A/N: Closer time.

I would also like to respond to a particular comment that I was unable to respond to concerning John and being skinny (you know who you are). I agree with you on what you said. Heck, most of my original characters tend to be little guys - little guys that shouldn't be messed with. But in ch. 22, John is still recovering, and in fact has relost much of his strength thanks to infection. John hates being weak, is embarrassed by his state, and Teyla's talk concerning strength of the heart was to help him feel better in that moment, as well as for future moments when John isn't as strong as he once was because of illness or torture, and not because she thinks he's never physically strong. And don't forget, there's still the belief that bigger is better, and that one is only strong when they 'look' strong, or in other words have big muscles, which causes many to underestimate the slender guy. Though the gang's teasing John about being skinny isn't necessarily calling him a wimp, chances are it's giving him a bit of an inferiority complex, especially when he's around the bigger, more muscled Ronon. I may have to do a story concerning that concept. Anyways, I hope you weren't thinking I was calling John a wimp just because he's slender. I know he's not. He's just not up to his usual strength at the moment, and that bothers him.


The slave party wasn't impressive. Fifteen men dressed in leathers, armed with rifles akin to what might have been used during the American Revolution, and surrounding a bedraggled group of telepaths, joined at the neck by chains like a chain gang. The party slowed on sighting their destination suddenly blocked by about twenty marines spread out before the gate, and two puddle jumpers hovering over head. When the party neared, every soldier lifted his P-90, not to aim, just to put the weapons within visual range.

John's heart beat light and fast, surging adrenaline through his veins with each pump. He gripped his P-90 until he was white knuckled to hide the shaking in his hands the product of too much energy vibrating his body with small electrical surges. He was excited- no, elated. Probably not the appropriate attitude to have, but he was back in the field, about to give a bunch of slavers the scare of their lives, so he really didn't care and allowed him self to grin like the hyena at the antelope.

He also didn't care that he probably didn't hold any sort of imposing appearance. He had Ronon, standing next to him, to act the imposing part. John was healthy, had his strength back, regained muscle, but was still a few pounds under what he used to be, with clothes a tad extra baggy on him (not that any clothes he'd ever worn had been anything but baggy on him to begin with).

So he knew good and well that his appearance wasn't screaming 'be afraid, be very afraid.' That was what marines, weapons, jumpers and a glowering Satedan were for.

The slave runners, when even closer, exchanged uncertain looks, then shouts in an unknown language, bringing their weapons around. They stopped with fifteen feet of space between them and the Atlanteans. A tall, broad shouldered but wiry man with long ratty brown hair and a thick beard stepped forward.

" Who be ye, strangers!" he shouted in a snarl, blue eyes flashing hot with fury. " Stand aside now!" The slave runners lifted their rifles, so the Atlanteans lifted their P-90s.

" I don't think that's gonna happen, pal," John said. " How about we calm down, lower our weapons, and have a nice little chat about all those people you got hooked together."

" They are ours, stranger! Find your own!"

John held up single finger. " Except we don't want to find any. We want you to let those poor folks go. Then we want you to get the hell off our planet and never come back. This world is now under the protection of... The United States Air Force." John had been quite tempted to say Atlantis, but Atlantis' continuing existence was still a secret that needed to be kept. " And as such, you're officially trespassing on our soil. So I suggest you let our new citizens go, and beat it before one of my men decides to get trigger happy."

The bearded man's lip curled into a sneer. " What claim right do ye have? This is the territory of the Regime, belonging to his Lordship Kess. If you wish to take it from us, then you will have to come up against us!"

Ronon snorted and shook his head. John shrugged.

" I've got no problem with that." He looked at Ronon? " You?"

Ronon grinned and fingered the trigger of his weapon. " Not the least."

John then looked at Major Lorne. " Major?"

" No sir."

" Think a demonstrations in order?"

Also sporting a hyena grin, Lorne raised his hand to the radio at his ear and tapped it. " Jumper three. Lock, load, and let'er rip."

