Epilogue

Bullet to the shoulder, blood-loss, and the start of infection. Pneumonia, broken ribs, cracked wrist and emaciation. Underweight (though not emaciated) and a nasty cut on the head that spoke of a concussion now clearing up. Broken arm, wrenched shoulder, and mild congestion. All four were exhausted and undernourished but not to a dangerous extent.

It was the way the four had been clinging to each other, huddled and small like lost children and shaking with overwhelming joy that hadn't allowed for a single dry eye, which had broken Carson's heart. Everything that followed after spiked that pain like individual knives being buried in his chest.

All the flinching and cringing and shuddering at the lightest touch or abrupt hand gesture, for Sheppard, Teyla and Rodney mostly. Ronon was too preoccupied watching the others with a look of nervous concern and a tense posture of one ready to jump into action and provide comfort at the slightest whimper.

The cuts that would turn into scars and the ones that already had; whip lashes on Sheppard, Rodney and Teyla – heaviest on Sheppard – and knife scoring on Ronon. And they were all so thin, poor John and Teyla giving Carson the impression that all it would take was a sudden gust of strong wind to carry them away.

It was amazing they had made it at all. Then again, stubborn resolve and Ronon and Rodney wouldn't have given them any other choice.

Ronon needed surgery, about two hours of it. Sheppard heavy antibiotics and a vitamin regime. Though Teyla's concussion was barely existent, Carson sided with caution by waking her every few hours. And it would be a while before Rodney had full use, as well as range of motion, of his arm.

Carson procured the team some decent privacy by setting them up in the remotest sector of the infirmary. He also made it his personal duty to check on them when he could rather than handing it off to a nurse.

Beckett was no psychologist. He understood the workings of the human mind as far as it pertained to any current method of healing. Heightmeyer attempted to explain the mental consequences to look for, but it was all techno-babble with no real certainties. The only certainty was that there would be consequences.

Everything they needed to know Ronon was the one to tell them. Details be damned because "we were captured and sold as slaves" added to the physical evidence of abuse filled in the blanks. Kate, trained to maintain neutrality, warned to be prepared for the possibility that there might not be any kind of recovery, if not for all of them then for some.

Carson couldn't buy it, he just couldn't. Not with this team.

Some days, more than once through out the day, he was content to stand out of sight and just watch them. It began as a never ending need to push on him their presence, take them in down to the smallest movement, and so made him witness to a thing of beauty.

It took Teyla to calm Sheppard or Rodney when they were dreaming. A rub to the back while whispering assurances or humming a song. It was bloody-well amazing considering Sheppard's volatile aversion to touch that almost had Carson restraining him on two occasions. Only Teyla and Rodney had what it took to settle him, mostly Teyla with her being the closest and the most comfortable with it.

When it was Teyla dreaming, then it was Sheppard's turn. If the stubborn bugger was awake enough to hear so much as a sniffle or whimper, he was out of bed using his I.V. pole as a crutch and shuffling on shaking legs, no matter the protests or threats from whoever was taking vitals that hour. And protest and threat was all the nurses could do, too nervous about man-handling that fragile looking body back to bed. Sheppard cooperated when and only when he was certain whoever was suffering had stopped suffering. Carson could never bring himself to berate the poor man, just be close by enough to catch him if he fell. Not surprising though it should have been, he never did fall.

Rodney, bless his ever obnoxious hide, was there when John or Teyla couldn't be. And he never hesitated, nervous as he seemed when giving an awkward back rub or pat to the shoulder. He and Teyla held John's hands giving him something to cling to and ride out the pain of having his lungs drained. Carson could have sworn he caught the flash of a tear as McKay gripped Sheppard's quaking shoulder.

And Ronon, even more of a stubborn bugger than John. It took slipping a mild sedative into his I.V to get him to rest. The man couldn't get it through his sleep-addled brain that there was no longer a need to keep watch.

They took turns, each of them, Rodney and Teyla in the beginning when John and Ronon had been too weak. Not one woke screaming fit to burst a lung. Not one bolted from their bed to go huddle in some corner. There was no thrashing, no increased complications from fighting enemies that were not there.

And every so often, they would smile.

Recovery would be long and difficult, no doubting that. But there would be recovery. Carson believed it with every molecule of his being. There was nothing this lot couldn't accomplish when they were accomplishing it together.

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Three Weeks Later

For the sake of Atlantis' safety, the team had a story to tell, but only to Heightmeyer. Kate managed to coax from them what needed to be known – that the city wasn't compromised – felt the necessary evil premature and let Elizabeth know it one day while sitting in her office.

"Ronon was more open, no surprises there. Rodney was the most difficult. John and Teyla I had to use their sense of responsibility against them. I felt like I was pushing them into a guilt trip. I didn't prod them for details, but needless to say it still left them shaken."

It made Elizabeth feel a little like the bad guy. Kate either sensed the attitude or saw it and called Elizabeth on it.

