Men. These men. These boys was more like it. Teyla had been frustrated with her teammates before, but the recklessness of John going out into a snowstorm, injured and disoriented, and Rodney refusing to stay behind even though Major Lorne would have come in his stead was only overcome by Ronon first dropping into the water in the open pit and now refusing to remove the sodden clothing even though he still sat shivering after all this time.
"You are endangering your life, not to mention delaying Colonel Sheppard’s return to Atlantis, by remaining wet."
Ronon was military-trained. Even if he was not technically part of John’s military, he had accepted the fact that the colonel outranked him almost as soon as they met. Over time, Ronon had begun to show his independent streak, but his devotion to John had never wavered and Teyla had reached the point where she was desperate enough to try to exploit that fact.
Ronon just pulled the sleeping bag draped over his shoulders a little tighter around the dry upper half of his body, before leaning in and admitting quietly, "I can’t, okay. So just stop asking."
Her anger turned to confusion as Teyla asked, "What do you mean? You are not capable of removing your pants?" His coat and boots already sat on the ground by the fire, but the soaking pants he refused to remove were what had Teyla arguing with him.
"No." Ronon watched Rodney lead John to the other sleeping bag and ease him down before turning back to the woman staring at him with crossed arms. He shifted uncomfortably before admitting, "I don’t have anything on… underneath."
Teyla blinked in surprise even as she bit her lower lip to keep from giggling. Rodney, who was unzipping John’s coat to allow the heat from the fire to reach the man’s body, shook his head. "Well, I guess that settles the boxers versus briefs debate most of the women on my staff have going."
Ronon growled low in his throat at the comment and Teyla did her best to maintain a straight face.
Rodney ignored them, simply removing his own gloves and placing his hands in front of the fire to warm them before moving to John’s boots. "Shit, they’re frozen." Trying to snap and failing due to his fingers being stiff from the cold, Rodney instead wiggled them laboriously. "Ronon, I need a knife."
A knife appeared in the Satedan’s hand, and Teyla was amazed once again at how fast he could produce one from seemingly nowhere. Taking it, Rodney set to cutting the ice-coated laces. Teyla took the opportunity to try to reassure Ronon. "I am more than aware of the male…physiology. We have known each other for a while now, Ronon, and there is no need to be embarrassed by…."
"Oh, that is so not helping," Ronon told her as he turned his back on her.
"This is why you should wear longer shirts, Big Guy," John informed him as Rodney removed his boot and peeled away the sock.
"Dammit, I was afraid of this; frostbite’s setting in."
Teyla could see the early stages of discoloration and swelling that Rodney had seen. "It will help if you warm them on your stomach, Rodney."
"I know, I know. I had the goddamn survival training in Antarctica," the scientist grumbled as he cut away the laces on the second boot. "You are going to owe me big time for this one, Colonel."
"You are as well-trained as Rodney," Teyla pointed out to the stubborn man beside her. "You know for your own well-being you need to remove the wet clothes."
"I’m not running around naked in a cave with all of you here."
"Well, technically, you’ll be sitting…." When both Teyla and Ronon glared at him, Rodney closed his mouth.
At this point, she was getting desperate, and Ronon’s rather surprisingly prudish behavior had pushed her to the brink of madness. "Very well, if you feel so self-conscious being unclothed in front of me, then I shall also be unclothed in front of you."
"What?" John demanded where he lay on the floor.
At the same time Ronon literally jumped back from her and exclaimed, "Oh, no you aren’t."
Rodney sat looking at her expectantly. "Seems fair to me."
Both Ronon and John protested his observation with an angry, "McKay!"
Raising his hand to appease the other men, Rodney offered, "Look, seeing as I’m being really gracious today and using my own precious body heat to make sure Sheppard doesn’t lose his toes, I’ll help you out, too, Ronon. I carry an extra pair of boxers in my backpack. They’re yours if it will keep Teyla from discussing her experience with male physiology any more… although I don’t see a problem with her removing her clothes in the spirit of team camaraderie."
"Are you willing to strip down, too?" John challenged.
Before Rodney could answer, Ronon cut in. "No one’s taking their clothes off, and I’m not wearing your boxers, McKay."
John tilted his head back to look at him. "Ronon, drop the pants; that’s an order. Whether you wear Rodney’s underwear or swing free in the breeze, I don’t care. But you’re going to get dry. Actually, I do care; wear the boxers."
Ronon snarled but went to dig through Rodney’s backpack. Teyla could not decide if she was more thankful that he had finally given in to the order or frustrated that he would not simply listen to reason in the first place. "I’m not doing it while she’s here," the angry man informed his team leader with a jut of his chin toward Teyla.
"When you are ready to change, I will go gather more wood for the fire," she sighed exhaustedly.
Rodney had removed the second sock and was staring at the red, swollen feet with dread. "You shower in the locker room sometimes, don’t you? I mean, community showers are a breeding ground for fungal infections and the like, especially on the feet."
Teyla’s warning tone had Rodney snapping a testy, "Okay, okay," before gritting his teeth with a high pitched, "Holy fuck!" as he placed John’s feet on his stomach. "Ohhhhhh… That is just… wow." With his face screwed in distress, he ground out, "You so totally suck, Sheppard."
"Not exactly my first choice for how I want to spend my day, either, Rodney." He exhaled and the shudders running through him started to slow. "Don’t take this the wrong way, McKay, but that feels so good it hurts."
"I really think I hate you right now." But Rodney pulled his shirt back over the feet and placed his hand over them to warm them from the top, as well.
