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Title: Out in the Open
Author: xparrot
Recipient: mz_bstone - I hope the McShep and team bonds satisfy!
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard (+ references to Teyla/Kanaan and team gen)
Rating: PG-13
Summary: (~22,000 words) (set after 5x14: "The Prodigal") It's Situation Normal for the team when they're caught in an avalanche, but digging themselves out uncovers more than they counted on.
Note: Big thanks to my beta (she knows who she is), for the title and more.


Knowing Michael, they were braced for danger as it was, and they all knew Rodney's tones well enough that when he hissed, "Oh, shit," and then shouted, "Get out of here, now—" none of them so much as glanced over to check how wide his eyes were. They just moved.

The mountain moved with them, shaking under their boots, and further up slope came a roar like the thunder of a waterfall, crashing down faster than anyone could run. Teyla had been at their six, the furthest from the metal doors built into the mountainside. The avalanche didn't sweep over her so much as brush her aside, knocking her into the thick snowdrifts caught between the trees alongside the trail.

She was thrown topsy-turvy, blinded by white and cold. By the time she struggled free of the drift, the avalanche had slid to a stop, a static river of churned snow and ice and earth filling the channel of the path they had climbed just minutes before.

The trail and the doors had been a trap, Teyla realized; in retrospect it was obvious. Had Rodney deduced this himself, an instant too late? Or had his computer given him another warning of the imminent snowslide?

"Rodney," Teyla called into her radio. "John. Ronon." Her voice didn't echo, the snow dampening it before it could carry, not breaking the mountain's frozen hush. She listened, but nothing came over the radio but hissing white noise. Nor were there any further rumblings from up the mountainside. Cautiously she stepped into the avalanche's river, forging through the tumbled snow like she was wading against a current.

A muffled growl and an explosion of snow some paces down-slope warned her before Ronon's head broke free, arms working, tossing up more loose snow. Teyla made her way over and helped dig his out legs. He twitched and growled when she prodded him for injuries, but stood without assistance, brushing caked snow off his coat as he scanned up and down the still mountainside.

"Sheppard?" he demanded. "McKay?"

Teyla shook her head. "They were closer to the entrance; I do not think they could have made it out of the avalanche's path."

Ronon turned his head to stare unerringly at where the door had been, now buried, not even the top of its rusty metal frame showing. "Trap," he said.

"Most likely," Teyla agreed.

"Sheppard!" Ronon's shout carried much farther than her own call, but there was still no answer on the silent mountainside. The sun shone bright and blinding on the snow, only a slight breeze stirring the boughs of the tall pines.

Ronon looked at her. "If I go back to the gate, get help—"

It had taken them almost two hours to hike up the mountain. Ronon alone might make it back in half that, but there was still no place on the mountainside for a jumper to land, and any teams sent would have no path now; they would have to struggle up through the avalanche's fill. "If they are buried deep," Teyla said, "even if I find them, I may have trouble digging them out alone. Atlantis is scheduled to contact us within two hours; if we have not found them by then..."

Ronon frowned, but nodded. "Sheppard!" he bellowed again. "McKay!"

Teyla cast an anxious look upslope. "If you stir another avalanche—"

"Won't," Ronon said. "McKay said it's summer here. No more snow to come down. We were lucky."

"I'm sure Rodney would agree," Teyla said, ironically enough to make up for Rodney's absence, she hoped. He had spent most of the hike up complaining about Michael's failure to build his labs in tropical paradises.

Ronon flashed her a quick smirk across the snowdrifts. "He'd be twice as unhappy with twice this much snow on top of him."

That their teammates might not be feeling anything now was a thought neither she nor Ronon would speak aloud. At one time, Teyla would have questioned such denial, but they had both learned other lessons in the past few years. She tramped across the churned snow, listening and searching for anything, a stray glove, a strangely shaped mound. One of them would find something, and she did not consider the alternatives, anymore than she considered the bite of wind against her cheeks or the prickling of her chill fingers.

So it was no surprise when Ronon called down the slope, "Hey!" and she ran back up, helped him sweep away snow until they had uncovered most of a boot. Ronon didn't wait any longer, just took hold of the leg and bodily hauled John out of the snow.

He had instinctively curled himself into a ball when the avalanche hit, shielding his face and protecting his bones; now out of the snow he unrolled like a round-beetle, stretched and coughed and blinked up at them, squinting in the sunlight. "Ronon, Teyla," he wheezed. "You guys all right?"

"We are uninjured, John," Teyla told him. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine," John said, extending a hand for Ronon to pull him to his feet. He moved stiffly, but Teyla studied him to verify he wasn't favoring either leg, and he swung his arms freely. "Rodney?"

"We haven't found him yet," Teyla said.

Behind his fur-fringed hood, John's lashes were frosted in ice and his face was pale, set and still as the mountainside. "He was right ahead of me when it hit," he panted, winded and trying to breathe the freezing air shallowly. "I pushed him toward the door—he's got to be close."

The lab entrance's overhanging door might have provided some shelter from the avalanche's force. "We will find him, John," Teyla told him. Ronon was already digging again, heaving aside armfuls of snow. Teyla moved in to help him, the exertion warming her body and keeping her mind focused, while John paced widening circles downhill.

He might have told one of them to go back to Atlantis to get help, or else organized a more strategic search, as his military had trained him to run. Instead he said nothing, asked nothing of his team as he stumbled in the snow—dazed from the avalanche's beating, or else heartsick with fear and concern, and Teyla was about to bring this lapse to his attention, when John called, "Over here!"

He wasn't looking at the ground when they reached him, but rather turning a circle in place, head cocked and eyes distant. "Where is he—" Teyla began to ask, but John raised his hand.

"Listen," he said, "hear that?"

"Yeah," Ronon said immediately, before Teyla made it out herself—faint and stifled, but so regular as to be distinct against the mountain's silence: the soft, repeating alert of a working life-signs detector.

"Where's it coming from?" John demanded.

Ronon tilted his head one way, then the other, and pointed. "Up there."

The mountainside slanted up sharply at the edge of the former trail; the slope was so steep that the snow hadn't collected deeply, patches of bare rock showing among the trees. Teyla, being the lightest of them, easily climbed it by grasping pine boughs and pulling herself up.

It was caught in the crooked branches of a stunted tree, an ice-flecked bundle of orange that she recognized as Rodney's wool hat—a tuque, he had called it. When she unfolded the hat, she found the life-sign detector tucked inside, chirping loud and steady.

Rodney must have set it to work continuously, rather than only in an ATA user's hand. Teyla looked at the little screen, and while she had not dared to doubt, her heart yet gave a glad little leap. "I have it," she called down, smiling. "And there are four life signs."

