A/N 1: Written for sgabigbang. Many thanks to the wonderful kristen999 for the beta. I couldn't have done this without her advice and support. Also, thanks to everybetty for the beta, and to coolbreeze1 and kriadydragon for their invaluable assistance. You guys are the best!
A/N 2: This story is set a few weeks after Broken Ties. It is complete (seven chapters) and will be posted every other day. It contains dark themes and violence, especially a couple of intense interrogation scenes. I hope you enjoy the story.
Ronon weaved around the shafts of amber light that carved the moss green and copper floor, keeping his charge in the shadows. Refusing to be defeated by one so small, he adjusted his grip while brown eyes stared solemnly at him, quiet hiccups punctuating the silence. As he continued his strange dance, Ronon glanced hopefully at the closed door, but it didn't open.
"What is she doing in there?" he mumbled.
Torren's chin wobbled, his face reddening as he let out another wail.
"Aw, don't do that." Ronon bounced him a few times. "Please," he whispered. "I'll never live this down if McKay finds out."
Torren cried louder. Panicked, Ronon began to sing a Satedan lullaby. Torren yawned, his body quivering as he stretched a tiny fist upward.
Suddenly, the room swayed. Ronon was back in the Wraith lab – pledging his allegiance, offering up Sheppard, fighting Tyre. Ronon staggered, gagging at the memory, and flinched when a hand landed on his shoulder.
"What is wrong?" Teyla asked, her eyes filled with concern as she took Torren from him. "Are you ill?"
"I'm fine," Ronon snapped, snatching back the hand he had braced against the wall for support. "I just…just…"
She looked at him expectantly. "Just what?"
"Nothing. Can we go now?"
Teyla studied him with eyes that saw through him, and then nodded and led the way to the transporter. "Do you still blame yourself for what happened with the Wraith?"
"Yes!" Ronon slammed a fist into the wall as the doors swished open. "No. I don't know." He stabbed at the map. "I don't know what to believe anymore."
Teyla frowned as they stepped out and headed to the mess hall. "Do you doubt our trust in you?"
"No!" Ronon quieted his voice when Torren fidgeted before slumping to sleep with a sigh. "How do I know I'm cured? What happens the next time we face the Wraith? What if I can't be trusted?"
"Ronon." Teyla blocked his path. "Tyre was cured, and so are you. I trust you completely."
Her brows shot up. "Has he done something to make you think he doesn't?"
"No, but… You weren't there, Teyla." He wiped his eyes, wishing he could wipe away the memory. "I-- I offered Sheppard to the Wraith. I wanted them to do to him what they had done to me."
"Perhaps you need to speak to John--"
"I have. You know Sheppard. He says, 'We're good' and keeps going."
"If John did not trust you, he would say so."
Ronon huffed in frustration as he filled a tray for both of them and followed her to a table. The problem was he didn't know how far he could trust himself, and he didn't want it to be tested in the middle of a mission gone bad. He needed to know for certain that he was cured, that he could push himself past his limit and not waver.
"Have you ever heard of the Yeveran Race?" he asked.
Teyla sipped her juice. "Only in passing. I have never known anyone who participated."
"This is the right year, isn't it?" Ronon stirred the mashed tuttleroot. "The Mreqil Market was last month."
"Yes." Teyla shushed Torren, patting his belly, and munched on her sandwich. "Do you know where the race is being held?"
"No." Ronon grinned at her. "But Solen would. It was almost a rite of passage on Sateda."
"There is no need to prove yourself. Not to me or John or anyone else."
"I need to prove myself to me, Teyla."
She cocked her head to the side as she nibbled on a risva root. "And a three day river race on an unknown planet will do that?"
"Maybe. It'll at least get us away from Atlantis."
"And to a place where you will have to rely on each other?"
Ronon shrugged in reply. "Wanna come?"
Teyla settled Torren on her shoulder, rubbing his back. "I am…busy."
"It'll be fun."
She shook her head and resumed eating, the arch of her brow and the set of her jaw telling him exactly what she thought of his plan. But he'd always wanted to participate in the Yeveran Race, and a few days of testing in the wilderness side by side with Sheppard should be enough to settle any doubts.
When they finished, Ronon dumped the tray and hurried out, intending to get to Belka and back before dinner.
Teyla slid into her seat, dabbing surreptitiously at the spit up on her arm, hoping her team wouldn't notice.
"You wanna go where?" John asked, arching a brow at Ronon while he absently twirled spaghetti around his fork.
"It's a planet called Liros," Ronon replied. "Zelenka says you designate it as M8I-548."
"Ever been there?"
