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Unscathed

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Chapter 1

 

It wasn't as if he hadn't been through this whole routine before. He estimated he'd endured hundreds of post-mission checkups in his five years serving on Atlantis, but today, right now, he really couldn't handle this one.

He supposed it could be because, unlike normal check-ups, this one was the cherry on the cake following an abduction. Then again, it might have had something to do with the way Ronon and Teyla were watching proceedings, tense and brooding, their sense of guilt hanging thick in the air. Or it could even have been the almost constant nervous chattering of McKay at Doctor Keller's shoulder as she took note of his vitals while doing her best to concentrate on the task at hand.

It could have been, but he didn't think so.

It wasn't them - it was him.

Something felt...off.

Sheppard reclined on his allotted infirmary bed, gritted his teeth, and did his best to let the attention and the claustrophobic sensation of the dusky blue walls pressing in wash over him. He answered whatever questions weren't rhetorical, dodged those he could avoid without arousing any concern, and followed Dr Keller's instructions to the letter. Normally he might mess around a little, exchange banter with the ever-paranoid and almost constantly mortally wounded McKay, but today he wasn't in the mood for any of that. Today he wanted this over with as soon as possible so he could get cleaned up and fill his stomach with a proper meal...or yesterday's leftovers - hell, he didn't care, just so long as it was edible and there was lots of it.

Maybe that was all he needed. Food...and a couple of Buds.

Hopefully that would fill the empty feeling gnawing away at his insides.

As Keller did her best to field Rodney's quick-fire questions, plus his whining about a bruise he'd managed to acquire on his elbow during the rescue, Sheppard wearily slid his gaze towards Ronon and Teyla still standing sentinel at the foot of his bed. Brows puckered, expressions grim, they both looked back at him in worried silence. He supposed he should say something pithy, toss them a casual one-liner to put them at ease, but he just couldn't muster the enthusiasm for any kind of witty exchange. Which wasn't like him. He gave them a quick smile - the longest he could hold - and hoped it would suffice to satisfy their apparent need for reassurance. He'd give them more once he'd rested...and eaten.

Rather than continue to look their way he turned to face the monitor to his left recording his vitals in real-time, second-by-second updates. Figures constantly changed, digital graphs fluctuated and none of it meant that much to him. Sure, he understood the basics, but he'd never had time to learn what the actual data meant. He hoped none of it was giving away the inner turmoil he felt even now that he was back in familiar territory. That wouldn't help his campaign to get out of here sooner rather than later.


Absently scratching at his arms, Sheppard mused about how much he needed to shower and pull on some normal clothes again. He'd been forced into an outfit with the texture and odour of a hessian sack at some point during his abduction, and now the coarse fibres chafed his skin to the point of distraction. He felt like a junkyard dog riddled with fleas. Not surprising if he'd been wearing them for the past six weeks, he supposed...not that he could remember much about it. In fact, the only reason he knew he'd been gone that long was because Rodney insisted on repeating the fact whenever he expressed his disbelief at his remarkably unscathed condition. So far he'd done that at least a dozen times...and counting.


'Well, Colonel. I can honestly say you're in relatively good shape considering how long you were gone,' Dr Keller said with more than a hint of pleasant surprise. 'Just like you said, your scans show no physical injuries, your blood work is clear and your vitals are all within expected parameters.'


'It doesn't make sense,' Rodney protested, questioning her judgement. 'He was held captive for six weeks by those people and you're saying he doesn't have a scratch on him?'


Sheppard was pretty sure he was covered in scratches as he clawed at a hard to reach spot between his shoulder blades.


'That's right, Rodney,' Keller replied loudly, shooting him a warning look. 'And I for one am very happy to say he has an almost clean bill of health.'


'Almost?' Teyla asked, the concern in her expression now apparent in her question too.

'Well, he's mildly dehydrated, plus he's lost some weight and some muscle mass, but it's nothing we can't fix,' Keller was quick to reassure her. 'Everything else is exactly as it should be.'

