Chapter 21

Colonel Sheppard mentally crossed off M7N-332 from his list of planets to search. His team had spent the better part of the day walking to the isolated settlement only to have the locals assure him they'd had no visitors of his description. The long walk left his team tired and frustrated at the lack of results and McKay's constant complaining about his fragile feet was only adding to Sheppard's brooding mood.

Once they reached the gate John decided they'd return to Atlantis, get a hot meal then continue on to their next destination, M33-P4R, in the jumper. According to the ancient database, this planet consisted of several communities living in huge caves in the face of a mountainside some distance from the gate. Sheppard thought it sounded like an ideal hiding place for anyone running from the law.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat, John met with Elizabeth giving her an update on the morning's activities and mapping out a more detailed explanation for their next search. Seeing as it would probably take quite a bit of time to search the next planet if the housing arrangements were even close to the description in the database, John estimated it would be late night before they returned and most likely out of radio range once they entered the caves. It was agreed they'd radio in or return by 2300 hours. It'd been a long day already and Weir didn't want them pushing it.

Serra and Tamara chatted with their guests over the meal they'd prepared, grateful to hear the missing details of what had happened to Jennifer and Lorne and the events leading up to their reunion. It was an amazing story and gave Serra a better perspective on the causes of her patient's slow recovery. Jen drifted in and out of sleep only catching bits and pieces of the conversation. She was having a hard time following much of what they talked about opting to spend her time napping.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Serra said goodbye to the men and roused Jennifer long enough to hug her firmly and invite her to return as soon as she was healed. The healer promised to make room in her kitchen for Jen to help with the harvest preparations.

Jennifer clung to her friend for a few long moments thanking her and Tamara for all they'd done, promising to return if she ever found the opportunity.

Lorne walked Serra back to her house reiterating the plan to have Rodney return to her settlement in one or two days to fix the DHD. He also had her make out a list of supplies that'd be helpful until their traders could once again procure provisions they'd need to get the village through the winter months. Lorne laughed seeing the excitement exchanged between the mother and daughter … like two kids in a candy store. He made a mental note to add a box of chocolate bars especially for Serra and her family. On his way back to the cottage Evan's radio suddenly came to life.

"Major Lorne, this is Colonel Caldwell, please respond."

"This is Lorne."

"Major, the Daedalus is in orbit above Krillik and ready to assist," Caldwell said, hoping to pick up the team quickly.

"Sir, can you lock onto Dr. Keller's transmitter and beam her and Dr. Beckett directly to the infirmary? I'd also like to request Lt. Cadman meet Jennifer when she arrives."

"I'll notify the infirmary and have Cadman standing by. Radio when you're ready, Caldwell out."

Dr. Keller was beamed to the Daedalus into the waiting arms of Lt. Laura Cadman. After hugging her soundly, Laura followed as Jennifer was settled into a bed in a curtained off area of the infirmary while Carson met with the head of medicine for the Daedalus, Dr. Westin, to inform him of the situation.

"Hey girlfriend, how are you doing?" Laura softly asked, enjoying the few minutes of solitude with her friend while the infirmary staff readied the scanner.

"Where are we? How did you get here?" she asked, surprised.

"We're on the Daedalus … we diverted to pick up you, Evan and Dr. Beckett. Now we're on our way to Atlantis.

"I don't understand, why are we going to Atlantis … I thought they kicked us out?" Jen asked feeling overwhelmed with confusion.

"Jen, didn't Evan tell you what happened?" Laura asked a bit confused herself.

"I slept most of the day … what's happening?" she urged a bit panicky. "I just want to go home."

"It's okay … it's all okay sweetie, we'll fill you in on all the details as soon you're settled. We're going home … everyone is back on Atlantis and that's where we're heading," Laura assured as she watched the tears slip down Jennifer's face. It was hard to see her friend so distressed instead of the bold, self-assured leader she knew her to be.

"Everything's all mixed up. I don't know what's real anymore. Is everyone back on Atlantis? Are we living with the Ancients?"

"The Ancients are gone. Most of the Atlantis personnel are on board the Daedalus with us … even Marie is here somewhere," Laura explained.

"Is Colonel Sheppard here too?" Jennifer asked, daring to hope.

"No, he's …," Laura started only to be cut off by Marie as she flew into the room.