"I have," Teyla said. "The Lirosians are a gentle people. They trade in hides and skins and are known for their exquisite furs. All are welcome in their settlements without question."
"Everyone?" Rodney dipped his bread in the sauce and chewed noisily. "That could be dangerous."
Teyla nodded sadly. "They have had to deal with criminals and the power hungry. However, they count it a small price to pay in comparison to the good that comes of their hospitality. Many people have sought refuge there over the years, and the Lirosians consider themselves richer for it." She warmed her hands on her tea cup and lifted her gaze to meet Sheppard's. "Liros can be a formidable planet. It is spring there. The rivers will be filled with snow melt, and canskrels will be waking from hibernation. They are twice as big and twice as fast as renat."
"Renat?" John's forehead puckered. "Those monster cheetah things on New Athos?"
"Canskrels are tastier," Ronon offered. "Especially after hibernation."
Rodney glanced from one to the next. "I'm sorry. Did I miss something? Why are we talking about this?"
"There's this river race Ronon wants to enter," John explained. "It's being held on…"
"Liros," Teyla supplied.
Rodney slurped his iced tea then grinned at Ronon. "Have fun."
"And he wants us to go with him," John finished.
Rodney looked from John to Ronon then back. And laughed. And kept laughing. Finally he wiped the tears from his face and slumped back in his chair. "Thanks. I needed that." At John's sardonic expression, Rodney sat up straight. "Oh, you were serious?"
"Yes, Rodney, I was serious. A few days--"
"--in the great outdoors. Building our own canoe, riding the rapids, sleeping under the stars--"
"Do I look like Nature Boy to you?"
"--what's not to like?"
Rolling his eyes, Rodney flung his napkin on his tray and stood. "See you when you get back."
John held a straight face until Rodney was gone. "Too much?" he asked with a smirk.
Ronon grinned at him. "Nah."
"You should not antagonize him so," Teyla scolded, keeping her own giggles firmly suppressed.
"Aw, it's good for him. Builds character." John turned to Ronon, the tiniest bit of doubt marring his gleeful expression. "So, when does this start?"
"In a couple of weeks. We'll need to gather some supplies. Not too much because we have to carry everything we take. We're supposed to arrive a day early so we can hollow out our canoe and fashion paddles."
Teyla rose to refill her tea, added a splash of lemon since Rodney was gone, and observed her teammates from a distance. They reminded her of Jinto and Wex as they planned their great adventure. The stiffness that had taken up residence in Ronon's spine the past few weeks had eased a bit, and both men looked more relaxed than they had in quite some time. Perhaps this challenge was what they needed – a time to get away and rebuild. She slipped quietly from the cafeteria, leaving them to their preparations.
John couldn't contain a grin as he stepped through the gate. Vacations were hard to come by here, and he hadn't spent time camping or on the water in longer than he wanted to think about. The area around the gate was teeming with people – hauling supplies, hawking souvenirs and food, offering steaming cups of something thick and bitter. The air was filled with the languages and spices of a hundred different worlds, and brightly colored flags fluttered, lining the path that led to a circle of tents then off to a small village in the distance.
Ronon pulled his coat tight and hiked his pack higher on his back. "This way."
John zipped his jacket against the chill, slid on his aviator shades and followed Ronon toward the tents. They registered as Team Sateda and paid the entry fee in currency provided by Solen. The registrar, a squatty little man with a friendly smile, handed them an instruction packet and pointed them toward the village.
"The locals will show you to the embarkation area where a transport will take you to the riverhead. You have until sunrise tomorrow to prepare your canoe. Your packet includes a map of the course. You have three days to finish. The only time you are allowed on land is when the water is too low to navigate. Overseers are stationed along the river, and anyone caught cheating will be disqualified and banned from future competitions. Everything you take in must be brought out. Any questions?"
"Yeah," John said. "What do we get if we win?"
The man chuckled. "Bragging rights for the next five years. Good luck."
"Thanks." John slung his rucksack over his shoulder and fell in step with Ronon. "Five years?"
"That's how often the race is held."
"Oh." He inhaled deeply, appreciating the spicy foods and crisp mountain air. "Can't get out of the boat, huh. What happens when… you know… nature calls?"
Ronon smirked and showed him an empty container with a secure lid.
John laughed. "Ah. Gotcha. You say you've never done this before?"
"Nope. Always wanted to, though."
"So, why didn't you?"
"My mom wouldn't let me."
John gaped at him. "Your mom?" He forgot occasionally that Ronon was at least a decade younger. The man's eyes were deceptively old.
Ronon chuckled softly. "Never make her mad."
"Wow. Kept you in line?"
