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Tag to 5x03 "Broken Ties".
Guilt is nothing new to Ronon. Every soldier learns the taste of guilt, learns how to dilute its bite with spirits and sex and laughter. It was true on Sateda; it's true on any world. It's how he knew that McKay was a soldier for all he called himself a scientist, because of the guilt always in his eyes, the afterimages of the people he's watched die.
Ronon knows guilt. If he still carried a yiri piece for every one of his school- and squad-mates who fell before him, he wouldn't be able to move; all the bits of metal and carved wood would outweigh him. Only made sense, to drop all but those pressed into his own hands by their dying ones, but it took a couple years of Running before he stopped being angry with himself for not being strong enough to carry them all.
Survivor's guilt, Kate Heightmeyer once told him it was called, the word people on Earth give to the pain of living when everyone else doesn't. Earth people have words for everything, so many that only a select few like Heightmeyer can remember them all. Ronon's always thought it weird, that the Earthers need someone to tell them what they're feeling. He bears more love for John Sheppard than for any other commanding officer he ever served under, but it kind of scares him, how Sheppard can do so much and not know why he does it, not admit even to himself what drives him.
Guilt's been part of Ronon for so long that he wouldn't know himself without it, wouldn't recognize the shape of himself not bent under its burden.
What he doesn't know—what he didn't know, before this—is shame.
Guilt comes after you have done something, and are wishing it had a lesser cost, or wishing you'd done it differently, or wishing you'd had a choice about doing it at all. Guilt is knowing what you did, and wishing you had not done it.
But shame is knowing yourself, and wishing you were not the self you know.
Guilt is remembering the friends who died because you couldn't save them, is knowing that you could have died with them, but didn't; that you chose to keep fighting in their names, to keep living instead.
Shame, though, shame is knowing you are a man who will turn on his friends, that you are a man who would kill them yourself, and gladly, for only a moment's euphoric power. Shame is understanding that the price of your soul and your honor and your love is as dirt-cheap as your life.
Ronon had tasted the Wraith's enzyme before, forced on him by Ford and his crazy gang; but it had been nothing like this. That had been thrilling energy and strength; pain when it was leaving, but no worse agony than anything else he'd felt at Wraith hands, and he'd never feared dying of it. He'd wanted; but he'd wanted for plenty of things, Running. He knew how to live without.
But this—this was Sheppard telling him Tyre was dead, dead with his honor restored and his friendship true, and it had meant nothing, nothing, because there was no Wraith on Atlantis to give Ronon what he needed, all he needed, all that mattered.
Seven years Running, and he had kept running, kept living, because life was all he had. Because he was the only one who could remember the fallen, remember Sateda. Because he wanted to make the Wraith pay for their crimes, and knew himself strong enough to do so.
Seven years, and he had hurt and he had starved and he had bled and he had forgotten almost anything that he had used to be. But he'd never wanted to die. He'd never feared death, but he'd never been so cowardly as to ask for it.
Seven years and he'd never given up; but in a matter of days he'd been made into a man who was screaming for it, begging to be killed, anything to make the pain stop. Anything to stop his body burning from the inside out, acid in his veins and his heart pounding and all he could think about, all he could remember, was how powerful he'd been, how incredible it had felt, how he would have done anything, anything to feel that again—kneel at a Wraith's feet or stab his sword into a teammate's heart, anything, if he'd been allowed, if he'd been strong enough.
The doctor, Keller, comes to his bed late in the night, smiling in her soft nervous way—she's strong when she has to be, but now she's uncertain. "All your tests are clean," she tells him. "Physically you're all better; you'll be sprung tomorrow morning. I bet you'll go straight to the gym, I'll probably see you back here by the evening?"
Ronon shrugs. Keller looks down at him, awkward and gentle. "Just try not to bleed too much, okay? Or break anything?"
"I'll try," Ronon says, because she wants him to say something and he doesn't like the unhappy little moue of her mouth when she swallows; it's too much like Melena's.
