Epilog: The long way home

Iisaac's knife can cut away
all the poisoned yesterdays
and the anger ease it down
into the ocean let it drown
as far as east is from the west
I let you go I know it's best
and my answer to the years of strife
is the way I choose to live my life

(Over the Rhine: Moth)

The sun was setting above the ruins of the fortress. John blinked up the skies where blood red light and dark clouds mingled, the first stars sparkled in the gaps in between. Despite all that transpired down in the ruins, he was oddly at peace. His eyes went over to the other Wraith, standing beside Tarishaár, both of them talked. John wasn't sure, but they appeared to be two of the same kind, he had had no chance to talk to Carson, to learn more about what had happened to Scottish doctor. But judging by the way Jircanor reacted, Carson had just managed to become Androclus to another lion. It was good Michael was already dead, or John might have teamed up with the other Runner just to finish this creature messing with one of his – probably their – friends.

He saw Tarishaár approach, the Wraith strode up to the place where John was still standing. For a moment both of them regarded the other silently. There was too much that was not said, and more that they might say, but nearly nothing they dared to put into words. "So, this is where we part ways, huh?" John asked, trying to sound casual. He was frightened a little how much he had accepted the presence of the Wraith, or that he might forced to stay with them some more time.

"The gate of this planet is below the fortress," Tarishaár replied. "and when we meet again…"

All bets are off, John's words after escaping Koljya echoed in the unfinished sentence. Only that John knew, that there would never be all bets off again between them. "then we'll remember that we're brothers," he said.

"We will, John Sheppard." The Wraith replied, before he turned, and returned to his troops that were awaiting him.

Ashaviiýr moved from his position, in the shadows near John and walked up to him. He moved into his line of sight, so John could see him, as to not startle his reflexes. John was astonished that the wraith warrior was still here, but then he had gotten to his presence during the last days. "So I take it, you will return to the troops?" he asked, he had never figured out what rank Ashaviiýr actually held.

The Wraith warrior didn't answer at once, he just silently studied John, like he was trying to mark John's picture in his mind. "You sure, you don't need somebody to cover your back, where you are going?" he asked then.

John had to try hard not to drop his chin too obviously. "I am returning to Atlantis, Ashaviiýr, that's not exactly a place where you want to go. And… well there would always be the feeding issue." He couldn't believe he was searching for rational arguments on that case. But the Wraith looked dead serious.

"We Wraith can live some months without food, if necessary, and you have enemies you fight." He observed.

He was more than serious, John could see that. If John said the word, Ashaviiýr would follow him to Atlantis, right into the heart of a bastion of his people's enemies. What had he done to inspire such a loyalty, John wondered. "My people would never allow you to go free." John said.

Ashaviiýr nodded, withdrawing a small item from his belt. "Should you ever need help, call for me." He handed John the small Wraith device before he walked away too.

Turning around John met the eyes of his friends. Ronon's were understanding, and calm. He had been there himself. Jircanor and Carson had been talking among themselves, and John knew that the Doctor wouldn't judge him easily. And Illo was silently waiting in some distance, ready to move on the moment John was ready.

"Time to go home." The word's echoed strangely in his ears. Returning to home… to Atlantis. The though of having a home felt strange after all the time. He started walking, his friends followed, walking left and right of him down to the gate.

***

"Unscheduled off-world activation! Unscheduled off-world activation!" The words interrupted the last preparations for the team preparing to leave for Belkan. General O'Neill scowled, they had a schedule if they wanted to meet their contact. "Chuck, whoever it is, tell him he dialed the wrong number!" he shouted up.

"Sir – we're receiving an IDC!" Chuck's eyes were fixed on the monitors in front of him as he shouted back. "Sir, it's Captain Schmiedeberg!"

Two sides, two options warred in O'Neill. The long term team-leader would not hesitate to open the iris … lower the shield or whatever and let the homecoming survivors back in, the base-commander knew very well that the man in question had been captured, possibly interrogated and most likely given up information regarding the IDC. O'Neill understood in this moment the dilemma Hammond had faced countless times. He weighted the facts he had, Schmiedeberg was quite resourceful and had escaped captivity on his own before, but he was rather inexperienced in regards of off-world enemies. Two response teams were already taking their place, and the departing team provided additional backup. O'Neill stepped back, out of the direct firing zone. "Lower the shield!" He called up to Chuck.

