Bo was watching with interest as Liliana cleaned and dressed the wound on Ronon’s side. She peered up at him. “That’s gonna close all up?”
He smiled a little and nodded. “Yep. Won’t even know it was there.”
“Will you have a scar?”
Ronon looked down at the injury. “I might, but your momma’s a good healer, so probably not.”
Liliana sighed, grabbing a bandage to wind around his middle. She glanced over at Curtis as she did so. He was peering out the window of the cabin, watching the road. Ronon had warned them that Smith had escaped and would more than likely be back. Curtis looked over his shoulder at the three when he noticed their silence. “You about done, Lil?”
Brianna was playing dollies with Sanura in the corner, trying to keep her baby sister occupied. “Where’re we gonna go, momma? They’ll find us no matter what.”
“As far away as we can for right now.”
Ronon looked down at her: he’d never heard her voice so emotionless. He kept his voice low. “After you leave, I’ll take the horses left by those men and head off north. That’ll throw them off your trail.”
Liliana cinched his bandage tight and straightened, meeting his gaze. “Ronon, I am not leaving you behind. So forget it.”
“You won’t be. I’ll find you.”
“Ronon,” Curtis said, pivoting to look at him. “You’d have no idea where you’re going.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m used to it.”
Liliana sighed and exchanged a look with Curtis, silently reminding him that, as they’d witnessed that afternoon, there was much more to the former Runner than the playful gentleness they had come to love.
“When I can, I’ll... I’ll make sure they never bother you again.” Liliana looked back to him at his dark tone. “Then I... I need to visit the plantation, to see for myself. Maybe even bury her...” He looked away, his voice quieting for a moment before he looked back to Curtis. “Then I’ll find you.”
The older man was slowly shaking his head. “We can’t ask that of you, Ronon.”
“You’re not. I owe you all so much... this is the least I can do.”
“No, it’s not,” Liliana interrupted. “You don’t owe us anything. Now stop scheming and grab what you need to. You’re coming with us.”
Curtis cocked his head at her. “Lil...”
Liliana froze, surprised that her husband sounded argumentative, and turned around to face him, a quiet rage flaring in her blue eyes. “I will not abandon him here to save our own lives!”
Ronon and Curtis studied her in surprise. The three girls had fallen silent long ago and watched with tense gazes.
“Look at what’s already happened!” She gestured to the wounds on the Satedan. “And I have killed....” She took a moment to rein in her voice, swallowing hard. “Enough of this. It’s risking too much.” She looked to Ronon. “You’re coming with us, Ronon, and that’s final.”
She bristled at the respectful disobedience in Ronon’s eyes. “...You’re not my mother.”
“It’s a good plan, Lil.”
Liliana glared at Curtis. “Stop encouraging him!”
“He came up with it on his own!”
“The longer we stay here and argue, the closer those murderers get!” The couple jumped at the boom of Ronon’s shout. His chest heaved as he furrowed his brow at them. “Now get your stuff and get out. We stick to the plan.”
“It’s a stupid plan!” Liliana shouted as she took a step towards him.
“No it isn’t.”
“You’re not thinking clearly, Ronon – you’re upset because of Teyla and now you’re being reckless with your life and I won’t have it.”
He clenched his jaw, breathing through his nose. “That’s not for you to say.”
“How dare you. I love you, Ronon. And I am not leaving you behind with those men so if you think you’re staying then I am, too.”
“Liliana,” Curtis interjected. He jerked his head towards their daughters who all looked timid. Liliana’s shoulders immediately slumped.
Briana looked close to tears. “I don’t want you to die, Ronon.”
Bo whipped her head around to her older sister. “He’s gonna die?!”
“Those men want to kill him.”
Sanura began to wail.
“I don’t want you to die, Ronon!” Isabeau was beginning to cry now, too. Curtis looked from his lamenting daughters to his wife and Ronon.
The Satedan shifted his weight guiltily, his voice quiet. “I’m not gonna die, Bo.”
The nine-year-old continued to cry.
