A/N: I am very happy to report the completion of this story! Although I did manage to underestimate how manically busy the first couple of weeks back at university would be, hence the slowness of the updation.
Thank you very very much to everyone who's been reading, alerting, favouriting, and especially to the lovely people who've reviewed! Of course, it's never too late to drop me a review and tell me how you liked the ending, and the story as a whole, especially if you haven't so far... ;)
Thanks to Chief of the Furlings for the read-through and suggestions :)
John stared. And stared. The Gate…
Or was it? Was it just some piece of… anything, which just happened to have a surface smooth enough to catch the light?
It was more-or-less in the direction which he and Rodney had spent torturous hours trudging towards, but, he had to admit to himself, that didn't really count for much. He had never been particularly sure of their route in the first place, following his best guess rather than anything tangible, reasoning that it was better to be heading somewhere than nowhere.
The red sun slipped below the horizon, and the glint of reflected light vanished.
John still stared towards where it had been, trying to fix the direction in his memory. Landmarks… well, there weren't really any. Sand, and more sand, and even more sand. And it was beginning to get dark now, so even if there were landmarks, they wouldn't be good for much longer.
He wondered how cold it got at night. Looking up at the cloudless sky, he knew that he didn't want to find out.
One last look to fix the direction in his mind, and he was slipping his way down the dune, back towards where he had left Rodney, trying, as he went along, to come up with a good plan.
By the time he reached the still unconscious man, he didn't yet have one. But it wasn't as dark as he had expected, because a moon had begun to rise to one side, huge and white, and bright enough already to cast shadows. Rodney lay deep in the one thrown by the piled dune.
He made up his mind.
"McKay," he said, shaking his shoulder. "McKay, wake up."
It took a moment, but Rodney stirred. His eyes opened, and seemed to wander before resting on John's face. "'Lo," he whispered hoarsely.
"Hi." John paused, trying to think how best to word what he knew he had to say. "How're you feeling?"
"Yeah, I know." He remembered that earlier he had thought about how unnatural an silent and unconscious Rodney was. It was even more unnatural when he was awake. "McKay, I think I know where the Gate is."
"Really?" It was enough to lift Rodney out of his stupor.
John nodded. If he was right, the knowledge could give Rodney hope enough to hold on. If he was wrong… then soon it wouldn't matter, one way or another. "Really."
"Just a few miles."
Rodney's look of hope instantly vanished. "Sheppard… I can't."
"McKay – "
"No!" It was said with desperation. "I don't care about your stupid motivational speeches. I can't go on. Just… you go."
John had to bite back a smile. "That's what I was going to suggest."
"What – you're going to leave me here?!" The indignation was even clearer than the desperation had been, and was enough for him to start pushing himself upwards.
John shoved him back down, not ungently. "Listen, ok? I'll trek to the Gate, and bring back a Jumper for you. I won't be long."
"You said miles."
"Yeah, it'll take a couple of hours or so. You can wait that long, can't you?" He kept his voice deliberately upbeat, hoping that Rodney would take it as a challenge.
"Of course I can. I'm not helpless!"
He didn't bother to bite back his grin this time. "Ok, that's settled." He made to stand up.
"Wait." The moonlight was beginning to creep over Rodney, painting him in contrasts. His face was whitened so that it could have been a small moon itself, with dark craters for eyes and mouth, and mountain ranges in the deep-grained lines of pain and fear. "You're leaving right now?"
"The quicker I get there, the quicker I'll be back."
"I know, but…"
But I don't want to die here all alone while you're gone. He could hear the words as clearly as if they had been spoken aloud.
He bent over and pulled Rodney's radio out, placing it in his uninjured hand. "Here. Keep the channel open. Just stay here and keep talking to me, and I'll be back before you know it."
He stood up. "I'll be back soon," he said again.
"You're… you're certain you know where the Gate is?"
John thought that from his new vantage point, Rodney's face no longer looked like a moon. With the shadows lying in his eye sockets, it looked like a skull. "One hundred percent certain," he said firmly. "It's on top of a ridge, right on the skyline. There's no way I can miss it."
"Yeah," he said. "It's good." And he turned away. He didn't look back as he again began to climb the dune, following the trail of his earlier footsteps, but he felt that he could feel Rodney's eyes on his retreating back.