The shield fell and when O'Neill saw multiple persons stepping out of the gate, he assumed for a moment, that his negative assumptions had been right. Until he recognized the people that came walking towards them: in the very middle walked Sheppard, a rugged, longhaired and wilder looking version of the Colonel, right behind Sheppard came Specialist Dex, largely unchanged judging by the pictures in his files, on the other side he saw Captain Schmiedeberg, a little roughed up, but not worse for wear it seemed, and with them were Dr. Beckett and the formerly dying Runner, Jircanor.

O'Neill had to utilize all his self control not to stare dumbfounded, had Hammond felt like this, when SG-1 came back to everyone's surprise, having pulled another minor miracle? "Defense teams, stand down." He ordered, before walking up to the five men. "Welcome home, all of you." He said. "Colonel Sheppard, it's good to have you back, Schmiedeberg – good to see you alive." He allowed himself a half-grin. "and I expect a full report, but no more than 50 pages." He turned to Beckett. "I don't know how you got there, with your Runner patient…"

"That's a very long story, General." Beckett replied. "But to set your fears at ease: Jircanor's tracker was removed, he's no danger for us here."

"Well, that's what I call good news…." O'Neill was interrupted suddenly.

One of the marines on leaving the gateroom passed by Sheppard's back, not intending anything else, but leaving but he startled Sheppard, who came around in one lighting swift move, his hand coming up, hitting precisely the throat of the marine, a kick threw the man across then room. Two more Marines raised their weapons, Ronon fell into battle stance, guarding Sheppard's back. Schmiedeberg stepped between Sheppard and the Marines. "Everyone calm down!" He kept his hands in clear line of sight of everyone. "John, we're on safe grounds."

***

O'Neill reached the infirmary about tow hours later. He noticed at once, that most of the nurses and personnel were tiptoeing around, and second that Beckett was already doing examinations again. He was the only one who seemed largely unperturbed by the three Runners. "Shouldn't you be a patient too, for a change?" O'Neill said jokingly, when the Doctor left his patients, who sat on the infirmary beds and talked among themselves.

"Jennifer handled my examination first, and she's taking care of the Captain." Beckett said. "She startled Jircanor, and didn't really like a knife on her throat. So we decided she takes the patients and I take care of my lions." He chuckled about the private joke.

O'Neill quirked an eyebrow. That sounded like Teal'c in his first some weeks on Earth. "You seem to be unafraid." He observed, Beckett was completely at ease with the three of them and by what had nearly happened up at the gate, O'Neill guessed that they were potentially the three most deadly fighters on the base.

"General, the simple rule is: never startle them. I make sure they hear me, before I come close. They pick up on individual patterns really fast, most of the time they know by my steps it's me and stay relaxed." Beckett put away some items, and looked directly at O'Neill. "I understand many things now, that I observed in Ronon when he first came here. In these last days I have seen some of the world they live in, and I… I can only admire how they managed to stay sane, let alone relatively balanced individuals."

"You care a lot about your 'lions', don't you?" O'Neill asked uncharacteristically serious. He could see that Beckett was close to those three.

"Aye, I do." Beckett's eyes strayed to the three men, who still sat there, talking. "Those lads have lived fighting and running for a long time, General. 'Us against the world' is the attitude. Ordinary people would have cracked under the strain a long time ago. And for my part, I consider them friends. Even as this means going out there with them again, or learning to survive the way they do."

"What are you talking about?" O'Neill asked slightly irritated.

"That's what you try to find out, isn't it, General? Whether they are stable, whether they can be trusted? Whether John will be able to take up his old post again." Carson replied.

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "For the record, Doctor: I don't leave people out there, and I sure as hell won't kick them out. Sheppard will need time to recover, to get out of the woods again, but he'll manage. He is a strong man. Specialist Dex won't have changed much from what he was when he first came here. And Jircanor… we'll see about him." O'Neill shook his head. He wasn't one of the bean counters in the Pentagon and said bean counters were far away – luckily. "What about Schmiedeberg?" He asked, getting their conversation back to the point.

