NOTE: It's true. This really is the last chapter. Thanks to the handful of you still hanging in there reading. We realize the plot bunnies kept getting excited and going in different directions (there's a story behind that), but we hope you enjoyed it. We love you guys!


It had been a long three months. John had suffered a few set backs along the way, but he didn't regret a minute of the struggle. Two months ago he had gone through the gate again. A walk in the park type of scenario, but it had felt good. Then a week later he and his team were allowed out again, but just for another easy run. John hadn't protested though, because he knew he wasn't ready for full on action. None of them really were.

Two weeks ago they had gone on another easy mission, only to have the Wraith drop in. John and his team had snapped into action, saving a lot of villagers and sending the Wraith straight to hell. He'd suffered a slight injury to his left arm, but nothing serious and Carson had simply cleaned it and sent him to his quarters.

Tomorrow was going to be a big day. Tomorrow was their first mission where anything could go wrong, and probably would. But it was more than that. Tomorrow they were going back to the Cave planet. John knew the numbers for it, but it would always be the Cave planet to him. He knew Rodney and Ronon thought of it the same way.

It had been Rodney's idea to go back. John knew McKay was scared, but he was proud of him for wanting to do this. They just had to convince Elizabeth it was the right thing for them to do. In fact, John was due in Elizabeth's office for a meeting so he and his team could convince her to let them go back.

To that end he eyed Carson, who was giving him his weekly check over. Which actually amounted to Carson checking his weight under the guise of checking everything. "We done, doc?" John queried. "I have a meeting to go to."

"Just step on the scale then we're done," Carson replied.

"Okay." John did as he was told and he watched the numbers. A smile curved his lips. He had gained another pound, which meant seventeen total. Carson kept reminding him that some of that was muscle weight, since he was allowed to do full workouts with Teyla again and he and Ronon had been hitting the gym. Ronon had discovered that pumping iron was pretty cool. John thought Ronon lifting weights was scary as hell, but refrained from telling him that.

Carson was grinning as he scribbled on John's chart. "Well done, Colonel. I'm very pleased."

John smiled back. "That makes two of us. So I'm free to go?"

"Go go.." Carson waved a hand at him in a shooing motion.

"Later," John replied, then he almost ran for the door. A few minutes later he walked into Elizabeth's office, nodding in greeting to her and his team. "Sorry I'm late," John said.

Rodney shook a finger at him. "Weigh in, right? Didja gain an ounce?"

John knew it bugged McKay that he was eating tons of calories a day and it seemed to barely register. Meanwhile, Rodney had gained what he called seven sympathy pounds. John had told him it was just the fact he was sitting more while they were grounded. Once they were back out in the field full time, he knew Rodney would lose the extra pounds. Or at least a few of them. "Gained another pound," he announced, knowing that everyone was keeping track. Which bugged him a bit on the one hand, yet he understood that they were just worried about him.

"That makes seventeen," Teyla said, sounding pleased.

"Right." John was a bit unsettled by the fact that she had actually been keeping track of the exact pounds he'd gained. So to distract attention away from himself, he dropped into a nearby chair and said, pointedly, "We need to discuss the mission tomorrow."

Elizabeth sighed, folding her hands on her desk and letting her gaze settle for a moment on each of them, before coming back to rest on John. "I read your request and I sort of understand why you've asked to go back there. But are you sure it's a smart thing to do? Maybe instead of coming full circle and getting closure, you'll just trigger something that sets the three of you back again."

John knew she was playing devil's advocate, and he wasn't mad at her for it. It was her job to do just that. But he knew he could make her see reason, if not fully understand why this mattered to them. "First off, Ronon would be fine either way. Right, big guy?" John grinned at the Satedan as he spoke and got a smile in return. He faced Elizabeth again and gestured to Rodney. "And Rodney wouldn't have suggested it if he didn't need to go back. He needs to face his fears, and I need to test myself. I know Kate sent her thoughts on the mission, and she thinks it's a good idea."

"I know." Elizabeth made a face. "Carson told me the same thing, but I can't help but be concerned."

"Besides," Sheppard grinned. "We can pick up some more samples of the cave rock for testing. Rodney thinks the shielding capability may be very valuable once he figures out how it works."

"Nice try," Weir replied wryly, "but Radek already told me Lorne's team picked up plenty of samples."

"Oh," said John dejectedly. "Can't blame a guy for trying. Okay, well, Teyla will be with us to make sure everything goes as planned," John reminded her.

