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Giving Back the Sky

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It was close to midnight when John limped his way through the Infirmary on his sprained ankle, wondering if he was going to make it.

After spending two weeks hobbling around on crutches in a pneumatic walking boot, he’d been graduated to an ankle wrap and cane just that morning. He’d been elated to finally be free of what had amounted to a cast and had immediately ditched the cane in his quarters, pronouncing himself cured. But his impetuous decision had caught up with him as the day had progressed; and now he wished he’d held onto the support he’d been too stubborn and impatient to use as he made his way slowly and painfully toward the isolation room in the back, trying to pretend it didn't hurt.

Compressing his lips into a thin line of grim determination, he ignored the ache as best he could as he passed by the main ward, which was empty except for two marines who’d received minor injuries on a recent away mission. Strapping boys, both of them – they still somehow managed to look small and helpless as they slept the sleep of the drugged beneath pale blue blankets pulled up and folded neatly across their chests.

As John paused and studied them, hooked up to softly-beeping monitors amidst a forest of tubes and wires, he was instantly reminded of how uncomfortable hospitals always made him. In fact, he found it ironic that someone who disliked hospitals as much as he did spent so much time in them. All they did was bring up memories of death and loss, and as a general rule, he hated them for the pain and suffering they represented. Tonight was no exception, although the medical unit seemed especially peaceful at the moment, with its slumbering patients and the skeleton crew of quietly-industrious doctors and nurses who moved amongst the medical equipment like ghosts, checking vitals and noting charts without a sound.

Familiar faces, all, they glanced up from their duties when they caught sight of him, and he gave them a nod and a tight smile before moving on. As he’d expected, no one stepped up to challenge him, although it was well outside of official visiting hours. They simply returned the silent greeting with varying degrees of sympathy and concern reflected in their expressions before they bent to their tasks again, unphased by his presence.

As well they should be, John mused. After all, it wasn't the first time in the five years he'd been stationed on Atlantis that he'd made the same pilgrimage at the same odd hours. He’d visited Ronon, Rodney, and Teyla all the time when they’d been stuck in there going Cold Turkey after Ford had juiced them all up on Wraith enzyme. And when Ronon had had to go through it again, detoxing violently from the enzyme rocketing through his system after one of his Satedan buddies had betrayed him and turned him over to the Wraith for indoctrination as a Worshipper, Sheppard had been there, too. It hadn’t mattered if it was early morning or the dead of night, he’d shown up with comics and conversation to distract him when he’d needed it.

And his team had returned the favor tenfold whenever he’d been locked up in quarantine, himself. Most notably after Ellia’s attack, when he’d almost lost the battle with Carson’s retrovirus and turned into some sort of monstrous Iratus hybrid. Instinctively, his teammates had gathered around him to offer their support, and by their mere presence had reminded him what it was to be human again. It was an emotional give-and-take that just came naturally among people who watched each other’s backs on a regular basis; something they did for each other without even thinking about it, when one of them was down for the count.

Which was why he was here to see Todd, surprisingly enough. Even though the wraith wasn’t a member of the Expedition, he’d certainly pulled out all the stops to make sure that everyone had made it out of the diseased ship alive; and in Sheppard’s book, that deserved some sort of recognition.

The downside was that this was the first time he’d visited since they’d been rescued from the Hive two weeks earlier, and John felt kind of bad about that.

At first, he’d had the excuse of being stuck in a hospital bed, too; but that had only lasted until he’d been discharged. Then he told himself he needed to focus on learning how to get around Atlantis with a cast and crutches, and avoided him some more. Before he knew it, fifteen days had gone by, and between worrying about the headaches Teyla was still getting from her brief attempt to control the damaged, unresponsive Hive and listening to Ronon’s constant bellyaching about having a wraith in the City and how easy it would be to put ‘it’ out of ‘it’s’ misery, any gratitude John might have felt toward Todd had congealed beneath the carefully-curated crust of wariness and distrust that experience had taught him to keep firmly in place.