 

'Which makes no sense,' McKay insisted. 'The Traveller faction that took him supposedly kills people for the sheer fun of it.' He turned his attention to Sheppard directly now. 'So, why are you still alive...and unharmed?'


Before Sheppard could even respond, McKay found himself on the sharp end of his girlfriend's tongue. 'Rodney! Why can't you just be happy the colonel is back home and safe?' she said, glowering at him as she adjusted the feed into Sheppard's saline drip.


'Well, of course I'm happy,' McKay replied, rolling his eyes. 'I'm just saying...it doesn't make sense.'


'You said that already,' Ronon grunted, folding his arms and giving him a steely glare that Sheppard figured even Rodney had to understand meant he should shut up. 'Twice.'
Apparently he didn't.


'Well it merits saying again,' Rodney insisted. 'Everyone we asked for help told us he'd be dead before we found him and yet here he is...good as new. There has to be a reason.'


'Dr Keller is right. We should celebrate John's good fortune rather than question it...again,' Teyla prompted, with more than a hint of impatience as she, too, tried to fry him with the heat of her glare.


Rodney, typically, rolled his eyes. 'I already said I'm happy. Do I have to keep saying it?'


'It would be preferable,' Teyla purred, in that soft yet threatening manner she adopted whenever her buttons had been adequately pushed.


Not wishing to suffer through any more of this debate, Sheppard took the opportunity to request his discharge. 'So, I can go?' he asked Keller, giving her his best puppy-dog eyes just to ensure she agreed.


'Whoa! Hold your horses there, Colonel,' Keller replied, patting the air. 'I said you're physically unharmed, but like I said you've lost weight and you're dehydrated. The scans also showed you haven't eaten or drunk anything recently. I want you in for twelve hours observation at least while I get you fed and watered and make sure it stays where we need it to be.'


'Twelve hours!' he groaned, falling back against his pillows.


'You've been imprisoned for six weeks - what's another twelve hours in the grand scheme of things?' Rodney chirped, rocking back on his heels as if that comment should somehow cheer him up.


Keller gaped open-mouthed at her far-from-better half as if she couldn't quite believe how tactless he could be. No one else looked surprised at all. 'Okay, Colonel,' she relented, as if spurred on by Rodney's tactlessness. 'Make it six hours, and that's my final decision. You manage to eat and drink and keep it down during that time, and you're a free man...as long as you agree to come back twice daily for checkups until I'm satisfied you're fully recovered.'


Six hours? He wasn't happy about it, but it was doable. 'Deal,' he agreed, before she could change her mind.


'Okay, people. As much as I know you're glad to have him back the colonel needs some rest. You can see him later once he's discharged.'


She gestured toward the door and without argument, his team began filing away, Teyla pausing long enough to ask, 'Will you be joining us in the mess hall for your evening meal later, John...if you are able?'


Though he didn't really relish dealing with the barrage of questions they no doubt had for him he knew accepting would please her. So with a quick, 'Sure,' he settled back on the bed and tried his best to relax...and not scratch until he bled.


Marie arrived with a fresh set of scrubs as soon as his friends had departed. He wasn't about to turn them down if it meant getting out of his stinking prison garb.


'So, six weeks...' Keller said, as he hopped off the bed and tried hard to cover the wobble his weak legs couldn't prevent. 'What did you do all that time?'


He pulled the scrubs to his side of the bed and shrugged, 'Not much.'


'Not much?' she half-laughed, looking puzzled. 'They held you for six weeks and didn't do anything?'


Realising how crazy that sounded, all he could do was shrug again. 'What can I say...I guess they lack imagination.'


She smirked, giving him a knowing look. 'I get it. You can't say anything until the debriefing.'


He offered her a smile in return but didn't answer. The truth was, he couldn't remember much of anything about his time with the rogue Traveller faction, which meant that when it happened it would be one of the briefest debriefings ever.