Teyla knelt beside John with a cup and helped him remove his coat while folding the sleeping bag over him. "I have made tea. Drink it slowly. It will help warm you."
"Thanks," he told her with a pat to her hand.
"Hello?" Rodney demanded. "She makes tea while I drag you through a blizzard and let you freeze my internal organs from the inside out with your Rocket Pop feet and you’re thanking her?"
"Well, she did start the fire, too." John’s justification had Rodney rolling his eyes even as he continued to heat John’s feet.
Teyla squeezed the put-upon physicist’s shoulder with a consoling grin and placed a cup within easy reach for him. "You could use some, too." Her grin grew when Ronon found the underwear in Rodney’s pack.
"You have got to be kidding me."
Ronon was holding a pair of boxer shorts that appeared to be covered with a multitude of small faces of a scientist Teyla had seen pictures of in the Earth history databases she had studied. "Is that… Albert Einstein?"
"Yes." Rodney’s chin lifted in that way Teyla knew was his desire to look as if he was not embarrassed even though he most definitely was. "Katie gave them to me as a gift. She said one amazing head deserved a hundred more." Rodney left his own head lifted but he refused to look at any of his teammates.
Teyla was fairly sure the red on his cheeks had little to do with the lingering chill. She could not understand why a gift from a woman with whom he was intimate would embarrass him so. She also could not understand why John was suddenly choking on the chortle he was trying to control.
"She gave you underwear… in honor of your amazing head?"
Ronon was also snickering, which caused Teyla to furrow her brow more. Things became clearer when Rodney’s lips also twitched.
"She’s a sweet girl, but I don’t think she really understands how phallic she can be sometimes," explained Rodney.
Phallic was a word Teyla did understand and given the rather odd plant the botanist had named after Rodney, she knew Rodney was correct in his assessment. And by the way the three men had descended in all-out fits of laughter, she quickly came to the conclusion that head must have an… alternative meaning. This was much of the disadvantage of being a woman on the team. Whereas Ronon spent a great deal of time with many of the marines, who no doubt spoke openly with him, they tended to be much less crude and much more polite around Teyla. While that may have left her out of the meaning of many jokes, in the end, she really did not mind.
Standing, she decided now would be the time to allow Ronon to change out of his wet clothes. "I will leave the three of you to contemplate amazing heads. I have more important tasks, like maintaining our supply of wood for the fire."
"Yes," Rodney agreed, mustering all the sincerity he could, "maintaining wood is very important."
If possible, the three started laughing harder. With a roll of her eyes, she zipped her coat and headed back out into the snow.
Men. They were the same the universe over.
When she returned, she saw Ronon’s pants had joined the pile of wet clothes, and he sat near the fire with the sleeping bag wrapped tightly around him. She assumed he was wearing the underwear Rodney had volunteered, but honestly could not tell, nor did she care, as long as he was out of the wet garments. Dropping the fuel for their fire nearby so it could also dry, she shook the snow from her coat.
"The storm does not seem to be weakening any. I do not believe it would be wise to attempt to return to the Jumper until at least day break unless it is absolutely necessary."
"We have food, water, a fire," Ronon pointed out. "As long as Sheppard doesn’t need a doctor, I don’t see a problem with staying here for the night."
Teyla knelt beside John and checked his feet. "They are looking much better and have warmed significantly."
"Well, you know, McKay’s ego is an energy source all its own. It’s better than a heating pad."
"I’m glad you think so, Sheppard," grumbled Rodney. "Teyla’s brew has now officially turned to iced tea in my stomach."
"I do not think it will take much longer, Rodney," Teyla assured him before turning her attention back to John. "And how is your head feeling?"
"McKay ran through the typical twenty questions with me… and a few more just to throw me off."
Rodney shrugged at John’s addendum. "Anyone who’s taken differential equations should be able to tell me the Euler-Cauchy equations."
"I have a hell of a headache, more so thanks to Rodney trying to pull twenty-year old math skills out my brain, but getting out of the weather and seeing you guys has helped."
She looked questioningly at Rodney for confirmation of John’s diagnosis.
The scientist bobbled his head. "Paltry mathematical proficiency aside, he was able to answer all the basic questions. And this is the most coherent he’s been since I found him. As long as he keeps it up, I don’t think his brain is going to rattle loose and fall out on the ground."
"Any nausea?" Teyla inquired, returning her attention to Sheppard.
"Comes and goes," John admitted. "I’ll warn you if your shoes are in danger."
"Very well. I shall contact Major Lorne and let him know not to expect us tonight."
Lorne was reluctant to leave the planet, just in case they did need his help, and Teyla was honestly just as happy to have him standing by. By the time she finished the notification, Rodney had decided John’s feet were warm enough to fend for themselves. He helped John sit up, steadying him when he swayed precariously.
Ronon reached out a hand to brace him from the opposite side. "Maybe sitting wasn’t such a good idea."
John waved a hand to dismiss the concern from his teammates. "It’s nothing. I just sat up a little too fast and had a head rush."
"Scoot over, Sheppard," Rodney ordered, taking off his own coat and sitting beside him.
"I told you it was nothing. I just got a little dizzy and it’s already passed."
"Great. Glad to hear it. Now scoot over and share the sleeping bag. You aren’t the only one who spent half the day walking in the snow." Without waiting for an answer, Rodney simply bullied his way next to John and sat shoulder-to-shoulder with him under the sleeping bag.
"Where’s your bag?" John grumped, but Teyla noticed he leaned against Rodney, whether to soak up a little more warmth or to keep from falling over, she could not be sure.
