A/N: This story has been nagging at me for a long time. I've loved the idea of it since I started, but it has proven to be much more difficult to actually write than I anticipated. I thought I was going to have it finished last weekend, but alas, not quite. I'm almost done with it for sure now, so thought I'd start posting the earlier chapters while I tie up the end.
Thank you a hundred times over to my betas everybetty and kriadydragon for looking the first draft of this over. I knew there was some problems with it, but I couldn't quite figure out how to fix them. It was like I was hitting my head against the wall. Their comments, corrections, and questions really helped me step back and figure out what I needed to do to finally finish this story.
So, that being said, here is the story! I changed the beginning slightly, the middle a little more, and totally revamped the ending. And I am much happier with the outcome so far. Hope you like it!
WARNINGS: Set sometime late season 2/early season 3, but no specific spoilers for any episode. This is intense, heavy Shep whump, both physical and emotional, and just so you know, pretty creepy.
"—medical team!" Rodney McKay's high-strung voice echoed throughout the gate room. Ronon emerged seconds behind him, missing the first part of the sentence but having a pretty good idea of what he'd said. The Marines on either side of the gate raised their weapons, shooting confused glances at each other.
Ronon had one arm around John Sheppard's waist and had slung one of the man's arms around his own shoulders. He kept a firm grip on Sheppard's wrist, managing to hold up most of his weight. Ignoring the Marines standing on either side of the gate, he took a few more steps. Sheppard tried to help, half shuffling-half hopping on one leg, but his other leg dragged lifelessly behind him.
"Where's the medical team?" McKay yelled, both panicked and irate. Ronon heard Teyla step through the gate, followed by the wormhole itself shutting down. He stood still, continuing to hold Sheppard but no longer sure whether they should try to make it to the infirmary on their own or wait.
Teyla stepped up next to him, putting her hands on Sheppard's face and lifting it gently toward her.
"John, we are home. In Atlantis. You will be alright," she murmured.
Ronon tried to look down at Sheppard but got a face full of his friend's spiky black hair. Sheppard was sagging more and more, and the little energy his team leader had had on the planet seemed to have been used up on the run back to the gate.
"What's going on?" Elizabeth Weir asked, running down the stairs toward the small group in front of the gate. Carson Beckett arrived at the same time through a side door, a gurney and medical team in tow.
"Sheppard was attacked," Ronon stated.
"I do not think it was an attack, Ronon," Teyla answered, shaking her head.
"What the bloody hell is going on?"
Sheppard moaned as the last of his strength seemed to give out, and Ronon tugged on his waist to keep him from falling over. Beckett waved the gurney over and Ronon moved forward, dragging Sheppard over and onto it. He laid him face down, but when he lifted Sheppard's legs onto the end of the gurney, the medical team, Beckett, and Weir all jumped back in alarm. The Marines had raised their weapons again, looking decidedly nervous.
"What is that thing on his leg?" Weir asked at the same time as McKay danced around in front of the gun-wielding Marines.
"Put those away," he yelled. "What are you going to do? Shoot your commanding officer?"
The Marines lowered their weapons, but McKay continued to yell over Weir's demands for answers, Beckett yelled at his medical team, and Teyla tried to calm everyone. Amidst the chaos, Ronon knelt down near the head of the gurney, placing a hand on Sheppard's head.
"Hang on, Sheppard," he said. It was his first clear look at his friend's face since picking him up out of the swamp they'd been attempting to cross and racing back to the stargate and Atlantis. Sheppard's face was pale and sweaty, and he was panting heavily. His eyes fluttered open and closed, and occasionally rolled around in his head. He was conscious, but Ronon wondered if he was aware of his surroundings.
"What happened, lad?"
Beckett's quiet voice near his head startled him out of his thoughts. He looked up at the doctor, then at Sheppard, then at the doctor again. The noise and panicked yells of McKay and Weir and Teyla and more Marines pouring into the gate room swirled around them, but Beckett was quiet and confidant, creating an invisible bubble of calm around the trio.
"Not sure, exactly," Ronon answered. "There were a lot of swamplands on that planet. We were trying to work our way around them, but ended up having to cross through one."
Ronon shook his head, and glanced down at Sheppard again.
"Sheppard kind of yelled and then just fell forward," he continued. "We pulled him back the way we'd come, out of the swamp. He was shaking hard and grabbing at his leg. That's when we noticed that thing had attached itself to him."
