Prompt: Weir/Sumner; Pre-rising; cheap motel room; hostess snow-balls
Three Things You Do NOT Want To See: death, graphic sex, dark
Summary: The trouble with trying to stay away from someone, Elizabeth muses, is that out in the middle of nowhere Antarctica, it’s a physical impossibility.
Disclaimer: SGA does not belong to me.
A/N: Betad by irony_rocks. I changed the cheap motel room to a cheap hotel room. Other than that, I hope I got everything a-okay. ;)
They say the strangest things can happen in the middle of an Antarctic storm. The insane things. The impossible things. Elizabeth never really questions the saying, but then again, she doesn't really give it much consideration in the first place.
Outside the tacky hotel they’re stationed at, some of the military’s still trying to make other arrangements for a flight out of McMurdo (or Mactown, as the locals actually call it) so everyone can make it home for Christmas. She lifts her head up and peers out the half-lowered blinds to the dim sky outside, watching the looming clouds that stretch onwards for as far as the eye can see. Elizabeth knows it’s hopeless to expect favorable weather; she’s never seen so much virgin snow in her life.
Though she can barely see it in the swirling snow, there’s the faint trace of a tacky neon sign hanging across the street with half the letters blacked out; it doesn’t serve as an advertisement for much of anything anymore. She watches the hazy weather for a moment, entranced by the monotony of it, before she returns her gaze to the personnel files in front of her.
For the last few days, there’s been a declared "condition two" weather in McMurdo. Bad weather is brewing off the cost of the Ross Sea. Of course, the way Elizabeth heard it explained from a dozen different scientist, the satellite projections estimated the gale-forces to be nearly the size of France. Katabatics winds were developing – and those are, if she understands the term correctly, gravity-assisted winds made up of a high-pressure system developed in the plateaus that could knock a person on their ass with no warning. (She added in the colloquialism herself, of course.)
Condition One storms, the devastating kind, had a habit of sneaking up on Mactown, sometimes with little warning. And how are the locals handling the news? They’re having a full-swing Christmas party, of course, complete with hats and mistletoe. In the distance, she can hear loud music and the robust sound of genuine laughter. Elizabeth pauses for a moment, head cocked to the side, and a part of her even wants to join in.
But she has work to get down, and the final selection of recruits to take on the expedition won’t decide themselves.
She sighs heavily, rummaging through the papers as her eyes gleam over a dozen files of ridiculously qualified individuals from every corner of Earth. How is she supposed to distinguish the perfect candidates when all of them seem to be the best and the brightest in their fields?
She pinches the bridge of her nose, warding off the headache that’s threatening to bloom. The truth is, she’s stared at these files for so long she’s memorized practically every detail within – including hometowns, next of kin, and alma maters. Elizabeth can tell you the litany of awards and published papers administered by every scientist, and every shining medal hanging on a soldier’s chest. The pile in front of her isn’t just a list of candidates; they’re potentially her responsibility and ward. There’s nothing she takes more seriously.
Still, she’s starting to go a little batty with the decisions.
There’s a loud bang on the eastern wall – a sharp slap of something hitting the hotel with a hard impact – and Elizabeth jumps. Her eyes draw to the view outside again, watching the snowstorm that almost looks lazy in its destructive path. Like it doesn’t care about what it damages and what it leaves unscathed. A quiet stillness washes over Elizabeth, only breaking when the faint growl of her stomach reminds her that she’s missed lunch again – and breakfast, now that she thinks about it.
Repressing a sigh, Elizabeth climbs to her feet and rummages through the meager remnants of her small refrigerator. There isn’t anything remotely appetizing.
She scrounges for a crumbled dollar bill hidden near the bottom of her purse, underneath the tampax and amidst the piles of spare pennies she'll never use. She quietly slips out into the cold hallway, flattening the bill against her thigh and walks to the far end of the corridor. A well-equipped vending machine stands in the corner. She halts in front, inspecting her selection for a brief pause before a pair of hostess snow-balls attracts her eye. It isn’t the healthiest thing she could have, but she wryly decides to save her guilt over things that actually matter.
