Word Count: 3300
Spoilers: for Runner
Original Story: Androcles and the Lion by Raederle (seleneheart)
Summary: Every culture sees the world through the lens of its stories. It's been a long time since Ronon last had the chance to hear a story whose ending he does not know.
Notes: Thank you to naye for looking over this and letting me know that it actually made sense outside my own head. The links in the text lead to footnotes, but reading them is not necessary to understand the story; they are anthropological notes from Sateda: An Ethnography by Dr. Keong Min Jee.
In the Chieftain Osori Memorial Library at the heart of Sateda-Mari, there are -- or, rather, were -- no less than four hundred twelve different translations of the Thainaid Tales.  Ronon read most of them back in his bookworm schoolboy days, but it is the Berneth Lux translation that is the most famous, and in the Lux edition, the story of Selena and the Bear begins like this:
There was once a warrior named Selena who deserted from her company and fled across the hills into the Brittle Plains. For two days she ran across the salt flats, and for four days she walked, and for three days she crawled, until finally she lay in her armor and stared up into the white bowl of the sky.
She lay in the sun among the thorn bushes and waited to die, because her life would be worth no more than this if she went back after leaving her shield-brothers and sword-sisters under enemy siege. But eventually she heard a great wailing and thrashing among the thickets. Too weak to flee, Selena picked up her sword in her teeth and crawled to find out what was making the ruckus.
The piteous squealing that she had heard was the cry of a mountain bear  that had become trapped in the thicket. Selena could see by its thinness and matted coat that it had been a prisoner for many days. She knew that she ought to kill and eat it, but the blood and sand clotting its thick fur, and the desperation in its eyes, moved her to pity, and she decided that she would rescue it now and kill it later. So she used her sword to cut away the thorns, and the grateful bear fell in love with her on the spot. The weight of obligation fell upon it. 
"What can I give you for saving me?" the bear said, for it would have given her anything.
"I am starving," Selena said. So the lovelorn bear hunted for her, bringing her sweet game from the mountains, though it was pitifully weak itself.
Selena ate, and regained her strength, and thought that she ought to kill the bear, but it was very useful.
"What else can I give you?" said the bear, as it worshipped her with its eyes, for she was the goddess who had saved its life.
"I would like some shade," Selena said, because the sun in the Brittle Land is wicked and fierce. So the bear built a shelter for her out of the thorn trees, though it had not yet recovered from its captivity, and the fresh wounds galled its old hurts very badly. And Selena thought again that she ought to kill the bear, because she feared it would turn against her, but it was still very useful.
"What else would you like?" the bear asked.
"Give me pleasure," Selena said, and the bear lay with her in the shelter it had made, and gave her sweet pleasure all night and all through the day.
That is how the story begins in the Lux translation. But Ronon's mother always told it very differently, and though he remembers the dry words on the pages of the Lux edition, lit by the golden light of long afternoons in the library, it is her voice that he hears, and her version that he remembers in his dreams:
No one knows why Selena of the Bears fled her company and ran into the desert. But whether her desertion was cowardice or courage, after a nineday under the blazing sun, all she could do was collapse into a heap and pray for rain.
Rain didn't come, but instead she heard a sort of squalling (and here, his mother would wail in a convincing imitation of a wounded animal) and with her last strength, she stumbled to her feet and gripped her sword and fought her way into the thicket. Here, she found a wounded mountain bear with its fur caught fast in the thorns, matted with blood and dying of thirst. Selena cut it free, and then she raised up her sword in self-defense, though she was so weak that she could not have fought off an attack of mud kittens. But the bear was so grateful that rather than attacking her, it pawed her, gently, like a kitten itself, and the obligation that it felt towards her was very strong, as was hers for it.
The bear hunted for her until she had regained her strength, and loved her for saving its life. And Selena tended its wounds, and at night they curled together under a sky full of stars, and kept each other warm.
Under the stars of a hundred worlds, Ronon's lips move, telling the stories of his childhood to himself because he cannot allow himself to forget that his world has not always been thorns and traps and raw meals eaten quickly in cold camps between cat-naps. There was once a world of books and libraries and mothers. He tells the Thainaid tales of the Lux edition to himself because those are stories for grown-ups, not the watered-down, cheerfully optimistic versions that his mother sanitized for her children. But when he sleeps, he dreams his mother's stories, where obligation is a river that flows both ways, and lovers are pure, and a kind heart always triumphs over the hurts of the world. The truth, he once knew, lies somewhere between. But now, all he knows are the thorns in his back, in his head, in his heart, eating their way deeper into him until this cage is all he knows.
