Ex Nihilo

by Domenika Marzione

He's been in the city of the Ancestors for twenty-three days. With one notable exception, it's the longest he's allowed himself to stay on a world with people since he became a Runner and the urge to flee crawls beneath his skin like fire. He knows he's not a Runner anymore, but he doesn't know it yet, not in his heart or his head. He feels restless, but part of him knows it has nothing to do with being in one place for so long.

He's not bothered by being in the home of the Ancestors; Teyla asked and he takes it to mean that she was -- maybe she still is -- but it means nothing to him. The Ancestors mean nothing to him, not when they couldn't save him or Sateda. Not when he knows now that they left millennia ago, only concerned with saving themselves.

The people who live in Atlantis now are completely alien to him in ways that have nothing to do with how he's spent the last seven years, but at the same time this place and its people are too much like the home he remembers. Their optimism is not at all like Sateda's, which was less optimism than enjoying a very prolonged pause -- the Wraith may not have come for two hundred years, but they were still out there and could always come again. This, here and now, is something else -- these new Lanteans know the Wraith are out there, know the Wraith are coming, and they don't care. Their defiance is unwavering, unmerited, and completely irresistible.

Ronon has spent his time here wandering around the city and fighting with the marines, the city's police and protectors. He asks Sheppard why the marines, who used to watch him like hungry predators as he walked through the halls, now simply nod and smile at him. He's done nothing to earn their trust -- he simply hasn't done anything to jeopardize the city -- and the shift in attitude disturbs him.

"You beat them up," Sheppard says with a shrug, not looking up from his food tray. "Among marines, that's a sign of affection."

Ronon waits for a fuller explanation, but nothing comes. Finally, when Ronon doesn't start eating again, Sheppard looks up.

"Listen," he sighs. "You've been here three weeks and haven't done anything remotely dangerous except glare menacingly at a few civilians -- which, by the way, you should lay off doing -- and the marines know that. They also know that I trust you and that Teyla trusts you. You helped us deal with Ford and, well, that counts. But, really, it's mostly because you beat them up. Marines are cheap dates that way."

He doesn't ask why Sheppard trusts him; he's not sure Sheppard knows. He doesn't want to lose that trust, either.

The marines enjoy violence for its own sake, a primal instinct Ronon has come to live by and has had a very hard time reining in. The marines are better at turning it off, more used to switching between man and warrior, and Ronon wants to learn that from them even as he teaches them to fight as if there truly were nothing left to lose. Their true home, Earth, has never known of a plague such as the Wraith and while Ronon has been told -- and has seen for himself -- that the marines have fought with everything they had and lost comrades anyway, they don't really understand what it's like to be guaranteed to lose. They don't understand what inevitable defeat is, what kind of a weight it is over days, months, years, generations when you know, with unquestioning certitude, that your entire life, your entire world, exists only at someone else's whim.

Teaching the marines to fight as if they have been born waiting to die feels a little bit like feeding them poison.

When he is not with the marines, Ronon finds himself trailing after Teyla like a child. She accepts it without comment or question, letting him go with her to the mainland again and even following her to where she practices with her bantos sticks. She fights mostly marines with and occasionally with the young Athosians who stay in the city from time to time.

The gyms are large and always occupied; Ronon can find something to watch or someone to fight with at any hour of the day or night. There are many styles of martial training on display -- the Lanteans brought a seemingly endless variety from Earth -- and Ronon tries to understand the purpose behind each. Some are stylized, some depend on a shared code of honor between opponents, some are elegant, some are just plain brutal. They are all based on fighting another man, not the Wraith, and that is how it is intended to be. The marines love their weapons almost as much as they love to fight -- they will lovingly describe rifles and artillery the way some would fine art -- and trust that these tools of destruction will be enough to fight the Wraith. It's another reason for why they don't have the necessary edge to their hand-to-hand skills.

"You don't bring a knife to a gunfight," one of them told him. It is sound logic as far as it goes, but Ronon knows better. Sometimes a knife is all you have left.