'I'll leave you to get changed. I take it you have no objections if I have those clothes incinerated?'


'Be my guest,' he told her as she drew the curtain around his bed to give him some privacy. He stared down at the soft clean scrubs a while, rubbing the fabric in his fingers. All he really wanted was his own clothes, but these would do for now. When it came to ridding himself of his current garb he was grateful for any small mercies.

oooOOOooo

It was the utter cold and callous disregard with which the man viewed him through the bars of his cell that Richard Woolsey found most disturbing. This Tareb struck him instantly as the type of man who could cut your throat and watch you die as easily as others could watch a round of golf on TV...and with less than half of the emotional investment.


He squared up to the man and set his jaw, trying his utmost to look no-nonsense and unfazed. 'I understand you were the one responsible for taking my military commander prisoner for the past six weeks.'


Tareb eyed him with something now resembling mild amusement, a faint smile made all the more menacing by the dim light and contorting shadows of the brig. He made an obvious show of looking Richard over from his boots to the top of his lightly perspiring head before fixing on his eyes. 'Military commander? Not much good if he's taken prisoner so easily.'


Woolsey noted with a slightly creeped-out feeling that the man had the palest grey eyes he'd ever seen. It was as if they looked right inside him, stripping away his veneer of calm and revelling in the discomfort hiding beneath. 'My understanding is that eight of you ambushed him. The odds were somewhat stacked against him, wouldn't you say?' Woolsey countered, rising to Sheppard's defence. 'What did you want from him?'


The man shrugged with an irritating air of nonchalance. 'The pleasure of his company.'

The comment was followed by a feral grin, one that challenged Woolsey to question him on the reply.


'Somehow, I doubt that,' Richard responded, keeping his tone non-confrontational even if his words were more challenging.


Tareb remained unmoved. 'Then why don't you ask him?'


And in that one question Tareb had highlighted Woolsey's main problem with the whole incident. Colonel Sheppard appeared to have next to no recall of events during his incarceration. He knew he had been held in a cell, that water and food had been restricted so he was kept hungry and thirsty, but other than that, he had no idea how long he'd been there and reported no other mistreatment. And although Dr Keller's report supported that account, something about this man and the resistance Major Lorne and the rescue team had met when boarding his ship, told him this Tareb wasn't the type to simply take a man prisoner and pay for his upkeep with no personal gain to be had.


'He's asking you,' he heard the major say from just behind his left shoulder.


Lorne had been quite insistent on accompanying Woolsey for this initial questioning session, as if he thought Richard himself not impressive enough to convince the man to talk. And perhaps he was right. Men with reputations like Tareb's didn't respond to measured diplomacy. But since that was the only tool at his disposal Woolsey had to hope he somehow nagged or bored the man into cracking. He could already tell there was slim chance of that with what little information they had to go on.


'Two of your people who were injured during the retrieval of Colonel Sheppard are not responding well to treatment. Is there anything you would like us to do for them...anyone we should contact before -'


Tareb rolled his eyes and walked away from the bars, chuckling. 'We don't indulge in sentimentalities. We're fighters. Death is all just a part of life for us.'


'Pretty final part,' Lorne pointed out.


Their prisoner halted in the shadows at the rear of his cell, peering back over his shoulder and regarding them both for a moment. 'You think you understand the true value of life and death?' he asked, his lip curled into a sneer. 'Hiding here in this vast city of the Ancestors with all its protections?'


Richard shifted his position just a little and jutted his jaw again, trying not to show how that comment affected him. He had often lain awake at nights thinking of how easy it was for him to give orders and send good people out into dangerous situations while he remained cosseted in the warm embrace of Atlantis. And while he had faced some challenges himself during his tenure as commander, the risk had been minimal compared to that faced by the teams that ventured through the 'gate.