Ronon learned long ago that there is nothing free in the world, nothing given without price. It is a lesson he has learned anew, over and over again, at the hands of the Wraith and in a hundred small betrayals on a hundred worlds, and he brings this lesson with him to the sunlit corridors of the legendary city of Atlantis. No one in this life, he knows, saves another without wanting something in return; no one with any sense of honor accepts such a gift without offering his own obligation to repay. He wonders what the Lanteans will want from him. He remembers all too well the words that Berneth Lux translated from Ur-Satedan:
Selena lived in the desert with the bear that loved her for two years and two days, and each day the bear brought food for her without begrudging her the larger share, though she was the smaller of them, and left it only scraps to eat. It gave her pleasures of the body such as she had never known, and tended its own needs in private, because Selena gave nothing back. She took only what was her due -- she had saved its life, after all, and it was only a bear.
But in time she grew weary of nothing but the bear's company. Selena did not realize that the bear could have made conversation with her, for it had been many places in the mountains and the desert, and seen many things, but she never asked. The bear would have gladly offered conversation had it known she wanted it, but instead she bade it be silent, so it was. Instead, Selena dreamed of the city and the company of her own kind instead, for the bear's adoration was nothing to her -- it was only a bear, and adoration was only what she was due for her kind deed.
But in time, Selena realized that with the bear by her side, she could go back to the life that she had left behind, and all the Chieftain's men could not throw her in prison for desertion -- she could order the bear to attack them, and it would. So that it would not break free and attack her, she made a collar for it, such as the city slaves of that era used to wear, and told it the collar was a grand gift so that it would not become angry. Because the bear had never been among the men of the plains, it believed her. And back she went to the city, leading the once-wild bear like a trained dog, behind her on a leash.
Ronon waits at the apartments of the doctor called Carson -- waits, and paces, and tries to make his mind blank, only to have thoughts pour back in. He paces, and like his feet, his thoughts fall into familiar patterns -- the stories of his youth, keeping him calm, keeping him steady.
The stories teach. That has always been the purpose of stories.
The stories teach, and life teaches, and what it has taught him is that no one gives anything without a purpose or a price, even wealthy and powerful people in a city straight out of fable itself. They have fed him and given him a place to sleep, not to speak of the greatest gift, the one that the doctor offered him without telling him what he was supposed to offer in return -- his freedom from the Wraith. As the days pass and no one asks him for anything, he has grown more nervous, not less. A gift so great must come with a tremendous price, and he has so little to bring to their table. He has a gun, an excellent gun, but they have many guns and many men to wield them. And anything else he could have offered has been burned out of him, shivered away to cold ash -- his heart, his mind, his soul. He is a hollow man. Can't they see that?
In the end, he can think of only one thing that they might want, only one thing that he can give back.
Berneth Lux led him to Carson's door, but it is his mother's fable that he tells himself soundlessly as he waits, falling back into the cadences of childhood. His mother's fable, imbued with her boundless optimism, a hope for the future that did her no good when she was cut down along with everyone else he ever dared to love.
And yet, her words and her hope still live on in the well-worn channels of his mind:
Selena lived in the desert with the bear that loved her for two years and two days, and they talked of many things, and the bear taught her to hunt while she taught it about the ways things were done in the city. But she knew that eventually she would have to go back and face what she had done, for she had deserted her comrades and must be punished. Because she loved the bear, she knew that she would have to leave it in the desert -- it would not be happy in the city. So one night, she donned her armor and buckled her sword at her hip, and slipped away.
But the bear woke, and followed her. Selena tried to hide, but it found her; she tried to run, but it ran faster.
"Why do you want to leave me alone?" it asked her.
And Selena realized that in her attempt to be kind, she had been cruel instead: she had made the bear's decision for it, without asking what it wanted to do. So, as she should have done in the beginning, she asked it, and waited for its answer.
"I don't want to be alone anymore," the bear said. "And neither should you. If you go by yourself, you will be killed. Let me protect you."
But Selena feared for the bear's life; the people of her city were great hunters, and had killed many bears. So she made for the bear a collar, woven of leather, and clasped her faded and worn company emblem to the collar, so that everyone would know her bear was not a wild bear to be hunted. She did not like to put the collar on the proud bear, but it told her not to worry. So she went back to the city, nine days across the desert, and the bear followed her not because of the sham leash and collar that it wore, but rather because it was curious about this strange land she had spoken of, and wanted to see it for itself. And it did not want Selena to go there alone.
The comforting litany of the story collapses at a movement in the hallway, sensed before it is seen. Ronon's well-honed fight-or-flight instincts kick in: empty the mind, reach for the gun, assess the situation and take control of it. Except he does not need the gun, and he does not know if this is a situation that he can control.
But Ronon Dex does not run away. And he cannot live like this anymore, adding each gift to a growing tally and waiting for the bill to come due. Sooner or later, these Lanteans will demand an accounting; he may as well take it on his own terms.
And so, he turns. And waits. And asks: "Can I come in?" and when bidden, he does. Obligation, in the sense that his ancestors meant it, demands no less of him.
"What are you doing?"
Carson's voice is sharp and strained. Ronon does not reply, settling into the familiar strokes of something he has not done in years. Not since Kell , but he does not want to think of Kell, who is one of the only people on Sateda who deserves to be dead. Ronon spares a moment to hope that Kell's death was slow, and he then empties his mind, thinking only of the heat in his mouth, the pressure against his tongue and throat.