"He is relatively well, disregarding some bruises and scratches." Keller replied. She had come over only just now. "he has been patched up by exotic means that much is for sure too. Otherwise he is fine not exactly forthcoming with information, especially about this scar at his throat…"

"Jennifer, that's a sensitive topic, perhaps you should be careful to broach the subject." Carson interjected. "Our psychologist should take care of that."

"Oh, if you already know more…"Keller was clearly a little put off.

"I heard John talking to Illo about it, after he was done with the chair, and we were waiting for the Wraith to report back, if he had succeeded." Carson said. "John was very, very careful about the topic, more careful than I'd expect with a direct man like him. And from what I could gather, he had all reason to be so."

O'Neill picked up on Carson's tone easily. "Interrogated?" he asked in lower tones. He had been there himself, more times than he cared to count. The goa'uld held the record there, but they had not been the only ones.

Carson nodded but did not say a thing before Jennifer had left. "General, I would usually not go any further, but I am also aware that as their commanding officer you are entitled to certain information."

O'Neill again saw that Beckett worried about one of his patients. "Beckett, I have been there myself, I know what it is. If he broke, talked, was coerced into collaboration… well it has happened to others before, and I won't believe him weak for it."

"He didn't break, he tried to take his own life, before he could reach that point." Carson glanced over to them again. "It will long way out of the woods for them, all of them."

O'Neill silently agreed.

***

John had to try very hard to not fling McKay across the room, when the scientist hugged him suddenly. It was the next noon, and he still felt like a stranger in the city he knew so well. McKay had jumped at him, when he had come to the mess hall to find some food. Only the voice, constantly talking like always, warned him. Still, it took all effort he could muster to not react harsh, but just hug McKay back. Teyla came right behind Rodney, smiling brightly at him. "Welcome home, John. We have missed you."

John smiled back, he was glad to see them again, but it still felt unreal. Like he was walking in a dream. "How's little Torren John?" he asked after a moment of silence, unsure what he could say else.

"He is fine," Teyla smiled. "and ever since he met 'Uncle Jack' he insists on having a dog." She opened her arms and after waiting just long enough, so John would get her intentions, she hugged him too. "you are back." She repeated again. "I feared we might have lost you forever." John hugged he back, holding her close. He didn't know what to say at her happiness, her words. So he just held her, wordlessly. And for the first time he realized that he truly had come home.

Ronon had left John to Teyla and McKay's care, as far as care would be needed, while he himself made his way down to the west pier, where the Athosian quarters where. It took him some asking, politely as possible, before he was pointed to a youth, about sixteen years old. "Athalwyn?" he asked, when he reached the young man.

The young one looked up. "Yes. Can I help you somehow? If this is about Rodney's banto sticks, he found them again…"

Ronon wondered what Rodney wanted with Banto sticks, but perhaps the whinny scientist had grown a little, without John and Ronon to look out for him. "No, I came here because of something else. During my time as a captive, I met a young man by the name of Bane." He said. "And he told me that a friend of mine, Avila survived the culling of Sateda and is still out there. He also claimed my son would be with him and pointed me to you, should I want to find them."

Athalwyn went some steps, towards one of the windows of the corridor. "It is true. Avila escaped Sateda, bringing with him a group of children and youngsters. Among them a boy named Avila Dex." Athalwyn replied. "He raised him among the Satedan Blades, and he earned his battle name when he fourteen."

"Fourteen? He earned his battle name so young?" Ronon couldn't help it, his voice was proud. The boy must be one hell of a fighter to take down his first Wraith group alone so young. "Can you pass a message along, that I'd like to meet him. And my friend Avila too." Perhaps there was something else among the survivors of Sateda then just traitors and opportunists.

Athalwyn looked uncomfortable. "You.. you were the one who killed Kell, so you'd know about him," he avoided looking at Ronon. "Avila Dex scratched that part off his name, when he heard, he took his battle name as a true second name instead."