"Strongest person I've ever known. By the time I was old enough to make my own decisions, I was in the military and betrothed to Melena."
"She wouldn't let you go either?"
Ronon ducked his head, but his expression softened. "I had other things on my mind." He sighed deeply. "Then the Wraith came. Just never had the chance."
"Until now. What do you say we go show these folks how it's done?"
"Sounds good." Ronon adjusted his pack and scabbard. "Did Woolsey give you a hard time about coming?"
John kept his expression neutral. "I have plenty of vacation accrued."
"What does that mean?"
"It means what I do in my free time is none of his business."
"He thought it was too dangerous?"
"Woolsey thinks getting out of bed is too dangerous," John said with a derisive snort.
Ronon shot him a sideways glance. "I don't understand him."
"He's a bureaucrat, Ronon." John sighed as Ronon stared blankly at him. "You didn't have bureaucrats on Sateda?"
"Not like him. We had people responsible for paperwork, but they understood what we were doing. They helped."
"We've never had a threat like the Wraith hanging over us. Woolsey didn't grow up being thankful to live another day. A man like that will never understand the exhilaration of battling nature and the elements, the satisfaction of pushing yourself to your limits."
John shook his head at the memory. He and Woolsey had argued for over an hour about the trip. Not only was Woolsey concerned about the dangers of the race, he wasn't completely sold on Ronon's readiness. John could see the uncertainty in Ronon's eyes, but more time was not the cure for it. Ronon needed to test himself, and John would have agreed to almost anything to see his friend's usual swagger return.
The closer they got to the village, the more relaxed John felt. Puffs of smoke wafted from the chimneys of cozy huts of gray rock that reminded him of Stonehenge. A smattering of domesticated animals nipped at the heels of children who waved streamers on the edge of town, and livestock dipped their heads in the feeding trough of a pen on the side of the settlement near the forest. The townspeople filled the streets, answering questions and handing out the fragrant daisy-like burgundy flowers that covered the foothills in front of them. Dressed in tanned skins adorned with beads in a rainbow of colors, the villagers were as welcoming as Teyla had said.
A round-faced woman with gray braids looped at the nape of her neck offered them a smile and a flower. "Fair day to you. Are you here to join the race?"
"Yes," Ronon answered. "Can you tell us where to find the transport?"
"Of course. This path continues into the foothills, and a short walk will bring you to a clearing. The next transport should leave before midday. You are welcome to enjoy the hospitality of Liros until then. We have many shops and dining establishments."
"Thank you," John said.
She smiled again and moved to greet the next group entering town.
Ronon glanced at the sky. "Got a couple of hours I guess. Wanna get a drink?"
They entered the first tavern they found and made their way to the bar. A middle-aged man with thick arms and a broad face diligently wiped down the space in front of them then slapped the cloth over his shoulder.
"What can I get you gentlemen?"
"Do you have any Blevin ale?" Ronon asked.
The bartender smiled. "Just got some in yesterday." He set two squeaky clean glasses down and pulled a tall black bottle from under the counter. "Here for the race?"
"Yes." Ronon slid the first glass to John and picked up the other, leaving a tarnished coin on the bar. "Thanks."
John sniffed at the drink as he followed Ronon to a table. A light fruit scent. "What is this?" he asked, kicking back a chair and easing into it.
"Blevin ale is rare these days. The people who brew it were culled a few years back. There are a handful of survivors scattered around who know the secret ingredient. Figured there might be some here."
"Secret ingredient?" John took a small sip. Enough alcohol in it to taste but not overwhelming. A flavor reminiscent of strawberries slowly morphed to an exotic spice that was tangy and hot. "It's good."
"The grain it's made from is common, but only the bottlers know how to flavor it like that."
A young girl brought a basket of bread, blushing furiously when John thanked her. He grinned at Ronon who snorted before devouring half the loaf. They spent the next couple of hours mostly in companionable silence, observing the people around them. Genii, Manarans, Belkans, R'rol, Gatwols. Someone from almost every world they had visited. A menagerie of dress and language.
"You ready?" Ronon asked.
"Yep." John drained his glass and stood. "What kind of transports do you think they have?"
"The Yeveran are one of the more technologically advanced races. I would guess their transports would be like the ships the Olesians had."
Ronon's assessment was fairly accurate. The transports were much smaller than Olesian ships – smaller even than jumpers – but they were sturdy. Built of gray metal, they had little grace in their design and weren't meant for space travel, but they glided effortlessly in the air. The transport was landing when John and Ronon reached the glade. Once the side hatch opened, a small woman with cropped auburn hair stepped out and waved them in. Other than the flight crew seats, it was standing room only for about twenty people. When the transport had filled, the pilot expertly lifted off.
