Title: "Ascent"

Author: Little Red

For: Ness

Rating: PG-13

Category: Sheppard/Weir, action/adventure, challenge!fic.

Summary: First of all, they have to survive.

Requirements for swficathon: Sheppard and Weir stranded alone off-world; hands (holding or touching... doesn't have to be overt -- or sexual -- contact but extra credit given if it is); rain. I fail at the extra credit apocasmut, though.

Exclusions: character bashing, unhappy Sparky ending

Extra inspiration credit to: Er... the Star Trek episodes about the Gateways. Lots of geek cred to anyone who gets that.

Thanks to: Rose for reading this over and signing off on the beta form! Also to Serin and Tammy for being official survival consultants. Tammy consulted this in the most extreme way possible, too, as many of her suggestions were made over the phone as she braved a hurricane. That, my friends, is dedication to fandom.

Author's Note: I... can't believe how long this is. I planned for this to be a very, very, very different story, but my best-laid plans went completely awry. I hope some of you like it anyway!


****


The first time the Stargate starts to flash uncontrollably instead of locking on to a single destination world, it's Zelenka's fault.

"Is it supposed to do that?" John asks. He lifts his hand to shield his eyes from the hypnotic strobe-light effect of the flickering 'gate on the control room, but can't quite look away.

Elizabeth is, not surprisingly, considerably less calm as she all but flies out of her office at the commotion. "Shut it down!"

"I am trying!" Zelenka and McKay fight over the problem, and in between the insults, John catches the phrases 'uncontrolled power surge' and 'unlocked wormhole' before someone yanks the plug and the Stargate sputters out.

"Well," John says, to interrupt the post-emergency silence. "That was exciting."

Elizabeth tosses him a look that's somewhere between exasperated and amused. He gets that look from her a lot. Her face is a bit flushed, but McKay immediately starts to berate him, so he doesn't have time to stare.

"Exciting? Colonel, do you realize that we just dialed a quarter, no-" McKay pauses to check some readings, which are still bouncing wildly around the nearest monitor, "-35% of the Stargates in this galaxy in a row? Do you have any idea how much power that drained from our ZPM?"

"A lot?" John guesses. He has never been one for rhetorical questions, unless he's the one asking them.

"Yes, a lot. And all because the eminent scientist Radek Zelenka over here tried to overload the Stargate without the slightest idea what he was doing!"

"It was supposed to be a controlled overload-"

"I'd appreciate a report," Elizabeth manages to interject, before taking a few steps back and starting to wander away, the way she does whenever she has given up on getting any straight answers from McKay and Zelenka in full-on science mode. Satisfied that the city isn't about to burn down in any immediate way, John chases her.

He doesn't really have anything to say, but it's been a while since he's seen her (well, since running into her at breakfast, which he supposes isn't that long ago, technically), so he makes something up. "What do you think would've happened if one of us had tried to go through the Stargate back then?"

Elizabeth winces. "Probably nothing good. I'm sure I'll find out in grisly detail when the report comes in."

He nudges her with his elbow. "You really don't like to live dangerously, do you?"

Elizabeth's smile is a bit more indulgent this time -- he gets that look a lot, too -- but she still rolls her eyes. "I'm still not parachuting out of a puddle-jumper with you, John."

Heh. He has to grin at that. She hadn't been upset as much as confused upon discovering that latest extreme-sport pastime of some of the base personnel -- "What, you don't get enough chances to defy death in your day job?" -- but she flat-out refused his invitation to accompany them. He's been teasing her about her fear of heights ever since.

"Cliff-diving on the mainland, though? We still on for that?" He nudges her arm again.

Elizabeth shoves his elbow away with one hand and walks away. He can tell from her back that she's still smiling. "We'll see."

He loves that he can make her smile like that so easily. It doesn't escape his attention that no one else can.

McKay and Zelenka are still arguing over who broke the Stargate more, and that's when John realizes that he should probably get back to work.


****


The Wraith come while the Daedalus is back on Earth for resupply.

"We have a shield," John finds himself saying more than once in the closed session of department heads.

He sends these words directly at Elizabeth. He thinks he's trying to reassure her, to speak above the relentless pounding of shield impacts outside, but she's already the calmest person in the room.

She gives him half a smile for the effort, anyway, and then turns to McKay and Zelenka for a real answer. "Can we hold out?"

There's an exchange of muttered scientist-speak and head-nodding, but their verdict is unanimous. "Yes," McKay says. "It's only one ship, and the Daedalus should be back in ten days at the most." He swallows awkwardly, his face echoing John's thought that ten days of constant bombardment might drive them all crazy first. "Even if they have sufficient ammunition to maintain the barrage that long-"

"-which is doubtful," Zelenka helpfully interjects.

"Yes, even if, we should be fine as long as the Daedalus isn't delayed or the Wraith aren't hiding some kind of new weapons technology we haven't heard of yet."

McKay says that last one like it's unlikely, but John instantly feels cold.

Elizabeth speaks before he can, through gritted teeth. "We should begin an evacuation to the Alpha Sites, just in case. I can't imagine they came all this way just to... annoy us."

John frowns. "They could be trying to smoke us out," he notes. "If they've somehow found out our Alpha Site locations..."

Zelenka shakes his head. "It is more likely that they were sent as... advance ship for larger fleet, meant to drain our energy reserves in preparation for a future assault."

"Soften us up." John clenches and unclenches his fists as more teeth-rattling explosions detonate outside.

Elizabeth touches a hand to her forehead and takes a deep breath. "Make the Alpha Site preparations," she orders him. In a flash, John pictures her at the mercy of the Wraith or dead amid the wreckage of the city, and he shoves those thoughts out of the way by focusing on his assignment.

"We can start evacuating nonessential personnel by tonight," he says.

"Good." She looks a bit sick, the way she always does at the mention of evacuation. If push comes to shove, she'll leave for a fallback planet to stay with her people -- he'll force her to if she drags her heels too much -- but he knows that a part of her would almost rather go down with Atlantis than abandon the city to the ocean alone.

That knowledge has kept him up nights.

"The Daedalus will get here," John reminds her, wishing it could be a promise. "Right?"

McKay nods. "Definitely." Zelenka looks slightly less convinced -- the Czech scientist is perhaps more pessimistic than any of them, when it comes right down to it -- so John ignores him.

He smiles at Elizabeth, trying not to listen to the bombing above their heads. "This evacuation -- it'll just be a camping trip."

She doesn't even snap at him for patronizing her, which tells him how worried she is. "Okay. And... let's just keep hoping for the best possible scenario."


****


"Stop it," Elizabeth snaps at him out of nowhere on the second day.

It's only then that he notices that he has been clicking the safety on his P-90 on and off, probably since he arrived in her office twenty minutes ago to look over the security rotations and Rodney's plans to conserve energy.

"Sorry," he apologizes, and then sets his gun on her desk. Not out of reach, of course, but out of immediate fidgeting range.

A few minutes later, she huffs at him again, and he realizes he's been kicking the leg of his chair.

"Dammit, Elizabeth!" It's in no way her fault, but she's the closest. "Are we just supposed to sit here?"

Two days so far. Bang. Bang. Bang. The megaton explosions outside only manifest themselves as noise and slight vibrations this far inside the city, but it's still enough to make him want to scream. He'd kill right now to get his hands on a Wraith.

He thinks Elizabeth would, too, and she's not usually the violent type.

She knots her fingers into her hair, obviously resisting the urge to yell at him. "Just finish the rotation," she orders.

There's nothing else they can do.

"I need some air," he says instead, shoving his chair back towards the end of her desk and then kicking it when it refuses to line up properly. He storms out before she can find fault with the way he did that, too.

He paces around the balcony for a few minutes, glaring up at the iridescent shield. The vibrations are stronger outside, rattling him to his bones.

When he heads back to Elizabeth's office, he brings her a fresh cup of coffee and a Powerbar and tries for a smile that'll say he's sorry for taking it out on her.

Ten days of this. He can do that.


****


Six days after the barrage begins, John wakes up to the sound of Elizabeth screaming.

He starts, gasping, reaching automatically for the P-90 on the floor next to his bed.

It takes him a full two minutes of listening to the dark emptiness of his quarters -- silent except for the endless bombardment outside -- to realize that he was dreaming. He still doesn't put down his gun.

He's heard Elizabeth scream like that before only once, when an alien race called the Makeen held her hostage and dug a hot poker into the small of her back, forcing him and the rest of his team to watch. John doesn't think he's ever quite recovered from that, mostly because there's no way he can swear that he'll never let it happen again.

He only slept for about an hour -- bringing him to maybe four hours total since the Wraith arrived -- but he abandons sleep completely after another few minutes of Elizabeth's raw cries ringing silently in his ears. He doesn't even pause to splash water on his face before striking out to find her.

