Ronon wasn't averse to parties. On Sateda, when it was time to party, they partied hard. These Earthers, though. Apparently they had an excuse to party at pretty much every turn, and most of those parties were just the American ones. When Beckett and Kusanagi and Greta and a bunch of others started telling Ronon about the holidays and celebrations they had in their own countries, Ronon's head spun. How did people on Earth get anything done if they were always partying?
So when word crept out across the base, that they were starting a new tradition, the annual birthday party, where basically everyone celebrated their birth, Ronon was a little worried. He'd only managed to think up gifts for Teyla, Teldy, Rodney, Weir, Lorne, and John to thank them for contributing to another year of his existence. But if everyone was celebrating everyone else all at once, surely the effort and expense would be impossible to bear.
He mentioned this as casually as he could to Lorne, who had ended up on the party planning committee.
Lorne frowned at him, confused. "Sorry, run that by me again?"
"How many people do I have to get presents for? Everyone who's celebrating me? As in, everyone on the whole base?"
"Ah, no. No. No presents. Is that how they do it on Sateda?"
It was Ronon's turn to be confused. "Do what?"
"Birthdays. The birthday boy gives presents away? Because on Earth, if it's your birthday, everyone gives presents to you."
"That's backwards," Ronon said.
"Maybe from where you're standing. But in the case of the Atlantis Birthday Party, it's neither here nor there, because presents aren't even on the menu."
Ronon was unaccountably relieved, but still confused. "Okay. Thanks." And he moseyed down to the training rooms to throw around some marines.
Everyone was ridiculously excited about the party. As Ronon wandered the halls of Atlantis, he heard talk of dancing, of drinking, of delicious food, of games of all sorts. Some of the sub-contingents had arranged for awards ceremonies – the scientists had plans to hand out Red Shirt Awards for any scientist on a gate team who'd shown outstanding bravery despite the superb stupidity of even signing up to be on a gate team. Ronon couldn't understand why a red shirt was a reward for anything, but he was too confused by Earther customs to try. Stackhouse had organized some special trade runs to different planets so they would have enough candles to go around. Ronon generally approved of fire, but he wasn't sure why a candle was necessary to celebrate one's birth.
The birthday celebration would last for two days while the city ran on a skeleton crew so everyone had a chance to join the festivities. Gate travel had been shut down, no off-world missions had been scheduled, and Ronon was seriously considering hiding in his quarters for the duration of it, because it sounded far too complicated to bother with. If he didn't have to get people presents, well, he could take a long, hard-earned nap.
But then he was corralled into helping move tables off of multiple dance floors (each dance floor would feature a different genre of Earth music, none of which Ronon liked). And then he moved tables in another space to set up for the buffet. He was pretty sure he put up more chairs in the mess hall than there were expedition members, and then Parrish asked him to help set up some boards and tables and chairs for the annual Quiz Bowl the scientists were planning (and because they were Earthers, there was no actual bowl to be found).
Half an hour before the party was supposed to start, everyone but the skeleton crew drifted back to their quarters. And when they emerged – on time, because this was at least partly a military expedition – none of them were wearing uniforms. The way different people were color-coded helped Ronon remember who they were, because some of them looked similar. The dark-haired girl with the green-patch jacket was Amelia, a gate tech, but the other dark-haired girl who looked just like her had a blue-patch jacket and was a botanist. Without uniforms, Ronon was lost. He ended up letting himself get swept along to the room with all the food, where Lorne and Stackhouse and Teldy and Beckett were distributing cupcakes with tiny candles set in the frosting.
Ronon accepted a cupcake and stared at the little candle, confused.
As soon as everyone had a cupcake, Stackhouse issued a shrill whistle, and the room fell silent. Elizabeth climbed up onto a chair.
"Welcome, everyone, to the first annual Atlantis Birthday Party," she said, "where we celebrate ourselves, each other, and all we've learned and accomplished over the past year. We've lost friends, we've gained new ones, and we've come so far." She hoisted her cupcake. "So light a candle for yourself and those you love, and when we are all alight, we will make our birthday wishes." Teldy handed her a lighter, and she lit her candle. Then she reached out, held out her cupcake so Teldy could light her candle off of Elizabeth's.
Though the custom made no sense, watching the tiny glowing lights spread across the room was beautiful. When it came to Ronon to light his candle, Zelenka said, "When Elizabeth gives the signal, close your eyes, make silent wish, and then blow candle out."
