Title: Snow Day
Genre: Gen, Team
Word count: ~18,400
Spoilers: Anything through season 4... I think. That's the problem with zine fics, too much time passes for you to remember exactly what was going on when you wrote it. *G*
Author Notes: This fic was written for the Brotherhood 5 zine, and I honestly can't remember the names of all the editors, but they were a wonderful bunch to work with. Seriously, all the Brotherhood zines are gorgeous and should be owned by everyone who can get their hands on them. Their website can be found here.
Summary: When Sheppard's Jumper goes down on a planet in the clutches of a blizzard, it's up to his team to find him before it's too late.
If there was anything Ronon Dex hated, it was having nothing to do.
He’d gotten pretty good at finding ways to occupy his time when he was on the run from the Wraith. You’d think boredom wouldn’t be a problem when you were, running for your life, setting traps, avoiding the ones the Wraith had set for him, but he’d had a remarkable amount of downtime, as well. Typically during those days he’d forage, hunt, and fashion weapons, in essence, prepare for the next onslaught. But sometimes there were weeks between attacks, and even practicing his forms and singing crude songs he’d learned in the barracks wasn’t enough to pass the time. It was then he’d made dice out of stones or playing cards out of bark and played a few rounds of fives and nines or assassin’s attack. He’d learned the members of the Atlantis expedition had a similar game called solitaire, although the Satedan deck had a dozen more cards than the one from Earth and wasn’t played on a computer.
He had a computer in his quarters on Atlantis, something he rarely used for more than checking schedules and citywide notifications, but today he was so bored he was tempted to try out some of the games McKay had showed. He’d had plans to go running with Sheppard in the morning, then participate in some weapons training with some of the marines, followed by sparring with Teyla in the afternoon. But then Stackhouse had fallen down the stairs on the way to the Jumper Bay and twisted his knee and Sheppard had volunteered to fly the mission instead. Then there had been a malfunction in the east wing of the city where the armory and shooting range were located that had resulted in the fire suppression systems randomly activating and the training had been canceled. Carter had gone to help McKay and the scientists with the problem, so Teyla was required to step in and act as her representative at a funeral ceremony for the leader of one of their major trading partners. That left Ronon with an entire day with nothing to do.
Nothing at all.
The one time he had tried to see if Rodney needed some help with… something, he’d been told, "Yes, you can remove some of this dead weight the SGC has seen fit to burden me with." The man’s hands had fluttered irritably to take in most of the scientists working around him. Before Ronon could ask if there was something he could really help with, even if it was just heavy lifting of a more legitimate kind, McKay was already off berating one piece of dead weight personally. The Satedan was just about to try to ask again when McKay was suddenly doused by a frothy foam coating being sprayed from the walls. Zelenka covered his bark of laughter with a cough when Rodney wiped enough of the suds from his face to glare at his coworker. At that point, Ronon had decided that trying to talk to McKay was a futile effort and he might as well return to his room and stare at the ceiling for a while. That had been three hours ago and, even though he hadn’t spent the entire time counting the tiles above his bed, it had occupied a good portion of his time.
Sitting up on his mattress, he eyed the computer again before checking the clock. Teyla should be returning soon, and Sheppard should already be back from the mission. It was just a simple recon of a new world that, from the MALP data, looked to be long abandoned. Maybe he could get a decent workout in before dinnertime with one or both of them… that was, if McKay had managed to get the walls to stop squirting foam every few minutes. Ronon pulled on his boots and decided to stop by control to see if either of his teammates had returned.
Teyla was just walking back through the gate when he confirmed with the gate tech that Sheppard was still offworld.
Rolling her neck exhaustedly, Teyla sighed when she saw him and trudged wearily up the stairs.
"Nice funeral?" he asked with a quirk of his lips.
"The Darringee are an eloquent, albeit long-winded, people. And Alabain was nearly eighty-three cycles old… all of which were eulogized in excruciating detail." With a shift of her bag off her shoulder, she grimaced. "I have been standing for almost six hours."
"So I don’t suppose I could talk you into a stick fight, huh?"
She gave him a sympathetic smile. "I am sorry, Ronon. I wish only to grab a bite to eat, return to my quarters, and soak in a hot bath to hopefully work out the kinks in my back."
"Yeah, well, maybe Sheppard will be up for it when he gets back."
Teyla’s brow furrowed at the proposed compromise. "John has not returned yet? He was due back over an hour ago." When Ronon frowned in return, Teyla asked, "Where is Colonel Carter?"
"They’re still working on the fire suppression system."
Teyla started in the direction Ronon hitched his thumb and he quickly followed her. They met McKay at the turnoff from the residential section as he was heading back toward the east wing of the city, hair wet from what was apparently a recent shower.
"Hey, so how was the party?"
"It was a funeral, Rodney," Teyla reminded him with rolled eyes. "And it was a somber and distinguished occasion."
"Yeah, sorry I missed it," he dismissed absently as he studied his arm before shoving it under Ronon’s nose. "Do you see welts? I swear to God that flame retardant had me breaking out in hives." When his teammate evidently didn’t answer fast enough to suit him, Rodney pulled his arm back and returned to scrutinizing it himself. "I’m going to make sure Sam sends a sample back to the SGC for a full analysis. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a carcinogen."
"Where is Colonel Carter?" Teyla asked him, not slowing her pace.
"Down by the gym last time I saw her, overseeing the final cleanup." Realizing Teyla wouldn’t be looking for the expedition commander unless it was important, Rodney jogged to catch up and match her pace. "Why? What’s wrong?"
