Ronon pushed through the crowd gathered at the bar and set a tankard down. The contents sloshed over the edge and onto the table. Sheppard regarded it with a mistrustful look, but on Ronon's nod he took a sip.
If Ronon's definition of "good" was "bad" then the drink was exceptionally "bad." In fact, it was the worst thing he'd tasted since stepping foot in the Pegasus Galaxy.
Ronon laughed and eased back into his chair. "Relax, Sheppard."
"I am," he said, trying to order tensed muscles to fall into the same loose pose as Ronon. And, yeah, he couldn't do it. Experience had conditioned him to expect the worst. Even on a planet they had visited before.
"No you're not."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and slouched back into his chair, one hand wrapped around a beer he had no intention of drinking and the other resting on his .45.
"Any sign of your friends?"
Although Ronon looked relaxed, Sheppard knew that he was carefully scanning the room. He was, too, but not for the same reasons. The bar was filled to capacity and raucous laughter cut through air that was thick with smoke and chatter. There wasn't any music but the place didn't need it; the clinking of glasses and metal tankards was the beat and the scraping of chairs and jostling of bodies was the bass line.
There was too much movement. Every time John thought he might unwind, someone would elbow him in the head or spill a drink on his arm. He felt oddly exposed and he couldn't see the exits. God! He was turning into McKay.
"You're thinking about McKay, right?"
Sheppard shot up in his seat. "What?"
"You were supposed to help him in the chair room and you ditched him to come here."
Sheppard grimaced. "He'll be pretty pissed at me."
"Sometimes you have to switch off," Ronon shrugged. "When did you last take time out?"
Sheppard tried to think. He was going to say his father's funeral, but then that wasn't exactly time out. Ronon was staring at him and arching an eyebrow.
"Fine," Sheppard conceded. "I'll relax."
Ronon grinned. "Good."
Without the need for command, Sheppard felt some of the burden lift and he exhaled, slow and easy and then...
"What is it?"
Ronon had stood suddenly and dropped his beer.
"Your friends?" Sheppard asked, pushing himself up.
Ronon was shaking his head and Sheppard felt his body seize with tension. He didn't need alcohol; he was vibrating with adrenaline while furiously trying to work out what the hell was going on. Ronon looked angry. The veins in his neck were bulging and his hands were balled at his sides.
"I don't see a friend. I see a traitor," he spat and started pushing people out of the way in his bid to reach whoever the traitor was, before Sheppard could react.
"Dammit!" Sheppard snapped, shoving a chair out of the way.
He was too late. Ronon had pinned a guy against the bar. The man was older than both of them, but not frail and elderly. He had short cropped hair and a tanned complexion. The hands pressed against the bar were cut and calloused. Workers hands. He didn't seem to fit in with this crowd. His clothes were old and tattered and he looked scared.
"Enough!" Sheppard ordered, earning looks from the crowd surrounding him. When the Satedan didn't move, he tried again. "I said, enough! Ronon?"
"He betrayed me!" Ronon spat and Sheppard wasn't sure he'd seen Ronon this angry in a long time. He'd always been vocal with his anger, but somehow managed to contain it. This was a violent outburst at its best and there was pure rage and hatred in his eyes. So much for relaxing!
"I had…no choice…" the man ground out.
"You had a choice and you chose to turn me over to the wraith!"
Sheppard tried to piece it all together. Had Ronon known this guy when he was a runner? And just how many years had he been hanging onto that anger? The shrinks on Atlantis would have a field day with this if they found out. It was damage-control time.
"Ronon. Let him go."
"Ronon!" he threatened.
Ronon met his eyes for the first time, seemed to consider it, but then the man was thrashing his arms and pushing away from the bar. Ronon staggered, tried to restrain him again, pulled back his fist back and that's the moment Sheppard picked to stand between them.
The force of Ronon's fist slamming into his cheek had him stumbling backwards. He twisted just in time to see the bar. He cracked his nose against its hard surface, tasted blood and then he was landing awkwardly on the floor. It was the air rushing out of his lungs that bought him back to awareness. And it hurt like a bitch.
He waited and expected Ronon to help him to his feet, but all he got was a look that said don't get in my way next time, and he was chasing the man out of the bar.
Sheppard pushed himself to his knees, cupped one hand over his nose, and followed.
He found Ronon outside the bar. "He went that way," he said, pointing towards a heavily wooded area.
Sheppard just stared at him.
"Sorry," Ronon finally said and started towards the woods, back straight and tensed.