She's in the mess hall, downing disgustingly strong coffee, looking about as ragged as he feels.

"Thought you were getting some sleep," she says, and weakly raises an eyebrow like she knows it's a joke. It'll take drugs to let either of them sleep through the sharp, irregular sounds of explosions against the city shield, and neither of them can stand to have their judgment impaired by sedatives if the situation changes.

"Got about an hour," he reports. He takes the seat across from her, but can't stop fidgeting every time a Wraith missile hits. Knowing there's absolutely nothing he can do but wait doesn't help him relax.

"Good enough, I guess." She takes another swig of coffee, makes a face, and then holds the mug out to him. "Do you want the rest of this? If I drink any more, I'll gag."

The weight of the situation lifts, a little, for just a moment. He doesn't quite smile at her, but he gets close. "A ringing endorsement."

She's not-quite-smiling, too. "Take it or leave it."

He studies her across the table. Her makeup is completely gone, normally perfectly arranged curls are hanging limp around her face, and exhaustion makes her look ten years older than she normally does. She's watching him right back, and he knows he can't look much better. He hasn't even looked at a razor all week.

"The Daedalus will make it," he says.

She nods. "The shield will hold." Their power is being steadily drained, as Zelenka predicted, but they should still make it. By the less pessimistic estimates, anyway.

John brushes her knee under the table with his, needing the contact. Another strike hits the shield, and he can feel her muscles tense in response.

They stare at each other for a long while, too exhausted to think of things to say, and then the city around them goes unexpectedly silent.

They both stand up at once. He can tell Elizabeth is holding her breath, hand poised above her radio, waiting to see if the reprieve is for real before contacting the control room to demand information.

There's another five seconds of total silence, and then a loud, intense explosion knocks him into the nearest table and Elizabeth clean off her feet.

"What the hell-?"

She cuts off his question, yelling into her radio. "Rodney! What's going on?"

They get nothing but static. Another real explosion hits, shattering all the lights and the glass in the mess hall windows, and they both reflexively duck to the floor to shelter their faces. He grabs her arm as soon as he's on his knees, hauling her up.

She shakes glass from her hair as shock and fear chase each other across her features. "We need to get to the control room!" she yells unnecessarily.

Another explosion hits before they even make it to the mess hall door and all the lights go out for almost a minute. He grabs tight to her to keep from being separated, and they both start to run.


****


The control room is a disaster.

At first glance, half the control consoles are on fire, the guts of exploded equipment are spilled all over the room, and one of the catwalks has completely collapsed onto the floor below. The tower is lit only by emergency lighting and accidental fire.

People are screaming, too. Two marines and Teyla are struggling to free one of the Athosian security officers trapped underneath fallen metal, and John counts at least two technicians on the ground, covered with burns and unmoving.

Zelenka is hovering over a half-charred console and screaming into a radio, half in English, half in Czech.

Elizabeth breaks free from John's grasp and darts over to Zelenka, grabbing the scientist's shoulder firmly enough to bruise, if they survive that long. "What happened!? Radek!"

John's radio surges temporarily to life through the static, and he can hear McKay on the other end: "-- power influx in excess -- feedback -- unstable -- abandon --"

"Where's McKay?" John demands, and that question seems to get through to Zelenka.

"ZPM room! He was engaging a power cycle when the Wraith-"

Another explosion knocks them all to one side again. John stays standing only by grabbing the broken edge of another console, tearing open his palm.

He clenches his fist around the wound. The sick feeling of blood seeping between his fingers is easy to ignore. "Where the hell is the shield?"

"The shield is up!" Zelenka answers him, waving smoke away from the display in front of him. "The Wraith are using our own technology to overload power systems in the city-"

Another burst.

"Well, stop them!" John snaps, unable to come up with something more specific to demand. He grabs his radio and adjusts the channels. "Rodney, can you hear me? McKay!"

Next to him, Elizabeth asks the $64,000 question. "Can you counteract this weapon?"

Zelenka flails his hands around his head for barely a split-second before answering. "Not before Atlantis is completely destroyed. If we drop the shield-"

"If we drop the shield, the Wraith beam on board," John reminds everyone needlessly.

"And they destroy the city anyway with missiles," Zelenka finishes.

Elizabeth doesn't even pause. "Dial the Alpha Site. Set the city self-destruct." She searches amid the broken panels for a moment before finding what she's looking for, and then activates the city-wide. She doesn't waste words identifying herself. "Emergency evacuation, all personnel. All personnel to the Stargate room immediately."

John leaves blood on the keyboard as he types, but manages to arm the self-destruct.

Elizabeth yells into the radio for McKay again, ordering him to come to the 'gate-room if he can hear her, while John stares at a display of the city and watches in horror as the North-most pier completely collapses.

The Stargate whooshes to life. John can hear Teyla on the lower level, yelling at people to move more quickly.

John moves through the control room, herding people along, but all his actions are a blur.

Ronon appears beside him, burned and bleeding and with Cadman screaming bloody murder in his arms. "There are wounded in the hallways," he announces. "We can't abandon them."

Elizabeth falters at that, but John can't. "Zelenka! How long do we have?"

Zelenka gibbers numbers in Czech that John can't translate, slaps a sputtering computer for an updated readout, and then shakes his head. "Minutes."

Elizabeth is yelling into the radio again. "Rodney!"

"I'm trying one last thing-" McKay is arguing back, but from even that much, John knows it's worse than a long shot.

He makes the decision, shoving emotion or thought of who, exactly, they might be abandoning, to the back of his mind. "Leave anyone who can't make it to the 'gate," he orders Ronon. "You've got two minutes, don't be late. That's an order."

Ronon all but throws Cadman through the wormhole and then runs off at full-speed. Teyla is hot on his heels, yelling his name in either encouragement or argument.

Another explosion knocks John flat to the floor, and then another. They're coming faster now, and he finds himself frantically searching for Elizabeth in the melee. He finds her not far from the Stargate and grabs hold of her wrist just as Rodney's voice comes through the radio, as loud and clear as it gets: "-- control tower has been completely destabilized -- structurally unstable -- collapse in thirty seconds --"

Lights flash behind John's eyes when the next charge hits, and it takes him a second to realize that the strobe effect is actually in the room around him instead of in his head.

The Stargate is frantically flickering, blue and grey with electrical charges surging across the event horizon. It's all happening too fast for John to realize that he's seen this before.

"The wormhole-!" Zelenka runs for a control console, yelling something about a power overload and wormhole instability, when another power surge jolts loose a ceiling beam, separating them from Radek and raining shrapnel down on the entire room.

John finds his arms wrapped around Elizabeth's waist, holding her fast to him for no reason other than panicked instinct.

She's yelling for Zelenka, struggling blindly to get free, fingernails digging sharply into his hands.

McKay screams one last thing in his ear: "Get the hell out of here now!"

The room starts to shake again. With only one glance back at the unfamiliar face of the wormhole, John ignores Elizabeth's screams of protest and pulls her back through.


****


John comes to with mud in his mouth.

He spits it out immediately, tasting dirt and blood and something rotten, struggling for unobstructed air. His head pounds when he lifts it, pain surging like waves with fragmented memory bursting open at the peaks -- Wraith, Atlantis...

John's hands are even muddier than his face, and one of them is still bleeding, but he manages to clean his nose and mouth enough to breathe. He smells smoke, but thinks it might just be in his head.

... Stargate, explosion...

His eyes refuse to clear, providing him only with explosions of light and color instead of the view ahead of him, and he collapses onto his back to catch his breath. He snuffles against the water falling onto his face, but is too exhausted to move. His last thought before passing out again is that, in Atlantis, it really isn't the time of year for rain.


****


The next time, the pain in his head wakes him. John is dimly aware that he's cold and wet, but he feels almost detached from his body, like his neck is thirty feet long. Shapes dance in front of his eyes, refusing to congeal into anything meaningful, but after a while, they start to fade.

The big revelation, now that he can finally see, seems to be that he's somewhere very dark.

The lights went out on Atlantis, he remembers... the balcony supports had fallen, Zelenka screamed something about the wormhole, Elizabeth tried to get to him...

Elizabeth.

That thought gets John to his knees, fighting against darkness and the way his limbs are shaking until he pinpoints something huddled in the mud about fifteen feet away. There's no one else around.

He isn't entirely sure how he makes it to her -- he doubts it was in a straight line, the way vertigo is swirling through him -- but somehow his hands get there and he starts to shake her.

"Elizabeth." He shoves her hair out of her face -- at least she isn't face down, like he was -- and orders his eyes to bring her into focus. Her breath clouds in front of her lips and the relief that she's not dead almost chokes him. "Come on, Elizabeth. Come on."

