wrong with you. I need to know if it's going to get worse, and if so, how quickly." Sheppard just blinked. Ronon gave him a sharp shake. "I need to know how much I can rely on you."

 

"I don't…" The furrow was back between Sheppard's eyes. "I don't know." He looked for a moment almost terrified.

 

You could ask questions, or you could act. McKay was the one with the questions, always wanting to understand, but Ronon preferred to act. Something had happened to Sheppard, and Ronon had no way of knowing what it was. Perhaps it was some sort of virus, or perhaps an enemy with a powerful mind was working on him. The Second Childhood could change someone, but so could the influence of a Wraith. And sometimes people just cracked, losing their mind under pressure. Not Sheppard, he thought fiercely. Never Sheppard.

 

But it didn't matter. No, it mattered, but it wasn't the thing that Ronon was in a position to do anything about. He had to find a way out, so that the people who knew what questions to ask could fix Sheppard.

 

"We need to check this place out," he said. Sheppard just looked at him with blank eyes. When Ronon touched his face, the skin felt cold, and he could see the rapid fluttering of Sheppard's heart. The gunshot wound could kill him on its own, quite apart from anything else.

 

"Stay here," Ronon said. He took off his coat, then gently laid Sheppard down, using the coat as a pillow. If shock really was going to be a problem, he needed to elevate the legs, but there was nothing to do that with; the room was completely bare of furnishings. Then Ronon raised Sheppard up and moved him bodily to the bottom of the stairs, laying him down again with his feet on the bottom step. The effort made his vision flare red, and he had to lunge for the support of the wall to keep himself from falling.

 

Throughout it all, Sheppard just looked at him with blank eyes. He saw Ronon sag against the wall, but didn't say anything, didn't ask him how he was.

 

Recovering himself, Ronon began to walk away. "I'll be back soon," he said. Sheppard didn't ask him where he was going, and didn't insist on struggling to his feet and coming with him. Something twisted inside Ronon like an icy knife. He'd never thought of himself as a man who hid from an obvious truth, but perhaps a small part of him had persisted in pretending that Sheppard wasn't too far gone.

 

Ronon knew Sheppard, and they worked well together. This was like being with a stranger, or worse than a stranger, because the stranger was still Sheppard. He thought of Tyre and the others, twisted by the enzyme into becoming something they had always despised. He thought of what he himself had done, the memories red and hazy, warped into images of nightmare. For days, he had hated Sheppard ferociously. He had almost lost himself afterwards, until Sheppard had found him out on the furthest pier, had sat down beside him, and said, 'It wasn't you, buddy.'

 

'But it was,' Ronon had said, unable to look at Sheppard.

 

'No.' He had sensed rather than seen Sheppard shake his head. 'It wasn't you. Believe me, Ronon, I know.'

 

Ronon hadn't replied, but if he had replied, it would have been to tell Sheppard that he didn't understand anything at all.

 

'I know what it's like to have to find a way to live after you've… done things,' Sheppard had said quietly. He had shifted position, clearly uncomfortable. 'When I was a bug, remember? The way I see it, it's not much different. I…' His voice had faded then, but Ronon had taken the way out that was being offered, and had understood, too, what Sheppard hadn't said out loud. So that was another thing he had in common with Sheppard: they both feared what lay within.

 

He scraped at his face, finding it sticky with blood. The head injury was confusing him, bringing the memory. It wasn't relevant. Sheppard wasn't himself, but he was placid, not raging. Ronon wouldn't have to fight him.

 

Fighting him would have been easier, he thought.

 

He reached the far side of the room, where there was a small door in the corner. The light hadn't followed him, he realised, and each step had taken him further into the shadows. When he touched the control panel at the side of the door, nothing happened. Ronon shot it, the light from his weapon sending a spike of pain into his head, but it stayed shut. Above him, there was a low crashing boom. The floor shook, and he heard the sound of dust trickling onto the floor in the middle of the room.

 

Ronon threw himself at the door, smashing into it with his shoulder, trying to prize it apart with his fingers. A nail snapped, sending a stab of pain through his hand, and soon his fingertips were slipping in blood. Roaring, he hurled himself at the door again, then stood a step back, almost falling as his head throbbed and his vision blurred. Calm down, Chewie, he imagined Sheppard saying. He wiped his hand across his face again, surprised to find it trembling. Taking a deep breath, he fired his weapon at the door again and again, but whatever material it was made of, it wasn't something that his gun could blast its way through.

 

Of course, he realised, the thieves had uncovered the door at the top of the stairs, but there was no evidence of them getting any further. They'd probably gone offworld to get explosives to blast their way through, and had been on the way back when they'd seen Sheppard and Ronon on the walls and had thought their find had been poached from them. This place had been built by the Ancestors, and only Sheppard was able to open the doors.

 

If they were going to get out, he would have to drag Sheppard to his feet again and force him to come along, losing blood all the way.

 

But he felt something that could almost have been relief as he returned to Sheppard's side. He'd been years on his own, and for the first year or two on Atlantis, he'd sometimes thought that he would prefer to be on his own again. When the team split up, he'd always preferred to be the one who hunted Wraith by himself. He had more chance of success that way than with a team-mate less experienced than himself.

 

When had that changed, he wondered. He remembered Sheppard saying 'Leave no man behind,' standing grim in the Gate Room, about to go out on a rescue mission for someone or other; Ronon couldn't remember who.

 

"Hey, Sheppard." Ronon knelt down beside him, touching his face. It was colder than ever. "You need to come. Doors won't open without you."

 

Sheppard shook his head - a tiny movement, barely there at all. "Why d'we need to go? It's safe here."

 

"No," Ronon said. "No, it isn't, and you'd realise that if you were properly yourself. Come on."

 

At least Sheppard's placidity meant that he didn't struggle. He let Ronon raise him up, and he walked when Ronon tugged him. It was as if he had lost all will of his own. It was as bad in its way as seeing McKay lose his intelligence. Sheppard had a will stronger than most people Ronon had ever known, and he never, ever gave up. "You're a stubborn son of a bitch," Ronon said, perhaps hoping to goad Sheppard into becoming himself again, "and you never follow orders. Yet here you are letting me lead you along like a puppy on a leash."