John did his best to not backseat fly, choosing to check out the competition instead. Several were soldiers, but a few seemed to be friends and family spending time together. A father and son chatted in one corner while four teenaged girls sent flirty glances Ronon's way. An older man and woman quietly studied their packet. An air of contentment permeated the cabin. Even the military types seemed to be relaxed. Ronon's shoulders which had been hunched near his ears since the Wraith lab now dropped a bit closer to their normal spot, and John felt a little tension seep out of his own.
When the transport touched down, the hatch opened, and they stepped out into heaven. Or close to it. Other than the small tent set at the edge of the landing meadow, the area was pristine. Sunlight peeked through the lush foliage, creating living patterns on the fern-covered floor. Birdsong and rushing water replaced the whir of the transport. Rainbows danced at the waterfall that thundered down to create the riverhead. Ronon and John checked in at the tent then made their way to the river.
Kneeling, John trailed his fingers through the water and shivered. "Snowmelt."
"Yeah." Ronon sounded a million miles away as he stared at the waterfall.
"What is it?"
Ronon blinked slowly then shook himself. "Nothing." He glanced at John and ducked his head. "Reminds me of Sateda."
"You grew up in a place like this?"
"No. My home was in the city. But my grandparents lived in a small settlement. Spent a lot of time there when I was a kid."
"Sounds nice." John glanced around, surprised to find himself and Ronon alone. "What now?"
"Now we get to work. Come on."
They tromped through the forest until they found a tree that had been felled by a lightning strike. Ronon pulled an axe and chopped off the remaining branches while John picked two limbs to use as paddles. John scraped off twigs with his Gerber then stripped the bark off and smoothed them as much as he could with a file and a soft cloth. He found two sturdy pieces wide enough to be used for blades. After hollowing out the end of the branches, he whittled the ends of the blades to fit inside then bound them with rope from his rucksack. Ronon hacked at the log, stripping the bark then flattening the bottom, shaping the bow and stern, finally carving out space for them to sit.
Ronon arched a brow when John pulled out a hatchet and joined him. "Does Teyla know you took that?"
"I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid. I asked if I could borrow it since we don't have a lot of these lying around," John replied. "She made me promise not to lose it. Said it was her mother's."
"Better not lose it then." Ronon stretched until his back popped and wiped his face on his arm then glanced at the fading sunlight. "We need to finish this soon."
John chopped diligently, satisfied to see the inside taking shape. "Where'd you learn to build a canoe?"
"Um…" Ronon cleared his throat. "I, uh, looked it up in the database."
"Seriously?" John sat back on his haunches and stared at Ronon. "You googled it?"
"Yeah. Don't tell McKay, though. I'll never hear the end of it. I lived in the city, remember? They don't teach canoe building in the military, and my grandfather already had a small boat for fishing. Didn't need to build one."
Ronon pulled a piece of paper from a pocket and handed it to John. Instructions in three languages and pictures covered both sides, some from a printer and some by hand. John bit his lip but couldn't hold the laughter in.
"What's so funny?" Ronon demanded with a glare.
John dug a similar paper from his own pocket and handed it over. "They don't teach canoe building in the Air Force either, and you've seen where I grew up. We had yachts. And we are definitely not telling McKay."
By the time the sun had set, one crude canoe and two oars sat on the riverbank. The icy water had been deliciously refreshing, and the small rabbit-like critter Ronon had caught was perfect for the spit John had made. Once he removed the splinters from his palms and fingernails, John stretched out under the stars, the scent of roasted meat and the rush of water lulling him to sleep.
Years of running had made Ronon's reflexes quick and his sleep light, and the first stirrings of dawn jerked him to wakefulness. Across from him, Sheppard snored softly, curled on his left side with fingertips resting lightly on the butt of his .45. Ronon eased silently to the riverbank, lapping a handful of cold water and splashing a little on his face. After a few minutes of personal hygiene, he crept through the woods to gather some berries, and a quick knife throw netted another icarin/i. When he returned to the campsite, water droplets glistened on Sheppard's hair and skin as he added a log to the rekindled embers.
"Morning." Ronon pulled a knife to skin the small animal.
Sheppard grunted in reply as he rebuilt the spit. The fire crackled as the carin roasted, the scent making Ronon's mouth water. Stretching, he grinned as two birds swooped overhead, one leading the other in a furious dance. The physical exertion from the day before fell away as he pulled in lungfuls of cold, invigorating air on his way back to the river where he rinsed off the fruit. When he returned, Sheppard gave him a bemused look.
"Since when are you a morning person?"
"I'm not." Ronon set the berries aside and sliced at the roasting meat. "Almost done."