"Sheppard’s overdue," Ronon informed him succinctly.
"What? He’s not back yet?" With a quick glance at his watch, Rodney keyed his radio. "Control, this is McKay. Dial up M3C-945 and try to contact Colonel Sheppard and the rest of the away team."
"I just did.There was no response."
The three frowns deepened. This time Rodney called Carter. "Sam?"
"I heard," she answered back. "I’m on my way. Chuck, let’s prepare a MALP and ready a team, just in case."
With a quick glance at one another, the three returned to the locker room to gear up. If any team was going to go looking for Sheppard, it was going to be the colonel’s own. Once they were ready, they headed back to Control to see what the MALP had found.
"What is wrong with the picture?" Teyla asked as they leaned in and looked at the feed coming from the MALP. It was nothing but a white screen.
"It’s snow," a disgruntled McKay informed them.
"What? You mean like static?"
"There’s nothing wrong with the feed," Rodney corrected Ronon’s assumption, "I mean real snow." He sent an order to the survey instrument on the other planet and the camera turned, showing the edge of the drift it had been fixed on. The scene now showed a field covered with more blowing drifts edged by trees bending in the high winds that were barely visible in the near white-out conditions.
"I do not understand. The original MALP data did not show such conditions."
Teyla’s observation had Rodney shaking his head. "It must have blown in during the mission. It’s been what? Eight hours? If the blizzard has maintained this same intensity for that long, it could easily have dropped that much snow."
"Maybe they’re just waiting it out," Ronon suggested. "Couldn’t the storm interfere with their coms?"
Carter crossed her arms and straightened. "It is possible that’s the case. But if they’re in trouble, the last thing we want to do is leave them stranded in a snowstorm. Rodney, do you feel comfortable piloting a Jumper in these conditions?"
McKay’s eyes widened as his mouth opened then closed. "I… that is… given the fact that someone should probably concentrate on using the instruments to search for the other Jumper, it would probably be best if someone else flew the ship."
Carter simply nodded before turning and addressing the man standing behind her. "Major Lorne, ready your team. Pack the cold weather survival gear." Turning back to Sheppard’s team, she gave a small reassuring smile. "Just in case."
The three nodded tensely in understanding before looking back at the MALP display when the gate tech called, "Colonel Carter, I think you should see this."
Ronon squinted at the flickers and flashes he saw on the screen. "It looks like lightning."
"That’s exactly what it is," Rodney agreed as they watched the electrical currents dance across the clouds with the occasional bolt hitting the ground in the distance, "It’s not exactly common to have thunder and lightning during snowstorms, but it’s not unheard of either. Although, that’s a pretty intense storm." There was a loud pop and then the entire screen glowed blue-white before going black. "What happened?"
Chuck shook his head as he typed commands to the MALP. "I don’t know. It’s not responding. I think it may have been struck by lightening."
McKay elbowed his way between the tech and his keyboard and tried to fix the problem himself. "He’s right; it’s toast."
"Well, it is sitting right beside the Stargate," Carter pointed out. "If anything is going to attract lightning that would be it."
"Would a Jumper attract it, as well?" Teyla asked in concern.
Rodney’s eyes widened in that way that said he hadn’t thought of that possibility, but now that he had, they were totally screwed. "A direct hit from a bolt of lightning would probably fry the Jumper just like it did the MALP."
Lorne looked between McKay and Carter. "Then is it safe to fly there?"
"We can always wait for the storm to pass." Carter didn’t seem the least bit happy with her own suggestion.
"How long could that take?" asked Teyla.
"Hours," McKay informed them gloomily.
Ronon just started fastening his coat. "Then we go in on foot."
"And what?" Rodney demanded. "You saw the conditions on that planet. Are we supposed to just wander around aimlessly in whiteout conditions? We have no idea where the Jumper even went down, if it did."
"If it did go down, then they can’t wait a couple of hours before we start looking for them," Ronon argued in return.
"I know, I know." McKay rubbed a thumb along his forehead in thought. "Just give me a second to come up with something."
"Would the cloak not protect us?"
Rodney shook his head at Teyla’s suggestion. "No, the cloak just fools sensors and the human eye into thinking the Jumper isn’t there; the metal of the ship would still attract lightning." Snapping his fingers rapidly, McKay brightened. "But if we converted it to a shield like when we go underwater, and I tweaked the polarity a little…"
Without waiting for permission, Rodney started at a jog for the Jumper bay. The others watched him go before turning questioningly back to Carter.
"Well, it looks like Rodney has a plan," she said. "Once he finishes the modifications, you have a go, Major."
Lorne gave a brisk nod. "Yes, Ma’am."
But Ronon and Teyla were already heading toward the Jumper where Rodney was working.
Twenty minutes later, they were through the gate. And as far as Ronon was concerned, that was twenty minutes later than they should have been. But as much as he hated to admit it, McKay had been right. There was no way they could have walked into a storm like this one and expected to stay on their feet, much less find Sheppard. Still, after spending all day waiting around, the extra delay to finally get out there and find their missing friend and the marines had only put Ronon more on edge. Evidently, given Teyla’s anxious tone, he wasn’t the only one.
"Are you picking up any life signs?"
The HUD popped up and McKay scanned it from his copilot’s seat. "Yes, there’s two about five miles to the west, and another one about two miles north of that position."
Ronon scowled at the news. "Only three life signs?"
"Yes," Rodney confirmed with dread.
