A/N: We have reached the end (sniffles).
Epilogue: Once More with Feeling
The jumper eased out of the 'gate into the world Carson had said was called Mysial, swiftly gliding over a green field abruptly giving way to emerald lush forest. The village was in a clearing on the other side at the foot of a small, ancient mountain. Carson had explained that, during a cull, the mountain provided refuge. It was why the Mysialens didn't suffer a severe population drop when the wraith popped in.
Sheppard circled the village with jumper's two and four flanking to let the villagers know they had arrived. People were already stepping out of their homes and a crowd was gathering by the time he landed. He hung back as the bay doors opened for the others to file out, lingering like someone of unimportance for the throng's attention to be glued on everyone else. He finally followed when they started moving toward the village.
His supposed anonymity didn't last long when three kids he almost didn't recognize barreled out from the masses to tackle his legs, the youngest clinging on for dear life with a squeal of delight.
"Mr. Sheppard, Mr. Sheppard, Mr. Sheppard!" Avi shrieked so high pitched Sheppard couldn't help a wince. It was almost like looking at a different little girl This one was dolled up in a white shirt and red-embroidered brown skirt and jacket with her hair combed and gathered in a neat little braid.
"You c-came b-back!" said Lavn, tugging on his arm. The boy was just as clean, also dressed in embroidered browns (green instead of red) with a polished black belt around his trousers and a little dirt smeared on his shirt. The shyly grinning Kilup could have been his twin except for the size and hair color.
Sheppard crouched and gathered all three kids to him in a single embrace.
Pain throbbed in his chest, guilt and shame getting the voice to hiss just how much he did not deserve this. Maybe it was right, maybe it wasn't He didn't care. It was what the kids wanted, what they needed.
John owed them an explanation, but not at the immediate moment. For now he let them have their happiness.
After the little group hug, the three tugged and herded him along to meet the woman taking care of them. She was a small, plump woman with a round face and strawberry blond hair twisted into a bun. She was quite beside herself that the man before her was the same that had been taken from the caves sick and starving.
"You filled out so well, Mr. Sheppard, if you don't mind my saying," she said with a light blush to her plump cheeks.
Sheppard actually appreciated it after all the berating followed by hollow assurances that he no longer resembled a scarecrow. Carson always saying he could stand to gain another pound or two didn't help. Outsider opinions always held much more weight, not having been tainted by familiarity.
After the meeting, while Carson and his med team checked on the other surviving slaves, McKay tried to search out energy readings, Teyla spoke with the leader and Ronon attempted to extricate himself from the fawning of doe-eyed, smitten young women, Sheppard was dragged and herded off once again. The kids introduced him to other kids, showed him their favorite place to play, the pond where they fished and the tree Levn and Kilup liked to climb.
Last, they showed him the graveyard.
"A l-lot of the adults have l-lost f-family," said Levn, "and the p-people here said it was okay f-for us to p-put up markers." They prodded him through the rows of grave markers made from polished gray flag stones with names chiseled into the surface.
John's stomach knotted, his heart pounding and palms slicking with sweat. They brought him to a marker of cream-brown stone striped with quartz and amber, with foreign letters bright white against the soft brown.
"The m-man who m-makes the name-rocks made th-this for our mom," said Levn. He crouched by the stone, tracing his thin fingers over the letters. "We k-kind of hoped sh-she would have been with the r-rest of the s-slaves. Sometimes people g-get separated. There were p-people who found each other after they th-thought they were dead. We thought it m-might be the same with our mom, b-but it wasn't."
Avi crouched on the other side setting the small bouquet of purple flowers she had picked on top.
"It was nice of him to make this," she said. She looked up at John. "Mr. Sheppard, are you all right? Your eyes are all red."
Sheppard quickly wiped away the moisture he hadn't realized had been forming and smiled. "Uh, yeah, I'm fine."
He moved forward, crouching next to Avi. He wanted to reach out and touch the letters like Levn, but the mere thought made the remorse expand until he couldn't breathe.
These kids had every right to know. He owed it to them. Crap, they had to know, even if they hated him for it afterwards.
John inhaled a quaking breath. "I... you guys... there's something you need to know... about what happened to your mom."
The kids looked up at him, innocent and trusting, making John wonder if guilt could kill because it was getting even harder to breathe. Moisture blurred his vision and, again, he was forced to wipe it away.
"It's... my fault." The words tumbled out like releasing a breath he'd been trying to hold. The muscles of his throat tightened turning his voice hoarse. "It's my fault she died. The wraith queen was mad at me. She hurt your mom because she knew it would hurt me."
The kids just stared at him and he wished more than anything that they wouldn't. Kick him, scream at him, hate him: he would have preferred it to their blank expressions.
"Why was she mad at you?" Avi asked.
John rubbed his throat to ease some of the tightness. How the hell was he going to explain this to them? He cleared his throat carefully. "Uh... one of the queen's humans... Um, she, uh... she wanted to do something that I didn't want to do. Something that, uh... that scared me, I guess you could say. I didn't want her to do it and it made her mad, which made the queen mad..."
"B-because you always must do what a f-follower asks," said Levn as though reciting a well-learned mantra.
John nodded. "Yeah. But what she wanted me to do I... I couldn't... I was, uh, being selfish. I didn't want to do what she wanted me to, so I was punished." He swallowed. "Your mom ended up paying the price. And I am so sorry for that. I didn't mean for it to happen I... I knew it might but, but I..." Then he shivered, the world blurring a third time. "I'm sorry. I tried to stop them, tried to take her place but they wouldn't let me. It's my fault she's gone and I am so sorry..."
Avi blinked large eyes at himThen she crawled into his lap to rest her head against his chest.
