Friends and Old Wine
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Not long after arriving on Atlantis, Ronon is given a bottle of Satedan firewine, the last of its kind. Throughout the events of the next few years, it stays unopened, because Sateda is gone…
Ronon had been on Atlantis for the space of one and a half cycles of the Atlantean moon. He stood alone on the pier, his breath misting the air around him. Perhaps it's time to move on, he thought.
Oceans were unfamiliar to him, and the stars were strange. His bed was too soft, and the smells of the place were too clinical. The city contained too many dark places where enemies could hide. Sometimes Ronon started awake in the night and set traps at his door, then cleared them away in the morning. Days were vast, without purpose. He had nowhere to run to, and nothing to run from.
These people were too soft. They dealt in words when actions were needed. The ate processed food in a cold, bright room, and drank bland water from plastic bottles. Ronon walked down shining hallways, and heard people whisper his name; turned to see them staring at him. They looked away too quickly, afraid of him.
They thought he was a wild man because he couldn't read their writing system, not bothering to discover that he could read his own. They thought he was a savage because years of privation had taught him to snatch good morsels of food as soon as he saw them, because they might be the last.
Sateda had been famous for the beauty of its towers, for its art and music, for intricate clocks and exquisite sculptures; for its warriors, too, of course, but for so much more than that.
He turned to go, his arms wrapped around his body for warmth. The cold followed him inside. Winter always brought memory, but winter also made his scars ache. He felt old, old with unnumbered years. Even the sound of his footsteps on the floor was wrong, and the ceiling hung over him like a pall.
He knew Teyla was there before she spoke, of course; always knew whenever anyone was watching him. He turned towards her without a word.
"I have been to the market on Wealden," Teyla said, "and the wine trader had a bottle of firewine." She held it out towards him. The dark glass was smeared with dust, marked with two sets of fingerprints, one large, one small. "Count it as a belated gift to welcome you to Atlantis." The heavy bottle quivered in her one-handed grip. Teyla looked at it, and then at him. "Unless you would rather…"
"No." Ronon took it. The feel of the bottle in his hand was fiercely familiar. "Thank you." His voice was more hoarse than it normally was.
Afterwards, he locked the bottle in the chest beside his bed, and left it there.
Sateda had been famous for the beauty of its towers, for its art and music, for intricate clocks and exquisite sculptures; for its warriors, and, inseparable from its warriors, for firewine.
Firewine was drunk by warriors on the eve of battle. It was drunk when huddled together in a bunker, streaked with dirt, and bleeding. It was given to the dying – a final drink when nothing else could be done. It was poured into the earth of a warrior's grave-mound. Other worlds clamoured for it and sometimes stole it, but no true Satedan would ever sell a bottle. It was the drink of the Satedan soldier.
It was Sateda.
Ronon had shared firewine with his squad on the day they were formed. He had shared it with them before and after every engagement. He had gently tipped the glass against the lips of a dying comrade. In the valley of the shadow of death, he had passed the glass around, each one of his squad taking a swig, their lips touching where their brothers' lips had touched.
On some worlds, friends who were closer than brothers sealed their friendship in blood.
On Sateda, it was done in firewine.
Ronon had been on Atlantis for one year by Satedan reckoning. "You gonna throw a party?" Sheppard asked, leaning heavily on the railing, panting for breath.
Ronon shook his head. He probably shouldn't have mentioned it; hadn't, really, except that he had once explained to Sheppard the difference between the Satedan calendar and the Earth one, and Sheppard had remembered more of it than Ronon had ever expected.
It was less than a year by the slow-turning seasons of Atlantis. Days were growing shorter, but the air was still warm. By the calendar of Earth, it was thirteen months and a few days left over.
"Shame," Sheppard said, scraping his hand across his face, fingers raking through his hair. "Any excuse for a party's a good one." His hand tightened on the railing. "You know, uh… You've been here over a year now. You're an integral part of my team."
Ronon heard the words that Sheppard was too awkward to say. He nodded, though, and nothing more.
Sheppard shrugged. "I'm not one for anniversaries myself." It was a lie, of course. Certain dates made Sheppard sombre, more protective of his team than normal, and keen for a drink when duty was ended. Ronon had watched him, once, as he had tipped the glass in a silent toast.