"Jennifer … I couldn't believe you were on board and had to see for myself," Marie rattled on as the two friends embraced. "I'll be assisting with your care until we get to Atlantis," see beamed.

"I think they're ready for you," Laura announced as Carson entered. "I'll go find Evan and we'll both come back as soon as Carson finishes with your exam," Laura promised giving her hand one final squeeze.

"She's all yours Doc, I'll be back as soon as she's settled," Laura stated moving aside.

"Give us about forty minutes," Carson suggested.

Jennifer's confusion increased with all the activity and her disappointment with John's absence added to her despair. Why couldn't he have been one of the ones to return to Atlantis with everyone else? Why wasn't he with Evan and Carson … did he stay at the SGC? She had so many questions but her body continued to demand rest. She finally gave up on trying to figure things out and drifted into a light sleep as Carson began a battery of tests.

Lorne finished briefing Caldwell and was making his way to the infirmary when he rounded a corner coming face to face with Laura grinning ear to ear. She was certainly a sight for sore eyes, he thought. Evan checked the corridor to be sure it was free of prying eyes before reaching out and claiming Laura's arm, "Your room … now!" he whispered firmly in her ear.

Laura wound her way through the ship with the same determination and urgency as the Major displayed, arriving at her quarters in record time. Unlocking the door she entered the room with Lorne practically tripping over her to get the door shut.

Evan grabbed the Lieutenant pulling her swiftly into his arms with a primal growl, laying claim to what was his. His kiss was full of hunger and need conveying much more than words could express. He'd faced life and death in the weeks since he'd last seen her losing Jennifer in the process … he needed to hold Laura and somehow convey all that was going on in his head. He ran his hands through her hair releasing the bun she'd secured at the nap of her neck. Running his hands back to the sides of her face he drew her in roughly claiming her mouth once again. Having her in his arms released a calming peace he hadn't felt since she'd walked through the gate back on Anora. Releasing her lips he kissed her eyes tenderly then inhaled as their foreheads touched. "I'm sorry … I couldn't wait another minute," he whispered running his hands over her shoulders.

Laura grabbed Evan and swung him around pushing him against the door. She watched the surprise and uncertainty in his eyes as her own eyes filled with tears. With strength she didn't know she possessed Laura pinned his shoulders to the door, "Don't you ever do that again … don't you ever scare me like that, do you hear?" she choked out while tears flowed unabated. Grabbing his face she pulled him down and kissed him fiercely until the fear eased off leaving them desperately clinging to each other.

"So … did you miss me?" he asked using that little boy grin she couldn't resist.

"You're incorrigible," she snapped, punching him playfully in the arm. "We should get back to Jennifer, we can pick this up again when we get home. We have a lot of explaining to do before we get there and I'm sure she'll have some questions."

Evan and Laura sat in the mess hall on the Daedalus grabbing a quick bite to eat. They'd left Jen under Dr. Beckett's watch since he had to take another round of vitals and blood anyway. The Daedalus was about forty-five minutes out and Major Lorne was completely exhausted, mentally and physically.

"You look beat," Laura stated looking across the table analyzing Evan's body language.

"I'm turning cartwheels on the inside," he sighed. "She looked so broken when I found her," he said slowly shaking his head. "I let her down."

"No, you didn't. We'll get her through this," she said, reaching across the table to hold his hand.

"Can you stay on Atlantis with us … maybe bunk with Jennifer, make sure she's okay?"

"Already got it approved, I'll beam down with the three of you," Laura confirmed, squeezing his hand before standing up. "Come on, let's see if she's ready."

As the two entered the infirmary, Beckett motioned for them to follow him into Dr. Westin's office. He nodded at the two empty chairs across from the desk as he proceeded to explain his latest findings.

"Dr. Keller's test results are looking much better than when she was first admitted. We're hydrating her and working to bring her electrolytes into a normal range. My main concern at this time is her emotional state. She's showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress, which is understandable considering all she's been through," Beckett explained.

"My staff has noted she's continuing to withdraw into herself at an alarming rate. Major, I'm reluctant to release her from our infirmary without a solid support system in place to help her transition back into her former life," Westin explained firmly, worry etched on his face.

"What do we need to do?" Lorne asked, determined to see that Jennifer stayed in Atlantis.

