Zebras Bite Back
Rating – K+
Disclaimer – If I owned this I wouldn't need a job. But I do need a job, therefore, I don't own this.
Synopsis – Yet another installment of my in which series. In which John finds himself caught between some mud and a wraith... and a monster, and more wraith. Rescue is certainly taking its sweet time in coming.
A/N: I was bored, and overwhelmed by the desire to write, and kept thinking about the annoyance of mud. Then, viola! A story was born. And I remind you, I'm not medically savvy. I'm taking liberties with possible multiple stun side effects, whether they're plausible or not.
John awoke to a trumpeting roar, and pins and needles simultaneously pricking up his spine, down his limbs, and gathering all effort at his fingers and toes. He groaned, squeezing his eyes shut, then peeling them open to determine why the side of his face was cold. The world was a mesh of fuzzy gray and green shades, one of which – a mass of gray green – was apparently moving. John blinked his eyes until the fuzz coalesced. He would have leaped back if he could, but was stuck fast as a tree to where he was, so yelped instead.
" Holy geez!"
The mass of movement in question was big as an African elephant, with a long sinewy body that rippled with ropey muscles beneath taut gray-green mottled skin. Its neck was long, but its whip-like tail was longer and barbed. On the end of that neck was an elongated, feline shaped head with ears John mistakenly took to be horns, being so pointed as they were. The creature had its head low, baring its fangs in a wide-mouth snarl. It lunged, only to rear its head back at an explosion of blue-white light. But instead of slumping into the mud that wouldn't let it move, it shook off the effects and snarled.
John stared at the thing in numb fascination, until the numb let up, leaving only the pins, and recollection slammed into his skull.
PX4-957 – an overcast world apparently in the middle of fall going on winter, colored various levels of gray offset by depressingly dark green plant life. Stepping out of the event horizon had caused John's heart to immediately plummet. One look and he'd gone depressed, as though the world had forced its present mood on him. Of course what really got him down was all the water and mud, mud he was stuck in now up to his waist thanks to a wraith with mean football skills. Teyla had sensed them coming, but the drab coloring of this world had hid them. Ronon and John split up trying to draw them off so Teyla and McKay could get back to the gate. Then came the tackle when a drone burst out of the woods, an eternal tumble down a, rocky steep hillside, and then...
Mud. Mud, mud, mud. A pit of gray sludge like wet, congealed ash surrounded by the hill and a misshapen crescent wall of tall, ash colored trees. Knobby, gnarled branches reached over head like massive bony arms creating a patchy canopy of gray and depressing green, so on the only plus side John managed to scrounge, at least he couldn't be spotted from above to be culled.
Although, he had yet to hear the distant whine of wraith darts. He would have been curious as to why, but at this juncture, he couldn't care less except to be thankful for the oddity.
The creature had returned its head to the lowered position but refrained from striking. John craned his neck back enough to catch the pale-fleshed and muscle-bulging arm of the drone standing waist high in the muck. So John could count his luck two for two. Someone had to be liking him enough to have him end up behind the creature and the wraith in front. But that someone was being challenged by another who thought it'd be funny to have John's P-90 go flying out of reach to the very center of the pit. True, there was still his 9-mil, but the muck had rendered it useless. He found out after he tried to shoot at a wraith illusion.
John averted his gaze to the wayward P-90 lying on top of the mud, too light to sink. The mud's consistency made it almost gelatinous, but not quite enough to keep it from fusing back together after John managed to swathe a two foot path. Suction was the problem. The bottom was solid, but it was also where the mud was thickest, and moving his legs so much as an inch left them strained and aching. Plus it didn't help that the wraith kept getting in a lucky shot now and then. A very lucky shot. Not a shoulder hit or a glance off the flank, but two pointers directly in the back. John's recent wake up made this the third direct hit to slam between his shoulder blades. He would have easily succumbed to sinking into the muck if it hadn't been for the flat plank of tree bark he managed to grab from beside him. It was long enough and wide enough to keep him above the mud after every hit, plus gave him something to cling to should the mud get any deeper.
John did a quick glance back toward the wraith. Bruno, as John had come to call him, was still preoccupied with the dino-kitty, and dino-kitty had managed to move enough to block John from Bruno's line of sight. So John's way was as clear as it was going to get. Going back to looking at the P-90, John gritted his teeth as he pulled his foot up then pushed it forward, leaning his upper body forward with arms on the slat of bark. The pull of the suction on his boot was wreaking havoc with his ankles that were starting to throb. But what was one more throb amongst a collection of uncomfortable pulsating aches focused around his back, shoulders, ribs, hip, and legs? Although things weren't so bad from the hip down thanks to the arctic cold mud that was numbing him better than a stunner.
John grunted when he moved his other foot. Lift, push forward, then lower. Again; lift, push forward, and lower. Three feet now, and he was panting, leaning even more heavily on the wood. He reached down into the mud for his canteen, and yanked it from the pull of the muck. He unscrewed the cap, tilted his head back, and poured the water in rather than putting his mouth on the muddied spout. His throat less parched, he replaced the cap and shoved the canteen back into the mud to hook to his belt. Then he continued on. Lift, push forward, lower. Lift, push forward, grunting, and lower.
Energy readings, energy readings, let's follow the energy readings. I'm going to kill McKay. It was always the elusive energy readings that tended to be the downfall to what should have been a fairly average day. And were they ever worth the trouble? In terms of finding a ZPM, hell no! Of course even had they found a ZPM somewhere in this swamp, it wouldn't have altered John's desire to vent off on a particularly persistent physicist.
Lift, push forward, lower. Lift, push forward, lower, and again John had to stop to catch his breath, sweat beading on his forehead and running down his face and neck. The P-90 looked no closer. John huffed out a heavy breath.
" Son of a bitch," he gasped. Gulping, he trudge on. Lift, push, lower, lift, push, lower. When he stopped to rest again, the mud level had risen from his waist to the bottom of his ribcage. He looked over at the dino-kitty, noting more carefully the depth at which the beast was stuck. The mud came to its flanks, which is – as far as John could guess – where his head would come were he standing beside the thing. The gun was on the other side of the creature. So at some point in time, John would be unable to move any further or else be buried up to his neck. But he didn't need to get too deep, just within range to snag the weapon with the plank of wood. Still, he was going to be cutting things close.
Lift, push, lower, lift, push, lower. His ankles were going from a throb to all out hurt even in the cold mud. He stopped again, giving the mud a moment to numb the area back into tolerance. A blinding flash made him cringe, and made the beast howl. But when he looked, the creature still had it's head raised, and again was shaking off the effects.