She tossed the hat and detector to John, then let go of the tree branch and slid down the slope. Ronon caught her at the bottom, steadying her in the snow. John had stuffed the tuque under his coat and was examining the detector, pacing to triangulate from their three signals to locate the fourth—a little fainter, it looked to Teyla's eyes, but she hoped that was only a trick of the light.

Ronon glanced at the tree up the slope, considering. "Good throw," he remarked. "For McKay."

"He knew we'd need it to find him," John said, abstractly, not really like he was telling them what they already knew, more as if he needed to reply and there was nothing else on his mind for him to say. He plowed through the snow, tripping on ice chunks and kicking them aside, until he had thrashed his way to the west corner of the door, a little further away than where Ronon had been digging. "Here, he's right here," he said, tucking the detector into his pocket, and dropped to his knees to dig.

Teyla joined him on one side and Ronon on the other, all of them working fast and eagerly, energized by the detector's promise, the bright little dot pledging that their teammate lived. They had managed to move a good heap of snow when Ronon growled, "Stop," so firmly that they both quit moving instantly.

"Loose snow under here," Ronon said. He opened his gloved hand, releasing a powder of fine white flakes, whirling like dust motes in the breeze. "We keep digging straight down, the crust could collapse, bury McKay deeper."

Teyla did not have much experience with snow; Athos had never gotten more than a hand-width's fall even in the worst winters, and she had never cared for the colder planets. But Ronon had hid in more than one frozen wasteland, places the Wraith wouldn't go if they did not have to. He knew about avalanches, far more than she did.

John just nodded, rocking back on his heels. "We'll dig at an angle," he said, so calm his voice might have sounded light, but his eyes were shadowed under his hood. "Make a tunnel to him. You guys, move back—"

"I've got longer arms," Ronon said; he was stronger, too, but he didn't need to say that. John looked up at him, then nodded again and stood to get out of his way.

Ronon worked fast, lying down on his side and using both hands to clear a deeper hole in the snow. He dug at an angle, burrowing in the loose snow, while John studied the life-signs detector. "He's still a good three meters down, four, maybe."

"There's more ice here," Ronon said suddenly. "Can't punch through it."

"Kick it?" John suggested.

"Might cause a cave-in."

"You told me once that you used your blaster to boil water," Teyla said. "Could you melt the ice?"

Ronon looked doubtful. "It doesn't work so great on snow." But he pulled his blaster, looked at John questioningly.

John only hesitated a moment, and whatever he was speculating could not be read on his face. "Do it."

Ronon switched the blaster to stun, lay down again to take aim and fired once. He reached down the hole, frowned, and then shot the ice again. This time he grinned. "That did it."

John dropped to his stomach on the snow and peered down through the hole. "There's a clear pocket," he said. "Couple meters deep, no snow, the door must've shielded it—shit! Rodney!"

"He is there?" Teyla asked.

"I can see his legs—can't see his face. Rodney!" John hit his radio. "Rescue party's here, McKay, rise and shine!"

"He may be unconscious," Teyla said. When she crouched to look over John's shoulder, she could just make out the toes of Rodney's boots. The sun was bright enough to light the empty pocket with ambient reflections off the snow, blue shadows like an underwater grotto.

"He got banged up in the avalanche," Ronon said.

"Damn it." John glanced at the life-signs detector again, the fainter dot glowing beside their own signs. Then he unclipped his P-90, handed it to Ronon, and took off his tac vest. "I'm going down there, make sure he's all right. You guys keep digging here."

Teyla's back was already sore from moving snow, and the cold was no longer numbing her bruises but digging into them like hard fingers, aches penetrating to bone through her parka. She might not complain as much as Rodney, but she had never loved the winter. She longed for the warm blankets back in her rooms on Atlantis, for the ever-growing weight of Torren giggling in her arms and Kanaan's gentle touch.

But those comforts would mean nothing, if only three of them returned through the Stargate. Better she was here than anywhere, if one of her teammates was trapped under this snow. "Understood," she told John, and Ronon nodded, and they both continued to work at the piled snow, while John sat down and slid himself into the narrow tunnel, feet-first.

They heard the shift and crunch of snow as he hit bottom, soft swearing, and then, "Rodney? Hey, you there?"

"John?" Teyla asked.

"He's breathing," John called up. "Pulse is okay, probably slow, for Rodney. He's got a bump on his head, that's why he's out. And he's too damn cold—still shivering, at least."

"Warm him up," Ronon said.

"Yeah, thanks, big guy, I hadn't thought of that," John said, and the chunk of packed snow Teyla was lifting seemed lighter in her arms, hearing his sardonic tone. John might become angry when he was truly afraid, but he would not tease, not so easily.

She continued to dig, listening closely to John below. Through the thick layers of snow she could not hear him move, but near the tunnel she could make out the low, sporadic murmur of his voice. The muttering might be unintelligible but she knew his encouraging tone, the mix of admonishments and cajoling challenge that never failed to make Rodney work better, think faster.

Rodney always did well under life-threatening pressure; would that this be true now as well.

She was near the opening when she heard John's tone change; Ronon too heard, and paused for a moment to listen, as John said, "Hey, Rodney, you with us, buddy?"

The mumbled reply wasn't quite in words, but Teyla smiled to recognize Rodney in it, the irritated exasperation unmistakable even if inarticulate.

"No," John said, answering immediately, as if he were so used to that tone that words were unnecessary, "you've slept long enough, it's time to get up."

"Staff meeting?" Rodney said, or something like it.

"Not now," John told him. "This is more important, come on."

"S'cold," Rodney whined. "Jus' a little longer."

"The sooner you wake up," John said, "the sooner we can get the hell out of here—"

"But I like it here," Rodney said. "You're here. And you're warm, even if you're bony."

"Rodney," John said, with an edge of desperation that made him sound almost angry.

"Hot, even," Rodney said, ignoring him, and his sleep-slurred voice went low with something that distinctly wasn't anger. "In your sloppy soldier way, with the hair, and the shoelaces, and—"

"Rodney," John said again, urgently, not angry and not teasing either, not like this was any joke he was going along with. "Rodney, cut it out, snap out of it. We need to get you out of here and warm you up—"

"Trying to warm up now," Rodney said, and then he made a sharp, awful noise, a shriek choked off in a half-sobbed curse—"Fuck, my leg—"

"Don't move," John said, suddenly brusque and sure.

At Rodney's cry, Teyla ducked to look down into the hole. John had moved Rodney, so she could see his face now, and John's, too. They were lying side by side in the close confines of the pocket, pressed between the walls of snow. John had divested Rodney of his parka and spread it over them, huddled together under the coat, Rodney pulled up against John's chest. John had stuck the orange tuque snug on Rodney's head—it would have been warm, after being tucked under his own parka—and Rodney's face was close to his own, almost cheek to cheek.