Ronon looked toward the end of the gurney, where the medical team was cautiously examining the back of Sheppard's right leg. The thing in question was gray and slimy, looking almost like a glob of mud, except that it was hard and wrapped tightly around Sheppard's calf. The head, or what appeared to be the head, was pressed into the top of the muscle, just below the back of his knee, and blood and swamp mud dripped freely into a puddle beneath his leg.
Beckett poked the blob, to no effect. "It looks a bit like a bloody sting ray wrapped around his leg," he mumbled as he prodded the creature. Ronon stepped back, pushed politely out of the way by a nurse as she strapped an oxygen mask to Sheppard's face. They raised the gurney in one deft movement and then Beckett was yelling clipped orders as they rushed out of the room.
Ronon followed, hearing the chaos behind him grow suddenly quiet at the departure of their main topic of conversation. He walked just fast enough to keep Sheppard in sight, and could see even from a dozen feet away that his friend had begun to shake.
"He's going into shock," Beckett called out. "We need to get this…this sting ray thing off of him ASAP."
"We've already put a call down to the zoologist labs. Doctor Lane is meeting us in the infirmary," one of the nurses answered.
Beckett leaned forward, and Ronon could just make out the words. "Hang on, John. We'll get that thing off you in no time."
The group rushed into the infirmary, and the gurney and surrounding medical personnel surged forward. Ronon was stopped by a nurse from going any farther, but he knew the drill. He stood in the center of the infirmary trying to make sense of the sounds of doctors and nurses working on Sheppard. The rest of his team and Weir finally caught up and burst through the doors. The four of them stood there for a moment before Ronon turned to the two people from Earth.
"What's a sting ray?"
Ronon stayed in the infirmary long enough to know that Sheppard was stable and that the sting ray thing had—after many hours—finally been removed from his calf. The zoologist, Doctor Lane, could hardly contain his excitement as he exited the infirmary behind two airmen pushing a large aquarium tank on wheels.
Ronon got his first good look at the creature that had attached itself to Sheppard as the aquarium was marched past. The first thing he noticed was that it looked less gray in water than it had wrapped around his friend's leg. It was more of a brownish color with greenish spots. It was also mostly flat, and its edges fluttered in the water to keep it suspended in the middle of the tank. He stepped closer, searching for its head. He could just make out two small, black eyes buried in a small knob of flesh at one end of its flat body.
Ronon tapped the glass, and the Airmen pushing the aquarium stopped. He could see Teyla and McKay behind him, their faces reflected in the glass as they peered closer.
"It really does look like a sting ray, but no tail. Ugly little thing, isn't it?" McKay muttered.
Ronon was about to answer him when the sting ray—for lack of a better word—suddenly unhinged its surprisingly wide jaw, revealing two long fangs set on each side of a row of tiny sharp teeth. He jerked back, his hand reaching instinctively for his gun. Behind him, McKay squawked in surprise. Teyla was a little more composed, but she had jumped just as badly as the rest of them.
Doctor Lane leaned forward, a look of riveted joy on his face. "Fascinating! Look at the size of those fangs!"
"Yeah, I saw them," Ronon deadpanned. "In Sheppard's leg."
The zoologist had the decency to lose the smile splitting his face and move around to the other side of the aquarium. He glanced nervously at Ronon before waving at the airmen to start moving again, and the sting ray behind its glass cage disappeared from sight.
Ronon's face twitched in anger at the callousness of the scientist in regard to his friend, but before he could say anything, Beckett emerged from the back of the infirmary.
"How is he?" Weir asked. Ronon had almost forgotten she was still with them. She had stayed in the background as the other three had crowded around the tank, seemingly the least interested in the latest creature to affix itself to the colonel.
"He's alright for now. We've still got a number of tests to run, but he's stable. He was starting to go into shock when we brought him in, but now that that thing has been removed, he's doing much better."
"Can we see him?" McKay asked.
"How is his leg?" Teyla asked at the same time. Ronon's head swiveled from Beckett to McKay to Teyla, then back to Beckett again.
"The bite marks were fairly deep in the top part of his calf muscle, and they'll take a little bit of time to fully heal, but he should be fine. I'm convinced that creature injected him with venom when it bit him, though. Colonel Sheppard described it as a few minutes of intense pain, followed quickly by numbness throughout most of the lower half of his right leg."
