John woke up shivering, reaching for something that he already knew wasn't there. Ronon had never been much for sleeping in before, and that had only gotten worse since they'd left Sateda.
John risked poking his nose out of the blankets and regretted it almost immediately. The small round windows were rimmed with ice on the inside, and gray with it on the outside. Back on land, the salt in the air from being near the ocean had been enough to keep the ice to a thin film on the coldest days. John had expected the same at sea, but the opposite had turned out to be true, which no-one could explain.
He could feel the sway of the boat in his bones, familiar as breathing after so many days at sea, easy enough to read as them moving again. Ronon was never content to lie at anchor for long, even with the protections surrounding Atlantis.
John couldn't see how light the sky was with the windows frozen up, but he didn't entirely need to – he'd gotten accustomed, over the weeks since they'd left land, to the patterns of the day, enough to know that the sun had probably been risen an hour or two, and that it was time to get up.
He braced himself for the cold air of their small sleeping quarters, but nothing could really prepare him for the daily shock of frozen air hitting sleep warm skin. The floorboards beneath his feet were cold through the socks he wore to bed, the chill seeping through his pajamas, catching in his lungs when he drew a breath. He hopped, trying to keep from touching any part of the coldness, to the tiny head, where a spoken word warmed the water.
Rodney had rigged the pump and shower apparatus for them before they left Sateda, explaining how it drew and filtered water from the ocean around them. When Ronon had pointed out that they'd be alone, no-one to care but the two of them, Rodney had grumbled something about not meeting potential new allies looking like grizzled men of the sea.
John knew that was Rodney's way of saying he was worried about them, and he wasn't going to argue. Not when it got them warm showers every morning, the only thing that made getting up worth it some days.
The cool air was a fresh shock after the warmth of the shower, but at least the steam let John convince himself his clothes had warmed up. Once he was dressed, layer after layer, even two pairs of socks, he felt a little better about the existence of the day, enough so he stopped wishing they'd been able to bring someone born of fire with them. Ford had offered, but Sateda needed every Fire-Born it had with the freeze creeping in and the death toll rising every day.
When John climbed the steps to the deck, coffee mugs in one hand, the smell of bacon and eggs floating behind him, he found that his estimate of the time had been a little off. The sun was just edging over the horizon, turning the freezing mist over the ocean into a glorious sheet of silver – beautiful but perilous in the way it obscured everything past the bow of their ship.
Ronon was exactly where John had expected him to be, stood at the wheel, compass in one hand, the other resting lightly on the top of the wheel. Even with Ronon's back to him, John was sure Ronon knew he was there; he stepped heavily anyway, not wanting to surprise Ronon, who turned as John got within touching distance.
"Thanks," he said, taking the coffee John held out to him.
"Breakfast's ready." John leaned a little closer, checking the compass. Ronon was born of earth, tied to the lines of the world in a way that John, born of water and often tossed by it, couldn't begin to imagine. He was grateful for Ronon's ties anyway – on his own, John knew he'd have gotten lost weeks ago, especially as they had more of a vague direction rather than an actual plotted course or even confirmed destination.
"When the mist lifts," Ronon said, same as every day.
John looked out over the ocean. For a moment, he felt the same urge he'd had his entire life, to throw himself into the ocean and never look back. It had gotten easier to suppress as he'd grown up, but never entirely gone away, and it was only Jennifer's spell that kept it under control now he was surrounded by water every day.
He focused on the mist instead – still water, but safer than the ocean. The sun's rays through it were like something from another world, and he let fancy dance around him for a moment. Him and Ronon, steaming across an unseen border into another land, one where their people weren't starving under a freeze laid by sorcerers so powerful that those who spent even a moment in their presence were said to age and die in that moment. Finding the solution, the one thing that would break the spell and return their homeland to what it had once been.
Everyone said there was another land out there somewhere, even though no-one in living memory had ever been there. John looked every day for a sign that one of the dozens of steamships that had left Sateda had finally found what they were all looking for – hoping for.
"The mist won't lift until the food's cold," John said, forcing himself to focus on the here and now. He might not be great with mornings, but he was good with breakfast. "I'll bring it to you."
"Thanks," Ronon said.
Their days had grown a rhythm over time. The mist would lift mid-morning, the two of them squinting at the slowly appearing horizon, hoping that this time they might see something other than more water.
When they didn't, Ronon returned to steering them, while John did what needed doing on the ship: stoking the furnace that provided the steam to power them, scrubbing the decks in an endless bid to have them turn into something other than an ice rink, tidying below deck, sometimes even fishing off the bow. He made their midday meal, which Ronon could usually be tempted inside to eat, though he was back at the wheel before he'd even swallowed his last mouthful.
John was responsible for recording their course on the large map spread across their floor. He really hoped that, if they were the ones to find the land they looked for, someone would make a neater copy to display in the City Museum. Ronon always checked John's record at the end of the day, and so the map was a mess of corrections, alterations, and neatly crossed out routes that were completely wrong.
John peered at the map, green pencil in his hand. The position of the sun was largely unchanged from yesterday, as was their speed, which meant… John drew a tentative line, already imagining the look on Ronon's face when he saw it. Ronon said John was the first Water-Born he'd ever spent much time with, and was constantly surprised by John's failure to get better at cartography, no matter how often John pointed out that it was difficult to get better when he had almost nothing to base his route on.
Late afternoon, John set to preparing dinner. The sun was already beginning to set, low enough to justify lighting the candles hung around the galley. He could hear the heavy, comforting tread of Ronon's boots over his head, checking the boat and preparing to speak the words that held the boat in position in partnership with John's anchor. Ronon always stayed inside after dinner, and John could admit, to himself at least, that he liked those times best.
