Pairing: none (gen)
Word Count: 10,700
Summary: Ronon is arrested for Kell's murder. Teamfic.
Notes: Spoilers through Broken Ties; set somewhere thereafter.
Teyla had once asked Ronon why he didn't go back to the Satedan refugee settlements -- on Belkan, on Manaria and a couple other worlds -- more often than once or twice a year. It was hard for him to explain to her -- to Teyla of Athos, who'd come from a small village where everyone knew everyone else's name. Her people had started over on two new worlds now, and Teyla would no more be separated from them than she would willingly cut off her hand.
But the Satedan capital alone had boasted a population in the hundreds of thousands, with cities of similar size scattered up and down the coast. Now there were maybe four or five hundred people, mostly low-ranked Bird Clan and River Clan civilians who'd worked in factories on the western side of the capital, along with scattered families from the unaffiliated tribes in the Ironmarches. Ronon knew none of them, had nothing in common with any of them. Walking down the rude streets of their little settlements, ducking under strings of laundry hung out to dry, passing dead-eyed women who sold their bodies to get by, and men in ragged tunics who labored long hours to bust sod in the poor-quality land that had been granted to them on the worlds where they'd come begging for shelter ... In many ways it did little more than remind him of all that had been lost: the grand causeways of the capital, the gardens and museums and glass-fronted offices, the tea-shops where poetry was written and philosophy argued, the harbor with its steam freighters jostling side-by-side with the brightly painted sails of the ocean clans' trading vessels.
He had no friends among the refugees, other than Solon, who had made a new life for himself as a smuggler and spent little time in the refugee settlements anyway.
But he still went back occasionally, because even in the muddy streets that bore so little resemblance to the cobbled neighborhoods and walled courtyards where he'd grown up, he could bask for a little while in the scents of familiar spices, and listen to old men singing the songs he'd grown up hearing, the ones that had been popular in his parents' youth. If he made a passing reference to the plays of Kovorin Steen or joked about the singer Massi Gay's tight corsets, people here would understand without the need for a cumbersome explanation.
He didn't bring his team with him for many reasons, perhaps the greatest of which was the fact that he did not want to have to rebuff well-meant offers of aid for his people. John might understand; Elizabeth -- and, later, Carter and Woolsey -- probably would not. His people were very poor. None of the skills they'd learned in a society with factories, steam engines and radio translated very well to worlds where the goat-wagon was considered a major technological innovation. Someone like Rodney or Zelenka might have been able to start a one-man industrial revolution, but these were the people who'd pulled the levers on the factory floor or washed clothes for the hotels; they did not know how to build a transistor or diagram a steam engine. So they were left trying to make a living as farmers when they had never learned how, and clinging to half-remembered popular songs because it was all they'd been able to carry with them from a shattered world. Ronon knew that if anyone from Atlantis went with him, the poverty would be all they'd see: the muddy streets, the hunger and desperation. Sometimes it was all he could see, too.
But he knew how proud his people were, and right now, pride was what kept them going. The Atlanteans' inevitable and well-meant offers of help would strip away one of the very few things that they had left.
So he went alone. Lantean-Earth society customarily offered all their citizens a certain number of days off work each year, that were theirs to do with as they pleased; Teyla usually spent that time on Athos, and most of the Earth people went home, except for Sheppard, who, along with a handful of equally rootless others, just worked straight through his vacation unless someone managed to drag him off for a day or two.
No one minded Ronon vanishing occasionally. He always told John or Teyla where he was going -- Manaria, Belkan, wherever -- and when he'd be back.
Which turned out to be a useful safety measure when, three years after he'd discovered the existence of the Satedan refugees and killed Kell Rievan, he was arrested for Kell's murder on Belkan.
"We can probably break you out of here," John said, slouching against the wall with a studiously casual air that failed to conceal the hardened warrior lurking underneath.
Ronon had spent his first night in the dirt-floored Belkan jail plotting exactly that. But by the time he missed his check-in and the rest of his team showed up, he found that the offended anger had passed. Ronon's mother always used to say that he was quick to anger and quick to forgive, and while he knew he'd changed and hardened in his years on the run, he also couldn't sustain anger against these people who were only enforcing the local law ... which he had, quite legitimately, broken.
"Thought about it," he said, interrupting Rodney in the middle of a brisk analysis of the jail's structural integrity and the sufficient application of C4. "Don't want to. I'll go to trial."
"Why?" John wanted to know. He glanced around for any guards in earshot, but they'd discreetly retreated down the cellblock. The only other occupants of the jail at the moment were a couple of drunks sleeping it off in the next cell over; Belkan was, generally speaking, a quiet world with little crime. Until I showed up, Ronon thought.
"Look," John said, "I don't know why they're so adamant that you shot this Kell guy, but you and I both know you didn't, so there's no point in playing along with their games. Just let me go back to Atlantis and get a jumper --"
"I did do it," Ronon interrupted. Teyla, behind John, had been giving him intense, meaningful looks. Now she rolled her eyes.
It was nice, in a way, that she hadn't told the rest of his team about what he'd done on Belkan, but now John and Rodney were staring at him. "You did what?" John said.
"They said you lured him into an ambush and shot him in cold blood," Rodney said. "I know I like to joke about your violent tendencies, which are many and legion, but that does not sound like you."
"If you're covering for someone," John added, "it won't help them if you go down for a murder you didn't commit. We can probably help whoever it is, but not if you won't tell us."
And this was why he didn't talk to the Lanteans about his people's problems. They always thought they could fix everything -- even things that couldn't be fixed. "Teyla was there," he said. "She saw it all."
Teyla gave him a brief, searing look, and then turned a calm face to John and Rodney's incredulity. "Yes," she said. "What he says is true, and yes, he did kill this man Kell."
"Teyla --" John began after a moment, scowling.
"When you are perfectly honest with us about everything you do, John," Teyla said with a brief smile, "then you may lecture me." Ronon could see that she was mad -- at him, at John, he wasn't sure.
John's body language slammed shut like a door closing. Rodney looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.
"We all have secrets," Teyla went on after a moment. "I kept Ronon's for him because I did not think it was my secret to tell." And you still don't know all of it, lurked in the interstices of her words, at least to Ronon's ears. She'd barely spoken to Ronon for weeks after Kell's death. He had worked hard to earn her trust back.
John drew a deep breath and let it out. "You wanna tell me why, buddy?"