" Why don't you just give up!" John snapped. " It's not working and you're just pissing the thing off!" Not that he really cared how mad the beast got at Bruno, he was just sick of being blinded, and the noise the beast kept making on each blast. The myriad of throbs had migrated to his skull, which was inciting nausea, and John needed every last pint of concentration to be focused on getting closer to his P-90. He could have changed his path, kept to the shallows and made his way to land, but with wraith illusions rampant with the closest wraith too preoccupied to create them, then John wasn't going to get very far without that weapon.
A blast flashed from behind John but too far out to even make him flinch. John snorted, shook his head, and proceeded to lift his right foot. Except his right foot refused to go very far. John panted through his clenched teeth, leaned forward on the wood, and pulled.
" Come on..." he ground out. " Come on you stupid... come on!"
His leg jerked, and his foot felt strange; too cold, a little more free as it were. John grimaced but pushed his foot forward and down. He moved his left foot, then his right foot again, and felt his sock slip like slime from his foot. He grimaced again.
" Ah, man." On setting his foot back down, he was surprised at the uneven, rough feel of rock rather than slick, compact earth. He was also surprised that the going was easier without the boot, though he was loosing feeling in his toes.
He chanced a glance in the direction of the wraith and beast, getting an eyeful of the beast's rump but seeing nothing of the wraith. But he didn't need to see the wraith to know it was making its even more arduous way either around the beast or toward the shore. The last John had seen, Bruno had been trying to make his way around, so chances were good he still was. The wraith as a whole had a lot going for them – immortality, healing abilities, numbers, and strength - yet were shamefully lacking in matters of strategic thinking. Bruno was going to stick with trying to take the direct route to his prey rather than doing the smart thing by heading to shore and waiting John out.
The mud depth climbed two more ribs up, then John's left foot refused to budge. " Ah hell!" He leaned forward and pulled until his foot slipped free, thankfully lubricated by the mud. But this boot refused to relent the sock, leaving John's foot in the buff to start numbing over at the toes.
" Stupid freakin' boots..." John was unable to continue his tirade when numb struck his back, slapping darkness over his eyes before he had a chance to pitch forward onto the wood.
John awoke to pins and needles... and twitching, mostly in his hands. His head pulsated to the beat of his heart, and his stomach acid roiled like a tsunami. Lifting his head made the pulsing become a pound, and he dropped it back onto the wood with a grimace and groan of pain. He remained lying on the wood, breathing, until the tsunami became a breaker that he could handle. He raised his head more slowly, testing the motion, blinking away the haze. He turned his head on his aching neck toward the creature, and caught sight of half of Bruno aiming at dino-kitty but looking in John's direction.
" That son of a..." John breathed. Bruno was still distant enough away from dino-kitty not to get snatched, but dino-kitty was struggling hard, making leeway an inch at a time and keeping Bruno busy trying to inch back. John shook his head clear, and turned back to focus on the P-90. He started pushing forward, which had the mud increasing pressure on his pissy stomach, making it more pissed and start roiling again.
Five feet, he managed five feet when numb shot up and down his spine, knocking him back into darkness.
Waking up was harder. Every muscle was twitching, his stomach acid was splashing, and his skull felt like a wedge was being driven into it. He would have remained pressing the side of his face into the cool, mud-slicked wood, but his stomach was fed up. He barely lurched sideways in time to keep the coming vomit from spewing onto his path. The burning, amber bile pooled on the slick surface of the mud, the putrid stench rising into John's nose, inspiring another need to vomit. The second time around, the bile was more of a thin stream, and ended in three dry heaves that left John shuddering, panting, and spitting chunks.
" Oh man that sucked!" he rasped. He turned away from the vomit puddle before it could entice more reactions from his gut. He set his head back on the wood, just for a moment, to catch his breath and let his stomach calm now that it'd had its way.
There had to be some sort of side-effect to being hit multiple times by a stunner in the same spot. It might explain why his back was aching more than the rest of him, and why the muscles kept spasming, although that could also be the fault of the cold.
When his stomach had finally settled, John raised his head and peered over his shoulder. Dino-kitty was having a fit, launching its head at Bruno, snapping its jaws in a clack of teeth, but missing by centimeters. John turned back and forced his sluggish body to move, foot by numb, hurting foot, toward his weapon. The P-90 looked closer, or maybe that was just him being optimistic. At the moment he didn't really care, he just wanted to be out of range of Bruno's stunner.
Foot, by foot, by foot. Lift, push, lower. Mud slid around his leg, over his foot, through his toes. His right foot lowered onto something strange, like a perfectly smooth rock. He slid his foot about the rock, feeling with his heel and arch since his toes seemed to be non-existent. It was a strange rock, going from round to being elongated, punctured by two large holes, and a row of something rough and sharp.
John winced and swallowed. Rocks could be oddly shaped and smooth, but logic was adamant about this object being more like a skull. He pushed his foot forward over the supposed skull and continued on.
A flash of movement pulled his eyes up to the wall of trees. He had yet to discern anything within the shadows when there came a flash that struck him in the chest. He slumped, but not before the darkness snapped back into place.
John awoke to the same old song and dance. Pins, needles, throbbing, nausea. But there was a new player in town – a rapid heartbeat that was making it a little tricky to breathe. He remained lying on the wood, breathing carefully until his heart descended from its race and his stomach settled. He lifted his head, looking to the woods where the shot had come from. His heart jumped back into its race. He saw, glaring within the darkness, the pale skin and ice-white hair of wraith flashing through the trees, too vivid and constant to be illusions.
John shrank back, shaking his head. " Hell no, hell no, hell no!" he snarled. He twisted his head around, searching for a clear area of land, but saw only more pale skin and white hair. Perhaps most were illusions to hide numbers, but even one wraith was bad enough if he couldn't reach his P-90.
John didn't even have the luxury of having to face one wraith. Two of them stepped to the edge where the mud-pit began, both masked drones, both aiming at Sheppard. To the right appeared a wraith commander, tilting his head to the side as he studied John like a dog contemplating how to reach an unreachable slab of meat.
Nature specials popped into John's mind; antelope and zebras trapped in drying watering holes, surrounded by lions, leopards, and hyenas. Woolly mammoths in tar pits with saber-tooth tigers leaping onto their backs. Except – though John loathed to admit it – he was no woolly mammoth. In terms of size and strength, he was the antelope and the wraith were the lions.
No, zebra. He was the zebra. At least that's what McKay would say, adding on a comment concerning John's dark, spiked, zebra-like hair.
Yup, zebra in a pit. John dropped his head broodingly onto the wood slab, and realized that, at some point in time during his trudging, the mud level had come up to stop at the tip of his sternum.
The wraith made no move to get into the pit. Unlike their brother, the present wraith had brains, or at least a brain in the form of their commander. Commander was prowling within sight, moving in and out from behind the trees like a phantom. John followed its movements, looked to his gun, back to the wraith, and back to his gun.