Tareb tilted his head in a way that reminded Woolsey of a bird of prey eying its next kill. 'We face death every moment of every day. Never knowing when the Wraith will strike at us. Struggling to find food. Living on a ship that threatens to fail at any time...' He broke off there, a grin slowly spreading on his embittered face, light glinting off his exposed teeth from the gloom. 'I don't fear you pampered wretches. And I have nothing to say to you.'


So he turned his back on them and said nothing more.


Woolsey inwardly sighed. He hadn't really expected compliance from the man, but he worried now that getting any information from him was going to be far harder than even he had anticipated. He dipped his head toward the doorway to signal for Lorne to follow him out, stopping just outside the doorway. 'Do you think there's any chance he didn't compromise the colonel in some way, Major?'


'Gut instinct...he's done something. But for the life of me I can't figure out what,' the major admitted, his expression turning pained. 'Colonel Sheppard seems fine...a little off maybe, but he's generally in good health. The thing is...everyone we encountered during the search told us these people were bloodthirsty criminals. Why ambush him if they had no agenda?'


'My feelings exactly,' Woolsey agreed, peering back into the room at their recalcitrant prisoner. 'But what purpose did they have for him?'


'It's a failing Lantean vessel. A strong gene bearer like Sheppard would come in pretty handy, I imagine.'


'And yet they made no attempt to persuade him to help them?' Woolsey shook his head, feeling a frown pucker his brow. 'I'm not convinced.'


'Maybe we should treat this Tareb guy to a bit of the same they gave Sheppard. A few more days in the brig without food and water might persuade him to be a little more honest with us,' Lorne suggested.


Though he knew he should rebuke the man for even suggesting it, Richard couldn't help but huff out a laugh. 'Much as I agree with your sentiments, Major, I'm forced to abide by the requirements of the Geneva Convention.'


'We're a long way from Geneva, Mr Woolsey,' Lorne reminded him. Woolsey knew a flicker of horror must have registered on his face when the major shrugged and added, 'Just saying.'


'I'll bear that in mind,' he said a little more curtly than he'd intended to.


The major gave him a grim smile and headed away. Woolsey watched him go, hoping life in Pegasus never pushed him to the point where such thoughts were commonplace for him too.

oooOOOooo

He didn't know exactly how long he'd been standing there in front of his mirror, face half-shaved, water dripping from his hair and chin, but the steam in his bathroom had almost cleared and the rivulets of cold water trickling down his back were chilled enough to raise goose bumps all over his damp skin.


The debriefing had been...well...brief, just as he'd expected. Richard had looked somewhat nonplussed when Sheppard had reported no mistreatment other than a shortage of food and water, but even that hadn't been used in any way to break him down. The faction, his so-called cut-throat kidnappers, had asked nothing of him. He'd seen very little of them...at least nothing impressive enough to recall. In fact, he'd realised as the meeting went on, he had very little recollection of his time with them at all. And perhaps he should have taken that more seriously, but the lure of a shower and his own clothes had been just too strong to prolong the meeting any further. He'd glossed over the questions Richard raised, insisting he was fine and was ready to resume normal duties as soon as Doctor Keller gave him the all clear. All he'd actually wanted was time alone to get his thoughts in order to see what he could remember. He hadn't meant to mislead anyone...not intentionally. He'd figured he just needed more time.


The shower had been just as good as he'd hoped, relieving the tension in his weak and achy body, washing away the smell of his long incarceration and soothing the irritation from the coarse garments he'd acquired at some point during his time with his abductors...though when that had been he wasn't quite sure. He knew he'd been wearing his uniform when he was taken - he did vaguely remember the ambush that had left him struggling at the bottom of a pile of heavy, stinking, flailing men determined to pin him down as he'd made a last-ditch spurt for the Stargate. And yep, he'd definitely been wearing his uniform then because he distinctly remembered those said stinking men tearing his weapons and TAC-vest away as they'd flipped him over onto his back and stuck him with a syringe full of sedative. But at some point they'd relieved him of it. Another lost memory; another thought sinking like a heavy stone in his stomach, joining the near landslide of dark thoughts weighing heavily inside him.