"Ronon’s using it," Rodney told him sarcastically. "That’s just the type of giving guy I am."
Finally realizing what Rodney was getting at, John looked to Teyla. "There’s only two sleeping bags?"
"We had to leave the others with Lorne and his men to transport the injured marines."
"Oh," was all John said in reply before finally grimacing. "I guess I kind of threw a kink in the rescue mission by leaving the crash."
"Pretty much, yes, you did."
John’s grimace just grew when his team simultaneously confirmed his worries. "I thought I was doing the right thing."
Teyla gave him an understanding smile. "You had the best interest of those under your command at heart. We all know that."
Rodney, however, was not about to let him off the hook. "But it was a totally idiotic thing to do. And we all know that, too."
"You know, McKay, maybe you should go share a sleeping bag with Ronon," John suggested.
Rodney opened his mouth to make what was undoubtedly a biting comment back to John, but Ronon cut him off. "No! Teyla needs to warm up."
Teyla gave Ronon a sideways glance, certain his eagerness to share his blanket with her had more to do with his wish not to share one with Rodney. Removing her coat, Teyla sat beside the Satedan with a knowing grin. "Thank you, Ronon. This is most thoughtful of you."
"That’s me." He beamed a gloating smirk at Sheppard and received a disgruntled roll of eyes in return from the other men.
To be honest, it was nice to share a little warmth. The fire definitely heated the cave, and the cave itself was a significant improvement over the weather outside, but neither could compare to the closeness of another person. Outside, the wind had picked up as another thunderstorm moved into the area. Teyla pulled the sleeping bag closer around her shoulders when thunder rumbled and the inside of the cave was lit by the flash of light.
"This reminds me of a time I was on a hunting trip when I was a young woman. A strong storm came upon us and we could not leave the temporary dwellings we had set up. I was trapped in a tent about half the size of this cave for two days with my best friend, her brother and his girlfriend." Teyla shook her head in exasperated humor at the memory of the events.
"How did that go over?" John asked.
"The young lovers were no longer a couple by the time the storm finally passed and I was ready to take my chances against the winds and rain long before that."
"You should try being trapped in the backseat of a VW bug for ten hours straight with a sister who threw up every time the car went around a curve." Rodney grimaced in disgust at the recollection. "I was begging my parents to drop me at the nearest bus station and I’d meet them at my grandparent’s house. But would they take pity on a sympathetic puker? Nooooo. Just handed me my own bucket and kept driving."
Ronon stared at Rodney for a few seconds before telling them, "Once, when I was on the run from the Wraith, I was stuck in a cave for two weeks with nothing to eat but the rotting carcass of a hibernating animal."
Rodney paled and gagged, which had Ronon grinning wickedly as he continued. "I actually used it to keep warm for three days before I started eating…"
When Rodney slammed his hand over his mouth and turned his back on his tormenter, that’s when John had had enough. "Oh, hell, Ronon, I’m the one he’s going to puke on if you keep this up. And you better believe I’ll pull the damn rank card and stick him in your sleeping bag if he does."
Ronon could hardly contain his humor at Rodney’s reaction, but he did stop talking.
Teyla gave him a disapproving glare before asking, "Rodney, would you like some more tea? Perhaps it would settle your stomach."
Rodney shook his head violently at the suggestion and dropped his head between his knees, which just intensified Teyla’s glower at Ronon.
"What? I thought we were swapping stories," he defended.
Teyla’s expression changed to silently tell the Satedan she was not buying that excuse.
She hitched her head toward Rodney, making Ronon sigh. "Hey, McKay, it wasn’t true. I was just messing with you." When Rodney remained silent, he tried again. "You know, just having a little fun."
Rodney still didn’t respond and John patted his back benevolently. "You okay, buddy?"
Holding up his hand to tell John to just wait a second, he stood abruptly and bolted to where Ronon and Teyla sat, hand still over his mouth, until he reached the Satedan and removed it and made a violent retching noise. Teyla and Ronon both stood abruptly, Ronon exclaiming a sound somewhere between a denial and an indecipherable yell as he looked down at where Rodney had vomited on the Einstein boxers… only to see nothing. Looking up in confusion, he saw Rodney rocking back on his heels with an all too familiar smug grin.
"Now who’s messing with who?"
Teyla’s shock at what she had thought Rodney had done transmuted to amusement at what he actually had done and she started to laugh. John quickly joined her.
Ronon still seemed to be processing exactly what had happened. When he finally did, he took a threatening step toward Rodney. "McKay, I am going to…."
"What? Try to disgust me with rotten food stories? Me? The man who considers a little mold a flavor enhancer?"
John backed up Rodney’s claim. "He’s right, Ronon. You’ve seen the way he eats. He ate half a cookie he found under a naquada generator the other day, and no one had been in the room in over three months."
Teyla placed a halting hand on Ronon’s arm to make sure he did no more than threaten the prankster. "Now that we have discussed less than appealing meals, maybe we should eat some… MREs that is."
"Like you said," John drawled, scooting back to lean against the wall of the cave, "a less than appealing meal."
If anything, Rodney’s playacting had only increased his appetite, and he clapped his hands together briskly. "Thank God, I’m starving. Half my lunch was ruined by the flame retardant."
"Flame retardant?" John asked in worry. "What the hell happened?"
Rodney rummaged happily in the packs for the meals, telling John about the malfunctions on Atlantis, pausing only long enough to read the labels of the food packets by the faint firelight. He doled them out, handing each of his teammates the meal they liked most… or disliked least, as the case may be.