Leaning back in her chair, Elizabeth's body language betrayed how tense she was. She shook her head. "I know this is important to all of you, but I have a bad feeling about it."

Teyla spoke before anyone else could. "What worries you, Elizabeth?" she queried. And that was Teyla, always willing to hear all side of the story in order to be fair to everyone.

"I just can't shake a bad feeling about it," Elizabeth confessed. "I have nothing concrete to go on. No facts to argue with, or against really. I just...I'm afraid that if you go..." She broke off and eyed Rodney then John before lowering her gaze to her hands in her lap. "I'm afraid you'll come back changed for the worst."

"You're afraid we'll break for sure this time," John clarified, and he wasn't surprised by her fears. They were similar to his own. "That's the biggest reason why we need to do this, Elizabeth." He saw her surprised reaction to that. "When we go through the gate, there's no telling what we're going to face. Down the road we could end up in a similar situation. If we can't face it now, then I need to know that. Because otherwise it's going to be a nasty surprise and people might get hurt. My people."

Elizabeth was nodding. "You have a good point," she conceded, then she locked eyes with Rodney. "Are you sure about this?" she asked gently.

Rodney looked tense and one leg was bouncing up and down, but after a moment he nodded. "I'm sure."

"Okay then," Elizabeth rose from her desk. "You have a go."

"Thank you." John was smiling as he stood up. "It's going to be okay," he assured her.

Elizabeth nodded. "I'm going to hold you to that, John."

He didn't have anything to say to that so he turned to his team. "I want everyone to get a good night's sleep. We leave first thing in the morning." Teyla and Ronon nodded then headed out the door. John went over to Rodney and pulled him out of his chair. He knew McKay needed a distraction. "Got any cool gizmo's you want me to touch?" John offered.

"There is this one thing," Rodney replied, perking up instantly. "I think it might be some kind of weapon, I'm just not sure how it works or what it does."

"Sounds like fun," John replied, herding Rodney out the door. And now he was smiling at the thought of some kind of new Ancient weapon thingy. If for no other reason than it would occupy Rodney's mind till tomorrow. "Lead the way." He pushed Rodney out the door then gave Elizabeth a sloppy salute before following. Deep inside he was nervous, but at the same time John sensed that everything was going to be okay.


They made it to the planet without mishap. Although by the time they walked out of the jumper and were heading towards the cave, John could feel himself shaking a bit. He hoped the others didn't notice. Glancing over at Rodney, John could see he was pale and trembling and not even bothering to try and hide it. "Hey, okay?" John asked, moving closer and clapping him on the shoulder.

Rodney favored him with a baleful look. "No..I'm not okay, Colonel. But thanks for asking.

"Do you want to go back?" John asked. He didn't want to push Rodney if he wasn't ready for this.

"No!" Rodney's tone was sharp even though his voice was barely a whisper. "I...we're here now...we should just do this."

John nodded. "Okay then." He stepped forward, leading the way to the base of the path that led up to the cave.

Teyla moved to stand beside him, shading her eyes from the sun as she studied the path. "That is a long way up."

"Felt like miles sometimes," John allowed.

"I want to walk to the stream," Rodney announced. "I want to see it."

John felt his chest tighten at the thought. He wasn't sure he wanted to go back there, but he found himself nodding. "'s this way." In truth, he preferred going there to facing the cave right now. So he led them to the stream, surprised by how beautiful the walk was. Surprised also by the fact that he remembered the way so well when much of the path seemed so unfamiliar to him now. Which just reminded John of how miserable he had felt every time he'd made the trek.

When they reached the water, everyone stood there for a moment without speaking.

It was Ronon, of all people, who broke the silence. "Hell of a walk," he commented.

"Yeah," John replied. He knew he didn't have to explain what it had been like to the Satedan. Ronon had walked through hell and back for the seven years he had been on the run.

"Can we go back to the cave now?" Rodney asked.

John was surprised he would want to, but nodded. They returned by the same path, and John focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and on doing fractions and such in his head. He didn't want to remember his time here. He didn't want to think about carrying the back pack and pulling the crate. He wanted only to forget, and yet the memories were seeping back to him.

A hand on his arm startled him from his thoughts and John smiled at Teyla, feeling grateful. He was surprised, however, to realize they were back already.

"Ronon wishes to walk around a bit," Teyla said softly. "I will go with him, if that is all right."