But only now, as he stood in front of the mirror two strokes into his shave, did it strike him as odd that not only did he not remember losing his clothes, but he also didn't remember shaving while he was a prisoner. Not that that fact in itself was what had him confused since personal hygiene was rarely high on the list of priorities while being held captive by cut-throats. It was more the fact that his face had no more than half a day's worth of stubble growth. He could damn well grow a full beard in two weeks, but here he was staring at a face with nothing more than a five o'clock shadow to show for his six weeks of absence.


It didn't make sense.


Rodney's similar protest repeated in his head, and that feeling of 'offness' he'd had since returning to Atlantis grew, lurking at the periphery of his consciousness with an ominous and overbearing sense of oppression. If he couldn't remember shaving when he clearly had, and quite recently too, what else wasn't he remembering? He'd allowed his relief at rescue to lull him into a false sense of security, choosing to believe his lack of recall was merely because he was exhausted and his stay with his captors had been so uneventful that the days had simply merged into one another. Now he wasn't so sure. The fugue seemed to go far too deep for that to be the case.


Sheppard knew he should tell someone, but every time he thought of mentioning it a knot of nausea tied up his insides, bringing with it a sense of foreboding that made every fibre of his being scream to just leave it alone. He didn't know if he dared shine a flashlight into those particular shadows just yet, afraid of what he might find. It was most likely nothing, just confusion due to lack of food and drink, but he couldn't be sure. He'd been given some water and a sandwich in the infirmary to prove he could keep it down, but that was all, and his stomach was now literally cramping with hunger. The last thing he needed was some shrink misdiagnosing him with PTSD because he was hypoglycaemic. He blinked at his reflection, unable to repress the smirk that thought brought to his face. Rodney's hypochondria was apparently rubbing off on him. It wasn't like he hadn't gone hungry before with no lasting ill effects. He was stronger than that.


It was more likely, he decided, that he'd been drugged with something insidious and undetectable that would allow his memory to come creeping right back up to date once it had cleared his system. Yeah...that was probably it. It had to be. It would explain the 'offness' he still felt...the sensation of being fractionally detached from his own body that drugs afforded you along with all the other ways they screwed you up and got you hooked. Sure, Keller had said his blood work was clean, but that didn't mean anything...not if his captors had been smart. There were plenty of Earth drugs that were hard to detect, it made sense that Pegasus would have its fair share too.


Unfortunately, just when he thought he had all the answers Sheppard noticed something else, something that turned his supposedly clean blood to ice in his veins. About to continue his ablutions, he stopped with the razor just millimetres from his jaw and leaned in toward the mirror, looking at his neck. There was something different about it. The scar from the Iratus bug, faint as it had admittedly been after almost five years, was missing.


Right on cue, he experienced a flashback; in the ambush he'd been shot, straight through his right hand. The bullet had disarmed him, though he'd lost very little time in swiping up his fallen gun and using his left to hold his attackers at bay. But yes, he definitely remembered the jolt and sudden burst of fiery pain that had seized him, even if he'd only faltered for just a few seconds. He dropped the razor into the sink, examining his hand and flexing it to test for pain or weakness. Nothing. It worked perfectly. It was as if it had never happened, but he knew it had.


The miraculous healing went further still. On examination, the many and various scars he carried on his body, the marks that told of his journey to becoming the man he was today, all of them were gone. He blinked hard a few times, wondering if he just wasn't focusing right, but no, they were gone. That didn't make sense either. How could that be? Had those rogue Travellers done something to heal even those harmless reminders of his past struggles? And if they had...why? They had a reputation for brutality well known amongst the natives of the Pegasus Galaxy...what would be the point of healing him to that extent? They'd asked for nothing in return...


Realising that thinking endlessly about questions he couldn't answer would drive him nuts he finished up his shave, certain his team would be knocking on his door soon if he didn't show his face. He could pin on a smile for a while. Placate them. Keep them sweet until he could figure out what all this meant. Perhaps it really was nothing to worry about...perhaps the faction members really were that sweet...