As they ate, Teyla told of the funeral she attended, the elaborate ceremony, the tedious eulogies, and the touching final goodbyes from the elder statesman’s countrymen.
Ronon told them the highlight of his day was discovering that the majestic city of the Ancestors really could be one of the most boring places in the universe, although seeing McKay doused in fire suppressant foam made up for some of the boredom.
Teyla noticed John had only eaten about half his meal and was slumping a little more into Rodney as he leaned his head back against the stone wall and closed his eyes. "John? How are you feeling?" She could not help but look out at the storm still raging outside. It would be difficult, dangerous to travel through the woods in these conditions in full darkness, but if necessary, she would. They all would. For John.
He squinted over at her, the flames causing the shadows to flicker across his face, but he managed a reassuring curl of his lips. "Just getting tired and my headache’s coming back. Nothing too bad."
"We have mild painkillers," she told him, retrieving them from her own pack before giving him the two small pills and a new cup of tea. "Rest for a while. We will wake you in an hour."
Rodney had already moved away to allow John the use of the sleeping bag and he stretched out. "Yeah, I know the routine." Pulling the coverings up under his chin John closed his eyes and yawned. "You know what this whole thing reminds me of?"
"Most of our missions, with the addition of hypothermia?" Rodney snorted as he draped his coat back around his shoulders and put another log on the fire.
"No," John countered, "it reminds me of snow days."
At first Teyla thought his disorientation must have returned because that was exactly what they had experienced, a day filled with snow. So how could that be a fond memory?
But then Rodney exclaimed, "Ha! I can count the number of days I got off from school because of snow on my hands," and she realized this was something unique to Earth.
"These snow days… they are a type of holiday back on Earth?" asked Teyla.
John smiled at her question, but didn’t open his eyes. "For a kid they are… at least kids who grow up in areas where snow plows aren’t the official national animal."
Rodney shook his head at the jab at his homeland. "Believe me, Sheppard, I cursed Canada’s exemplary public works departments on more than one occasion when I had to go out in weather worse than this to catch a damn bus to school."
"And walk uphill both ways?" John scoffed.
"Actually, yes. The bus picked up and let off at two different locations."
"So it snows and everything just shuts down?" Ronon asked in amazement.
"Pretty much," John informed them. "Didn’t it snow on Sateda?"
"Sure, but we didn’t whine about it and hide inside."
"We didn’t whine," John countered. "It was a public safety issue. You can’t have school buses full of children sliding off cliffs. People don’t tend to approve of that sort of thing. So they canceled school and you got to go play in the snow and when you got cold you came inside with your buddies and hung out. Kind of like this."
"Except instead of a bus full of kids, you had a Jumper full of marines’ crash," Ronon reminded him.
"And I wouldn’t exactly consider roaming aimlessly through a blizzard with a head injury until you fell in a hole playing in the snow," Rodney challenged.
"Okay, fine, that part isn’t quite the same, but the hanging with your friends part is. Right?"
"Did you wear each other’s underwear?" Ronon asked.
"What? No." Taking a breath, John tried again. "I guess what I’m trying to say here is that if I’m going to be stuck in a cave during a snowstorm with a bunch of people, you guys would be…my first choice." As if embarrassed by his admission, John turned his back to them. "Although I’d skip playing footsie with Rodney’s stomach and seeing Einstein’s heads floating around Ronon’s private areas."
John drifted off and the others put away the remnants of their meals… after Rodney took all the coffee packets and started mixing a cup for himself. Teyla braved the storm yet again, this time to gather some more snow to melt for water. When she returned, Ronon had moved to lean against the wall on the opposite side of the fire from John. Rodney was sitting near John, a cup of coffee in his hand.
"You will not be able to sleep if you continue to drink that," Teyla chided.
"Please, this stuff barely qualifies as caffeinated. Besides, I’m going to stay up and do the checks on Sheppard a few more times, just to be sure."
"Very well. Wake us if you need anything." She joined Ronon, placing her coat behind her to provide a barrier between the wall and floor and pulled the sleeping bag over them. She could not claim it to be toasty warm but it was not cold with the fire and shared body heat and they were safe. In the end that was all that mattered.
It was ironic to think she had started the day with a funeral to honor the memory of man who had lived a rich and full life and had feared she might end it with the premature death of another man who should have many more years ahead of him. She had experienced grief, remembrance, fear, worry, relief, frustration, and humor all in the same day, had been through an emotional tempest to rival the one whipping the snow around outside. But since she had become a resident on Atlantis, that had become the norm, thanks in large part to the three men huddled together with her in a cave.
These men. Her men. Her team.
Settling in against Ronon, Teyla closed her eyes, finally giving in to the exhaustion she’d been holding at bay for so long.
* * * *
When John woke, he was kind of surprised not to see McKay leaning over him demanding, "Name, rank, and serial number, Colonel." That’s how he’d been awakened the past three times, but the last time when John had added the scientist’s favorite computer password to the list of information being demanded of him, Rodney must have come to the conclusion that Sheppard’s brain was, indeed, mostly intact. No, this time it was the need to piss that pulled him from sleep. Given the way Teyla had been pushing tea on him since they’d arrived in the cave, he was a little surprised it had taken this long to pass through his system.
Sitting up, he saw Rodney laying nearby, curled on his side by the fire with John’s coat over his legs and his own coat over the top half of his body. Yeah, they’d no doubt hear about misaligned vertebrae and imminent paraplegia in the morning. Hell, Lorne and his men would probably be able to hear the patented McKay bitching and moaning from where they waited for them in the Jumper. When he threw back the sleeping bag to stand, the noise had Ronon waking and looking across the fire at him. And when the big guy tensed, Teyla, who was leaning against him in sleep, woke, as well.
