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Bitter winter in our bones

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The cave they had found was more of a shallow depression in the hillside, but it faced away from the worst of the biting wind and so was very nearly as good as a mansion, considering the alternative. Flurries of snow caught the last of the daylight as they pressed themselves as deep into its shelter as they could get.

Cordelia found it helpful to recognise and catalogue the symptoms of shock she was experiencing. Aral might call her Captain, but it had been a long time since she had witnessed someone die at such close proximity. Poor Barclay, at the helm of the lightflyer, had been so young… The crash itself felt like a completely separate incident, only memorialised by the ache in her ribs where the safety harness had dug in tightly during the impact.

"I can't tell if the beacon's working," Simon admitted. He set the metal box he'd saved from the flyer down heavily onto the floor. "The indicator light's smashed, but the circuitry inside might still be sound — I should keep up with more hardware schematics." He wrapped his arms around himself as he stared at it.

"Even you can't store everything inside your head," Cordelia tried to reassure him, but received only a glum look in return. She supposed their predicament was especially maddening for him, used to working within networks of people while his physical surroundings rarely changed. She, at least, had been trained once upon a time to survive in hostile environments.

That thought jolted her up through her haze. "Doesn't the lightflyer have a survival kit?" she asked abruptly, horrified with herself that she could have lost track of something so basic.

"It did," Simon said, gloomily. "It happened to be in the part of the flyer that s-sank into the marsh first."

"Oh." At least one of them had kept enough wits to look for it. She wrapped her arms gingerly around her aching ribs and tried not to feel so useless.

Simon was hunched into his own little ball of misery, his knees tucked up close to his chin. Cordelia shuffled closer to him, a little gasp of pain escaping her with the sideways movement.

"Are y-you all right?" Simon asked. His teeth chattered as he spoke; he clenched his jaw tightly shut again once the words were out.

"Just a bit banged up, like I said before," she reassured him. In the dim light she couldn't tell how badly he was shivering, and she abruptly felt guilty about her good winter coat. Simon was in the same uniform jacket he wore both inside and out in Vorbarr Sultana. "What about you? You must be freezing!"

"It's n-nothing," Simon said. "Just my dues for s-skipping my rotation at Camp Permafrost. I got to follow Aral around instead. Knew it'd c-catch up to me." He was getting better at controlling the traitorous chattering of his teeth, but his words sounded like they were struggling to get past his lips.

Cordelia took off her coat. The knifing wind attacked her bones immediately without the protection of the thick wool. "Come here," she ordered.

Simon lifted his head, indignant. "My Lady, you c-can't —" he began. Each word came out slowly.

"I'm My Lady now?" Cordelia asked, tartly. "Fine then — Captain Illyan, I order you to get over here and share my coat."

Simon groaned, but he did begin to uncurl. Very slowly. Cordelia decided it would be more expedient to move herself over to him, and did so. She leaned alongside him, and spread her heavy coat over them both.

Which was when she realised exactly why Simon was so sluggish. "Your clothes are soaked through!" she exclaimed. "Simon, you idiot, no wonder you're so cold!"

For all his earlier reluctance, he was already pressed tight against her. "Just my legs," he mumbled. "Got wet getting the beacon out 'f the cockpit."

"And your arms," Cordelia pointed out.

He shrugged slightly. "'S okay, though."

"In what way is any of this okay?"

"Was cold earlier. Warmed up now. 'M fine." His head fell tiredly against Cordelia's shoulder.

"Simon!" She shook him, sharply alarmed at his fast decline. "You're not fine. You don't feel cold anymore because you're hypothermic." And what was she supposed to do now that she'd identified that? Get him dressed in dry clothes they didn't have, and wrapped in warm blankets they also didn't have? Go diving in the marsh for the lost survival gear? With an effort, she wriggled so that she could get both her arms around Simon, trying to gift him with any warmth she could. "Just stay awake," she said. She had been controlling the desire of her own teeth to start chattering uncontrollably, but it was becoming difficult now. "That's w-what's important for you to do now, do you understand?"

He mumbled something which sounded like agreement.

Cordelia clung to him in frozen misery. She should keep talking, she thought; she should think of things to say to keep Simon awake. Her face was numb, her lips and tongue slow to respond.

"Aral will find us," she began, and almost choked on it. She was cold to the bone; she was desperately, howlingly afraid. I don't want us to die like this. Not like this. She gave Simon a rough shake. "Hey!"

His fingers folded around hers, so cold she could barley feel them.

Light woke her, bright enough to hurt through her closed eyelids. She tried to lift a hand to shield her face but her arms seemed tied down with lead weights. Opening her eyes was just as impossible. They felt frozen shut.

"Cordelia!"

A touch against her face brought such heat that she recoiled; only a small jerk of a motion, but it gave her hope that her body was still somewhat hers. She fought again, and her eyelids dragged apart. Her vision was all kaleidoscope splinters.

"Wife, you need to start persuading me you're still alive."