"I think you broke my nose," Sheppard told him. "And you might have fractured my cheekbone."
"Come on," Ronon slowed and patted his arm. "You're not McKay. You can deal with it."
Sheppard removed his hand and showed him the blood.
"You've had worse."
"Look, just forget about this guy and what he did and-"
Ronon reeled on him, angerr igniting his eyes again; "You don't know what happened."
"Then explain it to me."
Ronon quickened his pace. "He's getting away. Try to keep up."
"What happened?" Sheppard asked again, stepping over a fallen log. "Ronon!"
"You're slowing me down."
"Ronon. I swear to god-"
"I know him from when I was a runner. He took me in."
"Doesn't sound that bad," Sheppard said, wincing when every word seemed to hurt.
"And when the wraith came, gave away my location."
Okay. Sheppard could understand that he was pissed. He'd have been pissed. But it didn't justify this.
"Buddy. You need to forget about this and move on."
"I can't forget. He betrayed me!"
"He was probably just scared. Would you just slow down and-" Sheppard closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness.
"He's getting away!" Ronon snapped. "I have to make him pay."
Sheppard straightened up and gave up on stopping the blood dribbling down his lips. "Let it go!"
"You can't order me this time, Sheppard!"
"When have I ever been able to order you to do anything?"
Ronon glared at him.
"I'm just saying."
"I'm going to get him and I'm-"
"And what?" Sheppard said. "Are you going to kill him? Beat him up? Take him to Todd for payback?"
Ronon shook his head and hit the nearest tree.
"We don't do that. You know we don't do that."
"I do that," Ronon said, meaning it.
Sheppard raised his voice. "Not like this! Not for these reasons."
"On Sateda, you pay for being disloyal. For being dishonourable."
"We're not on Sateda, buddy." Sheppard said. "And we're betrayed on every other world we visit. You have to pick your battles and this isn't one of them."
"I thought I could count on you."
"You can count on me now telling you to do the right thing."
"You've gone soft. You're spending too much time with McKay."
He didn't mean that. He was angry.
"When I was a runner, I was alone. I didn't have anyone. I let my guard down and trusted him and-"
"When you were all alone, I took you back to Atlantis and I haven't deceived you yet. Would you trust me for once?"
"I trust you."
"I need to do this." Ronon turned and started to stalk off. Sheppard sighed and started to follow. That was until he heard an audible click underfoot.
Ronon had taken five steps when he heard Sheppard call him back. At first he thought he was just going to order him to stay, but then the tone of his voice changed and Ronon knew that something was wrong.
He cursed loudly in his native tongue. Eldren was getting away! He turned back to where he'd left Sheppard and then back in thedirection he had been heading. He could do something about this anger. Anger for being a runner. Anger for trusting that man. Anger at being deceived.
He trusted Sheppard.
Sheppard won out. He found him standing where he'd last seen him.
"This better be good," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Sheppard looked pale and sweaty, and now that Ronon looked closely, his face was a mess. Had he done that? Sheppard's cheek was already bruising and split open. His nose was cut along the bridge and blood coloured his lips and chin.
"I've stepped on a mine."
Ronon was hesitant.
"I felt it depress when I stepped on it and as I haven't exploded yet, that means it's probably set to detonate when the pressure is released."
"You mean when you move?"
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "So I wouldn't-" Ronon had already taken a step forward and heard a click. "-move."
"Landmine?" Ronon asked.
He wasn't really familiar with them. Sateda's assaults had been brutal and deliberate. They had never bothered to hide explosives and hope that somebody would stumble onto them. That was a waste of time and resources. An attack was coordinated and to be carried out with a hundred percent accuracy. Ronon bent forward to examine what he was standing on and Sheppard shouted at him to stop.
"What?" Ronon demanded.
"You could set it off. Anti-handling devices detonate the mine if someone attempts to lift, shift or disarm it."
"So we're stuck."
"Yeah, just don't move."
Ronon looked back towards the woods. "He's getting away."
"Would you forget about that and focus on this."
"I could outrun it."
"You can't outrun a mine."
"Then we find something to weight it down."
"If we don't put the right weight down it'll go off. And between us getting off the mine and putting something down on it we-"
"Okay. Yeah. I get it."
"So, I guess we're stuck," Sheppard said.
"He's getting away!" Ronon snapped again. "I had one chance and you-"
"Blew it?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon scowled at him.
"I did you a favour," Sheppard said.
Ronon looked around at the trees and the nothingness beyond. This was not a favour.