"It’s okay." Sheppard fell silent when Rodney mumbled in his sleep, waiting until the man settled back into a deeper breathing pattern before continuing in a lowered voice. "I just need to… you know."
Ronon’s only acknowledgment was to slump back and close his eyes, almost instantly snoring again. John couldn’t help but snort. He’d never met anyone like the Satedan. A man who could scare the bejesus out of an enemy with little more than a guttural growl one minute, then scoop you up in a bear hug the next. Once you got to know him, you realized he had just as many moods as he had knives hidden on his body, each just as elusive and just as surprising when you saw one appear from out of the blue.
Yeah, Ronon was one of a kind, but so were the other two members of his team. Teyla, who had already drifted back to sleep, had been almost as surprising as Ronon. The exotic beauty from the third world society he’d thought she was when they first met had quickly revealed herself to be so much more. She was a seasoned diplomat and negotiator, a deadly warrior who had quickly become as adept with the Earth guns as she was in Athosian hand-to-hand combat, and more able to follow McKay’s nonstop scientific discourse than John was.
And then there was Rodney. What could you say about McKay that the man hadn’t already said about himself? Brilliant? Sure. Arrogant? Oh, hell yeah. A pain in the ass? Definitely. Brave? More so than he gave himself credit for. But those were the traits everyone could see. Sheppard had learned over the years that McKay could be so much more… funny, self-deprecating, goofy, fun to hang out with, and a friend, a real, honest-to-God friend who provided a steady base even in the middle of the chaos life in the Pegasus galaxy meant. Even when Rodney was falling victim to the stress, he helped John keep it together, because controlling McKay was something he could do, even when there was nothing else to do. In fact, he was probably one of the few who could coax the impossible out of Rodney with little more than a smart-ass comment.
The thing was, Sheppard couldn’t imagine Atlantis without McKay. The two had melded in his mind stronger than his ATA gene allowed him to meld with the city. Even when he was in the control chair, he could sense McKay’s mark there, in the tweaking of the sensor arrays, the boost of the shield generator, the reallocation of one system’s power to aid another. It was like he could see Rodney’s shadow flickering on the periphery of Atlantis whenever he used the control chair. And even though he’d never admit it out loud, he found it comforting to know he was there, because John had learned over the years that he couldn’t always trust the Ancients or their technology, but he could sure the hell trust McKay.
Walking the short distance to the makeshift door of tree branches, John set to relieving his bladder. It looked like the blizzard had finally weakened and there was only a light, steady snow falling. The clouds were breaking up allowing the moonlight to cut through the trees and reflect off the deepening powder. All in all, John didn’t mind snow as long as he wasn’t at risk of dying of hypothermia. Antarctica had been a turning point in his life. There had been others along the way, like when he’d walked away from what many would consider the good life. But he had finally deciding that a harder life he could actually call his own was better than the one his father could buy for him as long as John followed the Sheppard family rulebook. Anyone who knew John Sheppard knew playing by the rules wasn’t his strong suit and the fact that his father expected him to do just that went to show how little interest the man had taken in getting to know his son. Even his brother couldn’t understand why John would rather fly helicopters than follow in their father’s footsteps, and eventually even his relationship with Dave had turned as frigid as the air near the opening of the cave. The irony was that it had taken being shipped to one of the coldest places on Earth to find the familial warmth and acceptance he’d always craved.
Unconsciously, Sheppard found his thoughts drifting back to the three people with him in the cave, the people who had given him what he’d always tried to get from his biological family, without him ever having to ask. McKay, in particular, had filled a gap he’d never even known was there and he’d done it without either one of them realizing it had happened. But then Rodney had nearly died playing with an ascension machine, had John thinking he was dead when the alien crystal played fast and loose with his deepest fears, had volunteered to die to save Jeannie, had risked his life time and time again to save Sheppard, and John realized he’d had a brother all that time and never known it.
Maybe it was because Antarctica had been a turning point for Rodney, as well. It was a second chance for both of them. It was funny that they’d both been punished for doing what they thought was the right thing and Atlantis had allowed them to finally prove to themselves and everyone else what kind of men they were capable of being. John wasn’t fooling himself into thinking that either one of them could have done that without the other. Whether McKay would admit that was another story, but Sheppard knew he wouldn’t deny it if pushed on the matter.
Zipping up, John turned his attention back to the winter scene outside. The storm had evidently blown out as fast as it had blown in. When he had come through the gate with Stackhouse’s team, it hadn’t been snowing much harder than it was now. They’d figured it wasn’t anything to worry about; they’d start their recon and see what they found, weigh their options for even leaving the Jumper if anything showed up. Ends up they did find something; a desolate village, probably culled decades before. The energy and life sign readings were negative but John figured they might as well check it out while they were there. They spent an hour rummaging through the remains of the main settlement, went up in the Jumper again, found a few outlying camps and walked through them, too. By that time, the storm had grown stronger, the winds had picked up, and it actually started to lightning… in a goddamn snowstorm. That was a first for Sheppard and it was also when he had decided to call it a day and headed back to Atlantis. Unfortunately, they never made it that far. The entire control console on the Jumper had sizzled mid-flight, the radios had popped loudly in his ear, Sheppard had lost all control of the ship, and they’d plummeted from the sky.