But in spite of that, he hadn’t forgotten what Todd had done for them, even though Sheppard had tried convincing himself that it didn’t matter – that he didn’t care. The stiffness and lingering ache in his sprained ankle were a constant reminder of the landing they shouldn’t have survived if not for the wraith’s expert piloting skills, and his conscience finally wouldn’t allow him to put if off any longer.

He got his first glimpse of Todd as he walked past the observation window that ran the length of the ward, and what he saw wasn’t reassuring. The alien sat on the examination table in the middle of the room with his back to him, his lean form as still as a statue, as if trying to conserve his energy. His long white hair was spread across his black, leathery uniform like spiderwebs, as tangled and matted as ever; but it couldn’t hide the hunch of his broad shoulders or the dejected angle of his head, both of which spoke volumes on the truth of his condition that a healthy wraith would have gone to great lengths to conceal. A spike of unease stabbed through John and he slowed to take a second look. As he did, he detected the slight expansion of the wraith’s ribcage as he inhaled, and even that seemed labored and unsteady, like he was struggling for breath.

From his limited knowledge of Wraith, Sheppard was aware that they had to be in pretty dire straits before they allowed any hint of weakness to show; and frankly, Todd looked terrible.

He was still pondering the implications of the other’s troubling body language when he reached the entrance to the isolation ward and the marines who were stationed by the door. It was standard operating procedure to post guards around-the-clock whenever they played host to a wraith, but somehow it seemed a bit like overkill this time out.

“At ease, men,” John drawled when they came to attention. “I’m just here for a visit. How’s our guest?” He indicated the occupant of the room beyond with a lift of his chin.

“He’s quiet, sir.” This from Lieutenant Wardwell, who was the higher ranking of the pair. “Mostly he just sits there and stares into space. Even when Dr. Keller is in there with him, he just does what she asks and not much else.”

Sheppard’s gaze flickered from the marine’s face to the portal and back again, his expression thoughtful. At the moment, Todd was riddled with cancerous tumors and, from his posture, probably in severe pain. With no way to feed and regenerate, the fact that he was still sitting upright was a minor miracle - although when John had started caring whether the alien lived or died, he really couldn’t say and didn’t want to examine too closely.

“I’m not surprised,” was all he said as he nodded toward the door. “I’d like to go in now.”

“Yes, sir.” The other guard reached out to turn the knob and push the door open.

“Alone,” John clarified sharply when they looked like they were preparing to precede him into the ward.

Although they looked like they wanted to argue against it, the marines resumed their places by the doorway like good soldiers and didn’t say a word.

As soon as Sheppard stepped into the isolation ward, the door was closed and locked behind him, but he scarcely noticed. While his nose wrinkled at the overpowering odor of antiseptic and sickness that pervaded the space, his gaze was riveted on Todd’s profile, which was partially obscured by the lank strands of hair that hid his downturned face.

“Hey, Todd,” he ventured cautiously as he moved closer, only to freeze mid-step when the wraith’s hands viciously gripped the edge of the gurney and his head snapped up, golden eyes flashing as he turned and shot John a venomous look over his shoulder. Seeing him face-to-face for the first time since the Hive crashed, John couldn’t help but notice that he looked even more like death warmed over than usual.

“Here to gloat, Sheppard?” Todd snarled.

“No, of course not,” John replied, hardening his voice, although he was surprisingly stung by the other’s vehemence. “I came to see how you were doing.”

His mother had died of cancer when he was ten. It had been a drawn-out, torturous ordeal for everyone involved - not that he was going to tell Todd that; but he wouldn’t wish something like this on anyone, not even a wraith. And especially not on this particular wraith, who, for all that he was a murderous, double-dealing, royal pain-in-the-ass most of the time, always delivered when the chips were down.

And one, John begrudgingly admitted to himself, who’s kind of grown on me.