"Because he was a traitor," Ronon said immediately. "He betrayed his world to save his skin. And everyone knows it. There were half a dozen Satedans with him, and not one of them moved a finger to stop me. My people understand blood honor. He killed my kin; I had not only the right, but the responsibility to do what I did."
"So ..." John waved a hand around them, at the jail with its damp stone walls and low, blackened ceiling. "Why all this, then?"
"Because the crime was committed on Belkan," Teyla said quietly. "They do not take the same view of justice as Ronon's people, apparently."
John sighed and massaged his temples. "At some point, d'you think you could sit down and make a list of all the worlds you're wanted on? It would be nice to know the places to avoid."
"Be a long list," Ronon said. Despite himself, his lips twitched. Rodney gave a short, stifled snort of laughter, but now Teyla was grinning too. Finally, reluctantly, John relaxed and one corner of his mouth twitched up.
According to Belkan law, since both killer and accused were Satedan, Ronon had the option of being tried under the Belkan justice system or the Satedan one, whatever both parties found agreeable.
"Which strikes me as a pretty huge loophole," Rodney pointed out. "I mean, what if it's something that's a crime on Belkan, but not on the homeworld of whoever-it-is, like, I don't know, spouse abuse or something?"
The whole team were grouped around a crude plank table in the jail's single interrogation room. Everyone was very ostentatiously ignoring the leg shackle on Ronon's ankle, chained to a metal loop in the floor. He thought it would be less annoying if they'd just stare at it and get it out of their systems.
"Spouse abuse is a crime on Sateda," Ronon said. "Was, I mean."
"It's an example."
"Think about it, Rodney," Teyla offered quietly. "With so many people traveling through the Ring, many taboos will be broken, many customs disregarded on different worlds. Should a traveler be sentenced to six years of hard labor for walking through the Ring with bare feet, or wearing the color blue, not knowing it is a terrible insult on the world where he arrives?"
"Okay, which world is that? Because I'd really like to know, so that we can avoid that one."
Teyla's mouth quirked. "It is only an example," she said.
Rodney met her eyes with visible annoyance, but returned her smile after a hesitation. It was hard to stay mad at Teyla.
"Guys," John said. "On task here. Ronon, are you sure you don't want us to consult Woolsey? He's a lawyer."
Ronon shook his head. "No." It wasn't worth explaining that of all the places he'd been, only a few had a separate class of people who were professional interpreters of the law, and they were universally regarded with suspicion. "On Sateda, I'd be defended by an advocate from my clan -- since I'm in the military, usually that'd be my taskmaster."
"Okay," John said, while Rodney typed busily on his laptop; for some inexplicable reason, he'd decided to document everything. "I'm guessing we wouldn't be lucky enough that your, uh, taskmaster is still alive."
"Kell was my taskmaster."
Rodney looked up sharply from his computer. "Oh, good. So you shot your own lawyer. This bodes well."
From the sharp wince on his face, either John or Teyla had just kicked him under the table. "All right, that's out," John said smoothly. "What if there's no taskmaster available?"
"It goes up the chain of command, to the regiment commander, then the clan chief. But that -- that's --" Ronon drew a breath. It was strange how, even after all these years, sometimes the reality of what had happened on Sateda still stopped his heart in his chest. "All of Wolf Clan are dead," he managed to say in something like a normal voice. "There's no one left."
"Yeah, there is," Rodney said, looking over his computer at John. Teyla was looking at him with a thoughtful expression, too. It took Ronon a moment to catch their drift, and when it did, his breath stopped for a totally different reason.
"Uh," John said, as Rodney and Teyla's scrutiny sank in. "I guess I can --"
"No," Ronon said. He pushed back his chair so hard it fell over and started to walk away from the table, forgetting the ankle chain, which yanked him up short and nearly dumped him on his face.
Teyla had also leaped to her feet; John was halfway out of his chair; Rodney just stared at all of them like they'd gone crazy. At the edges of his peripheral vision, Ronon was aware that both of the guards waiting outside the half-open door of the interrogation room had drawn their swords. He held his hands up, whether to the guards or to his team, he wasn't exactly sure. "It's all right," he said. "I'm all right." He righted his chair with slow, controlled movements, getting himself under control before he sat back down.
John and Teyla took their chairs again, slowly. "Uh, you want to tell me what just happened?" John asked, with his wary face on.
Ronon ran a hand over his scalp. The anger had seeped away -- it did that quicker, these days, than it had in years -- leaving an empty ache and a certain amount of embarrassment. "It's just ... you can't put a name on something and make it the same as a thing that's gone. Teyla -- if, Ancestors defend him, something happened to Torren," and he made a quick sign, thumb in fist, to ward off bad luck, "would you have another kid to replace him, give him the same name, call him your firstborn son?"
Teyla gave him a round-eyed look of shock. "I should hope not." Her eyes narrowed a bit. "But I do understand what you mean. Kell was your taskmaster. That's a very specific role, with certain obligations and duties. There is no exact equivalent on Athos, or, I suspect, in John's culture. To call him the same thing ... it says that your traditions have no meaning."
In this at least, Ronon thought, he and Teyla were the same. In a galaxy where people often lost their worlds, their material possessions, and had to start over elsewhere, it was the continuity of shared tradition and belief that cemented a people together. Without that, a culture could not last.
"And calling me it doesn't make me it," John said. He leaned back in his chair, hands folded on the table and shoulders rigid. "Okay, fair enough. But we have to get through this and figure something out --"
"I didn't say I didn't want you to defend me," Ronon said. John looked up quickly. There was something hollow in his hazel eyes. "Look, you guys -- Wolf Clan is gone. Everyone I ever --" He paused, swallowed. He'd almost been getting past it, in some ways, and then Tyre's death had opened a lot of old wounds, rubbed them raw and bleeding. "You guys are my family," he said, forcing himself to meet their eyes, each of them in turn. "All I've got. If something happened to me, you guys'd be the ones who'd avenge me, or ..."
"Or break you out of the pokey, say," Rodney said. His voice sounded a little thick.
"Or that," Ronon agreed. "It's close enough to traditional that I think the local Satedans would accept it. I think there's some precedent for it, in clan feuds where most of the clan had been wiped out. And -- it's what I want."
There was a strange, brittle silence. Then John said, "You coulda told us that in the first place, big guy," and Teyla laughed.