At the top he paused, but only for a moment. As he had suspected, there was nothing anymore to be seen in the direction of that brief spark of light, but then it would be a truly impressive fluke for it to reflect the moon towards him, as well as the sunset.
He began walking.
After a while he reached for his radio. "Hey, McKay. You there?"
He had mentally prepared for a Where else would I be?, and had been ready to toss an equally snarky comment back. Without that, he wasn't quite sure what to say. He cast around for a random conversation topic. He looked up. "Lots of stars here."
"Yes. We're in what's commonly known as a galaxy."
"I know that." Apparently Rodney had simply been caught off-guard by the first question, and had now rallied. "I was just trying to find something to talk about."
"Well, you're lousy at it."
"Thank you." He rubbed his aching head. As he began to rise up the next dune, he tried again. "So, what are you working on?"
"On not being bored to death."
"You know I meant on Atlantis."
"Oh, the usual. Trying to stop the so-called scientists in my department from setting the whole place on fire, or blowing it up, or sinking it."
So prompted, he launched into rambling descriptions of the various ways in which he had managed to narrowly avert calamities within the last week. John, not able to reliably tell which parts were true and which were exaggerated, didn't bother trying and instead just listened, walking to the rhythm of the scientist's voice. Most of the time he had no idea who was being talked about, as Rodney, despite several years of working with everyone, still hardly ever managed to get names right, and didn't seem to bother with physical attributes, either. He took it for granted that John would just know who he meant, and frequently took very large tangents, which John didn't comment on.
"…so he said he'd run a diagnostic and couldn't find anything wrong, but his code? My niece could write better code than that. I mean, not now, obviously, but when she grows up she'll be able to. I don't care about whatever stupid hippy ideas my sister and that herbivore husband of hers have, she's going to be a scientist. Anyway, he seemed to think there was nothing wrong, and actually acted surprised when I told him that he could have killed us all.."
It was almost soothing, a background track constantly playing. John could half-listen to it, and try to ignore the fact that the further he walked, the more his head was pounding. Whenever he reached the top of a ridge, he had to bend over and recover his breath, closing his eyes to stop his vision from swimming. He had more and more of an impression that it wasn't a desert he was walking through, but walking over the surface of a vast sea, with white-capped waves and deep dark troughs. Out of the corner of his eyes he could almost swear that it was rising and falling.
"Sheppard!" a voice in his ear suddenly ordered.
He paused, and rubbed at his eyes. "Yeah?"
There was a burst of static, which could be interpreted as a breath being let go. "You weren't answering. I thought you'd collapsed or something."
"I wasn't?" That was odd. "I didn't hear you."
"I've been saying your name for about an hour. Well, a few minutes, anyway."
"Whatever." He wasn't in the mood right then. He just had to get to the Gate, and everything would be fine, and then there would be time for Rodney to go on as much as he liked. That was when he noticed. "You've stopped talking."
He didn't see quite how the two things were supposed to be related. "It's night."
"Oh, ha, ha." There was a pause. "Lots of stars."
"Yeah." The sky was studded with them. "We don't usually see so many."
"That's because we're usually on Atlantis, which is in a different part of the galaxy." John was still thinking up a good retort to that when he spoke again. "Why can't we just fly the Jumper back to the Gate?"
"We don't have it anymore," John said, calmly. "It blew up, remember?"
"Oh. Ok. Guess we should go with Teyla and Ronon after all."
"What?" It was hard to tell, through the radio distortion, but Rodney sounded confused.
"To the Gate. Before the mines go off."
John wished very much that he'd paid more attention to Rodney's earlier rambling, so that he could have seen this coming. But he managed to keep his voice calm. "McKay, that's not where we are."
"No. We're on the other planet, remember? I'm walking to the Gate."
"Oh." The radio-distorted voice was suddenly much quieter. "Sheppard, it hurts."
"I know. Just hang in there."
"Where are you?"
"I'm nearly at the Gate." He stared across the waves of white and black sand, and prayed that that was true.
"You left me here…" Rodney's voice strengthened. "You left me behind."
"I'm coming back for you. With transport."
"But… you've left me behind."