Rodney's eyes were shut tight, face screwed up with pain, and John murmured into his ear, "Easy, yeah—can you move your toes? Okay—it's okay, Rodney, you're going to be fine. No blood, it's probably just a simple fracture, not compound. You'll be walking on it in a month."

"That's just great," Rodney said, "considering I'm going to be dead in a day—oh god, the avalanche, we're—Ronon, Teyla, all of us, we're buried alive, we—"

"Ronon and Teyla are fine. We made it out, we got your LSD, and now we got you," John told him, not sympathetically but not unkind. "So shut up and calm down."

"I can't calm down, I'm claustrophobic, I can't just not be claustrophobic, especially when I've been buried alive—"

"Wide open spaces," John told him, "blue skies, green fields—"

"White snow, which has buried—"

"Work with me, Rodney," John said. "White clouds, high in the sky," calm and steady, sounding like he always did; or always did with Rodney, at least, the particular wry contentment that John managed with him as no one else could, as if everyone else's exasperation with Dr. McKay was so much that it drained the well and left him with only amusement.

His voice sounded as he always did, but he turned his face toward Rodney's as he spoke, until his lips brushed the lobe of Rodney's ear, and Rodney turned his cheek, too, into that caress, pained countenance relaxing. Like this closeness wasn't awkward but familiar, like he had lain like this before. John's arms wrapped comfortably around him, John's body fit against his, for shared body-heat, but also as if it belonged there. As if they belonged like this, together under the parka, and they both understood it, had been aware of it for some time.

Had they been Athosian, they would sleep like this every night through the winter. It would have meant nothing, save that it was cold and they were close; nothing Teyla hadn't already known. But they were not Athosian; she had had five years to understand this, and to know the meaning of what she saw.

Crouched beside her, Ronon had gone stiller than a chreth-cat stalking; he, too, had been with these men from Earth long enough to understand.

In the space under the snow below them, Rodney's eyes were still closed. But John turned his head, looked up and at them, and when their eyes met Teyla could see his secrets in them, torn open and revealed, exposed, and he raw and hurting underneath.


At John's order, Ronon cut a pair of straight branches with his knife and tossed them down into their snowy hideaway. Rodney nearly passed out again when John tightened the splint around his leg; his cheeks, already more white than red from the cold, lost their last bit of color, and he bit down on the seam of his glove hard enough to leave tooth-marks. But his eyes stayed open, if squinted and red-rimmed; the moisture freezing at their corners could be attributed to the grit of frost, and John patted his shoulder, told him, "Doing good, McKay."

Rodney nodded, the motion quick and curt with barely suppressed pain, took the glove out of his mouth and asked, "Does that mean we're getting out of here now?"

"Working on it," John said; or rather, Ronon and Teyla were working on it. They were no longer visible through the narrow gap to the surface, but he could hear the shuffling of snow moving overhead, erratic creaks and hisses as ice flakes sifted down. If Ronon or Teyla made a wrong move, he and Rodney would both be buried, under enough snow to suffocate them before they could be dug out—but his team knew what they were doing.

Still, if he could get back up there, help move this along—John eyed the walls of the snow pocket, evaluating. Only two meters to climb, though the snow wasn't solid, and if he fell on Rodney trying to make it...

"Any idea how much longer?" Rodney asked. "Because I don't mean to complain—"

John rolled his eyes. "Rodney, you always mean to complain—"

"—but it's pretty damn cold here."

"Not compared to some places," John said. "What about that Eskimo-type village on M5Q-717? Hell, you were in Antarctica for months, this is nothing." But Rodney's teeth were clacking, even with his arms crossed under his parka and his head sunk into the furry collar. John crawled up alongside him again, carefully avoiding his broken leg. He settled back into the snow, on top of the thermal survival blanket he'd spread out, and unzipped his parka again to pull Rodney close.

John felt like a popsicle himself by now, but Rodney felt cold even to his chilled touch—the shock of the injury on top of impending hypothermia; they had to get him out of here soon. He was shivering as he burrowed into John's side, but he tucked his chin into the warmth of John's neck with the pleased little hum that had become so familiar lately, and John felt his cold cheeks curve into a smile in spite of himself.

"Better?" he asked.

"Better," Rodney agreed, but his contentment was too sleepy to be healthy, in this cold.

John snaked his arms around Rodney's back, chafing gently to get his blood moving. Into his radio he asked, "Hey, guys, how's it coming?"

"We hopefully will be able to get to you soon, John," Teyla answered, a little out of breath.

A shadow appeared in the hole above them, Ronon's dreadlocked head blocking the sunlight. "Still just lying around?" he asked.

Rodney didn't look up, but he raised his voice to reply, "Oh, yes, because we've got a lot of options, buried alive down here."

"You want anything to get even more comfortable? Pillows? A DVD? Condoms?"

John almost choked, but Rodney just said, "Hot cocoa would hit the spot."

"Don't got any," Ronon said, with altogether too much satisfaction.

Rodney lifted his head, squinted up at Ronon. "You know we'd trade places with you in a flat second," he said.

"Yeah," Ronon said, dropping the mocking to match Rodney's tone. "But I'd hate being stuck down there, too."

Teyla's silhouette joined Ronon's over them. "I believe we almost have enough space cleared," she said. "If we can lift Rodney out..."

"Great," Rodney said, and through his chattering teeth it didn't sound anything but wholeheartedly sincere.

John brought his left arm out from under the parka to check his watch. Atlantis should be dialing in within the next fifteen minutes for the scheduled check-in. A jumper wouldn't be able to land safely on the mountain, but if they could make it out of this hole, further downhill was an area wide enough for a hovering pick-up.

"Okay," John said, sitting up and twisting in the tight confines to struggle out of his parka, kneeling almost on top of Rodney to manage it. "We'll use the coat as a sling to pull you up." He worked his arm out of one sleeve, yanked off the other as Rodney watched, blinking slow and befuddled.

"Hey, buddy," John said, touching Rodney's cheek with his gloved fingers. "I know you're cold, but stay with me, here."

Rodney shook his head. "Right," he said. "Sorry, yes, what're we doing?"

"Putting you on the parka," John told him. "Pick yourself up on your arms, I'll slide it under. And try not to move your leg, unless you've got a new kink for excruciating pain."

Rodney didn't even snort at that, just nodded and took a deep breath before bracing his hands in the snow and levering his butt off the ground. John moved fast to shove the parka under him, and Rodney collapsed back on it, flopping down gasping, his eyes glazed with pain.

He gripped John's hand tight enough to cut off circulation, panted, "For the love of god, tell me we have something stronger than Tylenol."

"We do, but you can't have it," John said. The med-kit in Teyla's intact pack would have morphine ampules, but with Rodney already in stage one hypothermia they couldn't risk it.

Rodney gave him a narrow-eyed glare. "Bastard."

"Make it up to you later," John promised, squeezing Rodney's hand back.

