Smoke and flame filled Ronon's vision, engulfing the black outlines of the burning house. He could hear its death roar, the heavy crash of timber beams as the wood his great-great-grandfather had felled collapsed in on itself. A giant burst of sparks flung into the night sky, danced briefly across the familiar constellations, and were gone.
Ronon kept staring up, not wanting to watch his mother's garden burn, watch the fire rip through rows of beets and radishes, squash and rhubarb, rushing greedily towards the barn and outbuildings. His face was wet and the stars were blurring and the heat from the flames drove him back a step –
She stared at him in horror, her impossibly wizened hand clutching a smoking kerosene lamp. "No," she said, her voice weaker than he'd ever heard it. Not even when a cranky kick from his uncle's mule had broken her ribs, back when he was twelve and thought himself strong enough to hold the beast. "Not now, not like this."
He stepped back. A small step, all instinct and fear. But this was his mother, too strong to be felled like this: shriveled and shaking, all the strength drained from her. He glanced around the once familiar room, seeing but not making sense of the kindling papers and firewood strewn across the usually spotless floors.
A corpse was laid out on the dinner table. An old man in too large clothes, withered away to skin and dust. His father, dead from the plague that had wiped out Ronon's battalion, the plague that was now killing his mother. His despair outweighed his cowardice, pushed Ronon forward. "Mama," he said, like he was six again and she had the power to make it all better.
She shook in his arms, frail and failing. "I'm sorry, Ronon," she said. "I didn't want you to see us like – " a coughing fit wracked her body.
Ronon smoothly shifted his hold, bracing her shoulders while still giving her room to cough up the blood and phlegm her body was expelling. Just as he'd done for Tyre and Hemi and Ara and others withered past recognition. She coughed and choked –
Squeezing his eyes tight, desperate to shut out the memory, Ronon stepped back, and back again. It didn't work. His mother's ravaged face filled his vision. ("No... Not now, not like this...") He stumbled and turned and ran. Into the woods, shadow-black and treacherous, running past thickets he'd once hid in as a boy, leaping the small gully he'd pretended was the great Genii river when he'd played soldiers with his cousins. Branches ripped at his clothes, slashed at his face, grabbed at his ankles and still he ran. Away from the burning bier that had been his home, away from the parents he'd failed.
He didn't fall. Couldn't remember falling anyway, and certainly nothing seemed broken or too badly bruised. But he must have collapsed at some point. Because here it was, barely daylight, and he was curled at the base of a large oak, fluttering green leaves tinged with red. A squirrel, autumn fat, chittered down at him from the safety of a high branch. Something scratched at the back of his mind, dark and ugly. Ronon stared stubbornly at the craggy bark, trying to lose himself in the patterns.
Didn't matter. The darkness clawed through, and instead of oak trees and fat squirrels, Ronon saw his mother, choking her life out in his arms, his father dead on the table. He saw towns and villages and homesteads reduced to smoking rubble in a desperate bid to contain the plague. He saw barracks turned into bonfires of the desiccated dead. And always he saw himself, somehow whole, somehow alive, while all around him burned.
A cry ripped from his throat, the sound tearing and wet, and Ronon pushed himself back up to his feet. Pushed himself forward again. A canteen hung from his belt (had he grabbed it when he'd left the dying army base? couldn't remember; didn't matter) mostly full, though he didn't remember filling it. Ronon drank as he moved. Not running full out, but keeping to a steady, ground-eating pace. Ignored his hunger, mostly ignored his thirst. Moving was the important thing. Moving kept the darkness back.
Ronon moved 'til there was no light to see by. Pulled together a half-assed shelter, curled into a ball, slept. Light woke him. Woke the darkness, too. He got moving. Days passed. Didn't track how many. Hunger went away and took thought with it. After a while, the dark stayed back, scratching but muted. Sometimes he'd build a fire, mostly he didn't. Sometimes he'd think to refill his canteen when he splashed through a stream or walked by a creek. Didn't always remember to drink it, though.
One night, a pack of wolves woke him with their howling. Sounded far away, a good ten miles at least. Ronon realized he was disappointed, wanted them closer. In a distant sort of way he found the realization startling. The wolves weren't quitting, so Ronon mulled on it for a little while. The conclusion came as the wolves quieted. He'd come to the woods to die. Relief flowed through him. There would be an end. Soon, probably. He settled back down, pulled his coat higher up around his shoulders, drifted into sleep.
The sound of a match struck against stone filled his ears. A sound so familiar Ronon ached to his bones. Someone was hunched down next to him, a shadow against the night. A slight sucking sound, and the glow of pipe tobacco highlighted a man's dark face, his strong nose and sharp cheekbones. The glow strengthened and died with each breath, finally settling into a gentle burn. Leaning back into a more comfortable sprawl, the man shook out the match and puffed contentedly on his pipe.
Ronon shifted, pushing himself up on an elbow, and the man smiled over at him.
His father used his pipe to gesture at the scant branches Ronon had leaned up against the fallen log he was rolled up next to. "Pretty pathetic shelter you got there."
Ronon looked up at it. "Yeah," he agreed.
"That how they do it in the Army?"
Ronon thought of what Tyre would say if he saw it. Nothing good. "No," he said.
"Not how I taught you."
Ronon looked down, embarrassed. His father waited patiently and finally Ronon pushed the branches aside, dragged himself up into a sitting position, and pointed out the obvious. "You died."