Ronon nodded, lit his candle, and turned to the person next to him so she could light her candle.
Lorne snapped a few photos of all the cupcakes held high, and Beckett led them in singing a birthday song (Happy birthday dear Atlantis).
Elizabeth held up her cupcake, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and blew the candle out.
Around Ronon, everyone else did the same, so he closed his eyes and blew, but he couldn't think of what to wish for.
Cheers broke out all around, Happy Birthday! And people were hugging each other and kissing each other and someone even clapped Ronon on the shoulder.
Like that, the formalities were over. Some people headed straight for the food, some people headed straight for the drinks, and others headed to the other designated party rooms to dance or play games or just sit and chat with one another.
Ronon didn't feel like dancing, and he wasn't sure he wanted to expend the effort it would take to figure out how a quiz bowl without a bowl worked, and then he saw John, Teyla, and Rodney standing close together, Lorne with them, hands flying. Teyla wasn't as good at signing as Rodney was, but apparently she knew enough to look worried. Ronon headed over to them. He didn't think Rodney was into dancing, and John probably wasn't either, what with his condition. Even now, after three months on Atlantis, Ronon still wasn't sure what to make of a man who couldn't hear. He seemed to get around all right, but how had he made it this far in life?
"I don't think that's a good idea," Rodney was saying.
Lorne spoke as John's voice. "It'll be fine. Just a little harmless fun. And Beckett will be on standby."
"I am not convinced that such an endeavor is harmless," Teyla said.
John spotted Ronon before any of the others noticed him. "I bet Ronon will enjoy it," he said through Lorne.
"Enjoy what?" Ronon asked, signing What? as carefully as he could.
John grinned. He reached under his collar and drew out a necklace, a leather thong with what looked like some kind of animal tooth attached. He dropped it into the little bowl Lorne was holding. He arched an eyebrow and bowed a little and said, "May I have this dance?"
"Dance?" Ronon echoed.
Lorne hefted the bucket. Inside, Ronon could see it was full of those necklaces all of the soldiers wore, their identification tags. He hadn't thought they were allowed to remove those, ever.
"It's an old navy thing, actually," Lorne said. "When too many people get cooped up in a small place, like on a ship, they need to blow off some steam, so ranks are suspended and they get to go at each other, air old grievances. Since Atlantis is kind of like a ship, the marines wanted to give it a shot for their birthday."
"How does it work?" Ronon asked.
"I pick two tags out of here, and whoever they belong to gets into the ring, and they fight. Three three-minute rounds, or knock-out, to be fair. Marquess of Queensberry rules, since pretty much everyone knows them." Lorne eyed Ronon, and said, "Well, pretty much everyone. If you want in, I can give you the rundown."
Ronon reached under his collar and drew out his old military tags, the ones he'd refused to leave behind, and dropped them into the bowl. "Talk to me."
Rodney wore an anxious frown. "John," he said, signs small and careful, "are you sure about this?"
"Ask Evan," John said. "He trained me."
Rodney fixed a disapproving look on Lorne. "You did?"
"He wanted to be able to defend himself," Lorne protested, signing with one hand. "He's held his own on the other side of the gate. You've seen him."
Ronon hadn't believed it, when some of the marines told him in low, wary voices, that John and Lorne (but mostly Lorne) had taken down an entire force of Genii invaders the year before. But he recognized the tension in John's shoulders, the way he was shifting his weight. He had energy to burn off.
On Sateda, in the military, a soldier could challenge his squadron to gauntlet, fight each member in single combat, and if he emerged victorious, he proved he'd earned the right to continue another year. Half the time the combat was just for fun, but with the elite forces, it was serious. Ronon had participated in both types of gauntlets. Maybe the Earthers weren't so strange, if they had similar traditions.
"This way," Lorne said, and they followed him through several rooms where there was dancing, some kind of game involving a white mat and colored dots and people groping each other, a group of scientists yelling over each other and pounding on annoying buzzers, to the training room where mats had been laid out in a square and a good number of marines were limbering up.
They broke into cheers when Lorne entered the room. Though he was a soldier, he was outside of Teldy's chain of command because his only job was to protect and interpret for John, so he was considered a neutral party whenever there were disputes between the Air Force and the Marines (and there were many disputes between the Air Force and the Marines; arguing about it was practically a pastime).