 

Ronon had his arm around Sheppard's body, and he could feel the way he exhaled in a faint laugh. Once again, he fought the urge to shake Sheppard. Pull yourself together, he wanted to say. I can't bear seeing you like this. There was a special horror in seeing people you loved change beyond recognition. It made this underground chamber feel vast, the darkness at its ceiling pressing down with all the weight of the masonry above it.

 

The light followed Sheppard, recognising the blood of the Ancestors that flowed in his veins. When they reached the door, Ronon took Sheppard's hand in his and pressed it against the control panel. The door opened stutteringly, perhaps damaged by Ronon's attempts to shoot his way through.

 

There was less light on the other side, but enough to show the passageway that sloped steadily downhill. Ronon led Sheppard a little way down the hill, glancing into side-chambers as he did so. None of these doors were shut, but all the rooms were completely empty, except for stone slabs that could have been beds.

 

"Look like cells," Sheppard murmured. It was the first hint that he was still aware of his surroundings.

 

"It doesn't matter what they are," Ronon said harshly. "The important thing's getting out."

 

A dozen steps later, Sheppard's legs gave way. Ronon struggled to catch him, just managing to hold him up. "Feel sleepy," Sheppard said. "Can't feel anything much. It's nice."

 

"Don't talk like that," Ronon shouted. He picked Sheppard up fully in his arms, and Sheppard didn't struggle, didn't make a joke to hide his embarrassment. Ronon took Sheppard into one of the cells, and laid him down on a stone slab. Sheppard's skin was icy cold, and the whole right side of his shirt was soaked with blood.

 

Ronon didn't want to leave him, but sometimes you had no choice in the matter. "I'll be back soon," he said, and then he smiled. "Probably as soon as I need you to open a door." Sheppard said nothing. "Do you know who I am?" Ronon asked on sudden impulse, remembering his grandfather under the influence of the Second Childhood.

 

Sheppard seemed to have to think about it for a while. "You're Ronon," he said at last. "It's nice here. It's Sateda, right?"

 

Ronon squeezed Sheppard's hand, his vision blurring. "I'll be back as soon as I can, buddy. I'm not leaving you, you hear me? I'm just finding us a way out."

 

The passageway continued to slope downwards. The lights didn't switch on as Ronon walked, and the flashlight had been lost in the initial collapse of the fortress, and soon he had to feel his way with his hands. As a small child, he had been afraid of the dark, and of the things that could lurk in it, but his grandfather had cured him of that, teaching him that darkness could be his friend. Some of the bravest of men still hated to walk forward unless they could see where their feet were going to land, but Ronon had no such fear.

 

Some of the worst things, he now knew, lived in the light.

 

You lost track of time in the darkness, though. Ronon explored every side chamber, working his way to the end of the passage. It ended in a wall without any door. None of the side rooms contained anything at all, but when he was in the rooms nearest the end of the passage, he thought he could hear a distant humming, perhaps coming from beneath his feet. He crouched and touched the floor, but felt nothing unusual. It was hard to stand up again, his vision lurching and his stomach churning with sudden nausea.

 

He headed back to where he had left Sheppard. "I can't find a way out," he admitted.

 

Sheppard frowned vaguely at him.

 

"The Ancestors must have emptied it out before they left it," Ronon said, "and sealed it up."

 

Sheppard's frown deepened. "Not empty," he said. "It's here." His hand tried to rise to his brow, but was too weak, and fell back down again.

 

"What?" Ronon grabbed him. He remembered the sight of the parasite cut out from McKay's brain. "What's here?" Then he felt blood smear against his hand, realised how close he was to gripping Sheppard's wounded shoulder, and let him go again, placing his head gently down against the slab. The cold silver-blue light made Sheppard's blood look almost black.

 

"Nothing." Sheppard shook his head minutely. "Nothing to worry about." His eyes closed, and he let out a slow, whistling breath. It was so long before he breathed in again, that Ronon had already felt the cold stab of grief that came with the death of a friend.

 

Death wasn't days away, he realised, but was close enough to touch. Melena had told him how much of healing was tied up with the power of the mind, and Ronon himself had seen people die from injuries that shouldn't have killed them, just because they gave up.

 

Sheppard had lost his willpower and his desire to fight, and with a serious injury like this, that could make the difference between life and death.

 

******

 

end of chapter two

 

******

 

John was flying above the clouds, surrounded by blue skies and endless spaces. No, he was lying on a beach, listening to waves crash rhythmically onto the shore. He was safe in bed with his mother taking care of him. He didn't have to worry about anything at all. He didn't have to think about anything at all. Nothing would ever go wrong again.

 

He knew who he was. He was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, military commander of Atlantis. But it wasn't restful being military commander of Atlantis. That life was about making difficult choices. It was about lying awake at night and wondering if you'd done the right thing the day before, and wondering if you'd do the right thing tomorrow and all the tomorrows that came after it. It was about pain and responsibility. It was about losing people. It was about losing…

 

No, no, don't remember their names, the wordless voices told him. It doesn't matter. That pain has gone.

 

It was peaceful here. Nothing hurt, and he could barely feel his body at all, except in the languid way of someone who was drifting asleep in the sun. He didn't have to make decisions. He didn't have to worry about all those thousand little things that plagued daily life. His mind was free, free to think about the important things…

 

Yes, yes, the wordless voices whispered, but John wasn't sure yet what those important things were. It was nice just to be here, relaxing above the clouds. There was nothing to worry about.

 

Something seemed to be flowing out of his body. Perhaps he would follow it, he thought, and just let himself drift away, just drift.

 

******

 

"Sheppard!" Ronon squeezed Sheppard's uninjured shoulder, then pressed his hand against Sheppard's cheek, almost hard enough to be called a slap. "Listen to me, Sheppard. Look at me."

 

He got no response, just a quiet murmur. Sheppard was smiling, lying as cold as ice in a pool of blood.

 

"Damn it, Sheppard!" He let the fury have free rein at last. "You are not giving up, you hear me. You're not giving up." His voice echoed in the small chamber. Blood pounded in his head.

 

Ronon stood up, pressed both hand against the wall, and rested his forehead against the cold surface. Then he removed his hand a few inches, curled it into a fist, and struck the wall, hard enough to hurt.