Four of them who went out in the Jumper. That meant, whatever had happened, someone hadn’t survived. Ronon had no qualms about hoping like hell Sheppard wasn’t the one the expedition had lost. Because as much as he liked the marines he worked with now and again, and was willing to help out anywhere he was needed in his adopted city, Ronon didn’t consider himself a member of the expedition. He was a member of Sheppard’s team, first and foremost, and that’s where his loyalties lay.
It didn’t take long for them to arrive above the location of the two life signs. They found the Jumper, resting at an angle on the remains of the trees where it had obviously gone down hard and out of control. Ronon had been in the Jumper before when it had lost power and crashed. He knew from personal experience that Sheppard wouldn’t have been able to do more than warn the men in his craft to prepare for the impact.
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Lorne, do you copy?"
The lack of response had Ronon’s stomach knotting as Lorne called again.
"Atlantis Jumper, do you read me?" Still no answer and Lorne surveyed the immediate area. "The trees are too thick to set down here. It looks like there’s a clearing up ahead and we’ll have to hike in from there."
Just another delay in reaching the downed Jumper; Lorne took a quick pass over the location of the third life sign. This one was even deeper in the woods and they couldn’t see anything through the thick trees below them. Once again, attempts to raise the man on the radio went unanswered.
"Whoever’s down there, we’re going to have to go after them on foot," Lorne told them before returning to the clearing to land the ship.
He was right. The clearing where they landed was the closest location to both the crashed Jumper and the lone member who had left the site. The crash site was a mile due west of where they set down and the other person was two miles north of that. Further north, the access was blocked by the long ridge of a gray rock cliff face, which just had Ronon wondering where the man thought he was going since it was in the opposite direction of the ‘gate.
Once the back hatch opened, Ronon was the first to step out into the wind and blowing snow, followed soon after by Teyla. He pulled the hood of his winter coat up, the fur framing the opening around his face, adjusted his scarf over the lower half of his face and placed the goggles over his eyes. Teyla braced herself against him when a gust whipped across the open meadow. He’d turned down the Earth-based winter clothing in favor of his own long, fur-lined coat as it had served him well over the years. But he was glad he’d taken the eye protection because the icy pellets were stinging the small amount of exposed skin on his face.
The marines fanned out on either side of him, followed, finally, by McKay.
"Christ," Rodney exclaimed behind the wrapping around his face as he put his head down against the icy blast. "This is insane. How are we even supposed to walk in this?"
Ronon was tempted to tell the scientist to just stay in the Jumper if he really felt that way. But he didn’t. For one, he knew Rodney would refuse. Despite his complaining, Sheppard was missing, and McKay had a way of stepping up and pulling it together when that was the case. For the other, Sheppard wouldn’t have let Rodney sell himself short like that. And Ronon wasn’t about to either. "The trees will block some of the wind."
"Yeah, but we’re not in the trees at the moment," McKay griped, even as he held the life signs detector up to see it through his goggles.
Grabbing a handful of parka, Ronon tugged the man into motion. "Then you better start walking so you can reach them."
The Satedan had been right; the trees did offer some protection from the wind, enough that halfway to the crash site, Ronon noticed something in the white groundcover. Teyla, dressed in the same Earth gear as the rest of the search party, stopped to look over his shoulder where he’d squatted to study the markings.
"Footprints," she yelled to be heard over the wind, her voice muffled by the covering she wore over her own face, which matched the one McKay wore.
Ronon nodded. "They head north, in the direction of the third life sign."
"The wind will cover them with new snow." Teyla was correct, in that they were already fading and there was no telling how fresh they were. "We will lose the trail soon."
Ronon had been thinking the same thing and was considering if they should go after the lone hiker. But why would one of their men head north instead of east where the gate was located? It didn’t make any sense unless they were lost in the storm. And why leave the relative safety of the Jumper to head out into this sort of weather?
Above them there was a flash followed by a deep rumble of thunder. Rodney had joined them and looked up to the sky nervously. "It looks like another storm cell has moved in. We should get to the crashed Jumper and take cover."
"What about him?" Ronon asked in reference to the footprints. His teammates quickly picked up on the unspoken, "What if it’s Sheppard?"
"We’ll be able to track him using the life signs detector," Rodney pointed out as another flash lit the sky.
It was so close Ronon saw spots from the brightness and could smell the ozone.
"Jesus, we need to take cover."
"Rodney is right," Teyla agreed reluctantly when the roar of thunder quieted. "We should continue on to the crash site and wait for the lightning to pass."
When Ronon hesitated, his two teammates stayed beside him, McKay literally bouncing to be moving and Teyla placing a hand on his shoulder.
"Ronon, we will be of little help to him if we are injured during the rescue attempt."
With a growl of frustration, Ronon stood and headed after the marines weaving through the trees to the downed Jumper. The crash became visible through the trees a few minutes later. The ship seemed to be intact, but canted to the side as a result of the remnants of the trees that had been smashed and splintered in its descent. Lorne and his team were already climbing inside the back hatch by the time Ronon, Teyla, and McKay reached it. Ronon made his way through the tangle of twisted branches of one fallen tree, offering a hand to his teammates to pull them up into the Jumper. It was a mess to get through but, on the plus side, it offered enough protection from the elements that the wind died instantly once they were inside; he guessed if you were going to crash, you should do it the way they had, with the wind blowing perpendicular to the opening.