"With a week's supply of the good drugs?" Rodney demanded, then coughed and added awkwardly, "Or, um, did you have something else in mind?" in a particular tone that John knew meant his ears would be turning red, if they weren't frostbitten and hidden under his orange hat besides.

If they'd been back in their quarters on Atlantis, John might have flashed him the smirk that never failed to make Rodney's eyes go wide, might have ducked to touch his cold nose to Rodney's cheek and make him yelp.

But they were off-world on a failed mission, under five feet of snow and with Ronon and Teyla working above them, maybe listening, and John looked away, rather than meet Rodney's teasing, tempting gaze.

"Teyla, Ronon, you guys almost ready?" he called up, not bothering with the radio, as he gathered the parka's sleeves and tied them together across Rodney's middle.

"Almost," Teyla said, as a shower of snow fell on them from above. After John brushed it off, he saw Teyla through the widened hole, waving at them.

She dropped down a length of climbing rope, and Rodney helped John thread it through the parka's tied sleeves to fashion their makeshift sling. Rodney's fingers were clumsier than John's, and his eyes kept losing focus in a way that made John wonder about a concussion, but that could wait until they were off this damn mountainside and safe in Atlantis's infirmary.

He wasn't prepared for Rodney to grab his arm, lost his balance and almost planted an elbow in Rodney's stomach when he was yanked close, Rodney's nose practically in his ear.

"John," Rodney whispered; his breath was still warm, at least, tickling his earlobe, and John almost pulled away, almost snapped this wasn't the damn time, but Rodney said, "They saw, didn't they—did they see?"

John twisted his head around to look at Rodney head-on. Rodney's gaze darted up toward the hole where Teyla and Ronon were working, then back to John's. "Did they?"

John shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe."

Rodney's eyes were round and stark blue in his too-pale face. "I'm sorry, really, I didn't—"

"It wasn't your fault," John told him. "You were freezing and out of it, and I had to warm you up," and maybe he could just pass it off as first aid.

If it had been Lorne or some of the Marines, maybe. But Teyla and Ronon were their team, and they'd seen; they'd seen them, he'd seen it in their faces, for that one moment, though they hadn't said anything.

That, too, could wait until they were back on Atlantis. John didn't let himself think about it now, concentrating on getting Rodney out of this hole. He gave support from below while Ronon and Teyla pulled him up, Rodney with his eyes shut tight and his mouth shut tighter, though a couple whimpers still escaped when a chunk of ice gave way and almost dumped him off the sling.

After they got him up, Ronon dropped the rope down again and hauled John up. He blinked in the sun, bright and blinding on the snow, and rubbed his arms. Out of the snow's shelter, the breeze over the mountain was brisk without his parka.

"Here," and Ronon handed over his coat, tac vest, and P-90. John got them on quickly, then trudged over to Rodney, sitting propped against a snowbank with Teyla beside him. "How you doing?"

Rodney stopped his teeth chattering with effort, jaw tight. "D-depends on the scale. Seen better, freezing, agonizing—take your pick."

"Glad to hear it," John said, patting his shoulder. The exertion had put a little color back in his face, at least. "Atlantis should be dialing in any minute now, and we'll ask for a lift—"

"John," Teyla said suddenly, head coming up like a pointer orienting, her eyes fixed on a distant, invisible point in the cloudless blue sky.

John knew that faraway look; didn't want to recognize it, but he did, even before he registered Ronon looming over them with his blaster drawn. He was already reaching for his P-90 as Teyla said, "Wraith have come."


It had been some time since Teyla had encountered Wraith unexpectedly, when she was not braced for it; it took a moment now to adjust to the ache of their sudden presence, a coldness in her core more bitter than the freezing mountain climate. She closed her eyes to gather herself, took a breath that shocked her lungs, but the icy air was clear, cleansing.

She felt a hand on her arm—John's, when she opened her eyes, leaning close to look searchingly at her face. "I am all right," she assured him, nodding, and he nodded back, but continued to frown.

Rodney was speaking; she tuned in to the words within his nervous babble—"—if the Wraith are here, it can't be coincidence, the avalanche must've also set off a beacon, same as in Michael's other labs. Damn it, I should have thought of that right away, it's—"

"Michael is dead," Teyla said, and stating that flat truth steadied her.

"Yes, I know he's dead," Rodney said, "but he had all those disciples cum mercenaries for hire, and they probably sold his work to the highest bidder, which might've been a Wraith—"

"Wraith don't buy stuff," Ronon said.

"Then a Wraith worshipper, whatever—some hive must have gotten hold of his subspace alert's frequency."

"And followed it here when we set it off," John said, eyes narrowed.

Ronon tipped back his head to scan the sky. "We got to get under cover," he said, crouching by Rodney.

"Wait, my leg's been moved enough—" Rodney tried to fend him off.

"Don't have a choice," John said. "Unless you want to get scooped up in a dart."

"We don't know that they'll have sent darts—"

"They will have," Ronon said, picking up Rodney swiftly, but with care. Their teammate squeaked when his injured leg was moved, gripping Ronon's arms tight, but he didn't protest, as Ronon bore him to the cover of trees alongside the former path. Teyla and John followed, none too soon; they were scarcely under the pine boughs when she heard the tooth-jarring whine of the Wraith ships. Two darts soared overhead, then circled around the mountain's peak and returned to hover in the air, only a bit further up the slope from where they were hidden.

"Triangulating," John said, watching the two crafts maneuver. "They must not know exactly where the beacon is."

"Don't know where the lab is," Rodney suggested. He was pallid and breathless where Ronon had set him down in the snow, leaning against a tree trunk, but his brow under his hat was furrowed in thought. "They must've gotten the beacon's frequency, but not a map. Hell, they might not even know what they're looking for."

"Us," Ronon said grimly.

"Or Michael's lab," Rodney countered. "Maybe they never found the way in and came hoping someone else had."

John checked his watch. "Atlantis should've dialed in by now," he said.

"The Wraith may be keeping the gate active," Teyla suggested.

"Makes sense," Rodney agreed, eyes wide and worried. "If they know someone else is here, they'd want to keep them from bringing in backup."

"Yeah, backup would be good," John said. He pulled down a snowy bough again to peer out at the two darts, then looked back at the three of them. "Teyla, can you tell if there are more of them coming?"

Teyla frowned, reluctantly forcing herself to more closely examine the ugly pressure of the Wraith minds, pounding in her temples and turning her stomach. "There are more on this world," she said. "Not as many as on a hive or cruiser, but more than the pilots of the darts."

"Any idea how many?"

She would have rather put her bare hand into a pile of rotting meat, but she reached inside herself again, tried to sort out the throbbing presences. It was like trying to count individual bruises after one has fallen down a flight of stairs, and after a moment she shook her head, let go her held breath. "I'm sorry, John. There are more, but mostly drones, and I cannot distinguish one from another. But I believe some of them may be climbing the mountain."