The thing about zebras was that they had a reputation for being biters. When he was ten, John had gone to the circus with a cousin and aunt. Before the show began, there was an area to the side of the tent where baby animals were held within reach for the kiddies to pet. Except for the baby zebra. Its pen had sported a sign reading 'Caution Bites'. But had John's cousin cared? Or more appropriately, had he ever cared? He tried all the same to reach in to touch the tip of his fingers to that zebra's nose, and nearly lost them when the zebra nipped. His cousin had called that zebra every nasty name under the sun. John just doubled over in laughter. As much as John had liked his cousin – like a brother – it had served the guy right. Even to this day the man couldn't get it through his head that rules, laws, and caution signs applied to everyone, and that he had yet to prove himself to be the exception.
John would have loved to nip back, but his 'teeth' were still out of reach. However, there were other ways to bite, though in the long run said ways were more likely to end up getting him hurt. But they had their merits and were worth the risk if they worked as distractions.
Big if. Lift, push, lower.
" You know," he said, lifting his other foot. " This could all end a lost faster if you'd just bring in a dart and scoop me up. Not that I'm anxious to be shoved into your meat locker, but at least I don't have to be in the mud anymore."
The commander grinned, or seemed to. John could never tell. Wraith always seemed to be smiling, as though so proud of their teeth they just had to show them off. Which John couldn't figure why. For one, they had more teeth than needed, and for another they didn't need them to begin with except to enhance how butt freakin' ugly they were. Perhaps that was the reason for the teeth, sort of a novelty addition to aid in the debilitation of prey through terror. Sort of like a lion's tawny coloring so it could blend into the grass and remain hidden.
Commander didn't reply, just grinned and prowled, back and forth, dead twigs and foliage crunching under his boot, and mud puddles splashing, getting the nice boots all dirty. He was toying with John, enjoying his plight, or perhaps was trying to hide his agitation at having food within reach but unable to get to it. The thought both frightened and angered John. He scooped up a handful of mud and flung it with everything he had at the wraith.
" I'm talking to you smiley! You just gonna keep pacing until I die or until you starve to death?" Inch by inch by inch, hopefully imperceptibly.
No such luck. The commander stopped pacing, then pointed at John. One of the drones fired, a direct hit to the chest, and John was out.
John awoke. Goody. Pins and needles, back ache and a heart skipping one too many beats. On the plus side, he was quick to recall, and what he recalled pissed him off. He doubted zebras had to put up with this kind of crap. They went out in two ways – death by devouring or death by dehydration, with no stunning in between. John didn't get what the wraith were playing at, unless they were trying to keep him from his weapon long enough for a dart to come.
John lifted his head, only to drop it and squeeze his eyes shut when the world tilted and spun, reawakening the rage that was his now empty gut. He was shivering, all the way from toe to head to chattering teeth. Speaking of toes, he was pretty certain he would end up losing his to frost bite. Hell, his whole foot to boot.
Boot, ha! Very punny. Ah crap, I'm delirious.
John moved his head more methodically on lifting it the second time around, resting his chin on the wood when the world wobbled. The wraith commander was still pacing, albeit a little faster, and grinning to give the Cheshire cat a heart attack. John dubbed the commander Rufus. Not because he looked like a Rufus, but because he didn't, which was all John could think to do in terms of vindication.
John narrowed his eyes at Rufus, then simpered, batting his eyes. " Hungry?"
Rufus' smirk faltered, and his prowling picked up speed. John lifted his head and leaned his full weight on the wood. He was tired, and felt heavy enough to drop had there been no bottom to this pit. He flicked a glance in the direction of dino-cat. The beast was still all eyes for John's original pursuer, who was thankfully out of sight on the other side of the beast. John returned to looking ahead, just in time to see a drone lift his stunner. John stopped, ducked, leaned to the side, and missed the beam by two centimeters.
" Son of a bitch!" he snarled, straightening, only to slouch when his back pounded out the aches.
" Do not move," snarled Rufus. " Draw nearer to your weapon and we will fire."
John, slouching on the wood, snorted. " Forced nap time isn't exactly much incentive to listen to you." John started up again, taking wider steps, shoving his measly defiant progress into Rufus' face. He stopped, dropped, and leaned in the other direction for two stunner blasts to whip by.
Rufus' smile returned. He tilted his chin at John. " You are quite persistent. I am impressed."
John righted himself and pushed on. " Yeah, I'm a pain in the ass that way."
Rufus chuckled, a low, throaty sound that never ceased to make John's flesh crawl. " Do you think I actually believe stunners alone to stop you?" Rufus said. " It is a cold world, human, like the dead of winter. I can see you shivering from here, hear your teeth clack. You are cold, human. If you stay in that pit much longer, you will succumb to the cold and die."
John smacked. " Mmm, Sheppardcicle. Well, at least I'll be kept nice and fresh for the worms come summer."
Rufus hissed. " The more we incapacitate you, the less you move, and the less you move, the colder you become. It is only a matter of time, human."
John turned his mouth up in a bitter grin, and his chest jerked in a single, breathy laugh. " I'm impressed. Didn't think wraith could use big words like incapacitate. Bet you can't spell it though."
Rufus stopped pacing to plant one foot on a stump tilting precariously toward the mud. " You should save you breath human, it won't be much longer until it stops."
Lift, push, lower. Lift, push, lower. Closer and closer. " Well, that's the thing about us humans. We all have different degrees of tolerance. Plus movement kind of helps. Listen, I'll make a bet with you. I bet I can reach my gun before the cold shuts my heart off..." Lift, push, lower. " No, better yet. I reach my gun, gun you guys in half, and make it to shore just as hypothermia sets in."
Rufus chuckled again. " Then I have already won."
John's concentration on moving cost him. Another blast in the chest, and lights out.
John was growing certain that multiples hits to the chest wasn't good for the heart. At least the unconsciousness didn't last long, or so he assumed since the sky had yet to descend toward dark. Then again, this world could have tortuously long days, just as Athos had short days. On awaking, John could barely move his cold-stiff limbs, or lift his throbbing, cracking head. The first two attempts had him dry heaving, and the third dropping his head back to the wood. He kept his head on the wood as he trudged on, feeling the cold intensify as the mud rose to his armpits. Now cold mud, he new for certain, wasn't good for the heart. His tak vest, jacket, and shirt helped to keep out most of the cold, but it was only a matter of time before the sludge seeped through the gaps in the apparel, soaking him with moisture.
He could barely feel his feet, which made progress slow when they slipped out from beneath him, and had him missing the traction of his boots. He felt like he was swimming through ice-cream.
Where the hell is rescue! He hadn't really pondered rescue, concentrating on moving as he had been, but the motion to move had become second nature, leaving him room enough to think. A jumper should have been here by now, or at least another team. Just because John chose to be the one to draw fire didn't mean he had every intention of dying. Actually, he tended to laugh in hysterical relief and joy when the calvary arrived.