Pushing his goggles up to rest on his forehead, Ronon quickly surveyed the clutter inside the Jumper. Items from the storage bins were scattered across the floor where two of the marines lay, Lorne’s team were already attending to them. Ronon was pretty sure they were Captain Lewis and Sergeant Meyers although he had never worked with the men. The upper half of a third person was covered with the man’s own blood-stained coat, a makeshift death shroud that didn’t conceal the black-clad, lean frame and long legs that had Ronon unable to move from his position at the back of the Jumper.
Teyla softly gasped, "John."
Rodney murmured, "Oh, God," before looking around the ship and focusing on the one marine who was conscious. "Where did Colonel Sheppard go?"
"He didn’t make it back to Atlantis? He went for the ‘gate to get help," the injured man told them, trying to push himself up.
Teyla was still trying to process that the dead body wasn’t their teammate. "How…?" she started to ask before turning her attention back to the body to see what she’d missed that Rodney obviously hadn’t that had let him know it wasn’t Sheppard.
Ronon didn’t even question that much, simply took McKay at his word and clung to it. Not Sheppard. Sheppard was alive. Out in that damn snowstorm, but alive.
"He ties his boots different," McKay dismissed as if it should be obvious to anyone who took the time to look.
And now that Ronon took the time instead of letting the first impression feed his already heightened fears, he saw Rodney was right.
The scientist, however, had already returned to grilling Lewis. "You let him go out in a fucking blizzard by himself?"
"It’s not like I could do much to stop him with a broken leg, Doctor," the man defended. "I tried to talk him out of it, especially considering he’d hit his head pretty hard during the crash, but he insisted. Myers has been in and out since we went down, and Morgan was bleeding… the colonel knew it would be too late for him if we had to wait until we were overdue. Unfortunately, he was right. He died about two hours ago."
"Two hours?" Ronon demanded. "How long has Sheppard been gone?"
"Almost three hours now. When you showed up, I just assumed he’d made it back…."
Ronon was already starting out the back of the Jumper.
Teyla called after him. "Ronon, wait!"
"He’s been out there for three hours with a head injury. How much longer do you think he can wait? You and McKay stay here and help take care of the others if you want, but I’m going after Sheppard."
"We need supplies, sleeping bags and a medical kit at the very least," she reasoned with the Satedan. "Going after him without the things we may need is useless."
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Ronon nodded. "Get them. I’m leaving in two minutes with or without you."
Teyla nodded in return and set to her task.
Ronon pulled the hood of his coat up once again, thinking two minutes was more than he should have allowed. Funny how he’d gone from counting tiles in his ceiling to counting the seconds they were wasting. Considering the alternatives, maybe having nothing to do wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
* * * *
When Teyla started unpacking the gear they had brought with them, Rodney left the marine still babbling his excuses and joined her. "What’s going on?"
"Ronon is going to look for Colonel Sheppard and I am going with him." She pulled two sleeping bags from the kit to leave in the Jumper. "I will leave two for transporting Captain Lewis and Sergeant Myers back to the Jumper..."
"Why are you telling me this?" Rodney asked in confusion. "Tell Major Lorne; I’m going with you guys."
"Rodney, perhaps it would be best if you remained…"
McKay cut his Athosian teammate off with a shake of his head. Was she insane thinking he was going to stay behind? He’d had one terrifying second when they first entered the Jumper, one heart-stopping moment when he saw the body and thought their luck had finally run out and Sheppard was really, truly dead this time. But then he’d seen it, the circling of shoestring around the boot instead of simply tucking the loops into the top, and knew it wasn’t Sheppard. After that, there was no way in hell he wasn’t seeing this through to the end. "Are you planning on following the tracks we saw in the woods? The ones that are probably gone by now? He’s obviously disoriented with the weather and his head injury so there won’t be any logic in where he’s going. If you want to find him fast, you need me and the life signs detector."
"Isn’t on our team," Rodney reminded bluntly. "Besides he needs to take care of the injured marines, because I’m not going to carry them back through this mess on a stretcher. It’s enough that I’m probably going to have to drag Sheppard’s ass through the woods dodging lightning bolts in the middle of a blizzard."
"Of course," Teyla relented with a small apologetic smile. "Help me pack the gear and we shall go."
They each took a sleeping bag, some food supplies, heating elements for melting snow for water, and a few other items Rodney really wasn’t paying attention to as he pulled his second electronic tablet and cabling, along with the digital video camera, from his pack to make room for the additional supplies.
"Ready?" Ronon called impatiently from the back of the Jumper. It was obvious he was leaving whether they were ready or not.
"We are ready," Teyla assured, standing and walking towards him while she put the last of the gear in her own pack.
Lorne stopped them before they stepped out into the wind. "I can send a couple of my men with you if you want" the major offered.
Teyla just shook her head. "The injured men need medical attention and you will be able to get them back to Atlantis all the sooner and return for us if you can move them both to your Jumper at the same time. That will take all four of your team. We will find Colonel Sheppard and meet you back at the clearing, hopefully by the time you return."
"All right, then. Good luck."
Rodney nodded and pulled his balaclava back into place before putting the goggles over his eyes and preparing himself for the onslaught of wind and snow. At least the latest lightning storm had passed over since they’d been in the crashed ship, but given the intensity of the blizzard itself hadn’t died down, Rodney fully expected another one to move into the area at any time. Ronon was already at the bottom of the pile of wood and branches by the time he and Teyla stepped out into the gale.
"We only have about ninety minutes of daylight left," Rodney informed them, enunciating his words to be heard over the howling wind. "Not that it’s a huge help, but I can only imagine how bad it will be after the sun goes down."