"Past experience hasn't afforded us many luxuries, time especially. This had to be done eventually. But from here on in I'm taking the sessions slower. Anything else that needs to be known will just have to wait."

Which was more than fair enough.

Elizabeth also felt like an outsider when it came to the team. Conversation with them individually consisted of uncomfortable small talk, and as a group barely any talk at all. Too soon, she knew, making it difficult to approach any of them most of the time, although John or Rodney would approach her; John to ask her how she and the city was, his surreptitious way of resuming his duties without any actual resuming; Rodney ensuring no one was butchering any of the projects he'd left behind. Teyla was spending more time with her people though she always came back at the end of the day. Ronon just wandered as though he'd forgotten how to stay in one place.

The rest of the time they were like ghosts, vanishing off the face of the world, going where no one could find them. Kate assured that this was nothing more than a coping mechanism, but it still made Elizabeth restless. She always wanted to seek them out when they vanished, make sure they were all right, yet felt she didn't have the right to. Even Carson was hesitant about it.

Here the team was, home, and it was easy to forget that. Elizabeth sometimes found herself missing them again as if they were still gone. Even within sight she missed them; missed how they were, missed how it used to be. It was selfish to want life to revert back to the way it had been, because it always involved wanting to forget what caused the change in the first place. It made light of the hell the team had been through, which wasn't fair to them.

So Elizabeth shoved back the desire to always seek them out. When she became too restless to sit still, she would wander to the infirmary in hopes of catching at least a glimpse of them, give them a small greeting in passing if she could and settle for that much at least.

"Think they'll be all right, Carson?" she asked.

Beckett, fussing with replacing items on a metal shelf, shrugged. "I'm not the one to be asking, lass."

"I'm asking for your opinion, not a clinical assessment," she replied.

Carson sighed and set the box of new medications on the counter by the shelf. "John, Teyla and McKay have developed a bit of an aversion to touch, and Ronon gets down right feral if anyone makes one of the team so much as cringe. I think this just one of those situations where it's going to take a bloody long amount of time to get over, and even then there's going to be a residue of the experience affecting them. But they're a strong bunch. I honestly believe it impossible for them not to overcome this."

Elizabeth believed that, had to believe that, even with what she was seeing trying to tell her otherwise. Sheppard, so damn thin it hurt to look at him, taking complicated routes or the long way just to avoid the chance of brushing up against other people. Rodney, always flinching, cringing, if someone so much as raised a hand. Teyla, subdued, having to force herself to make eye-contact. And like Carson said, Ronon could get quite vicious when it came to watching his teams' backs. He almost had Dr. Munce wetting his pants after barking at him for hounding Rodney about the physics department hogging some lab in some sector. While Elizabeth practiced easy restraint in avoiding forced normalcy, many in Atlantis couldn't get it through their heads to issue the same courtesy. Although it didn't help that Rodney had re-immersed himself back into his work.

It all added up to making Elizabeth feel justified in her concern. She never consciously sought them out, but always kept an eye open for them where ever she went.

Which is how she came upon them in the rec-room while she was heading to her quarters. It was the sound of Teyla laughing that had her pause and back-track to lean against the entrance, watching the four watch the Ancient screen. There was no movie, just a video game, a car racing one with Ronon up against Rodney. The four sat side by side on the floor, Ronon and Rodney on the ends with Teyla and John in the middle and blankets over all four laps. Ronon kept trying to run Rodney's car off the road, Rodney outmaneuvered him with a smug "ha!", Sheppard offered pointers and Teyla was all grins over her teammates' antics.

Elizabeth just stared at them, finally getting to see what she had missed for so long, silencing the doubts that wouldn't let her forget the possibility that there might be no recovery for any of them.

Like hell.

Okay, so what she was seeing she wouldn't call a miraculous turn around, where everything had automatically fallen back into place with all else forgotten. It was merely a moment of quiet, one that would be followed by other moments as the four came to realize just how over everything they'd been through was. They would remember safety, trust, contentment and gradually – imperceptibly – begin to shift, refilling the void of their regular lives until everything now was just a memory. It was the way they were. Pushing on, moving on, and making sure they didn't go it alone. In the months they'd been gone, Elizabeth had almost forgotten that. Very foolish of her, really. She'd seen what this team could do. She was seeing it now.

It was more probable that there would be recovery, because Carson was right: they are a strong bunch.

And they were home.

The End

A/N: It's over! (Sniffle, sob, sniffle). And I'm sad that it is. As hard as some of the chapters tried to be, I really enjoyed writing this. I do plan on, one day (when I have it more planned out) writing a tag to this that involves some more healing both mentally and physically, I just haven't decided how to go about it though I have several ideas.

What do you guys think? Should it involve, maybe, a return trip to earth for R and R? (I know it sounds a bit cliché but they're such fun stories to write, and I haven't been able to do many.) Should they stay on Atlantis? Maybe they go hang with the Athosians. I'm open to suggestions.