"Not only is she showing signs of PTSD but her body is extremely underweight and she is anemic as well. It's a good thing you found her when you did or the consequences could have been much worse," Westin stated, speaking directly to Dr. Beckett.

"I have her on a strong antibiotic to combat a low-grade infection that she's probably been battling for quite some time," Beckett added.

"What do you think that's from?" Laura asked concerned.

"It could be something from the planet where we found her or more likely its from the cuts and beating she took when she was first captured. I'll monitor her progress and administer an alternant treatment if it persists."

"What do we need to do to keep her in Atlantis?" Lorne asked bluntly.

"My main concern is her emotional condition. I understand you are both close to Dr. Keller, is that right?" Dr. Westin asked.

"We're her best friends and have been for several years," Laura was quick to point out.

"We're the closest thing she has to family," Evan added.

"Good. She'll need someone to be with her 24/7 for the first week possibly more than that. Lieutenant, aren't you stationed aboard the Daedalus?" the doctor inquired.

"Yes but I'll check with Colonel Sheppard and see if I can transfer to Atlantis for the next tour."

"Your first objective will be to get Dr. Keller to open up and deal with all that's happened to her in the past few months. Her natural tendency will be to keep her experiences bottled up and that's what concerns me the most. I've seen patients shut down and slowly disappear within their own minds. I don't want this to happen to Jennifer," Westin stated firmly. He'd gotten to know Dr. Keller over the past year and they'd quickly become close colleagues. He was determined to see her make a full recovery.

"We'll do whatever's necessary Doc," Evan promised.

"Dr. Beckett and I will prescribe a course of action and he'll be able to monitor the situation on Atlantis. I'll sign her release papers and you should be able to accompany her back to Atlantis as soon as we dock. Give me a few minutes to write up her discharge orders and then you can help her get dressed Lieutenant," he instructed.

"Thank you Doc," Laura replied gratefully.

"I'm willing to give it a try for a few days while we're docked here in Atlantis. If she shows no signs of improvement by the time we're ready to leave Dr. Beckett and I agree we'll have no choice but to recommend that Dr. Keller return to Earth for more aggressive treatment at the SGC."

Chuck stuck his head in Dr. Weir's office announcing the Daedalus was ready to beam their personnel.

"Have them hold for a few minutes, Colonel Sheppard is due to check in. I'd like him here before they beam into the city," Elizabeth instructed knowing John would want to be here.

She ordered Chuck to dim the lights for the night hoping it would create a more peaceful setting for Jennifer. Dr. Weir began pacing her office mentally urging John to hurry.

"Incoming wormhole," Chuck announced adding to the anticipation. "It's Colonel Sheppard's IDC," he confirmed to Dr. Weir as she approached ordering him to lower the shield.

"Welcome home Colonel, she greeted as the jumper came through the gate. "Please join me as soon as you've parked."

"Be right there," he answered, nodding to her as he moved the jumper to the hanger.

"Come with me Colonel, the Daedalus is beaming down personnel, I think you'll enjoy our new arrivals," Elizabeth smiled, leading the Colonel from the control room to the balcony overlooking the gate room.

"Is that why you've dimmed the lights so early? I thought the Daedalus usually off loaded their cargo and personnel in the mornings when they arrived this late?"

"I'm sure you'll agree there's nothing usual about this voyage. I'll clarify everything at our debriefing in the morning," she explained seeing the questioning look on his face.

As Sheppard joined Weir at the railing a bright light filled the room below depositing four figures from the Daedalus. Elizabeth chanced a sideways glance at her military commander and saw something totally unexpected. John was moved beyond words as his eyes welled with tears. Moving closer and placing her hand on his back she began to explain, "Major Lorne found her today on a planet with a damaged DHD. When he missed his check-in we called and he informed us he'd found her but couldn't get home. Instead of waiting for Rodney I diverted the Daedalus to pick them up."

John turned to Elizabeth and grabbing her hands he whispered a simple thank you, which was all he trusted himself to voice. Turning toward the stairs he quickly followed Elizabeth to the gate room floor and the woman he loved.

Jennifer stood between Evan and Laura crippled with emotion. She had a firm grasp of Lorne's upper arm with both hands not willing to deal with anyone by herself. Ronon, Teyla and McKay entered the gate room on their way to the mess hall and were shocked and overjoyed to see Jennifer standing in the middle of the room.

