"They did let you go," Rodney pointed out. "Not to mention the whole saving your life thing."

"Uh-huh," said Sheppard as he finished chewing and set down his napkin. "Did I mention she pretty much tortured me? It gets old."

"She?" Rodney raised his eyebrows.

Sheppard nodded. "I used my best puppy-dog eyes, she took pity on me, and we talked philosophy until she agreed to let me go home. See? Messed up."

Rodney slammed his fork down on the tray. "An ascended woman. Why am I not surprised."

Sheppard slapped at him with a grin. "It wasn't the least bit sexy."

"Ah-" said Rodney, looking smug. "No, she just violated all the rules of her society because you were….smart?"

Sheppard snuck up behind Elizabeth in the control room. "Guess who's going on a mission?"

She spun around, startled, but happy to see the joyful light in the colonel's eyes. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Better than ever," said Sheppard with a sincere smile.

He loved Atlantis's team armory. He wasn't sure what that said about him, but he loved gearing up here with the team, loved coming home sweaty and exhausted and ditching their gear before going for a well-deserved dinner. He even loved being in here alone on the quiet days, inspecting gear, cleaning weapons, and making cure everyone's tactical vests were supplied to head out on a moment's notice. But most of all, he loved getting ready for missions. He loved the calm, contained excitement just under the surface of all the preparations, the caring under the surface of the bustle.

He loved the quiet courage it took for this team to walk through the gate together. A warmhearted Scottish medical doctor, and brilliant Canadian scientist, a leader of an indigenous people, and a warrior right out of a comic book – a group so unlike the military teams he used to be a part of. All of them had much at stake, lives and fears and jobs of their own, but when they gathered in this room, they turned into a solid team with every ounce of courage and loyalty and skill of a military unit, only – better. It meant so much more, somehow, that they weren't doing this under orders.

Carson was struggling, as he often did, with the straps adjusting his tactical vest. When it came to medical gear, Carson could be counted on having everything in perfect order, ready for use in the space of a split second. But he wore the tactical gear with the sort of weary tolerance a pack horse might show, and more often than not they had to help him tug, prod, and nudge all the straps and gadgets into place. He was prone to getting himself into situations like the one he was currently in, having put his heavy pack on before adjusting his vest and then tugging futilely at bits and pieces trying to get it to sit right.

As he often did, Sheppard stood and tightened the straps for him, adjusted the pack, and made sure the load wasn't interfering with any of his weapons. In a military unit, such lack of self-reliance would have been cause for chewings-out and drilling, but Sheppard didn't mind. That heavy pack would be filled with medical supplies, testing gear, and a dozen other perfectly chosen and packed essentials that Carson knew how to use better than anyone in two galaxies.

Sheppard finished and gave the doctor an affectionate shove. Rodney looked ready to go. The civilian scientist was actually meticulous about his gear and weapons, checking and triple-checking everything on his own. He knew the terror of having a weapon malfunction when he needed it, and did everything in his power to make sure he was ready for whatever they might face. His vest pockets were, as usual, overstuffed to bursting with PowerBars. When it came to a choice between eating or making sure he had enough C4 and ammo and survival gear, McKay opted not to choose. He brought it all.

What Rodney didn't like was carrying extra gear. He shouldered his pack with the air of a man enduring secret and horrible abuse, and staggered under the weight. "Oh, come on," he grumbled, trying to shift the load. "What am I, a mule?"

Sheppard grinned. "You packed it. Give it a rest, Rodney. You're as strong as any of us – well, except for Ronon."

"This thing feels like it's filled with rocks!" McKay groaned. He removed the pack. "Okay, screw it. I've got to find something to leave behind. No way I'm carrying this thing through a swamp."

"Suit yourself," said Sheppard, shrugging his shoulders. "Wimp."

Rodney set the pack down and started digging through it, oblivious to Sheppard's growing smile and the knowing smirk spreading across Ronan's face. His hand emerged from the pack holding a large rock. "You didn't. You – oh, come on!" He pulled out another rock, and another, until he had a good forty pounds worth of stone piled on the floor.

Ronon sat on a bench in the corner, leaning back and watching with amusement as they packed and strapped and fiddled. He'd entered the armory wearing everything he needed, namely one gun and probably something approaching a couple dozen knives. Letting Ronon out on a mission was something akin to unleashing an amiable caged tiger.

He needed none of the preparation they so carefully engaged in, and made no attempt to hide his good-humored amusement at all the gadgets they required to do even the most basic of activities. He simply waited to prowl out at their side dressed in whatever clothing he happened to be wearing at the time, confident in his ability to meet any needs that might arise unencumbered by vests and packs full of every imaginable piece of survival gear.