Her eyes flutter open, searching around blindly, and he hauls her up to her knees about two seconds before she starts throwing up.

She recovers, slowly, and grabs for his hand. "John..."

The mud seems to be rising, sloshing over his calves as he kneels, so he doesn't let her lie back down. Instead, he props her up against him, back to his chest. If he holds on to her too tightly, he swears it's only for balance. "I've got you," he promises. "You're okay." In all honesty, he feels as though he's been hit by a train and then spun dry in a washing machine, so he has no idea if either of them are okay or not.

She coughs a few times, but doesn't start throwing up again. She squeezes his hand harder. "John... what the hell happened?"


****


The mud continues to rise and the dizziness continues to lessen, so John climbs to his feet before trying to come up with an answer. Elizabeth staggers upright a moment later, using his arm for leverage, and then brings both hands to her head.

His brain is still a mess of fog as he tries to put the pieces together. He's wearing his vest and jacket, dressed for combat or an off-world mission, and is armed with the 9-mil holstered to his belt and his regular vest complement of grenades, survival gear and accessories. The 9-mil looks perhaps permanently damaged by the mud, and his P-90 is nowhere to be seen, probably irretrievably lost. Elizabeth is dressed in her regular Atlantis red-and-greys, in no way properly equipped for this weather or for an off-world mission.

He tries to remember what happened, where they are, but the only things that are clear are an explosion, something about the Stargate, and a blinding, panicked need to get Elizabeth out of harm's way.

John has a bad feeling that he didn't quite succeed.

"Hey." She tugs on his sleeve. "Have you got a flashlight?"

The velcro is full of mud, but the maglite itself still works. Elizabeth sweeps it around them in an attempt to get their bearings, and when the light swings past his eyes, he almost remembers. Something about a power surge...

Oh God, Atlantis. Something happened to Atlantis. Terror grips his stomach, but he still doesn't quite know why.

Elizabeth breaks him out of his reverie. She sounds almost normal, though the uneven path of the flashlight beam suggests otherwise. "Where's the Stargate?"

"Huh?"

She pauses, swaying a little. "Are we off-world?"

It's a good point. They couldn't exactly have just materialized here -- wherever they are -- without help.

The flashlight's effectiveness is diminished by the heavy rain, and it takes another few minutes for them to locate the Stargate. It's at least forty feet away from where they woke up, up a small incline, and John has a bad feeling that they didn't walk that distance themselves. He's suddenly deeply grateful to the alien mud for cushioning their falls.

The mud is almost up to their knees by the time they wade to the Stargate. He takes the flashlight from her and starts dialing Atlantis.

"I don't have an IDC remote," Elizabeth points out, hovering over his shoulder with her arms tight across her chest for warmth.

"I do," John says, before he checks all the pockets of his vest and realizes he doesn't. Elizabeth looks just as surprises as he feels, and he racks his brain, trying to piece together a situation where he'd go off-world without one, where he'd take her off-world without one, but every time he gets close to an answer, shells seem to detonate inside his skull.

He finishes the dialing sequence anyway, out of dizziness and habit, but the wormhole whooshes for only a second before sputtering and going dead.

Now Elizabeth looks properly alarmed. "Has it ever done that before?"

"No," John replies. He shakes his head, but that makes pain surge between his temples again, and he grips the DHD for a moment to regain his balance. What the hell happened to them? "I don't think so. If it didn't connect... it wouldn't do anything at all."

"Try the Alpha Site," she urges, sloshing her feet. John notices that the bottom of the Stargate is beneath the rising mud level, but has no idea if that could be the problem. He recalls McKay explaining that a Stargate has to be completely buried by matter of a certain density to render it inactive... or... something...

He focuses his energy on remember the symbols, but when he activates the DHD, nothing happens. Elizabeth offers to try, but this time, the symbols on the DHD don't even light up.

He tries twice more, even kicks it for good measure, and Elizabeth wanders closer to the side of the Stargate itself.

"John," she calls, examining the side of the Stargate with the flashlight. "This looks like water damage."

He remembers the muddy gun. He's about to make a headachy complaint about Ancients not having solved that particular problem of elements gumming up the machinery, but then he realizes that Elizabeth is wading thigh-deep in mud and the water is rising quickly. There's rumbling in the distance that doesn't quite sound like thunder. They're in a valley, he finally notices, and that's very bad news.

"Forget it," he says. "We've got to get to higher ground."

She looks around helplessly into the surrounding darkness for a moment, and argues, "But Atlantis-"

That word on her lips forces memories to the surface -- a Wraith attack, the Daedalus still away on resupply, a new Wraith weapon that overloaded the shields and caused a power surge in the ZPM, team evacuated to the Alpha Site, self-destruct, Zelenka injured, McKay, Teyla, Ronon -- and he's distracted long enough to slip in the mud.

He struggles for balance over the current and his lasting vertigo, wanting to scream, wanting to kick and destroy the DHD until it dials them back to Atlantis or the Alpha Site where they can actually do some good, but then Elizabeth's hand clasps around his arm, pulling him to standing and reminding him of the priorities above 'temper tantrum'.

She looks sick. Horrified. He can feel her fingers shaking, even through his jacket, and he knows she remembers at least something, too.

"Atlantis," she says again, wincing against whatever the rough trip through the Stargate did to her head.

"Higher ground," he orders, trying to sound confident.

They have priorities. First of all, they have to survive.


****


The terrain is rough and steep, and though it makes it harder to climb, John holds onto Elizabeth's hand to keep from losing her in the driving rain.

Her fingers clinging to his reassure him more than they probably should, but given the circumstances -- something horrible has happened that he can't entirely remember, the two of them are stranded off-world with unexplained physical ailments and no hope of a quick rescue -- John takes a great deal of comfort in the proof that she's still alive.

The hand she's holding has gone partly numb from a deep gash he doesn't remember getting, but he doesn't stop to examine it.

He doesn't really know where he's going except up.

The worst part, John figures, is over. The first hour was spent scrabbling up a muddy incline, desperately seeking rocks or old roots to use for handholds amid the otherwise sloshing earth, losing progress whenever they slid and pulled each other down.

After an hour, they hit the tree line. The incline is still steep, and fast-moving water is swirling intermittently at their feet and up to their knees, but they can use the dense trees as grips to keep from being washed away. John notices lines a few feet up on the tree trunks where bark has been stripped away, most likely by the rushing water of flash floods, and wonders if they shouldn't be building an ark instead of seeking higher ground.

John knows they're risking never finding the Stargate again by not stopping regularly to mark their path, but if they don't keep moving quickly, if they get swept under by the current, it won't matter one way or the other.

Elizabeth has managed to keep hold of the flashlight somehow by clenching it between her teeth, something that also let him fill her in on the rest of his plan without allowing her the chance to poke holes in it.

The plan is simple: head for higher ground to avoid the floods, find shelter, and wait for the Stargate and the ZPM to dry out so they can start repairs and get to the Alpha Site.

Even without Elizabeth keeping quiet and focused on the climb, John can easily substitute her usual criticism for himself. For one thing, they have no way of knowing if this is the beginning of a monsoon season that will strand them here for months before the flood waters recede. Perhaps more important (or less, depending on whether they can find food and shelter) is the fact that he really doesn't know how to fix a broken DHD. As a rule, McKay hasn't let him anywhere near them.

They pause for a moment to catch their breath, once they find a large tree to brace themselves against, and Elizabeth pulls the light from her mouth. She spits on the ground and rubs her jaw.

Only then does she say something. "Maybe all it needs to do is dry out," she suggests. "Stargates have been able to operate underwater before. We've been lucky so far."

John often teases her for being an incurable optimist, but Elizabeth hates poorly thought out plans. For her to be this optimistic under these conditions can only mean that she's really, really worried.

"Lucky?"

"Not... about the city." She huddles closer to him behind the large tree, momentarily escaping the pounding rain, her voice choking on the word city. She presses on. "If the Stargate brought us to a random planet -- which, considering this isn't the Alpha Site, is my best guess -- then we're lucky it didn't send us to a Stargate in space. Or... to a planet where we couldn't breathe."

"That's one way of looking at it." He's not about to give the Stargate any credit just yet, not when his bones still feel a little bit like they're on fire from the trip and Elizabeth's 'lucky' destination leaves a few things to be desired. "We could've been dematerialized entirely." He took a hell of a risk dragging her through the Stargate like that. He doesn't know if she has remembered that part yet.

Oh, God, Atlantis. If he stops to think at all, he's assaulted with fragmented visions of their people burned and left to die and their city collapsing around them.

She crouches down, bracing her back against the tree, and he joins her. He focuses on the warmth of her thigh against his to keep from noticing his soaking wet boots too much. He's always hated those.

