A/N: And here it is, the last chapter. I think I'm going to cry...
The wagon trundled and rocked over the uneven path that wound through the encompassing, cream, gray, and red striated walls of the canyons. The last echoes of market chatter faded behind her like an ocean wave pulling away. All distant sounds were smothered by the clattering echo of her wagon wheels and the six feet of her lyret padding on the stone path.
Maj's wagon was sparse in the bed concerning goods. Her heart hadn't been in indulging in the items the market had to offer this year. She tried to fool herself into thinking it was because the market wasn't sporting anything worth purchasing, which was difficult to do when she was well aware that she was fooling herself. There had been much to purchase, with plenty to purchase with. Her chimes and other crafts had sold swiftly, and all she had obtained with her earnings and trade was a bag of Fiel's favorite candy, a rope of multi-colored strings she was now using as Ris' collar, and a necklace of metal that reminded her of...
Maj lowered her head, looking down at Ris curled up sleeping in her lap. There had been much prettier necklaces to buy, but that one... She shouldn't have bought it, just like she shouldn't have bought the candy again. She was being a sentimental old fool, holding onto that which was long gone and growing more distant each passing day. But she indulged anyways since she felt herself too old to change, and there was no harm to holding on in small ways.
It just hurt, twice over now that she had twice the reason to hurt.
She allowed for some fooling. Others she didn't. Others she tried to allow, but couldn't. She wanted to believe that John was alive, perhaps rescued by his people, perhaps waiting in a prison to be rescued. She attempted to discover some news about him from the city Enforcer stations. Her answers were always the same – there is no one imprisoned or being held by the name of John Sheppard. Then she was warned with heavy portent that she should really stop looking.
The problem was, Maj tended to be as incorrigible as she had accused John of being.
Maj smiled slightly. It had been so easy to think of John as her son. So easy that despite the heartache, she wished he had been. Except it only made the ache that much sharper. Yet, even with all this accumulation of pain, Maj did not regret her actions. She regretted her failure, but everything else had made the pain worth it. She had tried, and that was what mattered.
You're fooling yourself again, you old fool. Granted, she had wanted him to go stepping through the ring to his own world, not dragged injured, ill and half clothed to be crammed into a prison wagon and more than likely left to die...
Maj's throat tightened, and she swallowed several times until the constriction let off.
Stop it, you old wind bag. It is possible that he lived. It is possible that his people found him. It is possible...
Maj sighed softly. She felt the seat shift, and heard it creak, under Gidel's weight.
" We to camp tonight, aunt Maj?" He asked. " Or is it home with us?"
Maj shrugged. She wasn't quite ready to go home, but she doubted she would come into a shopping frame of mind any time soon. She contemplated visiting another world, perhaps Jystera where Syet and his caravan would be heading to the gate right about now to come to the market. Sometimes traveling the market stalls among friends put her in better spirits to trade.
The canyon walls widened before opening up into the high-grass plains. Traveling was dangerous on the plains road, but the gate was not that far and no word of the wraith had been about in the market, meaning they had not been seen for some time.
The wagon quaked less on the smooth dirt pathway. Maj continued to mull over what they should do next as they traveled. The day waned from afternoon easing toward twilight. The sun inched its way toward the horizon and striped the sky in a rainbow miasma of fiery colors fading to cool violet and deep-sea blue. The ring stood round and black in the distance.
" Syet and his band should be near the ring," Maj said.
Suddenly, Ris' head lifted, and he chirped. The mini-iaret leaped from Maj's lap to go fluttering up over a small rise to the left.
" Ris!" Maj called, already rising before Gidel had time to pull the lyret to a stop.
" Ris, you rotten little pest!" Maj called, climbing from the wagon and trudging up the long incline to the top of the hill through waist high grass. " You know better than to take off on a strange world! I'll have you tied to a stake on a short leash, do you hear me?"
