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Warm

by Eildon Rhymer

 

Injured and alone on the ice, he remembers…

 

________

 

The cold is stealing his body away. He is dimly aware that his leg should be agony, that his shoulder is out of joint, that his head is bleeding. He can see the blood on the snow, turning it pink, melting it like blobs of acid burning through the ice. He remembers feeling pain when first he landed.

 

Now there is only numbness and the urge to surrender, to drift.

 

He is not so far gone to think this is a good thing.

 

******

 

Months before, they found themselves in a place that was carpeted with snow. White hills rose behind snow-covered evergreens, and the sky was a perfect blue. "Like a Christmas card." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Welcome to Planet Winter Wonderland."

 

"I like it." Teyla's breath was jewels issuing from her lips. "We seldom had snow on Athos."

 

"And our contacts are late." Rodney threw his hands up in disgust. "Of course they are! And no doubt we're expected to wait for them, slowly freezing to death, or else we'll offend some primitive tribal taboo. Well, you won't find me waiting out here. I'm going back to the jumper."

 

"Aw, Rodney." Sheppard tried his best boyish grin. "What's not to like?"

 

"I've seen quite enough snow to last me for a lifetime, thank you very much. I'd have thought you had, too, with the whole banished to Antarctica thing." He saw Sheppard stoop to pick up a handful of snow. "Oh, please! How old are you, colonel? Five?"

 

"Just testing it," Sheppard told him innocently, "to see if it's good snow." It was soft and sticky, and positively cried out to be shaped into a ball. Wasting it would have been criminal. "Perfect," he declared.

 

"For what?" Teyla wondered.

 

Sheppard showed her, right in the middle of Rodney's chest.

 

******

 

Ice has formed on his eyelashes. He doesn't know where it has come from. Does this mean that he has been crying? Perhaps it is snowing again, whiteness burying him like a shroud.

 

He remembers when moving seemed to be desperately important. He remembers trying to sit, trying to move his good arm, bracing his hand around his broken leg and trying to drag it across the snow. He remembers reaching for the radio at his ear and finding it gone. He remembers saying things, stupid things, trying to tell himself that it wasn't so bad after all. He remembers laughing; he remembers gritting his teeth; he remembers shouting into the silent emptiness of blue and white.

 

Now he wonders if those memories came from someone else, after all. There is nothing inside and outside but the cold.

 

******

 

Snow filled his mouth. Sheppard spat it out, and rolled over, but Rodney was faster, smashing a handful of snow into the back of his neck.

 

"That's enough! That's enough!" Sheppard made it onto his back. Rodney was crouching over him, cheeks flushed. "I surrender." Sheppard waved his arms and legs experimentally in the snow, driving snow before them in an arc. "Please don't hit me again, Rodney," he pleaded.

 

Rodney was holding his hand ready to scoop up more snow. "I'm not falling for that, colonel. Surrender isn't in your vocabulary; life would be more restful if it was. No, I know you. You're up to something."

 

Sheppard looked beyond him, to where Ronon and Teyla were stalking each other through the tree stumps, a sleek panther circling a wolf. "Psst, Rodney," he hissed in an exaggerated fashion through the side of his mouth. "Fancy an alliance?"

 

"Against Ronon?" Rodney snorted. "Honestly, colonel, introducing snowball fighting to Conan the Barbarian is like… like introducing nuclear weapons to the Spartans. What were you thinking?"

 

"That's a yes?"

 

He remembered being a child, lying in the snow and watching planes fly like shining ice crystals in the sky above him. He remembered making snowmen with the few children with whom he shared his dreams. He remembered the joy of surprising the class bully with a snowball thrown from hiding, and how his parents had shouted at him when he had fallen off his skateboard on an icy street. They had been long forgotten, all of them, but the snow beneath his hands brought those memories.

 

"Why not?"

 

Sheppard stood up, and issued his orders to his troops. "You go that way –"

 

"Oh, please, none of that cryptic hand signal thing."

 

"Care to add something from your own repertoire of snowball fight tactics, McKay?"

 

"Oh, come on." Rodney rolled his eyes. "You're not telling me you studied snowball fights at Colonel School. Great snowball fights of our glorious past…"

 

"Do you want to get Ronon, or not?" Sheppard demanded.

 

"Well, yes. Yes. Although of course it's childish. Stupid. You put me up to it. I'll make that completely clear when he kills us."

 

"Go!" Sheppard hissed, and sent Rodney to meet his fate, as he went to meet his own.

