They made their way over the frozen ground, feet sinking into the snow with every step, boots doing an inadequate job of keeping their skin dry. There would surely be blisters at the end of this, if not frostbite. If they got out at all.
Napoleon wavered to a halt. He’d lost track of something again. Looking back, he could see Illya leaning against a tree, favoring his left side, as he hadn’t been at the start. So much for ‘fine’ after they’d gotten out of the underground lair in the middle of nowhere.
“Come on, Peril,” Napoleon said hoarsely, the cold air freezing his lungs as he drew his breath in.
“No,” came the short and succinct answer.
Napoleon rolled his eyes and then glanced around. If it wasn’t something that would lead to their deaths, the landscape could be a veritable wonder winterland. Snow artfully piled on rocks, shrubs tucked in for the hibernation months, a pretty frozen pond in the distance. “There still a couple of hours of daylight left. We need to find shelter while we still can.” Before the night removed any chance of their survival.
“We have couple of hours left to make shelter,” Illya corrected, leaving his lean-tree and limping closer.
There was nothing around that Napoleon could even think about using for shelter. Maybe some of the dead trees for fire, but they had nothing to make fire with, and if the trees were only hibernating and not dead, they wouldn’t catch. Of course, Napoleon wasn’t the best in colder climates. “What were you thinking?”
“Snow trench,” Illya replied briefly. “Not best time to make, but have to.”
They really did have to do something, and Napoleon doubted even his luck would be able to conjure up a cabin out here. “Tell me what to do,” he said resignedly. His partner’s injuries meant he would be doing the bulk of the work, whatever work there was.
A small hill gave them a lee side to work with, the snow already packed down. Illya made an improvised shovel and started digging while he sent Napoleon off to gather dry pine needles for insulation. When Napoleon got back with as many as he could carry, they switched tasks, Napoleon following the digging guides that Illya had laid out.
By the time the colors were fading from the sky and the chill of the night was creeping in, they had a decent trench, wide and long enough for the two of them and space for insulation but not much else. They laid the snow blocks over the top and Napoleon reflected that if he’d thought it was cold during the day, he’d never even imagined what the chill of the night could be.
Slipping into the trench, they curled up together, pressed tightly, each seeking warmth from the other. Napoleon thought about making a quip about sharing warmth in other ways, but the sodding truth to it was that libidos had no place in this survival. Not that he would have objected, nor did he think Illya would have, but there was just nothing left for it. The escape, the long trek, the injuries, and this final burst of energy to hopefully survive until morning.
“You take first watch?” Napoleon asked, hesitantly. There were trade-offs for watches – immediate sleep was a good thing, but there was the trade off of getting awakened after not enough sleep and then having to be on guard for several more hours. Given his choice, Napoleon preferred first watch himself so he could sleep better on last. But with Illya injured, he wanted his partner to be in better shape than himself in the morning.
Illya hesitated in his turn. “Don’t think necessary,” he finally said. “They will not find us without machinery, which will wake us, and watches will be hard. Not moving for hours and not able to see out the trench. Better if we both rest.”
It made sense. Honestly, Napoleon doubted if their human enemies were even around at this point – the winter mistress was a harsh enough enemy on her own, and that was without her even trying. It was simply her nature. He nodded and tucked himself in an extra centimeter closer, closing space that hadn’t been there to start with.
Illya’s arms tightened around him and he buried his face into Napoleon’s hair with a little sigh.
Neither of them spoke again. Either they would make it through the night, or they wouldn’t. Words were unnecessary at this point and wasted energy they didn’t have. Instead, they slept.
Blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Fluffy white snow on darker ground. Dark ice that reflected both the ground and the sky above. Trees without leaves standing proud on the hills, holding snow like rings and bracelet accessories. Golden sun shining down, making the white even whiter, and the ice crystals sparkle and dance.
Two men, emerging from what looked to be the snow itself.
They looked, seeing their mistress all around them. Less harsh in the day, she was beautiful. Still dangerous... but beautiful. And danger, after all, was their life.
Trading grins for another day and another life, the two basked for a moment in the morning. Then they started on their way again. Survival, and life, and another day.