...And perhaps Santa Claus was real, too.


The gravity of the situation hit him like a freight train. The meal would have to wait. Something was wrong and his conscience wouldn't allow him to ignore it any longer. He had to go back to Woolsey and tell him what he'd found. He might have been compromised and he couldn't put Atlantis at risk.

oooOOOooo

He was right. There was no sign of the various scars Sheppard had gathered over his several years of service on Atlantis. Not to mention the many marks he carried from combat back on Earth. No medicine she was aware of could make scar tissue miraculously vanish that way, and Jennifer couldn't help experiencing a flutter of excitement as she examined his previously blemished skin. This was a seriously advanced form of medicine these people were practicing. She had to know more about it.


Barely able to contain her glee, she glanced over at Woolsey first, where he stood at the foot of Sheppard's bed flanked by a pair of armed marines, then met the curious hazel-green eyes of the colonel himself, letting his shirt fall back into place. 'Well...I don't know what to say, Colonel. You're right. The scars are gone.'


Instead of looking pleased, Sheppard's expression tightened. Something about this was clearly making him anxious. But then, if she had little to no memory of events for the past six weeks she supposed she would be on edge too.


'At least we know they didn't mistreat you,' she offered in hopes of cheering him up.


'Yeah...I guess.' He looked distant suddenly, lost in thought.


Troubled.


'Is there anything to suggest foul play?' Woolsey asked, clinical as ever.


She shook her head. 'Like I said before, there's nothing out of the ordinary...except for the missing scars.' She cast her gaze across the two armed men standing either side of him. 'So I'd say the guns aren't necessary.'


'It could be a little early to make that assumption,' Woolsey countered, not willing to relax just yet. 'If it's all the same with you, Colonel, I'll leave the armed detail in place for now.'


'If you hadn't suggested it, I would have advised it anyway,' Sheppard told him, matter-of-fact.


Jennifer looked from one to the other of them, unable to suppress a grin. 'You two are taking this way too seriously. 'You get healed. Period. Nothing else is out of place.'


'Still, better to be safe than sorry,' Woolsey insisted. 'Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some requisition orders to catch up on.'


He left, the two armed Marines withdrawing to a more discreet distance but remaining in view.


Sheppard, once again, sank into contemplative silence.


'What're you thinking?' she asked, gently pressing him to talk.


He didn't speak for a while, but a multitude of emotions flitted across his taut features and darkened those bright eyes of his. She could see him composing his thoughts and emotions before finally answering. 'I'm thinking...if they can heal my old scars that well, what else did they heal?'


She blinked back at him...the thought never having crossed her mind until he mentioned it. But he was right. If they could rid his body of ancient scar tissue, anything could have been done to him in his six weeks of absence. And suddenly his apparent amnesia adopted a whole new portentous undercurrent...


'I...I don't know,' she stammered, mind racing for something encouraging to say. 'But right now other than very mild malnutrition and some muscle atrophy, you're in perfect health. Let's focus on that for now. Huh?'


Sheppard stared back at her a while, a bleak smile gradually twisting up his mouth, though the look in his eyes remained haunted. 'Yeah...sure.'


'Well, Colonel...I can't find anything that suggests you've been compromised or that you pose a danger to anyone else. I'm happy to release you to your quarters for some rest and relaxation. I've worked up a suggested diet program for you to follow to gradually get your weight back where it needs to be, and an exercise programme to help rebuild your muscle tone. We'll soon have you fighting fit, Colonel. And with any luck that memory will come back, too.'


Again he just looked at her for the longest time, an almost panicked glaze coming across his eyes. Then he jumped down off the infirmary bed and walked past her, muttering, 'That's what I'm afraid of.'


She watched him leave with a heavy heart, the marines following tight on his heels. Right now, she had to admit she was a little afraid of that too.