"Coming here." John worried at his lip with his teeth for a moment. "Okay, we need to get back to the gate and get through to Atlantis."

Rodney swallowed. "This mountain, with my leg I don't think—"

John didn't hesitate, that she could tell; no more than he ever did, when coming to a decision. "Me and Ronon will go down to the gate, figure out how to get help," he said. "Teyla, you stay with Rodney. Make sure he doesn't break the other one. And don't break it for him, no matter how tempting it gets."

"Hey!" Rodney squawked.

Teyla nodded smoothly. "Understood."

"Wait!" Rodney worked to sit up straight, his breath catching as he set his back against the tree. "You don't—Teyla should go with you two. If there's a lot of Wraith at the gate—might need all of you to take them out. I've got a gun, I can take care of myself—"

"If a whole squadron's looking for you?" Ronon asked skeptically.

"Well, um..." Rodney looked down at his sidearm. "If I, uh, have some extra clips..."

"You can't walk," John said. "You'll need Teyla's help to turn off the beacon, once you figure it out."

"Once I—how am I supposed to do that? Wave my magic wand? In case you missed it, my laptop's under an avalanche—"

John opened Teyla's pack, took out the small computer that had recently been added to their standard inventory. He handed it down to Rodney, along with the life-signs detector. "Here. Get figuring." He stood, having to hunch under the low branches, looked to Teyla. "Make sure you both stay on the radios," he told her, then turned to Ronon. "Let's go."

"Good luck," Teyla told them.

"Yeah," John said, looking from her to Rodney and back again. "Stay safe." He meant "Stay alive," but there was no need for him to clarify; they both understood.

"You, too," Rodney replied, gloved fingers tapping a nervous tattoo on the computer's silver case.

John didn't answer, just met his eyes once more and then turned aside, pushed through the pine boughs and headed downhill. Ronon followed him, and they were soon lost among the patchwork white and dark of the snowy woods.

"I'm sure they'll be. Um. Fine," Rodney said behind her.

Teyla looked back at him, huddled against the tree trunk, clutching the computer to his chest the way Torren would cling to his favorite soft toy. He was shivering, and she was feeling the cold herself, as the adrenaline spike of the Wraith's arrival waned.

Rodney looked even more miserable now than he had trapped under the snow with John. Aloud, Teyla told him, "I am sure they will be." And Rodney's slanted half-smile thanked her for the effort, for all he didn't believe her anymore than she did herself.


Even off the path, John probably could have found his way back to the Stargate; it wasn't that difficult to tell up the mountain from down. But he was perfectly okay with letting Ronon take the lead; not only was he an expert trail-blazer in any climate, but Ronon would see, or hear, or smell the Wraith coming before John had a clue. Hopefully before the Wraith had a clue, either.

Not knowing if the darts might circle back and spot them, they stuck to the woods, even when they reached the end of the avalanche's debris and the trail was clear. Going downhill was more tiring than going up; John concentrated on planting his feet solidly in the snow without slipping, and catching convenient branches when he failed. Ronon, of course, always knew where to step, and his boots scarcely made a sound, never crunching on an unexpected crust of ice. John tried to match his footsteps, but it was tricky; Ronon's legs were too damn long.

With his hat pulled over his ears, the woods were mute, save for the rhythm of his own breathing in his head. Even the wind rustling the evergreen boughs was muffled by the snow. John started when that quiet was broken, and by Ronon's voice, no less. Ronon never spoke first. But he said now, "You think McKay'll get them into the lab?"

"It was the mission," John said. "If he doesn't, we'll only have to try again later, and it's not going to get any warmer here, from what Rodney said."

Ronon didn't look back, head lowered and eyes on the ground, picking his swift way downhill. "Be bad if Wraith get hold of Michael's stuff."

"Yeah," John said.

"Should've gotten rid of it before," Ronon said.

When they'd heard the rumors that Michael had another lab on a deserted world, Ronon had suggested flying in with a jumper and dropping a few hundred kilos of C-4 on the mountain. Michael's research might be useful, but making sure all his experiments were permanently ended was better. John hadn't been able to fault his logic, but Woolsey had disagreed.

"We might've triggered a self-destruct in the lab along with the avalanche," John suggested. Michael had wired some of his places that way. "Or Rodney might be able to break in before the Wraith do. With luck he'll turn the beacon off, anyway."

"He's hurt," Ronon said.

"You know McKay, he works best under pressure. And he doesn't need his leg to use a computer. Besides, Teyla's got his back, and she'll keep him on mission."

"Distracted," Ronon said. He might have been suggesting that Rodney would be too distracted to protect himself from any Wraith, but that was what Teyla was there for. Ronon knew as well as John that Rodney needed distracting sometimes, needed to keep busy or else he'd lose it, trapped helpless and hurt and half-frozen on a mountainside, with Wraith darts overhead.

John had wanted Ronon along with him in part because there was no way that Ronon would've been able to sit tight and wait for rescue; he would have had to do something, attack the Wraith somehow. Better that the something be potentially productive rather than suicidal. And Rodney, for all he was Ronon's polar opposite in most things, was exactly the same in that; waiting patiently was not his strong suit. Something for him to do, anything, even futile, was better than nothing.

Ronon got that, and got, too, that John got it. And there was nothing special about that, nothing that hadn't been true for years now; they all knew each other this well. Yet it felt to John like Ronon was watching him now. Ronon always did seem to have eyes on the back of his dreads, and even as he blazed their trail now, John could feel that invisible attention fixed on him, assessing, judging. Like the look in Ronon's eyes, the look in Teyla's, when they'd been above them, staring down on him and Rodney through the hole in the white snow ceiling.

Or else John was losing his fucking mind. It wasn't like they'd been doing anything. Rodney had been hypothermic and they all knew the basic first aid for exposure. He'd done nothing he wouldn't have done, before or now; nothing any of them wouldn't have done. If Teyla had gone down to take care of Rodney instead of him, or Ronon, it wouldn't have been any different.

Except they hadn't, and John had. Teyla was smaller, she could've fit in the snow pocket better—though she had less body-heat to spare. And Ronon had more, though huddling for warmth wasn't ideal first aid anyway, potentially dangerous to the rescuer; he'd been risking his own case of hypothermia, giving up his heat to Rodney.

Ronon had dragged him out of the snow, bruised and sore, stunned from the avalanche's tumbling and sick with panic, because he hadn't been able to see any of them when the snowslide hit. When John had finally blinked through the whiteout of sunlight on snow, there was Ronon's sure solid strength, unbroken; and Teyla, with ice caked in her hair but her steady eyes as warming as sitting by a fire—but Rodney, Rodney was nowhere in sight, and the dread knotted in his chest had hurt like a goddamn coronary, hard to breathe around it.