Keeping his eye on the alien, Sheppard resumed his slow advance across the room. Todd watched his progress impassively, his face gaunt and the skin around his eyes grey and bruised-looking, betraying his weariness.

“You really want to know how I’m doing?” he asked when John reached the end of the gurney. His voice was lackluster and devoid of emotion. “I am waiting to die.”

“Oh, come on,” Sheppard coaxed, giving vent to some of his irritation. Todd was always such a drama queen. “That’s just quitter talk. Give the medical team time. They’ll figure it out.”

But instead of rising to the challenge and engaging in the debate as John had hoped, the wraith just looked away, defeat evident in every line of his body. “They’ve tried everything. Nothing is working.”

“How do you know?” John retorted, grasping for anger instead of the dread that was starting to settle in. If Todd gave up fighting now, he was as good as dead already.

The wraith turned back to glare at him as if he’d heard the unspoken sentiment and did not approve. “Dr. Keller told me today. Not in so many words, of course; but I didn’t need any to pluck the truth from her head while she offered lies and platitudes with her mouth.”

“What truth?”

“Apparently, I have not responded to any of the treatments that have been attempted and there are no more to offer. They were intended for human physiology, not wraith, and…” Todd suddenly broke off mid-sentence and his yellow cat’s eyes widened as he clutched at his abdomen. His gaze darted accusingly in John’s direction, his eyes glassy with pain and wild with despair. “Does this please you? Is this why you came? Is this what you wanted to see?”

Then he was beyond speech. Bowing his head, he curled in on himself and lurched forward, his breath hissing through clenched, serrated teeth while his body trembled with suppressed agony.

John’s anger evaporated instantly, and before he even realized he’d moved, he was in front of the wraith and grabbing his upper arms to keep him from falling off the gurney. This close, he could smell how the distinctive, faintly spicy scent he’d come to associate with Todd had gone sour with the illness that was ravaging his body, and feel the fine trembling in his limbs that he didn't have the strength to control or hide. Sheppard dug his fingers convulsively into the leather, desperate to assist in whatever way he could, but not really knowing what else to do except keep him from ending up on the floor. Feeling useless, and torn between calling for a nurse and not wanting to leave Todd alone, he’d just decided to go for help when the wraith lifted his head enough to meet his eyes and murmured “Stay,” through chapped lips.

John couldn’t tell if it was an order or a request - not that it mattered. It was what Todd wanted, and it was something he could do.

“I’m here,” he replied, and moved closer, glancing down to make sure he was planting his injured leg where he could offer additional support if it was needed. When he looked up again, the alien was leaning toward him, and the next thing Sheppard knew, Todd’s forehead was resting against his shoulder and the wraith’s breath was blowing hot and harsh against his neck as he fought his way through the pain.

John froze, taken aback by the sudden and unexpected intimacy, and it took him a couple of beats to subdue his instinctive urge to recoil from the contact before he gave in and braced himself to take Todd’s weight like he would have done for any of his teammates. Although his heart was still pounding in his chest from the atavistic fight-or-flight response that had kicked in automatically at suddenly being so close to such a dangerous predator, he also felt an odd, magnetic pull and an underlying sense of rightness at being the one to offer aid; and he gave the alien’s arms a gentle, reassuring squeeze to remind Todd of his presence while he watched over him and waited for the spasm to pass.

After what seemed like forever, the wraith’s tortured respiration finally eased. The fingers that had been clinging so tightly to his midsection loosened, and his hand fell weakly to his side as he slowly lifted his head. Carefully disentangling himself from John’s grasp, he sat up straighter, moving stiffly like every bone in his body hurt and panting like he’d just run a marathon. “It is over for now,” he gasped when he could speak again. “Thank you.”

While Todd was busy recovering, John took a step back and was staring at him like he’d never seen him before. “What the hell was that?”

