The Runner fits into the Satedan military well. Ronon wasn’t entirely sure he would. Not because the unit doesn’t accept him – they do – and not because he came from some strange military apparently full of skinny, scrawny men. He has given up on getting Sheppard to pack on any muscle, because the man will just run it off, anyway.Ronon doesn’t even doubt the man’s piloting skills, since he knows shit about that topic.
Mostly, Ronon didn’t entirely trust that Sheppard would obey him. He knew there wasn’t a real, concrete reason to think that. Even the first few days home from the hospital, when Sheppard had hated him and Melena and had acted more inclined to bite their fingers off than take a friendly hand, the Runner had never fought him. Never tried to escape the house, never been violent. Most of the time, he did what he was told, although the orders had usually been gentle statements about how everyone would be happier if Sheppard would take a bath or use utensils at dinner time. Also, Melena had kind of been in charge of that.
But Ronon had looked at his new Flight Officer John Sheppard and been seriously concerned that the man wouldn’t listen to him. Part of that, maybe, was based on the fact that Sheppard had been argumentative and hostile while so weak and thin that Ronon could count every one of his ribs. Just because Sheppard had never defied him or Melena then that didn’t mean he wouldn’t now, when he’s healthy and armed.
And something that would probably guarantee Sheppard stays in line – taking Melena into the field with the squad – wasn’t an option.
But for all of Ronon fears and doubts, it doesn’t happen. Sheppard obeys him. He even occasionally calls Ronon “Master Specialist,” his full title only Kell ever uses and only at formal occasions. Maybe Sheppard can tell he isn’t entirely trusted, maybe he’s showing Ronon how hard he’s trying. Other than a tendency to go after the Wraith with such a pathological ferocity that he has a little trouble following orders to do anything else, Sheppard does absolutely fine.
Ronon doesn’t know what Sheppard’s rank was in his own military, where it positioned him in terms of authority. He kind of suspects Sheppard had some authority, or that he didn’t and had a problem with authority.
Sheppard gets along well with the rest of the unit. He and Rakai have settled their differences, mostly because Rakai has tried and failed to kick Sheppard’s ass a number of times now. Ara likes him, might like him a little too much in a way that will eventually cause Rakai to try and kick his ass again. If nothing else, Ronon bets that will be fun to watch. Morika and Hemi are a little less eager to trust, but they don’t have a problem with Sheppard.
All in all, Sheppard fits in well as the new sixth man. Ronon knows the whole squad misses Tyre. Miss and resent him, at the same time. And it’s a little weird that their new teammate comes to them because of the Wraith, when it was the Wraith that took Tyre from them. Sheppard could have joined the squad with Tyre there, Ronon thinks. A unit of any size can add a Flight Officer without any bureaucratic problems.
He doesn’t know if they would have, though. Without the chaos Tyre caused, Ronon’s squad wouldn’t have been on stand down so long. He wouldn’t have been home enough to keep an eye on Sheppard, and he probably wouldn’t have wanted to leave Melena alone with him. And if Tyre hadn’t gone Wraith-mad and fled, Ronon’s squad would never have ended up on the planet where they found Sheppard.
It’s not a particularly fair option, if Ronon had had a choice about it. He wants Tyre back so badly it makes his teeth ache, but he can’t think about condemning Sheppard. Not now that he knows him. Melena tells Ronon that caring for Sheppard in those first few weeks when he was so frail helped with her grief for Tyre. Ronon gets that. He doesn’t know that he shares it, since he kind of remembers being incredibly angry and sad and not having much left over to spare for the thin little guy suddenly living in his house.
Sheppard doesn’t show much emotion. He’s not shy about letting people know when stuff pisses him off, but that’s about it. Ronon doesn’t mind, figuring the guy’s been vulnerable enough here already. Sheppard doesn’t wake up screaming when they’re in the field. He still has nightmares; Ronon can see him twitching and jerking on his sleeping mat. And when they’re home, the screams come back. Neither he nor Melena go check on him, anymore. Sheppard just claims he doesn’t remember the dream or the screaming, and immediately closes his eyes. Ronon doesn’t know how he trained himself not to do it when they’re on missions. From a security standpoint, he appreciates it. From every other standpoint, it seems really mentally unhealthy.
Having a Flight Officer on his squad is unexpectedly convenient. They don’t have to wait for a ship to become available; they actually get one assigned exclusively to the squad. No more pissy pilots who don’t particularly want to listen to Ronon and are more concerned about something happening to their precious ship than accomplishing the mission objective. Well, Sheppard is kind of pissy when he’s flying. It must be a pilot thing.