When he is done, when Carson has stiffened and shuddered and slid bonelessly to rest against Ronon's chest, Ronon finds himself whispering, "Thank you." And he surprises himself at how deeply he means it -- not just because he has finally found something to stave off the burgeoning debt, but because of something he has not felt in a long time.
Now that he has returned something, a small payment on the debt he owes, a tiny release of an overwhelming burden of obligation, he can feel the clean emotions beneath: gratitude and affection, like a wind blowing through his soul and sweeping away the taint of the Wraith.
Carson's hand moves tentatively, stroking his hair in shy, awkward pats. No one has touched Ronon like that in a long time. It hurts him, strangely, in a way he can't explain, and that's why he breaks the embrace, draws back and looks at Carson, as Carson looks at him.
Ronon does not find him especially beautiful, by his own people's standards. But Carson is warm -- a fire that might, given time, slowly melt the ice in Ronon's bones.
"When I first met you --" Carson begins, and then breaks off, a blush climbing his pale, betraying skin. "Never mind. It's silly."
"I don't mind." He's tired, and strangely languid, almost post-coital himself. He thinks maybe he should be horny, but he can't remember the last time he had an orgasm -- the running consumed him, until there was no energy for anything else. Right now, it is enough to have human contact again, to sit and talk. He's not quite ready for more.
"There's a story we have." Carson hesitates again, shakes his head after a moment. "An old story, that my mum used to tell me when I was a wee lad. You reminded me of the story, that's all. Silly, like I said."
Ronon thinks of Selena and the Bear, or, as his mother used to tell it, Selena of the Bears, a subtle semantic difference with a very different ending. "Tell me," he says, because he is curious about what stories shape their world, these strangers from beyond the stars.
The endings of all fables, of course, can be guessed from their beginnings, and from the people that molded them, and in the end there is no need to tell the whole story to know whether Selena's bear fell in a hail of hunters' arrows with betrayal in its heart, or if they walked the city streets together until the end of their days.  Ronon knows that story by heart, anyway, in all its permutations. It has been a long time since he's had the chance to hear a story whose ending he does not know.
: According to Sateda: An Ethnography, from collected interviews with Ronon Dex by Dr. Keong Min Jee, Atlantis Anthropology Dept., the Thainaid is an extensive collection of popular fables attributed to Thain, a house-fosterling (a position somewhere between servant and slave) who was supposed to have lived during the First Satedan Golden Age. According to tradition, she told the stories over a thousand days and nights to entertain her mistress, who wanted to kill her because Thain, who was barren, had been unable to bear children for her mistress's husband. The similarity to Persia's Scheherezade is noted.
 Dr. Keong indicates that the animal that Dex calls a bear might actually be more closely analogous to some kind of big wild cat from his description, but the translator consistently picks up the word "bear" as the closest English equivalent, perhaps because Dex himself preferred that option when offered a choice. Dr. Keong suggests "leopard" or "tiger" as more technically accurate substitutes.
 Obligation, or khethiogy in Ur-Satedan, is difficult to translate precisely and was already a somewhat quaint idea by Ronon's time, like chivalry to the 21st-century population of Western Europe. "In many ways, Ronon was an old-fashioned man," Tiana Kigon-Emmagan writes in her biography of her honorary uncles [3a], but does not elaborate on what she means. Khethiogy is usually described as mutual obligation, but Dr. Keong's notes, and particularly those of her more romantically-inclined research assistant Tatiana Pirova, indicate that khethiogy also carries overtones of love, and is also sometimes used in contexts where Gate patois might translate, for a native English speaker, patriotism or honor.
[3a] Excerpt from One Team, One City: An Authorized Biography of Four Who Shaped Atlantis by Tiana Kigon-Emmagan reprinted by permission of the publisher, Radim Publishing Industries Intergalactic.
 The Satedan military, notes Dr. Keong, bears a number of similarities to the ancient Greek military on Earth, particularly in the use of institutionalized sexual bonds to cement the hierarchical structure and the bonds between fellow soldiers. The position of "taskmaster" in the Satedan military usually combined many functions, including mentor, drill sergeant, and surrogate parent, and nearly always included a sexual component. The notes from the interviews with Dex indicated that the Satedan military, being gender-integrated, would usually try to pair taskmasters and recruits in same-sex arrangements to avoid the difficulties associated with an unwanted pregnancy. Dex also reported, however, that two of his closest friends were women who served under the same taskmaster as himself. It is not known if this is an inconsistency caused by a miscommunication between Dex and the interviewer, or if the system was beginning to break down under the stresses of the war against the Wraith.
 Sateda is no different from most cultures in that its myths exist in a number of different, mutually contradictory variations. According to Dr. Keong's notes, Dex was happy to elaborate on the various "official" versions of the Selena tale, but never would reveal the ending of his mother's apparently unique version of the story.