The wraith eyed him for a long moment before he spoke again, his gaze trailing up and down his body in a leisurely sweep as if trying to decide whether he was worth the trouble. "The disease is far advanced. The pain is to be expected..."

"That's not what I mean," John shot back.

"I know what you mean, Sheppard," Todd replied condescendingly, a hint of his old arrogance in his haggard features. "And you know what it is. You've felt it before, if I'm not mistaken."

John frowned, a denial poised on his lips, when he suddenly realized that he had felt something like that before. “Wallace,” he rasped, pointing an accusatory finger in the wraith's direction as he returned Todd’s glance. “You controlled me somehow and manipulated me into ‘procuring’ him for you.”

The wraith chuckled, a dry, papery sound. “I’m sure you’d like to believe that I made you do it, but you know it isn’t true.

“Granted, the Brother Bond is more noticeable when we are in close proximity, but it is only a conduit of possibility. A thread of connection. It links individuals and creates a new whole; however, those who are bonded in this way retain their free will and their ability to decide who much or how little they wish to contribute to the gestalt. The satisfaction you felt in protecting me when I could not protect myself was merely the Brother Bond in action. It is the foundation upon which Hives are built, encouraging brothers to look out for each other for the good of all.”

John shook his head then. "No. It had to be coercion. Why would I have talked a man into death-by-wraith otherwise, unless you’d forced me into it somehow? For all I know, you've been doing it all along."

"Using that logic, I could accuse you of the same thing, Sheppard."

"What are you talking about?" John snarled, immediately on the defensive.

"For all the times you say I influenced you, perhaps I should claim you manipulated me into providing a fleet of Hives to fight against the Asurans, or intel to help you locate Teyla when Michael took her, or agreed to pilot my damaged Hive in for a safe water landing after you'd killed my crew and locked me in one of my own cells. Even my cooperation and implementation of Dr. Keller's ambitious-but-doomed plans to free us from the need to feed on human life, which I only undertook in the hope that..."

Todd stopped then, pressing his lips together to keep from saying more, and the silence hung heavy between as the wraith stared down at his lap and John watched him. A moment later, he glanced up and Sheppard thought he caught a glimpse of something that might have been longing in Todd's eyes before he masked it with indifference. "Let us just say that the blade cuts both ways."

John froze where he stood and gaped at him, his mind awhirl. Was it possible that Todd was telling the truth? Sheppard had always suspected that the Gift of Life had come with strings attached, and more than once had made the wraith a scapegoat for some of the choices he’d made – and certain… dreams he’d had, halfway-convinced that on some subtle level he’d been compromised. To hear otherwise tugged at an even deeper conviction, and one that he’d done his best to keep buried: that while it might have been convenient to lay all the blame at Todd’s feet, in his heart-of-hearts, he’d always known it was only an excuse.

Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. If that was the case, it meant that even though he could sometimes sense the bond that connected them, ultimately the decision to push a grieving Wallace into allowing Todd to feed on him had been his own idea, no one else’s. Which also meant that all the other times he’d sought out the wraith, or rescued him, or allied himself with him for some common goal, or even just kinda missed him a little and wondered what he was up to, had been of his own volition, too.

It was way too much to process in a single go and he was almost relieved when Todd heaved a resigned sigh and sagged into a despondent slouch. "Why are you here, Sheppard?" he asked peevishly. "I grow weary of your quibbling."

"I dunno," John shrugged, packing that little revelation away to be revisited later so he could focus on the here-and-now. "I guess I just wanted to see if you were alright, and if you needed anything."

The wraith snorted, grimly amused. "I am definitely not 'alright.' And what I need..." Here he paused, and his yellow cat's eyes flickered speculatively from John's face to the center of his chest and back again. “You cannot provide." Then he turned away and stared into space as if the interview was over.