" You're wasting your time, human," Rufus badgered.
John snickered ruefully. Again, he doubted zebras had to put up with being taunted by the lions. Then again, like he knew what the lions were saying when they surrounded the trapped zebra. The pity for a trapped, helpless animals was a given, especially if that animal was an infant. But at the moment, John's sympathy was going far deeper, becoming almost like rage. Rage against wraith, against lions, against hyenas, alligators and all predators in general. They were jerks, all of them. Nature's jerks. If John survived this, he was going to start a support group.
A tired chuckle hiccuped from John's throat. A support group made up of zebras, antelope, bison...
Except the only difference between him and those poor creatures was that he could fight back... if he could just reach the means to.
I refuse to be the zebra! Lift, push, lower, slip, crack on the chin, bite to the lip drawing blood. Crap!
The blast came from two fronts, behind and in front. John managed two thoughts before succumbing. One, that Bruno had bypassed dino-kitty and two, he still refused to be the zebra.
John was having a hard time breathing. Combination cold, pressure from the mud against his chest, a stuttering heart, and all around pain had turned his panting into wheezing, obstructed rasps. Stuns, it seemed, had side effects for the lungs as well. But John pushed on, clinging to the wood like a man overboard lost at sea. Although he would have gladly traded the mud for viscous ocean. He was barely making progress, if he was making progress at all, but he couldn't tell with sensation stopping at just above his ankles. He must not have been gaining ground since his personal entourage of lions had yet to knock him back out. Peering over his shoulder showed him Bruno within firing sight, but still unable to get past the unstunnable dino-feline. Even the combined stun blasts of all three wraith had no effect. John would have hugged that cat if it wasn't so pissed.
Rufus just kept laughing at him, encouraging him to give up, and reminding him of the futility of trying. A pep-talker's worst nightmare.
" You are failing, human," Rufus prodded. " The cold is devouring you, as is the mud. Why do you persist?"
John coughed. Congestion was forming. Whooptey freakin' do! . " I already told you, I'm a pain in the ass that way. Besides," he grunted when his feet slipped out from under him and his chin slammed into the plank. He started sinking, but pulled himself up using the wood. " It gives me something to do."
" Do you honestly think you can make it?"
John shrugged, keeping his eye on the P-90. " I kind of stopped thinking about it. Mostly I'll be content dieing in a manner that has nothing to do with you getting full. So you might as well kiss off. Unless you got a dart up your sleeve, I'm no ones lunch... or dinner... or whatever the hell meal time it is." John stopped struggling to move and looked up to regard Rufus suspiciously. " Why are you sticking around? Unless a dart comes or you come out here, you're not going to get me?"
Rufus smiled. " Very perceptive, human. You are of Atlantis. Even if I cannot feed, observing your slow death will still prove satisfactory. I know of you, human. Have seen your face through the shared thoughts of my kind. You are the destroyer, the murderer of queens, a bane to our kind. I will take your carcass back to my queen, and your bones will be her trophy."
John sighed wearily. " I feel so special. Would your queen like my autograph while we're at it? 'To the wicked witch of the cosmos. Hope my rotting corpse stinks up the joint. All my loathing - Sheppard'. Something along those lines I think..." he gasped when his heart seemed to trip over itself. The beat was heavy, flaccid, as though the organ had over-tenderized itself on his bones. He couldn't quite fathom what his heart was doing or trying to do, and it was scaring him worse than being stuck in the mud surrounded by wraith. The muscles in his back, from his lower spine to his shoulders blades, wouldn't stop twitching out of time to the rest of his shuddering body. He gulped, steadying his breaths in hopes of steadying his fluttering heart.
Then he inched forward, agonizingly slow, his legs burning but his feet non-existent according to his brain.
" I guess the important thing," he panted, his breath unsteady in it course. " Is that in the long run, I won't be eaten. Which counts for something if you think about it. Actually, it counts for everything. I bet the zebras think the same thing. 'Hey, I'm dying of dehydration. No munchies for the lions.' Of course all the lions have to do is wait until the mud dries to get to the corpse." John stopped and smiled. " Hey, I finally got one up on the zebras."
Rufus lowered his eyelids in a glower. " What are you babbling about, human?"
" None of your freakin' business." John resumed struggling, inching at a rate that a turtle could outrun, his heart struggling with him. " Although on the downside, I never will find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop, or who shot JR, or where Hoffa's buried, or if McKay finally gets to marry Colonel Carter (or at least meets some other nice blond genius 'cause you know how he likes blonds with brains). And I'll never get to read the last Harry Potter book, or see the rest of the movies. I was really getting into those. War and Peace... well, no real big loss there. I should have picked a shorter classic. Maybe a Tale of Two Cities. I read that in Highschool and can't remember a damn thing about it. Except for the guillotine. Lady Guillotine – still better than ending up wraith chow..."
Rufus snorted in disgust. " You are losing your mind, human. Not long now."
" Actually," John said, turning the wood from width-wise to length-wise, " I was just distracting you so I could do this..." He tilted the wood down, enough to shove into the mud beneath the P-90, but enabling him to pull the wood up at the same time a drone fired. The gun slid into Sheppard's right hand just as the blast reached him, the beam splintering the top of the wood in an explosion of splinters. In the same move no longer than five heartbeats, John brought up the P-90 and fired, glancing over his shoulder long enough to make sure he struck Bruno and not the dino-cat. Bruno convulsed in the rain of bullets, then slumped forward, within dino-cat's reach. The beast's head shot out to snap up the upper half of Bruno's body and start shaking it like a dog with a rag. Bone snapped and crunched, and dino-cat downed Bruno as a seal would down a fish.
John swung his weapon about and started firing around his flimsy shield, which he eventually dropped at the sound of alarmed grunts. John waved the P-90 back and forth, filling all three wraith with as much led as the weapon possessed. The wraith staggered back until they finally fell. John stopped firing, but kept his weapon at the ready. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw dino-kitty's head arched his way, the green slitted eyes staring at him with wary hostility.
" Nice kitty," John placated. " You play your cards right, avoid eating me, and I can get you out of this mess. We're in this together, pal, so no funny ideas." John coughed. " But first I gotta get out of my own mess." But he didn't know if he could. Those last couple of inches had taken a lot out of him, and a haze of lethargy was trying to cloud his mind. It snapped back when Rufus sat up suddenly. Yelping, John filled him full of more bullets. He tried to back away, to get to shallower ground, but didn't move at all with his legs finally refusing to cooperate.
He just didn't have the strength.
John sucked in a shuddering breath. " Rescue would be nice right about now."