Ronon was unsurprised to see more than one woman among the ranks. Vega, Mehra, and Cadman were all fine soldiers, as far as he knew. He was a little surprised when Amelia, who as far as he knew was just a gate room tech, put a necklace into the bowl. He was less than surprised when Teyla finally did the same. He wondered, between Amelia and Teyla, who would win.
Lorne climbed up on a table and stamped his foot to get everyone's attention. Then he set down the bowl and began to sign while he spoke.
"All right, Marquess of Queensberry rules, so no one forgets!"
Some of the marines raised their eyebrows at each other, confused at Lorne signing. When they caught sight of John, who'd shed his shirt and was rolling his shoulders like he was getting ready for a fight, their eyes went wide, and they whispered.
Lorne glared at them, and they fell silent, and he continued declaiming the rules. Boxing was a sport, not actual combat. Ronon could respect rules for that. A sport was no fun if there were no rules to make it challenging. The rules were simple enough, fair enough. Three three-minute rounds, one-minute break between each, no hitting a man when he was down, some rules about what constituted 'down'. No hugging or wrestling. Rodney looked displeased about the whole endeavor but accepted the stopwatch Lorne handed him.
Beckett stood on the sidelines with his medical kit at his feet. He wasn't technically on duty, but he didn't seem to mind watching the boxing. In fact, he looked excited. Not what Ronon would have expected from him. One of Beckett's nurses, Marie, was there as well. To avoid even a hint of unfair bias, she was the one who was picking the pairings out of the bowl.
Three non-participants who had boxing experience had been nominated as judges, and Yusuf, who wasn't in any of the American armed forces, was acting as referee. More than one marine made a quiet comment that they would have liked to see him fight.
"Are you ready?" Lorne asked.
The marines howled their approval. John, who was stretching out beside Teyla, didn't even flinch at the noise. Surely he must have felt it?
Lorne hoisted the bowl in the air. "Then let's dance!"
The marines cheered, and Lorne lowered the bowl so Marie could reach into it.
She drew out two sets of tags, both Earther American military, read out the names. Cadman and Kleinman. The marines hooted and hollered and clapped Kleinman on the back, helped him shed his shirt. Cadman's friends, the other women, murmured to her in low voices, wearing matching predatory grins. The two combatants took a moment to strap on some massive gloves and weird little matching padded head guards, and Yusuf checked them over to make sure they were on right. Nurse Marie also had a bucket of mouth guards, and she fitted both combatants with those. And then they entered the ring.
Rodney struck a bell and started his stopwatch, and combat began. Ronon didn't think he'd end up fighting either of them – this wasn't a tournament, one fight and both of you were done – but he watched them anyway, ignoring the shouting around him. He liked to know how people moved. Cadman was well-trained, had speed and precision, but Kleinman outweighed her and had obviously longer reach. Cadman used her speed to her advantage, pummeling at Kleinman while he tried to shield his torso with his elbows, dance out of reach. Cadman was landing more hits, but Kleinman's fewer hits probably caused more damage. The first round ended with Kleinman looking surprisingly tired, given that Cadman had moved around more. Ronon's estimation of her rose a notch. Kleinman's friends gathered around him, mopping sweat off him with a towel, giving him water to drink, offering tips and advice on how to deal with Cadman. Vega, Mehra, and Amelia gathered around Cadman to tend to her until Rodney announced break was up and they were back on the mats.
In the second round, Kleinman stepped up his game, pushed through his own fatigue to get in some really nasty body shots that sent Cadman reeling toward the edges of the mat, but she never lost her head or her feet. At the end of the round, lots of money changed hands. They were headed for a third round. No one knew who was going to win.
In Ronon's opinion, Cadman won, by sheer dint of the accuracy and speed of her punches. She had good timing, knew when to pull back and when to commit. On style points alone she won, and she could take a lot of hits. But the way the crowd reacted when Kleinman landed a particularly heavy shot to the ribs pretty much sealed the deal, and when Rodney rang the bell for the last time, the fight went to the judges for decision.
One judge scored Kleinman the winner by far, the other judge Cadman by far, and the third judge in the middle, so Kleinman ended up edging Cadman out on the barest margin of points. She accepted the loss gracefully, shaking Kleinman's hand once they stripped off the gloves, and then she let her friends gather around her and herd her over to Beckett to have her injuries checked.
Kleinman's friends were clapping him on the back, heedless of his wincing, recounting his best hits of the fight and collecting money from the people around them.