 

He could fight Wraith. He could fight human enemies. He could fight to defend his home and his people. He could hunt his prey through the wilderness. But this… this… This was Sheppard, and Ronon didn't know what to do. It was Sheppard, but it wasn't Sheppard. Was somebody doing this to him? "Is anyone here?" Ronon bellowed. "Let him go! Let him go!" His command echoed in the empty passageways. He'd explored every inch of them, and there was nobody there.

 

Sheppard was still, his chest hardly moving at all. "You can't take him," Ronon shouted, and he lifted Sheppard up, wrapping his arms around him, holding him tight.

 

Sheppard moaned slightly, perhaps shrinking away from the loudness of Ronon's voice.

 

"You can't," Ronon said more quietly, no longer knowing if he was talking to some invisible enemy or to Sheppard himself.

 

"Hurts," Sheppard whispered. His hand reached out blindly, as if searching for something, then found the front of Ronon's shirt, closing on it with a surprisingly tight grip.

 

Ronon still had no idea what was causing Sheppard to act like this, but he knew that he had to stop it. "You have to listen to me, Sheppard," he said, holding Sheppard tight. He remembered his efforts to reach Sheppard when he had lost his memory - how he had refused to believe that there wasn't a part of Sheppard that still remembered what they'd been through together. "You have to stay here. You have to stay with me. You have to fight."

 

Sheppard's hand clutched tighter at Ronon's shirt. "Why?" His voice was cracked, breathing into Ronon's shoulder. "It didn't hurt until you…"

 

"But it should hurt," Ronon told him harshly. "You've been shot, Sheppard. It's meant to hurt. Hurting means you're still alive. Hurting means you've got a chance."

 

Sheppard stirred minutely. "Doesn't sound nice."

 

"Nice?" Ronon said, but he had no idea how to answer. He didn't know what he was dealing with here; didn't really know what he was trying to drag Sheppard back from. Could he really tell Sheppard that life was meant to hurt? Is that what he believed?

 

"There's nothing to worry about," Sheppard whispered. "It wants me to…" His voice trailed away. His heartbeat fluttered, barely there at all.

 

"Sheppard!" Ronon shouted. "I don't know what's happening to you, but this isn't you. The Sheppard I know wouldn't say this. He's strong."

 

Sheppard stirred faintly. "Hurts being strong," he whispered. "Too many things inside."

 

"But I need you," Ronon said. It was true, of course - no need to rationalise it by telling himself that he was only saying what Sheppard was most likely to respond to. "I need you to get us out of here. The doors don't open to me."

 

Sheppard was very still, barely breathing. "I don't…" he whispered, and then nothing.

 

Ronon had never been one to talk much; he and Sheppard were alike in that. Sheppard said plenty of words, but struggled over saying the things that really mattered to him. Ronon had never felt any shame about saying what he felt, just saw no need to do so in any more words than was necessary.

 

"You know why I asked you to come here with me?" Ronon said, knowing that he needed more words than he would normally use, if he was to have any chance at reaching Sheppard. "It's a special place to me. I came here with my family and with my first platoon. It's special. It's Satedan history built in stone. I didn't think I'd ever… taint it by coming here with anyone who wasn't part of that."

 

Sheppard was still breathing; Ronon could tell only that.

 

"But you forgave me after the thing with the enzyme," Ronon said. "You let me back. You understood. They wouldn't have, on Sateda."

 

Sheppard said nothing, but his fist gripped Ronon's shirt as if it was the only thing keeping him alive.

 

"So I wanted to come here with my new team," Ronon said. "My new family. Because I can. Because life goes on. Because this is my life now."

 

There was still no response from Sheppard, just a hitch in his breathing.

 

"So don't you dare go and die." Ronon gripped Sheppard tightly, knowing that it hurt, and knowing, too, that it was essential that it hurt. It was selfish to wish that his new team would never fall apart now that he'd found them, but it was impossible not to. Just a year ago, he'd been preparing to leave them. Now he wanted this life to go on forever.

 

"It's not dying." Sheppard's voice wavered. "It's… it's nothing to worry about."

 

"Like hell it is," Ronon shouted. "Listen, Sheppard, you're hurt. It's bad. If you give in to this, to whatever this is, you'll die. People depend on you. You're strong. You need to keep on fighting."

 

"But what if I…?" Sheppard sucked in a rasping breath. His body was still as cold as ice in Ronon's arms. "What if I don't want to fight any more?"

 

"You do," Ronon said, his voice hoarse. "I know you do."

 

Sheppard's fist tightened, twisting Ronon's shirt. "It's stopping me. You have to help me, Ronon."

 

"It?" Ronon asked, but Sheppard went limp, and Ronon had to lay him down. Sheppard was still breathing, but only just.

 

"How?" Ronon asked, his voice quiet, and then he stood up and smashed his fist into the wall. "How?" he shouted.

 

There was no answer.

 

******

 

John tried to spread his wings and fly into the blue. You know you want to, whispered the wordless voices.

 

But he had never… been good… at doing… what he was… told. He had to fight for every word of the thought. He opened his eyes, expecting to see blue sky, but he saw only a stone slab stained with blood.

 

It doesn't hurt, the wordless voices told him, but he set his jaw and he rolled over, forcing it to hurt. A knife twisted briefly in his shoulder, then faded away. This… isn't… right, he thought, still struggling to articulate thought. Pain was the body's warning that something was wrong. If you ignored it…

 

You have to ignore it.

 

No! he thought fiercely. If he ignored it, then he might…

 

You'll die. That was Ronon. John rolled over - and it was hard, so hard to persuade his body to move - and Ronon was still there, sitting on the floor beside the raised stone slab, his face only a little higher than John's.

 

John remembered Ronon holding onto him. He remembered Ronon shouting at him.

 

Nothing to worry about, the wordless voices said.

 

Of course there is, John thought. Ronon had blood in his hair, and looked exhausted. John remembered what he'd said, too - that he would die unless John found them a way out of here. It was restful in the blue, but he'd never been one to rest when other people needed him. He tried to sit, but his body was drifting away from him again, and he couldn't locate it enough to move it. "Help me," he managed to mouth, just moving his lips without making a sound.

 

"How?" Ronon's voice was flat and hoarse, as if he had screamed the question too many times before without getting an answer.