She slides the bill into the slot, waits a second and then curses when it spills back out. She flattens the crumbled edges and tries again – and again, and again. Annoyed – as only a hungry woman can be – her usual reserve of patience gets strung short. By the fourth try, she isn’t above hitting the receptacle with an open palm, cursing it for its artificial stubbornness.
“That how you treat everything that doesn’t agree with you?” a voice speaks from behind.
Elizabeth’s shoulders tense, recognizing the derisive tone well enough. She pivots around, catching a glimpse of a wry smile on Sumner’s face before it vanishes into the stern expression she’s so familiar with.
If the temperature is considered biting and cold, then some of the company in McMurdo is even more so.
Sumner strides over, takes the bill from her hand and flattens it once. It only reinforces Elizabeth’s annoyances of the receptacle that it accepts his handout without protest. Straining a smile of gratitude, she hits C3 and watches the snowballs drop three tiers and tumble to the bottom.
As she collects the snack, Sumner speaks up behind her. “That’s what you’re eating?”
She shrugs. “Yes, I guess I need the sugar. Plus, there’s not much else around here.”
The distant chatter of a party in the lobby one floor below proves otherwise, but neither acknowledges that. Despite their many differences – their many, many differences – it seems that they both have the same level of professional distance. Though she doubts anyone would think ill of either of them joining the festivities, Elizabeth prefers to maintain a certain image.
Getting drunk and going three sheets to the wind is a bit counterproductive to that, and damn if Elizabeth isn’t an easy mark when it comes to alcohol. She has no idea what Sumner’s excuse is – she’d bet hard money that he knows how to keep liquor down – but he’s been keeping as aloof as her when it comes to co-mingling with subordinates.
“C’mon,” Sumner gestures with a nod of his head. “I got some things back in my room.”
“That’s not necess—”
“You gotta get proper nutrition here,” Sumner cuts in. “You have any idea how many calories the body burns in weather like this, trying to keep warm? You’re a stick-figure enough, you don’t need to lose more weight.”
Normally, Elizabeth takes being called skinny as a compliment, but she isn’t going to describe this particular remark so charitably. Opening her mouth to – yet again – argue her point against the man, her stomach abruptly speaks up for her with a growl.
Sumner smirks, victoriously. Everything’s proving to be a power game with this man.
“All right,” Elizabeth concedes, forcing a smile. “Lead the way.”
Elizabeth’s hotel room is cluttered with papers and a few personal belongings; random things sprinkled everywhere. She isn’t surprised when Sumner’s room proves to be the exact opposite: meticulously clean, with everything in its proper place. Much like the man himself. Organization isn’t a bad thing. Rigidity, Elizabeth muses, is something else.
Despite headaches, she still hasn’t made her final call on Sumner – she’s only known the Colonel for a few weeks. She’s praying he isn’t going to be as unyielding in the field as he’s proving to be in preliminary dealings. They’ve had a rocky relationship thus far, and this is the man she’s expected to deal with in a foreign galaxy under unknown circumstances.
It hardly paints rosy expectations.
Elizabeth settles into the oversized chair near the desk. There are two files nearby – one open and the other closed. The former is the record of a potential second-in-command, Major Lorne. The latter is marked by a tab that spells out M. Rodney McKay.
She glances up curiously. “Reviewing files of the science team again?”
He nods, grabbing a long bag of bread from one of the cabinets. “Just making final decisions.”
She pauses, watching as he rummages through his fridge for some slices of baloney and cheese. Her eyes drift to the papers again, and with her right index finger she pushes aside the top cover of Rodney’s file to see another tab at the right; this one marked with a notation that says: ill-equipped to handle volatile situations. Status pending: reassignment recommended.
Elizabeth reclines back in her chair, jaw clenched. “Rodney McKay is on the final list. His status isn’t “pending” anything.”
His eyes dart to hers briefly. “Nothing’s final until we go.”
“Colonel,” she begins in that even tone; one she’s used with him a lot. “You have the final say over the military personnel. I have final say over the civilians. My decisions were never up for debate.”