John digs out a power bar from his vest and breaks off a chunk for each of them before wrapping it back up. It'll be damp the next time they go to eat it, but they have to ration their supplies as strictly as possible until they find an alternate source of food. He doesn't want to risk laying out his vest supplies to inventory when the ground could give way to rushing water at any moment, so he does his best to catalog what he has on him by feel and memory alone. Nothing approaching a rain poncho -- something his boy scout troop leader would've taken a piece out of his hide for -- but he honestly hadn't anticipated needing one while still on Atlantis.

"Do you think... the others made it to the Alpha Site?" Elizabeth suddenly asks, alternately nibbling on her snack and blowing onto her hands to restore warmth or feeling.

He can only think of the ones who are dead. "I don't know."

"Before we went through... Cadman and Bates and..." she winces, and he sympathizes. The rough Stargate trip seems to have done a number on both their short-term memories. "They all went ahead of us. Why aren't they here?"

For a moment, John panics that they might have missed them on the now-flooded ground where they landed, but then reassures himself that they scoured the area thoroughly -- if dizzily -- in their search for the Stargate. "Maybe they ended up somewhere else? The wormhole wasn't always unstable. Maybe it... jumped. It was supposed to hit the Alpha Site and threw us here. Maybe the others made it before the wormhole destabilized, or maybe it connected to some other worlds in between. Maybe... maybe it jumped back to the Alpha Site afterwards, or to somewhere else, and everyone else made it through."

John has no idea if a wormhole can actually do any of these things, but McKay isn't here to contradict him.

Elizabeth lets out a slow breath. "At least neither of us are stuck here alone," she says, giving him a slightly desperate look that seems out of place on her perennially rational features. He sympathizes, though. As much as he hates that she's here instead of somewhere safe and dry, he thinks he'd go crazy if he had to do this with no idea whether she was alive or dead.

The fate of the entire city is still in question, but he knows that, if she weren't here, he'd be worrying most about her.

He's both too cold and too grateful to feel guilty for that just yet, so he only huddles closer, cheek to cheek. "Yeah. At least we're not alone," he repeats.

Her eyelashes graze his cheekbone when she closes her eyes. "That's lucky, too."


****


They find temporary shelter under an outcropping of rocks a few more hours into the journey. John wants to collapse, sick at the recovering memories churning through his head and the way his whole body still aches like it's broken, but he forces himself to stay conscious.

If they sleep, they could drown. They've been narrowly avoiding floods of water and eroded soil since they arrived on this planet, and high-water marks are still visible all around them.

Higher ground, he thinks. Higher ground, higher ground.

After everything that's happened, it's the least painful thought in his head.

Elizabeth washes her hands in a trickling waterfall of clear water that pours over the rocks, wiping clean mud and his blood. "You have to let me look at your hand," she commands. There's something wrong with her voice, like it's been flattened. She got quieter and quieter as they struggled uphill, and he thinks she's in shock.

He doesn't know if it's a physical result of their trip through the unstable wormhole or just the result of watching her team and city fall apart around her at the hands of the Wraith.

Either way, there's nothing he can do, so he gives her the first-aid supplies he has in his vest and lets her at his wound. Nothing they have will stay dry for long, but a bandage that's clean and wet is better than an open wound full of mud.

Elizabeth's fingers are shaking as she disinfects and binds the cut.

He has no idea what to say, so he says, "I'm cold, too."

She sinks down next to him, her eyes sliding closed. He has never seen her look so small, and it scares him.

"We have to keep moving," he reminds her.

"Five minutes," she argues.

He checks his watch. It took one of McKay's scientists an absurdly long time to figure out how to reprogram everyone's watches to the 28-hour Atlantis day.

McKay...

John slides closer to Elizabeth's body heat and tries not to think. "Five minutes."


****


Elizabeth has been dragging behind him with exhaustion for over an hour before they find anything close to shelter. His vision is starting to swim as well, above and beyond any field instincts he has to keep him awake, by the time they reach a raised embankment with a deep rock overhang to keep them out of the rain.

The ground isn't dry -- nothing on this planet is dry -- but there's no mud swirling half up to his knees, and John will take what he can get.

Elizabeth is shivering so hard he can hear her teeth chattering over the rain, and when he lets her hand go so he can double-check the immediate area, she doesn't even move.

Panic stabs through his exhausted heart, but he doesn't want to show it. "Home sweet home," he tries, but she doesn't crack a smile.

"I'm just cold," she says, which means she's more than just cold.

He hates feeling this useless. He hates pretty much everything about this, actually. There were times when he thought that being completely alone with Elizabeth Weir on a Wraith-free planet would've been gaining on paradise. He realizes now that he should have added some other qualifications into his fantasy, most especially a hot meal and a dry bed.

"Hey," he quickly crosses the few meters of distance between them to reach her. It's still the farthest he's been from her all day, since...

It's hard to believe how recently they were sitting in the mess hall joking about bad coffee.

He takes her shoulders in his hands, putting on his best commander voice -- a tone he has modeled as much after her as anyone else. "I'm going to make a fire. We'll camp here." He doesn't want to lie to her, not even potentially, but he has to say it: "We're going to be okay."

She either shakes her head or shivers harder. "Everything's wet. A fire..."

He gives her a reassuring smirk, hoping she'll follow suit. "I do this for a living, Elizabeth."

She doesn't smile back. He takes the flashlight from her and points it at her face for a better look. She only winces at the light, not even bothering to snap at him for blinding her. Her lips are a deathly shade of blue, fueling him with an urgency that cuts through his own exhaustion.

Fire, he thinks desperately, to appease the knot in his stomach. This, at least, he can do something about. Dealing with the loss of Atlantis, fixing a DHD, coming up with something -- anything -- to say in the face of the current situation... those all might be beyond him, but he's at least qualified to get her warmer.

Somewhere in another galaxy, he's even got the adverse-weather-survival certificates to prove it.

He digs out his space blanket from a vest pocket and unfurls it for her. "Take off your wet clothes and boots," he orders. "Curl up in this. There'll be a fire soon."

"John..." It's a voice of protest, but a weak one.

He doesn't go far -- the rain has, at least, knocked free plenty of branches and bark -- and he keeps an ear tuned towards her. So far, the dangers on this planet have proven to be entirely environmental, but he doesn't have a working gun to leave with her until he gets the chance to try and repair his, and he really can't leave her safety to chance.

He can protect her. They lost the city, are separated from their team, but he can keep her alive, and then he can get her the hell off this planet.

He can, or he really doesn't know what he'll do.


****


The alien wood takes forever to light, spewing a strange-smelling green smoke when it does, but at least all his cursing manages to get a shaky laugh from Elizabeth.

"Get close to it," he advises her, probably unnecessarily as she's already shifting over a few inches in her mylar blanket. "Wouldn't want all my hard work to go to waste." He remembers, suddenly, that they joked about the evacuation of the city being nothing more than a camping trip. He's had better ones of those than this.

"I need to look at your hand again, John."

It's a complete sentence -- more than she's uttered in hours of trudging through mud -- and that lifts some of the worry from his chest. He'll breathe a lot easier once her skin regains a more normal shade of pale.

"I have to get more wood first."

"Just let me see it." Her teeth are still chattering.

"After."

She's so quiet as he tops off the fire and lays more wood out around it to dry that he would think that she fell asleep sitting up, if it weren't for the fact that she doesn't take her eyes off him.

"Your hand," she reminds him when he's finished.

She rearranges the blanket under her arms, securing it like a towel. He swallows reflexively at the sight of her shoulders, bare except for thin black bra straps, but exhaustion checks his thoughts before he can dwell on it further. There might have been nudity in some of his fleeting fantasies of taking Elizabeth on an off-world getaway, but this definitely wasn't what he meant.

"This looks bad," she tells him, poking at the wound until he hisses at her in pain.

"It's not." It's still bleeding from being aggravated all day, but he can still feel it every time she pokes him, and that's a good sign. When it's clean and dry, she uses his last two butterfly bandages and then wraps it again.

She holds onto his hands far longer than necessary, and that's when he realizes that he's shivering, too.

"Are you any warmer?"

"A little," she offers, curling her arms under the blanket again, and John knows she's lying to make him feel better.

He loves and hates that about her. Mostly the latter, in their current situation.

"How are your feet?"

She shuffles them under the edge of the blanket. "Freezing."

He was worried about that. His are, too, and itchy from wet socks. Normally he hates that more than anything in the world -- for the comfort factor, even without the threat of trench foot and other things he won't scare her with -- but right now he's more worried about her. He digs a pair of dry socks out of his vest. Instead of handing them to her, he kneels in front of her feet.

Her skin is cold, even against his freezing hands. She watches him roll the dry socks onto her feet with an expression more tired than anything else. He squeezes his good hand around each foot a few times, rubbing up and down in a half-assed massage, hoping he's at least helping bring her circulation back.