John was a little disconcerted when Ronon explained to him that Sateda didn't have courts or tribunals in the Earth sense. The representative of the accused -- in this case, John acting on behalf of Ronon's three-person defense team -- would meet with the clan council and summarize their client's position. In two minutes or less.
"You're kidding," Rodney said, staring with open-mouthed disbelief.
"Well," Ronon said, "one radii, the length of time it takes to sweep a clock face. That's about two and a quarter of your minutes."
John stared at the copious piles of notes that Rodney had compiled, with a little help from Teyla, which were stacked on the table between them. "That's ... gonna be hard, buddy."
"No, it's not," Ronon said. "You just think so because all your lawyer shows make it look like nobody can say anything without taking a decaradii to do it. Just go in there, say I did it and tell the council why. That's all they want to hear."
"And you guys actually have a council?" John said. By now, he and the rest of the team had seen the Satedan village in all its squallor. Ronon tried not to think about that; he had enough on his mind already. Apparently realizing how his comment had come out, John backpedaled hastily. "I mean, that everybody recognizes the authority of; I'm guessing that pretty much everyone who was anyone died in the war."
"More or less," Ronon said. "The survivors are mostly Bird and River clans, and the Ironmarch tribes have three small clans of their own, I heard. Each of 'em elected a representative to start a new clan dynasty. Those are the people you'll be meeting with."
"O ... kay." It was obvious to Ronon that John was not actually that interested in the behind-the-scenes, though Teyla looked intrigued. John's eyes had already taken on the same hard, distant look as when he contemplated battle strategy.
The council couldn't meet with them until the next morning. John and Rodney both seemed to think this was impressively fast; Ronon resolved not to ever get trapped in Earth's criminal justice system. However, this did mean another overnight stay in the Belkan jail. He didn't really mind -- the jail was small and dank, but clean and vermin-free, and they'd been feeding him well. However, John raised a fuss with the Belkan guards until they agreed to bring three more pallets to Ronon's small cell.
"Guys ..." Ronon said, both slightly annoyed and more touched than he could say. "You really don't have to." He contemplated being locked up all night with all three of them, which brought back some unpleasant memories of long jumper trips, not to mention other holding cells on other planets. "You really, really don't have to."
There was no arguing with them when they had their minds made up, though. Teyla had John take her back to Atlantis to pick up Torren -- "You're not seriously bringing the baby to a prison?" "Please do not tell me how to raise my son, Rodney." -- and Rodney insisted on going back to pick up the fifteen or twenty vital things that he simply could not do without overnight. Ronon stretched out in the suddenly quiet cell and decided to get some sleep while he could.
Upon the team's return, it was obvious that John had come back in a jumper, because they'd brought blankets, pillows, baskets of food, and a big pile of board games. And Torren.
"I still don't think this is really appropriate," Rodney said, watching the baby scooting himself cheerfully around on Ronon's pallet, inside a cage formed by Ronon's legs and Teyla's reclining torso.
"He's way too young to remember any of this," John said. "Aren't you?"
"Ba!" Torren agreed.
"The night that Uncle Ronon spent in jail, on charges of Murder 1," Rodney said gloomily. "You better hope he doesn't remember."
Teyla set up some sweet-smelling candles to chase off the smell of the squat stone toilet in the corner ("I really hope everyone remembered to use the bathroom at home," Rodney said darkly) and John spread out a variety of foods filched from the mess hall. They watched one of the Indiana Jones movies on Rodney's laptop, and then played Monopoly and Go Fish and surreptitiously sipped bottles of beer, hiding them every time the guards walked by and giggling like raw recruits after curfew. Torren had fallen asleep in Teyla's lap.
"We could still probably break you out, if you want us to," John said, studying his cards. "Actually, having seen the laughable defenses in this place, I don't even think we'd need more than we've got right here. Any fours?"
"Go fish." Ronon watched him draw a card, and added, "Nah. They've been good to me here. Trusted me." He'd been in enough jails to be well aware that the guards were turning a blind eye to what had to be a lot of petty rules violations in order to let him have his team around him. "Anyway, I spent seven years looking over my shoulder. Don't want to live that way anymore."
"How in the world did you end up so well-adjusted?" Rodney demanded, sounding somewhat put out about it. "I mean, I grew up in a suburban house with an actual, bona-fide white picket fence, and I, as we all know, am kind of a mess. You, on the other hand --"
"I just know what's important," Ronon said, laying down a series of "7" cards on the blanket they were using to keep themselves off the dirt floor. "Losing everything teaches you that."
"I guess I can't say there weren't times I fantasized about a crashing satellite striking the house during family Thanksgivings and taking out everyone except the relatives I actually liked," Rodney mused. "Which would be, basically, me, Jeannie, and my uncle Harv, the bigamist. My mother hated him, which, in retrospect, was probably the appeal. I actually spent fourth grade trying to figure out how to use Uncle Harv's old ham radio to tap into NASA's satellite control network. That's probably why Dad finally agreed to let Mom start paying for piano lessons for me."
"Kind of a mess?" John said.
"Shut up. I'm baring my soul here!"
"We know, Rodney," Teyla said, patting him on the knee. "Here, have a baby." She unloaded Torren onto his lap, and got up to stretch her legs.
"Funny, I don't recall ordering one," Rodney said. He cupped his hand over Torren's soft little head, and looked thoughtful.
John stretched on the blanket, his eyes closed, awaiting his turn in the card game. Ronon wondered if John had ever realized how utterly blissed-out he looked at times like this -- surrounded by the team, listening to them banter and throwing in his occasional comments, a little smile on his face and his body as relaxed as it ever got.
For the first time, it occurred to Ronon to wonder if he, himself, looked the same way.
Rodney insisted on going back to Atlantis to take a shower (and use the bathroom) in the morning, and dragged John with him, pointing out that John wasn't going to make a great impression if he went in front of the council smelling like a jail floor. Teyla stayed with Ronon until Rodney came back, and then she left to return Torren to his father's keeping. Ronon guessed that they'd deliberately arranged not to leave him alone, but he could feel impatience and anxiety crawling under his skin, and Rodney wasn't exactly a restful person to be around at the best of times. An hour or two to do pushups and jog in place would have been a lot more calming.
"On top of everything else," Rodney said, fidgeting in place as he typed on the notes that he was still stubbornly, defiantly making for Ronon's defense, "the Daedalus came in this morning, Atlantis time, which means that everyone else is getting a chance to abscond with all the goodies. And I'm sure Zelenka and the rest of those lab monkeys are putting away my entire shipment of vital scientific supplies in entirely the wrong places. I'll never be able to find anything again."