Ronon nodded, he could clearly see that this boy was not Satedan himself, but had lived among them for a time. "He did right. Kell was a traitor. So what's the problem about it?"

Athalwyn took a deep breath. "Ronon,… Avila's battle name… it is…" he shook his head. "His full name these days is Avila Bane Dex."

"Captain, when I said a full report, I didn't mean something of a length that eve the IOA would never finish reading it." O'Neill had both report files open on his screen, but let the man standing in front of his desk, not see it.

"I am sorry, Sir. That actually is the IOA version. As the IOA insisted on sending a non-American officer here, they saw it fit to ask for detailed reports." His eyes were straight on the wall, he mien impassive. "and I saw it fit, to forward it to you previously."

"Well then, I won't deprive them of a good long read." O'Neill suppressed a grin. The man was used to quite a lot of political oversight, that much was clear. "There is another issue I have to discuss with you."

"Of course, Sir."

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "Sit down, this could take a while." Schmiedeberg followed the invitation and sat down. O'Neill waited a moment before he went on. "With Sheppard and Lorne we have most of our old command staff back here."

Schmiedeberg nodded an affirmative. "When do I ship back to Earth?" He inquired. "Daedalus should be back in two months."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." O'Neill leaned his elbows on the desk. "You did good on your time here. Not always by the book, but good and I'd like to keep you on the team. Hell, Caldwell thinks the world of you and has a dozen or so people up in arms to keep you in Sheppard's position." The last was true but a bait.

Schmiedeberg leaned back, his shoulders flexing slightly. "How badly to I have to take him down, when he arrives here, for a demotion and shipping back to Earth?" he asked, without any humor in his voice.

"The hell you will," O'Neill could well imagine Schmiedeberg might go through on the suggestion. "and you won't get yourself demoted or dishonorably discharged for beating up Caldwell, is that clear?!"

"Crystal, Sir."

"Quite the contrary, I had a lengthy discussion with General von Aue, and he agrees with me, that it is time to make your promotion, the one that has been under wraps for some time now, official." O'Neill had gotten Landry to arrange the conference call and then route it through the gate, during the last contact twenty four hours ago.

"Sir, this promotion was never official because…"

"Because all of what happened on that road from Maywand and Kandahar had never happened, because neither we nor you can ever admit openly, who it was you caught that day and turned over to us." O'Neill was very well aware that this last fact had to stay under wraps for the rest of their natural lives, along with all the other things that had transpired that day. "But in the light that you were crucial to the rescue of one of our men, out of enemy hands and the fact that the mission to Belgrad is no longer top secret – Congratulations, Major and welcome to the SGC."

Night had fallen over Atlantis again, but O'Neill had no eyes for the spectacular view, albeit he was walking on one of the galleries above the pier. "Have you thought about what you will do, now that you can stop running?" he asked the man, who was standing there, staring out into the night.

Jircanor turned around, leaning against the railing. "As a matter of fact, I have. Out there the war with the Wraith is still raging, it never ended for ten thousand years, and I'll go and join the fighting."

"You are aware, that this isn't much of a plan?" O'Neill asked.

"General, I am aware, that you don't think much of the resistance this galaxy can mount these days, but it is all there is and even as the war with the Wraith can't be won in our generation, we still can make a good dent into their ranks."

O'Neill leaned against the railing too, tempted to sit on it. "You know about ten years ago, we ran into this race, nasty snakes living in people's heads, pretending to be gods. During one of those first encounters I ran into that guy, First Prime of Apophis, leader of his armies and so forth… he had his doubts about the whole god-thing and the moment he saw we were well up to fighting them, he switched sides and joined us. Years later I learned that deep down in his heart he never believed that the Goa'uld could be defeated, but that didn't stop him to try, to fight as hard as he could."

"And?" Jircanor asked. "were they defeated?"

O'Neill grinned, "We kicked their asses, kicked them royally. Lost some battles too, had some close calls, but in the end we won out. And now we are here, head to head with this species our ancestors created by accident. The question is – do you have the same courage? Not just to fight alongside whatever rag-tag troop you can find, but to go and take some more responsibility?" O'Neill met the eyes of the former Runner calmly and he saw that he had not miscalculated.