Time passed. One of the drones awoke, so Sheppard shot it. Then the other, so Sheppard shot that one. Rufus awoke twice more, and the second time around after turning Rufus' face into shredded hamburger, John's gun clicked empty.
John sighed heavily. " Well, it was nice while it lasted." Although none of the wraith had yet to awake since.
John didn't sleep. He was trying not to. But his head had become too heavy for his neck, so he rested it on the remnant of wood. The day was finally showing signs of waning, going from gray to darker gray, to gray blue. Beside him, John's mud companion let out a long, trumpeting, and mournful wail that rose then died, over and over. Maybe it was calling to friends, calling for help, saying good-bye, or singing it's own lament.
John lifted a trembling fist. " Sing it, my man... or woman. Whatever you are. Hermaphrodite maybe?" Coughing wracked John and ignited another round of muscle spasms in his back. The creature arched its head around, hissed, then resumed its singing.
" If I'm dead by morning," John said, " and you get out. You have my permission to eat me. You deserve that much, and I'd rather not be some queen's house warming present."
Oddly enough, what was irking John the most was that he'd only won half the bet.
John peeled his eyelids apart when a new sound penetrated his awareness. The lulling singing had stopped, replaced by shrieks and hisses. The creature was looking up with back and neck arched, snapping at the air. John would have loved to have seen the cause for the ruckus, but didn't have the strength to move his head.
Suddenly, lights blinded him, lights from above, and a familiar hum made his body vibrate to the bone.
" Colonel Sheppard!"
A human voice saying his name gave him incentive enough to turn his head as far as his neck would allow, then roll his eyes up at the jumper hovering overhead. The light was momentarily blocked by someone being lowered down in a harness.
" Colonel Sheppard!"
John closed his eyes, grinned, and started chuckling. " Took you long enough!" he shouted.
The marine in the harness raised his hand to tap the radio at his ear. " He's alive and responsive. I repeat alive and responsive."
" Indeed I am soldier," John breathed.
" Colonel Sheppard, are you injured?"
John shrugged one shoulder. " Probably. But I can't really tell at the moment. Get me out of this mud and let the good Scottish doc be the judge of that."
" Yes sir. I've gotta warn you though, sir, it's going to be a little... um... tricky."
" Define tricky."
" Involves acrobatics on my part."
John snickered. " Then acrobat away soldier."
The soldier hadn't been kidding about the acrobatics. He maneuvered himself by swinging his legs up to wrap around the rope to be dangling upside down as he shouted to be lowered. When face to face with John, he shouted a halt, then pulled a second harness from his belt. Up close, the soldier looked to be in his mid twenties, with dark, military cut hair and a heavy build. The name on his vest read Lt. Cosington.
" Any broken ribs sir?" Cosington asked.
" Lieutenant, I can't even feel my ribs. I'm pretty much just a floating head with a pair of arms at this moment."
Cosington had to literally get his hands dirty strapping on the harness around John's chest and under his armpits, which was as far as strapping went under the circumstances. " That might be a good thing, sir, in case anything is broken." Cosington pulled the straps of the harness tight. " That should do it, but in case it doesn't, at least you have something soft to land in."
" I'd rather make this a one time thing, Lieutenant. So I'm making it an order that you don't drop me."
Cosington gripped both of Sheppard's arms. " Yes sir." Then called to be hoisted up. John caught the whine of the hoist, then felt the pressure around his chest and beneath his arms increase when the rope went rigid. His body felt as though it were being pulled two ways, and he silently prayed that the mud didn't have a mind to take his pants. There was a kind of sucking slurp, and his body was out, his pants still intact and around his waist. Chunks of mud dropped from him to plop back into the pit. The cold became a little more distinct, but other than that he still had no real feeling from the chest down. His heart thudded with concern, then fluttered, causing his breath to hitch.
" You all right sir?" Cosington asked.
To which John replied in a slight whimper, "No."
On reaching the jumper bay, hands shot down to grab Cosington by the ankles and haul him in. Those same hands reached down for Sheppard once the Lieutenant was on board, and dragged him over the lip of the ramp onto the solid floor of the jumper. Cheers erupted as John was laid out on his stomach on the jumper floor. His position didn't last long when he was rolled over onto his back for the hands to start unstrapping his vest. He glanced around, and saw McKay's face hovering over him, along with Teyla, and Ronon sporting a dry, bloody cut over his eye.
" Colonel," Teyla said, eyes bright with worry, placing her hand on his head. " Are you all right? Do you have any injuries?"
John snorted. " Ask me that later."
His vest was removed, then his jacket, and finally his sodden shirt peeled from him over his head to be tossed aside. McKay paled, rearing his head back.
" Wow, that's... that's a lot of bruises."
John lifted and turned his head enough to look himself over, and blanched. It was a lot of bruises, mottling his chest, a few on his stomach, the heaviest and darkest on his left side forming a shape very reminiscent of Italy – or maybe Florida. His right side was just as bruised, but not as dark, and definitely not shaped like Florida. John dropped his head back to the floor when his bruise collection was obscured by the blankets being draped over him.
" What happened?" Teyla asked.
John sighed. " Took on a hill and the hill won." He then lifted his head again in time to see the bay doors sliding closed. John struggled into a sitting position, swatting the hands away trying to push him back down. " Whoa, whoa, wait! Hold up! Don't leave yet. There's something you've gotta do first."
" What sir?" Cosington asked. John nodded toward the rope coiled on the floor.
" How much weight can that line handle?"
John used Rodney as a crutch since his own body wasn't putting up much of a fight to stay upright. He leaned his shoulder against Rodney's to keep the blanket clutched around himself, and McKay had his arm around John's waist to keep him from toppling the other direction. John craned his neck to watch the marines tie the rope into a slipknot lasso, then lower it down.
" You know," McKay said, scowling. " There's really no reason for you to be standing. It's not like it's going to solve anything."
John heard the hiss and roaring trumpet of the dino-cat. The two marines at the winch knelt before the lip of the ramp and began to maneuver the rope.
" Got it!" Cosington shouted. McKay shook his head.
" You're going kill us over a steroid popping lizard cat. This isn't exactly what I would call a 'getting the cute kitty out of the tree' scenario. That monster may very well have the means to fling this jumper into the hill. And if we don't blow up it means we're all getting a much unwanted mud bath."
John, still shivering hard enough for his teeth to chatter, twitched his head. " T-t-trust me, McKay. I know w-what I'm doing."
" Do we really know that? You could be delirious. And maybe we should sit down before..."
The jumper lurched like a stauled car, nearly knocking everyone off their feet. McKay reached out to the wall to steady himself, and John steadied himself against Rodney.
" Yeah," Sheppard said. " Maybe we should."
Both men dropped onto the bench, John wrapping the blanket tighter around himself and leaning forward. Cosington looked back at his CO, nervous but collected.
" It got a little spooked sir. It'll keep pulling back when we pull forward."