It doesn't even feel strange to be touching her like this, not after holding her hand for dear life for most of the day. Not when they're the only people alive on this planet. His hand drifts up above her ankle, just brushing the cold, bare skin of her calf, and that's when she says it.

"You have to get out of those wet clothes." She holds up one edge of the blanket and smiles a soft, helpless smile that reassures him that it won't be weird, even if it will. "I'll share."

She lies down on a patch of dirt and leaves, arranging the blanket around her as though it's a sleeping bag without a zipper, as he stokes the fire one more time and peels off layers of freezing cloth down to his underwear. She doesn't look away.

He lays his knife -- he's still armed with that, at least -- in grabbing distance, and slips into the cocoon of blanket next to her. It isn't meant for two people, and they both end up chuckling as they try to arrange themselves. She wraps her arms completely around him to try and hold the edges together, sealing in warmth.

She's freezing, and still shivering, and he tells himself that's the only reason why he holds her so tightly. The fabric of her bra is wet against his chest, and his heart thuds loudly in his ears as her skin begins to warm next to his. Her skin and hair are caked with mud, just like his, smelling of this alien environment instead of anything familiar, but he breathes her in anyway.

She's alive. Whatever else is true, she's still alive.

"We're going to get out of this," he promises, slipping a hand between them and the blanket to reach her face. He has no idea what they'll be facing if they do get off this planet, without the city to go back to, but he has to take this one promise at a time.

"I know," she answers, breath warm against his cheek. For just a moment, he remembers how long it has been since he's been this close to a mostly naked woman, and how none of those naked women have ever been her.

"Go to sleep," he tells her, guiding her half on top of him to protect her more from the cold ground.

It takes her a few minutes to relax in this unusual situation, but the exhaustion and physical strain and lure of body heat soon evens out her breathing to a relaxing rhythm.

He tells himself he won't fall asleep, not in unfamiliar off-world territory with a teammate to look after and flooding to watch for and a fire to tend, and that's the last thought he has before drifting off.


****


John wakes up to a rush of cold air down his back.

His head is fuzzy and sore -- maybe lingering after-effects of the Stargate ride -- but it still takes him only a moment to place where he is. The ground around them is still flood-free, the fire is -- remarkably, and probably due to the stubborn alien wood -- still burning happily, and Elizabeth is still breathing.

She turned over in her sleep, rolling just enough away from him to pull the blanket off him and expose his back to air.

"Elizabeth," he mutters groggily, chastising her far too quietly to actually wake her, and then snuggles closer to her, away from the cold. He reaches to tug the edge of the blanket back down, and she follows the movement to lie half on top of him again, squirming momentarily against him or the uneven ground beneath them.

As she finally gets comfortable, one of her hands brushes across his stomach and settles over his crotch.

John shivers, and it has nothing to do with the chill outside.

He should move her hand away, he knows -- though it takes his tired mind a few seconds to even come up with that plan of action. He could easily settle her down on his chest slightly less indecently.

He can't bring himself to move her. It feels good -- the weight, the warmth, the faint fluttering of muscle movement in her fingers as she sleeps -- and he quickly makes up some story about not waking her that makes this brief respite okay. He sighs, burying his nose in her still-damp hair, and wishes they were somewhere -- anywhere -- else.

She shuffles a few minutes later, stirring either at the change in his breathing or the half-mast erection under her hand, and then starts awake. Her eyes snap open, wide and confused.

He grabs her hand with one of his, squeezing gently. "We're off-world," he reminds her quickly, ignoring anything she might have consciously registered about his current state. "Do you remember?"

She looks suddenly ill, and he knows that she does. "Yeah." She runs her tongue over her lips a few times, and he thinks about how he has to replenish their supply of drinking water to avoid thinking about anything else. "Is it still raining?"

He glances over his shoulder. The light from the fire doesn't get far, so he's mostly gauging by sound, but it's definitely still raining. Less ferociously than it was, but it's still coming down hard. "Yes. We're all right for now, but we should look for somewhere less likely to flood in the morning." There has been no sign of daylight on this planet yet, but he has to assume they'll eventually get some.

She nods sleepily, and winces like she has a headache. He knows that look on her, but he's never before been able to lay a soothing hand on her forehead in response. He probably shouldn't now, either, but they're naked and tangled up together, the only living things -- birds and bugs included -- that they've so far encountered on this rainsoaked planet, and all that affords him a little leeway.

She shuffles around more on top of him, looking for a comfortable way to fall back asleep. She brushes against him in a way that would be far too right if these were any other circumstances, and he can't hold back a gasp.

Her eyes flash up to his, full of recognition, and he jerks away from her toward the cold air outside. "It's nothing," he assures her quickly. "I've got to check the fire."

"John..." Elizabeth covers her face with her hands and groans. "This is hardly the time for... unnecessary modesty."

He has to laugh. Only Elizabeth would phrase it that way. "You're saying there's no protocol for this?"

"There probably is, somewhere." She smiles, washing away his worry and embarrassment to the point where he can't imagine why he was worried about this in the first place. She's still mostly hidden by the blanket, but he can tell she has wrapped her arms around herself. "It's still cold. Come back to bed."

"I really do have to check the fire."

She blushes, and he laughs again, and for a moment, this really does feel more like a camping trip than a fight for survival. He stokes the fire as she watches, and then takes a look around the edge of the overhang. It feels absurd to be checking the perimeter -- such as it is -- with just a knife, and only in his boxers, but the entire situation is hardly ideal.

That's when he notices it.

"Elizabeth, come look at this."

There's rustling behind him as Elizabeth crawls to standing with the space blanket wrapped around her and then carefully picks her way over to him. "What?"

He points. "Do you see that?" It's still raining, but the visibility is a little better, and off in the distance, there's what looks like a glowing haze reflected on the cloud cover.

"Lights," she agrees. "There might be someone out there. A village, maybe?"

He has to smile with relief at the hope in her voice. "It's pretty far off, with this terrain and weather." There's no way they can make it in a day. Two, maybe, and only if they manage to head in a reasonably straight line. "We should rest a few more hours first."

She yawns once, and then visibly shudders at a gust of cool air. "I agree completely, Colonel."

When they settle back down, after the awkward repositioning of limbs has relaxed into an arrangement where they can both sleep, he can feel her lips turn up in a brief smile against his chest.

"This is a good thing, isn't it?" she asks, voice sleepy. She doesn't usually sound so vulnerable.

He squeezes his arms around her in a way he hopes is reassuring. It's reassuring to him, anyway. "Yeah, it is." It's his job to be pessimistic about these things, to think about potentially hostile natives or even the unlikely possibility of a Wraith outpost so far from the Stargate, but he's not going to bring that up as she's falling asleep.

At least now they have hope, and a direction. That's definitely a good thing.


****


Elizabeth sleeps for almost an hour after he finally wakes up.

The grey sky, if not exactly what he'd call light, is a little less pitch-black.

He doesn't find anything native he'd risk eating, at least not within earshot of their camp. He wishes to hell he'd paid a bit more attention whenever Teyla and Ronon got to talking about edible plants common in this galaxy. He doesn't spend too long thinking about that, though, or else he'll have to think about the last time he saw his teammates, and how chances are pretty damned good that he'll never see them again.

He remembers a few of the more common plants, anyway, and he hasn't seen any of them here. He doesn't recognize any of the fauna he's seen so far. He can explain that by the lack of civilization near the Stargate -- when Elizabeth was in a phase of evilly inviting him to everything, he had to sit through a botany lecture where the science team speculated that those plants were cross-pollinated across planetary borders mostly by trade and human foot traffic -- but having an explanation doesn't make the absence of recognizable plants any better.

He makes a stab at cleaning his gun, but only manages to do enough to realize that it's pretty much out of commission until he gets some tools more sophisticated than a damp corner of his shirt.

By the time Elizabeth wakes up, he's got fresh water, at least.

She thanks him when he hands her the canteen, but her grateful expression quickly turns sour as she struggles not to spit it out. "Good lord, are you trying to poison me?"

"Water purification tablets," he says with an apologetic smirk. "Drink it anyway."

She all but gags, but swallows down a few more gulps, alternating between the canteen and the chunk of energy bar he gave her as breakfast. "Don't tell me I'll get used to it."

"You won't," he promises. "I never have. If we make a more permanent shelter somewhere, I'll try to come up with some kind of filter."

She gives him a look, the softly proud and grateful one he usually gets in her office or the briefing room when he's done something particularly remarkable. It sends the exact same buzz of energy through him as it always does, even out here in the wilderness.

"I'll manage. Thank you."

He doesn't entirely keep his eyes averted as she shakes dried mud from her clothes and gets dressed. He's sure she notices, but she doesn't call him on it.