When Ronon isn't wandering without purpose or fighting, he's eating. Food he doesn't have to kill or steal is still a relief. Food that is hot and highly flavored (everything seems highly flavored to him now) is a novelty that he can't get enough of. He eats too much because it's there and because it feels good and indulgent and something he couldn't do Before. And then he gets nauseated and fearful and runs for hours because while he now lives bathed in the sunlight of these Lanteans, he knows that darkness will eventually come once more.

He sometimes wonders what the Lantean civilians see when they look at him, eating like he were starved, exercising as if he were still being chased, fighting as if he could battle his demons down. He wonders whether it's ever a mirror, a view into what they could be if they were unlucky like him. He doubts it; he is alien to them in a way Teyla isn't even though the truth is quite the opposite -- he was once like them, or close enough. The marines, however, sometimes he thinks they may understand. Atlantis was attacked by the Wraith a few months ago and some of them were there then to defend the city, and, he thinks, he can always tell which ones.

Less out of respect than friendliness, part of the change in treatment by the marines is that they seem to enjoy feeding him. They are the city's cooks and they take pride if not necessarily in their mastery of the skill, then at least in what their culture has provided for them to eat. Earth is a world of many languages and more peoples and each has their own culinary style and many are on display in Atlantis's commissary. Ronon learns about tacos and lasagna and burgers and sweet-and-sour pork, remembering their names if not which part of Earth is responsible for them. (The answers seem to change weekly at that.) He accepts what the marines offer him out of the remnant of his good manners, although Sheppard tells him that it's probably his survival skills since the marines know what's edible and what's really not.

He is carrying a tray full of ham baked with pineapples and spices, potatoes with gravy, greens, bread, salad, and juice when he sees a face he hasn't seen except in passing since his arrival. There are plenty of empty tables, but he sits down at the one where the man is reading printed-out pages, fork in one hand and pen in the other. He looks up sharply, annoyed, but then sees Ronon and the annoyance shifts to curiosity.

"What do you want?"

Ronon leans in a little. "Why does Sheppard say that you are the doctor I'm not supposed to anger?"

The doctor -- he doesn't remember Sheppard calling him anything but Doc -- laughs, a short, sharp sound. "Because Colonel Sheppard's got a perverse sense of humor."

Ronon would accept that answer -- it's true enough -- but he remembers the exam well. Doc was not scared of him -- wary, yes, but not scared and not just because Sheppard had a gun and there were marines in the hallway.

"Are you a soldier?" he asks instead.

"I used to be," Doc replies, which is not quite the answer Ronon is expecting. Doc has the body language, the musculature, of someone used to fighting -- present, not past. Control that has been learned and mastered, economy of motion, and the undercurrent of energy that Ronon sees among the marines and not anyone else wearing civilian colors.

"You still train," Ronon says, not making it a question.

"This is Pegasus," Doc replies with a shrug. Ronon almost smiles -- he can't yet do so without looking menacing, so he tries not to -- because that is the only possible answer.

Ronon watches Doc return his attention to the papers before him, eating neatly and writing messily.

Instead of cramming the whole slice of ham into his mouth at once, Ronon cuts it into manageable pieces. He was taught which fork goes with which course once upon a time and if he normally eats in a fashion that belies those long-ago lessons in deportment and good manners, it's because that's what the Lanteans seem to expect out of him. (It's what they seem to expect out of the marines, too, he has noticed. Warriors on Earth must not come from high station, even officers, since Sheppard does not seem like he's anyone's idea of gentry.)

"What is that?" Ronon asks as Doc carefully dissects something on his plate, putting down his pen and deftly using his knife.

"I have no idea, really," Doc answers wryly. "It may have been breaded turkey in the paleolithic era. It was probably packed in the Cold War for someone's fallout shelter."

Ronon ignores the references. "Why'd you get it, then?"

There are occasionally trays full of food that Ronon is sure he would have passed over even back when he was Running, but there are always alternatives. The Lanteans eat a lot and expect variety.