Ronon generally likes to keep his feet on the ground, but he doesn’t mind not having to haul his ass across planets when they can fly there faster. He’s not the best judge, but he does think Sheppard’s a better pilot than the temp ones. The ship doesn’t rattle as much, the landings are softer, and he hasn’t pulled any totally unnecessary aerial stunts that make Ronon puke.
Safety reqs require Flight Officers to wear helmets. Odd, since there’s no such req on passengers. Sheppard snorts rudely when given his. It’s leather-covered metal with a chin strap and even Ronon knows all it will do in a crash is make Sheppard’s death less messy than his own.
“Can I put stuff on it?” Sheppard asks, turning the helmet over in his hands.
“Yeah,” Ronon says. A lot of pilots write shit and glue random pieces of crap all over theirs. Ronon would make fun of it, except he’s perfectly aware that he uses his hair in almost the same way. He doesn’t know what Sheppard will do to his.
What Sheppard does – and Ronon doesn’t even know how – is get two large Urachai goat horns and glue them one either side. It looks totally bizarre. On the back of the helmet, in the space between where the horns attach, Sheppard has drawn a symbol in Melena’s silver nail polish: a triangle with no bottom, and small circle above the peak.
“This okay?” Sheppard asks, presenting his helmet for inspection.
Ronon shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, trying not to laugh. Sheppard doesn’t seem like the type, but the horns might actually be important to him.
Rakai has no such sensitivity. “What the hell are those?” he asks.
“Viking horns,” Sheppard answers. “On my world, there were ancient warriors who wore hats like these into combat.” He pauses. “And a football team.”
“What’s a football team?” Hemi asks.
“It’s like usa-lee-ti without the bloodloss,” Sheppard says, easily. He settles his helmet on his head and strokes one of the horns. “How do I look?”
“Like a lunatic,” Morika tells him.
“Like a Viking Satedan,” Ronon offers, mostly because he thinks that’s what Sheppard wants to hear.
For some reason, Sheppard grunts in amusement. “Yeah, okay.” He thinks a moment and looks pointedly at Ronon. “I’m not putting anything in my hair, though.”
It turns out Ronon’s right about Sheppard.
The mission it happens on starts out alright. They’re selling some weapons to a village that the Wraith visited recently in exchange for medical supply ingredients. The planet is heavily forested and Sheppard has to maneuver free of the Ring and then up and above the tree branches. The ship shakes lightly and the trees scrape loudly against the sides of the vessel.
“Sorry,” Sheppard apologizes, when everyone winces at the noise. “Please return your seats and tray tables to the upright position.”
“What?” asks Ara, clutching her seat and staring out the window. For as much as she has a crush on Sheppard, she likes what he actually does for the team the least.
“Nothing,” Sheppard says. “Hold on.”
“Look at that,” Hemi remarks, after a few moments. He’s talking about the destruction on the ground strikingly visible from above.
“Ugh,” Morika says. “I know why we’re bringing weapons.”
“How long ago were the Wraith here?” asks Sheppard.
“Couple months, I think,” answers Ronon.
“It doesn’t look like a culling,” Hemi says. He’s right, and it also doesn’t look like total devastation. That’s odd, because the Wraith rarely visit a village and do something other than those two things.
No one says anything and the flight falls silent. Ronon wonders if Sheppard saw his world after it was destroyed.
“I’ll set her down over there,” Sheppard says, eventually, pointing at a clear patch between the forest and the village. “Okay?”
He does, the ship loud enough and landing close enough to announce their presence to the village. No one has come to meet them, maybe afraid to get that close to the ship and its thundering engines.
“Wraith were here, too,” Ara announces, looking at the burned patches of soil surrounding their landing spot.
Ronon agrees and they automatically drift into formation, weapons at the ready. Even though the Wraith are gone and unlikely to come back soon. It’s unsettling to walk though the damaged landscape as they get closer to the village. Sheppard landed as near to it as he could.
“This is creepy,” Rakai says, eyeing the blackened shrubbery.
“It’s giving me the willies,” Sheppard says, and Ronon has no idea what that means but it sounds like he’s agreeing.
Rakai, of course, never misses an opportunity to jump on Sheppard. “What?” he snaps. “I don’t have a willy.”
Sheppard snorts, then swallows a laugh. “If you say so,” he says, smirking.
“Have you been here before?” Morika asks Sheppard, curiously.
Sheppard shrugs. “No. I don’t know. Don’t think so.” He’s not looking at her and his face is shuttered, clearly uninterested in this topic.
“You must have been a lot of places,” Ara remarks.
Sheppard walks faster. “None I ever want to see again.”
By then, they’re at the village entrance and the people can see them approaching. Ronon can tell at a glance why they needed Satedan help. At best these people have spears and arrows to hunt, not fight the Wraith. The village is in shambles; half the structures burned down or completely flattened.