"Yeah, you got big problems, all right, McKay," Ronon said, dangling from the bars by his knees as he did a series of upside-down crunches. The guards watched him warily from a distance.
"I know!" Rodney said. "Sheppard had better bring me a handful of Snickers bars, that's all I've got to say about it."
But John only dallied for a few minutes before taking off to wait for the council -- or, for all Ronon knew, to jog six times around the village to keep from blowing up the jail's wall with C4 and dragging Ronon out the hole whether he wanted to come or not.
Teyla, however, with her unerring instinct for defusing conflict, had brought each of them a Mounds bar from the new shipment, as well as a hot thermos of coffee from the mess hall. They started playing another game of Monopoly, but, as they got bored, the rules morphed into Wraithopoly: the object was to destroy your opponents' houses faster than they could build new ones. "This is really macabre," Rodney remarked, paying his rent and tipping over one of Teyla's hotels with his index finger.
They were on their third game when John came back. "Well, there's good news and bad news," he said, looking uncomfortable. "Actually, I'm not sure which is which. Possibly it's all bad news, I'm not sure."
Rodney and Teyla stared at him anxiously, the forgotten Wraithopoly board lying on the floor at their feet.
"Give it to me, then," Ronon said.
"Okay." John began to pace. The small cell was crowded enough with the remnants of last night's slumber party that he had to keep stepping over and around things: the pile of board games, a stack of pillows. "Kell's family aren't willing to accept you shooting Kell as the act of a legitimate blood feud. They claim there's no evidence and the one person who could tell us for sure is dead. So we're back to Murder 1, or the Satedan equivalent, and the penalty for murder is death. That's ... probably the bad news."
Ronon felt a sick curl in his stomach. He hadn't taken into consideration what Solon Sincha had told him, years ago in a conversation he'd later tried to forget: Kell and his family escaped. They settled on Belsa ... There would be angry relatives to deal with as well, and that was never good news.
"Gee, what's the good news, Pollyanna?" Rodney demanded. "They're willing to commute his sentence from death by dysentery to a nice clean firing squad, or what?"
John gave him a dark look, and it wasn't playful. Rodney shut up. "No; apparently, there's some Satedan tradition where this kind of thing, a death or insult to a family member, can be settled through a sort of arena grudge match?" He looked at Ronon, who nodded confirmation. "They're willing to settle it that way. You, versus their choice of champion."
The family duel was a very old way of settling disputes, one that had been largely superseded by the New Code in Ronon's grandparents' time. But it made sense from what he knew of Kell, and Kell's family, that they would want it this way.
"Yeah," he said, meeting John's eyes. "I'll do it."
"Ronon," John said, "have you seen Kell's family? They're all as big as you, including the women, and ten times as mean-looking. And whoever they pick is going to be seriously trying to kill you."
Rodney snorted. "Hello, he fought Wraith for seven years. I think he can take one guy in a fair fight, no matter how big."
"If the fight is fair," Teyla said.
"Well, it's the only chance he's got. Isn't it?" Rodney asked, his mercurial face displaying open concern.
"The jailbreak option is still on the table," John said, slipping a hand down to his belt. He looked unarmed, but Ronon would bet serious money that he wasn't.
"No," Ronon said. "It's justice. Kell had a wife. Kids. Brothers and sisters. He sold out his world, betrayed millions of people and left them to die, but he didn't do it just to save his himself. I used to think so -- for seven years I thought so." He found himself staring at the wall.
"He did it to save his family," Teyla said gently.
"And to save himself," Rodney added with unexpected loyalty.
"Is that why you're here?" Teyla asked in that same, gentle voice. "Because you no longer believe in the rightness of your actions?"
Ronon made a fist and rested it against the wall, above a set of worn hatch marks where some long-ago prisoner had recorded the days of his sentence. "If I had it to do over, I would," he said at last. "Everyone I loved died because of that bastard. But ..." He hesitated, and uncoiled his clenched fingers, spread them against the wall. "When I was younger, I saw everything in black and white. Honor and dishonor. I'm not sure it's that simple anymore."
The dueling field, on the edge of the Belkan town, was obviously a hastily cleared stock pen. A thick log fence surrounded a length of trampled dirt, spotted with darker piles left behind by the corral's last occupants. Rodney winced when he saw it.
Most of the Satedan town had turned out, along with some of the Belkans. Ronon saw a lot of people carrying weapons, the Satedans and the Belkans alike. He recognized Kell's family in a tight knot beside the fence. He'd never known any of them well, but he knew Kell's wife on sight, and recognized one of the daughters, the eldest. The others had been just children when he'd seen them last.
Ronon had met the council a couple of times. They were young compared to the councilors he remembered before Sateda's fall; the oldest of them was not much older than John. These were ones who'd had the energy and drive, in those terrible years right after the war, to mobilize enough support to win an impromptu election among a deeply wounded and dispirited people.
Ronon wasn't sure if this would help or hinder his cause.
He walked in chains, with his team flanking him. No one cheered and no one booed. Everyone just watched as he bowed his head to the council.
"Specialist Ronon Dex," the head councilor, the one from River Clan, said in a clear, carrying voice. She turned to look at Kell's family. "Lady Maida Rievan."
Maida strode forward. She was, as John had said, almost as tall as Ronon -- most of the Satedan Old Families were. She wore armor -- standing out among the villagers, most of whom wore ragged homespun -- and her dark hair was piled in an elaborate coiffure of braids, gleaming like polished stone. Her eyes skimmed past Ronon, but her face betrayed nothing, not hate, contempt nor sympathy. Hers was old money, old blood, old nobility. It couldn't have been worse, Ronon thought, because such people never forgave a slight or an insult.
"Do you both agree that you accept this duel of your free will, that this will erase all debts and disputes between your two families, and that each of you is authorized to speak on behalf of your family in this matter?" the councilor asked them, her words in the rhythm of a memorized quote. She was young enough that she had probably seen few real duels herself, but she'd certainly seen many of them at the playhouses, before the fall of Sateda.
"Yes," Ronon said, and "Yes," Maida echoed in her husky alto.
"Do you also agree that this duel will only end at the death of one side's champion, and neither has the option of yielding without forfeiting his or her life?"