It's hard not to think of Teyla as he puts the fire out. They don't spend too many nights off-world, but whenever they do, this is always her job.

Elizabeth touches his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

He brushes her off with a lie. "Fine."

"John..."

As is often the case, all it takes is his name on her lips to get him to do what she wants. "I'm thinking about the others," he admits. "If the self-destruct didn't work with the power surges, if the Wraith managed to take Atlantis intact-"

She grips his arm. "Don't think about that now."

"When am I supposed to think about it?"

"Later," she tells him, eyes wide and determined. "When we're back at the Alpha Site. When we can help them. We don't know that your team is dead. We don't know-"

He clenches his fists, harshly swallowing the horrible feeling that rises when he thinks that he survived -- at least for a while -- when others under his command didn't make it. He's not thinking that he should have stayed on Atlantis, not when it was seconds or minutes from complete destruction, but he should have done... something to stop it. Somehow. "I don't want to talk about it, Elizabeth."

"Okay," she agrees. "I know what you mean."

He knows she does.

He takes her hand as they head out into the rain in the direction of the mystery light. Continuous contact between them is less necessary, maybe, now that they can see without a flashlight, but it makes him feel better.


****


He starts playing I Spy to distract them from their wet clothes and to spare them from having to make real conversation.

It isn't that he doesn't like talking to Elizabeth. She's intelligent, obviously, and remarkably well-read on a completely ridiculous number of subjects, but is also encouraging in a way that lets him easily be intelligent with her. The long conversations they'll occasionally get into are always the high points of the week.

This time, though, they can't talk about anything at all without it feeling like they're talking about Atlantis.

So they do this.

"I Spy something beginning with R."

She tosses him a bedraggled look. "If you say rain, I'll..."

"You'll what?" he teases her. Her opposition to violence is so fundamental that she rarely even makes threats of physical injury in jest.

She glares in response. Her breathing is heavy -- she's not used to this sort of prolonged physical exertion the way he is -- but she manages to keep her speech relatively normal. "Fine. Something beginning with S."

"Sky. Easy."

"Storm clouds, actually, but I'll give it to you." She pulls her hand free from his just long enough to fuss uselessly with her wet hair, and then gives it back.

"This game might be more interesting if I knew the names of any of these trees," he observes.

"I doubt it."

"All right, then, I'm out of ideas. What did your family used to play to keep you out of trouble on long car trips?"

She tugs his arm playfully. "I was never trouble."

He tugs back. "Sure."

She's quiet for a moment, thinking. "I remember reciting my multiplication tables once or twice, but I think you'd have an unfair advantage at math games."

He laughs. He's corrected enough arithmetic errors in her budget reports to know she's right. "Maybe. But I'm told you know how to swear proficiently in eighteen languages."

Now she's laughing, too. "Who told you that?"

It feels wrong that they should be able to feel anything except despair in their current situation, with the friends they were responsible for stranded and possibly dead, but it feels too good to stop. He doesn't answer her question, only hints, "We've got lots of time on our hands..." He isn't sure if his pleading face is made more or less effective by his currently drenched state, but he tries it for all it's worth.

"I am not teaching you how to swear better in Russian just so you can torment Doctor Zukhova some more."

"Hey! Who said anything about tormenting?" The first time had been a complete misunderstanding. And, unlike all the other complete misunderstandings that he's been involved with in his years on Atlantis, that one actually was. "I need to have a competent foreign swear vocabulary to even understand Doctor Zukhova. The next time I get stuck on environmental-system guard duty..."

He trails off. He's never going to have to complain about security duty for day-long science expeditions into new sections of Atlantis ever again.

"Never mind." He focuses hard on the muck beneath his feet. The burst of cheerful normalcy between them is definitely over.

Elizabeth is quiet for a full minute, and then she says, "I'll teach you anyway."

"Really?"

She's not smiling, but she shrugs. "You'd be surprised the things you pick up in the United Nations."


****


The sharp drop into a valley of churning water and eroded earth is several hundred feet deep, and it comes up on them so suddenly that John forgets all the new vocabulary Elizabeth has been teaching him and swears in English.

"We have to cross that?" She's staying well back from the edge without his even reminding her to, wearing an expression that's the same one she has when he teases her about cliff-diving, only magnified times a thousand.

"Not here," he assures her. "We might be able to climb down and up the other side-" there are places where it isn't exactly a 90-degree drop, though it's still not something he'd want to risk without a harness, "-but I wouldn't want to deal with the water down there. We'll have to find somewhere else to get across."

"What, like a bridge?" Her eyes flicker to the trees around them, then down the face of the landslide, and her fingers tighten around his.

"If we're lucky, maybe."

Her face says no way in hell, but to her credit, she actually says, "Okay."

"Hopefully it won't come to that. This might not go on too far. We could get a real land bridge if it gets narrower."

He keeps hoping that for about two kilometers. He's just about to admit he might have been wrong and ask her for suggestions for a backup plan when Elizabeth slips.

It isn't a big deal, at first -- they're both tired and cold and stumble often with the uneven depths of mud and camouflaged tree roots -- but right as he tries to pull her up to standing, the ground slides out from under her completely, like she stepped on a stack of marbles.

She screams, flailing for grip. John hits the deck, pulled down right along with her, and digs his knees and feet into the ground to anchor him as he holds on to her.

He doesn't even have time to scream her name. His injured hand gives out almost instantly, and Elizabeth slips out of his grasp and disappears over the edge.


****


He's completely frozen by shock for almost a second, unable to breathe, unable to move or yell her name or even think.

Elizabeth, thank God, is the one who breaks the silence. "John! John!"

She's screaming, voice choked thickly with pain and terror, but it means she's still alive. John crawls to the edge -- every muscle in his body feels like it's shaking -- until he can see her.

She's a good two and a half stories below him down the jagged, muddy incline, having landed on some kind of outcropping ledge. She's clinging for dear life to something that looks like a tree root, and he suspects she used it to catch herself and slow her fall.

"Elizabeth!" He can barely speak. Shit, shit, shit. "Are you okay?"

She doesn't answer him with anything except a coughing fit, and he's not surprised that she isn't yet able to answer a coherent question when it was all he could do to ask it. He examines the path she took down there and realizes there's no way he'll make it to her.

"I'll get to you," he yells down, trying to shake off the lasting panic so he can think clearly. The ledge she's on -- it looks like rock -- extends in both directions. The incline down to it is slightly less steep if he heads back in the direction they came for maybe half a kilometer.

She screams his name when he disappears from sight over the ledge, and he yells down his plan, heart pounding as he does. "I'll get to you," he promises again.

He can move a lot faster by himself, even being careful of hitting other weakened patches of soil, and he has to force himself to slow down on the climb down. He guides his descent with roots and rocks, doing his best to keep the sliding to a minimum. The bandage over his hand gets ripped loose on one of the handholds, but he smothers the rush of pain with guilt. This is nothing compared to what Elizabeth just lived through.

Thank God she lived through it. He's not willing to contemplate the possibility yet that she might have been seriously injured just because he failed to hold onto her tighter, because he thought their walking distance from the cliffside was safe, because, because, because...

The thickness of the ledge varies, and he makes note of the most treacherous spots for when he brings Elizabeth back with him. She's going to hate this. At other times, he has found it oddly amusing that he has become so close to someone with a fear of heights -- when he pretty much lives for them -- but in this situation, he really won't be able to spare her from them.

At least she's still alive.

When he reaches her, it takes all his medical field training to resist the urge to grab her in his arms and crush her to him. He settles for gripping her hands and then running his fingers over her face, forcing down the sick terror at what he almost lost.

"John," she murmurs. Her breathing is sharp and shallow. She managed to scoot under her own power as far away from the edge as possible until she's leaning against the cliff wall, so at least he's not looking at neck trauma, but there's a nasty gash across her forehead that concerns him.

"It's okay," he tells her, hand shaking as he brushes blood from her face. Her jaw is scraped, too, but that's much less serious. He finds himself babbling words without thinking them over first: "I've got you. It's okay."

She shakes her head, and pain shoots across her features. "John, my leg is broken." The edges of her normally clear diction are slurred, and he hopes it's only from the shock of the fall. "I think I might have cracked a rib or something. I can't move."

"Yes, you can," he argues, before he even gets a look at her injuries. He opens his canteen and forces it at her. She can move her arms, at least. He checks her legs first -- her left knee is already ridiculously swollen, and she gasps whenever he gets near her right ankle -- and then he unzips her jacket. She hisses out a sharp sob when he examines her ribcage, but he can't feel any breaks. At least she's not in danger of puncturing a lung.

He checks her head last. Concussion, definitely. He has no idea how serious.

"That bad?" she asks, joking feebly. He can't even imagine what his face looks like.