"Sounds like the iratus bug," Weir mumbled.
"Which is exactly the comparison John himself was drawing. That more than anything was probably what had him going into shock in the first place," Beckett replied.
"So, can we see him?" Ronon asked, finally joining the conversation.
"Sorry, not right now. We're still getting him settled and we have to do a few more tests. Give us another couple of hours and then you can stop by for a few minutes."
The others nodded, relieved at the relatively positive report and disappointed at the wait. Ronon believed Beckett—every word of it—but there was still a part of him that needed to see Sheppard alive and well. He hadn't been on Atlantis when the whole Bug Incident had happened, but the stories he'd heard had been terrifying enough, and he had been around for the Bug Conversion thing.
The others headed out the door, reluctantly dragging their feet. McKay said something about getting something to eat, but Ronon wasn't hungry. He was antsy. He could feel the nervous energy down to the tips of his fingers, and sitting in a mess hall was not going to help him at the moment.
"I'll meet you guys later. I'm going for a run," he announced, and took off in a something just slightly slower than a sprint down the hall and toward the nearest pier.
"…elevate his leg…"
"…doctor…scanner…if he still…"
The voices, soft ghostly whispers, floated around him. John reached out, trying to grab onto the words. They almost made sense, until he tried to concentrate on the meaning, and then the words slipped out of his grasp and floated away.
"…rain…back to where…"
"…McKay….work out more…"
Besides the voices, he could just make out the quiet rustling of…of…he wasn't sure of what. Things moved around him, muted and quiet. It was dark and he was hot, and he wondered where he was.
The whispers would grow louder then draw back, fading in and out. John was so tired. He listened to the whispers, wondering what they were saying, but they were soothing, almost melodic, and John felt himself being pulled away again. It was so hot here.
"……get some rest…you if we find…sure you haven't…"
He became aware of something or someone touching him next. Ghostly hands pressed against his head and face. It grabbed him around his wrist and his bicep, poked him in the ear, pressed against his stomach. Something cool was held to his face, and he sighed in relief. He was still hot. He could feel beads of sweat dripping down his neck and chest and back.
At times, he felt like he was moving. Things shifted around him, below him, above him. The whispers were quiet and soothing, and sometimes something cool would be held against his skin. Hands would lift him, rolling him to one side or another, and he would try to open his eyes at those moments, but the effort was exhausting and the sounds and the hands would slowly fade.
"…can't believe you watched that movie…"
John heard that, more clearly than he'd heard anything before, and he wondered where he was. He could feel something soft and comfortable underneath him. A steady beeping sounded somewhere over his head. He tried to shift around and felt light fabric brushing against his skin.
"I think he moved."
The hands were back, one on his arm and one on the side of his face. They were warm and dry, and he tried to turn toward the hand on his face.
He knew that voice.
"Colonel? Are you with us?"
The sounds and senses stopped swirling and began to settle into place. He knew the voices, recognized the hands, could almost identify the rustling and beeping around him.
"John, lad. Open your eyes."
Beckett. John turned his head toward Beckett's voice, moaning slightly at the effort. Why was this so hard?
"Come on, Colonel. I need you to open your eyes."
Eyes, he was saying something about eyes. His eyes. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he became aware completely of his body. His eyes were closed. He felt hot and nauseous and achy. He could feel the hand on his arm squeezing gently, encouraging him.
Light pierced his eyelids as he cracked them open, causing him to groan. Bile surged upward and before he even realized what was happening, he'd been rolled over on to his side. He could feel himself gagging, but everything felt heavy and weak, and he couldn't move.
"It is alright, John," Teyla soothed. Her voice was close to his ear, and the warm, dry hand on his arm moved down to grip his hand. He realized it must belong to Teyla.
He blinked his eyes again as he was returned to his back and someone wiped his face with a cool cloth. This time, he managed to open his eyes and he squinted at the people standing around him. They were blurry and they moved around him cautiously, the swish of their clothing rustling in his ear.
"There you are, lad," Beckett said.
Carson Beckett's face came into focus. The doctor had something in his hand, which he then proceeded to stick in John's ear, and John moaned.
"Ssshhh…be still, John. You have been very sick."
John blinked his eyes again, not realizing that they'd slid shut, and he looked up at Teyla's face. She looked tired, but then she smiled and lost some of the tension and tiredness. John stared at her for a moment until Beckett placed a hand on the side of his face and forced his head to turn.