 

John couldn't put it in words, but he had the image of a ship drifting away on the tide, but pulled back by an anchor. He thought of a kite tethered in a storm. Images were easier to produce than words, it seemed, though the blue sky was seeping even into that.

 

"Talk," he managed to say, as he thought Anchor.

 

A look flickered across Ronon's face - the inevitable panic of someone cornered and told to talk. His gun was in his lap, held in both hands. "What's causing this?" he asked. "How do I stop it?"

 

John had to concentrate on getting Ronon to safety; that was a thing that meant something. He located the muscles that controlled his body, and sat up. The pain helped, too, and then Ronon was beside him, supporting him with an arm around his body. Normally John might have shaken off the touch, insisting on walking by himself, but he knew that he needed it. Ronon, he thought, focusing on the nearness of the man. He needs me to help him get out. It was the other way round, too, of course, but that thought was already hazy, disappearing into the blue.

 

"There's no way out down there," Ronon said, and John frowned, realising that he'd managed to walk half a dozen steps without noticing it. He'd focused too much on Ronon's grip, and the rest of his body had melted away. "We've got to climb the stairs again. If you open the door, I'll see if I can dig us out through the rubble."

 

That sparked memory, faint and serene. John bit his lip. It shouldn't be a peaceful memory, should it? "Didn't work in Michael's compound." He forced the words out. "Try this way. Maybe you missed something." Ronon still hesitated. "It's getting worse," John managed to say, "the lower we go. There's something…" His words ran out on images of creatures in dark pits, and horrors caged in basements. Drums in the deep, he thought, as the wordless voices tried to soothe him and say that it was nothing like that. Ronon was trapped here, though, his presence close and unmistakeable, so John was able to tell the voices that they were wrong.

 

Memories helped, though. Normally he liked the push memories aside, to tell himself that they couldn't ever break him. Life carried on. His brain had compartments, and the locks were good, if not unbreakable.

 

"I remember," he said, "when I was turning into a bug, and I couldn't control the urges. I couldn't control… the beast."

 

"It wasn't you," Ronon said. It was the same half-lie that John had used on Ronon after the enzyme incident. It wasn't him, but it was, both at the same time. You had to believe that it wasn't you, or you couldn't allow yourself to carry on doing the same job afterwards, but you had to be aware…

 

The thought faded into blue. Ronon's grip tightened on him, and pain jabbed fierce in his shoulder.

 

"I remember…" he said. They were half way down the passageway now, followed by rippling light. "When my father died. I thought I wanted to go by myself, because I… always do, you know? But McKay came by, and then you…" His knees almost gave way. Ronon held him up. "I wouldn't have asked you to come with me. I couldn't have asked you to. If you'd asked, I'd have said no."

 

"I know," Ronon said, after a pause. "That's why I didn't give you a choice."

 

"Yeah." John almost smiled, but the wordless voices liked him to smile. He frowned instead, gripping hold of Ronon's shirt. "I'm glad you came." He'd never said it before, not in words. "Thanks, buddy."

 

Something was humming below his feet, and it wanted him. "It's down there," he whispered, and he might have disappeared entirely into the blue, if it wasn't for the fact that Ronon was still there, just as he had been at his father's funeral.

 

"I heard what you said back there," John managed to say. There was a door at the end of the passage, its texture the same as the wall on either side, and the cracks so thin that you wouldn't be able to feel them. It slid open silently as John neared it. "It was… hard… hard to concentrate, but I heard. About why you wanted us to come here. I'm… glad. You're one of us, buddy."

 

There were stairs on the other side of the door, twisting downwards in a loose spiral. "Didn't see the door in the dark," Ronon said, sounding angry.

 

John gave a faint smile. "You weren't meant to." He forced the smile away. "More stairs, huh? But I guess we are inside a cliff."

 

"Shall we go down?" Ronon asked. "Can you…?"

 

John just stood there, not sure what to do. He clung to the memories he had recovered, and to Ronon's proximity, "but I don't think I can make decisions," he said, then grasped at the certainty that Ronon was going to die unless John could get him out. "We go down."

 

******

 

It's hard to walk two abreast on a spiral staircase. Ronon closed Sheppard's left hand around the railing, and said, "Can you walk?" He went ahead, two steps ahead of Sheppard, ready to catch him if he fell. He was grateful for the railing himself. His head was throbbing worse than ever.

 

After three steps down, he turned. Sheppard was still standing there, clinging to the railing, a blank look on his face. Ronon returned to him and touched his hand. Touch seemed to reach him, he thought, and sure enough, Sheppard's eyes cleared a little.

 

"I wanted you to go," Sheppard said. "When we were in Michael's compound, I was… afraid. I didn't want you to die because of me."

 

"When I asked you, you said that you'd leave me." Ronon moved down one step. Sheppard followed him. "You were lying."

 

Sheppard said nothing. They managed another step. "But I'm glad you stayed," Sheppard said quietly, "and I hate the fact that you stayed, both at the same time."

 

Another step. "When the Wraith took me back to Sateda," Ronon said, "I said I'd kill you if you killed their leader, and I meant it. Then the doc killed it, and I was glad."

 

Sheppard gave a faint laugh. "Emotions make no sense. That's why…"

 

He didn't finish. They moved down three more steps. Ronon knew that many people on Atlantis thought he was emotionless, capable of feeling only anger and bloodlust. They thought that he was blind to other people's feelings, just because he didn't make a song and dance about them. But it was clear to him that Sheppard was somehow anchoring himself by talking about things that he wouldn't normally talk about. Ronon himself had started it, using words to drag Sheppard back to an awareness of what was worth fighting for.

 

"I didn't really want to leave," Ronon said, when they were half way down. "I chose to go with Tyre and the others because it… it was more obligation than anything else. I was trying to recover something that was already lost."

 

Sheppard walked two more steps before replying. "I know." When Ronon turned, he saw that Sheppard's legs were sagging, as if his hand on the railing was the only thing keeping him up. "If Mitch and Dex and… and Holland… If they came back from the dead and asked me to go with them behind enemy lines…" Another step. He looked at Ronon as if Ronon, too, was like the railing: the only thing keeping him alive. "It's a chance to set things right. It's a chance to bring back the past, before things went wrong."

 

"But you can't recover the past." Ronon thought of the fortress above them. Each generation had built on the ruins of the old, and the oldest places were down here, completely buried.