 

******

 

There is ice all around him, but when he opens his eyes, everything is blue.

 

He tries to move his hand, and manages to bring it into his field of vision. He has lost one of his gloves. He remembered enough, when it first began, to thrust that hand beneath his jacket. Sometime since then he has forgotten to keep it there. He wonders what frozen flesh looks like, but his brain doesn't seem to care.

 

A faint thread of a voice, as tiny as a single snowflake in a vast and howling blizzard, tells him that it is not a good idea to sleep.

 

He is not quite sure why he listens to it.

 

******

 

Sheppard grimaced, tugging at his clothes. "There's snow in places that snow has no right ever to go."

 

"Oh, please, colonel. Too much information."

 

"You're the same, Rodney. He got you good and proper."

 

"Got us good and proper. It was your idea." Rodney raised his voice, jabbing towards Sheppard with one finger. "It was his idea."

 

They had flopped to the ground in a place so trampled that the snow had almost turned into thick impacted ice. Ronon's hair had been white all over, but now the snow had almost melted, leaving him speckled, like someone beginning to go grey. They all looked the same, frosted and sprinkled with ice. As if it's ten years later, and we're still together.

 

Something twisted inside him. He disguised it as a laugh, but that, too, was real.

 

"Don't come running to me when you all get hypothermia." Only Rodney had insisted on sitting on a tree stump, carefully keeping his body away from the snowy ground.

 

"You'll be right there behind us," Sheppard told him, pointing at his sodden clothes, where snow still clung, white in the folds.

 

Rodney's chest was still heaving from all the exertion. "No," he said. "I'm going to die of exhaustion first. That was… That was crazy."

 

"You aint seen nothing yet," Sheppard promised him.

 

"What?" Rodney demanded. "What?"

 

Sheppard pushed himself up. Still on the ground, Ronon raised his head, his eyes gleaming. He and Teyla were still glowing with their joint victory – "though, seriously, Sheppard," Rodney had panted, as knees had held them side by side, face down in the snow, "do you have a death wish? Going up against Ronon… Did you see his eyes?" "Didn't have to," Sheppard had confessed. "Teyla was kicking my ass. She's scary."

 

"I was thinking," Sheppard said, "of going for a little ride."

 

******

 

Move. That snowflake voice is still there. Move your leg.

 

"Broken?" His lips can't shape proper sound, but it is habit to try. He doesn't mean to say it as a question.

 

Yes. You might damage it, but it's better than the alternative. Move your leg. Feel it. Go on, John. Feel the pain.

 

He's not sure where his leg has gone, but his body remembers the muscles that can command it. He moves it, and the pain is like a knife slicing the skin between his eyes. Then that knife digs deeper, and draws memory.

 

His team screaming. His team shouting. The world collapsing in snow and fury. Everyone vanishing, and alone, alone…

 

He remembers now why the cold was so alluring.

 

******

 

Not even the hill could keep Rodney from talking. "Seriously, colonel… I can't believe you just… We need those. They're important… pieces of… jumper – oh, damn it. Stupid snow! – equipment.  You can't just…"

 

"You'll fix them." Sheppard was clutching the box lids. Behind him, Rodney cursed again. "You'll find it easier to climb if you keep quiet."

 

"Stupid," Rodney muttered. "Stupid. Climbing a hill. This snow… It keeps slipping away. As soon as I stand on it…"

 

"Must be evil." Sheppard caught Ronon's eye. "Maybe you should shoot it, big guy. Save Rodney from its evil icy grip."

 

"Oh, ha ha. Very funny."

 

Sheppard waited for Rodney to catch up. "Don't worry. Getting down's easier than getting up."

 

"That's what I'm afraid of," Rodney said. "This is crazy. Go break your neck with your childish stunts. Kill yourself trying to fulfil your childish dream of pulling ten Gs on a tea tray. I'm going to watch."

 

Sheppard led them a few more yards until he deemed that it was far enough. "Come on, McKay. You know you want to."

 

Rodney looked down the slope, and swallowed. Sheppard was going to say something else, but stopped. He remembered a boy at school, and how terrified he'd been. They'd pushed him bodily onto the sledge and shoved him down the slope, convinced, in their childish reasoning that could not comprehend that anyone saw things differently from the way you saw them yourself, that he would enjoy it in the end. He'd left a yellow patch in the snow where he landed, and had cried all the way home.

 

"You've never…?" he asked now.

 

Rodney shook his head, his lips pressed together. "No, never. Go ahead and laugh."

 

Sheppard tilted his head to once side. "Do you want to?"