Dismissed, Sheppard stood glued to the spot where Todd had left him. He could still feel the heat of the other’s scrutiny on his skin even through the fabric of his uniform, and the scar that the wraith had left there three years earlier tingled in response. His breath hitched at the sensation, filling his lungs and his sinuses with the disinfectant-laden air of the sickroom. He could even feel it coating his tongue. It made him want to gag; and he knew that if it bothered him this much, it was probably overwhelming to the wraith who’d been stuck here for the past two weeks. No wonder he felt like crap.

As John swallowed a few times trying to rid himself of the acrid taste, he made a decision. Leaning forward conspiratorially, he cocked his thumb toward the door. "I’m going to get some fresh air. You want to get out of here for a little while?"

Todd’s reaction was instantaneous. His head swiveled back around and he looked at John like he was crazy, but Sheppard was gratified to see that there was also a gleam in his eye that had been conspicuously absent before. “What do you propose?” he asked cautiously.

“I’m taking a little walk. Care to join me?”

“And you trust me not to try and escape?”

It was John’s turn to give Todd a doubtful glance. “Never; but I don’t think you’d get very far right now. Can you even stand? Can you walk?”

This time the wraith did rise to the bait. “Watch me,” he snarled as he braced his arms on the examination table and leaned forward as if he was going to slide off and stand. But then he stopped and glanced at the floor as if calculating the distance, and John saw his head droop in defeat as all the fight went out of him.

“Never mind. I’ll just stay here,” he breathed, not meeting Sheppard’s eyes.

“Nope,” John replied, trying for cheerful. “We’re going out.” He wasn’t going to allow Todd to wallow in self-pity a moment longer, not if he could help it. “What do you need - a wheelchair, a hand up? What?”

The wraith canted his eyes up and glared daggers at him. “I require nothing from you.”

Sheppard shook his head and dug in his heels. Two could play this game, and he’d always been good at tug-of-war.

“C’mon, Todd,” he said, gentling his tone. “There’s no shame in asking for help.”

“There is if you are a wraith,” came the alien’s reply, in a voice so quiet that John found himself bending closer so he could hear him. “Within the hierarchy of Wraith society, weakness of any kind is considered a flaw to be exploited as soon as it is discovered, and so it is hidden at all costs. A weak warrior threatens the security of the Hive - a weak Commander, the entire fleet; and both are soon winnowed out and eliminated. You cannot begin to imagine how difficult it was for my crew to be afflicted as they were with this debilitating sickness - how difficult it was for me to admit I was out of my depth and to seek your assistance. But we were out of options; if another Hive had found us in this condition before we reached Atlantis, we would have been destroyed immediately.”

“So, you guys are never allowed to have a bad day or need something?”

“Only among Brothers can we show…,” Todd began, then stopped. He raised his head so he could meet Sheppard’s gaze squarely and a look of understanding passed between them, a silent acknowledgement of the nature of their bond. The alien’s expression was almost too raw, too honest, for John to handle, and it was all he could do to keep from looking away, from backing away – from running away. And yet, for all that he desperately wanted to escape from whatever it was that inextricably tied them to each other, he realized that there was a tiny, traitorous part of him that had already accepted the inevitable. He and Todd were brothers by Wraith standards – whatever that meant, and if he had to play that card now and claim his place for the other’s own good, then so be it.

“Then there shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve already seen you at your worst – at least in recent history. I saw you when you were chained and starving in Kolya’s dungeon. I led the team that rescued you from the Queen at the cloning facility who was getting ready to feed on you. I was the one who guided your hand to Wallace’s chest after you’d collapsed in Rodney’s lab. Let me help you now. Tell me what you need.”

The wraith tightened his lips into a thin line for a moment as if considering all the ramifications of John’s offer, then nodded. “I require… assistance getting off the table.”

Biting back a snarky comment about how minor a request it was after all that fuss, Sheppard sidled up to the gurney so the wraith could use him as a support. Although he was still hazy on why a wraith showing weakness was something worth killing him for; when it came to not wanting to admit that he needed assistance doing something so basic, John got it. He’d always hated the helplessness of convalescence with a fiery, burning passion, himself, especially when he had to ask for help getting to the bathroom.