And that was nothing new, either; nothing he hadn't felt before, the last thousand times things had gone pear-shaped. Before this, before Atlantis: freezing mountainsides or scorching deserts, it was always the same inside, hot anger and cold fear. He was a solider, and he'd learned how to deal, how to tamp it down and carry on and try to save his people. Sometimes he lost, and sometimes he got lucky—this time he got lucky—it hadn't been any different, this time.

Except it had been different. It had been different since the first time he had walked through his first Stargate into another galaxy; it had been different since he'd smiled at a woman on an alien planet and she'd smiled back and invited him to tea, different since he'd helped out a man dangerous enough to survive seven years of Wraith hunts and strong enough not to lose himself in the doing. Different since he'd sat in the wrong chair at the right time and Dr. Rodney McKay had shown up out of the blue to boss him around.

And it was different now, too, had been for going on two months. Rodney had tried to tell him, kept bringing up Ronon and Teyla, kept trying things when it was just the four of them hanging out, clumsy awkward attempts that John had dodged every time, because it was safer this way, easier this way. He'd had sex before, been married before, and why make a big deal about it, when he never had before. Rodney might have, but he wasn't Rodney. This was personal, didn't have anything to do with anybody; it didn't change anything.

And Christ, John, not the time for this. Not on a snowy mountain on another planet, sweating under his parka but with his fingers prickling from the cold through his gloves, numb enough to mess up his handling of the P-90. Wraith behind them, Wraith before them, and toss a coin for which half of his team was in more danger.

John shoved one hand into his warm pockets, keeping the other free to steady himself as he skip-slid down the mountainside. It was steeper here; if it weren't for the trees it would be easier just to sit in the snow and toboggan down on his ass. Even Ronon had slowed down, stepping sideways, parallel to the slope. He had still gotten a good twenty-five feet ahead, only partly visible through the trees. Keeping pace with John's ambling; if he'd gone by himself he'd probably be at the bottom of the mountain by now.

Gritting his teeth, John switched pocketed hands to warm up the other one, and picked up the pace, putting all his attention on finding his way through the snow. Ronon's boot had been there, and there—stretch of his legs to make the next step but he did it, and the one after.

The step after that, a fallen branch under the snow gave way, and John slipped, landed hard on his side and kept sliding, plowing up a mini avalanche of his own as he skidded down the slope. He clawed at the ground to stop himself but only got handfuls of loose snow, icy branches slipping out of his grasp as dark tree trunks flashed past him.

He stopped with a whump, thought he'd hit a tree for a second, but it was Ronon. His teammate had crouched against the incline, braced his boot on a tree trunk and stretched out his arm to catch John across the chest, pinning him to the slope. John grabbed Ronon's big arm and held on as he caught his breath, feeling like he'd taken a ride down a world-class roller coaster—not two hundred miles an hour, but close enough from this end, and he and his intact ribs were damn grateful Ronon's arm hadn't been a tree or a rock. "Thanks," he panted.

"Yeah," Ronon said. It was the perfect chance for him to make a crack about John's wilderness skills, or inability to walk, but he didn't take it. Head cocked to listen, he scanned the forest, hushed again, now that the blood roaring in John's ears was fading. Ronon's features were set and reserved; not a fighter's resolve, but the single-minded purpose of a survivalist, his Runner's face.

When John made to stand, Ronon didn't look over, but didn't let go, either, picking John up and setting him on his feet, making sure he was stable on the steep incline. John ached when he straightened up, fresh bruises screaming for attention, competing with the avalanche's previous knocking. But there were no pangs too sharp to be ignored, nothing broken or seriously sprained for all the protests of his back and knees.

"I'm getting too old for this," he muttered, and Ronon did finally look at him at that, the focused distance in his eyes lessening as he smirked.

"Thought you liked skiing," he said.

"I love skiing," John said. "With ski poles. And skis. And standing, not sledding on my back."

Ronon shrugged. "Same difference; it all gets you downhill."

John looked up the slope, following the long path he had plowed. He'd made good time then but had lost it all now, catching his breath. "Come on, gotta keep moving."

Ronon gave him an ironical look, mutely but clearly pointing out that he wasn't the one holding up their expedition, but resumed the descent. He started beside John and soon got in front, trailblazing again, but now he stayed only a few feet ahead, close enough to grab John if he slipped again.

John could have been pissed for the sake of his pride, but he was cold and sore and Rodney and Teyla were still stuck up the mountainside with a couple Wraith darts for company, and it was easier to follow Ronon's sure footsteps this close behind him. He didn't have time or space for pride.

This close, he could almost hear Ronon's breathing—too loud, in the snow-blanketed quiet; too aware of his teammate's presence, aware of Ronon's awareness of him. Whenever he glanced up from the ground he saw Ronon's back before him, dreads hanging down over his dark coat, a dusting of white frost glittering on everything.

Was Ronon thinking only of survival, thinking with his Runner's mind, his attention on nothing but the Wraith out here on the mountain with them? Or was he holding other thoughts unvoiced, as usual, because Ronon never said anything unless he had to, and with John he rarely did; John rarely asked that of him, rarely wanted to.

But Ronon had spoken first before, a few minutes ago; he'd brought up McKay.

"Ronon," John said.

He wasn't sure he'd wanted to say it aloud, or if he even had, until Ronon replied, "Yeah?"

John kept his eyes on the ground, focused on stepping where Ronon had stepped, and not falling. "About me. And Rodney. It's—there's—"

"Yeah," Ronon said again.

John exhaled; he wasn't sure if it was a sigh of relief, or the whoosh of breath when you've been socked in the gut. "So you know..."

"Guessed," Ronon said. "Didn't know. Now I do."

Ronon didn't look back, and his face might be hard to read, but his voice was harder, especially with its bass resonance stifled by the snow. John took a couple of fast steps out from Ronon's path and skidded a few feet down the slope, enough to look sidelong at Ronon's profile as they walked.

"Are you—" he started to say, but Ronon snapped up his gloved hand.

He didn't need to say Wraith; it showed in the flash of his eyes, in the rigid curve of his spine as he crouched in an iced-over thicket and reached for his blaster. John hunkered down, too, taking cover behind a squat hemlock and gripping his P-90 as he peered toward the trail they had been following alongside.

He saw nothing, and turned his head toward Ronon. "Where?" he mouthed across the space between them, and Ronon jerked his head down the slope.

John listened hard and made out the stomping of boots on snow—a lot of boots, to echo like that. Ten of them came around the trail's bend, eight drone soldiers with their faceless masks, escorting two tall, white-haired Wraith males in the usual black leather, no neon tuques or furs to complement their fetishist wardrobe.

They weren't taking any chances, with those numbers; they wanted whatever was here. Whether or not they knew what it was.