Sumner smears some mayonnaise across the bread – which she actually hates, but her concerns are focused elsewhere. “He’s a risky factor,” he says casually. “Psych profile says he has a running tally of phobias that are longer than my service record. He’s an anti-social, arrogant hypochondriac that’s irritating as hell. These are not traits that are conducive in a volatile isolated environment.”
“He’s one of the smartest men in the western hemisphere,” Elizabeth counters tartly. “Say what you will of his personality quirks, but I haven’t come across one thing in his psych profile that proves him unfit for this expedition. Perhaps he’s eccentric – and god help me, I’m not arguing the arrogance factor – but I’m not sure you’ve glanced around at the selection of scientists around here. Eccentricities and arrogance seem to come hand-in-hand with record-breaking IQs.” She pauses. “Besides, I think you’re wrong about him.”
“He’s a good man.”
“I never said anything about his character as a good man.”
“You implied it,” Elizabeth presses. “And that’s a harsh judgment to make when you’ve barely spent more than a few hours in the man’s presence.”
“And how long have you—?”
“Months,” Elizabeth answers. “Dr. McKay and I have known each other for a while.”
Sumner shakes his head, dropping two thin slices of cheese onto the bread. “You don’t know what type of circumstances we’re going to be in when we gate to… wherever the hell we’re going. You can’t bring in a person like that. You read O’Neill’s SGC reports on this guy? Or Major Carter’s? He wasn’t thought of highly when—”
“He managed to help. I’m not saying he isn’t… a little abrasive.”
“A little?” Sumner barks, incredulous. “Like you said, I spent a few hours with the guy and I kinda want to knock his front teeth out.”
Elizabeth arches an eyebrow, coolly. “I think that says a little more about your proclivities towards violence than it does about his character. You shouldn’t judge a man based upon so little.”
“It’s called gut-instincts,” Sumner counters. “Don’t be so dismissive about that. You don’t know the importance of that, because you’ve only chaired political committees and taught grad students—”
“And commanded the SGC,” she cuts in, pointedly.
Sumner continues, unabated. “Gut-instincts can be the difference between life and death out there in the field. You sometimes have to make snap decisions, and this guy? McKay? My gut instinct says he’ll be a disruptive force.”
“He could also,” Elizabeth poises, shrugging a little in a wry sort of way, “save all our lives?”
Sumner goes silent for a beat, then licks a dab of mayonnaise off his thumb. He drops one sandwich into a paper plate and the other onto a spare napkin, and walks over, handing over the plate to Elizabeth.
“Look,” he begins with a tired sigh. “I wasn’t telling you what to do. I was just making my recommendations.” He clears his throat, and glances away. “And that crack about your job experience was out of line.”
She pauses, a little thrown by the apology. “Thank you.”
They settle into silence. She reaches for her sandwich, and the next few moments stretch awkwardly as they eat. His apology effectively halts any stinging retort on the tip of her tongue, and Elizabeth realizes just how defensive she gets around this man. Everything he says manages to get under skin – even little comments – and that’s ridiculously unhealthy if they’re going to work together closely.
“Look,” she sighs, matching his tone. “We can’t continue to butt heads about every single issue that comes up. It’s obvious we don’t agree about much – almost anything – but we’re going to have to deal with it. I’m not going anywhere, and neither are you.”
The corners of his mouth twitch upwards. “We’re stuck with each other?”
She brushes a curl of hair out of her eyes. “In a matter of speaking, yes. Is this antagonism how it’s going to be the entire time? Or worse, during a heated moment where lives hang in the balance? We can’t afford to bicker like this.”
She needs someone she can trust; someone she can rely on.
Sumner’s a good man, but she isn’t sure that she can rely on him. Not yet. It isn’t an issue of his capability. He can certainly protect the expedition; he’s good at his job. But they’re traveling across the universe for more than just a chance to live, but to explore. There’s a place and time for everything, but Elizabeth can’t deny the nagging feeling in the back of her head that whispers: what if he takes command in the Pegasus Galaxy and decides never to release it?
The possibility is scary. If they hit a hostile situation, and the chances are likely that they will, the military always has jurisdiction. Martial law isn’t something she wants. Cooperation between civilians and the military is key for this expedition.
