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30 September 2005 @ 12:44 am
FIC: "Ascent" -- part 1 of 2  
Title: "Ascent"
Author: Little Red
For: Ness (anr)
Rating: PG-13
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: rosewildeirish for reading this over and signing off on the beta form! Also to noradannan and besyd 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.


****

continue to Part II
 
 
hear: "safe from harm" - massive attack
 
 
 
jammer0307jammer0307 on September 30th, 2005 05:33 am (UTC)
HELL EFFIN YEAH!!! RED FIC!!!!
Ashbarker9 on September 30th, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC)
*eyes widened in comedic way*

Well, definitely an excellent start. Loads of stuff happened in this and I loved every bit of it. Quite dramatic with evacuating Atlantis and all. And I really liked how the Wraith were bombarding the city; it was written really well too. It was so damn good I wish it was an actual episode on Atlantis.

As always, loved the John/Liz interaction
Kate: WEE!!!!!!!kawaiix on October 1st, 2005 02:28 am (UTC)
Wow!!!! Very descriptive. Post pt 2 soon!!!
Little Red: sga - sw incomplete - thetoofstermylittleredgirl on October 1st, 2005 02:38 am (UTC)
Part 2 is posted! The link is at the bottom of the post. :)
Sunny: Buffy OMG Willsunny_serenity on June 9th, 2006 11:11 pm (UTC)
DUDE! That is all. *scurries off to part II*
Meredith: John and Elizabeth - carry youxfirefly9x on June 29th, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
Wow! That was awesome! Sooooo awesome! *nods and hurries off to pt 2* =)