"I need coffee."
"You sound like McKay."
Sheppard narrowed his eyes. "No need to be nasty."
Ronon grinned at him. "You could've brought coffee."
"I didn't want to tote it around." Sheppard sighed, rolling a shoulder. "Maybe I can buy a few Starbucks' franchises, set them up on the worlds we visit. I could make a killing here."
"You've already ruined your world with those. No need to clutter these up."
"Maybe we can get the Wraith addicted to caffeine."
"Then what? Suffer through their caffeine withdrawals?" Ronon shook his head. "I've seen McKay like that. No need to make the Wraith worse."
"Yeah, maybe not such a good idea." Sheppard leaned back against the canoe, hands behind his head. "I can't remember the last time I went camping. Just for fun, I mean. Missions don't count."
"It's the first time I've done it without a Wraith hunting me." Ronon busied himself with the carin so he wouldn't have to meet Sheppard's eyes. "Well, my grandfather and I used to go when I was little. After he died…" Ronon shrugged, stuffing a handful of the roasted meat in his mouth and shooting a glance at Sheppard.
Sheppard studied him for a moment then gave a quiet nod. "My grandpa taught me how to fly," he murmured between bites. "He had a Cessna 340A. I've flown a lot of aircraft since then, but nothing has matched the thrill I felt the first time he let me take the stick." The corner of Sheppard's mouth tugged upward. "But the jumper comes close."
When they finished eating, they doused the fire and packed their belongings. After hoisting the canoe onto their shoulders, they made their way to the starting point where dozens of people milled about, making their final preparations. Boats of all sizes were already in the water – some held a single person, others up to four. A few of the canoes were sleek, but most were as crude as the one Ronon and Sheppard climbed into. They arranged their packs between them and paddled around a bit, getting a feel for the canoe and the water.
"Is there anything in the instructions I need to know about?" John asked.
Ronon smirked at him. "You didn't read them?"
"You know I can't read whatever languages it's in."
"Came all this way and didn't bother to learn the language?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes, but his ears were pink. "That's what I have you, Teyla, and McKay for."
Ronon tossed him the packet. "It's written in Genii, Yeveran, and the Ancestral tongue."
"And that helps me how?"
"It doesn't. Just thought you'd like to know. Might want to take a look at the map."
Sheppard flashed a particularly vile Satedan hand gesture as he settled in the back of the dugout to study the map. Ronon chuckled; at least Sheppard had picked up something in Pegasus. Satisfied that the paddles were sturdy and the boat was seaworthy, Ronon maneuvered into position. Several of the worlds he'd been to during his time as a runner had been filled with waterways, and he had become fairly proficient in navigating them. Plus, he and Sheppard had substituted paddling for running a few mornings on Atlantis to get their communication and timing together. While Ronon doubted they would win, he felt confident that they would be competitive.
Officials gathered at the starting line. After a short welcoming speech, the ringing of a ceremonial gong, and a toast to the health of the competitors, the race was underway. Cheers erupted from bystanders and supporters as the first canoes shot into the strong current. Ronon and Sheppard exchanged a grin then joined in, their paddles dipping and flowing through the water in unison. The river widened, allowing the boats to spread out. Half an hour later, the competitors had separated, the most experienced out front and the recreational in the back.
Ronon and Sheppard settled toward the rear of the top third. Morning faded into afternoon and the racers thinned further, leaving Team Sateda alone on the water. Ronon shucked off his coat as the elevation dropped and the river surged.
Sheppard had already removed his jacket. "Here," he said, handing Ronon a PowerBar, "you're gonna need it. According to the map, we've got rapids ahead for the next few kilometers. Most of them are little, but there's a bend coming up that includes some stairstep falls."
Ronon inhaled the bar and half his canteen then glanced at the map to get his bearings. Churning water whipped at the boat when they hit the rapids, and Sheppard grunted in exertion, narrowly missing several boulders as he steered through the fury. They bounced, dipped, almost rolled. Ronon shouted in exhilaration, shaking the spray from his face and paddling vigorously as they neared the falls.
They shot off the first one and flew several feet before crashing back into the water. The canoe tipped precariously, and both men braced with their paddles. An eddy ripped at the stern and slammed them into a large rock before tossing them over the next fall. They flailed, coughing, pushing away from the waterfall only to go over the next one backward.
Ronon's heart slammed in his chest as he fought the current. Sheppard shouted incoherently behind him, but Ronon understood. He raked the paddle through the water, the muscles in his chest and shoulders screaming at the strain. They slid over the next fall sideways and rounded the bend stern first. After another few minutes of frantic paddling, the canoe straightened. When they reached calmer waters, both men slumped, chests heaving, grinning like crazy. Ronon pulled the map from his watertight pouch.