 

He saw Rodney look down the slope. It was pristine and white, marked only by their four pairs of footsteps that moved so close together, looking like one trail when seen from above.

 

"What if our contacts show up?" Rodney asked. "It wouldn't look good if we were…"

 

"To hell with them!"

 

"John," Teyla said warningly.

 

"I'm sure they're very good contacts who just happen to be two hours late and expect us to wait for them out in the cold." He stressed the relevant words with a sunny smile. "But if they really are as good as they seem, they won't begrudge us some play time."

 

"Play?" Rodney snorted. He looked down the slope again. He opened his mouth; shut it again. Then he looked up at the sky, and his head turned this away, said quietly, "I used to want to. I never dared. And I didn't… The boys who used to go to…" He stopped; laughed. "Stupid, eh?"

 

Sheppard knew it was better not to answer. "I'll go first," he said. "I'll wait at the bottom. I'll be there to catch you if you want…" He shrugged, and he, too, suddenly found it imperative to study the pure blue of the sky. "Of course, if you don't want to, that's cool."

 

He put down the lid, and sat on it. "Give me a push, Ronon." The push was like a hammer landing in the middle of his back. "Not that hard!" he gasped, but he was already flying, wind lashing at his face, cold tearing, snow spraying… and down he went, down and down, and then he was crying aloud, whooping with the pleasure, with the memory of it. Then stopped, spilling forwards into the snow, then pulling himself upwards to wave at the three small figures so far above. Come on down! It's wonderful!

 

He waited. He could still imagine that he was moving, still almost feel the touch of the sky on his cheeks. Above him, above the slope that he had been the first to write his mark upon, he saw Rodney lower himself tentatively to the ground. He saw Teyla bend down to say something, and Ronon spoke, too. They were too far away for him to hear the words, but suddenly he knew beyond doubt what they were saying. You don't have to, and if you are sure and yes. Yes. I'll try. And the words beneath it all, too – those words that would not be said aloud. Don't hurt me, and I'll be gentle and We will not laugh.

 

Then Rodney was coming, screaming, shouting. He travelled slower than Sheppard had done, and he didn't have a clue what to do with his limbs. Sheppard stood his ground as Rodney slowed, then plunged forward through the snow to meet him, but Rodney was kicking around too much and the snow gave way, and Sheppard fell beside him.

 

"That was… Oh God, that was…" Rodney scraped snow from his hair with a hand that seemed incapable of being still. "You're crazy, Sheppard. That was…"

 

"Great, isn't it?" Rodney had managed to clamber to his feet. Sheppard grinned up at him.

 

"It's… Sheppard, you're…"

 

Sheppard rolled onto his back, and tilted his head back so he could see Ronon and Teyla above him, framed against the sky. "When I was little," he found himself confessing, "I thought it was the nearest you could ever get to flying."

 

"Well…" Rodney was standing tall, his cheeks red and his eyes shining. "I'm never doing that again."

 

"But you're glad you did it, huh?" Sheppard rolled onto his hands and knees, then sprang to his feet. "Watch out! Ronon's on his way down."

 

They ran for their lives, laughing.

 

******

 

Sometimes he sees people, but he knows that are only mirages produced by the cold.

 

Sometimes he hears voices, but he knows it is just the wind.

 

The snowflake voice tells him to move his arm, to move his leg, to move his neck, to keep on moving, to stay alive, to cling to life with his fingertips from the edge of a cliff. It speaks old familiar words about staying positive. It is worried about the fact that he is no longer shivering. When he tries to drift into the whiteness, it tells him that it is the head injury speaking, hand in hand with the cold.

 

He wonders if the voice is Rodney, but he thinks that Rodney is dead.

 

Sleep beckons. He remembers the sweetness of the cold – snowballs and laughter, and his team at his side.

 

It won't do any harm, surely?

 

******

 

"You're kidding me," Rodney said, when Sheppard pulled out his prize. "You keep brandy in the jumper?"

 

"Medicinal purposes only," Sheppard assured him.

 

Teyla and Ronon had made the fire. Its flames sucked the light out of the sky, turning to from twilight to night. The pale blue was fading to dark, and he could no longer see the hill they had climbed, or their own footsteps in the snow.

 

He filled four plastic cups, and passed them around. His team-mates' faces were lit by the flames, as if they were the only real things in the world, and everything else was disappearing. He saw Teyla take a sip and grimace. "It is very pleasant," she said, her expression showing that she knew he saw through the lie. Ronon downed his in one. Rodney sipped his as if it was a scientific experiment whose measurements he had to get exactly right.