"Then we shouldn’t waste any more of it," Ronon responded, already heading back in the direction of the tracks.
In the distance Rodney heard a loud crack. It took him a second to realize it wasn’t thunder but a tree snapping. Dammit, couldn’t Sheppard make anything easy? He couldn’t need rescuing from a lush, tropical planet with wide, sandy beaches and scantly clad women delivering non-citrus-based mixed drinks, could he? Noooo, of course not. He had to go get himself stranded on Hoth for Christ’s sake. Well, Ronon could be the one who sliced open the wild beast and stuffed Sheppard’s frozen ass inside if it came to that. Friendship had its limits, after all.
Oh, who was he kidding? He’d slice a tantan open with a pair of nail clippers and climb in there with Sheppard if it came down to it. Although he hoped like hell it wouldn’t come down to that.
With a sigh, McKay checked the life signs detector to make sure they were heading in the right direction. The good news was he could still make out the lone blip indicating Sheppard was still alive. The bad news was it hadn’t moved since they’d arrived on the planet and that meant Sheppard was either holed up or hurt or succumbing to the elements. Rodney kind of wished they had gone after the tracks as soon as they found them instead of wasting their time going to the crashed Jumper. Sure they hadn’t known it was a waste of time, but Rodney hated being wrong even if all he had to blame for the mistake was his lack of a crystal ball. One would think, the Ancients would have developed something along those lines. Of course, seeing as they couldn’t even come up with a way to determine the origin of an incoming wormhole, he wasn’t that surprised. Hell, they’d had the concept of caller I.D. back on Earth for a couple of decades.
Coming out of his internal bitch session long enough to check their progress, Rodney saw Ronon survey the ground before heading off in an easterly direction. "He’s this way!" he yelled to catch the large man’s attention, pointing north.
"The tracks go this way," the Satedan yelled back in mid-stride.
In that position, with the fur of his coat around his face and his beard white with snow, Rodney couldn’t help but have a flash of the unfocused photos of Big Foot that had made the rounds back in the 1970s. Keeping that thought to himself, McKay shook his head.
"He’s been roaming aimlessly…." Rodney spun his finger in the air before applying the same motion to the side of his head. "Obviously disoriented. The quickest way to him is straight ahead." The finger moved to jab to the north where Sheppard’s life sign was blinking.
"He started north then circled back." Ronon pointed to the quickly fading marks in the snow.
Rodney supposed that, yes, they did appear to show what his teammate suggested. But the fact remained; Sheppard was dead… er, straight ahead of them about half a mile.
"Look, do you want to follow his meandering path or get to him as soon as possible? Because he isn’t moving. And I don’t know about you, but I’m about to turn into a human popsicle after twenty minutes of hiking in this frozen hell, so I can only imagine what shape he’s in."
McKay watched as Ronon battled between his desire to reach Sheppard as quickly as they could and his need for something tangible to use to track him. Without the boot prints, he was going to be relying completely on Rodney to lead them in the right direction. But it didn’t take long for the Satedan to make up his mind.
"Lead the way."
Rodney followed the path of Ronon’s arm indicating the scientist should take point, and McKay set out making a path for them to follow through the deepening snow. Even with the branches to provide cover, it was already up over his ankles and now that he was clearing the way for the others, not to mention the never-ending wind, it was becoming harder to walk. Rodney despised snow, hated it with a passion that went back to his childhood in the frozen north, hated the memories of frigid nights in a tiny apartment in Siberia where the heat only worked a few days a week if he was lucky, had even hated the subfreezing temperatures of Antarctica, regardless of the fact that he was working in a goddamn Ancient outpost. Sheppard had liked Antarctica, found the desolate landscape soothing, the stinging bite of the frozen air refreshing, the never-ending glaciers relaxing.
Sure, maybe it was the trauma associated with the deserts of Afghanistan, the tumbleweeds rolling across the sun-baked asphalt at Kirkland while the Air Force decided the severity of his punishment before skipping the court-martial and settling on McMurdo, but eventually the novelty should have worn off. Maybe after today it had. Rodney knew this experience had just deepened his hate for the white flakes collecting in a deepening pile around his feet. And if Sheppard had one iota of sense left in his no doubt frostbitten brain, he’d come to the same conclusion. Rodney planned to ask him just that, right after he asked him what the fuck he had been thinking heading out into a whiteout with a goddamn concussion.
Sheppard’s tracks eventually veered off from the path Rodney was blazing through the snow and he couldn’t help his own urge to stick with them. He knew he was doing the right thing following the device in his hand, but he couldn’t help but wonder what Sheppard was thinking as he meandered through the trees. Did he know he was lost or did he think he was still on course to the ‘gate? Did he know he was overdue, know that his team would be looking for him, know it was just a matter of time before they found him? Maybe that’s why he was sitting still. Maybe he had seen them on his own life signs detector and was just waiting. But if that was the case, why wasn’t he making his way back to meet them and the warmth of the Jumper? Because, surely he was freezing out here in this weather. That thought had Rodney’s stomach flipping because if hypothermia was setting in, Sheppard could be feeling just the opposite, and that… that would be really, really bad.
But that worry quickly disappeared when he heard a crack behind him and Ronon was suddenly swallowed up by the ground.
"Ronon!" Teyla screamed about the same time Rodney exclaimed, "Holy shit!" and dove for the newly opened hole. The Satedan had managed to grab the edge of the fissure, his feet dangling in the darkness below him. Rodney grabbed his arm, unaware he’d dropped the life signs detector until he heard it clatter against the edges of the opening and finally land with a splash.