John nodded. " I know," then looked at the Satedan. " Ronon. If you would. And keep your aim to the rear."
Ronon nodded, rose, and went to the ramp with his gun. He aimed downwards and fired several shots set on stun.
" Go now!" John shouted. The jumper moved forward, then jerked when the rope pulled. There came trumpeting cries, and Ronon fired two more shots.
" It's moving sir!" Cosington announced. " Getting closer to land..."
John heard the creature's hiss, and the jumper crept forward like an inch worm.
" It's in the shallows, moving on its own," called Cosington.
" Stop moving! Cut it loose," John called, rising without Rodney, getting his support from the wall. He moved to the back in time to see Cosington cutting the line and the rope dropping away. Looking down, the lights of the jumper illuminated the dino-cat as it clawed the rope from its neck, leaving it in a shredded coil, then taking off into the woods with mud clumps flying from its body.
John slumped against the wall with a smile of satisfaction. His heart stuttered, and felt strangely heavy in his chest, making his breath catch. His hand went to his chest, over his heart, feeling it pound through flesh and bone against his shaking hand. He would have slid to the floor, but strong hands caught him and raised him back to his feet. Ronon then gently guided John back to the bench. John dropped onto the seat beside Rodney, and Teyla moved from the bench across to sit beside John. Ronon handed her another blanket that she layered over the first, then wrapped both tightly around John so that he was cocooned and barely able to move.
John's breath hitched again when his heart thudded.
" Colonel?" Teyla said.
John pressed his hand harder against his chest, as though doing so might actually take effect to steady his heart. " I feel weird."
John's team exchanged worried looks. Teyla put both hands on John's shoulders. " Perhaps you should lie down."
She rose, as did Rodney, and guided John to lie on his back with his legs drawn up. More blankets were draped over him, but no matter the number or the weight of them, his body had no heat to pool, so wouldn't stop shivering.
" Uh, Sheppard?" said McKay as he tucked a blanket around John's legs. " Where the hell are your shoes?"
Indescribably odd, cold, aching, tired, and nauseas as John felt, he couldn't help a silent, somewhat caustic, chuckle.
McKay explained everything. He and Teyla had gotten back to Atlantis, rounded up a rescue posse in two jumpers, and emerged back into the frigid swamp world for immediate confrontation with two darts that came in fast and firing. The fight had been a merry one, taking them halfway to the other side of the world until the two darts were finally dispatched. Jumper two was forced to return to Atlantis after taking damage, and Jumper one had followed the flashing dot on the HUD's LSD to Ronon, who'd tumbled down a steep hill into a (lucky him) mudless, waterless ravine too narrow for the jumper to get through and too deep to get Ronon by foot. Thus the utilization of a winch and harness system. Once Ronon was out and relatively checked over as being able to survive despite the head wound, they'd hovered over the swamp until a white dot had finally appeared – two white dots that had caused quite the panic.
John had the feeling most of the panicking had been handled by McKay.
John listened to Rodney's explanation for the late arrival, but harbored no specific reaction. He was a little too preoccupied with his going-toward-arrhythmic heart that felt as though it were stumbling like a runner on the last leg of a massive race. Heart attack came to mind, but that was usually preceded by pain in the left arm. Or at least that's what Sheppard had heard. He'd also heard of people having heart attacks and thinking they were only short of breath. He'd heard a lot of things about heart attacks, none of which proved helpful for determining what was going on with him at the moment.
Night and darkness had become absolute by the time they reached the gate and slipped through. The jumper eased out on the other side, rose into the bay, and immediately lowered its ramp. Never in John's life had he'd been so happy to see Beckett striding purposefully into the jumper. Not even being home filled him with so much relief, and without realizing it, said as much when the Highland doc came up to kneel beside him.
" C-C-Crap, Doc, am I g-glad to s-see you," John rasped.
Carson's hands froze in mid application of his stethoscope to his ears. He stared at John as though the man had developed a skin condition consisting of green warts.
John wrinkled his brow in growing consternation, wondering if he had sprouted some kind of funky skin problem. " Doc?"
Carson twitched, snapping from his trance, and completing the act of putting the stethoscope to his ears. " Uh... Sorry. Sorry lad." Carson pulled back the mound of blankets just enough to expose John's chest for a listen to his heart. He didn't leave it long, and proceeded to move it slightly further down John's ribcage, when John grabbed his wrist to keep the stethoscope in place.
" Wait, j-just wait. Y-You need to l-listen." John could have sworn he was getting colder with each second that ticked by. Though if that were true, he would be dead by now. Trust to the powers of subconscious self deception to make things worse.
Unless he was getting colder, thanks to his now deranged heart.
Carson's brow lowered. " Listen to what?"
John's heart stumbled, making his breath catch, and Carson's eyebrows shot up nearly reaching his hairline. " Oh, that."
John nodded breathlessly. " Y-Yeah... that..."
Carson moved fast removing the stethoscope to drape around his neck. " Let's get you into the infirmary before that develops into something neither of us will end up enjoying."
Carson moved even faster when in the infirmary. John made a mental note to – when possible – time Carson and his staff to see just how fast they really were when it came to stripping a patient down and slapping them into scrubs. Had to be between mere seconds and a minute for John to be out of the remnants of his muddy clothes, wearing scrubs, hooked to a heart monitor and I.V. with a warming blanket on top and a heating pad for the twitching, tense muscles of his back beneath. Somewhere within the transition from half-nudity to scrubs, Carson had probed Sheppard's ribs and chest, both men finding tenderness there, but John having to suffer the radiating pain of discovery.
John couldn't care less about his ribs at the moment, or getting X-rays. He watched Carson intently, worriedly, that worry betraying itself on his face, as the Scottish doctor kept the stethoscope pressed over John's heart.
Though the heating blanket and pad had only recently been applied, John had hoped to stop shivering by now. Or at least his teeth stop clacking at the speed of a rattle-snake's tail.
" Well?" John pressed.
" Well," Carson replied. " Ya said ya got hit with a stunner multiple times – back and front. Combined with the cold and anxiety, that could have put your heart under a considerable deal of stress. But I dunna think it's anythin' to be worryin' about. I know it feels uncomfortable, but it's not all that bad."
John cocked a skeptical eyebrow. " Not all that bad? Doc, every time it skips a couple of beats, I can't breathe."
Carson removed the stethoscope to place back around his neck. " Think of it this way, Colonel. When you were recoverin' from the retrovirus, you were pretty bloody weak. You recall moments where maybe ya lifted your arm, or sat up, and it left you breathless with your heart poundin'? But only for a brief moment?"
John rolled his eyes to the ceiling as he thought back. " Yeah, a couple of times. Plus dizzy."