When he’d come to, Rodney was slumped on the floor and bleeding… everywhere. He’d looked to check on Teyla, only to see Myers lying unconscious with his head resting on the DHD. And where Ronon should have been, Lewis was gritting his teeth and bracing his leg. Looking back in confusion, he’d realized it wasn’t Rodney who was hurt, but Morgan. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to keep that straight and his mind kept wandering back to the thought that McKay was the one who wasn’t going to make it if help didn’t come. And seeing as they weren’t overdue for several more hours and no one else was mobile, that meant the only way to let Atlantis know they needed medical assistance was to go tell them himself.
Lewis had tried to talk him out of going, but even after they’d stopped the bleeding from the gash on Rodney’s… Morgan’s head, he’d felt the sickly divot in the skull, and he knew the man didn’t have a chance in hell of surviving without a doctor. John honestly didn’t know how long he’d been walking in the snow by the time McKay found him. It was just a blur of white, wind, and blistering cold. His thoughts had drifted like the snow swirling around his legs– memories of stories about people in North Dakota going out to check their mail in January and their bodies not being found until the spring thaw, memories of sledding with some kids from school and crashing headfirst into a fire hydrant, memories of the Jumper going down, memories of white snow being replaced by red blood, and the absolute need to make it to the gate. He remembered finding the cave when his leg broke through the branches that were covering it, remembered looking down and thinking it would be a good idea to get out the storm for a little bit. The next thing he knew Rodney was there and his first thought had been, "Shit, Rodney died and so did I." His second thought had been, "Shouldn’t it be warmer than this in hell?" But the longer McKay talked to him, the clearer things became and he finally gave in to the idea that maybe they’d all get out of this alive after all.
John turned back to his sleeping bag . When he reached it, he placed a few more logs on the fire before pulling McKay’s coat up to cover the physicist’s shoulders. Rodney flinched awake at the touch, blinking in drowsy surprise when he saw John squatting beside him.
"Hey. What’s wrong? You all right?"
"Yeah, I’m fine." Looking back at the sleeping bag, Sheppard hitched his head toward the wall. "Come on." Because the fact was, if it hadn’t been for Rodney, he doubted he would have been fine at all.
"What?" McKay whispered in confusion but John just snatched his coat from Rodney’s legs before grabbing the sleeping bag and heading toward the wall to sit down.
"No use having you freeze to death after saving me from that fate." Putting his coat down on the ground, John sat on it and patted the floor of the cave beside him. "Like you said; you save me, I save you…."
"What comes around goes around?" Taking his own coat, Rodney crawled the short distance to place it as a ground cloth before crawling under the sleeping bag and leaning back against the wall.
"Pretty much," John agreed around a yawn. "I guess my bad karma is catching up with me if I’m stuck sleeping with you, McKay."
"Yeah, that’s what they all say," Rodney mumbled drolly, wriggling in under the covers with a slight shiver and closing his eyes. "It’s kind of like those snow days you were reminiscing about. Sure you get a day off in the dead of winter, but then you just have to make up the missed day in summer. You always end up paying in the end."
"If that’s the case, I’m starting to think our entire time on Atlantis has been one long series of snow days."
He’d had the time of his life since walking through the gate. Where else could he shoot a man, throw him off a balcony, and laugh about it afterward with the victim? Where else would the victim suggest doing it in the first place? It was the only place he could think of where he could get his ass kicked on a regular basis by a woman wearing a leather tank top and slit skirt and not have to pay for it in the back room of a Vegas strip club. And it was the first time he’d had the chance to introduce the guilty pleasure of crushing a beer can on your forehead to someone or watched a grown man’s eyes light up in joy as he watched people being eaten alive by a giant shark. Those were the sorts of things money could never buy but friendship could, the sorts of things that made him think it had been worthwhile to let his guard down and let people in.
But there had been plenty of times he’d wished he hadn’t, selfish times when he’d thought it would have been easier to have kept his distance and not gotten so close, times when he’d berated himself for not learning anything from nearly losing everything for a friend. Those were the times late at night when he’d lain in bed unable to sleep after Ford had run intentionally into a Wraith culling beam, after Carson’s funeral and he’d watched Rodney board an airplane bound for Scotland, after they’d learned Elizabeth really wasn’t coming back. They’d lost so many over the years that John sometimes wondered if it was payback for being so happy since arriving and wouldn’t it be better to just pack up and go back to the relative safety of Earth. But all he had to do was remember how much it had sucked out loud to be back on Earth with Rodney in another state and Teyla and Ronon in another galaxy and his heart beating a little faster every time they dialed the gate back at the SGC in a false hope that this time when the wormhole stabilized and he stepped through the event horizon he’d end up back home on Atlantis once again.
Rodney cracked one eye to look askance at Sheppard. "I didn’t realize getting stuck with me was such a burden for you, Colonel."
"Well, not that it isn’t a burden at times, but I actually consider you more of a winter’s day."
Another eye opened and McKay frowned. "Cold, dismal, and deadly?"
For a genius, Rodney could be incredibly dense. Either that or he was intentionally making this hard for Sheppard. Bobbling his head uncomfortably, John admitted, "I was talking more about the… fun parts."
"Really?" Rodney asked happily.
"Although the cold, dismal, and deadly can be a pretty accurate description, too."
"You just can’t stop while you’re ahead, can you?" McKay closed his eyes again with a shake of his head.
Sheppard did the same with a grin. "Not something I’m known for."
"You’re not known for being quiet, either," Ronon grumbled from across the cave before threatening, "but I’ve seen you do it when your life depends on it."
"Thank you, Ronon."
Rodney’s smug smile dissolved when the Satedan pointed out, "And you can’t even shut up long enough to save your own skin, McKay."