Ronon felt a thrill run through him, more of anticipation than fear. She was truly calling upon the old rules, then: that the duel could only end in the death of one or both of the participants. To yield would be to die, and he was pretty sure Kell's kin would be waiting in the wings to make sure.
"Yes," he said, and the heat of battle-lust rose in him, throbbing in his ears in time with his pulse; he barely heard Maida's firm "Yes."
This was a good way to decide, an old way. He regretted nothing; he only hoped that John wouldn't be too upset if he lost. But he truly did not think that he would. He'd run a quick, assessing eye over Maida and her family. Some of them looked fairly tough, but no matter which one she'd chosen to represent her -- or even if it was Maida herself -- he knew that he could defeat them. They'd been living comfortable lives on Belsa while he'd been pitting himself against the Wraith. It would hardly be a contest.
"Accuser chooses weapons; defender may challenge."
"Bare hands," Maida said immediately, her face like stone.
Ronon grinned fiercely at her. "Fine with me."
"Please choose your champions."
The defender -- the accused -- went first at this point. Ronon raised his head. "I will fight for myself," he said, and felt the last doubts leave him. There was no turning back now.
"And the accuser's champion?" the councilor asked.
Lady Maida turned. Her face betrayed, for a moment, the first hint of expression Ronon had seen there: a twitch of a small, cold smile. A triumphant smile. She pointed. "He will represent Rievan in this match."
She was pointing to Rodney.
"Can she do this?" John demanded, and Rodney, over the top of him: "She can't do this, right? I can say no, right?"
They were in a small huddle with the councilors. Normally the match should have started immediately, but this was irregular enough that the councilors had agreed to a quick, semi-private discussion up against the side of the stock pen. Ronon could hear murmurings among the crowd; they didn't sound especially favorable to the Rievans. His stomach had folded up on itself into a cold, hard knot.
"Yes, they can," the head councilor said. "And no, you can't. Your family representative --" her eyes flicked to Ronon "-- agreed that the rules were binding, and you vested him with your proxies."
Ronon could see how nervous she was -- all of the council, actually. They knew they were playing with fire by antagonizing Atlantis, but they also had to contend with the Rievans. And the Rievans had the whole weight of Satedan tradition behind them.
I can turn my back on my people, my culture.
Or I can kill my friend.
"Can we have a minute to confab?" John asked the council. There were nods all around; the councilors went to speak to Maida's bunch. "Okay," John said in a low, harsh voice, as soon as she was gone. His body vibrated with tension. "What happens if we run for it?"
"We'll have to fight," Ronon said. "Probably the whole mob, because they came to see a show, not to watch us run like white-tailed kangadeer. Best-case scenario is that we kill a few of them and the rest give up." My people. Only a few hundred in the whole galaxy. "Worst case, they kill us all."
"I don't like that plan," Rodney said promptly.
"Okay," John said. "We'll hold that plan in reserve and call it plan ... Z. Can we talk our way out of this? Think maybe they'll accept a compromise?"
"I do not get the impression that this Maida woman is open to negotiation," Teyla said.
Ronon wished he had a gun to hold. Instead, his hands balled into fists. "She wants to hurt me, without hurting herself. And she's found a way to do it that's legal under the old Satedan code."
He had to admire her diabolical cleverness. It was a cruelty worthy of the Wraith. If Maida offered up one of her own sons or daughters or other relatives, she had to know there'd be a very real chance of seeing another loved one killed at Ronon's hands. This way, she risked nothing, and no matter who won, Ronon would lose.
"I don't get why she didn't pick me," John said.
"I do," Ronon said. "You look like you can handle yourself in a fight. Rodney's obviously the weakest link."
"Hey," Rodney said, but his heart wasn't in it.
"This way," Ronon added, "it's gonna be entirely up to me." To kill a friend, or to die at a friend's hands.
Teyla chewed her bottom lip. "This cannot possibly be legal, can it? Even if it technically follows the letter of the law, there must be some loophole we can exploit to the council. This is not justice, and they surely must understand that."
"I think they do." Ronon flicked a sharp glance at the councilors, deep in conversation with the Rievans. "Kell's family, unlike the rest of the refugees, left Sateda with most of their wealth, and were able to set themselves up in business. They run a trading business, Solon said."
Teyla got it, he could see. "They are far more powerful than the council of a small village that had to start from scratch," Teyla said softly. "The council does not dare cross them. They could ruin the refugees, pressure the Belkans to turn them out, force them to start over somewhere new. And I do not think these people want to contemplate doing that again."
"Yeah," Ronon said. "The council won't agree to anything that's directly illegal under Satedan law -- I don't think even these people would stand for that -- but as long as Maida can make a good case for herself, they're gonna take her side against ours, no matter what."
John cursed under his breath. "Great. So we can't refuse without, what, forfeiting Rodney's life? Our only other options are fighting our way past a hundred armed Satedans, or you two dueling to the death? Come on, guys. Give me something to work with here."
There was a moment's silence, then Teyla said, "What if one of them does die?"
Rodney's voice went high and squeaky enough that it caused some of the Rievans to glance their way. "That's even worse than Sheppard's plan!"
Ronon looked up and met Teyla's eyes, calm and serene and concealing a sharp intelligence beneath. "What are you thinking?"
"I am thinking of a Star Trek episode."
John sucked in his breath. Ronon tried to remember the various episodes of the shows that he'd watched; there was usually some outer-space video-play on the screen in the scientists' lounge. "The one where they fight over the girl?"
"Amok Time," John said.
"They're planning my demise and you have the leisure time to remember the names of Star Trek episodes?" Rodney protested, then Ronon could see the wheels starting to turn in his head. "Oh, that episode. Would that actually work in real life?"
None of them wanted to say the words fake your death out loud; no one quite trusted that the Rievans wouldn't overhear.
"The question," Teyla said slowly, "is whether we can do it with what we have here."
"And the answer," Rodney retorted, "is no. For one thing, the characters in the show -- besides being, you know, characters in a TV show -- had a big advantage that we don't: a medical doctor."
"We can get Keller," John said.
"Right, because that won't be suspicious at all, if we go running off to Atlantis and bring back our own doctor to examine me after my supposed death. They'll never suspect a thing."
Ronon frowned. Rodney was right, it wouldn't stand up to the barest scrutiny. But he had another idea. "Rodney," he said. "Got a question."
Rodney scowled at him, his train of thought clearly derailing. "It better be an important question."