"What's next?" Sheppard asked.
"Looks smooth for a while," Ronon replied. "How are our supplies?"
"Still here. A bit waterlogged though." Sheppard dug through his rucksack and removed a hefty square flashlight. "We need to find a way to secure this to the bow. McKay made some super battery for us. Should last both nights."
Ronon turned the lightbox over in his hands, finding a circular metal fastener on the back. He drove a spike in the front of the canoe and lashed the light to it with rope. With the roar of the falls and rapids behind them, the sounds of the river were unmuted. Sheppard's paddle splashed as he drove them forward. The river gurgled around them, and wildlife chattered in the distance. Leaves rustled in a breeze that carried the scent of flowers and evergreens. Someone around the next turn was singing a Remkada war hymn, and children's laughter echoed in the wood. It took a few minutes for Ronon to figure out what the unfamiliar feeling in his chest was. Peace.
They spent the afternoon in relative silence, commenting only on river conditions and course obstacles. As dusk turned to night, the river appeared awash with stars when lights on canoes flickered on. Ronon wolfed down an MRE and a few berries while Sheppard paddled. When he finished eating, he took over rowing so Sheppard could grab a bite and get some rest. Fifteen minutes later, the only sounds were the splash of the paddle and Sheppard's soft snores.
John awoke with a jerk when his head bounced against the bottom of the canoe. Blinking blearily, he pushed up on an elbow and squinted at Ronon.
Ronon stood carefully and climbed out of the boat. "Low water. We hit bottom."
Heaving a sigh, John sat up, kneading the stiff muscles in his neck, then rolled to his feet and stepped out, up to his knees in icy water. Forcing back a shiver, he bent low and circled his arm under the canoe. On Ronon's count, they lifted.
"This thing…weighs a ton," John gasped as they sloshed forward. "How far do we have to carry it?"
"Not far. I've been watching the lights of the other boats. They shoot up, go forward for about two minutes, and drop."
Arms that had chopped and hauled and paddled for two days straight trembled under the strain, but finally the water began to rise. When it reached chest high, they dropped the canoe and climbed in.
John took a moment to stargaze and frowned when the moon wasn't where he expected it to be. "How long was I asleep?"
"About four hours."
The agreement had been two hours. John started to argue then caught a glimpse of Ronon's face in the moonlight. The haunted expression had all but disappeared, and somehow he looked even younger. The quiet of the night seeped into John's awareness, making Ronon's decision to enjoy it in solitude seem obvious.
"You ready to get some sleep, big guy?"
The nonchalant shrug was betrayed by a jaw-cracking yawn. "Guess so," Ronon said sheepishly.
John slid over the side to allow Ronon to scoot to the back then he climbed into the bow. Ronon shifted behind him and promptly fell asleep. John shook his head. Ronon was as tough as they came, but he needed rest like everyone else even if he wouldn't admit it. Angling the map, John located their approximate position and checked for upcoming obstacles. Satisfied they were clear for the next few hours, he put the map away and started paddling.
When the first hues of dawn appeared, John turned off the flashlight and nibbled on a PowerBar. Ronon stirred then shook the ice crystals from his dreads, grunting a ithank you/i when John handed him breakfast. Birdsong and the scent of campfires surrounded them as the sunrise filtered through the forest. John closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Clean, cold mountain air filled his lungs.
"God, what a morning." John didn't realize he'd said it aloud until Ronon responded.
"Yeah. Haven't seen too many like this."
"We should take vacation more often."
Ronon grinned at him. "Definitely," he agreed, tucking his coat in his pack.
John checked the map again. "Looks like we've got a dam coming up in a few hours."
"Then let's get started."
John ignored the burn in his arms and the chill that permeated him as he paddled with a vengeance. The canoe glided over the water like a feather floating on the breeze. They soon fell into a dip-stroke-repeat rhythm that quickly pushed them ahead of several other teams. Only the dam broke their stride. Easing to the bank, they lifted the canoe onto their shoulders and carefully climbed over the hodgepodge of rocks and logs that stretched across the river. A small brown creature with a flat snout and floppy ears fussed at them from the center of the dam, a large branch secured in its four inch claws. Then the branch wiggled.
"Um, Ronon, did that info packet say anything about snakes?"
"It said to not get bit by one."
"That's extremely…not helpful."
Shadows danced as the sunlight flickered through the wood, and broken branches nipped at their ankles. As soon as they cleared the dam, they let the canoe fall in the water and hopped in. John poked at the paddles then grabbed one and began rowing.