“...I mean... I am someday, but hopefully not soon...”
“Damn straight it won’t be soon.” Liliana gave him a “don’t you say another word” look then crossed over to her girls to hold Sanura. “Now get the horses ready, Ronon. You’re coming with us.”
Ronon looked as if he wanted to shout at her and glanced to Curtis. The older man sighed then gave him a curt nod. He thought he could hear a growl as the Satedan stalked out of the room.
Several Jumpers formed a circle on the ground as Marines finished establishing a perimeter around the plantation, securing the area while the hundreds of slaves were tended to by medics and the most severely injured boarded onto the small ships. Slaves from other plantations kept turning up in small, huddled groups, having got word about the uprising and come to join, cautiously hopeful at discovering that there was now a way out of their bondage; forever.
Many wished to see the woman who had brought freedom to their soil, but at the moment, she was not there. Teyla had returned to Atlantis with the rest of her team, after much pressuring on Sheppard’s part and under the condition that she be allowed to return the next day. Sheppard had agreed, happy to have at least assured that his teammate would be seen by a doctor and get a few proper meals before resuming her adopted duties as the leader of a ragtag army.
McKay had immediately returned to his quarters, finding it hard to breathe once he began walking through Atlantis with the knowledge that Ronon would never be home again. His throat tightened as he sank onto his bed, not bothering to turn on the lights, pain from his heart flooding his veins as memories of the Satedan whispered to his mind.
Guilt plagued his stomach, making it churn cold with anxiety, for he and Ronon had never been as close as they could have been. They’d saved each other’s lives countless times, but Rodney had always kept his distance from the warrior, as the warrior had him, for they were two very different people, and what was the use of expending so much energy to try to understand the other? At least that had been his thinking until now... now when he realized that he’d been the one not making the effort.
In his clumsy way, Ronon had tried to bridge the gap between them. He’d tried to teach Rodney how to fight to defend himself. He’d shared his rare humor. He’d given full, impulsive hugs. Rodney held his hands to his face when he remembered how the tall Satedan’s frame had occasionally filled the doorway to his lab as Ronon would wander in. At first he was curious about the instruments, asking with veiled interest what they did, and Rodney knew he’d been gruff and short-tempered, trying to focus on whatever he was working on. He used to be relieved when Ronon would get the message and leave him to his work.
Now he wished he could explain everything to the Satedan, no matter how bored Ronon would be. He wished he’d said yes more often when the younger man had asked him if he wanted to go eat. Ronon had realized that food was their common ground. Everyone had to eat, and Ronon and McKay often needed to more frequently than others given Rodney’s high metabolism hypoglycemia and Ronon’s muscles, burning up energy even when he slept. Yet Rodney hadn’t acknowledged how a simple meal together enforced friendship with its primal bond.
He’d prided himself in his differences from the Satedan, on his quick mind and knowledge of science. He sometimes admitted to himself that Ronon was almost as smart as he was, only in a more subtle way, and his wit had been suppressed in order to survive a life that McKay could hardly consider. And yet he’d never let him know that he didn’t really mean all of the remarks he’d made about Ronon’s “stupidity,” and the knowledge gutted him. He wished he could’ve taken Ronon’s place on that horrible plantation and have died instead.
Rodney choked out a sob, whispering “I’m so sorry, Ronon...” tugging at his hair with self-loathing fingers as he recalled a lunchtime conversation with Sheppard during quieter times.
“Why don’t you hit the gym with Ronon? It’d do you some good and he’d probably enjoy the company,” Sheppard had said.
“Oh please. He’s going boxing. Boxing means you have time to talk. We have nothing to talk about.”
“You could tell him about your cat.”
“Why? He’d probably want to eat it.” Sheppard had given him a patronizing look. “Oh don’t act like it isn’t true.”
“You know F. Scott Fitzgerald once said ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’”
“What the hell does American literature have to do with a punching bag?”
“Just think about it, Rodney.”
“Oh. I get it. You’re insulting me. I’m not a genius just because I’m not all buddy buddy with Ronon.”
