With the blizzard raging outside, the interior of the cave was dim even though it was still only a little past noon. So much had happened in so short a time. They’d trekked out here early this morning, as soon as it had been light enough to see where they were going. Before they’d left the Hub, Ianto had made sandwiches and filled several flasks, three with coffee and three others with soup, but the team had been so busy helping with the repairs that they hadn’t had time to pause for refreshments. In the end they’d decided they’d eat when they got back to the SUV, before driving back to Cardiff. Jack must have brought one of the flasks of soup with him.
“I’m right here.”
Ianto opened his eyes, which had closed in bliss as he’d sipped the hot soup. Jack was a shadowy shape at the mouth of the cave, wrapped in the other blanket and staring out at the falling snow. He turned and came back to Ianto, sitting down beside him.
“Getting there. How did you find me?”
“Tracked your phone. Tosh loaned me her PDA.”
“But the blizzard… You could’ve fallen from the ridge!”
“I set out after you but before it started snowing. Tosh was bothered about the clouds piling up on the horizon so when we reached the SUV she hacked into one of the weather satellites and saw the snow coming. I knew there was no way you’d get to the valley and back before it started falling, so I threw some emergency supplies into a spare backpack, grabbed yours as well, and followed. Good thing I did; I only just made it across the ridge before things started getting dicey. When I lost visibility I had to rely on Tosh’s PDA to keep me on the right track.”
“I’m glad you’re here, and not just because of the blankets and soup, although they’re more than welcome.”
“Enough talking; finish your soup while it’s hot. Are you hungry? I’ve got some of those sandwiches you made this morning, and there’s a flask of coffee as well.”
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven!”
Ianto finished the rest of his soup and handed the cup to Jack, who wiped it out and put it back on the flask.
“Sandwich first, then coffee,” Ianto decided. “Any idea how long we’re likely to be stuck here?”
“Tosh said from the looks of things the snow should pass over by mid-afternoon to leave clear skies. The ground’s going to be slippery, but as long as we’re careful we should be back at the SUV well before dark. I think it’s already easing up out there.”
Jack passed Ianto a ham and cheese sandwich; it was cold, but still very welcome. Now that he was warmer Ianto was starting to realise just how hungry he was after all the walking and running he’d done. Breakfast had been a very long time ago, and not particularly substantial, just coffee and toast.
“We should set out as soon as the clouds start to clear,” Ianto said, peering out at the falling snow as he and Jack ate.
“We’ve got to find Tosh’s toolkit first,” Jack reminded him. “Can’t just leave it behind, not after you risked life and limb to rescue it.”
“I already found it, should be just outside the little gap among the rocks where you found me. Good thing you got her that shiny bright pink toolbox for Christmas. It’s hard to miss, even in a blizzard.”
“Watertight too,” Jack said proudly. “Everything inside it should be fine, even if it’s buried under the snow.”
“It better not be! I’d rather not have to dig for it, not when my hands are finally warming up.”
They sat quietly for a while, snuggled together at the back of the cave, wrapped in their blankets, finishing the sandwiches and soup, then drinking coffee while the snow continued to fall outside. The thermal fabric of the blankets, along with the food he’d eaten, thawed Ianto out until he felt toasty and warm in spite of the weather. Gradually the hypnotically falling flakes grew fewer and fewer, and the interior of their cave grew brighter. Jack packed the remaining food and the thermoses into Ianto’s backpack again and got to his feet, wandering over to the cave mouth and squinting up at the sky. After a few minutes, Ianto joined him, blanket wrapped around him like a cloak. The sky was clearing, pale blue showing between the scudding clouds, and sunlight was reflecting dazzlingly off several inches of fresh snow.
“We should get moving. We don’t want to still be up here after dark.” Slipping the blanket from his shoulders and shivering slightly at the chill in the air, Ianto started to fold it so it could be stowed in Jack’s backpack.
Jack followed suit with his blanket. Much as they both might have preferred to stay wrapped up in them against the cold, they’d need their hands free for scaling the snow-covered boulders. Packing the blankets away, Jack got out a scarf, handing it to Ianto, who wound it around his neck without a word. It was colder out now than it had been that morning, when he’d left the scarf in the car, figuring it would just get in his way; now the extra warmth it would provide outweighed any other considerations.
Helping each other with their backpacks, they ventured out into a white and silver wonderland. A few feathery flakes were still falling, but not enough to obscure their vision, and the wind had dropped to little more than an intermittent breeze. Close to the rocks the snow was only a couple of centimetres deep, and they found Tosh’s toolkit easily.