"I can get wood for a splint," he says. That and the few packets of painkillers he has on hand might get her as far as where he climbed down, maybe, though he has no idea how she'll manage to climb back up the incline. Even the ledge, thin as it gets, is near-suicide to cross without full mobility. There's no way that he'll be able to carry her.

"John..."

"We can't stay here," he insists. "If there's another landslide-"

"John."

She's shaking her head, shivering again like she was the night before, and her eyes slide closed the way they do when she's about to say something he really won't like.

"No way in hell," he snaps, before she can even make a suggestion.

"You can get help."

"From where?" The light on the horizon is still prohibitively far, even if he's traveling alone, and that's assuming he even manages to find a way across this chasm. "I'm not leaving you alone."

"What, so we both die?"

He hates this tone of voice on her, this indignantly self-sacrificial tone that he's only heard from her a few times over the years. Every time he does, he wants to shake the hell out of her.

"No one is going to die."

"John-"

He grabs her shoulders. "I am not leaving you."

That shuts her up.

He does the best he can to provide first aid with what he has, which isn't much. She whimpers in pain when he moves her to slide himself between her and the wall, to cushion her injured ribs and keep her warm. She helps him spread the blanket over both of them. He'll still get her a splint, and he hopes against hope that, once the swelling goes down, her injuries won't be as bad as they seem.

He thinks she's asleep for a minute, but then she turns her head where it's resting on his shoulder. "This would be a good time for some of those swear words I taught you," she murmurs. Her hands grip his underneath the blanket, and he can smell fear on her skin.

He doesn't oblige her. "It's going to be okay." He's grateful that she doesn't ask for any details of how.

He squeezes her hands back and presses his lips to her hair. He says it again, as much for himself as for her. "It's going to be okay."


****


By nightfall, Elizabeth has gone from bad to worse. Painkillers, food and water all make her sick, and the combination of trauma and lying still in this weather has dropped her body temperature enough to scare the hell out of him.

Morning, he promises himself. She'll be better in the morning. Nights on this planet are ridiculously long, too, according to what they've seen so far, so he's giving her body plenty of time to catch up to his expectations.

He wasn't originally going to make a fire -- the going is treacherous enough on his path between here and the surface to make carrying more than a few things impossible -- but he changes his mind. It takes a number of harrowing trips to bring the supplies down strapped to his back, but by the time it gets too dark to travel he has collected enough wood to both splint her leg and start a fire.

He has given the mud above them strict orders not to slide down on top of them. So far, it seems to be obeying.

With great combined effort, they get Elizabeth out of her wet clothes and lying down inside the blanket. From there, she aims the flashlight for him as he struggles with setting up the fire. The beam of light wobbles precariously, but at least she's conscious.

"Talk to me," he orders her, "so I know you're not falling asleep." She complains of being exhausted, but he hasn't let her sleep too long at any one interval. Carson constantly harps at him that his first-aid skills could use some brushing up -- Teyla has become the real field medic on the team -- but John at least knows that much about concussions.

"I was thinking about the day I met you," Elizabeth says.

"Really?" At the time, it was by far the most surreal day of his life. Now it's a drop in the bucket.

"I thought Antarctica was the coldest I'd ever be in my life."

"I didn't mind it," he admits. "But then, it was a dry cold."

The flashlight beam goes wide for a moment as she shuffles under the blanket. "Everyone called you 'the wonder boy' until we got to Atlantis."

"I know." He heard that nickname more than once after they arrived, too. "Did you?"

He swears he can actually hear her smirk. "Once or twice, maybe."

For some reason, that doesn't bother him as much as it did every other time he heard it. From the military contingent it came with derision, laced with the implication that he was unqualified to be there in every way except genetically. At best, the scientists said it in a way that made him feel casually objectified, like he was just as much of a commodity as the Ancient device he was operating -- at worst, they used it with a bitter jealousy. No one said it in his presence after the first few weeks, once his position as military commander was established, but he suspects it persisted for a while longer behind closed doors.

He can't imagine Elizabeth saying it with anything other than awe and pride.

In Antarctica, after the brief and accidental demonstration of what he could do with a control chair, Elizabeth immediately offered him a job. He blurted out all the reasons she didn't really want him along, all the same reasons he was stationed in Antarctica in the first place, the military fall from grace that she still didn't seem to completely understand enough to care about.

She asked him to think about it, and here he is. He still hardly ever manages to say no to her.

The fire finally catches, and he hovers over it for a while, making sure it's stable enough to last even if the rain picks up again.

He strips down and crawls into the blanket next to her, careful not to jostle her injuries any more than necessary. He sets his watch to remind him to wake her periodically and then tries to sleep.

The weight of her head on his chest is warm and reassuring. "Tell me," she says, "what did you think about me when we first met?"

"I didn't have a clever nickname for you, if that's what you mean."

The glow of the fire picks up the raised eyebrow she sends him. "Come on."

"I thought you were crazy," he admits. He figures there's no way she can take offense at that -- after all, she did ask him to travel to another galaxy with her as though it was a completely ordinary request to make of a person.

"That's fair."

He brushes a hand over her hair and shoots off a quick prayer to the universe that they'll somehow get out of this one. "I don't still think that."

Her words are slowing, edged with sleep. "Yes, you do."

"Only sometimes."

His initial assessment of her changed pretty quickly, really. He thinks, sometimes, about what his life would have been like if he hadn't come to Atlantis, or if the expedition had been run by someone other than her, someone more military and less forgiving.

"Sleep well, John."

He leaves his hand on her head, holding her to him. "You too."


****


Elizabeth doesn't wake up magically cured. If anything, she's in even worse shape for getting out of this situation than she was the day before. The swelling in her knee hasn't gone down much, and when she climbs herself to standing with his help, she turns deathly white from pain. Sharp washes of vertigo make it dangerous to the point of stupid for her to go anywhere near the edge. She still isn't keeping down anything more than the occasional sip of water.

The rain has tapered off to a persistent drizzle, and with the increased visibility, John scouts the cliff for a few kilometers in both directions. The ledge tapers out of existence eventually, and there's no sign of an incline gradual enough for Elizabeth to climb out with injuries to both legs, even if she could make it that far.

He brings more firewood down and tries not to panic.

Elizabeth, for her part, has gone right past panic into the unearthly calm that he's seen from her only in worst case scenarios. "You have to try and get to the village."

"We don't even know if it is a village. For all we know, that light could occur naturally on this planet."

Elizabeth is back in her muddy uniform, leaning against the cliff. Her hands are folded neatly in her lap, like this is a routine briefing instead of a life-or-death argument. "If you don't go, we'll both starve to death. I'm not going to make it out of here without help."

"You don't know that," he insists. "You're doing better than you were yesterday-"

"John, stop it."

Emotion chokes at the back of his throat. "If I go, and something goes wrong, you'll freeze to death." There are about a hundred other ways she could die -- dehydration, landslide, slipping into a coma without him there to shake her awake every hour -- but he picks the one she'll probably think is the worst.

She stares him down. "Do you have a better idea?"

He tries desperately to think of one as he brings down more wood, but comes up empty.

He hates it, but she's right.

John divides their supplies and leaves her strict survival instructions, repeating them several times with a sick tremble in his throat that he can't quite swallow.

"I've got it," she finally tells him with a sad smile. "I'll be okay until you get back."

"I am coming back."

"I know." She presses a kiss to his cheek, holding there for a long moment. "Be safe, John."

He thinks that if he kisses her on the lips, he'll never leave. "Remember what I said about keeping the fire lit."

"Just go," she tells him. "And come back soon."


****


John finds the land bridge he'd hoped for about ten klicks farther on. Once on the other side, he moves as fast as he can in the direction they first saw the lights, stopping only to carefully mark his trail for the way back.

He resents the upward slope of the terrain, but only because it keeps him from going faster. The physical exertion serves to both keep him warm and keep him distracted.

He refuses to think that that might be the last time he ever sees her. He should never have let her anywhere near that valley, should never have trusted his injured hand to hold onto her, shouldn't have let himself be distracted by conversation. He should have seen it coming.

He shouldn't have left her alone.

She was right when she said there was no better option, but he still doesn't like it. He wasn't doing much for her except tending the fire and holding her hair back, but he can't stand the idea that she's suffering by herself.

None of that matters now. The voice in his head that tries to talk him out of guilt always sounds like her voice now, from so many post-mission conversations on the balcony outside the control room. He hopes like hell that she'll get another chance to convince him with her compassionate logic to let this one go, too.

He slips more than once in his haste, but doesn't get anything worse for it than the occasional mouthful of mud or a banged knee. His injured hand has started to sting like hell with pins and needles, but he doesn't want to stop long enough to redress it.