Ronon's grin was a mile wide. "You have issues, you know."
"Tell me about it. Things with fangs…" John shuddered. "And don't pretend like you don't have issues. You almost leaped out of your skin when Teyla unwrapped that stuffed bunny."
"Yeah, well, it was pink with big teeth."
"There's this legend my mother used to tell me about a frisgold that lived in the sewers and… Never mind."
John snickered at the image of a young Ronon staying out of the city drainage pipes from fear of a big pink rabbit. Keeping an eye out for slithering sticks, they caught the swift current and continued on. Trail mix and beef jerky made a nice change from PowerBars, and although purification tablets and electrolyte mix diminished the taste of the river water, the icy liquid was still refreshing. They spent the afternoon swapping tall tales and laughing harder than John ever remembered doing.
They came upon the bend suddenly. The left turn was sharp, and they took it wide. The fallen tree was unexpected. They paddled furiously for the left bank in hopes of hitting the eddy and avoiding the tree. They missed. When the craft slammed sideways into the tree, John flipped out the far side and hit the water head first. The current immediately sucked him under the boat. He flailed wildly as his face scraped the bottom of the canoe, and his back the rocky riverbed. Breaking the surface, he barely had time to gasp before his shoulder smashed into the tree. He clawed at the trunk, searching for a limb, a twig, a tough leaf to hold to, but only succeeded in ripping the skin from his palms. The canoe pounded him from behind, and the rushing water spun him and sucked him under the tree face down. A broken branch raked across his back and snagged his shirt. The edges of his vision faded, turned gray, and his lungs burned. His body was like lead.
He felt a tug on his leg then strong hands on his back. The jagged branch sliced from his spine to his shoulder as he was pulled from under the tree. Arms wrapped around his chest and lifted him to the surface. He drew in a ragged breath, coughing and sputtering as the river swirled around him.
"Relax, Sheppard. I've got you." Ronon's voice rumbled in his ear and vibrated down his back.
John sucked in another painful but gloriously oxygen-rich gulp of air and let his head tip back against Ronon's shoulder. He felt his boots scrape bottom and shifted in Ronon's grip to see where they were headed.
"Wait," John said, digging in his heels. "Thought we'd be disqualified if we left the water."
"Don't care. You need medical attention."
"We're on the side of a mountain. Unless there's a nice comfy hospital hiding behind that stump, the fastest way down is on the river."
"There are overseers around. We can notify them."
"Come on, Ronon. Look around you. Even if we did, the canopy is too thick for a transport to penetrate. Plus, there's no place to land."
"I'm not being a hero here. Just practical."
Ronon stared at him for a moment then gave an unhappy nod. "Wait here."
John bent over, hands on his knees, and coughed up the rest of the river water while Ronon climbed over the tree to retrieve the canoe. A few minutes later, the boat shot past the tip of the tree then slid up on the opposite bank. John stared across at him.
"I can paddle down farther, pick you up where the water's calmer."
Glancing downstream, John saw rapids and more rapids. Warm blood dripped down his lacerated back, he was lightheaded, and his bruises were going to have bruises. If he didn't move now, all his adrenaline would be gone. Climbing carefully onto the tree, he crawled across then eased into the water, holding tightly to a thick limb. Ronon stood on the bank and extended a paddle. Ignoring his shredded hands, John gripped the pole tightly and let Ronon tow him to land. John staggered to the canoe and collapsed in the stern with a groan.
"Take off your shirt," Ronon said.
"Because you're bleeding. I need to put a bandage on that cut."
John struggled into a seated position and unbuttoned his uniform shirt, easing it off with a wince. Pulling his t-shirt over his head was even tougher as every muscle in his shoulders and back screamed in protest.
"Antibiotic cream first, okay?"
Turning, John braced his hands against the sides of the canoe. He hissed as Ronon gently spread the cream over the laceration and covered it completely with a bandage then did the same for his hands. John ditched the t-shirt and slid slowly into his drenched uniform top. Ronon handed him Tylenol and antibiotics which he dry-swallowed, the thought of gulping more water making his stomach turn.
"You ready?" Ronon asked.
"Give me a minute." John slumped forward, elbows on knees, and took a few deep breaths as the realization of how close he'd come to dying hit full force. After taking a moment to be thankful and to let his hands stop shaking, he straightened with a moan and reached for his paddle.
The rapids weren't severe, but they lasted for miles. By the time they reached calmer waters, John was dripping in sweat and panting heavily.
"Why don't you rest a while?" Ronon called over his shoulder as he put the map away. "The next section should be uneventful."
"I can pull my own weight."