He held himself steady while Todd braced his hand on his shoulder and slid himself cautiously off the table. Through that single point of contact, John could sense how tense and uncertain he was, could feel the diminished strength in his fingers when they tightened spasmodically with the tremors that wracked his body.

Once he’d gained his footing, the wraith continued to cling to Sheppard’s shoulder as he swayed unsteadily on his feet, and it was only then that John noticed that he was wearing blue fuzzy hospital socks. For a second, he considered the logistics of trying to get Todd laced into his boots, but decided against it, figuring it would take all of the wraith’s limited reserves of strength to complete the task and then they’d just have to take them off again. Thankfully, they didn’t have far to go.

When Todd seemed a little more stable, he let his hand drop to his side. “I am ready,” he murmured, although Sheppard kind of doubted it. The wraith was leaning slightly to one side and looked like he was about to fall over.

“If you’re sure.”

“I am. Proceed.”

John sighed and turned toward the door. This was either going to go really well, or be a huge disaster.

Tapping the intercom by the door, he let Wardwell know that he was ready to leave and that he was bringing Todd with him.

“Sir?” The marine’s voice rose an octave through the speaker.

“I’m taking him out for some air.”

He glanced over at Todd as he spoke, thinking to catch his eye as he would a human so he didn’t feel excluded from the conversation, but the alien wasn’t even paying attention. His gaze was fixed firmly on the ground in front of him, looking like he was concentrating very hard on just staying upright, and John started having second thoughts on the wisdom of his impromptu field trip. All that changed, however, when the lock was disengaged and the door swung open to reveal the two marines standing at attention on either side of the portal. As they came into view, Todd straightened up and squared his shoulders like someone had tugged on his strings, and the pinched expression of suffering that had dominated his features up until that moment was packed away behind a stony mask of bored indifference. It was such a dramatic transformation that John couldn’t help but be impressed. If he didn’t already know that the wraith was probably on his last legs, he’d never know it just by looking at him now.

Still marveling over the drastic metamorphosis – and a little jealous of the alien’s ability to hide his discomfort so well – Sheppard started forward, trying to keep his own limp to a minimum.

Glad for an excuse to give his throbbing ankle a rest, John walked at a slow, easy pace so the alien didn’t have to struggle to keep up. As he reached the doorway, he cast a surreptitious glance over his shoulder to make sure Todd was managing to follow just as the wraith took his first halting steps. When he saw that he was mobile, Sheppard turned and sauntered out of the isolation ward, nodding to the guards as he passed. The pair responded to the greeting with nods and smiles of their own, which promptly vanished as soon as Todd emerged from the room. Although he barely acknowledged them when he shuffled by, their eyes grew flinty as they gripped their weapons tighter and made as if to follow.

Sheppard caught the movement in his peripheral vision and turned to face the sentries, unconsciously placing himself between them and the alien, who’d ground to a halt a few feet away and was waiting quietly.

“With all due respect, sir,” Wardwell began, eyeing Todd distrustfully over the Colonel's shoulder, “we were ordered to guard the wraith and escort him whenever he left the enclosure.”

John rested his hands on his hips and nodded. “Yes. On my orders. Protecting Atlantis is my top priority, and I put those protocols in place to keep everyone safe. However, I have reviewed the situation, and I believe that at the moment this wraith is not a threat. He can barely stand, let alone cause trouble.”

When the Lieutenant looked like he was going to say more, Sheppard held up a hand to forestall him. “I’m not giving him the run of the City, or anything like that. He and I are just going to take a little walk and then we’re going to come back. And you’re going to wait here. If I need you, I’ll call you. Understand?” Although his tone was conversational, even friendly, there was an undercurrent of steel to it that brooked no argument.