The drone pod emerged from the side of the right hand jumper, and a drone went streaking off over the heads of the slavers, landing in a spectacular explosion like a mini mushroom cloud of fire a safe distance away. The slave runners cringed, backpeddling away and gibbering wildly. The bearded man turned back to stare at John wide eyed and pale.

John simpered. " Wasn't that cool? Now that the fireworks are over, what say you and I talk? I've got a message I need you to send to your boss Kess."


John watched Kace hang back momentarily as the now liberated telepaths reunited with their caravan and families. Kace's people reminded John of gypsies with their large wooden wagons pulled by creatures that looked like horse-sized T-Rex's with horns. The women dressed in large skirts and shirts of dark, rich colors, and the men in clothes similar to Kace's, just as dusty and frayed. The telepaths hardly spoke out loud, just stared at eachother, wide-eyes flooding with tears, and heads occasionally nodding. After a moment of silent exchange, Kace came forward, ensuing in more silent conversation with a barrel chested man as bald-headed as Kace, and with a beard stopping just at the collar bones. Telepath faces turned to join in on the mental thread of conversation, and those same faces eventually altered gazes again to land on Sheppard.

Sheppard could undeniably say that these people's eyes penetrated, and he could have sworn he felt something brush across his brain like a breeze across hot, sweat-slicked skin. After another two minutes of mental talk, the bearded man waved the Atlanteans over while also meeting them halfway.

" Greetings," he called. " I'm Rolth and on behalf of the Ordalla clan we welcome you... and thank you for all that you have done."

John smiled and opened his mouth.

But not before Rolth jumped right in. " No, no need for modesty, and we are in your debt even if you don't think as much." He then chuckled. " I mean, I've heard tell that no good deed goes unrewarded, but I've never seen the likes of someone putting an entire people under their protection."

John shrugged, nonchalant to the core. " I owe Kace my life. How else do you repay that kind of favor?"

Rolth crossed his arms over his broad chest and nodded solemnly. " Good point." He then gestured at John with a casual flick of his hand. " You've got quite a collection of suffering there, if you don't mind my saying so."

John shrugged again. " Comes with the job even if it isn't in the job description."

Again, Rolth gave John another solemn nod, and both fell silent since nothing more needed to be said. Camaraderie had been officially established, so no reason to drag talk out in idle chatter.

" Stay for a feast?" Rolth then asked

John glanced over his shoulder at the men who'd accompanied them in returning the telepaths to their clan. Shrugs and casual nods, with Ronon shifting to try and hide his perking reaction to the word 'feast.' John looked back at Rolth.

" I think I don't need to say it out loud. Just give us a moment to report back, get the word to our leader. She's big on making friends."

A half an hour later saw Elizabeth, McKay, Beckett and several other scientists and military personnel coming in by jumper. Gifts were brought- namely chocolate and ice-cream plus milk (per Kace's request). The soldiers already present were still aiding in setting things up by throwing blankets out on the grassy ground or setting up wooden chairs that had the ability to fold flat when kicked just right.

John walked over to the approaching party with his arms stretched to either side of himself. " See McKay? Not a scratch."

Rodney shook his head and pointed at Carson. " I'll take his word for it."

" Not a scratch, Rodney," Beckett said right off. But stopped before the Colonel all the same, looking him over. " Any other ailments? Dizziness, fatigue..?"

" Actually I'm still in the middle of an adrenaline rush, so I'll let you know after it's over."

Carson patted John's shoulder. " Knowin' you, it won't be over for another week. Just get plenty of food in you and I'll be content."

With that said, Carson moved on to join the quiet, chatty fray. Rodney, however, had stopped and was looking pale faced with overwhelming apprehension.

" My gosh, are they all mind readers?"

John gritted his teeth in a mock grimace and sucked in his breath. " Yeah McKay, sorry. Better be careful what you think or these people might end up liking you enough to want to be in your head all the time."

McKay gulped. " Can I go home?"

John looked skyward in a pensive matter. " Um, no." Then gave Rodney a gentle shove in the shoulder to send him stumbling haltingly toward the awaiting telepaths. Now only Elizabeth was left. John grinned at her, rocking back and forth on his heels, and Elizabeth smiled back.

" Haven't seen that in a while," she said.