Rodney decided it was probably a cave with an underground river running through it. Considering the limestone cliffs they’d seen and the dark areas he’d assumed were caves, he wasn’t surprised. Whether Ronon had just managed to step on a weak spot over the sinkhole or the snow and ice had bound the brambles covering it, he didn’t know, nor did he really care. Right now he just needed to make sure he wasn’t going to have to medically evacuate two teammates instead of one. Pulling with everything he had, he started to worry that wasn’t going to be the case. Ronon didn’t budge.
"Christ, a little help here would be nice."
Teyla had moved around the opening and dropped to her knees to help, but Ronon shook his head. "Let go of me, McKay."
"Now is not the time to go Sheppard on us, Ronon. I’m really not in the mood for more self-sacrificing today."
"We need the life signs detector if we’re going to find him," Ronon reasoned.
Rodney refused to release the arm and Teyla took the other one. "And how is falling to your death going to help get it back?"
"It’s only about a ten foot drop, twenty at the most. I’ll get it and you can throw a rope down to me."
"How can you be sure?" Rodney demanded with a groan as he pulled harder on the arm in his hands.
Teyla pulled the flashlight from her vest. "He is right, Rodney, the fall is not that far. But you would most likely land in the water," she warned their teammate. "This is not the weather to be caught in wet clothing."
"I’ll be fine," he assured, "now let go."
"Are you crazy?" Rodney demanded.
Ronon just grinned. "Maybe a little." Releasing his hold on the edge of the opening, he easily slipped from Rodney’s and Teyla’s grasp and dropped to the floor below with a loud splash.
Rodney did his best to bite off the annoyed, "Fuck!" as Teyla directed her light down into the pit.
"Ronon," she called, "are you all right?"
He looked up from where he sat up to his waist in what had to be icy water and waved. "Shine the light over here," he yelled back. Teyla handed the light to Rodney who did as Ronon requested and, within a couple of minutes, Ronon had located the life signs detector.
"Now will you come back up?"
Ronon only grinned up at Teyla’s impatient tone. "Where’s the rope?"
The rope she had secured to a nearby tree dropped to land in front of the Satedan and he started to climb up with Teyla’s and Rodney’s help. The lightning started again before he was even halfway up and Rodney flinched away from the flash.
"Okay." Ronon shuddered as he handed over the life signs detector. "Let’s go get him."
Teyla shook her head at his eagerness. "Ronon, you must get dry."
It didn’t take long for the harsh winds to prove Teyla correct. Of course, Ronon still tried to deny it. "I’m…f..fine."
"You’re dead if you don’t warm up," Rodney argued, taking in the ice already forming on the soaked leather clothing. "There were caves…."
"In the cliff," Teyla acknowledged with an understanding nod toward the ridgeline that should lay less than a quarter mile through the trees. "You will be able to locate us with the detector once you have found John?"
"Yes, yes," Rodney answered impatiently. "Just try to find some cover from the wind and see if you can start a fire. We’ll join you soon."
"I said… I’m… f..f..fine." Ronon was shivering violently at that point.
"Don’t be even more of an idiot than you’ve already proven yourself to be by going swimming in the first place. Go with Teyla." When Ronon started to protest again, Rodney cut him off. "You know we’re right and the more time you spend standing there freezing to death before our eyes, the more time Sheppard spends out in this mess." Another bolt of lightning lit the sky to accentuate his point.
Wrapping his arms around himself to try to conserve heat, Ronon finally nodded briskly in defeat. "D..don’t… ssscrew… this up… M..McKay."
"Says the human ice cube," Rodney grumbled before turning to leave.
"Be safe, Rodney," Teyla called after him.
"You, too," he yelled back over his shoulder, hunching his shoulders against another blast of cold wind. He watched his two teammates as they started toward the caves, doing his best to convince himself that Teyla knew what she was doing and could take care of Ronon and that he, himself, knew what he was doing so he could find Sheppard. Checking the life signs detector once again, he was now tracking three blips– one that still sat in the same location straight ahead and two heading toward the cliffs. He should reach Sheppard about the time Teyla and Ronon found the caves, if all went well. A flash of lightning and a loud roar of thunder did nothing to convince him that would be the case.
A while later, Teyla hailed him through his radio. "Rodney, we have found a cave, about a third of the way up the cliff. The path up is slick but the rocks form a stair step for an easy climb."
Already? He hadn’t even found Sheppard yet, but checking his watch he saw it had been about twenty minutes since they’d separated.
"Copy that," he scanned the area around him. According to the device in his hand, Sheppard should be here, somewhere. "How’s Ronon?"
"Stubborn," Teyla exhaled in obvious frustration. "But alive. Have you found John?" she asked hopefully.
"No, and according to the detector, I should be practically standing on top of him." Rodney squinted hard, as if that would help him see through the blowing snow and darkening landscape. They’d eaten up what little daylight they had and Rodney had no doubt the temperature would fall even more as the light continued to diminish.
"Rodney, you do not think that perhaps he fell into a hole, as well?"