"It was the choice that wasn't the glued-together pasta or the ham."

The ham is very good -- juicy and sweet. "You don't like ham?"

"I don't eat ham," Doc replies, attention thoroughly on his surgery.

It's a distinction with a difference and Ronon knows it's probably rude to ask, but he's curious and can pretend that he doesn't know better. "Why?"

"Religious reasons," Doc answers, sighing with frustration and pushing the meat to the side. He attacks his potatoes with more enthusiasm.

Before the first time Sheppard took him to the commissary when there would be other people there -- the first time overall had been late at night, after his exam with Doc -- Sheppard had told him that Earth people generally abided by two rules: don't discuss politics and don't discuss religion. It had been a typically Sheppard suggestion -- somewhat devoid of context and not completely devoid of usefulness -- but he hadn't realized it at the time. Politics was a sensitive issue on Sateda, but Ronon came from a family of senators and he was expected to discuss it.

"Why were you a soldier?" he asks instead, since he knows from McKay that Earth people can chose to be one or the other.

"Religious reasons," Doc says again with a complicated smile.

Ronon doesn't think he's being mocked, but he doesn't know what to say, either.

"I come from a very small country with a lot of enemies and not many allies," Doc says after another couple of forkfuls. "Everyone serves, at least for a little while."

Ronon nods, not wanting to say that that's how it had been on Sateda, too, except for there only being one enemy.

They finish the meal in comfortable silence.

He finds out a few days later, from Teyla, that Doc's name is Safir and that his people have been hated and killed for thousands of years. Teyla doesn't understand how Earth, which should have been a paradise free from the Wraith, could develop such hatred and so much violent history toward each other. Ronon does -- he studied law and politics and history and has seen many things in his years as a Runner.

"Everyone needs an enemy," he tells her.

He finds Safir in one of the training rooms one morning shortly after dawn, standing hands-on-hips and sweaty as he barks instructions to two marines fighting each other. This is a style of combat Ronon hasn't seen thus far, something that's closer to what he's been teaching the marines and less like the rigid forms the marines seem to know. He leans against the wall and watches both for what the marines do and what Safir tells them to do and thinks on what he'd say that would be different.

"Do you still fight like that?" Ronon asks Safir after he's dismissed the marines to go run by the piers.

"Like them or like that?" Safir asks by way of reply with a half-smirk. "Yes."

"Want to?" Ronon is curious how this 'art' matches up against his lack thereof.

Safir looks at his watch. "Carson will have my hide if I'm late again this week," he says. "And, with all due respect to your considerable skill, I'm more afraid of him than you."

Ronon's not offended. "Later?"

They make an agreement for later. Ronon spends his day as he has been -- exploring the city, bothering Teyla, eating, listening to Sheppard awkwardly counsel him. Sheppard is intrigued when Ronon tells him that he is going to fight Safir.

"You're going toe-to-toe with Yoni?" Sheppard muses. "Probably about time. You've run through almost everyone else."

"Is he good?" Ronon asks, because as much as he wants to win, he doesn't want to embarrass the older man.

"He beats up marines, too," Sheppard assures, then realizes something. "I should tell Lorne."

Lorne is Sheppard's executive officer, which as far as Ronon can tell means that he's really the guy who runs everything. Lorne is small and even-tempered and Ronon never realizes he's around until he says something. He wonders if Lorne has to know for administrative reasons.

Ronon doesn't think Doctor Weir would approve of him beating up a doctor.

'Later' comes and there's a small crowd forming before they even begin. Sheppard shows up with Lorne and two others, but Ronon tunes them out.

"Are you armed?" he asks. He has his usual complement, but doesn't need to resort to them if it would make the fight unfair from the start.

"Laganzo, give me your ka-bar," Safir says to one of the marines, one of the ones from this morning Ronon thinks because they are not dressed in exercise clothes. Laganzo looks across the room toward where Sheppard and the other officers are standing, then pulls out his knife, handing it over hilt-first. Safir holds it up to Ronon, then slips it into his belt at the small of his back.

