Author's note: Well, this goes out to Zaedah and Radiant, who deserve some credit. They both listened to me rant without thinking I was absolutely batty, and if they did, they didn't say a word. I watched Ice Station so many times that I looked beyond the hug that our two favorite shared...and realized that more must have been going on in Natalie's mind during it all.


Desolate

There were some cases that Natalie knew they were destined to fail. Cases that reached into the obscene and secured nooses around their necks one by one, preparing them for the gallows, or at least, a hospital bed. What, after all the years and diseases she had handled, had kept her from succumbing to one herself was a miracle she could not fathom. If luck was on her side, then she would not question it, because in her line of work, luck could easily abandon her if provoked.

This place, so far removed from society and the rules that governed it, had scattered the small team the very second they had stepped foot in its crudely built science labs. It had an isolated quaintness to it that had appealed to her much like a light to a tiger moth. That appeal had been the reason she had sent Miles back with Eva and the bodies, despite his proclaimed phobia of flying. She was willing to go against all prior logic and reserve and study the living not the dead, all to spend time in the poorly lit building that contained a deadly pathogen that could have easily erased her and the others from existence. Who could blame her? After two weeks of a sweltering case in Miami, surrounded by sharks, doctors, and heat, she was ready to cool down and spend time alone. She was not disappointed.

The Ellesmere Ice Station was located in nowhere, Greenland, surrounded by ice and covered in snow. Any inquiries to the science team working there should have been made by a regional medical facility not the NIH. The directors so rarely remembered that while flexing their muscles by carting the elite medical team and co., they were interfering with the lives of the minds they ordered around and treated like cattle. Who were they to slap cow bells around their necks, hand them cell phones, and bend their will by risking their lives every day? The answer was simple. Colonel Brown, the team leader, was an old friend and colleague of a higher up. His death was the reason they had been pulled from leave and thrust into the north chill.

It didn't matter to Natalie that the ice station had reeked of a cheap stage in a B-list horror movie; with its dim flickering lights, labyrinth design, and power source that creaked and moaned with the strain of remaining active in a blizzard, until it was too late. The deep hum that had pulsated around them and through the soles of the boots, had felt eerily like a pulse. Within hours of working in Ellesmere, Natalie had felt certain that the workers had simply gone stir-crazy, imagined the disease, and picked themselves off one by one until only a skeleton crew remained. The paranoia that they had stepped into hung in air like a cloud of hungry mosquitos on a humid Midwestern day. Natalie had seen it travel from person to person, despite Stephen's best efforts, had heard it every time Jeff pointed an accusing finger, and had felt it herself. Felt that trill of fear that at any minute the man next to her could snap. Never in her life had she been more conscious that she was the only female among four men, each able to take her out if the wrong thought passed through their mind, the phantom pathogen through their system. She was an easy target, and she hadn't failed to notice; instead, she had waited for it with hesitating air of prey waiting for the hunter to attack.

Ramon had been a problem from the beginning as most helpful civilians are in close quarters. The invisible generator had been the first sign of his illness, a fever the second, debilitating paranoia the third, and the final, a bullet through his brain.

Natalie remembered the primal rage in his eyes when he backed her against the equipment shelf. His words, loud and dangerous, were threats to her ears. Her fear had echoed in the hopeless shouting of his name, her only defense against his assault. When he threw her, with the strength of a madman, Natalie had folded into herself. Her hope, as she lay prone on the toppled stack of boxes and scientific widgets, was that he didn't pursue her. The beating of her heart sounded so loud in her ears that had he, she wouldn't have heard.

It wasn't until Stephen had charged in, his fist meeting the fleeing Ramon's jaw, that she allowed her tense muscles to relax. His hands, instruments of violence turned into gentle assistance, eased the adrenaline from her system as he helped her to her feet, gave her the ability to speak as she told him she was all right. The heat of his presence, large and reassuring, behind her, allowed Natalie to move the five feet it took for her to insure that Ramon remained unconscious. It had taken the sound of Frank hitting the ground a second time for her to realize that he had even fallen in the first place.

Blizzards were nightmares to deal with. Why they occurred in May in Maryland, when the five-day forecast said it was clear skies and summer temperatures, Natalie would never understand. Greenland was another story, snow storms were frequent, expected, but it still did not explain why God chose to have a sense of humor and drop one on them the day they arrived. She supposed it was his way of telling them that it this time they would be alone in producing a miracle.

No air traffic meant Ramon would die. It also meant Frank would go crazy, the team's teddy bear would become blood thirsty, and to think that he only wanted to go home to his wife and daughter made Natalie cry inside at the injustice of it all.

The promise of Ellesmere's quaint isolation had quickly become a nightmare.

And nightmares had a habit of getting worse or, at least, hers did. The station had been hard to navigate, not that one would actually chose to wonder off alone, but throw in bad lighting and a loaded gun and all you had was a mixture for chaos. She hadn't meant to venture close enough to cause Stephen worry, but a childish fear of what might be lurking in the dark corners drove her to take the chance. Natalie Durant had never been afraid of the Boogeyman. Never. Not until it reduced a friend to chills and delusions and put a gun in the hands of a man whose only desire was to die.

Not until it bathed them in the glow of emergency lights, enveloped them in silence, and sent Stephen out into a storm that could kill him; while all she could do was busy herself with trying to fish answers out of Jeff, with hopes that the frustration he caused would keep her mind off the truth. Frank was dying and Stephen was in death's grasp while she sat in a cage of metal dreading the second something else went wrong.

But nothing else had. The power switched on, Stephen wandered back through the doors alive, and cigars presented themselves as Frank's saving grace. The fear, though, that the case had done more to the inner workings of her own mind, drove her into the arms of Stephen before he had the opportunity to react or rebuke. If touching him proved her sanity, then she was willing to risk what the outcome would be after he pushed her away. In fact, she would have welcomed a negative reaction and greeted it like an old friend, because, if he had rebutted her touch, then surely he could not be a delusion imposed upon her by her tired mind.

The hands, cold but solid, held onto her so tightly, though. Clutched her to him, as if she herself were his last thread of sanity in that chilly arctic world. Surprise flitted through her and caused her to take a second long glance around the room. He didn't let go. He didn't shrug away and scorn her. The joyous carols of pleasure that should have sprang to life in her tattered thoughts as she closed her eyes did not. Instead, she savored the benign feeling of his cheek pressed against hers, damp and cool, and listened to the rise and fall of his quiet breathing in her ear. It seemed that for that small moment, all she could hear was him, nothing more and nothing less. The euphoria ended, though, when her eyes opened and her heart began to race. Fears, damning and bleak, filled her mind again as she pushed away from him. The distance she needed, for never in her life would he have allowed such a touch, no matter the circumstance. The idea that her mind was only playing tricks on her made her move away from him toward the solace of the table and the ingredients that would end the terror once and for all. The hug, what had been the only comforting light in the dark of the assignment, had only added to the nightmare.

Easing of bewildered nerves had finally come, though, at the bedside of healing friend. Being able to feel Frank's weak but steady pulse as Stephen spoke to her about the risks he asked them to take, had emboldened her to spare him his own fears. She herself, believing the worst was over, breathed in the crisp arctic air, soaked in the comfort of the light from the lamp, and was able to pretend that had all been a bad dream.

The gentle smile that eased across her face smoothed away the exhaustion only hours of anxiety could produce as she explained, reassuringly, that the risks he asked of were risks they were willing to take. And she meant it. Because frightening assignments, like nightmares, were so much easier to deal with when they were over.


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