 

"No," Sheppard said, "but sometimes, even though you don't expect it to happen, what you get afterwards is even better than…" He broke off. "God, Ronon, I can't tell you that it's even better. You lost everything."

 

"Not better," Ronon said, because so many people had died, and he couldn't ever stop wishing that it hadn't happened. "But good." He took another step. "Better than going round with a rag-tag band of survivors just because they're Satedan. Better than pretending." Another step. "It's good. That's why I asked you to come here. To show myself…"

 

He trailed away. "I know," Sheppard said. "That's why I… I should have gone back home years ago. I should have taken you and McKay and Teyla - showed you the old places. Removed… removed their sting, you know?"

 

"And seen your father before he died," Ronon risked saying.

 

"Yeah." Sheppard sighed. "You know, he… disapproved of the choices I made. I think that part of me has always believed he was right. So I stayed away. Thought he wanted me to. Thought I didn't…"

 

"He was wrong," Ronon said firmly.

 

"But if I'd gone back…" Sheppard's breathing hitched as he pulled himself down another step. "Too late now, of course."

 

"Of course it isn't." Ronon could see the bottom now, only half a dozen steps away. "There's your brother. And even visiting empty places can make a difference."

 

"Like here," Sheppard said, after a pause. "But you're right about Dave. We were once close, you know? He sided with Dad, of course, but maybe… maybe he had to give up his dreams, because I refused to."

 

Ronon reached the bottom, and turned to watch Sheppard descend those last few steps. Ronon hadn't seen much of Sheppard's brother, but… No, this was the time for saying things aloud, not for thinking them. "That life would have killed you," he said. "You're made for greater things."

 

Sheppard smiled, the smile quickly dying. "I… denied them, you know – Dad and Dave. Before the Wraith siege, when we were sending messages back… I said I had no family. This… You guys… This is the family that matters."

 

"Not the only one that matters," Ronon said, because healing wasn't just about accepting Atlantis as his home, but was about coming back here, to Sateda, and integrating that in his new life. Both places made him who he was.

 

"Yeah," Sheppard said, but he shook his head ruefully, perhaps unconsciously contradicting his words. "I need to see Dave."

 

And then they were down, and something was humming just ahead of them, glowing with bright blue light, and Sheppard's knees gave way and he sagged towards it, his eyes sliding shut.

 

Ronon wasted no time. They'd encountered a variety of the Ancestors' devices during his time on Atlantis. One of them had almost killed McKay, and Ronon had no intention of standing by and letting another one kill Sheppard. If there was any chance at all that this was what was causing Sheppard's problems…

 

He drew his gun and strode forward. The light was issuing from a large egg-shaped object on a pedestal in the middle of the room, surrounded by stone slabs. As soon as he was through the door, Ronon fired at it.

 

Behind him, Sheppard started to scream.

 

******

 

end of chapter three

 

******

 

The agony was… No, agony he could have lived with. This was having half his soul ripped out. He only faintly heard himself screaming.

 

And then Ronon was there, grabbing his shoulder. "What is it, Sheppard? What's wrong?"

 

John heard the words, but it took him a while before he could force them to be anything other than meaningless syllables. He tried to answer, but the blue sky flooded him, then became a wave, crashing over his head.

 

"Sheppard!" Ronon shouted. "Is that what's doing this to you? We need to destroy it."

 

"No." It took everything that he had to produce that word, but Ronon was there, gripping his arm, forcing himself on John's senses, and that made all the difference "Not while I'm… connected. Destroy it… and you… destroy me."

 

"But it's killing you." Ronon looked furious, helpless.

 

John had to focus on him: on Ronon, Ronon, Ronon. He had to get Ronon out. He was Ronon's anchor. No, Ronon was his anchor. They had to…

 

"Just don't do that again," he said faintly, and there was memory in that, too: of being helpless and screaming, more afraid than he had ever been in his life.

 

Fear was a good thing to remember; the wordless voices didn't want him to be afraid. He stumbled as he stood up, his injured shoulder striking the wall. Pain was good, too. The voices… Ancient device, he thought. The Ancient device didn't want him to feel pain. It told him that pain wasn't important, that fear should melt away, that painful choices and painful memories were things to be forgotten.

 

"I think it's an Ascension device," he said. "Another damn Ascension device. It switches off everything that ties you to the world - leaves you free for all that transcendental crap."

 

"You aren't Ascending," Ronon said.

 

John didn't dare try a smile. The device wanted him to smile - just to smile and smile, while everything was crashing down around him. "I don't think the Ancients envisaged people using it when… shot, or with bad guys blowing the place up around their ears. Besides, I was never good at that stuff."

 

"You taught McKay."

 

"Yeah," John agreed, "but not well." He could see the device now: large and blue and beautiful. It wanted him. Ascension should be a thing about choice, not about being dragged kicking and screaming into forgetting everything that was important to you. "God, these Ancients were arrogant sons of bitches."

 

Yeah," Ronon agreed.

 

"Of course," John admitted, "it's probably just malfunctioned. Things sometimes do. Maybe it got lonely."

 

They were stupid words, but each one felt like a link in the anchor chain that allowed him to claw his way out of the blue wave. He walked through its pool of blue light. Ronon gripped him tightly, as if he was refusing to ever let go. "If we can't shoot it," Ronon said, trembling with the need to act, "then--?"

 

"I'm holding it off," John said. "Just carry on like this. I think I can…" He gripped Ronon's shirt. "I hope I can…"

 

"Course you can." Ronon sounded as if he believed it utterly. "You know, I thought you guys were weak at first, but you're one of the strongest men I've ever met. Stubborn, too. Sometimes I almost want to hit you."

 

"You do hit me." The humming was behind them now, still calling to him. He remembered the many pains of sparring with Ronon, but how fiercely alive he felt when doing it. "You do all the time."

 

"Just 'cause you're lazy and don't practise enough."

 

"Just 'cause you're lucky enough not to have piles of paperwork, so you've got time to practise new ways to kick my ass."

 

Ronon laughed. It was a good sound, and was another chain-link closer to the surface of the blue ocean.

 

******

 

They walked for a long time, the passageways sloping ever lower. They had to contend with two more flights of stairs, and by the second one, Ronon was supporting Sheppard fully, as Sheppard's feet moved with the unsteadiness of a child just learning to walk.