The candles gave the ship a strange intimacy, unlike that given by the burning oil dips and lanterns on the mainland. Some nights, they'd sit up late, Ronon trying to teach John more about directions and maps, or John trying to teach Ronon about the depths of the seas, the things he'd seen. Some nights they'd play games – cards, or dice, or memory games. John's favorite nights, though, were those when they retired early to bed, and later, close and warm in the dark, Ronon would talk of his home-town, far from the ocean John had grown up beside.
Ronon had promised, once, to take John there. One day, John planned on being able to remind him of that promise, and ask him to deliver on it. He was pretty sure Ronon would.
Ronon's shout made John start, already running for the deck before he consciously processed the surprise he heard in it.
Ronon was standing at the prow of the boat, half-turned to John, one hand gripping the railing so tight John could see the pressure tightening the skin of his fingers.
"What's wrong?" John asked, not even certain that was the right question. He'd never seen that expression on Ronon's face, and couldn't read it at all.
Ronon held out a hand for John. "Look."
The sun had already sunk below the horizon, the graying light of dusk making the ocean waves into something strange and unearthly. For a moment, John had no idea what he was even supposed to be looking at, and then –
He reached for Ronon's out-stretched hand, felt it close tight over his, skin cool with the settling mist, let Ronon pull him closer. "I'm not seeing things," Ronon said, sounding unsure.
John blinked, squinting. He knew what he wanted to see, knew how easy it was to see what wasn't there between the fading light and the mist, the roll of the waves. And maybe it would be gone in the morning, but he couldn't help the word he breathed out. "Land."
John woke up warm, for what felt like the first time ever, and knew, even before he opened his eyes, that his reaching hand would find warm, bare skin. "Morning."
Ronon petted John's hair a little, his arm heavy against John's back. "Morning."
He sounded wide awake, enough to make John suspicious. He opened his eyes, found the room far lighter than it usually was when he woke up, for all that the light was filtered through the same ice covering the windows. Ronon was lying on his back, watching John, his face clear of sleep in a way that said John was right and he'd been awake a while.
"Usually up by now," John said. Not that he was complaining; not if it got him Ronon in bed with him, warm and close.
Ronon looked away to the side, then back to John. "You remember last night?"
John did, and had the dull ache in his thighs to prove it, but he was pretty sure Ronon wasn't talking about that. "We should go check," he said.
"What if –" John felt Ronon go tense against him. "What if it wasn't really land?"
"Then we'll keep going," John said firmly. "If it's out there, we'll find it."
"It's out there." Ronon sounded a lot more sure than his continued presence in bed suggested he actually was.
"It's out there," John echoed, and apparently that was enough, because Ronon threw back the bed clothes, and laughed when John scrabbled to get them back, yelping at the cold.
The mist had already burned off the ocean when John followed Ronon onto the deck. For a moment, John didn't see anything, was sure that Ronon's fears were being realized, and they really had been looking at nothing but a hope-generated illusion.
They hadn't, though. There on the horizon, real as the two of them in the middle of the ocean, was a land mass, blurred with distance, but definitely there.
It was the best thing John had seen in months.
"Pull the anchor up," Ronon instructed, heading to the wheel. "Come on, we can make it by nightfall if we can pick up some speed."
Ronon's idea of some speed was not, John thought, the same as most people's. Not that he cared, standing next to Ronon at the wheel, feeling the wind catch at them, the cool spray of the ocean waves breaking against the boat. The land got closer and closer, revealing hills, green fields, trees, eventually. John couldn't stop looking at it, feeling something relax in Ronon the way something in John did when he got back near the water after too long away.
No boats came out to meet them, though John had half-expected, or maybe hoped, that they would. It didn't have to mean anything – the residents of the land mass could live away from the water, or prefer to meet unexpected visitors on solid land.
Or, he tried not to let himself think, be long gone, or not interested in helping out their forgotten neighbors.
It was easier to believe that wasn't true when they got close enough to see a small walled harbor, a couple of boats bobbing in the gentle waves. Sail boats, they looked to be, not steam like Atlantis, but in good condition, obviously cared for. Someone had to live there, even if there was still no sign of anyone.
Ronon brought their boat in neatly to a vacant birth, holding the wheel steady as John jumped for land and tied them off. He could still feel the roll of the waves beneath his feet, ingrained in his body after so many days at sea. "Coming?" he called down to Ronon.
"Right behind you."
John turned his back to the boat, preparing to look for a path towards some kind of settlement –
And found himself face to face with two people dressed in leather and brown cloth, one tall man, one smaller woman. He couldn't quite contain his startled noise, or the way he took a step back into Ronon.
"Hi," John said stupidly.
He felt Ronon roll his eyes. "I'm Ronon Dex, and this is John Sheppard, both of Sateda. We mean no harm. We're seeking help – we're in desperate need of it, for our home."
The man looked over at the woman, who was clearly in some sort of position of authority over him. She had the clear, still gaze of someone who wouldn't be fooled, who would see the truth in a person and know it.
"My name is Teyla Emmagan," she said finally, her voice carrying crisply in the cool air. "Leader of the Free People of Athos, and this is Halling."
"Greetings," Ronon offered.
"Greetings," Teyla echoed. She continued to look at them for a long moment, then turned, gesturing for them to follow. "Come, take tea with us. You may tell me of the troubles of your world, and the help you seek."
"You'll help us?" John asked, sure it couldn't be so easy.
Teyla smiled over her shoulder. "We will talk over tea," she said, but John knew yes when he heard it, and he knew, from the warm press of Ronon's hand to his back, that Ronon knew it too.