Ronon was whipcord tense, concealed in the thicket and inching forward. His blaster was in his fist, and the edge of his teeth were bared, but he glanced back at John, tilted his head in a question.

John shook his own head in a sharp negative. Four or five they might be able to handle, but ten was too risky. They could get killed or captured; worse, if the Wraith knew for certain somebody was here, they'd be expecting more, might search for more, and if they found Teyla and Rodney...

The Wraith were wary, taking their time to study both the ground and the forest as they marched; but John and Ronon were safely out of their line of sight, and their tracks on the descent didn't intersect the trail. All the tracks they had left in the snow on the way up were easily followed, however...

As soon as the Wraith had passed, John tapped his radio. "Teyla, Rodney, you read me?"

"Yes, John?" Teyla answered, reassuringly quickly.

"You guys are going to have company," John said, and explained.


"Do we have to?" Rodney asked. The whine in his voice was ordinary enough, but there was a quaver to it that was not, a tired, pained pleading that sapped at Teyla's irritation, softened her tone.

"If you wish to get captured by Wraith tracking our footprints, then no, we don't have to. Otherwise, yes, we have to move. The Wraith John told us of will be here within an hour, even if they are traveling slow. It will be safer deeper in the forest."

She had tossed snow and branches onto the avalanche's fill to conceal some of their trail, but she didn't dare venture too far into the open for fear of the darts spotting her. The ships were making zigzagging circuits in the sky, still zeroing in on Michael's beacon, presumably.

"Exactly how long do we have?" Rodney asked. "Because if we can wait a few minutes, I'll have a better destination than simply deeper into the freezing, dark woods."

Teyla turned to him. "You have found the beacon's location?"

Since Ronon and John had headed down the mountain, Rodney had been busy with the computer. He had plugged it into the life-signs detector with a spare cord not lost with his laptop in the avalanche, and been studying the readouts diligently, making thoughtful noises, in between muttered complaints about the nuisance of typing with gloves, and whimpered "Ow"s whenever he accidentally moved more than an inch.

Teyla had helped him set up the laptop on a snowbank such that he could reach it without budging his leg; she otherwise didn't disturb him, being busy herself covering their trail and watching the darts. Truthfully she had not been expecting Rodney to succeed. John had assigned the task to occupy him, to keep him from dwelling on their situation to the point of despair, as much as any goal of completing their mission. He knew Rodney that well—knew them all that well; and he trusted her skills to keep Rodney safe.

Besides, the beacon would do them little good if it were located underground or on a high peak, or somewhere else inaccessible. But Rodney shook his head now. "The signal's coming from over there," and he waved generally to the east, and up, "but I don't know how far away. That's not what I was looking for, though. So we found the door to Michael's lab, right?"

Teyla nodded. "Before the avalanche."

"Trying to break in triggered the avalanche. One of Michael's traps—I should've seen that coming." Rodney grimaced, guilt showing as obvious on his face as it always did. "I really thought I had the right failsafe."

"You have successfully broken into Michael's labs before," Teyla reassured him.

"Yeah, yeah, but I should've realized this one was set up differently. But putting aside that lapse—I was thinking about how the door got buried. It's summer in this hemisphere; in winter there'd have been even more snow. So even if the beacon summoned Michael—if he were still alive to summon—he'd need a lot of shovels to get in. Totally impractical. Unless," and Rodney's voice rose with the excitement of revelation, washing away his fatigue, "he had another way."

"Another entrance to the lab," Teyla realized.

"A backdoor, yes. I've been tracing potential energy signals, looking for standby power leakage from electrical equipment in the vicinity. And I've got something."

He picked up the life-signs detector, adjusted it. Teyla leaned over his shoulder to peek at the computer screen, but he was dealing with the raw data and she didn't have any references to understand the columns of changing numbers. "Where?" she asked, mustering patience with effort.

"Just a second—yes! Here..." Rodney started to hunch over the laptop, then jerked his spine straight with a wince, and blew out a couple of ragged breaths. "Shit. Remind me not to break a leg again anytime soon, this sucks... Okay, it's thataway," and he pointed in the same general direction as when indicating the beacon.

It was deeper into the woods, at least, further from the approaching Wraith. But it was uphill, and though the incline was shallow, even level ground would be difficult for Rodney to manage. "How far?" she asked.

"Don't know exactly, but to pick up a signal this weak, the source can't be too far. Less than a kilometer."

"All right, then we will go." Teyla folded the computer closed and stowed it in her gear, then took a moment to clear the ground of snow at Rodney's feet, so he might stand without slipping. Rodney, for his part, clipped the detector to his parka, then shut his eyes and gathered himself with a few deep inhalations.

He helped push himself up on the tree behind him while she pulled him to his feet, but once vertical she had to take most of his weight. Rodney slumped against her, gasping unevenly, faint short sounds like sobs. "S-sorry," he got out finally. "Hurts like a—like a—it fucking hurts."

"So I remember," Teyla said, keeping her voice light. "When I was ten I fell from a tree and broke my leg, such that the bone showed through the skin. Later, my father let me sip unwatered Ruus wine for the first time, but still, it is not a pleasant memory."

"Doesn't sound it, no." Rodney whimpered as they took their first step, but he swallowed it, stammered out, "B-broke my arm, when I was twelve. This other kid—bully—dared me to skateboard. He was a Michael, too, actually, Mikey Fitzgerald. Imbecilic soccer player, I despised him. He was a year older, three grades behind me, and he had a mustache, at—ow!—at thirteen. So I tried his stupid skateboard and I broke my arm and it hurt like a son of a bitch, but at least I didn't have to walk on it. —God!"

Teyla's boot had landed on an icy patch and she nearly slipped, jarring Rodney. "I am sorry," she apologized immediately, and Rodney nodded, ducking his head jerkily. His eyes were squeezed shut and the lines around his mouth were drawn tight, ashen as the snow.

"I imagine," she said, as they resumed their painfully slow ascent, "that both Ronon and John have hurt themselves more times, and worse, than either of us. Ronon broke three different bones when he was Running, that he has told me. And John has never mentioned, but if I am to speculate from his recent medical history, I should think his childhood must have been fraught with injury."

"Actually John only went to the hospital once as a kid," Rodney said. "For a bad stomach flu. He never broke anything."

"Truly?" Teyla asked, skeptically.

"Strong bones, he says, runs in his family. Yeah, I didn't believe it either, but he swears that all the roofs he jumped off of never did any permanent damage."

"You and John talk about much together," Teyla said.

She spoke carefully, keeping her tone casual, but Rodney's back stiffened in a manner different from his involuntary twitching with each step they took.

"Yeah, we do," he said after a few more steps, just as carefully. "And maybe more, lately. The last couple months."

"Since you broke up with Dr. Keller."