 

"It's not the… device," Sheppard said, as he stood shaking at the bottom of the stairs. "I think I know how to… cope with that now. It's the… blood loss, you know?"

 

But Sheppard wasn't quite right, despite what he said. He was still talking desperately, speaking about things that he wouldn't normally talk about. Ronon responded in kind. Sometimes you had to resort to extreme measures to save a friend, and talking about things that were true was such a little thing to give.

 

But this time all he said was, "Are you sure this is the way out?"

 

"It has to be," Sheppard said. "They wouldn't have built all this if it went nowhere."

 

In the end, when they reached the door, it came unexpectedly. It was a small door, far from imposing, and it led them out into the darkness of early evening. Ronon hadn't realised that they'd been inside for so long. "Why didn't I know this was here?" he said, as he stepped out and found himself at the base of the rock that the fortress was built on. It was shielded from the plain by trees, but by no means completely hidden.

 

"Someone knew." Sheppard nodded at the scorch marks beside the door, and the holes and trenches dug around it, long-since filled in with drifted earth and the weeds of many seasons' growth. Even in the glory days of Sateda, it seemed, people had tried to violate its ruins in search of treasure. The remembered dead were never as perfect in reality as memory tried to make them.

 

The door closed behind them. Ronon looked at Sheppard to see if there was a sudden change in him, but saw nothing except perhaps a faint exhalation. Of course, he remembered, the device must have started affecting Sheppard before they had reached the fortress. He'd fallen silent right from the start of their climb, so its reach was long.

 

"D'you think it'll release its hold on you when we go out of range?" Ronon asked him.

 

Sheppard frowned. "I don't know."

 

But then, ten minutes later, he returned to the subject, although they had talked about many other things in between. "It might do," he said, "but I… I'm keeping it at bay, and I don't know if dare stop trying. It's like keeping a door locked, when maybe there's no need, but maybe… maybe there is."

 

"I understand," Ronon said, and perhaps it was the mention of locked doors that made him at last turn around, to see what damage had been wrought on the skyline of the old, familiar fortress. It didn't look much different, but it was almost night now, the fortress just a dark shape against the first stars of an early spring sky. It was still standing, though, and he couldn't see any lights, or any other signs of their attackers.

 

"Still there?" Sheppard asked.

 

Ronon nodded. But the fortress still standing was less important, he thought, than Sheppard being okay. From the moment Sheppard had been shot,  the here and now had mattered more to Ronon than any past memories. He could live with the fortress falling, but if Sheppard died… Well, he could live with that, because he had survived the loss of so many things, but it would be difficult. People were more important than empty ruins. Friends meant more than the ghosts of an old home.

 

They carried on walking, still talking about homes and families, about all those things that Sheppard would never normally talk about. Ronon supported him, but Sheppard's steps grew slower and slower. "I don't think I can make it," he said at last. "I don't think it's the device speaking, making me give up. I know my limits. It's ten miles to the Gate, and I can't..."

 

"I'll carry you," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard shook his head. "Not for ten miles." His skin was still as cold as ice, and his pulse was faint and fluttering. He had never stopped being seriously injured, even when their more pressing concern had been the effect of the device. Even if the device was now defeated, he could still die.

 

"You need to go…" Sheppard began, but Ronon grabbed his wrist, hushing him with a raised hand. Voices were coming closer in the darkness.

 

Ronon tugged Sheppard into the shelter of a raeliac tree. The branches trailed down on them, the leaves brushing their clothes with their familiar scent. Sheppard crouched down, but it was closer to falling. Ronon crouched beside him, gun in hand.

 

The voices came closer. "No trace of them," he heard someone say. He saw their figures moving beyond the trees - at least ten of them. The next few exchanges he couldn't hear, but then someone said, "We'll come back tomorrow and bring more fire-powder."

 

Ronon edged forward, but Sheppard grabbed his sleeve. He didn't have to say anything for Ronon to know what he meant: that the men hadn't noticed them, and were going to pass by without seeing them. There was no point fighting them, outnumbered and injured as they were. They might kill a few, but they had no chance.

 

"It wasn't the device talking," Sheppard whispered, when the men had passed by and disappeared into the night.

 

"I know," Ronon said harshly. Killing them would have avenged the damage they were doing to Satedan heritage, and might have prevented further damage. But Sheppard needed him. He had to get Sheppard back to Atlantis. "I wasn't going to fight them," he said.

 

"I thought not," Sheppard said, "but…" His head leant back against the tree trunk. His arm went limp.

 

Ronon still heard the very faint whisper of fading voices. He'd been tempted to fight them, of course, but never seriously. What he had now was more important than memories of the past. An injured team-mate was more important than empty revenge.

 

"But I can't leave you," he said. He didn't understand everything that happened, but he knew that Sheppard had come to depend on his presence. Sheppard had clung physically to Ronon's shirt, and had clung to life by grasping hold of Ronon's words, reaching out to them with words of his own.

 

"I think I can do it by myself now," Sheppard said. "I think it's gone. I think… God, I don't know, Ronon. I don't know if my thoughts are my own any more, but I think… I think you need to get me to Atlantis as soon as possible, and I can't… I can't get there myself."

 

Ronon squeezed Sheppard's hand, anchoring him with the reality of that touch. "Hold on, Sheppard," he said, and then he ran.

 

******

 

The sky above him was black, not blue. The wordless voices hadn't wanted him to worry about anything any more. They'd wanted him to relax, to give in… But they thought that giving in was a good thing. It was submitting himself to Ascension, to the thing he was supposed to want more than anything.

 

Was this giving in? Pain blazed throughout his body, and he shivered violently with cold. Breathing came harder and harder, as if a huge weight had settled on his chest.

 

Something very distant told him not to worry.

 

"Of course… I'm going… to worry," he forced out. "Dying here?"

 

It hadn't wanted him to die, but he was badly hurt, and submission meant death. "To Hell with 'stay positive,'" he forced out. "I'm going to worry." Rage, rage against the dying of the light, he thought, and he wondered if a fever was starting, that long-forgotten poetry should come into his mind at a time like this.

 

It was hard to stay conscious, but he forced himself to. He squirmed against the tree, forcing the pain to stay hot and fierce.