" That's basically what your experiencin' now, only without anythin' instigatin' it. Chances are it'll right itself within a few hours as your body warms and relaxes. If not, there's ways to remedy it, though you may not like some of 'em."
John eyed Carson warily. " Why wouldn't I like some of them?"
Carson shrugged nonchalantly. " One method requires the use of a very mild electrical shock, sort of like a one time pacemaker, to get the heart back on rhythm."
John swallowed and shrank deeper into the warming blanket. " Like a mini-defib?"
" Pacemaker, lad. Think of it like a pacemaker. But like I said, your heart should right itself. Same with the muscles in your back, though they may be a bit sore for a while. Although a few more jolts and there's no tellin' what that might have led to. Heart failure's my belief, even possible spinal damage. A body can only take so much electrical interference like that."
John's heart thudded, making him gasp and the heart monitor speed for two seconds then slow. Carson patted John's arm. " Rest, give your heart time to settle, then it's off to X-ray with ya. I didn't feel any breaks, but cracks can be bloody tricky to feel when they want to be."
John nodded, and squirmed deeper into the blanket, averting his eyes to stare at the ceiling. Carson wandered off to attend to other matters, but within hearing range of the monitor, his accent – even in a mumble – always distinct and always close by. John's eyes started to slip close, until his heart stuttered, making them snap open, then slide close again. It was like a dance – or more appropriately like tug of war – with his heart snapping him awake but his bone-deep weariness pulling him back under. So he couldn't tell how far apart the thuds were.
Then the next time he awoke, it wasn't because of anything his heart did. It was to voices, garbled and crawling toward coherence as the dark fog lifted from his brain and his eyelids pulled themselves apart when the brain demanded to know the source for the intrusive yammering. When the fuzz cleared from his sight, he let his head loll to the left to see McKay and Dr. Weir standing beside his bed, talking in low voices. John rolled his eyes and shook his head. People had yet to learn that whispering was still talking, talking was noise, and noise wasn't conducive to good sleep.
" I know this isn't the Ramada Inn or anything, but Carson should still consider investing in the creation of a few 'do not disturb' tags," John mumbled. It was still audible enough for both Rodney and Elizabeth to turn abruptly in wide-eyed surprise.
" John," Elizabeth yelped. She had quite the talent of reestablishing quick composure, while Rodney continued to blink rapidly.
Elizabeth moved closer to John's bed with her arms folded and her lips quirked in a small smile. " Sorry," she said. " Didn't think we were talking that loud."
John moved his eyes to look at McKay. " Some people haven't figured out that talking one octave lower isn't whispering."
Rodney gave John a lazy look. " And some Colonel's haven't figured out how to sleep through a pin being dropped. Seriously, Sheppard, is it my fault you're paranoid even when you're asleep?"
" Cautious, McKay," John replied. " It's called being cautious. Besides, I get kind of curious when people start talking about me."
Rodney folded his arms across his chest and smiled in challenge. " You're hearing can't be that good, Colonel. Who said we were talking about you?"
" In the infirmary, by my bed... I just put two and two together, McKay. Doesn't take a genius to do that."
McKay, however, refused to relent. " Still doesn't mean we were talking about you."
" Actually," Elizabeth interceded, still wearing a smile, " we were talking about you. Rodney was telling me about your insistence on saving a giant reptile cat."
John narrowed his eyes at Rodney. " Tattle-tale."
Rodney raised both his hands palms in defense. " Hey, I was just giving Dr. Weir my verbal report. And to prove my point that you are the type to risk all of our hides in the pursuit of rescuing kitty-cats."
John snorted. " That kitty-cat saved my butt, McKay. It was all I had between me and that first wraith. So pardon me for wanting to return the favor."
" And the risk of dumping us all into the mud?" Rodney countered.
John shrugged. " It wasn't that strong."
" Oh give me a break, Colonel, it..."
" Gentlemen!" Elizabeth jumped in. " I don't think it really matters. You got the creature out, the jumper's in one piece, so in the long run... it's not really all that important."
" And I'll be throwin' ya out on your arse, Rodney, if ya keep agitatin' the Colonel," came Carson's accented voice. The Scottish doctor passed between McKay and Weir to come up beside John's bed. Beckett placed his stethoscope to his ears and pulled back the warming blanket enough to slide the listening end down John's scrub shirt to press to his chest.
" I wasn't agitating him," Rodney sniped. " He was agitating himself. The man doesn't know when to concede to defeat in an argument."
John chuckled, Carson rolled his eyes, and Elizabeth had to turn away to hide her smirk from Rodney.
Carson shook his head as he moved the stethoscope about John's chest. " Pot callin' the kettle black," he mumbled.
Rodney narrowed his eyes. " What?"
Carson sighed " Nothin'." He fell silent as he listened, pursing his lip and nodding. " Well Colonel," he said after a moment. " Your heart's soundin' quite regular, so no need for the unwanted remedies."
" Unwanted remedies?" Rodney asked.
John shook his head. " You don't wanna know, McKay."
Elizabeth moved to be adjacent and a little behind Carson. " How's the rest of him?" She asked.
Beckett moved the stethoscope lower to listen to John's breathing. " A wee bit congested. The stunnings and the cold made him a tad vulnerable in the viral department, so he may be sportin' a brand-spankin'-new cold by mornin'. I still need to take him into X-ray, but I'm pretty certain if his ribs aren't cracked then their bruised in a very unpleasant manner..."
John's face twitched when the stethoscope moved to said bruised area. " Tell me about it."
" Hypothermia was what had me worried, but it's at the bottom of the list of concerns at the moment seein' as how he's warmin' up nicely. And now that his heart is back on rhythm, I can safely say he's goin' ta be fine. Fine enough to rest away the cold in his quarters tomorrow so long as it doesn't turn nasty overnight."
Elizabeth nodded. " Always good to hear those words." She then reached out to clasp John's knee. " Up for a little story telling, Colonel?"
John opened his mouth, But didn't get even a noise out when Carson pounced. " Oh no, not tonight. I need to get him into X-ray then I need him to rest, you can glean a report from him in the morning. Until then, I need ya all out."
" Yes mom," Rodney said in a high, nasally voice as he turned and started heading for the door.
Carson glowered at the man's back. " I heard that!"
John sneezed three time into the tissue – three massive sneezes that practically tossed his upper body forward, awakening the pains of his body to wail and gnash, especially in his back. He dropped back onto his bed with a groan and arms splayed. But he supposed he should be thankful for the lesser little evil that could have easily pumped itself up into becoming pneumonia. It was still a possibility that had Carson coming in every four hours to check John's lungs, but not enough of a possibility to keep him confined to the infirmary for observation. Either that or Carson was giving into leniency to spare himself the aggravation of a bored and persistent Lt. Colonel.