"Not right away," Rodney protested. "A couple months after that. That's—it wasn't about that. It's not. Really."

"I did not mean that it was, Rodney," Teyla told him. With him leaning so heavily against her, she could feel him shivering, with cold and pain, and emotion too, perhaps. It was enough to make her shiver herself in sympathetic resonance. She tightened her arms around him, shifting slightly so it was a little more like an embrace, to let him know her hold was strong, that he did not have to take any more effort to support himself than he could spare.

"I didn't want to come—to tell people—the one thing about keeping this secret is that I haven't had to tell Jennifer," Rodney babbled. "Because I'm—I don't want her to think that I—it wasn't like that, it's not about that. But I'm not sure she'd buy it. I don't think I would, if she started dating you or Amelia Banks or whoever. Um, not that you would, you've got Kanaan; but in theory, um, yeah. It'd be. It is...weird. Isn't it."

"I could not say," Teyla said.

"I think it's weird," Rodney said, "and I'm the one in it, so, um, I can only imagine what it—what it looks like, to—um—I can't—I need to—"

Teyla wasn't prepared for Rodney to sway; she stumbled when he did, and his splinted leg bumped on the uneven ground. Rodney made a strangled whine and folded; she only just caught him as he collapsed, in time to ease him down. He flopped back in the snow and breathed hard, the same gulping, choked sounds Torren made after his occasional fits of wailing.

Teyla pressed Rodney's nearer hand between her own, to warm and to comfort. When he had recovered himself, she put two more analgesic pills into his shaking hands, and then her canteen, after he gulped them dry without bothering with his own water.

"Sorry," he said, his voice shaky. "Thought I was going to black out. P-pushed too hard."

"You did well," Teyla told him, not entirely honestly. She had hoped to make it further, and faster. Leaving him to rest under the umbrella of a spruce tree's low branches, she circled back to conceal their tracks. It did not take long; the snow under the trees wasn't fresh, but patchy and already marked by animals and thaws. Only an expert could follow their trail, once she had brushed away the obvious prints.

When she returned to Rodney, he was checking the life-signs detector. "The good news is, we're going in the right direction," he said, sounding stronger, but still unsteady. "And it's pretty close. Bad news—I can't make it."


In the tree's shade, his face was bluish and his eyes pallid. "I'm not being melodramatic, I'm being reasonable. I don't have the pain tolerance for this; if I keep going I'll pass out and you'll have to drag me, and then the Wraith will have no trouble tracking either of us. So it makes more sense for you to go on ahead, find the way in, while I wait here. Conscious, with my gun, so if the Wraith show up, I'm ready for them. And you'll be close enough to come to the rescue. Hopefully."

Teyla considered this, then reluctantly nodded. "All right."

"Please, listen to me, this is the—um. Oh." Rodney looked momentarily nonplussed. "That easy?"

John, she thought, would not have decided so easily—but she was not leaving Rodney behind; she was looking for the way to save both of them. "It does make sense." She took out the computer, set it out for him on the snow, and handed him her last PowerBar as well. "But you are to keep watch with the life-signs detector, and you must not sleep."

"I'd rather avoid slipping into hypothermia myself," Rodney said. "Or getting eaten by a Wraith, that'd be worse. So yes, trust me, I'm not planning to nap anytime soon."

"Then I will go now, quickly," Teyla said, pushing aside the tree's boughs.

"Teyla." Rodney's tone made her pause, look back at him. He had put the life-signs detector down in his lap and was wringing his hands over it, or else rubbing warmth into his cold fingers. "I'm—sorry," he said, in the abrupt, forced manner of his rare true apologies, different from the reflexive, casually meaningless "Sorry" that John attributed to his Canadian heritage.

"Perhaps later would be better," Teyla said.

Rodney might have flushed; in the shade and cold it was hard to tell. "It's just—if I were Ronon," he said, "or you, or Sheppard, I know I'd push on, keep going. Overcome the pain with sheer willpower. But my brain doesn't work like that. So—I'm sorry."

"Our strengths are different, Rodney," Teyla told him gently. "You owe me no apology for that."

Rodney squared his jaw. "For other stuff, maybe, though?" he asked, with more direct courage than she would have credited him for.

"Maybe," she said, but this was not the right moment for that. "That direction?" she asked, pointing.

Rodney checked the detector. "Yes. And up."

"The slope climbs," Teyla said, looking up it. "How will I know when I've arrived?"

Rodney winced, perhaps because of his leg, or perhaps not. "No idea. If we're lucky, there's another door. If not..."

"I will figure it out."

"Right. Well. Good luck?"

"For all of us," Teyla said.


The Stargate was in a valley between the mountain peaks. The clearing surrounding it in the otherwise dense forest was one of the few signs that people visited this world—that Michael had visited this world, anyway.

The sun was well past its zenith by the time John and Ronon reached the clearing, though it was hours yet until nightfall; this time of year the days were long, according to Rodney. Still, it had lowered enough to cast long shadows on the snow, stretching out like blue fingers from the Wraith drones standing guard around the DHD.

There were only four of them. But overheard were two more Wraith darts—unless the pair from the mountaintop had circled back. Either way, it was a problem. "These guys aren't kidding around," John said, eying the crafts from their cover of frost-rimed underbrush. They could shoot the guards on the ground, but the darts would scoop them up if they got near the DHD.

The gate was active, rippling blue glow playing across the snow, making it shimmer like water. As John and Ronon watched, the wormhole winked out, and one of the Wraith immediately punched in an address, opening it again, though none of them went through it. Holding the line, so no one else could dial in. Standard protocol was for Atlantis to try every ten minutes if the gate got a busy signal, but the Wraith weren't leaving it down for more than a few seconds; the odds of Atlantis getting through were low.

Woolsey would know something was wrong by now, when there wasn't supposed to be anyone else on this planet to dial out. But sitting and waiting two days for the Daedalus to come check on them wasn't an option.

"We need to take out the darts," John muttered to Ronon, watching the needle-headed shapes hovering under the cloudless blue sky.

"Shoot 'em down?" Ronon suggested.

"Can your blaster do it?"

"Don't know for sure." Ronon's sharp-toothed grin said he'd be up for finding out.

"Maybe later," John said, thinking. "If we had more C-4..."

"How'd we get it up to them?"

"Fake a diversion, get them to land? Though I don't know if we have a big enough bang for both of them..."

"If we got them to land," Ronon said, "we could knock a tree over onto 'em. This one's big enough," and he rapped his knuckles against the wide, wrinkled trunk of a lofty pine.

"How do we cut down a tree?"

"With C-4."

"Hmm. Plan B," John decided.

"What's A?"

"Right here," John said, and tapped his radio. "Hey, Rodney, you there? Have any bright ideas about how Ronon and I can take down a couple darts?"


Part 2


Stargate Atlantis Secret Santa

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