Keller nods, smiling still. But she's strong when she needs to be, when there's someone who needs healing. "You know it wasn't your fault," she says. "Your dopamine levels were—well. Forget the biochemistry. It wasn't you, Ronon. Everything you did—I'm not only talking about the emotional effects of the torture you endured; not the psychology, but physiologically. You were broken, not your mind but your brain. It's no more your fault than it would be your fault if they'd broken your arm—your brain's part of your body as much as your skeleton, it's a physical organ, and it can only take so much. So you shouldn't think you were weak or anything like that, because you weren't. The amazing thing is that you were able to survive it—twice over, what the Wraith did to you, and then coming back to us. It's amazing, that you were that strong."
"Yeah," Ronon says. "Thanks, Doc," because she's waiting, anxiously, and that eases a bit when he says it.
She's telling the truth; she's not telling him anything he didn't already know. It's not his fault. He remembers everything he did, but there's no guilt, because he remembers too that everything he did, he wished to do, wanted to do, was glad to do. Needed to do, and all he had been was the need; the need had been everything, every wish and will and desire.
He knows he was this man, could yet be made into this man again; he knows, and wishes he could forget, and that shame burns with its own heat, that he's too weak for this knowledge.
The next day he spars with Teyla, his body healed, yet slow and clumsy from too long in bed—tied to the bed, as he screamed and sweated; and Teyla was watching, but she doesn't check her blows now, doesn't coddle him. When he stumbles, she coolly takes advantage, brings him down hard and smirks at his weakness.
Teyla doesn't tell him it wasn't his fault; nor does she tell him she forgives him, any more than John did, when John brought him Tyre's blade. I trust you, Sheppard said, wordlessly, with that gift; and his trust is worth a thousand times more than forgiveness. I trust you, Teyla says, when she swings at him with both bantos rods, knowing he's fast enough to block in time, even after the days in the infirmary.
But when she says, "Shall we meditate?" Ronon lies, "Nah, I'm hungry." Because he doesn't want to sit there in silence with her, remembering how he can become someone she cannot trust.
Sheppard meets them in the cafeteria, makes weird jokes about the food that McKay's not around to get. McKay was there when Ronon first woke up, grinning like he'd chased the last vrikhal into the river, but Ronon hasn't seen him since.
Sheppard's looking happy, though, not faking it but for real, relaxed and sardonic for the first time in months. Ronon knows why, because when he was still in the infirmary, Teyla told him that she had decided to stay on the team. When John looks at them now, looks at his teammates together, none of them abducted and none of them in the infirmary and none of them trying to kill him, he smiles. Ronon wonders if Sheppard realizes he's doing it.
Ronon's not going to leave the team. He's got to be that strong, anyway. They need his strength, and he needs to protect them, and they all need to kill Wraith.
But a matter of days ago he was a man who would've licked a Wraith's boot, would've sucked its cold sticky shriveled member, if only it would put its hand on his chest and give him what he needed.
He's not going to leave the team, but he feels kind of sick, eating with them and knowing they remember, knowing they remember who he was before, even if they're not talking about it. Even if they're not thinking about it—Teyla who knows her mind and her feelings well enough to stop herself; and Sheppard who never knows himself what he's really thinking anyway.
But McKay, who can never stop thinking—McKay's not here. Ronon remembers his teammate's voice, babbling on and on and on while he was in isolation, caught somewhere between waking and dreams and delirium; but McKay's not here now.
Ronon doesn't like the man he is, but he knows the man he wishes he were, so after they're done eating, he goes down to the computer lab, walks straight there like he's not afraid, even though he is.
It's not that McKay's going to blame him. McKay's a scientist, and he's talked to Keller; maybe he makes air quotes when he says, "the science of medicine", but he believes in it, in the end, so he'll know scientifically that it wasn't Ronon's fault.
But Rodney can remember what other people forget—doesn't forget what other people can't remember, numbers and the courses of stars in the skies. True things. And he knows now as well as Ronon, what kind of man Ronon is.