“Look friendly,” he tells his squad, for whatever good it will do. Sheppard, at least, takes off his ridiculous horned helmet and tucks it under his arm.
And that’s when everything goes to hell.
One of the villagers peering at the group does a visible double take. He drops his load of gathered debris to the ground with a clatter and scrambles backwards.
“Wraith-bringer,” he yells, sounding shocked. And then he screams it, even louder: “Wraith-bringer!”
Sheppard figures it out faster than everyone else. “We have to get the hell out of here,” he says, stopping in his tracks.
The villagers out in the open are fleeing into their huts, but the men are coming back out armed with crossbows.
“Is he talking about Sheppard?” asks Rakai, sneering at the crossbows.
Ronon hears the strings drawing back and the bows releasing, arrows whistling through the air in their direction. One flies straight at Rakai, striking his flank armor and deflecting into the dirt with a strange thwap.
“Ow,” Rakai says, more surprised than hurt. “Hey!” He racks his gun, looking at Ronon.
“Ronon,” Sheppard says. “We have to go.”
“No,” Ronon tells Rakai, who wants to start killing people. “Retreat,” he orders, before one of those arrows actually finds its mark. “Run. Warning fire only.”
Run they do, arrows hitting the dirt behind their feet until they reach the cover of the forest. Ara and Hemi going backwards with cover fire that’s aimed towards the sky. Ronon finally stops behind a cluster of thick trunks. He can hear their pursuers’ footsteps, definitely between them and the ship.
“You have been here before,” Morika tells Sheppard as they hunker down, keeping her voice casual.
Ronon almost tells Morika to shut the hell up. Sheppard looks as tense as he’s ever seen him.
“Made friends?” Rakai asks, sarcastically. “You could have mentioned it.”
“Shut up,” Ronon says, “He didn’t know.”
“They’re between us and the ship,” Hemi reports, which Ronon already knows. “We have to run for the Ring.”
That’s an even farther distance and if the villagers have rounded on them already, not going to be any easier than getting back to the ship. And Ronon doesn’t have time to think of an alternative or even say anything, because he hears more whistling projectiles. It’s smaller and faster than an arrow, and then something sharp stabs Ronon in the neck. He bats it down reflexively, ends up holding a tiny dart in his fingers. His neck is tingling and the next thing he knows, Ronon is face down in the dirt about to pass out. He hears the thumps of his squad hitting the ground around him, and that’s all.
Ronon wakes up in a cage. He looks frantically for his squad and only finds Ara and Hemi, pressed up against the bars next to him. They both look pale and drugged, eyelids blinking like they just woke up, too. The next things Ronon looks for are his guns: those are gone. But he can feel the weight of most of his concealed blades, and more importantly his tiny disc-shaped radio on the inside of his coat.
“What happened?” he asks Ara and Hemi.
“Sleep darts,” Ara says.
“Cheaters,” Hemi concurs, and even though Ronon agrees that it’s an utterly cowardly way of fighting, that’s not really the point right now.
“Where’s everyone else?”
“Got away,” Hemi says. “I’m going to stop making fun of that full-body armor they all wear.”
“Sheppard?” Ronon checks. Sheppard doesn’t wear full-body armor and he’s much less good at following retreat orders.
“Rakai had him,” Ara tells him, which makes sense. “By the neck.” That makes more sense. “I saw them as-” she waves a flat palm in front of her eyes miming unconsciousness.”
“Been radio silence for a while,” Hemi says, flashing the disc-shaped radio transceiver he has concealed in his palm.
“Yelling,” Ara says, making a face. “It sounded like Sheppard didn’t want to obey Rakai’s orders.”
“Go to the ‘Ring,” she says, and it’s Ronon’s turn to make a face.
That’s when the village leader shows up. He’s an older white-haired man, and it looks like he barely survived the recent Wraith attack. Some younger men bring him on a litter and Ronon can tell at a glance that one of his legs is mangled. The litter-bearers gently place it on the ground before the cage and the old man struggles into a sitting position.
“Betrayers,” he says, glaring darkly at his prisoners. “We ask for aid and you come here with the Wraith-bringer?”
Ronon rises to his feet, jerking his chin at Ara for her to join him. She’s a good negotiator at trade missions and might be able to talk their way out of this.
“Keturah,” Ara begins, but he interrupts her.
“That man killed my only daughter! He is responsible for the deaths of over half this village.” Keturah is very, very angry. Ronon no longer thinks Ara will get them out of the cage with only words.
“The Wraith killed your daughter,” Ronon corrects him. “Killed your people.”
“Because the Wraith-bringer brought them here!” the leader yells.
“His name is John Sheppard,” Ara says, drawing her shoulders back. “And he was just as much a victim as you were. The Wraith can't track him anymore!”
“He still lives,” Keturah snarls. “And my daughter does not.”