They agree to fight until one of them taps out or someone stop the match. They haven't bothered with a referee -- there are witnesses sundry who will be judge and jury.

It starts slowly, getting a feel for each other and a better grasp for the limits of the match. A feint here, a deke there, and then they are engaged for real.

Safir fights dirty; everything he does is aimed at Ronon's knees and elbows and chest and groin. It's a smart choice for a smaller, weaker, slower fighter; Safir is and he knows he is and Ronon respects that. Not enough to let Safir get first blood, though.

Once Safir has been cut on the forearm -- a shallow cut that looks worse than it is because sweat makes the blood drops run -- they lose the rest of their inhibitions. It is no longer sport -- it is a fight and for far more than honor, if that was ever at stake. Safir gets him on the thigh, then seems to stumble as he retreats. But it's a ploy that Ronon doesn't realize until too late and his left knee buckles after Safir kicks it hard with all of the leverage he has from being on the ground. Ronon pays him back, but he'll still be limping for a few days.

The fight is called by Sheppard, who announces "All right, that's enough!" in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the city, or at least over the noise of the crowd who has gathered. Ronon hears it over the pulse of his blood, through the fog of wherever his higher faculties go when he fights like this. He stops, helps Safir up -- Sheppard called it because Safir was not tapping out -- and feels almost blown back by the wave of noise and enthusiasm and energy of the crowd, which has multiplied to the point that he can't see the walls or the door.

The sea of men parts as they are half-dragged, half-carried toward the infirmary. Doctor Beckett is aghast, although he seems to be more upset with Safir, who doesn't seem to care. Ronon is put in the care of a woman doctor who introduces herself as Nancy Clayton and proceeds to catalogue his wounds as she treats them, tallying them as a record of Safir's performance. Sheppard, who is hovering nearby, finds it amusing.

"He has more," Ronon finally says, since while it was a long fight and a well-matched one, there was also a very clear winner and it wasn't Safir. Who is currently getting his face stitched up by a disapproving Beckett.

"He's supposed to have more," Clayton tells him, frowning at him like he's being a spoiled child. "You've spent the last seven years fighting for your life and he hasn't. Well, except for the odd Wraith invasion and Colonel Sheppard taking him to planets he shouldn't have."

"That only happened once," Sheppard protests. "Or maybe twice."

Clayton stitches one wound and cleans the rest, telling him that he should shower and wash everything else off and if he needs help applying the bandages and salve she gives him, to return. She also tells him not to exercise and to show up tomorrow for inspection or else she'll send marines to hunt him down.

"They can't catch me," Ronon says, reasonably sure that's the case.

"They don't have to," she tells him archly. "They just have to get you in the sights of the tranq gun."

He looks at Sheppard, who shrugs. "I'd do what she says."

He does. Clayton probably fights dirty in ways Safir couldn't imagine.

The next afternoon, he returns to have his wounds examined. Safir is the doctor on duty and seems amused at the irony that he now must treat his own handiwork. Safir's looking worse for wear -- his face is bruised near where the stitches are, his knuckles are raw, and he moves with a little stiffness.

"Who looks after you?" Ronon asks as his bandages are changed by the nurse.

"Oh, I've got everyone here keeping an eye on me," Safir assures sourly, stripping off his plastic gloves. "A few want to make sure I'm in one piece and the rest want to see me suffer."

Over dinner with McKay and Teyla, Sheppard asks Ronon to join his off-world team. He'd be the replacement for the crazed Ford, although Sheppard doesn't say so. Doesn't ever mention Ford at all except for that one time; the pain is still great and Ronon can see it even if the name never gets spoken aloud. He asks if Doctor Weir has approved, McKay mutters something about children and toys, and Teyla starts smiling before Ronon even says yes.

Ronon and Yoni set-to at the end of the first part of Some Assembly Required, although the fight itself is offscreen.

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30 July, 2006