 

After a while, he started talking to the memory of Ronon. "I'm glad you brought me here, buddy. I understand the point you were trying to make." After nearly four years, Ronon finally knew exactly where his home was.

 

And John…? John had known it within weeks. And he had no intention of leaving it, not unless his death was the price to pay to save the lives of others.

 

The stars moved above him, and John carried on talking.

 

******

 

Ronon ran past the party of scavengers, giving them a wide berth in the darkness. His head throbbed, and several times he had to stop and double over, felled by sudden nausea. He tripped several times, but managed not to fall.

 

Miles passed, and he reached the edge of the city. It was a strange feeling to be running towards something, not away from something. The realisation made him run even faster, but the ruins were hard to negotiate, and he kept having to slow down to clamber over wreckage.

 

Even though the city was changed, he knew the way instinctively. It was the first time he had visited the ruined city without being overwhelmed by grief. He passed tall towers that usually brought sharp memories, but all he felt now was a surge of relief because those towers were only a few miles from the Ring.

 

Stones crunched under foot. Plants were growing in the ruins now, and soon mounds would cover things that had once been houses. Flowers grew out of things that had once been dead.

 

And Ronon carried on running. His breath was heaving in his throat, and his vision was lurching. Then the Ring was ahead of him, and he leant shudderingly on the DHD, and dialled direct to Atlantis. "It's Ronon," he gasped, when they answered him. "Send a jumper. Sheppard's hurt. It's bad."

 

The next few minutes were confusing. He found himself sitting down on a lump of masonry, watching as the wormhole surged into being, watching as a shining jumper edged through. Medical staff emerged from the hatch and tried to treat him. He slapped them away, telling them to get Sheppard. When they said that he was clearly concussed and needed to go back to Atlantis, he pushed himself to his feet and shouldered them aside. "Sheppard," he growled. "Now."

 

The jumper covered the distance in mere minutes. Lorne and the doctors raced outside, but Ronon was ahead of them. "One life sign," he heard the co-pilot say, the voice fading into nothingness as he covered the distance. The trees were too dense for the jumper to land close. Ronon reached Sheppard a full minute before anyone else did.

 

Sheppard was still alive. Ronon remembered nothing after that.

 

******

 

The following morning, Keller and McKay returned from their weekend away. Teyla and Torren arrived back a few hours later. "You fainted," McKay said, grinning. "That's what everyone's saying. You fainted."

 

"That's what who's saying?" Ronon pretended to be angry, although such things really didn't matter. Sometimes your body betrayed you, and it was nothing to feel ashamed about. Even the strongest warriors sometimes screamed.

 

"Uh, no-one," McKay said. "It certainly wasn't Lorne telling tales."

 

"You need to stay here for a few more hours," Keller said, "then I'll release you, as long as you promise not to do anything stupid."

 

"Won't do anything stupid?" McKay snorted. "This is Conan we're talking about. He'll be swinging Marines around above his head and running marathons before the day's over. Honestly, you and Sheppard are as bad as each other. Trust you two to come back from a weekend camping trip all shot up and exploded."

 

Ronon moistened his lips. Teyla's hand closed on his. "John will be fine," she said firmly.

 

"He lost a lot of blood," Keller said, "and it was touch and go for a while." She looked guilty, because she hadn't been there, and was only talking from hearsay. "Movement of his right arm was compromised, but not severely so. There's evidence of infection in the wound from all the dirt, but it's being monitored. He'll be in here a good few days yet, but I see no reason why he won't make a full recovery."

 

"Which is good," McKay said, the movement of his hands showing that he was more troubled than he was trying to show. "But don't think we're going to let you two go off alone again in the near future."

 

Teyla's hand tightened on his. "Indeed," she said. "Next time I think we should stick together."

 

Despite everything that had happened, Ronon smiled. Home was more than just a place, of course. Home was people. Home was these people.

 

******

 

John drifted up through deep layers of the ocean. Ronon was beside him when he opened his eyes.

 

"It's about time," Ronon said. "It's been three days. Are you lucid this time?"

 

John tried to speak, but no sound came out. He had sharp, jagged memories of fever dreams, and of waking to nightmare visions of… no, he couldn't remember what, just that they were bad.

 

"Relax. Everything's okay," Ronon said, and John stopped breathing. There's nothing to worry about, the voices had said. Ronon smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Guess I shouldn't say that. It's just that sleep's what you need right now."

 

John let out a slow breath. He remembered when the most important thing, the only thing, had been to hold on to Ronon with everything that he had. Something was trying to pull him down under into sleep. Was it the natural weakness of his body, or was the device still working on him?

 

His eyes slid shut, and he dragged them open again.

 

"You should go to sleep," Ronon said quietly. "It's okay to stop fighting this time." Then, with no sense of shame, he touched John's arm. "I'm not going anywhere."

 

It was enough. John slept.

 

******

 

Ronon's head was entirely healed. Off duty on doctors' orders, he had spent a lot of time exploring Atlantis, seeing places with new eyes. It was strange, he thought, how for months he had thought of this as home, but he hadn't truly felt it, not until now.

 

Sheppard was slower to recover than the doctors had expected. In spite of their best medicines, the fever had raged more fiercely than Keller had thought it would. But Sheppard got better ever day, and so Ronon didn't tell her about the device. Sometimes wounds took longer to heal than you would expect. It didn't have to mean that Sheppard was still affected by the device, still lying down and refusing to fight when death came to take him.

 

Over the last few days, Sheppard had been withdrawn when Ronon had gone to see him. He made his way to the infirmary now, and found Sheppard's bed empty. "He wanted some fresh air," Keller called over to him; no need, of course, for her to ask why Ronon was here. "You'll find him down the hallway on the big balcony."

 

It was early evening, the sun just beginning to sink and turn orange. Sheppard was leaning with his good arm on the railing; the other was still held in a sling. "It's good to be outside," Sheppard said. "I hate being cooped up in bed."

 

Ronon slotted in beside him. The breeze was light, stirring his hair. "Sheppard…" he began, but Sheppard turned to him, interrupting him.

 

"I said things," he said, "when we were… down there. I made you say things, too. You were quick to understand what I needed. That thing… It…" He ran his hand across his face. "Anyway, talking helped. You got that. You…" The hand returned to the railing, gripping it. "What I mean is, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to do that."