"Aral," she whispered, and he cupped her cheeks in his burning hands.

His hands lingered there as she blinked his face into being with agonising slowness, and then peeled away the frost-encrusted coat over her. She was numb enough not to feel the difference, and it wasn't until she looked down that she remembered she was still bearing Simon's weight close against her.

"Simon," Aral said. He touched Simon's face gently, a repeat of how he had brought Cordelia back to herself. "Simon. Captain Illyan."

Nothing. Cordelia squinted at Simon's face, a mix of harsh glare and deep shadows from the powerful flashlight someone was holding. He was colourless. Perfectly still. "Simon," she implored, adding her voice to the chorus, but if Aral's strong command had failed she wasn't sure what her own weak effort would achieve.

Aral held his bare palm over Simon's nose and mouth, head bent forward in concentration. "I can't tell," he said, frustration and fear warring in his voice. "Simon, I swear, if you've —" He cut himself off with a harsh grunt. "We need to get him warmed up. Get both of you warmed up."

"I can walk," Cordelia said, needing more than knowing it to be true.

Aral lifted Simon bodily, hoisting him over his shoulder. The man with the flashlight (and now-visible Horus eyes) hastened forward to help Cordelia. She struggled to rise, her muscles screaming in protest, and there were painful tears in her eyes when she was up and tottering on stiff legs.

The ImpSec man offered her his shoulder, which she gratefully accepted. "It's not far to our flyer, Milady," he told her.

She fixed her eyes on Aral's back. "Good."

Their flyer was parked near the crash site, in fact. Cordelia clamped her jaw tight to keep from screaming at the too-fast pace down the short but steep slope. When they finally stopped, with her panting for breath, she was taken aback by how small it was. If Barclay had made it there would have been barely enough room. "Not much of a rescue vehicle," she couldn't help saying.

The ImpSec man snorted. "We're not much of a rescue, Milady. Or rather, we've outpaced the official one. The Regent wouldn't wait."

And they might still have arrived too late, neither of them said. Cordelia was given a respectful (but hard enough to be useful) shove up into the back of the flyer, where Aral had already deposited Simon in the middle of the seat and was stripping him expertly out of the ice-encrusted layers of his uniform. Cordelia tried to help but her fingers were too lacking in both strength and dexterity, and she was wracked with shivering.

Aral took a brief moment to meet her eyes and clasp her hand so tightly that her bones were in danger of being crushed. "My Captain," he said, his voice thick with emotion.

"I'm safe," she said. "I'm here, I'm fine, I know. Simon needs us."

There were blankets stowed under the seat; while Aral might have left hastily, he hadn't been unprepared. Cordelia was up to the task of spreading them over Simon — "You too," Aral ordered, with no room for debate — while her muscles ached from shivering. Aral, impatient with her pace, took over heaping everything he could get his hands on over the two of them, including his own coat and jacket, and those of his ImpSec pilot. In his shirtsleeves he shuffled himself under the pile as well, his hand spread over Simon's chest.

The lightflyer was already in the air. Cordelia hadn't noticed the takeoff.

"He's breathing," Aral said, and Cordelia felt as though she had only just started to herself.

Aral wrapped his arms around Simon, bringing him tight against his chest. Cordelia curled in against Simon's other side, her arms around him too, leaning against Aral and being leaned on in her turn.

"I couldn't have lost you," Aral said, low and afraid, and Cordelia understood that he was speaking to both of them. She pressed a kiss where his wrist rested near her head.

Inconveniently, she wanted to cry. She hurt all over, and the release of the sharpest of her fears was almost more than she could cope with.

Something must have hitched in her breath, because Aral was suddenly trying to stroke or pat her with his mostly-pinned fingers. "Love, I've got you."

"I know," she said. "I know you do."

"How are you feeling?"

"Awful," she said. "Cold." Although that was very trite when Simon was still so much colder. And she was beginning to feel some warmth again — a stealthy piece of it creeping from Aral into her, although it seemed to be sapping her strength as it came. She let her head rest on Simon's shoulder.

"Try not to fall asleep," Aral warned her.

"Mmm."

She probably would have, even so, if she hadn't felt Simon stir. She sat up instantly, exhaustion forgotten, and was in time to see him attempt and fail to crack open his eyes. "Aral," she alerted him.

Aral retrieved his arms to give himself room to sit back and study Simon closely. "You're safe," he murmured. "Cordelia's here too. You're both safe." Cordelia took Simon's closest hand in hers to emphasise the point.

They both watched anxiously as Simon visibly struggled and then finally managed to pry apart his eyelids. Just for a moment — but after a few seconds he tried again, and this time kept them open for longer. His lips moved soundlessly.

"Shh," Cordelia said. "It's all okay." She met Aral's eyes, and the relief mirrored there warmed her at least as much as his arms had.

Simon relaxed with a soft sigh. Aral put his arms back around him and Cordelia approved — he was still far too cold. She snuggled against him again; against both of them.

Beneath them, the miles fell away.