Someone had hear her, someone coming up over the rise, dark against the fading warm colors touching the horizon. Maj jerked to a stop and pulled her rifle around. She didn't aim, just held it at the ready.
" Halt right there, good sir," she called, almost politely. " I'm in no mind to harm but I'm very ready to defend myself."
The figure did stop but seemed to be acting oddly, tilting his head to one side, then jerking it back. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust to see Ris in the figure's arms darting at his face, trying to lick it. Maj, however, had become more fixated on the face.
The hair was a give away, the features only confirmed it.
" And undo all your hard work, Maj?" John said, smiling his lop-sided grin.
Maj's jaw dropped, as did her rifle, and she snapped from her second-long moment of frozen shock to go tearing off through the long grass toward the tall, lanky soldier.
" John!" she cried. John lowered Ris to the ground and straightened just in time to catch the shorter Maj up in a tight embrace. Maj heard him grunt, then make the familiar hiss of pain through his teeth.
" Ribs Maj," he gritted. Maj eased up on her embrace but did not let John go. She didn't want to let him go. She kept her arms around him soaking in his solidity, with her ear pressed to his chest, hearing the muffled thump of his heartbeat. She could feel his ribs, and almost laughed when the thought of him being too thin popped into her head, along with foods that would remedy it.
Then she did laugh, along with sob, trying with everything she had not to crush John in her hug.
" You're alive, you're alive, you're alive..." She couldn't say it enough, just like she couldn't hug him enough. She was actually afraid that if she did release him, then she would wake up and he would be gone. She was actually afraid that she had fooled herself into a state of delirium, except she had had such dreams before, and in them she could not feel as she felt now – the slick material of the long sleeved black shirt, the feel of bone through shirt and skin, and the steady thump of a heartbeat against her ear. There could be no fooling herself with the proof so blatant in her arms.
" I'm alive, Maj," John said. " I'm all right. My people found me."
Maj laughed and sobbed harder. There never had been any fooling herself.
She had to mentally yell at herself to release John so she could look him over and take in the sight of him to go along with his solid presence. He looked well, very well, skinny without looking frail, and color to his face. Maj put her hand to her mouth trying to control the joy that kept making her eyes blur with tears. It took her a moment, a very long moment, to compose herself and force her mind to form words, and her mouth to make them coherent.
" How... how are the... the cuts..."
John stepped back and turned to lift the side of his shirt to show her the largest of the three gashes. The stitches were gone, and the marks were hard with scabbing. " You made it easy for our healer to take care of the rest." John lowered the shirt and smoothed it back into place. He looked at Maj, almost shyly, and it made Maj smile a second time.
No matter his age, he was still just a kid to her old eyes.
" How are you, Maj?" he asked.
Maj chuckled and affectionately placed her hands on the sides of his face. " Miserable only a moment ago. Dumbfounded and ecstatic now. John Sheppard, I don't know whether to whip you for leaving me to wonder like that, or crush the breath out of you for being alive, sore ribs or not."
John took Maj by the wrists, lowered her arms, then maneuvered his hands to have her own hands in his.
" I'm sorry, Maj. I'm so sorry for that."
Maj wanted to weep but not out of joy. She squeezed his hands, and gave him a teary smile. " Why are you sorry? Ioth was attempting to do you in, remember? But you lived, and you figured a way to find me. You have nothing to apologize for. Nothing at all. Never did. So don't, please." She didn't attempt to try and convince him of the fault being hers, of not being more wary of Tarl, of not trying harder to protect John, since John would only argue it. In the long distant view of things, it didn't matter. What mattered was who was standing before her now, and she would leave it at that.
She was weary of sorrow.
John released one of Maj's hands to dig into one of the pocket's of his pants. He pulled out a small, rectangle slip of parchment and held it out for Maj to take.
" I thought it only fair that since I got to see your Fiel, I let you see my mom."