“Yes, sir,” both guards chorused in unison and resumed their stances by the door.

John turned and beckoned Todd forward, and the two of them made their way slowly and painfully toward a short, nondescript service corridor, leaving the marines behind. About halfway down the hall, the wraith called for a rest, for which John was grateful. His ankle, which already hurt like a rotten tooth, was starting to feel like it was swelling again.

Todd leaned his shoulder against the wall with his head bowed as he tried to catch his breath. “I don’t know if this was such a good idea, Sheppard,” he grumbled. “Where are you taking me?”

“We’re almost there. It’s just up ahead,” John assured him as he rallied and started off again. With a groan, the wraith peeled himself off the embossed metal paneling and staggered after him. Before long, they reached the end of the hall and turned the corner - and almost ran into the sliding glass door that led to the medical suite’s private balcony.

On the other side of the translucent panel, moonlight streamed through the pergola of flying buttresses that arched over the empty terrace, painting the tables and chairs scattered here-and-there a brilliant white, and falling on the broad deck in slatted stripes of light and shadow that led the eye inexorably toward the dark, endless horizon. In the distance, a pale silver trail danced enticingly on the water, while closer to home, the low, incessant hiss of waves could be heard through the glass, whispering soothing promises of freedom. It tugged at the psyche like a siren’s irresistible call, setting the mind free to soar across the fathomless blackness of the ocean, and contemplate the thousands of stars that twinkled in the vast purple velvet sky above.

Suddenly eager to feel the wind on his face, John lifted the latch and pushed the slider open, letting in a wave of moist, salt-laden air that both he and the wraith instinctively inhaled deep into their lungs, eyes closing in sublime pleasure.

When Sheppard opened them again a moment later, he found Todd looking him with the pupils of his golden eyes blown wide and an expression on his face that John couldn’t even begin to decipher. Rattled by the strange heat of the other’s regard, he could feel his cheeks growing warm as he stood aside so the wraith could go ahead of him.

He was glad he did, not only for the time-out to try and regain his composure, but for the unexpected opportunity to bear witness to a metamorphosis even more stunning than the one he’d been privy to earlier.

It was like seeing a flower unfold in the sun to watch Todd step out into the fresh night air. His shoulders, which had slumped with exhaustion from the effort of walking even such a short distance, settled back where they belonged as he raised his face toward the moonlight. His gait became steadier and his breathing easier the farther he wandered across the balcony, until he was grasping the rail and studying the night sky with unabashed exuberance.

“The stars,” he breathed, when John finally joined him at the rail, turning to meet Sheppard’s gaze with yellow cat’s eyes full of awe and gratitude. “You’ve given them back to me.”

Embarrassed by the outpouring of sentiment from such an unexpected quarter, John rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s nothing. It was the least I could do.”

“It is everything,” Todd countered, his multi-tonal voice low and gruff with emotion as he tightened his grip on the rail and tilted his head to bask in the starlight. “Thank you, John Sheppard. You remembered how important they are to me.”

Unfortunately, his miraculous recovery didn’t last very long. Once the first flush of euphoria had passed, the wraith needed to rest, and they eventually found themselves sitting in companionable silence at one of the tables, enjoying the ocean breeze as they listened to the incessant slap and roar of waves beating themselves against the base of the City.

“I need to leave, Sheppard,” Todd announced suddenly, startling John out of his reverie as his voice broke the stillness.

“You want to go back in?” he asked, confused.

The wraith looked at him for a moment and shook his head. “No, that’s not what I mean. I need to go seek my cure before it’s too late.”

“Oh. That,” Sheppard replied reluctantly. “I don’t know if that’s going to be possible.”

Todd sat up straighter and leaned his elbows on the painted metal table. “Am I a prisoner, then?” he inquired, his brow furrowing with concern as he tilted his head questioningly.

“Not quite; but Woolsey thinks you’re a security risk.”