Knowing Carson, the latter was a bunch of crap. Carson was notorious for keeping patients in for observations over splinters and paper cuts. 'Ya can never be too cautious in an alien galaxy' had become his motto, and a very repetitive one at that.
John's upper body tossed itself up in another sneeze fit; only two, but explosive enough to expel the vast majority of the phlegm plus a third of his lungs. Plopping back, he moaned, coughed, and grimaced when it angered his bruised ribs. This was John's body's form of revenge for all the crap he'd put it through over the years. Effective in causing suffering, but harmless. Sneaky SOB, his body.
There was a tap at his door. John rolled his groggy head in the direction of the barrier, and coughed lightly a few times to clear his throat.
" Come in." His voice was pathetic, barely above a squeak as though his vocal cords were wrapped in cotton. The door slid open and McKay strolled in carrying a tray sporting a bowl of steaming soup, a glass of water, and a small plate holding two small vitamins.
" And who's the lucky stiff you gets to serve you hand and foot for lunch?" McKay snapped. " Me! The man susceptible to every disease known to man. Thanks to Carson's eloquent manipulation that allowed him to volunteer me for this task, I'm going to purposefully spread your delightful plague the moment I get it."
John eyed the bowl uncertainly as Rodney set it down while simultaneously using it to shove snot-rags and empty water bottles off the small table. " Rodney, you came by yesterday for Weir's private briefing. If you're not showing symptoms by now then I think it's safe to say you haven't caught it yet and might never catch it in the long run." John wasn't sure if he could handle even soup. At the moment, his stomach was feeling a little full and upset by all the phlegm John hadn't been able to cough out.
" Give it time. Then everyone'll be sorry."
John grinned drunkenly. " Promises, promises."
Rodney pulled up the chair normally situated in the corner of John's room. " They will, you mark my words."
John sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, smearing it with snot and not caring. Rodney's face twisted in disgust and he grabbed several tissues to hold out to John.
" At least have a little decency when guests are present."
John took the tissues and wiped both his hand and nose. " So you really hoping to catch this thing? Is that why you're not hightailing it out screaming like a little girl?"
" First off, I would leave with dignity, not scream like a girl. Second," he shrugged. " Carson said a little conversation would help ensure you stayed put. You know, stay off the boredom and such? Honestly, the man's starting to see me as some kind of gopher. Teyla and Ronon were right there, so why the hell didn't he ask them? I'm a busy man, with things to do. I don't have time for idle conversation or sickness. I mean he knows I'm a hypochondriac, why would he do this...?"
John rolled onto his side, closing his eyes wearily. " Rodney, know one makes you do anything. You came because you wanted to. However, since you will never admit to it, feel free to continue to deny it, just please don't go on about it. You won't have to stay long anyways."
" What, you kicking me out already?"
John had to force his eyes to open, and sucked in a deep breath that made him cough, causing his chest to jerk and his ribs to throb.
Rodney seemed to soften and sag. " Oh. Yeah. Carson... uh... had mentioned something about not staying long. Just for the record, you look horrible. All pale and sunken eyed if you hadn't noticed."
John's chest jerked, but this time in a single, silent laugh. " I'm still able to use my bathroom, Rodney. I've caught sight of myself plenty of times. But thanks for pointing out the obvious."
Rodney slapped his own knees. " Always a pleasure. At least you're clean though, right? No more mud, especially in unsightly places..."
John narrowed his eyes dangerously. The mention of mud would soon go the way of the mention of bugs, except with reactions involving decking someone rather than reactions of discomfort, especially should jokes be involved.
John's illness must have enhanced his glare, because Rodney visibly paled.
" Uh... You know, when you talked about... um, being in that situation... Funny thing," he laughed nervously, then stopped, dropping both smile and pretensive humor. " Okay, not really funny, kind of disturbing actually. You being trapped, surrounded by wraith, like some kind of..."
" Zebra?" John interjected.
Rodney blinked in surprise. " Yeah, actually. Kind of made me think of that movie, Swiss Family Robinson, when they saved that zebra from the mud. The poor thing surrounded by hyenas and leopards until the humans popped up to pull it out. Although it didn't have the fortune of a monster cat to protect it. Still..."
John started chuckling, but so softly that Rodney had yet to notice.
" I mean that had to be terrifying. You see all those nature shows and some poor animal stumbling into a dried-up watering hole, struggling to get out with nowhere to turn. And it's always the babies. Always has to be the little, helpless newborns."
John stopped chuckling, bristled, and replaced his smile with a scowl. " Are you calling me a helpless baby, McKay?"
" No," McKay snapped back. " But zebras in mud pits did kind of jump to mind when you talked about being stuck in the mud. Must be the hair..."
John started chuckling again, and now it was Rodney doing the bristling.
" What? It's not exactly that funny, Colonel. Like it or not, you were pretty much helpless, and that was pretty freakin' too close of a call. If that giant cat hadn't been there, your other pit buddy could have sucked you dry. And what if we hadn't engaged with the darts? They could have scooped you right out of the muck for later feeding. It's no laughing matter, Sheppard, so I don't know what you think is so funny..."
John's laughter climbed until he was both laughing and coughing. " You McKay," he said, pointing a shaking finger at the physicist. " You're just so freakin' predictable."
McKay frowned, half-lidding his eyes. He reached out to place his hand against John's forehead. " Still hot. You're obviously delusional. The helpless zebra's brain is fried."
John stopped laughing and frowned back at McKay, narrowing his eyes back to dangerous. " McKay, have you ever been to a petting zoo? Not the kind with all the farm animals, but the exotic kind with giraffes and llamas?"
McKay kept his hand on John's forehead, turning it from palm to back, then back to palm. " I've been to one of those drive-through wildlife parks."
" Ever pet the zebras?"
Rodney reared his head back. " Are you kidding? Hell no! They bite."
John smiled wickedly, and Rodney's eyes rounded over.
" You wouldn't."
" Delusional, remember? I'm capable of a lot of things right now."
Rodney snatched his hand back to curl at his side. Free of the hand, John pushed himself up with a grunt and grimace against the pull of aching muscles and bones into a sitting position on the edge of his bed. He took the tray in both hands, and carefully set it on his lap, then took the spoon to begin swirling the chicken broth until the noodles surfaced. He gathered a small amount of liquid and two noodles onto his spoon, holding it long enough to let it cool a bit.
" You'd be surprised what zebras can do," he said, " when backed into a corner." He leaned forward and took a bite, slurping a little for effect. He pointed at Rodney with the now empty spoon. " We're persistent that way."
A/N: Hope you all enjoyed. It was fun to write. And yes, Swiss Family Robinson played a small part in the inspiration. Nature shows too. And zebras. I went to a petting zoo where you were allowed the pet the zebra. Then came the sign.
And I profusely apologize to those who read this without the ending, the stupid thing refused to show up.