Teyla noticed immediately how lost and scared she looked and tried to keep well-wishers from crowding around. Thankfully the room was mostly empty at the moment.

"Don't leave me," Jennifer whispered frantically tightening her grip on Evan's arm. She could feel Laura's reassuring hand on her back trying to calm her.

"It's okay Jen, I won't leave you till you're ready," he answered as she leaned in closer letting her hair fall in her face blocking her vision. He saw the fright and flight look in her face knowing she wanted to bolt as she stared at her feet.

Jennifer buried the side of her face in Evan's shoulder as he pulled her in closer. Seeing Teyla, Rodney and Ronon only intensified the sorrow she felt at John's absence. Why hadn't he returned?

Weir and Sheppard crossed the floor with John hesitating a moment to assess the situation. She looks so fragile, he thought. After giving Elizabeth a moment to hug her shoulders, John slowly moved closer to the group.

"Major, I've got her," Sheppard said, reaching out his hand to touch her only to have Lorne turn slightly in a protective move.

"Sir, respectfully, she's not quite ready …" Lorne started only to be interrupted by his commanding officer.

"Evan, I've got her," John insisted firmly. He put his hands on her shoulders gently pulling her away and into his arms holding the side of her face to his chest. Embracing her tightly he leaned down to whisper, "You're home Jen."

"Colonel, please, she's had a difficult time …" Lorne began to explain as he took a step closer before Sheppard once again cut him off.

"Major," John warned, "you need to stand down."

The familiar smell of his aftershave and sound of his voice began to penetrate the walls she'd built around her heart over the past month. His embrace began to feel familiar helping her relax.

John held her still while brushing her hair back from her face slowly lifting her chin with his other hand. His heart broke at the look of uncertainty in her eyes. Her gaze darted around the room, never focusing on any one thing. "Jennifer, look at me," he ordered softly. "Look at me sweetheart," he repeated moving his hands to tip her face up. He continued to look into her eyes until he saw her register his presence. "There's my girl," he smiled choking out the words.

Jennifer threw her arms around his waist burying her head in his chest. The sobs came in waves ripping through her body as she completely surrendered to his care.

Pulling her in closer John held her tightly letting his few quiet tears mingle in the wild abandon of her hair not caring who witnessed the emotional reunion.

Jennifer held on to John for dear life. All those days she thought she'd never see him again came tumbling back to haunt her one more time. Pulling back she looked up running her hand along the side of his face just to be sure he was real. "I missed you," she choked out reaching up to wipe a lone tear from his cheek.

He leaned down to kiss her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks before gently kissing her lips. Both were completely lost in each other's arms and failed to notice the gate room filling with curious onlookers.

"Sir, why don't you take Jennifer to the infirmary so she can check in," Lorne suggested as he placed a hand on Sheppard's forearm while nodding toward the growing crowd.

"Not tonight … please not tonight," she pleaded. "I'll check in tomorrow," she promised.

"I'll leave her in your care tonight, Colonel. Bring her around in the morning…that's soon enough," Beckett allowed.

Everyone watched as John scooped Jennifer up in his arms weaving his way through the maze of colleagues who'd gathered to witness the reunion. Making his way toward the crew quarters he pulled her in closer, marking this down as the day he began to live again.

Laura looked over to see Evan slowly shaking his head back and forth looking rather dumbfounded. "I guess this makes our job easier," she whispered stepping up beside him. She hooked her arm through his gently moving him toward the infirmary and mess hall.

"Huh, I never would've guessed," Evan sighed, mumbling mostly to himself as they walked out of the gate room.

"You're in good company … no one saw that coming," she laughed.

"Just to be sure … he's our mystery man, right?" Evan asked, incredulously.

"Wow, nothing gets by you flyboys," she teased. "Looks like I've been replaced as caregiver … not sure what I'll do with all this extra time I'll have on my hands," she snickered wiggling her eyebrows.

"Did I mention I'm not fully recovered yet?" Lorne growled suggestively.

The End

A/N: A big thank you to everyone who joined me on this roller-coaster ride ... I truly enjoyed all your reviews and input. Your comments have helped to make me a better writer and I sincerely appreciate it.

And a huge thank you to bailey1ak for all your help and encouragement ... there aren't enough words!