The alien chuckled, although there was very little humor in it. “I have been a security risk for a very long time; and yet, the City is still here and everyone sleeps safe in their beds. If I had wanted to destroy Atlantis – or capture it, it would have already happened. My only interest is in allying myself with you for the benefit of both our people.”

John sighed. “I wish it was that simple.” And, strangely, he really did.

Feeling like the evening was coming to a close, he stood and stretched, clearly favoring his sprained ankle. He could feel the wraith’s eyes on him.

“I would heal you if I could, Sheppard,” Todd remarked, then paused as he turned both of his hands over so they were palm up and gazed regretfully at the one that had formerly contained a feeding orifice. He raised it so he could examine it more closely, then cradled it in his other hand and ran his thumb back and forth over the spot before resting it back on the table again with a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately, at this point, I cannot even heal myself.”

John stood and stared, unsure of how to respond when they both knew it was the Atlantis Expedition’s fault the wraith was in this mess at all. It had been Jennifer’s retrovirus, after all, that had brought him to the point he was at now: sick and dying and unable to regenerate; and it was Woolsey’s dithering about whether or not to keep him in custody that might actually kill him.

But while it might be convenient just to keep him locked up until he died, John knew it wasn’t right. Todd was dangerous and unpredictable, to be sure; but even though dealing with him was like playing with a live grenade, the wraith had been correct in saying that he was their best hope for a mutually-beneficial alliance. Not to mention the psychic connection between himself and the alien that fascinated Sheppard against his will, and the feelings he spent a lot of time denying that reared their ugly head every once in a while, anyway.

Damnit, Todd, John cursed silently. I still need you.

Aloud, he said, “C’mon. We should probably get you back inside before the guards start getting worried and come looking for us.”

“Very well,” Todd replied stoically. He rose unsteadily from the chair with as much dignity as he could muster, but John could see his shoulders sagging at the thought of being locked away again.

John paused by the open slider and turned back to face the wraith, his features pinched and pensive. “Listen: for what it’s worth, I agree with you. You deserve your shot at getting your life back. I’m going to go see Woolsey first thing tomorrow, and I promise I’ll do my best to get you released.”

“Why?” Todd’s inscrutable gaze crawled over his features like he really wanted to know.

“Because I gave you my word. On the Hive,” John finally replied with a helpless shrug. “Because even after everything that happened, you saved all of our lives anyway.”

The wraith huffed an amused breath and offered a fleeting grin, his opalescent shark teeth glinting in the moonlight. “I suppose I shouldn’t mention that I was merely trying to save myself.”

John found himself smiling back in a way that felt almost fond, but for once, he didn’t care. For a few minutes, anyway, it was just him and the wraith. There was no one else to see and judge.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” he replied as he let his guard down enough to acknowledge - maybe for the first time without rancor and self-recrimination - that there was so much more going on here than met the eye. Whether it be the Brother Bond that had been forged between them three years earlier, or something… deeper – and stranger, he couldn’t be sure; but on some level, he realized, he might actually be kind of okay with it. “You saved us, too, though, and for that I am… grateful.”

The smile that lit the wraith’s face made John wonder if Todd was picking up on his emotions again, which he was sure were probably pretty loud at the moment and bordering on things he wasn’t sure he was ready to admit himself yet, never mind anyone else. Mortified by the thought, his cheeks flushed hot and red, and his open expression collapsed into a scowl that only made the alien’s smile widen into a toothy grin, and suddenly he was sure of it.

But before he could come up with something snarky and off-putting to ruin the moment and get the wraith out of his head, Todd derailed his retreat by resting a hand on his shoulder in a gesture reminiscent of when John had helped him off the gurney. This time, however, the pressure was light, and the squeeze he gave before releasing it was gentle – almost affectionate.

“As am I, John Sheppard,” he replied, his rough voice soft for once, and his tone surprisingly sincere. “As am I.”