A lie could be answered with a lie. "Dates don't mean anything," Ronon said, "especially here."
But deaths were commemorated and past victories were celebrated, in some cases for many centuries. Ronon, like Sheppard, remembered his dead when the days of their passing came round, but he had no-one to drink the firewine with, and so he commemorated them in deeds, and not in drink.
They finished their run in silence; parted with light words that meant nothing at all.
Back in his room, Ronon crouched down in front of the chest, placed his hands on either side of the lid, but didn't raise it. He knelt there for a very long time.
His time on the run had been time unnumbered. Every world he had passed through had kept different time. He would leave a world at noon, and emerge moments later into night. Once, a dozen nights had passed without him seeing day.
Amongst other things, Sateda had been famous for its intricate clocks. Ronon had been given a miniature brass one on his seventh birthday, and he had carried it in his pocket through all the years of training and war. But it had stopped just twenty-three days into his time as a Runner, and he had lost it in a flood not long after that.
Right until the end, he hadn't known how long he had been running for. Sometimes it seemed like years. That was when he passed his hands over his face, searching for wrinkles, or looked for grey hairs in his reflection in smooth water. Other times, it seemed like mere months, and, child-like, he missed his parents, who were dead.
Traders and travellers told him how time was passing on other worlds. Three years had passed on Medoc between his first visit and his second. On Charon, a white-haired man had led the midwinter celebrations, but the next time Ronon had passed by, a young woman was leading the memory rites for her grandfather, four years dead.
Sateda was a dead world. No-one spoke of the passage of time in a world that had no people.
And when he went back, much later, he found scattered wheels of clockwork beneath the wreckage, and shattered bottles of dark glass, the firewine long since gone.
Ronon had been on Atlantis for a little less than two Satedan years, when he met his old comrades in a tavern on an alien world.
They drank together, but not firewine.
Memory clung to every part of them. The sound of their voice was like a song he hadn't heard for too many years. "Remember when…" they said, and Ronon remembered. Since its fall, he had returned to Sateda only twice – once by force and once by choice – and he had salvaged small pieces of it so its memory could be immortal, but ornaments and pictures were just dead things. Tyre and the others were memory made flesh – a living, breathing part of Sateda that he could carry with him forever.
But it wasn't just the past that they brought back into his life. They brought the future. They spoke of a world where Ronon could wander at will, killing Wraith, living, feeling. They were the chance to avenge Sateda. He could be a leader again, master of his own destiny. The people of Atlantis were weak. They talked when they could take action.
"Got a bottle of firewine back home," he found himself saying, as he swirled his weak ale, looking down at his fractured reflection.
"Firewine!" Tyre slammed his fist on the table. "I haven't drunk that in years. Remember our first day's leave, way back when? But, no, you wouldn't remember it, would you, Ronon?" He nudged Ronon in the ribs, laughing heartily.
Back on Atlantis, afterwards, Ronon opened the chest, rummaged beneath a pile of blankets, and found the bottle, cherishing it in both hands. Then, with a sigh, he put it in his pack.
He would share it with his comrades and brothers after they had won their victory.
Ronon had never thought of himself as sentimental. During his time on the run, he had been forced to strip down to all but the basic necessities of life. Jewellery and tattoos were his only concession to decoration, and each one had intense meaning. Apart from those, he only possessed things that could be useful to him. When he went from world to world, his every possession was carried in a pack light enough to run with.
But slowly, inexorably, safety changed matters. For half a year, his room was bare – bed, chair and chest, and nothing else. Slowly, though, he added things: relics taken from Sateda, and one or two tokens of more recent memories, too.
How, then, to classify his bottle of firewine? It sat in the chest unopened, but on certain days, he took it out of the chest and held it. The glass was cold and smooth. Light shone through the dark glass, as red as blood.
Merely owning it was enough. As long as the glass was sealed, a little piece of Sateda survived. As far as he knew, this was the last bottle ever, the only one left. When it was gone, there would never be any more.
He would drink it when Sateda rose from the ashes, he thought. He would drink it when he was fully alive again.
And always, always, after just a few moments, he put the bottle back again, nestling it softly in cloth, and closed the lid.
When Ronon had been on Atlantis for almost three Satedan years, he was captured by the Wraith and turned against the people of Atlantis.