She reaches for her small wrapper of snowballs and opens the package. Without making eye-contact, she slides one-half of the pair across the table towards Sumner, a silent peace-offering. If he takes it – despite his inclination against junk food – then she’s willing to take the small gesture as an offer of good tidings. If he doesn’t, it only reinforces the notion that he’s stubborn and immovable as an ox.
Take it, she prays silently, almost childishly, as she nibbles on her sandwich. Just take the damn snowball.
After a beat, he stretches an arm across the table and snags the offered treat.
Five minutes later, her plate is empty and her stomach full.
She clasps her hands together across the tabletop, wondering if she should leave or if they have more to discuss. She can never tell what the best maneuver is around this man.
When Sumner finally rises from his chair, she watches silently as he opens the fridge. The clink of glasses vaguely registers above the distant beat of Deck the Halls playing downstairs. Sumner emerges with a six-pack of beer and settles the bundle in front of her. He snags one, stretching it out by the bottleneck for her to take.
He took her snowball; now it’s only appropriate to take his beer.
She accepts the offer with a faint smile, and waits while he pops open the lids with one of those small Swiss Army Knives. If Elizabeth is known for one thing, it’s her people skills. The military’s made up of stubborn men, but her father didn’t raise a shy girl. She knows how to deal with obstinate individuals – Washington was full of ‘em.
She takes a swig of her beer. “What made you take this job?”
He glances up, then shrugs. “A chance to explore space.” He turned away, eyes drawn to some distant point as he says sheepishly. “Besides, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid.”
She nearly chokes on her beer. “Really?”
He lifts an eyebrow. “Yeah, really.”
She quickly back-peddles, “No, I didn’t mean any offense by it, it’s just… well, actually, me too.”
“Really?” It's his turn to turn incredulous.
She narrows her eyes, though there isn’t any genuine heat behind it. “Yes, really.”
“Huh,” Sumner says, and takes a swig. “Guess we have one thing in common after all.”
Finally, she thinks wryly.
The weather outside picks up and turns ugly, with bursts of deafening howls as the wind sweeps passed the window. Elizabeth and Sumner both stare for a moment, and she won’t lie: she’s a little disconcerted by the noise.
“This is nothing,” Sumner offers to fill the hush. “Two years back, my old CO was stationed out here in February. Condition one. The storm halted all the air traffic in and out of McMurdo Station for a week. But he wanted to catch his kid’s fifth birthday, so when the weather finally started to clear, he tried to get out. Mind you, the runways were horrible. Ten-foot drifts had buried the planes and buildings out at Willie Field. But he got snow-shovelers working all day and night so he could get out.”
That seemed like abuse of power, but Elizabeth holds her tongue. “He caught his kid’s birthday?”
Sumner shook his head. “The storm returned without warning, and when the General was moving along the road back from the strip, a katabatic current sent him flying across two dozen feet out into the snowfield. He only managed to keep from skidding along the ice by grabbing one of the flags that marks the road. He hung on for dear life for hours, because no body could see two feet in front of them anymore. They couldn't find him; couldn't hear him screaming above the wind. A half a dozen men, all searching for the General, and it took them hours. He lost a hand to frostbite.”
Elizabeth winces. “Close friend?”
Sumner shakes his head. “Hated the bastard, but he still didn’t deserve that.”
After a pause, she asks, “What’d his kid say?”
Sumner shrugs. “Never found out. But I’m sure he was upset. Kids don’t understand that type of thing.”
She suddenly recalls his file: the ex-wife and his fourteen year old son back in… Chicago, was it? How is it that she knows every detail about her potential scientists, but she can’t remember the hometown of her leading military commander? It had to be a hard thing: having a family, even distant, and leaving it behind for what they’re about to do. Elizabeth has her own issues with Simon, but he’s only her boyfriend. Sumner has a kid.
Sumner shakes his head, pulling away from his thoughts. “Anyway, could be worse. This weather is just barking right now. She ain’t biting.”
He passes her the second beer, and she accepts it without hesitation.