"How are you feeling, John?" Beckett asked when his face came into view. John was too tired to look anywhere but straight ahead, and Beckett placed himself in his line of sight.
"…yeah…" John croaked. His voice was low and raspy, and his throat hurt.
"Good lad," Beckett responded. His eyes creased in concern. "Are you in any pain?"
John paused a moment, wondering what should hurt, but there was no part of his body screaming for attention. He shook his head slowly.
"…hot…" he mumbled.
"Aye, I know. You've been running a fever since we brought you in. You just rest now. We can talk more later."
John's eyes slid shut of their own volition. For a few seconds, he could hear the ghostly whispers of Beckett and Teyla around him, but then those two faded and he drifted into darkness.
"Is he okay? Because he didn't really seem okay to me," McKay stated.
Ronon nodded his head in full agreement with the scientist's assessment. He looked worriedly down at the pale face of his team leader and friend. Sheppard had woken up for barely a minute, maybe two, and even then, he didn't really seem fully awake. He seemed weak and frail, a look he was not used to seeing on Sheppard.
"He's not okay, Rodney, but he will be," Beckett replied. "The venom from that sting ray was fairly toxic, and Colonel Sheppard got a pretty good dose of it. He's very sick, but he is getting better. You just need to be patient."
"I can be patient," he muttered, and Ronon glanced up in time to see both Teyla and Beckett bite back the smiles that suddenly threatened to split their faces.
Ronon felt the tension that had been coiling in his body since the day before suddenly release at the sight of their very real smiles. Sheppard had gone from shock when they first brought him in to panting and feverish throughout the night. The dark circles under Beckett's eyes attested to the seriousness of his friend's condition, so if the doctor was smiling, then that was a good sign.
"How's his leg?" Ronon asked.
"I was just about to check it again, but so far, it's been okay. We're pumping him full of antibiotics, and it looks like we've managed to avoid any infection."
"The fever was from the sickness caused by the venom?" Teyla asked.
"Aye, it was. His leg should heal up just fine, and our last blood test showed the venom was almost completely out of his system. I know you're all worried about him, but he really is going to be fine."
"Thanks, doc," Ronon answered, standing up and stretching out his back. He slapped McKay on the shoulder. "Let's go get some food."
"I'm not hungry," McKay grumbled, still staring down at Sheppard. The scowl on his face couldn't quite cover his concern.
"Would you like to help me change these bloody bandages?" Beckett asked innocently.
"I suddenly just got very hungry. Why are we still standing here?" He turned to Ronon and waved the man forward. Ronon grinned. As much as he gave McKay a hard time about eating too much and exercising too little, he loved that the scientist was always a willing partner for a snack run.
"I will join you as well. I have not had a chance to eat lunch yet." Teyla stood up, gave Sheppard's hand one final squeeze, and then joined her two teammates.
"See you later, doc," Ronon called out as all three of them piled toward the door of the infirmary, and just barely caught the doctor's exasperated sigh.
A week later, Ronon walked down a deserted hallway in one of the lower levels of Atlantis. He'd never ventured to this part of the city, but the sounds emerging from some of the zoology labs had him curious now. McKay had explained to him that the doctors in this area studied animals of all kinds, and he was surprised to hear that there was a whole wing of labs that actually had specimens of these animals.
As much as he would love to poke his head into some of those labs now, he was on a mission of sorts at the moment: tracking down one Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. Sheppard had been released from the infirmary earlier that day. His leg was still healing, but he had managed to convince Beckett that he could move around just fine on the crutches. Beckett had finally conceded, but had sent him off with both a set of crutches and a wheelchair.
That same wheelchair had been found in Sheppard's empty quarters about an hour ago, and no response to radio calls had instigated the search. Ronon had a pretty good idea of where his errant friend had wandered off to, though. He walked to the end of the hallway, pushing the empty wheelchair in front of him, until he reached Doctor Lane's lab. Before he could knock, the door slid open.
The lights in the room were off, but the aquariums lining the wall were lit up, making it easy for Ronon to spot the figure at the far end of the room leaning against a pair of crutches. He walked over to his friend, ditching the wheelchair in the middle of the room, and stared at the sting ray hovering in the middle of the aquarium.
"How'd you know I was down here?" Sheppard asked after a minute of silence.
"Didn't know. Thought you might want to take a look at that thing, though."