" Seen what?"

" That smile. All that fidgeting."

" What can I say," John folded his hands behind his back as he continued to rock, adding a small bounce to it. " I'm a happy, fidgety guy."

Elizabeth started moving again, and John fell into step beside her.

" I can imagine," she said. " Back on duty, making friends, saving planets... People are always happiest when they're in their element."

" And no one even had to get shot," John said with relish. " A fine days work."

" A very fine days work. But will it remain permanent?"

" Kace thinks so. He said those slavers were practically wetting their pants trying to get through the gate, and that the Regime's weaponry is matches compared to our inferno, or something like that. But we still need to keep at least one jumper around in case they go desperate or something. Couple of weeks give or take, on shifts. That should do it."

Fires dotted the meadow, with meat roasting on spits or stews in black pots. Friendly conversation was being engaged between Atlanteans and telepaths, most of what the Atlanteans were saying being interrupted by the telepaths. Children were running around, laughing, squealing, with a gaggle trailing Rodney like cats going for the ones always allergic to them. Rodney was stiff with agitation and trying not to show it. Probably trying not to think as well. Kace was standing before a rickety wooden table covered in tin cups, dumping in scoops of ice-cream, adding the milk, mixing it all up with a spoon, then handing it out to the telepaths all with Ronon and Teyla's help.

" You did right here, John," Elizabeth said.

John beamed, puffing his chest out some. " Glad you let me go then?"

Elizabeth lifted one shoulder in a shrug that rustled her jacket. " I suppose there's no reason to deny it. Yes, I'm glad I let you go."

Then she added. " As long as you always come back."


John and Kace sat outside the edge of the quieting festivities to stare out over the short-grassed plains to where horizon met the colored mantel that trailed the now vanished sun. Above the colors was the velvet soft darkness pricked with a thick spread of stars of varying enough sizes to give the sky depth. The two men had their legs pulled up enough to rest their arms over their knees, Kace's hands dangling loose, but John's hands loosely clasped. Kace lifted one hand to gesture vaguely at the sky.

" You've been up there, Shep. How's the stargazing?"

John craned his neck back to look straight up. " Endless. Plus you tend to get a little lost if the navigations on a jumper stops working. Stars don't like to stay in one place when you're off planet." John righted his neck in order to glance over his shoulder. People were already helping in the cleanup efforts.

" So soon?" Kace asked. John returned to looking at the horizon.

" Well, had to come eventually. I'm looking forward to a little down time that doesn't involve an infirmary stay." He looked at Kace. " What about you?"

The telepath shrugged, then did another casual lift of his hand. " I'd say to the horizon with me, but... been here, seen that."

John rocked back, then forward. " What, no staying on your nice safe world?"

Kace chuckled and twitched his head. " Don't get me wrong, friend Shep. There's no sufficient thanks for what you've done. But the thing is – and I know I've told you this – I'm not a man who can plant his feet in one spot and stay there. That includes planets. Now, I'll probably be staying a bit to spread the word, get the liberation news out, maybe visit some kin. But after that..." he clicked his tongue, lifted his hand, shaped his fingers into the likeness of a gun, and pointed it in the direction of the gate. " It's off to another rock with me."

" Continuing the pursuit of your 'career'?"

Kace looked over at John with a cat like smirk and amused spark in his eye. " I've a mind to perfect the business. But my last endeavors have made me a momentarily rich man, and I intend to collect. There's an address to a paradise planet I'd like to find, or maybe whatever comes close. Maybe when I find it I'll drop you an invite."

" What about our mainland? Still up for tackling that?"

Kace shrugged. " Eventually. Perhaps I'll invest in proper exploration equipment instead. It's all up for grabs, Shep. I go where I go, and sometimes even I don't know where that is. It's who I am, you know? A wanderer. And that's the way I like it. But don't think this night the last you'll be seeing of me. You've proven too interesting for permanent goodbyes. Plus you're fun when your head's clear. That.. uh... wave riding thing..."

" Surfing?"

" Yeah. Now that looks worth a go." Kace chuckled again with a shake of his head. " Your minds a world to explore in and of itself Shep. But far be it from me to pry."