Besides, it’d be simply rude to turn him down now…
After a litany of empty bottles end up covering the table between them, she starts to suspect that the term best applied to her now is… tipsy. Shy of pleasantly smashed, but enough for her judgment to be impaired. So, she blames that on the words that pop out of her mouth next.
“What’s your son’s name?”
Sumner freezes, the bottle halfway to his lips. “What?”
“Your son,” Elizabeth repeats. “I can’t remember his name.”
He lifts an eyebrow. “Why would you know it in the first place?”
She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I know the direct next of kin for all the potential candidates, but I can’t remember yours.”
“All of them?” he repeats incredulously. “That list has nearly sixty names on it.”
She arches an eyebrow back, challenging. “Sixty-two.”
He gives her a hard look. “Dr. Beckett, what’s his—”
“Margret Beckett,” she cuts in. “Age 67, living in Kenmore, Scotland. His mother.”
Sumner barks a laugh, impressed. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
She shrugs, slightly impish. “That was kinda cheating, though.”
“He talks about her all the time,” she confesses in a soft, amused voice.
Sumner smiles, a genuine one – she doesn’t think she’s ever seen one from him before. All his smiles were usually smirks, ones he did when he’s purposely trying to goad her. Now, this new version proves more dangerous than any other because it highlights his features. He’s a handsome man; there’s no denying that. But it’s largely been her sense of antagonism towards him that’s prevented her from doing anything more than superficially noting it. The alcohol is certainly helping that along, now.
She tries to refocus, biting back the spike of unexpected attraction. “You never answered my question.”
“What was that?”
“Your son’s name?” she says again. “What is it?”
He pauses, then admits quietly, “Kevin. Kevin Anthony Sumner.”
There’s a softness in his voice; one that she hears a lot from people around the holidays. She wants to ask more – about his thoughts on leaving his son behind. But even with their new dynamic quickly settling in, it seems too intimate a question for her to ask. Sumner’s a private man, and a part of Elizabeth’s brain is still fully engaged enough to realize one slip could send their newfound progress crumbling like quicksand. She still has to play this smart, so she leaves the line of questioning unvoiced.
Which is why she’s so surprised when he picks it up, himself. “It isn’t going to be easy leaving him… but it’s not like I spend much time with him anyway. Karen has full custody.”
She tries not to wince, and softens her voice. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Sumner rebukes. “It’s best for him that way. I’m not… I’m not the best father in the world.”
A few hours ago, she wouldn’t have had much difficulty believing that. Now, she’s willing to give him more credit.
“What about you?” he asks. “Leaving anyone behind?”
This time, she winces. Her relationship with Simon is… simple. In many ways, he’s the perfect boyfriend for Elizabeth because he never demands anything of her. Her line of work – long before the SGC and aliens entered the picture – necessitated travel for much of the time. Bosnia. Kosovo. The Balkins. She’s been round the world a dozen times in the last three years, and Simon never once gave complaint about the distance and stretches of silence.
Still, this expedition is on a level of its own, and she knows – in her heart of hearts – that the fact that she’s so readily willing to leave him behind, possibly forever, speaks a lot about the nature of their relationship. She likes being independent – likes not having to answer to any man for what she wants to do with her life – but there’s also a distinct sense of loss. Sometimes she wonders if Simon would really miss her much if she left; it would be hard to notice her absence when she spends so much time away already.
She shakes her head, and answers, “No, not really. Besides my mom, I don’t really have anybody that would miss me.”
Sumner pauses, then lifts his bottle for a toast. She obliges with reciprocation, clinking glasses with him. “Look at this way,” he says, “because of that you get the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Yeah,” Elizabeth agrees, softly, almost to herself. “To an opportunity of a lifetime.”
She christens the toast with a big swig of her beer.
He reaches across the table and picks up the pink crumbs from her hostess snowballs package.
She smirks. “You like ‘em.”
“I never said I didn’t,” he counters as he takes a lick. “Just said that’s no way for you to do dinner.”