In a closed space, Cadman was the more dangerous opponent, knew how to get inside someone else's reach and maneuver in it, trip them over their own limbs. In a big space, when Kleinman had the distance he needed to wind up and build momentum on a hit, he was formidable. Ronon filed that away for later and watched Lorne announce the next fight.
Marie reached into the bowl and came up with military tags and a familiar leather thong with an animal tooth on it.
She called out the soldier's name, Major Dorsey. He was a short man, but he had broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and massively muscular arms. He peeled off his shirt and strutted up to the edge of the mats, and the Air Force officers roared their approval.
"Who thinks he can challenge me?" Dorsey demanded, lifting his chin.
"Could be a she!" Vega called out.
Marie held up the other necklace, and Dorsey's cocky grin faded when he saw it. Immediately he looked at Ronon.
The cheering died down as everyone looked at Ronon.
Ronon shrugged. "Not mine."
Dorsey's gaze slid over to Teyla, and some of the marines snickered.
Teyla smiled and shook her head. "It is not mine either."
Marie looked up at Lorne, who was still standing on the table, presiding over the proceedings. He stared at the necklace for a moment, then sighed.
"Wait," Rodney began, but Lorne hopped off the table, stamped his foot hard.
John, who'd been stretching against the wall, spun around. He saw his necklace, and he grinned.
Dorsey, who'd looked nervous when he thought the necklace was Ronon's and amused when he thought it was Teyla's, looked downright alarmed when he realized it was John's.
John stepped toward Yusuf to have his hands wrapped and his gear put on.
One thing John Sheppard wasn't was big. He was tall, certainly strong, but lean and sleek where Dorsey was built like a mountain. Even though John had half a head on Dorsey, Dorsey outweighed him by a good margin. The soldiers all shifted uneasily, and Rodney looked furious, but then one of the marines shoved, and Dorsey stumbled over to the mat to get his gear on.
"Major," Beckett said to Lorne not quite quietly enough, "is this a good idea?"
"It's a monumentally stupid idea," Rodney said.
"I believe John is more aware than we are of his limits," Teyla said.
Ronon wasn't sure that was true. He was prepared to step in the moment things got too rough for John if Yusuf didn't call the fight soon enough.
Rodney shook his head. "I can't do this. I – Teyla, you take the damn bell and timer."
"A non-combatant has to run the time," one of the judges began, but Rodney handed the bell and timer to Teyla and stepped away from the judges' table, headed for the door. He didn't quite leave, though, just lingered near the door frame, like he'd run at a moment's notice.
Marie agreed to take over the time, since her part was done for now.
Yusuf gathered John and Dorsey into the middle of the mats, bade them touch gloves, and sent them to opposite corners.
Lorne waved to make sure he had John's attention, because John wouldn't hear the bell that signaled the start of the round.
Ronon shifted his weight, in ready posture, prepared for anything, mostly picking up John and carrying him to the infirmary if necessary.
Marie started the timer, rang the bell. Lorne signaled.
Dorsey started out of his corner, circling John, wary.
John moved with Dorsey, made sure Dorsey was always in his direct line of sight. Of course – if he couldn't see Dorsey, Dorsey was invisible, because John couldn't hear him.
So Dorsey cut left. John didn't turn, just lunged at him and fed him a fist to the ribs right where he was angling to. It was like Dorsey had run into his punch.
And then John didn't stop. He was all over Dorsey, fists flying. His punches were tight, controlled, and breathtakingly fast. He was a machine. And Dorsey couldn't escape. No matter which way he went, John was there to meet him, and Ronon realized. Of course. John couldn't hear, but he could see, and he could also feel his opponent's footsteps on the mat, might even be able to feel his opponent shifting weight before his feet moved. John dogged Dorsey across the mat, feeding punches high and then landing vicious shots to Dorsey's body when he tried to defend his face. Dorsey dropped a hand to defend his torso, and John darted in, drove a fist straight through Dorsey's defenses.
Dorsey toppled backward in a spray of blood.
Yusuf was in there immediately, calling a time-out while Beckett stanched the flow of blood from Dorsey's nose. If the blood didn't stop, the fight did.
Apparently Dorsey's blood clotted well, because Yusuf let him back into the round. He was surprisingly steady on his feet for having taken a punch that would have knocked a lesser man out – or maybe a man without his head gear taking the same punch without a giant pillowy glove. John was on him in an instant, battering away at his ribs till he was forced to turtle up and protect his body, and then John caught him with a nasty left hook.