"Where is Belkan?"
Rodney just stared for a moment. "Is that supposed to be some kind of zen koan or something? We're standing on it."
"In space," Ronon clarified. "How close to Atlantis is it?"
As usual, it was only necessary to leave a few bare hints of tracks for Rodney to follow the trail of an idea. "If it's the Daedalus you're thinking of, there's no way it could get here any sooner than a day or two, probably a lot longer -- I'm not sure of our exact location without a star map, but I do know that Belkan's way the hell across the galaxy from New Lantea -- and judging by the looks they're giving us, that's not gonna be soon enough."
Well, it had been an idea, anyway. He was running out of them pretty quickly.
Rodney frowned thoughtfully, then, and something glimmered in his eyes. "Although, actually, I think you might be onto something."
When the conference broke up, Teyla very politely excused herself, explaining that she had a young son who was still nursing -- all the guards in the jail had seen him the previous night -- and she had to return to him. The Rievans looked very suspicious, and insisted that if she leave, she should not be allowed to return. Teyla agreed politely. Ronon was doubly glad that they hadn't tried to pull the medical-fakeout trick, because he wouldn't have put it past Kell's family to test it for themselves by, say, cutting the supposed corpse's throat just to make sure.
He did hope no one wondered why Teyla took off running for the gate as soon as she was a few steps from the corral, as if Wraith were on her heels.
And then it was a matter of stalling. Luckily, Ronon had paid attention in his history classes, and paid even more attention to the afternoon melodramas that he and his cousins had snuck away to watch, because he was able to dredge up all sorts of half-remembered rituals for the old-time duels that had been used at one time or another. They had to pray to the Ancestors in each direction of the compass. It was necessary to be ritually clean -- "I hope this is worth the embarrassment of taking a bath in front of the whole town," Rodney muttered when three tubs of water were dragged up to the corral; Ronon was just glad that Teyla wasn't still there. Ronon had to braid his hair in the prescribed way, and then a couple of councilors were sent off to find a newly fledged hawk to be sacrificed according to the old religion. (They had to settle for a chicken. There was only so much stalling that the Rievans were going to put up with, Ronon suspected.)
Throughout all of this, the Rievan family watched them like a bunch of vultures, but clearly couldn't figure out what they were up to. The Stargate in the market square, visible from the corral, had not opened once, and none of the Lanteans had been out of the Satedans' sight.
Finally Maida said, "You are dragging your heels from base cowardice! You wish to delay until darkness, and then you will find some sort of precedent from three hundred years ago to defer the duel until the next day, and then the next."
"She is right," one of the councilors snapped. The crowd were growing restless and bored, muttering among themselves. They'd been away from their fields and forges all day. "This needs to be done. Send up the champions." He nodded to the Belkan guards to unlock Ronon's shackles.
Ronon drew a long, cleansing breath, and nodded to John, who nodded back rather tightly. Before an ordinary fight, Ronon knew John would've slapped him on the back and told him to "Knock 'em dead." Now he just watched the two of them with watchful, worried eyes as Ronon and Rodney went to the corral. Glancing back, Ronon saw John tap his radio and then give his head a terse half-shake.
"Great," Rodney sighed, climbing through the fence bars. "It's not too late to make a run for it."
Ronon wondered if he should have just let them break him out of jail, given up on honor and atonement, and gone back to his life on Atlantis. The man he'd been three years ago might have been willing to risk his friends' lives for his own honor, but he wasn't that man anymore.
"With three of us against a mob, it is," he said softly. "We just have to make it look good enough they don't ask questions. I'm going to have to hurt you."
"I know," Rodney said in a weary, resigned tone, and Ronon thought about how far he'd come from the man he'd been when they had first met all those years ago -- struggling in a rope trap and complaining fit to raise the dead.
"Just ... not the face," Rodney added. "Or the head, which I guess goes without saying, considering that my main use to Atlantis is my brain, and I don't think the SGC is going to be happy if you damage it. Or the kidneys. Or the liver. Or, actually, any part of the torso, because you can rupture an organ if you hit it just right -- did I ever tell you about this kid at my school who got hit in the chest with a fast-pitched baseball and -- okay. Not relevant. Oh! Not the groin, either."
Perhaps he hadn't changed all that much, after all. Ronon punched him lightly in the shoulder -- Rodney winced and said "Ow!"; Ronon hoped he was just practicing his acting -- and then they both went to their respective ends of the corral.
Unsurprisingly, none of the Rievans came to offer advice or encouragement to their "champion." Ronon caught John's eye for a moment; John shook his head again.
There was nothing like close timing.
The councilors had climbed onto a raised platform outside the corral that Ronon guessed was used by an auctioneer on market days. "To the death," the head councilor intoned. "No rest. No quarter. The fight does not end until one combatant is dead." She dropped her hand. "Begin."
Rodney put up his hands in a completely useless defensive stance that he'd probably seen in a movie somewhere. Ronon approached, and the two of them circled each other. He could hear low, eager murmurs from the crowd, and realized that there was yet another danger to deal with. He'd seen crowds at pit fights before, and knew how excited and violent they could get. They were going to want blood. If they had reason to believe the combatants weren't seriously fighting, some of them might decide to take matters into their own hands. They might be civilians, but they were still Satedans, and none of them would be a slouch in a fight.
Like he didn't have enough to worry about.
Rodney, somewhat to Ronon's surprise, threw the first punch, a wild flail that would have totally missed if Ronon hadn't moved to intercept and "block" it with his forearm. He let himself yield to the light tap, making it look like there was more force behind it than there actually was. "Rodney," he muttered, "you can try a little harder than that."
"I am trying," Rodney said between his teeth, his face slick with sweat.
Ronon had been afraid of that.
On the other hand, he'd seen Rodney fight when he was mad. Rodney was capable of it. He just overthought it, along with everything else.
Ronon punched him in the face, snaking easily past Rodney's meager defenses with a slow punch that rocked his head back a little and bloodied his lip on his teeth.
Rodney stared at him in horrified disbelief, forgetting even to keep his hands up. "I said not the face!"
"McKay," Ronon growled, exasperation getting the better of him, "you do realize that if they don't think we're serious, these people are gonna kill us, right?" And he hit him again, a loose-handed blow to the cheek that snapped his head to the side. No one with any experience at brawling would have been affected by it, but it was going to raise a bruise.