They must be on the winter hemisphere of the planet, because the days are nowhere near as long as the nights. When darkness falls, John keeps going. He can see the lights reflecting in the clouds again, still a ways off in the distance, and is beyond relieved to see that he really is getting closer.

He's lightheaded from pushing his body like this without nearly enough to eat, and that's ultimately why he misses registering the flashlight glinting off a twisted tree root in his way until it's too late and his foot gets caught.

He hears the crack before he even feels it, and is screaming by the time he hits the ground.

"Dammit!" The woods around him echo the sound as he fights for air over the blinding pain in his leg.

He rolls onto his back to get his face out of the mud, and clenches his teeth to stay conscious. The initial blinding pain recedes a bit after a moment, enough to let him breathe, and he lies there for a minute, trying to think.

This is bad. He can move, he's sure of it, and can probably even find himself makeshift crutches from all the branches lying around, but he left most of his first-aid supplies with Elizabeth, including all the painkillers. He can probably will himself as far as the village -- if that's what it is -- no matter how much it hurts, but it'll take forever.

Neither of them have that long.

He lies in the mud for a while, contemplating his lack of options and trying not to picture too clearly how he has doomed them both, and that's when he hears it.

There's movement in the distance, something large and moving quickly, from the direction in which he came.

"You have got to be kidding me," he grits out, digging out his knife from underneath him. It isn't much by way of protection, so he can only hope it'll be enough. They haven't seen wildlife on this planet at all so far, but it seems perfectly fitting that whatever it is would show up now.

John works himself up onto his elbows. He sees beams of light approaching along with the noise -- flashlights! -- and realizes that it's not a wild animal.

"Hey! Over here!" He'll take his chances with a potentially hostile force, at this point. Elizabeth was right, the lights must indicate civilization...

He doesn't get a clear view until they're practically on top of them. One of them shines a light on his face, blinding him.

A man's voice: "Colonel Sheppard?"

"What?" He's so surprised that it takes him a moment to switch gears. "Yes, it's me. How did you-?"

The man with the flashlight points the light back at his own face, and John can only conclude that he's hallucinating. He must have passed out, and is imagining Major Lorne.

"What the hell happened to you, sir?"


****


When John is beamed right out of the mud to the Daedalus infirmary, he swears he'll never say anything uncharitable about Colonel Caldwell ever again.

The harsh interior lights of the spaceship are painfully bright, and John reflexively shields his eyes as he babbles about the need to find Elizabeth as soon as they can.

"We've got her, Colonel," Caldwell says, turning up at his bedside. "We were searching from low orbit and detected her campfire. She told us where to look for you."

John wants to demand to see her, to shove the Daedalus personnel that he barely knows out of his way, but restrains himself to asking, "Is she all right?"

"She'll be fine. I'll let the doctor fill you in after you've been examined. Was anyone else with you on this planet?"

"No. No, sir, we came through the wormhole alone. How did you-?"

"Find you? You'll have to get the details from Doctor McKay. I'm told it was a veritable feat of science and Ancient technology."

John's head is swimming. "McKay's alive?"

"Very much so," Caldwell says, in a tone that suggests there are both good and bad sides to that. "He's waiting for you back on Atlantis."


****


The Daedalus makes it back to Atlantis -- such as it is -- in six hours at hyperspeed, but John and Elizabeth are confined to the ship for longer than that.

Elizabeth eventually ends up in the bed next to John's, slipping in and out of a drugged unconsciousness and slated for knee surgery as soon as Beckett or any other surgeon between the Atlantis team and the Daedalus crew gets the time. The infirmary around them is full of injured personnel from the Wraith attack on Atlantis, since the city infirmary was more or less totaled.

John gets the story from whichever passing crewmembers he manages to order into reporting, and when she's more awake than asleep, he fills her in.

"The wormhole cut out not long after we went through it. More sections of the city collapsed, but the control tower managed to last a few more minutes... and then the Daedalus got there a few days ahead of schedule."

It seems too good to be true, but John believes that he's not dreaming because of the pain in his foot and the infected cut on his hand, if for no other reason.

"The Daedalus is pretty good at those last-minute rescues, isn't it?" Elizabeth's voice is slurred with drugs, but John isn't complaining.

"They tried some new power ratios in the hyperdrive or something... I didn't get the specifics, but Caldwell claims he had a feeling that they'd be needed back on Atlantis sooner rather than later." Given how often the Daedalus really does provide last-minute rescues, John isn't about to discount Colonel Caldwell's potential ESP out of hand. "You and I dialed Atlantis before the Stargate on that planet went dead, remember? Rodney managed to pull that information out of the database after the shooting stopped and they figured out we weren't on the Alpha Site. The Stargate didn't work -- it's probably totally buried in mud by now -- so the Daedalus came to look for us."

"Wow."

He has to smile at that. "When they didn't find us near the Stargate, they picked up that village on sensors and Caldwell figured we might have tried to make our way there." Actually, Caldwell informed him that he'd assumed they were both dead upon seeing the state of flooding around the Stargate, but had been good enough to put in a good search before giving up completely.

"I told you we were lucky." Elizabeth smiles warmly at him, like they're sharing a secret. It occurs to him that he's never really going to be able to put this experience out of his mind, or the desperate thoughts and feelings that turned up to surprise him when faced with losing her for real. They'll have to talk about that eventually, probably, but for now he's just grateful that they're both alive.

"We're not so lucky." They lost a lot of people, though his team managed to survive, and at least twenty people are still unaccounted for. "It'll be a long time before the city's operational again. And as long as the Wraith have that weapon-"

"Tomorrow," Elizabeth argues, shaking her head into her pillow. She looks much better than she did. "We'll deal with it."

He wonders if anyone would notice if he pushed their beds a little closer together. It feels strange to be even this far from her. It's well worth it, though, to be warm and dry.

"Thank you," she says, out of nowhere. "For everything."

He isn't sure why, but he feels like he should be thanking her. "Anytime."

She snorts. "Please, let's never go through that again."

"Agreed."

She smiles at that, and drifts off.

For a long time, he watches her sleep.


****


It's almost three weeks before the rest of the team returns from the Alpha Site. Even then, they're all mostly holed up in the less-damaged sections of the cities, and mostly without power.

John has finally gotten used to not constantly having Elizabeth in his sight, but he still does his best to keep track of her. She's in a wheelchair, and he's on crutches, which makes it easier. Their lack of mobility has kept them both in the temporary damage-control headquarters more often than not.

One night, he finds her reading by candlelight. She's alone in the mess hall when he gets there. As much as they've spent a lot of time together since returning to what remains of the city, they have spent very little of it alone.

For a while, that was actually kind of nice. When others are there with questions and immediate problems, it's easier to push aside the more unpleasant memories of being stuck on a rainsoaked ball of mud with her, thinking they were forever separated from everyone they cared about and fearing for their lives. She looks infinitely healthier now than she did on that planet, but occasionally a flash of pain or exhaustion will cross her features, and it always shoots right to his stomach.

He really, really thought she was going to die, to waste away on that precarious ledge because he was unable to save her. He hasn't quite gotten over that.

He hobbles over to her table and takes the seat next to her, pointing at the text in front of her. "Anything good?"

"I wish. It's a survey Tomlinson and Zelenka did of the North Pier in a puddle-jumper this morning -- I need to come up with some sort of salvage plan. There's flooding, structural collapse..."

He reads over her shoulder for a minute, squinting at the dim candle-light and artificial glow of her computer. "This is bad for your eyes, you know."

He doesn't realize how close he's actually sitting until she nudges him with her shoulder. "You worry too much."

"Thought that was my complaint about you." It is, usually. He says that to her, on the average, twice a week.

She frowns, and he knows she hasn't been able to completely forget their unexpected off-world mission, either. "I know you better now."

"Elizabeth-" He breaks off before he can say more, unsure if there are even words for everything he's been feeling like he needs to say to her.

She pushes the report away completely, turning to look at him with open concern in her eyes. The pause goes on too long, but she doesn't look away.

"I'm really glad you're okay," he finally says.

He thinks she understands everything he's not saying, too, because she looks just as overwhelmed as he feels. Her lips flutter in and out of a small smile, and she brushes his cheek with her hand. "Me too."

He closes his eyes at the feel of her warm fingers on his skin, and the next thing he knows, she's kissing him. It's soft, maybe the gentlest kiss he's ever received, and it makes his chest hurt with everything it means.

He hasn't lost her.

More than that.

She smiles when she pulls back, and it takes him a moment before he can breathe again. He realizes he caught her hand in his -- a reflex, maybe, after all that time alone with her in the rain -- and he squeezes it.

She glances back at the survey report. "Help me with this?"

He grins back. He brushes a thumb over her hand, and nods. "Okay."

They get back to work, but she doesn't let go of his hand.


*end!*

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