The parchment was a picture, a colored picture to Maj's amazement, of a young woman with long hair as dark as John's wearing a yellow dress with flower printing, sitting beneath a tree with thin branches that hung like vines.
" She's lovely, John," she said, and handed the picture back. He slipped it back into his pocket carefully to keep from bending it.
" That's not all I have to show you," he said.
John's team, plus Beckett, stood in a semi-circle before the hatch of the puddle jumper as John introduced Maj to each of them. Maj greeted Teyla in the Athosian way, and said something to Ronon in Sateda, then giving him her condolences for what had become of his world.
" It is sorely missed," she said, and John was amazed to see Ronon dip his head in an unabashed show of melancholy.
McKay was as polite as he could be with a mini-iaret pawing at his leg, making him nervous. Ris continually kept trying to jump into Rodney's arms, forcing Rodney to take several steps back. John called the iaret off by clicking his fingers, and caught Ris into his own arms when he jumped.
" Just pet the little monster, McKay," he said, shoving Ris into the reluctant physicist's arms. " Give him a little attention and he'll back off."
Everyone had a good chuckle over Rodney's rigid stance and Ris rubbing his head into McKay's chest. Teyla scratched the top of Ris' head.
" He is very soft," she said.
McKay swallowed. " Yeah, soft. Then why don't you take it?"
Teyla smirked. " Because he seems to favor you more."
The introductions moved on to Beckett, who was quick about diving into questions concerning the poultice he had found still clinging to some of John's wounds.
" Quite wonderful stuff," he said. " Made my job a wee bit easier, I'll tell ya now."
Maj actually blushed at that.
Gidel was introduced when he finally managed to bring the wagon up the hill. As John had anticipated, he and Ronon hit it off quite well when Gidel asked him about his weapon, which ended up leading to short, precise, to the point conversations concerning hunting and tracking.
A patch of earth and a fire ring of stones had been set up days ago, along with fold-able chairs and stools. Dried grass was tossed into the pit and lit, and extra chairs brought out from the jumper. John told Maj of trying to seek her out at the market. After three days of looking, he'd finally settled for just waiting by the ring. He had suspected that Ris would find him before he had found them, and wouldn't pass up the opportunity to see his favorite 'pet' human.
After that, the conversations became more casual. Gidel and Ronon were lost in their discussions of tracking, and Maj was plaguing Beckett with just as many questions as he was plaguing her with. Maj was sitting between John and Beckett, and as she talked to the highland doctor, she kept one hand on John's back, occasionally rubbing it. So when John started shivering at the brush of cool night air leaking through his clothes, Maj didn't even break stride in her explanation of how to make certain poultices as she headed to her wagon and pulled out a blanket to drape around John's shoulders.
Rodney, absently stroking Ris curled up in his lap, leaned in toward John. " She's worse with the henning than Carson."
John just shrugged. " I'm not going to complain," and wrapped the colorful woven blanket tighter around himself.
Beckett had been right when he said that John wouldn't be completely mended. He was seventy percent closer to being there, which was better than sixty, John supposed. He felt fine except for some aches, but tired easily. As the night moved on, John found himself drifting, then snapping awake when hit with the sensation of falling before he actually fell.
Again, Maj was all over it. The next time John returned to reality, it was more gradual, and he found himself leaning against Maj with his head on her shoulder and her arm wrapped around him, keeping him upright. Some part of him knew he should have been embarrassed – a grown man being coddled by a small, elderly woman. He wasn't though. In fact, he didn't care.
One did not have to be blood to be family. And John had the feeling that Maj needed this just as much as he did.
It's not often that someone comes along who knows how to piece a broken heart back together – twice.
It was odd, but saying good-bye as good-bye was meant to be said wasn't as hard as John thought it would be. If anything, it was actually happy. A little tearful, mostly on Maj's part, but the right kind of tears. Tears that seemed to shine on the widely beaming face cast in bright gold from the rising sun.