 

"Don't be," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard turned a little away from him. "I remember most of it, I think. You didn't want to hear any of that."

 

He was embarrassed, of course. A man like Sheppard always would be. Sheppard was the sort of man who couldn't even bring himself to say a proper goodbye, even when he thought he was leaving friends behind forever. "It doesn't matter," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard's hand tightened. "I don't think it would have worked with McKay. You know McKay - talking's his natural state. I think it would have… washed over me more."

 

Did Sheppard feel guilty for the things Ronon had said, or ashamed about the things he had confessed about his family and his fears? "It doesn't matter," Ronon said. "When you fight alongside someone, you get to know them. You don't need to put things in words. Most things you said, I already knew." And Teyla knew, and probably McKay. Sheppard hid far less than he thought he did, his feelings evident in his eyes and the set of his mouth. "Just as you already knew the things I said. It's no big deal that I actually said them."

 

Sheppard was quiet for a very long time. Ronon looked out at the light across the ocean, and suddenly remembered when he had been about to leave Atlantis, when Sheppard had sat at his table in the mess hall, and had said so little, even as he had conveyed so much. Words were nothing, really.

 

"So if you know already…" Sheppard said at last.

 

"You're afraid," Ronon told him. "You didn't notice the device take you over at first. You're scared it might happen again. You're afraid that's really part of you - weak-willed, giving up…" He looked Sheppard full in the face. "It isn't, you know."

 

Sheppard said nothing. They were no longer in the fortress, and the time for confession was over.

 

"Everyone wants an end to the pain sometimes," Ronon said, "but you overcame it. You fought your way free of it. We didn't destroy it or switch it off. You broke free."

 

Sheppard looked away again. "Thanks to you."

 

Ronon shrugged. There was no shame at all in admitting that two could fight an enemy better than one could. Ronon had only fought alone because he'd been given no choice. What he had now was better, far better.

 

"It sucks having the ATA gene sometimes," Sheppard said, with an attempt at a laugh that didn't fool Ronon for one moment. "The galaxy's littered with things the Ancients left behind that want to come out and bite you."

 

"Yeah, but you bit back." Ronon patted Sheppard on the uninjured shoulder. Sheppard flinched slightly, perhaps remembering how he had clung to Ronon as if his life had depended on it.

 

"I haven't told anyone," Sheppard said. "What happens in secret Ancient bunkers stays in secret Ancient bunkers, huh?" He tried to smile, but the smile faded. "I probably ought to. There might be more… things like that. McKay'll probably want to study it. We need to find a way to switch it off first, though. Can't have all the ATA gene carriers in Atlantis rolling over onto their backs and giving up."

 

"Sheppard," Ronon said sharply. "Buddy. Listen. There's nothing to be ashamed of. You fought it off, and I… lent you my sword arm. It doesn't matter what form that help takes. It's what team-mates do, and that's why I wanted to go there with you: because we're team."

 

Sheppard said nothing, his shoulders stiff and his hand still. Ronon didn't normally say much, not because he was ashamed to, but because words weren't usually necessary. Sheppard had different problems with words, of course, but it wasn't Ronon's place to change him.

 

"You were attacked," he said, "and you used the weapons you needed to break free. I helped in the way you needed me to. It's as simple as that."

 

Sheppard let out a breath. "I guess I haven't got many secrets left."

 

"You never had," Ronon told him, "because that's what team's about." He put his arm around Sheppard, squeezing him briefly in a one-armed hug. He felt Sheppard stiffen, but only slightly; let him go before he could pull away.

 

"You're right," Sheppard said. "It's just…"

 

He didn't finish, and he didn't need to. Ronon had always understood Sheppard far more than Sheppard had realised.

 

And in the end, their relationship wasn't one of words, just as Ronon had discovered a home on Atlantis by slow, quiet moves, without long speeches. "You think Keller will notice if you escape to the mess hall?" Ronon said. "McKay and Teyla are already there."

 

Sheppard smiled gratefully. "Won't know until we try."

 

And nothing more would be said about it, Ronon thought, because that was the sort of person Sheppard was. But it had taken Ronon's experience with the enzyme for him to realise just what a home he had on Atlantis, with his team and his friends. Bad things that you survived had a habit of changing you, sometimes for the better. It took weeks, though, and sometimes months. McKay was still fragile from his loss of intelligence, and it would be a while before Sheppard would be able to forget that he had been robbed of his strength of will, and forced to talk about fears and feelings that he preferred to keep locked inside.

 

But he had his home on Atlantis, and he had his team, and such things meant everything. And perhaps Sheppard realised it, too, because at the end of their meal, just as Keller came to drag him back, he looked at the three of them, and said, "How about a road trip next time we're on leave? You know, revisit the old haunts on Earth?"

 

"A road trip?" McKay spluttered. "You've been watching too many movies."

 

"I would like that very much," Teyla said.

 

Ronon said nothing, because it was no longer a time when words were needed. He nodded, though, and gave a quick smile.

 

"Well," Sheppard said with a sigh. "Looks like my time's up." He stood up, began to walk towards Keller, then stopped. This time the contact was initiated by Sheppard - just a hand on Ronon's shoulder, briefly squeezing tight. "Thanks, buddy," Sheppard said quietly. "For all of it."

 

"You're welcome," Ronon said. This time his smile was broader, and Sheppard smiled back without reserve.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Note: As I said at the start, this story came out of two prompts that Kristen999 was kind enough to provide when my muse was struggling for ideas. One was for a story in which Ronon was stuck somewhere with Sheppard, whose ATA gene was causing him problems. The second was for a story in which Ronon gave Sheppard a hug. While I mostly wrote the first prompt, the second prompt played a very important in the genesis of the story, since it was the inspiration for the whole  theme of Ronon having to anchor Sheppard to life both physically and with words. I had hoped to get Ronon hugging Sheppard in the final scene, too, but Sheppard didn't co-operate.

 

Another inspiration was The Shrine. I'd seen several people saying that they wanted to see a story in which Sheppard suffered something similar to what Rodney suffered in that episode. This isn't that story, but it has elements of it. 

 

The title comes from a saying that "a faithful companion is a sure anchor."

 

Thanks for reading!

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