McKay's on the short side, and not that tough, and not that fast; but he's smart enough to make up for all of that, and knows it, and he never once backed down from Ronon, not from the beginning, when he was dangling in the snare in that night forest. You can scare McKay, because he's smart enough to know when he can die; but you can't intimidate him. A lot of the people on Atlantis hesitated to talk to Ronon, early on, would stammer and stare and look mortified when they mentioned the Wraith by mistake around him, but McKay never did that. From the first, he never was scared of Ronon.
But McKay knows now what kind of man Ronon can be. And Ronon doesn't want to see McKay looking at him, knowing that he's a man who would kill a friend to get what he wants, what he needs.
But he doesn't want to be a coward even more than that, so he goes into the lab.
A couple scientists by the door are muttering in a conversation that dies away when he walks in, starts up again when he walks past. McKay's on a couple computers in the corner, but he looks up when Ronon comes over. "Hey," he says, "you're out of the infirmary, um, great. That's good. How do you feel?—Or have you had to field that one enough today? Um. Feeling better? No, that's no better...um, beat up anything really good today?"
"Yeah," Ronon says. Or Teyla beat him good, but same difference, really.
"Good," Rodney says, bobbing his head to show that he means it. He's giving Ronon furtive looks, back and forth from him to the computer screens and then to Ronon again, like he's trying not to stare but really wants to.
"So, um," McKay mumbles as he fidgets, "Keller gave you a clean bill of health, no side-effects, or, um—you're cleared to go off-world, right? Because I think we have a mission tomorrow, we had one on the agenda, anyway, to that freshwater aquaculture planet with the blue algae, Wallaby or Wackadoodle or whatever. M5E-775. Though that was put on the roster ages ago, maybe it's been rescheduled."
Ronon kind of hopes it has been; Waxalladi always smells like rotting fish, and it's hard to get the odor out of his leathers. But he says, "Yeah, I can go."
"Good," McKay says again, and then, all at once like he's attacking, he spins his chair around and looks Ronon up and down, critically, like Ronon's a piece of Ancient equipment that was malfunctioning. "So you're still on the team," he says, somewhere between a question and an order, and then tempers it, "because really, it would be absurd if you weren't, it's not like you wanted to get abducted by your old friend and tortured and brainwashed and—oh, um, sorry. I mean, really, I'm sorry about your friend, he was, um—we couldn't have saved you without him, he was actually... He was a good guy. I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Ronon says. Someday he'll talk about Tyre, but he doesn't want to yet. There's too much to say now, and he doesn't know all the words for it. Doesn't know if Satedan even has all the words, and he doesn't know the right Earth ones. Eventually, there'll be less to say, and then he'll have enough words.
Like Kate Heightmeyer did, McKay knows more words than almost anyone; but unlike Heightmeyer, he doesn't try to teach all of them, doesn't care if he's not always understood, as long as he understands himself.
When he looks at Ronon now, though, he looks like he's trying to remember the right words, or figure out the right way to pronounce them. Kind of puzzled and kind of frustrated, because Rodney hates not knowing anything.
Or maybe it's something else that's making him fidget, fingers drumming on the countertop and gaze flickering around, twitchy and uneasy, like Keller. Like he's nervous.
Like he's afraid, afraid and trying not to be because McKay can be brave in unexpected ways, and Ronon's stomach twists, worse than a couple days ago when he was strapped writhing to that bed and it hurt to breathe, hurt to swallow. Because they're teammates and Rodney knows what that means, but he knows now who Ronon really is, too.
And because Ronon knows, too, he says, "You scared of me, McKay?" and he says it low, so the others in the lab won't hear; low so it's a threat, so McKay's eyes will widen enough for Ronon to see the fear for real in them, to know for sure.
But McKay blinks. "Am I what? No, why would I—" Then his eyes do go wide, and there is fear in them, or something like it—there's the same awful sick feeling that's knotting Ronon's gut, reflected in Rodney's eyes, hurting.
Then McKay's standing up. "Out," he says, not to Ronon, passing Ronon to flap his hands at the pair of scientists still murmuring by the door, "Out, out, you're disturbing my concentration, I'm about to have a fantastic breakthrough and I can't do it with you two billing and cooing in the corner. Go flirt in the cafeteria and leave the brilliant science to those willing to work for it."