Teyla double-checked the gun in her holster and looked at each member of the team, checking their gear and their demeanor much as Sheppard had done. She never stepped on Sheppard's toes, but the leader in her never quite slept. Her eyes landed on Sheppard last, her eyes calmly searching his face and his bearing. She must have been satisfied with what she saw, because her own expression softened as she stepped forward. "I believe we are ready, sir."

He loved seeing his team geared up and ready, their faces at once excited and apprehensive, the last minute ritual of sharing glances around the room. Everyone okay? Got all your gear on right? Ready to do this? Also implicit in those glances was something far deeper. If we don't come back – no regrets. There was always deep caring, even love, in those unvoiced moments.

Today, though, there was something more in those glances when they were directed at him. Suppressed heartbreak, four people trying as hard as they could to remind themselves this wasn't goodbye. I don't want to lose you again. He could read the thoughts, and the pain behind them, as easily as he could breathe.

For a brief moment, he was deeply touched. In the next second, he was slapping himself internally for being a self-centered snot. These people, his people, were still suffering the grief and trauma of his death. The fact that he'd managed to come back didn't erase what they'd gone through watching him die, or the guilt and heartbreak that had come after.

It was a subdued moment, five friends standing in a tight, protective circle. He didn't even want to think about what it would have done to him if it had been one of the others in his place. If anyone so much as thinks about harming any of you guys, I'll kill them. He usually tried not to think too hard about what could happen on missions, but right now, it was unavoidable.

"Look," he said softly. "I think we all love this too much not to do it. We're risking a lot – it's so much harder to think about losing a friend than it is to put your own life on the line. But sometimes knowing the risk just makes it more special. This – this is very special to me." He didn't realize his eyes had fallen to the ground until he felt Teyla and Ronon each place a hand on one of his shoulders.

He cleared his throat and continued. "We all know that what we have right now will end sometime – probably – not peacefully. And it hurts like hell to be the one to survive. But I think we all decided a long time ago to risk that along with our own lives."

Forget all the details. He loved his team. He closed his eyes for a moment so that the others couldn't see the emotion in them, and waved them forward towards the gate room.

Sheppard was grinning by the time they reached the gate room. McKay pointed at him. "What – what's the matter with him? Why does he look like all his wildest fantasies just came true, when we're going on a trip to harvest bacteria from a swamp planet?"

"Maybe he likes swamps," said Beckett, smiling.

Sheppard double-checked his holster and looked at his friends. Real, live, in the flesh. "Well – ah – actually, this is –" he broke off and looked down.

"Your fantasy?" offered Teyla, her voice affectionate.

Sheppard could feel himself blushing as he nodded. "When I was – away, I could make up whatever I wanted." He stopped again, giving them a hesitant glance. Nobody was mocking him. "Kept finding myself back here." He couldn't meet their eyes. "With –"

He turned his back to them and stared into the event horizon. Come on, Sheppard. Buck up. Say it. "- you guys." His voice came out all funny, and he cleared his throat.

Teyla appeared at his side. "I think I can speak for everyone, Colonel. Walking through this gate with you, alive and well, has been our dream ever since you died. This is a special time for all of us."

Sheppard bit his lower lip, embarrassed and happy and being way too obvious about it for his liking. "Come on, kids. We got ourselves a swamp to explore. Everyone stay away from quicksand and alligators."

They all walked through the gate, and Sheppard paused for a split second, mid-stride, to touch the event horizon. Heaven. I'm in heaven.

Well, we've reached the end…I hope you enjoyed it. This was my first SGA fic, and turned out to be a way for me to find my footing when it comes to writing Atlantis and its characters. It started out a bit rough, and if you've followed it from the beginning when I first started posting chapters, you might want to give some of the earlier ones a bit of a re-read. I've fleshed them out and corrected several mistakes and plot holes; feedback is what drives me to write, which can sometimes lead me to post too quickly rather than hang onto a chapter or a story concept until it's really ready. One of those things I need to work on - sigh.

If you liked this, I recently posted a short John Sheppard background story called Flight Patterns that you might enjoy checking out, and No Easy Way, a "missing scene" between Sheppard and Todd the wraith. I'm working on my second longer fic, which is the story of Sheppard teaching Rodney how to shoot…and both characters learning to trust and like each other along the way. I'm trying to hold off posting chapters for a bit while I get the story developed and put together, though.