"Shit, I hadn’t thought of that." Changing his search to include the ground, he saw a dark edge off to his left. He dropped to his hands and knees, crawling to the perimeter of what he now saw was obviously an opening, hoping, he wouldn’t fall in himself. "Sheppard?" He shined the light down into the cave and saw it wasn’t nearly as deep as the one Ronon had fallen into. In fact, he doubted Sheppard would have been able to stand straight without bumping his head. Moving the beam of light to take in more of the sinkhole, he stopped when he saw a black boot. "John!" There was no response but the detector said he was still alive. Keying his radio, Rodney told Teyla, "I’ve found him. You were right; he’s in a hole and he won’t answer me. I think he might be unconscious. I’m going down after him."
Rodney tied his rope to a tree and threw the rest of the line into the hole. It was a short drop to the floor of the cave, but the change inside was instantaneous. Just being out of the wind raised the temperature a good twenty degrees or more so that it felt closer to freezing than to the subzero wind chill they had been hiking in for the past couple of hours. And fortunately, this cave didn’t have water flowing in it beyond a small trickle. Sheppard was sitting with his back against the wall, head tilted to the side as if he’d just fallen asleep.
"Sheppard?" Rodney tried again, bending over to keep from bumping his head on the low roof. When he reached his friend, McKay knelt beside him and removed his gloves to reach into the hood of Sheppard’s coat to check for a pulse. The touch had the injured man flinching awake and Rodney exhaling in relief. "Easy, John, it’s me."
Sheppard seemed to be having trouble focusing. "McKay?" He practically slurred the name as he looked around in confusion.
"Yeah, it’s me. I’m going to get you out of here, okay?" Using the small flashlight, Rodney looked him over. He had a lump on his forehead with the remnants of dried blood from where he must have hit it during the crash, and a cut on his jaw, but otherwise looked to be in one piece. He’d also had the wherewithal to pull his arms inside his coat to conserve a little more body heat.
Hazel eyes studied Rodney closely and John’s forehead creased. "You’re not hurt?"
Rodney rolled his eyes even as he helped the baffled man work his arms back into the sleeves of his coat. "What is it with you people? I grew up in Canada; I can handle a little snow. You all seem to think I’m going to…"
"You were bleeding." Sheppard’s statement had McKay falling silent. "The crash… you were bleeding."
"John, I wasn’t in the Jumper when it crashed," Rodney reminded in gentle concern, pulling his canteen from inside his coat and pushing it into Sheppard’s hand. "You filled in for Stackhouse on the mission today. Remember?"
It took Sheppard a few seconds before he shook his head with a slightly embarrassed wince. "That’s right. It was… Morgan. He was sitting in your seat. Not you; Morgan. Right?"
Rodney hadn’t paid that much attention to where the other team had been sitting, but he had a feeling Sheppard was correct, which went a long way in explaining why he’d gone for the gate with limited gear in a blizzard. Not that the colonel wouldn’t risk his life for just about anyone on Atlantis, but where his team was involved, he could get a little… reckless. And if his head injury had him confused about exactly who was in the crashed Jumper with him, nothing would have stopped him from going for help.
Tapping the canteen in John’s hand, Rodney shook his own head. "Don’t worry about it, Sheppard. Right now we just need to get you out of here and back to the cave Teyla and Ronon have found so we can warm you up." Even down here out of the wind, John’s skin hadn’t felt as warm as it should have. He was going hypothermic and Rodney needed to get him someplace to raise his body temperature.
After finally drinking from the canteen, Sheppard told him, "I can’t feel my feet." He gave a small, groggy laugh at the news as his eyes started to drift shut again and the canteen began to slip from his hand. "I just wanted to take a little break… get out of the wind… for a minute."
"No, no, no," McKay ordered, fisting Sheppard’s coat and giving a shake. "No falling asleep. Come on, time to get moving, Colonel."
Sheppard blinked his eyes open and let Rodney pull him to his feet. Throwing Sheppard’s arm over his shoulder, Rodney took most of his weight. Looking up at the opening, McKay weighed their options, coming to the conclusion he’d probably have a better chance of climbing out of the hole using the rope than Sheppard would… maybe. And not by much.
"Okay, Sheppard, up you go." Rodney pulled John’s hood back up over his head and snapped his coat under his chin before looking around and locating the colonel’s second glove. When the team Sheppard had led to this planet had flown through the gate, they hadn’t been expecting a snowstorm. Winter coats and gloves over standard uniforms were all they had come with. Rodney didn’t want to think what would have happened if Sheppard hadn’t found or accidentally fallen in the cave. Instead of lingering on that horrible thought, he linked his fingers to make a lift for Sheppard.
Sheppard looked between Rodney’s hands and the rope. "I’ve got it, Rodney." But when he tried twice and still couldn’t grasp the rope, he finally gave in and put his boot in the step McKay had made.
Rodney pushed up with an oomph. "Christ, how can you weigh so much and be so skinny?"
"It’s a paradox, like you rescuing me." John grunted as he pulled himself up and Rodney pushed from below.
"Hey, this is what we do; you save me, I save you." Rodney took the rope and attempted to pull himself up… and didn’t move. Come on, McKay, you can do this, he told himself, doing his best to block the flashbacks to junior high phys ed. The wall was too far away to use for leverage, so he gripped higher up the rope and pulled again… and actually moved up a fraction of an inch. He smiled smugly. "That’s more like it." But then he moved up a little further with another jerky motion and he realized he wasn’t climbing; he was being pulled up. Once Rodney had his elbows on the edge, Sheppard dropped the rope and started hauling him up by grabbing his arm and coat.
Rodney wiggled out on his belly, clawing into the snow for purchase. Once he was more out of the hole than in, Sheppard fell back panting in the snow. "So… I guess… we’re back… to your turn… to save me… again."