The two other scientists shoot him looks of mingled indignation and terror, and hurry out, leaving McKay and Ronon alone in the lab. After the door closes, McKay does something to the locking panel, then comes back to his computers, where Ronon's still standing.
"I'm sorry," Rodney says. His back's drawn up stiff as if he's got his plastic armor on and is ready to spar, and his hands are closing in restless fists at his sides. "I should've—that is—it wasn't easy. It's not easy. But then, it's not like it was easy for you, god, it's..."
He takes a breath. "I know," he says, like Ronon spoke, even though he hasn't. "Believe me, I can imagine—I wish I couldn't, but I can, and...and I don't know if this'll help, or make it worse, but it's all I can think of to do." McKay sits at his computer, types and moves the pointer and clicks a bunch of times, enters a password and clicks more.
Then he turns the computer's screen toward Ronon. "This is the security feed from the infirmary," he says. "It's privacy-locked, but obviously since I set the security protocols—and technically it's mine anyway. No one else has access, since Carson... Anyway. This was two and a half years ago. You remember. Ford, and...all that."
Then he hits the key to play the video.
Ronon does remember. He wasn't there, but they heard afterward, how McKay had gotten away from Ford's men by himself. Sheppard had been pissed off, furious because he'd been frightened, because Beckett had told them how close it had been. Even though they'd been imprisoned in a hive ship, while McKay had been safe in the infirmary, hooked up to monitors and sedated, but it had been close. But Ronon had still been feeling ill then himself, fighting the last of the withdrawal himself; they'd all been on the enzyme and McKay's regular dose had been lower than theirs anyways, and how much worse could it have been for him, overdosed or not.
Only it had been worse, because McKay on the computer screen is thrashing and bucking against the straps holding him down, is crying and screaming and begging, his voice sobbing and breaking, "Kill me, just kill me," on the laptop's tinny speakers.
Ronon watches until he can't, which isn't very long, and when he looks away he looks to McKay, the McKay now, who's standing in the lab with his arms crossed, steady instead of shaking, face pale instead of purple-red and his mouth closed, silent instead of screaming. McKay, watching with his jaw set and his arms folded together tightly so he can't reach out and turn the video off, hurting to watch but wanting to make sure Ronon sees this, too strong to turn from this truth.
Ronon looks back at the video, and then he hits the keys on the computer to close the window, to make it go away, make that McKay go away, that other McKay who was all rage and agony and need need need.
"See," the McKay now says. "I do get it. Not totally, maybe. It was different; I was the one who did that to myself, I wasn't tortured into it, and I didn't...I never had to...but I would've done it, Ronon. They could've put a gun in my hand and told me—if there'd been a way to get the enzyme—I would've done anything. Anything. And even afterwards...a long time afterwards, I still...I'd want it, sometimes. I'd want..."
"I don't," Ronon says. Which isn't true, because he can remember the power and the exhilaration—except it's truer than anything, because he remembers smiling when Sheppard was going to be fed upon, remembers hearing Tyre was dead and feeling nothing. Never again, never willingly. Next time...
"That's good. I mean, not wanting to be tortured and brainwashed and everything," and McKay makes a noise that's maybe meant to be a laugh, but isn't.
"You wouldn't," Ronon tells him. "You wouldn't do it again."
Next time—Ronon will die before it happens again. He was that man, but he won't be again.
"Yeah, well," McKay says. "I can only hope I won't." He looks at Ronon, direct, and in his eyes there's the humiliation of that man he was, briefly, two and a half years ago. All the shame of it, but no fear. He's not afraid, not of Ronon. Only of his own shame, but he sat with Ronon, those long hours in isolation, sat and remembered what he was himself, and didn't let it break him. Because this is the kind of man Rodney is, whoever he once was.
"But you wouldn't," McKay says. "That's not who you are."
Says because he's Ronon's teammate; because he knows Ronon. Because he's smart enough to remember, to understand the truth. And Ronon, listening, believes.
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