"It's fine." John nodded and motioned for her to go ahead. He returned her smile then watched her trot off to catch up to the big guy. Which meant he and Rodney would be hanging out here for a bit. "Want to go back to the jumper?" John asked. They had packed some lunch just in case they stuck around a while.

But Rodney shook his head. "I'm not hungry." However, he was pulling a powerbar out of his pocket as he spoke and ripping it open. John knew it was out of habit more than anything. But he was surprised when Rodney held it out to him. "Eat," he was ordered.

John was about to refuse it, but he knew Rodney was both looking out for him and trying to distract himself. So he accepted the bar and took a bite. Thankfully his stomach accepted it. But two bites were all John could manage. "You okay, Rodney?" He was repeating himself, but the scientist looked tense and distracted, which was kind of scary. Rodney was usually so very intense and focused.

"I want to go up to the cave," Rodney replied. Then he turned away and headed for the path.

"Ooookay," John drawled, jogging a bit to catch up. He felt his heart rate increase as they entered the cave and after glancing around the all too familiar interior, he had to step back out. Moving to the edge of the drop off, John sat down, swinging his legs and gulping in lungfuls of fresh air. After a time the feeling that he was suffocating, passed.

It was quite a while later before Rodney joined him, peering down unhappily at distance below, but sitting down beside him none the less. "How did you do it?" Rodney asked.

John frowned at him. "Do what?"

"Keep us alive." Rodney looked a bit shell shocked as he spoke. "I just...I can't believe what you did. I can't believe you did what you did and still thought you'd failed us."

"Rodney.." John began.

But Rodney cut him off. "You were injured, as bad or worse than we were. You supported us, practically carried us at times and we both outweigh you. You made that trip to the stream over and over again when, realistically, you shouldn't even have been able to stand up. You starved yourself just to make sure Ronon and I would survive. It shouldn't have been humanly possible, Sheppard. But you did kept us alive. And yet you thought you failed us? Why?" Rodney sounded sincerely baffled, but there was a thread of anger in his voice. In fact he was practically vibrating with it.

John wasn't sure what to say. He didn't know what Rodney wanted to hear. "I just...I did what I had to do," he whispered. "I was always afraid it wasn't enough."

"Did I ever thank you?" The anger bled out of Rodney and he suddenly looked drained.

"You don't have to thank me," John countered.

Rodney nodded at that. "I know." He was quiet a moment then he blurted out, "Thanks anyway."

John grinned at him. "Sure. Any time."

"Let's not put that to a test though, okay?" Rodney requested. He pushed back from the edge then climbed to his feet. "Maybe I will head back to the jumper. I'm feeling peckish."

"Peckish?" John echoed, rising to his feet with a lot more grace. He arched and eyebrow at Rodney and tried not to laugh.

Rodney gave him a look of long suffering. "Bite me," he countered smoothly, shouldering past John and making his way down the path. "Feel up to a game of prime/not prime?" he asked, as John caught up to him.

John sighed. "What is it with geniuses and that stupid game?" Not that he wasn't going to play. Rodney had been trying to sucker him into it for over a year and John had refused with a variety of excuses. In truth he had been waiting for the right moment to bring Rodney to his knees. John knew he was ace at the game and soon, Rodney would whimper with defeat. John laughed at his own thoughts. More like Rodney would be snapping at him in frustration and requesting rematch after rematch. But it would pass the time until Ronon and Teyla returned.

"It's not a stupid game, unless you're afraid you'll lose," Rodney shot back.

"Coulda been Mensa," John reminded him. "You go first."

So Rodney rattled off a number and looked flabbergasted when John didn't even hesitate with his answer. They were still playing, surrounded by the empty food wrappers from lunch, when Ronon and Teyla returned.

Rodney was glaring at John. "This isn't over," he stated. "We're picking up when we get back to Atlantis."

"Sure," John replied, as he slid into the pilot's seat. He watched Rodney sit down beside him, then he glanced back as Ronon and Teyla settled in. "Ready to go home?" he asked.

"Ready.." they replied in unison, and it was music to John's ears. He set the jumper on course for home, feeling the tension he had been carrying with him for months, finally slipping away. They had all come full circle now and he knew that the next time he stepped through the gate with his team, they would be ready to face it. Side by side, come what may.

Not caring that he was grinning like a fool, John looked over at Rodney and said, "Forty-three thousand, six hundred and seventy-seven."

Rodney glared at him. "I hate you, you do know that. Right?"

"Yeah, I know," John replied, and he was almost -literally- able to watch the wheels turn in Rodney's head.

All was right in John Sheppard's world again.