"Yeah," Sheppard answered quietly. He stared intently at the creature floating in the water in front of him. "Ugly, isn't it?"
Ronon chuckled. "That's exactly what McKay said, then that thing gave us a pretty good look at its teeth."
Sheppard shivered, and Ronon spared a glance at him. He thought he looked pale, but that could have just been from the light of the aquarium.
"You alright?" he asked.
Sheppard shrugged. "Leg still hurts. Otherwise, I guess I'm alright."
Ronon nodded. The puncture wounds from the creature's teeth had been deep, and there'd been talk of nerve damage and more tests—all of which had caused Sheppard to freak out and subsequently clam up whenever it was mentioned. Ronon looked down at the thick bandages wrapped around the man's leg from mid-thigh to ankle, then back at the creature—their sting ray or whatever they called it.
"It looks different," he suddenly said. When he'd seen it in the tank that first day it had been brown and green, the edges of its flat body fluttering rapidly. Today, it was gray and mottled with black splotches, and it seemed to be having a hard time staying at a constant depth. It kept floating up toward the top, then sinking, then floating up again.
"It's dying," a voice answered behind them. Ronon turned around to see Doctor Lane entering the lab and walking cautiously over toward them. Sheppard turned carefully on his crutches to look at the doctor.
"We're not sure why," Lane continued. "We've run every test we can think of, but nothing we do seems to help. I was hoping it would live longer than this. It's a fascinating creature."
Sheppard grunted at that and turned back toward the tank. He shifted slowly, making sure he was balanced on his left leg before moving his crutches and swinging his bandaged right leg forward. Lane glanced quickly at Sheppard's awkward movements before returning his gaze to the creature in the tank.
"Maybe we should take it back to the swamp," Ronon suggested.
Sheppard's response came quickly, and there was a dark edge to his voice. Ronon looked at his friend's face, saw the fear and anger morph across it.
"No one goes back to that planet," he said.
Ronon shrugged, understanding where is friend was coming from.
"I should have shot the thing," he said after a minute.
"I wish you would have," Sheppard answered. He raised one of his arms to wipe his forehead on his sleeve, and Ronon noticed his face was a little slick with sweat.
"We should head back. Beckett will kill you if he finds out how long you've been on your feet."
Sheppard nodded and turned toward the door. He'd only taken a couple of steps on his crutches before Ronon grabbed the wheelchair and pointed at it. Without a word, Sheppard hobbled toward it and eased himself slowly into the seat. Ronon grabbed the crutches and set Sheppard's bandaged leg onto one of the raised footrests. The fact that Sheppard was letting him do this without complaint spoke volumes about his level of exhaustion, and possibly pain. Beckett was going to kill the man.
"Huh, now that's interesting."
Ronon and Sheppard both looked up at the zoologist. They'd almost forgotten he was still there. Lane stood up from the microscope he was bending over, grabbed a scanner of some sort, and walked back over to the aquarium holding the sting ray.
"Huh…" he repeated.
Ronon looked at Sheppard, who shrugged and waved his hand toward the door. He'd moved about three feet before Lane was standing in front of them and waving his scanner at Sheppard.
"What?" Sheppard asked caustically.
"What about my leg?"
"I'm picking up some weird radiation on my scanner…"
"Radiation?" Sheppard choked out. He glanced down at his bandaged leg. Ronon's hand had clenched around the handlebars of the wheelchair, and he had to consciously force himself to relax. In the meantime, Lane had moved back to his lab bench and was jotting something down on paper.
"Yeah. It seems to be coming from both the creature and yourself." As he spoke, he spread out a piece of clear plastic on the table, then a set of scalpel knives.
"Hey!" Ronon yelled at the zoologist. Sheppard had gone rigid in the seat, his hands clenching the armrests until they were completely white. Lane looked up, startled.
"What's going on?" Ronon asked. "What about this radiation?"
"Um, I'm not sure," Lane answered nervously. "I'm about to dissect the creature now, so I may have more information in a few hours."
"Dissect?" Sheppard squeaked, and his body shuddered.
"You may want to take him up to the infirmary and let Doctor Beckett know about this. I'll contact him as soon as I have more information."
Ronon nodded and pushed Sheppard out the door of the zoologist's lab. He glanced back in time to see Lane lift the creature out of the aquarium. Its body flapped limply in the scientist's hands. The scalpels lined up on the table glinted in the soft aquarium lighting.