“I’m just saying it’s more worthwhile get to know someone who’s different from you, no matter who you are.”
Rodney let out a shuddering breath. Now he’d never have that opportunity, just like he’d never get the chance to hug Carson again. Suddenly he was vaguely comforted by the knowledge that if Ronon was now wherever Carson was, he’d be okay. He let out a shaky sigh, straightening to look out his window at the moonlit ocean. The light was shimmering off the waves, looking silver. He wiped at his cheeks. Then suddenly he had an idea.
Brianna had never heard her father sound so frightened as he was when he’d yanked his head away from the window. It was already dark and Ronon had been finishing readying the horses at the back when they’d all heard shouts. Several men returned and found Ronon in the barn. “We can’t get out – they’ve got the place surrounded,” Curtis hissed to Liliana.
“The girls can slip out the – ”
There was a knock at the door. Curtis and Liliana held each other’s gaze for a long moment before he muttered for her to keep the girls in the kitchen by the cupboards, away from the windows. The floorboards creaked as Curtis walked to the door, every muscle tense, his mind racing to try to fathom why this propriety was being shown. He glanced out the window and was further puzzled to see that the men were unarmed. He opened the door a crack, looking out. “Yes?”
The man standing before him gray and weatherworn. He held out a piece of paper. “You Curtis Espen?”
He cleared his throat. “I might be.”
“I’m Lee Heinz. I’ve been made the protectorate of the territory on account of the revolts.”
Curtis narrowed his eyes at him, still not opening the door further. Liliana listened intently from the kitchen.
“A man run into town today, his eyes almost swollen shut. He said you and your kin were Abolitionists and that you’d ambushed him.”
Curtis opened the door a little wider, straightening. “That’s not true.”
“Says you killed his men.” He jerked his head towards the barn. “You’ve got three of their horses in there.”
“Is that Gordon?” Liliana called cheerily as she stepped into the room, wiping flour from her hands. She paused in mock-surprise as she noticed Lee. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
Curtis was trying not to stare at her. Lee looked her up and down, noting her coloring. “That your wife?”
“What’s going on?” Liliana feigned ignorance, furrowing her brow.
Lee ignored her. “Smith was the man’s name. He was a driver at Phelp’s place ‘till all hell broke loose. He said the man who attacked him was big, brown hair and tan skin.” He furrowed his brow at Curtis and Liliana then looked over his shoulder and nodded at one of his men, who shoved Ronon into the lantern light. The Satedan stumbled, looking dazed and docile from having been shocked into submission by a prod.
Liliana grabbed Curtis’ hand as she stepped to stand beside him, keeping him still as her nostrils flared. “What have you done to our man? You’ll pay for that!”
Lee narrowed his eyes then looked to Ronon. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’d assumed he was your son causing all the trouble but now that I’ve seen you two...”
“So if he were my son you would’ve seen fit to half-torture him half to death?”
“He murdered four men and nearly killed another.”
“Franklin,” Liliana scolded, glaring at Ronon. Ronon blinked then tried to adopt the mannerisms of a Franklin. “You’ve gone and done it this time.”
Curtis grabbed a riding crop from a hook by the door and stepped forward. “Boy, you’ll be lucky if you survive this.”
“Now just hold on a minute,” Lee said, holding out a hand to stop Curtis. “Your slave’s a murderer.”
“We sent him out to buy horses with the money from the last crop,” Liliana quickly fibbed. “He came home bleeding and said he’d gotten into trouble with some townfolk passing by, seeing as everyone’s so jumpy with the revolt and all.”
“Franklin, I’m gonna lick you till the sun come up, you hear me?” Curtis shouted at Ronon, who looked to the ground, adopting the submission that he’d seen in many other slaves. “I swear to you, Mister, I had no idea he’d done this. He’s a damn good liar is what he is. Always trying to get out of trouble. Just look as back. He’s a trouble-maker.”
The man closest to Ronon yanked up his shirt, revealing the scars from his whipping. Lee studied them in the dim light then looked back to Curtis. “And how do I know he’s not a runaway that you all are helping? That you helped him kill those men?”