Jack clambered up onto the first of the boulders and Ianto passed the toolkit up before joining him. In that manner they worked their way over the jumble of rocks, which were mostly free of snow, having been scoured clear by the wind. The other side was another matter entirely, and when they reached the bottom they plunged into a drift almost three feet deep, wading through it as fast as they could, then dusting the loose powder off their trouser legs to keep it from melting and soaking in. Wet clothes in these temperatures would just serve to suck any warmth out of them.
They kept close together, holding on to each other for support as they trudged through the four or five inches of snow that covered most of the ground, occasionally blundering into deeper patches that had gathered in dips and furrows, or stumbling on rocks hidden beneath the undulating white blanket. Thanks to the earlier wind, the spine of the ridge was almost bare of snow, although it was icy and they had to tread carefully, scuffing at the ground with their boots in places to get a stable foothold. They were both relieved to get off the ridge and back into the snow, knowing if they slipped now, there’d be less chance of life-threatening injury. They might slide down the slope and bump into a few rocks, but that beat falling hundreds of feet down a sheer drop.
As they approached the spot where the team had separated earlier, Ianto could see tiny dots in the distance that looked like they might be people heading in their direction. Nudging Jack, he pointed them out and waved; the distant figures saw them and waved back. Ten more minutes of walking and the people were clear enough to be recognised as Owen and Gwen.
“Well, about time!” Owen exclaimed breathlessly when they finally reached each other.
“What do you two think you’re doing?” Jack said by way of greeting, frowning at them.
“We’re the search party for the search party.” Owen didn’t look particularly happy to be out in the snow. “It was Tosh’s idea, something about settin’ up a relay to get a signal to you two in case you couldn’t find your way back. We were supposed to stick one of these thingies in the ground at the top of the hill, then go up as far as the bottom of the ridge and plant the other one. At least now we won’t ‘ave to.” He looked Ianto up and down. “You alright?”
“Cold, tired, but I’ll live.”
“I’ll check you out once we’re back at the Hub, make sure you didn’t give yourself frostbite or something.”
“Lovely, I’ll look forward to that pleasure.” Ianto’s tone was rich with sarcasm.
“Be like that and I won’t give you a lolly after,” Owen snarked back.
“You never do anyway, you just eat them all yourself.”
“Only ‘cause the rest of you make such a fuss you don’t deserve ‘em. Come on, no point freezing our arses off out here. I want to get back to the SUV where it doesn’t feel like the bloody Arctic.” Turning, Owen started to stomp back down the slope only to slip and land on his arse in the snow. “Bugger it!” He scrambled to his feet, dusting himself off. “Stupid countryside!”
Gwen giggled. “That’s the fourth time he’s fallen over.”
“Yeah, well I’m not the only one; you’ve done it too!” Owen grumbled, not bothering to wait for the others to catch up with him.
“Only twice,” Gwen replied smugly as she slithered unsteadily after her colleague. Jack and Ianto followed, both of them handling the snow and rough terrain better than their friends, thanks to a combination of more suitable footwear, more practice, and having each other to hold on to. It was amazing how much that improved their stability; Gwen and Owen would have found the going easier with each other’s assistance than they did trying to manage by themselves, but neither would ever admit to needing help. Stubborn as mules, the pair of them.
After another twenty minutes of walking, they came around the edge of a small copse and there was the SUV; to Ianto’s mind there could hardly have been a more welcome sight.
“Ianto! You’re here!” Jumping out of the car, Tosh ran to throw her arms around him.
“I’m here,” Ianto agreed, returning his best friend’s hug.
“I’m so sorry, this was all my fault. You wouldn’t have had to go back up there if I hadn’t been so stupid. I would never have forgiven myself if anything had happened to you!”
Ianto shook his head. “It’s okay, Tosh; I’m fine. Really if anyone’s to blame it’s me. I should have been paying more attention to the weather; I know better than to go wandering around the Beacons when the clouds start rolling in. If I’d bothered to look at the sky, I would have realised it was too risky and come back for your tools another day.”
“None of that matters now,” Jack said firmly. “We came out here, got the job done, sent the Ugulans on their way, and we’ve rescued Tosh’s tools without any permanent harm to anyone; I’d call that a win. Now, how about we all head back home before the weather decides to change again? There’s soup, coffee, and sandwiches in the other backpacks; that should keep the rest of you quiet on the drive back.” He ushered Ianto into the front passenger seat, fetched the rest of the supplies from the boot, tossing them in the back with Owen, Gwen, and Tosh, then climbed behind the steering wheel and started the engine, turning the heater on full to warm everybody up after their Arctic trek.
Ianto settled back in his seat, pulled off hat, scarf, and gloves, and held his bare hands in front of the heating vent. Jack was right; what really mattered now wasn’t the errors of judgement that had been made but the fact that in spite of them the whole team was here, safe and sound, and heading back to base. They’d learned an important lesson from today; they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.