She watches as he crumbles the wrapper in his hands and tosses it towards the trashcan. It hits the rim and neatly drops in. Why isn’t she remotely surprised that his hand-eye coordination has still yet to fade, despite the effects of alcohol? She slants a glance at him, only to find a small pink confetti from the snowball still on his lips. She can’t help the amused smile that graces her lips at the sight it presents: Col. Marshall Sumner in anything relation to pink just seemed intrinsically amusing and wrong.
“What?” he asked, suspiciously.
“You’ve got a little…”
She reaches across and brushes the speck away with her fingers, then pauses as the moment turns into something else entirely. Time slows down, a heated moment that neither expects, and something inside her responds.
A knock at the door jars them both.
They jump back as if burned, and Elizabeth stares across the table at him, at an unprecedented loss for words as her brain catches up with what almost happened. There’s another three-tap knock on the door before she can remind herself of the odd fact that, yes, this is the military commander that until very recently had been a pain in her ass.
Sumner clears his throat and regroups faster. He rises to open his door, finding Bates on the other side.
She watches from the periphery as Bates scans the room, quickly taking in everything: Elizabeth’s presence, the beer bottles, the casual dress between the both of them (Sumner in a black tee and cargo pants; Elizabeth in a red shirt and jeans). She suddenly realizes the way this must appear to an outsider. More than that, she realizes that his impressions aren’t all that off his mark.
Not smart, Elizabeth repeats to herself. Not smart at all.
For his part, if Sumner feels uncomfortable with the picture they present, he doesn’t show it. Bates gives some type of sit rep, though Elizabeth’s too distracted by her growing anxiety – she shouldn’t be here; this is unprofessional; this is stupid. She only faintly hears something about the diminishing storm front.
“The worst is over,” Bates finishes. “We should have air traffic by morning.”
“Understood,” Sumner dismisses with his tone.
Pointedly, Bates’ eyes drift to Elizabeth. Though she suspects when he returns his gaze back to Sumner, there’s some type of subtle warning in the Colonel’s eyes. Because Bates straightens abruptly like he’s just had the fear of God put into him. Bates salutes, bides farewell, and leaves like his tail is on fire; she knows from experience how intimidating Sumner’s stare can be, but for once she’s glad for it. She hopes it’ll stop Bates from spreading rumors, though she highly doubts Bates is the gossiping type in the first place.
When he shuts the door, Elizabeth rises to her feet, trying to be all business-like as she settles the empty beer bottle back onto the surface of the table. She watches the drops of condensation trickle down the label to puddle on the wooden surface, and more because she knows Sumner is a man that likes his place neat and orderly, she picks it back up and moves the empty bottle to the coaster at the far end of the table.
“I should get going,” she offers, to fill the sudden void.
Sumner hesitates. “Yeah, okay.”
He walks her to do the door and then down the hallway a little, back to the vending machine where they first met. The distant chime of Christmas songs get louder and louder. Her hands feel clammy, and she’s abruptly reminded of that saying she heard about Antarctic storms.
Rocking around the Christmas tree,
At the Christmas party hop.
“I’m still not positive about McKay,” Sumner says, out of the blue.
She pivots to face him, and realizes his grasp at work is perhaps the safer way to play this. “I am,” she eventually recovers. “He’s a good man. He’ll be good for this team, Colonel.”
He throws her a dubious look. “You sound pretty positive.”
“I’m a good judge of character.” She pauses, then a confession falls from her lips, “Though, I admit, I have been known to make a few mistakes, here and there.”
Staring at each other, it’s obvious that she isn’t talking about McKay anymore. Her impressions of Sumner have tilted sideways – no, check that. They’ve outright turned upside down in the last few hours. She’s starting to suspect she’s barely scratched the surface with him.
Everyone dancing merrily,
In the new old-fashioned way.
When they halt at the end of the hall, they stand in pregnant silence for a moment or two. It’s broken when Sumner glances upward, then barks a laugh.
Her gaze follows his, and sees mistletoe hanging above her head.
They say the strangest things can happen in the middle of an Antarctic storm. When Sumner bends his head to press a chaste kiss to her lips, lingering for just a second longer than custom deems, she thinks this counts as proof.
… and have a happy holiday.