Ronon feels this line of arguing isn’t going to get them anywhere.
“Where are the rest of my men?” he asks.
“They fled,” the leader says, sneering. “Like cowards, with the Wraith-bringer.”
“To your flying machine,” Keturah says. “It is only a matter of time before my warriors find it and break down its doors.”
“They made it back to the ship?” Hemi says from his sitting position, more to Ronon than Keturah.
Keturah ignores him. “I have told them I will spare your lives, if they return the Wraith-bringer to me. I will release you all, I only want him.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Ronon says.
Keturah’s face gets even darker and angrier. “Then you will all be given to the Wraith?”
“What?” asks Ara, sharply. “What do you mean by that?”
Ronon’s eyes follow the man’s old, wrinkled hands into his cloak pocket, where he sees a small, ominously blinking electronic device.
“They promised that if he ever came back and we captured him, we would be forever free from culling in the future,” Keturah says. “They gave me the means to contact them if the man who they followed here returned. They promised to spare us forever.”
Ronon has a little trouble following all of that, mostly because it’s almost too stupid to believe.
“If you call them back,” he says, “they’ll just kill everyone who survived last time.”
Keturah isn’t listening.
“Because I am merciful,” he says, “if your men turn the Wraith-bringer over to me, I will release you before the Wraith arrive.”
He refuses to listen to anything else, even Ara who somehow is managing to come up with something besides how this crazy old man has sentenced Ronon’s team as well as his own people to death. The younger men carry Keturah away, back towards the village huts.
“What was that thing?” Ronon asks Ara. “In his pocket?”
“It looked like a transmitter,” Hemi answers, apparently able to see from the floor. “And it looked activated.”
Ara’s face is hard and serious. “We don’t have much time.” She glances at the guards who stand at a distance from their cage. “We need to leave, immediately.”
“If Rakai, Morika, and Sheppard made it back to the ship,” Hemi begins.
“They’d have gone back to Sateda,” Ara interrupts. “Keturah made it sound like it’s just…sitting out there?” She shakes her head. “It doesn’t make sense.”
It makes sense to Ronon, in that he’s pretty sure the reason their ship is just ‘sitting out there’ is because Sheppard’s the only one that can fly it.
“He’s not going to leave us behind,” Ronon says.
Ara looks confused. “Rakai would follow your orders,” she says.
Ronon nods. “Sheppard won’t follow his.”
Her eyes go wide with understanding. “Oh.”
“Keep watch,” Ronon orders, backing up from the bars and joining Hemi on the floor. The guards missed the radio the first time, so he can’t let them see him using it. He brings his sleeve up to his face, like he’s resting his chin in his hands.
“Rakai,” he says softly into the transceiver, “The village leader called the Wraith. You need to get back to Sateda now.”
For a second, there’s only silence. Then there’s static and fumbling noises followed by Rakai’s voice. “Called the Wraith? What? How?”
“There’s no time,” Ronon answers. There really isn’t. With how active the Wraith have become recently, a hive ship will be on them before nightfall. “Put Sheppard on.”
There’s no guarantee that Sheppard will listen to Ronon, but it’s the only thing he can try.
Rakai doesn’t reply and Sheppard doesn’t come on the line. Instead, there’s a few seconds of strange silence.
“Sheppard’s not here,” Rakai says, finally.
“I dragged him back to the ship,” Rakai says, defensively. “And he flew it halfway back towards the Ring, just to get away from the soldiers chasing us. But then he landed. Said he wouldn’t leave you guys behind.”
“Too bad,” Ronon snaps.
“We fought,” Rakai continues, and now he sounds embarrassed. “He stabbed Morika with one of those damn needle things and she’s still asleep.” Ronon waits. “And he tied me to the passenger seat. He went to turn himself in. Left about twenty minutes ago.”
“Oh,” says Ara, sighing. She’s eavesdropping on Ronon’s radio, periodically looking back at the guards.
“You free yet?” Ronon asks Rakai.
“Almost,” Rakai grunts immediately. “He can’t tie good knots but he tied a million shitty ones.”
A plan forms in Ronon’s head. There’s no way off this planet before the Wraith arrive, not if their only pilot has undertaken a suicide mission. The Wraith will kill every single person they can find when they come, which he’d have thought Sheppard would know.
“Rakai,” he orders. “Start unloading the weapons and ammunition we brought to trade. Bring as much of it as you can as close as you can to the village without engaging the people.”
“Yes, sir,” Rakai says automatically, even though he has no idea why.
“See if there’s something in the medkit to wake Morika,” Ronon adds.
“What’s the plan?” Rakai asks, but Ronon can see the same question on Ara and Hemi’s faces.
“The Wraith are coming,” Ronon tells them all, “and we’re going to kill ‘em.”