"We're not scheduled to check-in with Atlantis until the morning."
Ronon wanted to pace. He needed to move. What if Sheppard was wrong? This might not be a mine. But then, did he want to find out that it was? He'd probably end up killing Sheppard in the process.
"Maybe someone who knows how to de-activate these things will pass," Sheppard said.
"Thought you said they couldn't be tampered with?"
"They can't. So you should stay there," Sheppard agreed, almost too easily.
"I could have caught up with him."
"People do things they're not proud of when they're put into a difficult situation."
"You're siding with him?"
"I'm not siding with anyone," Sheppard reached up and wiped some of the blood from his nose. It didn't do much good because it was still bleeding. Ronon had done that. His rage. His anger. Had he said sorry? "But…"
"Who is he?"
Ronon looked up at the sky as it began to spit. "What do you mean, who was he? A traitor."
"No." Sheppard's hair was being flattened by the rain. "He looked like a farmer or-"
"Yeah. He was a farmer. Found me passed out in his field."
"And he took you in." Thunder rumbled overhead and the rain became heavier.
Would it set the mines off? Hadn't yet…
"Did he have a family?"
"Don't know. Didn't ask."
Sheppard reached out to the nearest tree and leaned against it. He closed his eyes and Ronon realised just how badly he was suffering. He probably had a concussion. His colour didn't look good. And they were just standing here…waiting for what? For death?
"When I was in Afghanistan, my chopper got hit by a ground missile. I managed to land it, but I was injured."
Sheppard still hadn't opened his eyes.
Sheppard nodded and continued. "One of the locals found me. He took me back to his house and fixed me up."
For some reason, Ronon didn't want Sheppard to end the story. He hardly ever opened up. So he pushed for the ending.
"On the second day, he gave me up to the Taliban. I spent three weeks in captivity before I was rescued."
"I didn't know that."
"Not a story I enjoy re-living."
"So you know how I feel?"
"Yeah. And I felt it for about a minute. The guy had a family. A wife and a baby girl. If I'd been in the same situation, I'd probably have given me up as well."
Ronon wiped a hand through his hair and looked up at the sky.
"Did you see his chest?"
Ronon didn't know what relevance that had and it did nothing to assuage his anger.
"Did you see?" Sheppard opened his eyes and they were haunted. "There was a feeding scar." He pointed to his own and pulled down his t-shirt to expose it. "Just like this one."
Ronon felt something inside snap. It was his resolve breaking. It was realisation dawning. Eldren had looked much older than his years.
"He's already paid, Ronon."
Ronon stared at his feet. He didn't know what he was feeling. He had a good handle on anger. Anger he could take hold of and allow it to guide him. The other emotions were often fleeting and difficult to grasp.
"You think you can still catch up to him?"
The rain was falling harder, the ground was waterlogged and washing away any distinctive tracks that he could follow, and he'd got a good headstart. Not to mention that Eldren would know the terrain. He'd managed to avoid all the landmines.
Sheppard smiled. "Thank god," and stepped forward before Ronon could stop him.
There was no explosion. Nothing. Just Sheppard standing there and grinning. Ronon stayed rooted to the spot.
"It's not a landmine, buddy." Sheppard said, kicking at the ground and exposing more of the disc like devices. "Don't know what they are, but they're not explosives. Probably monitoring the soil acidity or something. McKay can take a look at it next time we're here."
"You lied to me," Ronon said, stepping forward and still expecting to have his legs blown off.
"Yeah," Sheppard suddenly looked more tired than Ronon had ever seen him. "I did."
"Because I didn't want you to do something you'd later regret."
"You might not want to admit it. But you've changed."
Ronon wanted to argue that point. He almost felt that he needed to, but Sheppard was right. The anger was passing. Quicker than it might have in the past. The reason… he wasn't sure.
"When I tell you not to do something, you have to trust me on it."
Ronon patted Sheppard's arm. And then he realised something. "So, you tried to teach me to trust you, by lying to me?"
"Yeah." Sheppard didn't even look guilty. "I was going to make us stand there for longer, but I'm cold and my head hurts."
"Yeah, I'm sorry about-"
"Come on. Lets get out of here."
"And your story?"
"Didn't lie about that."
Ronon believed him.
"What are you going to tell the others?"
Sheppard looked serious when he said, "I'll tell them you hit me."
"You'll lie about me standing on an explosive, but won't lie about this."
Sheppard smiled. "Paybacks a bitch."