John snorted out a laugh. " Okay, whatever."

Kace reacted with mock hurt. " Hey, I really do try. Not my fault you bring out the curious in me."

" Hey Sheppard!"

John looked back to see McKay approaching only to stop and jerk his thumb over his shoulder. " Pack up. Weir says it's time to head home."

" And none too soon from the way Doc McKay seems fit to explode," Kace said.

Both men rose onto their feet, dusting grass and dirt from their pants.

" Time for so longs and see yous then," Kace said.

John still didn't like it. His mind coherent, his body mended, and life resuming a rhythm he could call next to normal, there was still a quiet spot at the back of his mind – like residue – that begged like a petulant child for John to convince Kace to stay. It was all that was left for John to shove aside, but not without a pang of regret. John held out his hand to Kace.

" I always prefer see ya. Less permanent."

Smiling, Kace took John's proffered hand, then pulled the slimmer man into a quick embrace with a pat on the back. It was sudden, which made it even more awkward, but John returned the embrace. When Kace released him, he kept his hands firmly planted on John's shoulders.

" You really are a good guy Shep. The kind of guy I'm glad to call a friend. So it's safe to say it was worth hauling your skinny hind end from that pit."

" It was worth following you, even if I didn't realize what I was doing at the time."

Kace inclined his head then dropped his hands. " Take care of yourself friend John."

John smiled. " I'll try."

Kace clapped John on the shoulder, then broke into a trot heading for the circled caravan. John watched the telepath go, the petulant child voice silent in the back of his mind, leaving his thoughts his and only his, under his control. He then turned and headed the other way to the jumpers already being loaded with Atlantean personnel. His team was waiting for him, oddly smaller with Kace not there, but he'd get used to it. Kace had his own world – worlds – he belonged to.

" Nice heartfelt goodbye?" McKay sniped. " Certainly took you long enough. What were you doing, exchanging e-mail addresses?"

" Play nice, McKay," Ronon said, and they headed into the jumper.

" Not until we get home where I can think in peace. Seriously, Sheppard, you really know how to pick'em when making new friends. Ancients and mind readers. What next, vegetarian wraith?"

Rodney continued to ramble, and John's brain immediately tuned him out, which made John smile. He had forgotten what it was like, being able to do that, and suddenly everything felt absolutely balanced in the world. It gave John the ridiculous urge to start humming some upbeat little tune, but he countered it by settling for grabbing Rodney in a brief hug.

" Oh Rodney," he said in a heavily sugar coated voice, " don't ever change."

Rodney went rigid as a rail. " What the...! Colonel! Anti touchy-feely here! Seriously, if You don't lay off I will not be held responsible if the door to your quarters malfunctions in a way that has you trapped inside. I know how to do it."

John released Rodney, raising both hands in the air as he made his way to the front of the jumper, turning to face McKay while walking backward. " Whatever, McKay. But I mean it, don't ever change." John plopped himself into the pilot's chair. " You ever got nice, I'd have nothing to do to keep me occupied."

Rodney snorted. " I think I'm starting to miss it when you were insane."

" I thought you said I've always been insane?"

" The good, quiet insane."

The jumper lighted up, and the bay doors hummed close. When the jumper lifted pointing toward the starry sky, a surge of contentment filled John.

" You don't mean that," John said, too happy to even consider getting offended.

Rodney didn't reply, which broadened John's grin. One did not need telepathic abilities to read Rodney McKay.

The End

A/N: Nooow it's over. I'm a little sad while at the same time a little relieved. This story had been quite the little devil to write.

I thank you all for your many reviews, the most I have received for any story, which must indeed mean I'm doing something right. I'm glad it was so enjoyed, and I hope this epilogue satisfies concerning Kace's situation. I know many of you wanted this ending to be a separate story involving a whole new adventure, but truth be told I may not tackle another long work for a while. One shots and shorter stuff I'll be doing, but nothing extremely multi-chaptered. I really need to tackle one of my original stories. They're feeling neglected.

So I thank ye again for sticking with me and making my day after day after day. It's been a fun romp through the land of whump. TTFN y'all.