Dorsey went down. Yusuf started to count.
Dorsey made it back onto his feet before three, and Marie couldn't have rung the bell sooner.
Teyla was beside John in an instant, handing him a towel and a bottle of water. She smiled at him but didn't say much. Airmen and marines alike swarmed Dorsey, and Beckett was over there checking him as well. The soldiers kept casting John wide-eyed, wary looks, then murmuring advice to Dorsey.
Dorsey was strong, but John was fast, and his speed gave his punches more force, and more than that, he knew how to commit his weight behind a hit without compromising his lightness of foot. Ronon wondered how John would fare in the next round. He didn't even look winded.
Ronon wondered what Lorne was like in a a fight, if he was the one who'd trained John.
Marie rang the bell, and Lorne signaled for John to step back onto the mats.
Yusuf had Dorsey and John touch gloves again. This time John backed off, let Dorsey circle him, search for openings.
Dorsey was aware of John's speed now, was cautious with his first few hits, didn't commit his entire weight behind them lest he compromise his speed. No matter. John could slip anything Dorsey threw at him. He moved like water, slipping just out of the way and then feeding Dorsey a counter strike, to the ribs or kidney before dancing out of range.
Around the bright orange mouth guard, Ronon could see that John was grinning. He was enjoying this.
Dorsey seemed to have shaken off whatever reservations he'd had about fighting John and waded back into the fight with aplomb.
Ronon would have had the same reservations about fighting John, because children born like John didn't live long on Sateda or really any of the other planets in this galaxy. He should have known that John, in defiance of all Pegasus expectations, would be a vicious little whip in a fight. Whatever Dorsey threw at John, John dodged and gave back with wicked speed.
John was toying with Dorsey.
Dorsey must have sensed it, because he started getting angry, and that made him sloppy with his accuracy, but it also made him hit harder. He managed to follow up when John slipped a right cross, caught John in the ribs with a punch that nearly folded him in half.
The crowd, which had been mostly silent during round one but began cheering with abandon during round two, went silent.
Marie rang the bell.
And then John straightened up with a grimace, and Beckett was at his side.
Lorne went over to him as well, signing rapidly, "Are you all right? Where does it hurt?"
But John was effectively muffled with the gloves on. He shrugged, accepted water from Teyla, and then he was shaking out his limbs once more, ready to hit the mats.
Ronon kept his posture calm, his observation casual, when John and Dorsey stepped into the mats for the final time. Everyone around him was holding their breath.
Yusuf ordered them to touch gloves.
Marie rang the bell.
John struck, quick as a snake, and Dorsey went down like a ton of bricks.
He didn't get back up, not even after Yusuf counted to ten and called the match. Beckett and Marie rushed to his side immediately, hollered for some help to get him to the infirmary. Several marines helped lever Dorsey to his feet, and Lorne called a break till Beckett got back.
John shucked his fight gear and scrubbed himself off with a towel Teyla gave him. Then he picked up his necklace and pulled it back on over his head.
Rodney elbowed his way through the crowd, planted himself in front of John, and began screaming at him in another language – French, Ronon thought it was called – and signing too fast for Ronon to catch (he was pretty bad at sign language still).
John just shrugged and grinned, signed a little in return, and then Rodney grabbed John by his necklace and hauled him in for a vicious kiss.
The crowd, who'd been murmuring uneasily ever since Dorsey was helped out of the room, fell silent once more.
And then Teldy whooped and said, "Happy birthday, Dr. Sheppard!"
"And Dr. McKay!" Cadman added, and Rodney pulled back, horrified, as if suddenly remembering where he was.
John was grinning, mouthed something only Rodney could read.
"I think I've had more fighting than I can handle outside of an encounter with the Wraith," Rodney said. He caught John's wrist and led him out of the room. He blushed at the chorus of ooooh! that rose up behind him, but of course John was oblivious to the wordless sound laden with innuendo.
"In the meantime," Lorne said, "we should pick our next round." He held the bowl of tags out to the nearest judge, who selected a pair, one Earther military, one not.
Lieutenant Edison cast a hopeful look at Teyla when he saw the other tags.
Ronon made sure his grin was utterly feral as he stripped off his shirt and stepped up to the mat and said, "May I have this dance?"
Apparently Earthers knew how to party after all.