Ronon turned to glare at him. "You always tease McKay about him not being Superman, but you aren't either, you know. I saw the beating you took while I was trying to get to you. Accept the fact that you need some rest now before we hit the next set of rapids."
"Fine," John huffed.
He curled up as best he could in the back of the canoe and forced the throbbing in his body from his mind. The boat rocked gently as they floated downstream, and the rhythmic splash of the paddle quickly lulled him to sleep.
Once Sheppard's breath evened out into sleep, Ronon pulled out the map again. Night would fall soon, and if he paddled hard enough they should reach the end of the course just after daybreak. The cut on Sheppard's back was deep, and the bruises were already forming. The man was going to be miserable for a couple of days, but he'd be fine once Keller fixed him up. Ronon flicked on the flashlight and began to row in earnest.
The few rapids he hit were minor, and they sailed through them without Sheppard waking. The hours crept by, and Ronon occupied himself by humming every Satedan war hymn and drinking song he knew. He shifted to love ballads next, struggling to remember the words to the song he'd written for his betrothal ceremony.
"You and Teyla should do duets," Sheppard slurred.
Ronon's cheeks burned in the pre-dawn darkness. "Thought you were asleep."
"I was until you started caterwauling. What were you, um, singing?"
"A song. Go back to sleep."
"Know any good lullabies?"
"Don't make me throw you out of this boat."
Sheppard's chuckle faded into light snores. Dawn broke soon after, and the map showed the finish line in sight. Thrusting exhaustion and aching muscles from his mind, Ronon narrowed his focus to one thing – getting Sheppard home. Cheers in the distance told him other racers were finishing, but strangely he didn't care. This trip had been about testing himself and Sheppard's trust. Besides, this was their first Yeveran Race. The competition had better watch out in five years.
"Are we there yet?" Sheppard asked sleepily.
"Almost. Probably another hour or so."
"Really?" Sheppard sat up with a groan and looked around. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"Didn't need to. The back end of the course was smooth."
Sheppard huffed in reply and offered up a PowerBar. "I may outeat Rodney today."
"I'd like to see that." Ronon wolfed down the bar. "What will they be serving when we get there?"
"Let's see… It's Wednesday, no, Thursday, about lunchtime. Cheeseburgers, I think."
Ronon's stomach rumbled at the thought. Sheppard stretched gingerly then joined in the paddling. They made good time to the finish line, grinning exhaustedly at each other as the spectators showered them with flower petals. After coasting to the right bank, they tossed their belongings onto land then climbed out and handed the paddles to the attendants. Ronon kept an eye on Sheppard who seemed a little wobbly as they made their way to the officials table to record their time.
"Maybe you should have someone at the aid station take a look at you."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and listed sideways. "I've been banged up worse than this. I probably won't be able to move tomorrow, but nothing's broken or gushing blood. What I need is food."
Ronon shrugged as he handed over his paperwork and signed the results page. Twelfth overall. Not bad.
"Well done, gentlemen," the time keeper said. "We hope to see you at the next race. A table has been set up with food and drink. Please enjoy yourselves."
Ronon arched a brow, and Sheppard nodded vigorously. They swiftly found a seat in a small tent. A serving girl brought them a loaf of bread and steaming plates heaped with meat and vegetables. Ronon's taste buds danced with joy, and his stomach gurgled happily at the first bite. Both men ate with gusto until their plates had been wiped clean.
The girl cleared the table with a smile. "Can I get you anything else? More ale? Some sabris pie?"
Sheppard swayed alarmingly as he stood. "We'll just be on our way. The food was fabulous, by the way."
"Thank you, sirs, and fair day."
With a nod, they ducked out of the tent and headed toward the path, following other competitors back to the village. Sheppard kept his eyes on the ground, but Ronon still held a guiding hand near his elbow. Sheppard's shoulders drooped when they crested the next hill. The path continued to wind as far as they could see. They trudged onward, finally reaching the top of the hill that bordered the settlement.
Sheppard sighed. "I almost don't want to go home. Haven't had this much fun in a long time."
"That ale was way better than the crap Zelenka bootlegs."
They exchanged a grin and strolled into town, heading straight for the tavern. Two glasses of Blevin ale later, and Sheppard's eyes were rolling back in his head.
Ronon punched him playfully. "Come on, Solo. Time to go home."
Sheppard snorted at him and pushed to his feet. Ronon dug their last few coins from his coat pocket then froze.
"Do you hear that?"
Ronon cocked his head and concentrated. "Sounds like…"
Screams erupted from outside. Mothers shouted. Animals howled. Doors slammed. A terrifyingly familiar mechanical whine shrieked overhead.
To be continued…