McKay climbed to his feet and offered a hand. "That’s the plan."
John took it, heaved himself up, and gladly leaned against Rodney when the scientist again slung Sheppard’s arm around his shoulder. "We have to send help… for the marines."
They staggered against a blast of wind as Rodney checked the life signs detector as he told him, "Lorne’s taking them back to Atlantis. You don’t need to worry about them anymore." Handing the detector to Sheppard, McKay keyed his radio. "Teyla, I’ve got him. We’re heading your way now."
"That is wonderful news, Rodney. How is he?"
"Alive, standing, walking…." John’s knees wobbled and he almost went down, which had Rodney tightening his grip and amending, "…sort of. We should reach you in about ten or fifteen minutes."
"Where’re Teyla and Ronon?" Sheppard’s staggering nearly took them down again.
Rodney started to think he might have misjudged how long it would take to reach the others. "In a cave up ahead. Ronon got wet and needed to dry out so I sent them on and came looking for you."
"By yourself?" Sheppard’s tone was more angry than surprised. "You’ve been walking around in this weather by yourself?"
"You’re kidding, right? I wasn’t the one who went all Sir Edmund Hillary and thought I could take on the wilds of winter with little more than a windbreaker and shining optimism to help find the damn gate."
"Hey, Hillary made it to the top of Everest didn’t he?"
"He wouldn’t have without Tenzig Norgay," Rodney countered.
"Well, then, now that my sherpa is here, I shouldn’t have any problems, either."
"Don’t get any ideas, Sheppard. I’m not carrying your frozen ass anywhere." McKay knew that wasn’t the case, but he was happy as hell it hadn’t come to that.
"I’d rather be Shackleton anyway. None of his men died."
Rodney had been dreading when Sheppard would ask about the condition of the men he’d left in the Jumper. "Yeah, that was impressive," he agreed quietly.
Ends up, John could read the outcome in Rodney’s voice. "Morgan didn’t make it."
"Even if you’d made it back to Atlantis, I doubt he would have."
"The other two?"
"Alive when we left them with Lorne and his team. I think they have a really good chance of making it out okay."
John simply nodded and fell silent for most of the rest of the walk. When he did start speaking again, it was in a low mumble more, to himself than Rodney. "Gate… ‘tlantis… need medical team… team… needs help."
"Sheppard, we’re almost there. Just a little further." At least he hoped that was the case.
Lorne called to them across the radio reporting he’d returned to the clearing and Teyla answered before Rodney could. "It would be unwise for Ronon to travel through this weather in wet clothes. We have a fire going to dry them now."
"Teyla’s right," Rodney agreed. "And we’re closer to her than the Jumper and we need to get Sheppard warmed up."
"Copy that, Dr. McKay. We’ll stand by at our current location until you arrive. Lorne out."
Looking up, Rodney could just make out the flicker of the fire Teyla had started. Giving Sheppard a little shake in an attempt to draw him out of his stupor, Rodney coaxed, "See, Teyla and Ronon left the light on for us… up an incredibly steep, ice-covered slope."
"Teyla and Ronon?" Sheppard looked up at that. "Did the medics find them?"
Rodney started to explain, yet again, that the only injured person on their team was Sheppard, then changed his mind. "Just see for yourself."
Teyla must have been watching for them because she met them halfway down the slope. "John, thank the Ancestors, you are alive."
Sheppard smiled at his Athosian teammate with the same look of relief she wore as she took his other arm and helped him up the next rocky ledge creating the trail up to the cave. Between the two of them, Teyla and Rodney were able to get their disoriented team leader up to the entrance of the cave. Teyla moved the windbreak of large branches she’d placed in front of the opening and Rodney could instantly feel the heat from the small fire she had built in the center of the cave. The natural room wasn’t large, but at least they could easily stand without bashing their heads and there was room for all of them to fit and even for a person to lie down, which was exactly what McKay planned to have Sheppard do, on the sleeping bag spread beside the fire.
As soon as they stepped inside, Ronon stood from where he’d been huddled by the fire, setting aside the cup he held in his hands. His grin of relief at seeing Sheppard turned to a frown of irritation when Teyla chastised, "Ronon, for the last time, take off those wet clothes this instant. I will not tell you again."
"Good," Ronon grumped in return, "I’m getting tired of repeating myself every time I tell you no."
Teyla moved in close to the Satedan and narrowed her eyes as she spoke low and dangerous. "Do it now, or I will have no choice but to undress you like the small child you are behaving as."
Sheppard blinked between the two Pegasus natives who were staring each other down, before turning to look at the man still supporting him. "Did I miss something? I must have missed something."
"You aren’t the only one," Rodney told him, torn between shock and amusement and a little curiosity to see if Teyla really would undress the much larger man.
When Rodney had woken up that morning, he’d thought maybe he’d spend the day in the lab working on the drift factors for the new Jumper alignments, eat some lunch, challenge Radek’s latest ideas on trying to harness the solar flare energy from the new planet’s sun as a backup in case the ZedPM went down, and maybe play computer games with Sheppard before the two of them joined their team for dinner. Instead he’d been doused with what was no doubt deadly fire retardant until he looked like a snowman only to shower it off and immediately come to a planet to wander around in a blizzard looking for his friend until he felt like Frosty himself. But even with those unexpected turns of events, he never expected to see Teyla threatening to rip Ronon’s clothes off in a cave by firelight… at least not in front of him and Sheppard, anyway.
He sure wished he’d left that video camera in his pack after all.
* * * *
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