They exchanged gate addresses for worlds where they could meet at certain appointed times, just to ensure that the other was still alive and well. John also gave Maj two other items. One was a photo of him in front of a puddle jumper to give to Kari and Dev. Not that he could take it with him should they ever return to earth on a permanent basis. Second, he gave her his black wrist band.
" I wear this to remember," he said.
" Then won't you need it?"
He shrugged. " I've got another one. In my line of work, it's always good to have a spare of everything."
Maj grinned. " Most wise of you."
In return, Maj gave him two items. One of which John was surprised to see.
Two bladed sticks, not as ornate as the ones used to kill the wraith hound, but similar in length and shape.
" I got these since you've proven them to be so useful, and thought a spare set might not be so bad. But I doubt I'll use either set, and you fare so much better with them."
John smiled and twirled both sticks in his hands. He glanced over at Teyla, who lifted an eyebrow in a silent 'we are not stick fighting with those'.
The second item Maj gave him was wrapped in brown cloth. After the gifts were exchanged, Maj reached up and wrapped her arms around John, giving him a light pat on the back.
" You take care of yourself, John," she said. " And try not to undo all my hard work."
John grinned. " I'll promise to try, but that's all I can do."
She squeezed him a little tighter. " I suppose I'll have to take it then, what with you so intent on saving everyone and all." She then released him, but not before giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, which John did feel embarrassed about. He wasn't ten years old, for crying out loud. Which was rather ironic, since at ten he had thought something along similar lines, complaining that he wasn't six.
Maj released him and started heading toward her wagon with Gidel. John moved the other way with his team to the jumper. He lifted his hand in a wave.
" Bye mom!" he called.
Maj, already in the wagon, pointed a stiff finger at him. " What did I say about getting smart with me?" She waved a hand in mock dismissive irritation, all grins and shaking her head trying not to laugh. That was what John saw on entering the jumper and turning to head to the controls.
On arriving home, it was straight to the infirmary with him for a quick check. He was then herded into the mess hall by his team for more breakfast since Beckett hadn't thought an MRE and a few pieces of fruit sufficient. Elizabeth joined them for an unofficial mission report that had her stifling too many laughs on hearing about Rodney and Ris.
" Not a bad little monster," Rodney said, " once it finally stops trying to crawl all over you."
After breakfast, John went straight to his quarters for a nap. Part out of Beckett's orders, and part because he really was tired.
Maj's second present was sitting, still wrapped, on his bed. John unwrapped it, then searched for a place to put it, settling for one of the branches of the small potted tree in the corner of his room. He then untied and kicked off his boots, and dropped back onto his bed, wriggling his now unconfined toes and folding his hands over his stomach. He sighed out a breath and let himself melt into the mattress that eased the aches from his bones. His eyelids slid closed of their own accord, then his mind slipped away to the quiet music of a white crystal wind chime flashing colors on the walls.
A/N: Thus does it end. Hope you enjoyed. And from all the wonderful reviews received, I can safely assume you did I know I seem to say this a lot, but another extended work may be a long time in coming, though the occasional one-shot or three chapter work may pop up now and then. I need to spend time working on my original piece Black Dragon, which is what's being posted at my LJ page. I'd appreciate feedback for that story if you find it an interesting read – critiques, any spelling or grammar errors you may find, that sort of thing, or just to let me know if you're enjoying it. And yes, this is also a shameless plug for it. But original works tend to get overlooked since most don't know what they're getting into when reading them. Originals by anyone need to be given a chance. If liked, awesome. If not, then that's okay. If you have original works you'd like to plug and have posted somewhere, tell me about them because I'd love to check them out. I'll even help you plug them. I know that by posting original works, whether full works or just tid-bits, it's helped me better my writing, which is why original works need to be supported.
Power to the original works! – Brought to you by the campaign to support writers and poets. Seriously, there really is a campaign started by one 'Cookies-Bleed' in DeviantArt. Too many writers and poets just aren't getting the attention and feedback they need.