"Perhaps they can learn by example," Teyla suggested dryly without even opening her eyes.
Ronon actually looked a little abashed to be chastised, and John had to fight the twitching at the corners of his mouth.
"What are you smiling about?" Ronon demanded.
John thought about trying to maintain a straight face but quickly decided against it. "Nothing," he told the large warrior innocently. But the honest answer was, "Everything."
The next time he woke, it was because the sun was cutting through their windbreak of branches and causing his already aching head to throb with the brightness. Doing his best to block the light, he sat up a little and squinted. A quick glance around the cave showed Teyla was gone, probably to give Ronon a little privacy, as he was in the process of pulling on his now-dried clothes. The fire had died down and the air in the cave was chilly, but Sheppard had to admit that, if nothing else, all those pudding cups McKay ate not only kept him at his current fighting weight, they also made him pretty toasty to sleep with… beside. To sleep beside. He made a mental note to choose his words carefully for the mission report for this one. Although he was pretty sure Rodney would be willing to back him up in his explanation that it was purely for survival purposes they’d ended up sharing a sleeping bag. That was as long as he stayed on the scientist’s good side. John made another mental note to make sure the man stayed well-stocked with pudge-inducing pudding cups for the next couple of weeks.
The human heater in question shifted causing his head to flop onto Sheppard’s shoulder. John rolled his eyes when Rodney just continued to snore.
Ronon’s lips curled wickedly at the sight. "You two comfy?"
"Tell you what," Sheppard offered, "you never mention last night’s sleeping arrangements and I’ll never mention the Einstein underwear. Deal?"
John watched as the gears turned in Ronon’s head and landed on the conclusion of ‘Oh, shit, I never thought of that’.
"Deal," he readily agreed.
That taken care of, Sheppard set to waking McKay with a bounce of his shoulder before the scientist started drooling on him. "’Morning, Sunshine," he grinned, intentionally deepening his voice. "Was it good for you?"
Blue eyes flew open in disoriented shock and Sheppard decided that expression alone might be worth the scandalous dishonorable discharge a statement like that could earn him if he didn’t have boxer shorts blackmail material to hold over the only other person to hear it. The panic turned to ire when the morning fuzz cleared from Rodney’s head and he saw exactly where he was.
"You wish," McKay snorted, straightening and scrubbing at his face. "Although I seriously doubt I’m your type considering I possess a key element none of your usual bedfellows can claim."
"Yeaaah," John drawled, "that’s pretty much an intentional choice on my part, McKay."
"I was talking about an I.Q. larger than my chest size, Colonel."
"Actually, so was I." The smartass smirk just had McKay shaking his head in wonder.
"How you ever get laid is beyond me."
"So, I take it you don’t still respect me this morning?"
"That would have required me to have respected you last night to begin with." Rodney stood and stretched with a grimace of discomfort which seemed to have more to do with the fact that Ronon had awkwardly offered the boxers back to their owner.
"I’m not taking those back!"
"Why? They’re yours."
John was always struck by how black and white Ronon’s logic could be.
"I know that," Rodney argued, "but you wore them."
"And you wore them before I did, didn’t you?"
"So, it’s okay for you to give me underwear that you’ve already worn but I can’t give them back to you after I’ve worn them?"
When Rodney looked back at Sheppard for some sort of support, he just shrugged. "He has a point." Because, really, who didn’t enjoy seeing McKay flustered?
"Yes, I wore them before you," Rodney explained impatiently, "but I also laundered them before offering them to you." Stopping to consider what he’d just said, he nodded in self-confirmation. "Yes, I am almost positive that I’m sure they went through the laundry… probably."
With a growl, Ronon shoved the questionable underwear into McKay’s hands and stomped away to gather the rest of his things.
John took that as his cue to get organized himself. He stood and, whoa, that wasn’t such a great idea given the way the room tilted before righting itself. Rodney looked between the wad of cloth in his hands and the Satedan, then back at Sheppard, who just patted him on his shoulder. "Bet you’ll remember to wash them after this."
"Wash, bleach, and possibly burn them," Rodney corrected before studying John closely when he didn’t release his hold on McKay’s shoulder. "Sheppard?"
Teyla had reentered the cave and all three of his teammates were watching him in concern. "It’s nothing; just a little dizzy from the…." He fluttered his hand indiscriminately at his head since the whole thing hurt. In fact, his whole body hurt from that day-after-impact ache that resonated through every joint in his body. "So, how far away is Lorne parked?"
"Two, two-and-half miles tops," Rodney assured and John decided he must really look rough if McKay, of all people, was trying to pass off the distance as no big deal.
"Oh, well, then that’s not so bad." John’s dismissal wasn’t as convincing as he’d thought it would be.
"You should eat," Teyla encouraged.
The room wasn’t the only thing that had rolled when he stood, and the thought of food really didn’t do much for his already protesting stomach.
Before John could protest the idea, Rodney chimed in, "I could eat."
"There’s a shocker," Ronon snorted.
Rodney crossed his arms defensively. "In cold weather, it’s very important to keep your caloric intake high enough to support the energy needs of your body."
"You could energize a ZPM with the amount of calories you eat, McKay."
"Mock me all you want, Ronon, but I understand the importance of proper nutrition. Now where the hell are my coffee packets and Snickers bar?"