“Guess you don’t,” Curtis quipped.
“Master,” Ronon mumbled, looking at the ground. “Don’t let them kill me...”
“You shut up, boy!” Curtis lunged past Lee and off the steps, kicking Ronon in the stomach. “You’ve cost us enough trouble already!” He kicked him again and Ronon coughed, crawling away before one of the men stopped him and another shoved Curtis back.
Liliana swallowed bile down her throat and fought her jaw from quivering.
When Ronon got to his feet, Curtis yanked free of the man restraining him and punched him in the face, splitting his lip. Liliana began to cry out and but tried to disguise it with a cough as Curtis was restrained again.
“All right, just... hold your horses,” Lee cautioned, seeming somewhat satisfied that Curtis wasn’t faking. Ronon was looking to the ground, his brow furrowed in pain as his lip already began to swell, blood trickling down his chin. Curtis swallowed hard, tearing his eyes away from the damage he’d done. Lee removed his hat and raked a hand through his grizzled hair, pivoting to look about at what he could see of their property. He clicked his tongue, thinking. “Tell you what,” he said, turning back to face Curtis and Liliana. “You folks are gonna have to pay a fine – one thousand for each man that slave of yours killed. Those men had families, some of ‘em.” He pulled a prod out of his belt. “And we’ll kill the trouble-maker and call it even.”
Liliana took a step forward. “Don’t you touch him.” Curtis looked to her and she glared. “I know the laws. That slave is my property. You have no right to decide anything about him.”
“We can’t let you keep a murdering slave, Ma’am,” Lee replied, striding over to Ronon who was tensing.
“We need him, Mister,” Curtis said. “The harvest is just around the corner. At least let us keep him until we can afford another. Then you can come see the body.”
Lee halted, studying him.
“I’ve got three little girls,” Liliana quietly added. “How’re we gonna feed them without the help?”
Lee looked back to Liliana. Briana and Bo had been restraining Sanura but at a look from their mother, they let the toddler go and joined her at the doorway. Liliana picked up Sanura and Bo and Bri stayed close to her side.
Lee sighed then looked to Ronon, sizing him up. “Alright then. I know a feller who likes the uppity types like him.” He poked Ronon with his inactive prod. “And this one comes from good stock. He’d probably give you six thousand for him.”
“We’re not interested in selling, Mister,” Curtis said.
“You don’t have a choice,” Lee hardened his voice as he looked away from Ronon and over to Curtis. “I’ll sell him tomorrow, take out what you owe for the fine, plus a commission, then you can have the rest to buy another slave. And where he’s going,” he paused to gesture to Ronon, “he won’t be able to do any harm. That’s more than fair.”
Curtis worked his jaw for a moment then looked up to Liliana on the porch. Her eyes were wide and he knew she was searching for a way to wiggle out of this just as much as he was, but they’d already played all their cards. Curtis looked back to Lee, bowing his head before looking up with a fake smile. “I could tell you were a good man from the moment I laid eyes on you.”
Lee chuckled, a raspy laugh, lungs full of tobacco grit. Curtis stepped forward to shake his hand as the man holding Ronon shifted to bind his wrists. Ronon’s heart was hammering wildly and he didn’t dare look up at his adopted family. Bo buried her head in Liliana’s pant leg, muffling her tears. Ronon couldn’t help but look up at her quiet wail and Brianna’s lip-quivering visage constricted his throat.
His eyes shifted to look at Liliana, and her stoic face nearly cracked. His gaze was torn away from hers when he was roughly jerked towards the road and out of the lantern light. Liliana stepped back inside with the girls while Lee had Curtis sign some documents. The men had Ronon mount one of the allegedly stolen horses and tied its reins to one of their saddle horns. Once Lee was mounted, the entourage left, heading down the road.
Curtis stepped back inside, slowly shutting the door behind him. He met Liliana’s gaze, his eyes beginning to shimmer with tears, then caught her as she let out a gasping sob and hugged him.
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