You are never going to believe it, but you have finally made it. This is the last chapter. I can never thank you enough for all the wonderful, encouraging, and supportive reviews. Never in my wildest imagination did I dream of such a wild and exhilarating ride as what you have given me. I know it's been a long and somewhat tiresome journey, but thanks for sticking with me and I hope you had half as much fun reading it as I had writing it and reading your reviews. It's not near enough, but...THANKS!

Chapter 24

Sheppard straightened his vest one more time before heading out of his quarters for his first off world mission in months. He felt a little nervous and a little rusty. He'd been working hard to build back his strength and stamina, running and working sticks with Teyla daily. He was a little worried about how loosely his uniform seemed to fit. He'd only gained back about half the weight he'd lost and Beckett was not particularly happy. His appetite had only recently begun to come back to normal as his activity level had increased. He'd finally convinced Beckett that the return to active duy would undoubtedly return his appetite to normal.

He felt good. He felt well. He felt...healthy. There had been no muscle cramps or major tremors since his fever broke. Beckett thought perhaps the fever had finished sweating any remaining toxins out of his system. So the pneumonia had had a silver lining after all. He'd talked to Heightmeyer several times and, strangely enough, he hadn't really minded. He hadn't shared every little detail with her. Some things were for him and him alone and always would be. But he'd told her the things she had wanted to know about and, for the most part, been honest with her. Whether his ghostly visitors had been real or just his fevered subconscious, he would never know. But they had helped him face some things and put things into the proper perspective. They had helped him cope. And he was coping. He was more at peace with himself and the things that had happened to him than he would have thought possible. He didn't even want to kill Kavanagh any more - he was content to visit Sector D ever so often and watch him clean septic tanks. He always made sure Kavanagh saw him, though. A little sadistic he supposed, but better than blowing the man's head off. At least he hadn't made him pee his pants lately.

"Hey, sir. Headed to the gateroom?" Ford pulled up beside him as he walked down the hall.

"Yeah. It's almost time to go."

Ford nodded. "How do you feel, sir? First mission in a while and all."

"I'm good. I'm ready. A little excited, I guess." He tried not to show his nervousness.

"Good morning Major Sheppard, Lt. Ford," said Teyla, joining them as their halls met and merged into one corridor.

"Morning Teyla," they both replied.

"Have you seen Dr. McKay?" she asked.

"Right here," they heard him call as he ran down the hall to join them.

"Hey, hey, the gang's all here," said Sheppard, grinning. Now that he was surrounded by his team, he was beginning to feel more at ease. After all, it was only a small mission to check out an abandoned village with a small energy reading. Of course, you never knew. Sometimes those little missions had a way of blowing up in your face. He smiled as he realized he could hardly wait to step through the gate and see what waited on the other side. There just wasn't anything as exhilarating - with the exception of flying, of course.

He was looking down and doing a last minute check of his uniform to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything (easy to do when you hadn't been on active duty for months). They stepped out into the gateroom and he took several steps before he realized anything was up. He noticed his team had fallen a few steps behind and it was unusually quiet. He looked up and his mouth dropped open in amazement. The perimeter of the gateroom was flanked by military personnel standing at attention. At a command, they all saluted their commanding officer, standing in the middle of the room and slowly turning in a circle, taking in the incredible sight. The balcony above was filled with non-military personnel, all here to show support for the return of the citiy's second in command. Sheppard came to attention and returned the salute of his men. His men. He had never really thought about it before, but they were his men. Emotions began to well up inside him. threatening to overwhelm him. He had never in his life had a show of support like this and he had not expected it now. He looked over to Ford.

"You knew?" his voice barely a whisper as he fought to gain control.

Ford smiled and nodded. "Some of the men...well...they though you might be a little uncertain after being off duty so long and they just wanted you to know how much they respect you and...that we are all still behind you a hundred percent. We're glad to have you back on duty as our CO. It's an honor to serve under you, Major." Ford saluted Sheppard, which really almost brought tears to his eyes as he saluted back.

"Thank you, Lt." He still couldn't quite believe it. He just kept staring at what had to be over half the people in Atlantis, showing support for him. Maybe they had been right. Maybe Atlantis was his destiny. He certainly felt like he belonged here, more than anywhere else he had ever been. His eyes fell on Elizabeth, standing in her customary place on the balcony to bid them farewell. Dr. Beckett and Dr. Strauhan stood beside her. Man, did he owe those two big time. He smiled and waved at them.

"Is your team ready, Major Sheppard?" she called.

"We're ready. Dial it up." He turned and watched as the gate was dialed and the wormhole engaged. He stared at the shimmering blue puddle. It had been so long. He looked at the other members of his team, all of them grinning from ear to ear, aware of his amazement and excitement.

Teyla waved her hand toward the gate. "I believe you should go first, Major. It is time for you to return as the leader of this team."

Sheppard smiled and nodded. "Thanks, Teyla." He stepped forward and stopped a few inches in front of the event horizon, reaching his finger out and touching the puddle. He turned around and looked at Weir.

"Be safe," she said.

"We will," he replied. He turned back to the blue puddle before him and stepped through. John Sheppard was back.

THE END

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