 

"They're never going to show up, are they?" Rodney asked, lowering his cup. "These contacts of yours, I mean. They've kept us waiting all day in the snow, wasting our time, as if there's nothing more important we could be doing with our time."

 

"Wasting, Rodney?" It was Teyla who said it. If she had not, Sheppard might have said it, but might have not.

 

Rodney said nothing.

 

"I have enjoyed today," Teyla said, her skin glowing in the light of the flame. "It reminded me of the time before my father died, before the Wraith…" The fire crackled. "I was young. Even when we live beneath the shadow of the Wraith, we have to know how to be carefree. I sometimes fear that I have forgotten."

 

Beyond the fire, the darkness grew deeper. Ronon was the furthest away, the hardest to see. "A boy I used to know was scared of the snow," he said.

 

"Scared?" Rodney echoed.

 

"There were stories," Ronon's voice continued. "A monster with icy teeth, whose breath was the wind that could freeze a boy's blood in his veins. Icicles were its claws, and it could reach in to your body and turn your heart into ice. When we heard the sound of blizzards, they told us that was the monster wailing over fresh prey."

 

Rodney was clutching his cup with both hands. "Why am I not surprised? We had Frosty the Snowman and Santa's little elves."

 

"A snowman." Sheppard put his head to one side. "There's an idea. Zelenka, do you think? A Snow-Wraith? Or you could model for us, Rodney, and we'd immortalise you in ice."

 

"Oh, ha ha. Very funny. It's Mock the Scientist day."

 

Sheppard poured another round of drinks. It was hard to see beyond the fire, but he thought that the stars were showing above them, clear and silver. He thought of Atlantis; they couldn't stay here forever, but… well, Atlantis wasn't going anywhere, and they still had contacts to wait for – important ones, yes, yes. Life and death. Just a few more hours…

 

Smoke rose upwards, and the patch of melted snow grew larger, showing grass and trampled earth. Rodney tried heating an MRE on a stick over the flames, and claimed that the experiment was a success, though Sheppard was not convinced. Teyla then told a story, and even Rodney managed not to scoff too badly. Ronon recounted something in the third person, but Sheppard suspected it was a memory, really. Teyla told Rodney that she would sing later, if he wasn't careful, and Ronon laughed and said he'd join in the chorus.

 

After the third measure, Rodney confessed that he had never joined in a snowball fight before, "unless you count having a snowball thrown in your face when you're cycling home from school minding your own business." He swirled his cup, looking down into it. "I put snow down Jeannie's neck once. She went snivelling to Mom and I was the one who got into trouble. How unfair is that?"

 

Sheppard had his own stories, his own memories. He told them instead what it had felt to be in Antarctica.

 

"They aren't coming, are they?" Rodney said at last, when they had all been silent for a while, within a circle of light on a dark world. "If they ever existed in the first place…"

 

"A wasted day, huh?" Sheppard said, not quite smiling. Away from the fire, his back was cold, but his cheeks were warm and tingling.

 

Rodney let out a breath. Teyla smiled. Ronon spread out his legs, his feet ridiculously close to the flames, and leant back.

 

Sheppard looked at them all, warm in the flames. This time he smiled.

 

******

 

The snowflake voice refuses to go away. It's more like an icicle, stab-stab-stabbing, pinning him there through his hand to the cliff, refusing to let him float away into the whiteness.

 

He wishes he could sleep. And then, perhaps, he does, because there are voices there, and when he opens his eyes – just a slit, the vision crusted with ice – he sees shapes wrapped up against the cold, and faces like white smears with eyes and mouth like daubs of shadow.

 

"Oh no! We're too late," he hears.

 

Something touches his throat. It feels warm, like a brand. "I can feel a pulse."

 

"Would have come earlier. Had to go the long way round, Sheppard. It wasn't safe."

 

"Which didn't stop you trying to jump right down, did it? You… God, is he going to be…?"

 

"Can you carry…?"

 

"I'll get the blankets."

 

"Careful! His leg…"

 

Something brushes against his cheek, then snatches away. "He's so cold!"

 

He thinks of faces around a fire. He opens his eyes further, and sees those faces now: Rodney, determined and worried; Ronon looking furious and protective; Teyla, gentle but strong. Not dead. Not dead. Here.

 

He moves his lips. "Don't…!" they say. "Don't try to speak."

 

"No." He manages to frame it; manages even to smile. "Not cold. Warm."

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

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