Rodney's disbelief had changed to a furious glare. "You do realize that I came to this world to help you, right? And this is the thanks I get?"
Ronon had no idea if Rodney was saying it for the audience's benefit or if he really meant it, but it got him moving, at least -- he piled into Ronon, swinging his arms in a series of badly aimed blows that had some energy behind them. He managed to lay a glancing blow on Ronon's ribs, mostly because Ronon wasn't trying very hard to fight back. However, Rodney was no lightweight, and Ronon wasn't braced. His feet skidded in one of the piles of manure that dotted the corral, and he went down with Rodney on top of him, knocking the wind out of him.
The crowd cheered.
"Sorry!" Rodney said, kneeling on top of him.
"Don't apologize," Ronon muttered back. "We're giving 'em a show. Let's keep giving it to them." And he threw his weight against Rodney, rolling the two of them over in a slow-motion grapple.
Rodney began to struggle. "Do you actually know what we're rolling in? My God! There are not enough baths in the world to get me clean!"
Ronon smacked him on the side of the head, not hard. "That's it. Make it look good."
"That's because I'm not acting! Get off me!" Rodney, flat on the ground underneath Ronon, tried to escape by humping himself away, like a seal on dry land. Ronon clung anyway, pinning one of Rodney's arms and aiming a punch that he missed on purpose.
"I really do appreciate this," Ronon said, pinning Rodney's other arm and faking a headbutt. Rodney gave a little shriek as one of Ronon's dreads flicked in his eye. Oops. "I really hope you know that."
"I do, actually," Rodney said, panting, squinting, and splotched with dirt and manure. "I hope you know, however, that I'm going to have my revenge for this, one way or another."
"I figured." Ronon fake-headbutted him again. The crowd yelled in delight. "You wanna rub my face in manure for a while?"
"Like you wouldn't believe."
They rolled over and Ronon let Rodney get him in an armlock, although he had to obligingly present himself in the correct position before Rodney figured out what he wanted. They did a bit of hammy wallowing with Ronon on the bottom, the crowd eating it up. Ronon glimpsed John leaning on the top bar of the corral, actually looking amused. When he noticed Ronon's eyes on him, John pointed to his radio and held up two fingers.
"You know," Rodney said, "this is actually kind of fun when I'm the one with the upper hand."
"Only because I'm letting you."
"Well, yes, I realize that --"
"And they're gonna get suspicious eventually." Ronon bucked his body and threw off Rodney, who gave a startled yelp as he landed on his back. Rodney lashed out with an instinctive kick; it glanced off Ronon's shin, hard enough to draw a grunt of pain. That was gonna bruise.
"Sorry!" Rodney said again.
"Quit apologizing! They'll hear you."
"Right, right, gotta make it look good." Rodney, moving with unexpected speed, seized a double handful of Ronon's dreads and yanked hard, slamming Ronon's head into the ground. Luckily the ground was soft -- just dirt and manure, churned up by hooves. His scalp, however, felt like someone had hung him up by the hair.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said sweetly. "Did that hurt?"
"Not as much as this will."
"Ack!" Rodney crabwalked frantically backwards on hands and hips until he could get his feet under him, his terror apparently genuine. Ronon flipped himself easily to his feet and chased him around the corral until he managed to corner him against the fence posts. The crowd cheered him on with increasingly bloodthirsty suggestions. Ronon heard John's voice yelling with the rest of them, "Hit him!" and saw John grinning at him over the top of the fence.
"You're a dead man, Sheppard!" Rodney yelled back, and then attempted to duck the haymaker punch that Ronon threw at him. It was a mistake -- if he hadn't moved, Ronon's fist would have skimmed the side of his face, as Ronon had meant it to. As it was, he moved right into Ronon's fist, catching it on his forehead. His head snapped to one side so hard that for a brief, horrible instant Ronon thought he actually might have broken his neck, especially when Rodney staggered into the fence, his limbs gone suddenly boneless. Pain lanced up Ronon's knuckles. He might have cracked something; human skulls were damn hard, and he wasn't prepared to hit one. But he was more worried about Rodney.
The blow had split Rodney's forehead open, and blood was running into his eyes as he panted hard, gripping the fence rails in both hands, while Ronon steadied him by the shoulders -- with luck, it looked like he was trying to hold Rodney back from hitting him, but at the moment, he didn't really care all that much what the crowd thought. Then Rodney swiveled his head to look at Ronon, who let out a breath of relief when he saw that Rodney's eyes were still sharp and alert, although swimming with involuntary tears of pain.
"This isn't fun anymore," Rodney said. His voice cracked.
"No." Ronon nodded to him. "Hit me. Hard. We gotta end this before one of us gets seriously hurt."
"You mean we're not there already?" But Rodney's voice, while shaky, had a note of sardonic humor to it. Rodney made two fists and swung both of them at his face, one after the other. Ronon blocked the first, leaving himself deliberately wide open for the second. He turned his head at the last minute to take it on the side of his face, because Rodney was aiming for his mouth and would probably have cut his knuckles wide open on Ronon's teeth.
The man obviously needed a lesson in Bar Brawling 101. Soon.
"Ow," Rodney muttered, shaking his hand, but ducked under Ronon's fake return swing -- again with more speed than Ronon usually gave him credit for -- and punched him in the stomach a couple of times. Ronon was able to take the blow on tensed abs, but staggered, making it look real. Then he drew back his fist and hit Rodney in the belly, or pretended to, pulling it at the last minute. Rodney, catching on, let his breath out of him in a great whoof and doubled over, giving Ronon a prime opening to catch him -- gently -- by the throat.
Ronon looked over Rodney's head at John, who gave him a very small nod. This is the moment of truth, I guess. They didn't have much margin for error.
Rodney was panting rapidly, and when Ronon pushed him down and knelt on top of him with a leg to either side, he looked terrified.
"Relax," Ronon whispered. "Relax and trust me."
Rodney's eyes were still round with terror, but he went totally limp. Ronon hoped to all the Ancestors that Rodney had the balls that Ronon had always suspected he did, because one of the many ways this could go really, horribly wrong would be if Rodney stiffened up right in the middle of having his "neck broken" and actually did get his neck broken.
But it couldn't have gone off smoother if they'd rehearsed it. Ronon twisted Rodney's head sharply to the side -- Rodney's breath caught, but his muscles remained utterly limp -- and, at the same time, popped his own neck, loudly. It was a trick that he and his buddies used to practice, to annoy their teachers and make their mothers shriek -- necks, knuckles, whatever would make noise. The sound carried across the suddenly hushed corral.