John resisted the urge to kick the side of a dune, anything. He didn't have the energy to spare for that, or for forming a particularly eloquent defence of his actions. "Rodney, listen to me. I promise I'm coming back. You're one of my team."
"Getting cold," Rodney said. There was another burst of static. "You promise?"
"Are you near the Gate?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm not far."
"You've not got lost?"
John choked down a laugh. "Why would I be lost?"
"Please." For a moment Rodney sounded much more like himself. "You always get lost."
"Not this time."
He waited for a reply. "McKay?"
There was silence over the radio. "Rodney? C'mon, keep talking to me."
No answer. "McKay!"
He turned around, and the dunes spun with him, so that he had to blink hard, several times. But of course he couldn't see back across the desert to the spot where he'd left Rodney. And he doubted that he could find his way back on his own. The only way would be with a Jumper, which could scan for life signs.
And if there aren't any?
That wasn't a useful thought, he told himself, and turned again. The Gate. He had to get to the Gate. Keep going, Sheppard.
His head pounded, and he found himself rubbing his arms, where the hairs stood upright from the growing cold. He had to reach the Gate soon, or it would be too late and all of this would have been for precisely nothing. He pulled himself up over the lowest point where two dunes joined.
And there it was.
He had to rub his eyes several times before he could quite believe it, but the Gate remained, a ring throwing an elliptical shadow towards him.
The few metres remaining felt like miles, but then his hand was on the cold keys of the DHD, and he could believe it at last.
He dialled. The symbols swirled in and out of focus, but he already knew where they were.
Movement. He was moving. It didn't seem to have much to do with him, so he let it happen.
One of them in particular, sounding close, the same syllables repeated over and over. He concentrated on them.
"Rodney. Rodney, can you hear me?"
Last time he had opened his eyes, he remembered, there had been pain. He didn't want pain.
It sounded urgent. It might be important.
So he looked. Someone was bending over him. Light seared his retinas.
"Ow," he mumbled. His voice sounded strange.
It shut off. "Aye, he's just about awake," someone said. The same voice which had been calling his name before. "Rodney, you with me here?"
"C'son?" The name came to him without conscious thought.
"That's right. We'll have you safe back on Atlantis in no time at all." The face removed itself from his line of sight. "Lay him on the floor, there."
A jolt ran through his body, but, surprisingly, there was still no pain. He felt rather as if he was wrapped in some protective bubble.
The face was back, and so was another one. He blinked a few times, trying to make sense of it. "Hi there, McKay," it said.
"You came back." He couldn't remember why, but it was something which was important, and so worth the effort needed to say it.
"That's right, I did." Both faces were smiling, and he suddenly wondered why they looked so happy.
He had to tell them that they shouldn't look so pleased with him. He struggled to form the words. "Left… I left them…" He had to breathe. "Tey'a… Ro'n…"
"We are right here." There was another head, and a warm hand folding around his. "We are fine, Rodney."
"G'd. That's… g'd."
"You can sleep now, Rodney," Carson told him, and he let his eyes fall shut. The voice continued, slightly fainter and no longer directed at him. "And you, Colonel. Now we've got him, you can stop being so bloody stubborn and sit down yourself."
There was a gentle thump, and then a rougher voice saying, "I got him, doc."
He drifted away to the feel of someone gently stroking the side of his face, and to the fading sound of Gaelic swearing.
An unexpected noise jerked John out of an unplanned sleep. He opened his eyes onto the infirmary ceiling, and rolled over to see Teyla adjusting a chair's position. "Back again?" he asked, quietly.
She turned towards him with a smile and a shrug. "Someone has to be here. Ronon would be here too, but he had to go offworld with Major Lorne's team."
"I'm here," John said. "I'm sure you have more important things to be doing."
She cut him off. "Not at all. And you were asleep. Not to mention the fact that you are a patient, and I am also here for you."
John scowled. "I'm not a patient. Patients would be in the bed."
"While you are on top of it, and refusing to wear infirmary clothing. I am sorry for failing to notice."
John sat up, grimacing slightly, and leaning over to take a sip from the glass of water beside his bed. "How long have you been here?" he asked, reaching up absently to rub at the dressing on his head.