"The wraith d-do that a l-lot," said Levn, idly twisting a piece of grass in his hand. "It's how our dad died. One of the b-boy worshipers was m-mad at our mom, I don't know why. Then our d-dad was gone. Mom said it was all her f-fault, but I don't think it w-was."
"Wraith like to be mean," said Avi.
"Es-specially their f-followers," added Levn.
John wrapped his arms around Avi and squeezed in a gentle hug. "It's all right to be mad at me if you want."
Avi reached up, touching the side of his face. "I'm not mad at you."
John smiled and chuckled softly, letting the tears slide down his cheeks since rubbing them away wasn't doing squat. "You're not?"
Avi shook her head, as did Levn. "Y-you're a g-good person," he said. "You took c-care of us. N-no one else w-would have."
Kilup simply patted his hand.
John hugged Avi tighter. Out of the mouth of babes. She squirmed and giggled. "You're squishing me, Mr. Sheppard."
When he released her, she took his hand and together they headed back to the village.
"So," Rodney said as they headed out of the jumper into the bay. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" The masking tone of indifference was ruined by the spark of genuine curiosity and concern in McKay's eyes.
The removal of the sling supporting his damaged shoulder had been like the dropping of a white flag starting a race. Or, more appropriately, a countdown to an honest mission that didn't involve duress. John's first real mission (if one would call a day-long house call to check up on the Mysialens a mission) since his return home after Morticia had ditched him.
John had been neither here nor there about it. Everyone else had been walking on pins and needles. For them, it wasn't the mission but the destination: the place where he'd been left to die. For Sheppard, it had been the mission, his reaction, whether or not his eyes would be fore the skies only and whatever might pop out of them.
He hadn't looked up once. It was a personal victory he could pat himself on the back for while everyone else pretended not to be worried.
Sheppard grinned. "Not bad at all." It had been comfortable, actually, like a breath of fresh air. Some would call it a milestone he just called it finally getting back to where he belonged. In fact, thanks to the forced mission that had almost gotten him killed, and because he hadn't "cracked" under the pressure of it, the SGC had found no reason not to return to him his command.
Not just yet, though. Not until Heightmeyer okayed it, which was Kate's surreptitious way of hiding what she really meant - when Sheppard okayed it. There had been a time when John would have jumped right back into command without a backwards glance or second thought. He felt capable of resuming command at any time and at times wanted to. But, frankly, he'd learned the hard way the necessity of taking it slow, and there was still plenty of readjusting to be done. Maybe you really can't go home again, go back to being who you used to be, but Sheppard owed it to the people who looked at him with nothing but trust to at least try. He wasn't perfect. No one was. He could, however, be better than he was right now.
He would earn that trust he saw.
John and his team followed Carson to the infirmary for a quick post-op check, unloaded their vests and weapons at the armory, then gathered outside the door.
"So," Rodney said, clapping his hand together for a vigorous rub. "Where's lunch to be today? The balcony…or the rec room if it's empty…?"
"How about the mess?" John said. It earned him three stares until Rodney shrugged.
"Where ever. I'm starved, let's go."
Walking into the mess felt not unlike walking into the lunch room at a new school. Whenever John had gone in to grab food and leave it had always been either at the earliest hour or late into the meal when the mess wasn't so crowded. They'd entered mid-meal when it was at its most crowded, conversations a single mass drone of sound that vibrated John's ears tickling sensitive nerves extending down his neck. He cleared his throat to get rid of it.
Today's lunch consisted of spaghetti in meat sauce or ham on rye. John grabbed a sandwich. Some adjustments were going to take longer than others and, for all he knew, may never be adjusted to.
They managed to score a table outside just as the group sitting there got up to leave. The drone was more of a gentle hum in the open, carried away by a cool upper wind.
"This, also, isn't so bad, don't you think?" Rodney said with more false nonchalance and poorly concealed tension. All three of his teammates seemed to be making busy work out of unwrapping eating utensils. Even Ronon, who usually just ripped the napkin off, took the time to remove the paper clasp and carefully unwind.
John forced himself to take in his surroundings, namely the people in it. People focused on their food, conversation, some occasionally glancing his way, a few with that gleam of hero-worship in their eyes, others with casual interest because looking at faces was a way of passing the time.
Sheppard averted his gaze beyond the rail to the glowing spires and bright azure sea glittering under the noon-day sun. It wasn't easy, being in crowds. But if he could step out of the safety of a jumper on another world and not bat an eye at it, he could get used to this. At least he wasn't stricken with the desire to pick up and bolt. He would definitely call that progress.
"No," John said, unwrapping his knife and fork, "no, it isn't so bad." Especially since they'd gotten the table that afforded the best view.
This was turning out to be a very good day.
A/N: (Sobs) it's over! (Sobs some more). And thank you everyone who read, reviewed, offered encouragement and all around let me know that this story didn't suck. And extra special thanks to my beta, Drufan, who helped me make sure it didn't suck. I said it before and I'll say it again – this was the toughest story I've ever written, so it does my heart good to know that it was thoroughly enjoyed.
Some of you made mention of research being done for this story. The truth is (cringes) I didn't do any research. At least, not technical research concerning PTSD. My focus was strictly on Sheppard, his reactions, limitations, passions, and how he might handle the aftermath of being tortured and broken (and what it would take to break him and put him back together again). Although doing research might have given me a little extra help, I didn't want technical definitions getting in the way of how I handled Sheppard's psyche. I know from personal experience that the technical definitions of various mental disorders and traumas don't apply to everyone one-hundred percent, and there's a bit of an unconscious habit to go exactly by the definitions rather than let them act as a guide. So I avoided looking up things like PTSD, and focused strictly on Sheppard. So what started out as a desire to write a slave fic turned into one big character study. How I handled a traumatized Sheppard not everyone may agree with, but we all view a character in our own way, and Sheppard's psyche is tough to break.