His father looked at him quizzically. "So you thought you'd build a bad shelter in my memory?"
Ronon shrugged, "Stopped caring."
"Ah." His father leaned back again, smoked his pipe for a bit. The smoke hung in the small space between the trees, forming a pale, moon-lit wreath above their heads and filling the space with the familiar smell of night fall and bedtime stories and the quiet talk of his parents as Ronon fell asleep.
"I just," Ronon began. His father looked over at him and Ronon forced himself to continue. "I don't see the point. Everyone's dead, so I don't see why..." He trailed off, ashamed.
"Don't see a reason to continue on yourself," his father filled in. Ronon nodded, grateful that he'd been understood. His father grunted and returned to his pipe. "It's a tricky thing though," he said finally, "reason." He made a circling gesture with his pipe. "Sometimes you don't see it until you're already through and on the other side."
"I'm tired, Dad." Ronon could feel his exhaustion like a weight. "I don't want to go through anything. I want to stop. Just...stop."
His father smiled at him, kind and loving and sad. "But you're needed, son. I don't think they can last much longer." He reached out, his hand callous-rough and gentle on Ronon's cheek. "Right now, though? Right now, you rest. I'll keep the watch tonight."
A protest rose and died in Ronon's throat, and he settled back down, allowed his father to tuck his long army coat more firmly around his body. His father stayed seated at Ronon's side, clever eyes staring out at the night, watching things Ronon couldn't see. So Ronon watched his father instead, let the old sensation of safety and contentment wrap around him. His father glanced over at him, his face creasing into his usual mischief-filled grin. "Don't worry, Ronon. It'll all look better in the morning." Ronon slept.
The insistent trilling of a robin woke Ronon from a deep sleep. The sun was high enough to send light beams dancing through the thick trees. For a brief moment Ronon thought he smelled pipe smoke, but it passed. His nose filled with the expected scent of pine and moss and the slow, fertilizing rot of the fallen maple he was pressed up against.
He remembered his dream, so vivid he half expected to see the imprint of his father's presence in the soft ground next to him. There was nothing, of course, and Ronon pushed himself, slowly and with too many groans, to his feet. He couldn't tell where he was. Not woods he was familiar with. He wondered if he'd crossed into Atlantis territory. Countless stories were told of the magic-thick land of Atlantis. Ghostly visitations would fit right in.
Not the sort of thing Ronon knew much about. Not the sort of thing he wanted to know much about. Magic was smoke and water: hard to see, harder to grab hold of. How real his dream had been, Ronon decided, didn't matter. What did matter was he was finally awake. Awake and in embarrassingly bad condition.
His hair was a mess of twigs and leaves and mud. His head was pounding; probably a sign of dehydration. His canteen was half full; he slowly sipped it down to a quarter. He didn't feel hungry, but Ronon had a deep suspicion his body wasn't sending out reliable signals just now. So he dug through his coat pockets and found a supply of jerky. Still wrapped in the twine the supply chief used to bundle them into standard packets of fifteen.
Pulling one piece loose, Ronon ripped off a bite with his teeth. The moment the salty flavor hit his tongue his mouth filled with saliva and his stomach let out a begging growl. Chuckling at himself, Ronon chewed on the tough jerky as he began an inventory of what exactly he had on him.
His jacket pockets were empty, but his army coat rendered up another packet of jerky, a round of fishing line, a half empty box of matches, and his knife-care kit. He had a vague memory of slinging a traveling kit over his shoulder, almost a sense memory to match the motion of shoving the jerky packets into his pockets. But he couldn't find a bag anywhere around his sleeping area.
Just as Ronon was concluding that he'd dropped the bag at some point (God, how long had he been out here?) he had a sudden chill. He was wearing his belt, and his sword was digging into his side, but... He felt along the thick strap of leather, past the hilt of his sword, until he found his skinning knife. It was tucked safely into its sheath, though twisted around towards his back.
Relief washed through him as Ronon pulled the knife out and checked the blade. His mother had made that knife for him, herself. Steel from his grandfather's foundry, but formed in her own little forge that she mainly used to repair farm tools. Losing the sword would have been bad (made by his grandfather and worth a fortune for that fact alone), but losing his mother's knife... Well, it hadn't happened so best not to worry about it.
Two of his throwing knives were tucked away in his boots, but the one he usually kept in his wrist sheath was gone, as was the little knife he tucked into his hair (a trick he'd picked up from Hemi). He pulled the knife from his left boot and tucked it into his wrist sheath. Not as well armed as he preferred to be, but better than nothing.
Ronon tore into another piece of jerky, taking measured sips of water from his canteen. Closed his eyes and listened. He thought he could hear the sound of rushing water somewhere behind him. Good for filling his canteen, obviously, but fish would be nice as well. His stomach burbled happily at that idea.
The rushing grew to a roar as Ronon followed the sound through sun-dappled woods, promising a good-sized source. Thinking of fresh caught fish cooked on an open fire, Ronon pushed eagerly through the thick undergrowth onto the bank of a small river. In the middle of the river, not five feet from him, was a bear.
Fur shining reddish brown in the sunlight, it was hunkered down in the water, facing the swift current. Its mouth was opened impossibly wide as it gulped down what must have been gallons of water. It looked like the bear was trying to drown itself. At least, until it was interrupted. Pulling its massive head out of the water, the bear fixed its malevolent gaze on Ronon, let out a deafening roar and charged.