"An hour or so. Dr Beckett came by to see how the two of you were doing. He certainly seems to be under the impression that you are in the infirmary because you are receiving treatment for a severe concussion and dehydration." A smile that was almost a smirk flittered on her lips.
John glared. "Watch it. I'll be back to kicking your ass in the gym in no time."
She diplomatically said nothing, but her eyebrows lifted doubtfully.
He decided to change the subject. "Did Beckett say how Rodney's doing?"
Both of them looked over at the bed on the other side of Teyla's chair, where Rodney lay, wired to monitors, a still shape beneath a covering, with his heavily bandaged right hand above it. He looked exactly the same as he had before John had fallen asleep, and, to John anyway, the same as he had when he had finally been wheeled out of surgery. According to Beckett then, he had been lucky. Very lucky. If he hadn't been got back to Atlantis when he had… John really didn't want to think about that.
Teyla must have noticed the involuntary convulsive movement he made. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. What did Beckett say?"
"He said that Rodney will probably sleep for a while. And that he should fully recover, after some time, of course."
"That's good." John let out a sigh. Quite suddenly he found himself wanting to talk, to make Teyla understand exactly why he needed Rodney to wake up, so that he could talk to him. "I left him alone in the desert, when he was dying."
Teyla rested her hand on his arm. "It was the only thing you could have done. You saved his life."
"Well I guess we're even, then, for now." But he couldn't shake the memory of Rodney over the radio, disorientated and afraid. "I hope – "
Teyla seemed to already know what he was going to say. "He will understand." And then, before he could object, "I have heard from Elizabeth that you dodged several Wraith darts. She said I should ask you to tell me about it."
John suspected some sort of ulterior motive, but even if he said so himself, it had been some impressive flying, and the painkillers he was on were dulling his appreciation of subtleties. He launched into an account of it, disregarding the knowing smile that had again appeared on Teyla's mouth.
"…so then I had about a hundred darts heading for me and firing, and I knew I'd have to dodge them – "
"Liar," a voice croaked.
John's head immediately snapped up and Teyla swivelled around on her chair. From the next bed, an opening pair of eyes glared at him. "Not a hundred."
"McKay!" John exclaimed. He sat up properly, and swung his legs off the side of the mattress. "How're you feeling?"
"Tired," came the reply, after a second of consideration. He blinked a few times, slowly. "Hey, we got home."
"Yeah, we did. I told you it wasn't far."
"It was a long way," Rodney corrected him.
John shrugged. "Isn't there a saying that goes, 'it's not the journey that counts, it's the getting there'?"
"I do not think that is quite correct," Teyla said, doubtfully.
"Whatever." John leaned forward, and became more serious. "McKay, I'm sorry. For leaving you out there."
Rodney's face creased into a frown. "But you had to, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I know I had to."
"So why're you sorry?" The tone wasn't accusing, simply curious.
He couldn't find an answer. After a moment's thought, he wondered if there was one at all. Maybe it was one of those things which could wait for another time and place to be discussed.
"Anyway," Rodney continued, seemingly oblivious to John's internal debate, "There weren't a hundred darts."
John stirred himself to answer indignantly. "There were! You just don't remember probably. But since you were injured at the time, I'll forgive you for it."
"So kind," Rodney huffed.
Teyla shot a reproving look at John, and leaned towards Rodney. "It's good to see you awake. We were worried."
"Hah." Rodney's voice was quickly regaining its sleepiness. "Knew you would be."
"I wasn't worried," John drawled. "I'm only here because I'm a patient too. What with being injured while saving your life and all."
Teyla sighed audibly and rolled her eyes.
"I saved you more," Rodney said, his eyelids drooping heavily and his syllables beginning to blur together. "You owe me."
"I walked across a desert for you!" John protested.
"I dragged you to the Jumper."
"I saved us from two hives!"
"No, I did that."
Teyla shot John another disapproving look, with a softer expression behind it, and he grinned in response. "Alright, McKay, you did good. Now get some rest. You need it."
Rodney obediently closed his eyes, without arguing, which John knew was an event unlikely to be repeated for a long while. He mumbled something.
John leaned forward to try to catch it. "What was that?"
"You don' need to stay," Rodney repeated, slightly more clearly.
John shared another smile with Teyla, and put his feet back up on his bed. "Well, we're going to anyway."