"What do you have in mind?" Jircanor asked.

"There are two things we are lacking sorely: Ancient equipment and Intel." O'Neill explained. "Yes, we have good contacts, but the moment we need to snoop around for information, to go unseen to some place, we are way out of our depth. I remember it well myself: we come walking into a village and all the natives know that some weird strangers have arrived. You on the other hand can probably walk among them, and they'll believe you to be a traveler." He stopped for a moment, then went on. "And there are more like you, out there. I want you to built up a network, a network of people that gather intel for us, that can support us when trouble erupts, that can retrieve things we can not reach without causing a major ruckus."

"You are thinking of creating a kind of native auxiliaries." Jircanor summed it up. "acting in the shadows."

"In a way." O'Neill thought about his next words for a moment. "When we went against the Goa'uld we had intel, not always solid, but Teal'c knew a lot about them, he had the military mindset that he knew what facts were important for us. And that intel is what we are lacking here. And if you and your people happen to come across some ancient remains, like a ZPM or so…"

"I guess you need more to power the city, it is under constraint." Jircanor observed.

"It needs three ZPM's to power the city." O'Neill replied. "We have one."

"Six, you need six to power the full defenses and the start drive." Jircanor said. "and it only works with someone really good in the chair to take control. If you need ZPM's why don't you clear out one of the Ancient supply depots? They had set them up in many places in case their ships were in dire need."

"You see – that's the kind of intel I mean." O'Neill said. "You know some of those depots, I take it?"

Jircanor's smile was odd. "Strictly speaking, I don't. But Jhandyr did, and thus I remember." He turned to O'Neill. "Would it be possible for Carson to remove trackers from some more people?"

"You mean to recruit some more Runners for the network?" O'Neill inquired. "If Beckett could take care of your tracker, then I guess he'll be able to do this for others too."

"Then, General, you have your network, your warriors of the shadow." A firm handshake sealed the new alliance.

The night was late and Atlantis had fallen silent. John Sheppard stood high up on one of the spires and watched the dawn rise slowly over the waters. General O'Neill had told him that he expected him to take up his duty soon. It still seemed odd that he was here again, without the Wraith chasing after him. And it seemed equally weird that he had been away for more than one year. It felt like he had left only yesterday, but the same moment the city felt so foreign, like he had never known her before.

Steps made him turn around, Ronon and Teyla walked up to him, Major Lorne was with them. The friends who had never given up on him, no matter what. Rodney came shortly behind them, having heroically managed to stay up until now, he definitely whined less than he once had. Still John's eyes were searching for three other people and he found them, Illo, Jircanor and Carson came silently up the stairs, joining them on the gallery. With all of them around him, John knew more than ever that he was home, he had arrived at the end of the long journey. He knew their home would need defending, he knew they still were in a galaxy full of unknown dangers, and that there were far more dangers than only the Wraith he had learned during his short stint in the dark space. None of them spoke, they all knew that the times ahead of them would be dangerous, who could say what the future held in store for them?

"Whatever it is, we'll face it together." John wasn't aware that he spoken aloud, until Teyla laid a hand on his shoulder. "Together." She said. Ronon nodded, "Together" he echoed. Rodney blinked. "Of course… together." He said. Lorne and Illo joined in, as did Carson and Jircanor.

A feeling like he had suddenly broken his chains and grown wings, woke inside John. He felt stronger and more confident than he had in a very long time. No matter what would come, they'd stand together, they'd face it together.

Far on the eastern skies, over the crashing waves rose a new day.

Stay near to me as I stay near to you

As near as you are dear to me will do.

Near as the rainbow to the rain,

The west wind to the windowpane,

As fire to the hearth, as dawn to dew.

Stay true to me and I'll stay true to you

As true as you are new to me will do.

New as the rainbow in the spray,

Utterly new in every way.

New in the way that what you say is true.

Stay near to me, stay true to me, I'll stay,

As near as true to you as heart could pray.

Heart never hoped that you could be,

Half of the things you are to me –

The dawn, the fire, the rainbow and the day.

(James Fenton: Hinterhof)