Teyla stepped in and suggested an MRE might be a better choice. McKay relented on the candy bar, opting to save it for the trail… all two miles of it… but he finished off all three packets of coffee he had squirreled away. Once they had eaten, John had to admit he did feel a little bit better. Teyla contacted Lorne to let him know they would soon be heading out. John set about trying to find some way to keep his boots secure since McKay had cut the laces off the day before. He managed to tie several of the larger pieces of shoelace together to at least wrap them around the top of the boot and secure it enough to keep the snow out. He’d just about finished the second one when he looked up to see Rodney staring at him.
"What?" John asked in confusion. Glancing back, he saw Teyla and Ronon were watching him with the same odd expression on their faces.
"Nothing, you just don’t usually tie your boots that way," Rodney dismissed.
McKay’s explanation only managed to confuse John more. "It’s not like I have much choice in the matter, Rodney."
"No, no, of course not." The scientist seemed embarrassed by his reaction and quickly turned back to adjusting the straps on his backpack.
That’s when Sheppard noticed something else. "You’re wearing my coat."
"What?" McKay inquired innocently, looking down at John’s lighter weight coat.
Seriously, the guy really did suck at lying. "My coat, Rodney. You’re wearing my coat."
"So I am. My mistake. Oh, well, no use taking off all my gear, just go ahead and wear mine."
"McKay…" John called to the quickly retreating form of the scientist.
"Look, I spent half the day yesterday reenacting March of the Penguins, my spinal alignment feels like it resembles a sine wave, I’ve lost an entire day of work, not to mention a pair of really spiffy underwear, and, in return, I’ve more than likely gained a case of athlete’s foot on my stomach. All because of you, Colonel. So why don’t you cut me some slack, put on the goddamn coat, and get moving so I can go home and see what disaster has befallen Atlantis while I was out saving your frostbitten ass before I stencil ‘now available in the freezer section’ on your office door and leave you here to live out your own personal homage to a Lean Cuisine."
John thought of arguing but when he pulled on Rodney’s coat and stuck his hands in the pocket, he decided to go another route. Zipping up the parka, he lamented. "Lean Cuisine? Please, I’m much hardier than that. Now if you’d said a Hungry Man dinner, I could see that."
Rodney sighed exhaustedly. "Can we just go already?"
Ronon pushed past him out the mouth of the cave. "Why? Can’t wait to have an excuse to eat your Snickers?"
"You’re just jealous you didn’t think to bring your own." When Sheppard joined the disgruntled scientist at the entrance McKay informed John abruptly, "And, no, you can’t have a bite."
John stuck his hand back in the pocket of the coat McKay had tricked him into wearing, wrapping his hand around the sacred treat Rodney had forgotten he’d stashed there. "I wouldn’t dream of asking for one." No good deed went unpunished, as they say. Not that John would actually eat it or anything… not unless McKay really ticked him off in the near future.
Ronon had positioned himself where he could offer Sheppard a hand as they made their way down the slippery rocks. With his head still swimming occasionally, John didn’t complain about the assistance. When they reached the bottom, Rodney set them on the proper course using the life sign detector before falling into step beside John as they trudged through the snow. At least with Ronon in the lead he was able to clear a path making the going a little easier for the others.
But with his team, John didn’t expect anything less. Ronon clearing the way, Teyla watching their backs, Rodney correcting their course, and each of them keeping an eye on Sheppard. After the second time McKay caught him under the elbow to keep John on his feet, the scientist started walking so close Rodney’s feet were becoming more of a tripping hazard than the snow. Sheppard thought of telling him to back off, but decided against it. He really was exhausted from the whole crashing/concussion/nearly freezing/sleeping in a cave experience and the periodic bump of McKay’s shoulder against his kept the encroaching fuzz at bay. Besides, it gave him a front row seat for Rodney’s mild panic attack on the trail when he couldn’t find his candy bar and realized exactly what his stubbornness regarding the coats had earned him.
McKay’s eyes widened as he patted frantically at the pockets of the coat he was wearing, then narrowed when Sheppard asked in his most sincere manner, "Is there a problem, Rodney?"
Rodney seemed to be weighing his options before he finally said, "No, Colonel, no problem at all."
McKay may not have had a problem, but by the time they could see the Jumper through the trees, John was having one. He barely broke a sweat during a two-mile jog. But two miles in the snow after the day he’d had the day before had him leaning into McKay more than walking on his own. Still, when Lorne came out to meet them, he managed to straighten.
"Colonel, it’s good to see you."
"Major," he greeted, noticing Rodney was standing so close behind him that when he swayed, it was his friend’s shoulder keeping him from toppling backward. "Sorry about your little campout last night."
"Don’t worry about it, sir. It reminded me of ice fishing at my grandfather’s up in Minnesota, only with a really cool alien spaceship instead of a drafty shack."
Sheppard blinked, trying to keep his second-in-command in focus. "Well, who says the Pegasus galaxy isn’t without its perks?"
"I do," Rodney countered, giving John a push toward the back of the Jumper. "At least the planets made up of frozen wastelands without any useful technology sure lack them."
Lorne could only nod. "I can’t argue with you there, Doctor."
"Then let’s not waste any more time hanging out on this one."
Lorne took the colonel’s suggestion as an order. "Yes, sir."
Taking a seat in the back of the Jumper with the rest of his team, John leaned his head back wearily against the bulkhead. In a few minutes they’d be home, safe, warm, out of danger… until the next time. There always seemed to be a next time. McKay was right about snow days always coming back to bite you in the ass. But he’d enjoy the fun as long as it lasted. He had a job most men in his position would kill for, a home worth fighting for, friends and coworkers worth dying for, and a surrogate family worth living for… not to mention a Snickers bar in his coat pocket.
Life really didn’t get much better than that.