And Rodney vanished from beneath him in a blurred brilliance of sapphire light.
The stunned silence continued for another beat -- two beats -- and then the crowd erupted in startled babbling.
Ronon stared at the ground in front of him, and then looked up at the crowd, and tried to pour all of the incredulity and shock that he could muster into his voice. "He Ascended!"
He just hoped that no one in the crowd had ever seen Asgard beaming technology before. It was pretty startling if you had no idea what it was, didn't even know the concept existed.
From the babble they were making, no one had. He saw a few people look up in the sky, scanning nervously for Darts, but the Asgard beam looked nothing at all like a Wraith beam.
The councilors opened the gate of the corral and approached him, with the furious-looking Rievans trailing them. Ronon stayed on his knees in the dirt, trying to look grieving and stunned. It wasn't that hard; all he had to do was focus on that moment when his knuckles had connected with Rodney's forehead, when he really hadn't known if he'd done damage that he would never be able to repair. The watery feeling in his limbs wasn't entirely feigned.
"This is ..." The head councilor's mouth worked for a minute before she managed to say, "Most irregular."
"People do not simply Ascend like that," Maida said in an icy voice. "It does not work that way."
Ronon had opened his mouth to answer when one of the other councilors spoke instead. "How do we know how it works? It's a mystery."
"They cheated!" Maida snapped. Technically this was quite true; there wasn't much he could say honestly in his own defense. But Ronon figured she'd cheated first, rigging the duel in a way that their forefathers had never intended.
"What is he doing, hiding his friend under his shirt?" another councilor said. "We all saw what happened." He waved a hand around. "They were in sight at all times. They did not have an opportunity to cheat."
And Ronon realized, to his delight, that the councilors were probably as much on his side as they could get away with. They'd been dealing with the wealthy, arrogant Rievans for a long time. He doubted if Kell's death was considered anything but a blessing by the village. Going openly against Maida and the other Rievans was one thing. But they'd played the game by her rules, and she'd lost; they intended to hold her to that. She was well and truly hoisted on her own petard, as the Earthers would say.
John slithered under the corral bars like an eel, and moseyed over to them. He was obviously trying for "grieving yet stoic", although the effect was, in Ronon's opinion, more like "mildly constipated". He put his hand on Ronon's shoulder. "Wow," he said. "Wow, that's ... rough, buddy. You didn't have a choice."
"We shouldn't grieve," Ronon said. "He's gone on to a better place now." Yeah, he thought, the Daedalus -- where Caldwell was probably being treated to a rant on germs and loud demands for a doctor and a shower, not necessarily in that order.
John gave Ronon a hand up. "We're free to go?" he asked the council.
The head councilor nodded. "As agreed, all debts and grudges have been discharged. Should you wish to return, you may do so in peace."
If looks could kill, Maida's glare would've dropped them where they stood.
As they walked away to collect their stuff from the jail, Ronon tried to remind himself that anyone as dedicated to Satedan honor as Maida Rievan wasn't going to simply whip out a rifle and shoot them both in the back. She might try something later, but she'd do it within the strict letter of the Satedan code, if not the spirit of it. He still would've felt better if they could have beamed up to the Daedalus along with Rodney, but he had to admit that it would look more than a little suspicious if their entire company Ascended along with their "dead" friend.
Teyla met them in the gateroom, beaming happily, with Torren in a sling at her side. "Colonel Caldwell just called us. The Daedalus is on its way back, with Rodney and, of course, Atlantis's ZPM."
"And I hope they get here soon," Woolsey said, coming down the stairs to join them. "You realize that without that ZPM, we're dead in the water if the Wraith attack?"
"Sorry," John said, wiping dust from his face. They'd all had to rely on Teyla's diplomatic skills to convince Woolsey that they needed to "borrow" the ZPM for a couple of hours, but it was the only way to get the Daedalus to Belkan on time. "It was for a good cause."
Teyla moved to hug Ronon, but she stopped. "You," she said, "need a bath."
"Just took one an hour or so ago," Ronon couldn't help saying.
John slapped him on the shoulder, then looked at his hand. "Yeah, buddy, but you've been rolling in manure in the meantime."
His team found him later on the balcony outside one of the lesser-used gyms. He'd showered, eaten and been by the infirmary to have Keller take a look at his hand. She'd reported that he had, in fact, cracked two of the bones in his fingers. Ronon figured that this ought to be good for enough jokes about Rodney's thick skull to make the pain and inconvenience worth it.
Still, he wasn't doing much of anything when they found him, just resting on a blanket against the wall and watching the sun set over the water. He moved over to make room. When he got a good look at Rodney's face, he said, "Holy shit."
Rodney had a huge bruise purpling across one side of his face, a swollen and scabbed lip, and a bandage covering most of his forehead, with edges of more bruising peeking out from underneath. However, the grin he gave Ronon was delighted, though he winced when it tugged on his cracked lip.
"I know, isn't it great? You should have seen their faces when I went into the lab this afternoon. I really wished I'd had a camera. Coming out, I ran into one of the newer Marines in the hallway. I told him I got it in a gladiator-style fight with you, and that you were in the infirmary -- which is, I understand, true." He nodded at the neat white bandage on Ronon's cracked fingers, and grinned again. "Then I asked him politely to move out of my way. I've never seen a six-foot-two Marine move that fast."
Ronon snorted. He had a feeling that Rodney was going to get bragging rights out of this for a long time -- and that the detail that Ronon had been actively trying not to hurt him might conveniently slip out of the story on a regular basis.
On the other hand, he'd earned it.
Teyla passed around more candy bars and an open bag of Cheetos. The first couple of days after the Daedalus's visits were always a junk food bonanza.
"So," John said, shredding a Mars bar wrapper and not looking at Ronon. "Are you, uh, dealing with, er, the --"
"I've made my peace with Kell's death," Ronon said. "He did what he thought was best, on behalf of the people he loved." He looked up at the three of them: at John's solemn sympathy, and Teyla's smile, and Rodney's bruised face in the sunset light. And he thought of all those who hadn't made it off Sateda because of Kell's treachery -- the children he and Melena might have had, the pictures that his artistic cousin Deena could have painted, the opportunity that his parents never had to grow old with their children and grandchildren around them. "And so did I."