Afterwards, the enzyme burned fiercely in his veins, blazing like firewine. He never forgot who he was, but the world became a world of nightmares, friends seeming to him like enemies. Time became a meaningless blur of desperate need, but when he emerged from the flames afterwards, Sheppard told him that eight days had gone by.
When they released him from the infirmary, he went slowly back to his room, and sat on the bed. He blinked scoured eyes. Under the influence of the enzyme, he had seen the world with different eyes. Now he had his own eyes back, but they were changed. Everything was changed.
The relics of Sateda still filled his room, but some had been drifted into corners, half obscured by newer things. There was a picture of him and Sheppard surfing, and of Teyla smiling as she danced around him with sticks. There were pictures of Weir and Beckett, and accumulated presents from various Christmases, all from people he had been led to hate, from people he had tried to kill.
The bottle was hard to find, buried under clothes, untouched for months on end. He pulled it out and gripped it tightly. He didn't deserve to keep it. Firewine burned, and he had already been burnt to ashes.
When a warrior died, firewine was poured onto the earth that covered him. It was raining outside, water pounding against the window. He would go to the pier, smash the bottle against the edge of it, and that would be the end of it.
As a young man, Ronon had enjoyed drinking. He had spent too many late nights in taverns, staggering home with loud songs on his lips. His first night out with Tyre and the others had been legendary, talked about for years.
Then the war had begun. Some people drank to forget, smiling and singing in the midst of devastation, but Ronon found that he preferred to stay watchful, keeping his eye open for dangers that might threaten his squad. He still passed firewine around, but that was more a ritual than a drink. His world was being destroyed around him, and every moment was for committing to memory, not for losing in too many pints of ale.
As a Runner, Ronon could not afford to drink at all; could not afford to allow anything to dim his reactions. He was tempted, sometimes, on days that saw too much death, but he never succumbed.
Coming to Atlantis changed that. The realisation that he was safe crept up slowly on Ronon, and he had been there for over half a year before he noticed that certain watchful rituals had been abandoned. Slowly, slowly, he started to drink again, sharing a beer with Sheppard or wine with Teyla, but only seldom.
Then the Wraith enzyme made him lose control and robbed him of everything that he was.
Firewine could be like that, too, if you drank it to the dregs.
When Ronon had been on Atlantis for three years and two months, by Earth reckoning, he invited his team to his room. On the top of the wooden chest sat a bottle with a single glass at its side.
"Satedan firewine," he said, as he poured the glass. The smell was instant transportation to the past, but he had opened the bottle before his team had come; had moved past the pain that the scent evoked.
"Oh." McKay wrinkled his nose. "It smells… strong."
Ronon raised the glass, cupping it in both hands. The light made the wine shine like flames. "It's the Satedan warrior's drink," he said. "It's custom to share it with your comrades."
He passed it to Sheppard first. Sheppard opened his mouth as if to speak, then clearly thought better of it. He looked down as took a mouthful of the wine. "It's uh, strong," he said. "Good, though, just… strong."
Ronon took the glass back from Sheppard and passed it to Teyla. "Thank you," she said, as she took a small sip. Her eyes were shining, almost as if she was on the point of tears, but she smiled as she lowered the glass.
McKay was next. "But you've all--" he protested, but Sheppard elbowed him, hissing his name. "It's… germs," McKay muttered, but he drank anyway, his expression like that of a man who knew he was drinking poison.
Ronon took the glass back from him, and drank last. It didn't taste the way he remembered it. "I was keeping it," he said, "because…" He shrugged. "I was keeping it," he said simply.
"For what?" McKay asked.
He could say nothing, or he could tell them. No, firewine brought truth; staying silent wasn't an option. "It's a drink only for Satedan warriors," he said, "and for their true comrades, closer than brothers. This is the last bottle of it. I was keeping it…"
"For memory," Teyla said quietly.
"Yes." Ronon looked at her. "But you can remember too much, you know? This matters. Now matters." He looked at them all, one after the other. "You matter. You brought me back. You forgave me."
"Nothing to forgive, buddy," Sheppard said.
"And that's why," Ronon said, as he passed the glass around a second time.
And afterwards there was beer from Earth and mead from Athos, and between them they told three years of new stories, set to a whole new song.
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