“… Lantean vessel, out.” John sighed as he disengaged ship-to-Hive communications and watched the docking instructions flash across the HUD.
After almost fourteen hours alone in the Puddle Jumper trying to convince himself otherwise, he still wasn’t sure that collaborating with the Wraith on anything was a good idea. Let alone Todd, who had a habit of helping himself to whatever data and technology he wanted regardless of the safeguards that Rodney put in place. And if it wasn’t for one of Atlantis’ reconnaissance teams picking up faint energy readings resembling those of a ZPM from the ruins of a Wraith outpost on an uninhabited planet, they wouldn’t be. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond their control had made that decision for them.
At first, they’d thought the squat, rambling structure might be one of Michael’s hidden laboratories, but after blasting their way through the main entrance they’d found no footprints in the thick layer of dust on the floor, and the air had a stale, unused quality to it. Pushing deeper into the complex, they'd soon discovered that it was unlike any other Wraith facility they’d ever found before.
Although it had the organically grown feel typical of Wraith design, instead of finding winding corridors and open, vaulted chambers, the entire place seemed to be segmented into labs connected by short hallways, and everything was locked down tight. While that in itself could have been handled easily with well-aimed gunfire and judicious applications of C-4, they’d been hindered even further by the number of increasingly nasty booby traps they’d encountered in the few cells and passageways they’d managed to break into. After three days of tripping as many deadfalls and explosive devices as they’d managed to locate and disarm, it had finally taken the loss of two marines and a civilian engineer in a single incident for them to realize that it might be easier if they had an actual wraith to unlock doors and deactivate any hidden dangers.
Colonel Carter had understandably hedged on that particular request and had, in fact, been in a meeting with John and Rodney to discuss pulling the plug on the mission, when the Away Team reported finding some sort of control room with what appeared to be a central CPU and banks of terminals, indicating the presence of a large database.
A ZPM they couldn’t get their hands on was something they could have walked away from if they had to. A ZPM plus a Wraith computer in the middle of a warren of labs with unknown purposes was another story. Eager to gain access to whatever intelligence it might contain, but afraid to proceed for fear of triggering some sort of self-destruct, Sam had finally encouraged John to try and contact his ‘friend’ to see if he would help.
Todd had responded to the signal Sheppard sent through the relay station in short order, and after very little convincing had agreed - but with conditions. First, that he would not be shackled or imprisoned. Second, that he would not be followed around by guards. And third, that John Sheppard would personally ferry him to and from his ship, and come to get him by himself as a show of good faith in their arrangement.
Although being forced to act as chauffeur seemed a bit excessive, none of the terms had really been a surprise to John, who’d watched the wraith’s eyes closely in the viewscreen as the invitation had been extended and seen them take on that shrewd gleam they got when he thought he could turn something to his advantage. Sheppard had refused at first, of course; but it had been more a matter of form than anything else. Todd had them over a barrel, and they all knew it. He was the only Wraith the Atlantis Expedition had any relationship with – and he was willing to assist, for a price. In the end, John had had no choice but to agree.
Which is how he’d ended up here: approaching a strange Hive in a remote sector of space, far from any planets with a stargate. In fact, the coordinates Todd had transmitted were literally in the middle of nowhere, in a dead zone that contained no inhabited worlds at all. John had had to gate to an address as close to the ship’s location as he could get, then set off on the thirteen-hour journey alone in his Jumper to the Hive’s far-flung location.
At least he wasn’t showing up on Todd’s doorstep without a gift, John thought with a smirk as he slowed the Puddle Jumper so he could pilot it into the Dart Bay. After being sealed up in what amounted to a tin can for so long, he was pretty sure that he – and the ship – reeked pretty badly, but he figured that’s what Todd got for parking so far away from the mall.
But as the Hive loomed over him, dark and foreboding, his snarky grin faded rapidly into a moue of tension. As he passed beneath the starboard dorsal that overshadowed the entrance, he leaned forward and glanced up at the underside through the windshield, doing his best to ignore the trickle of apprehension that ran through him. Being this close to one of the gargantuan warships never failed to elicit an instinctive fight-or-flight response; unfortunately, at the moment, he could do neither.
Recalling himself to the task at hand, he piloted the Jumper through the hangar and brought it in for a landing on the designated pad with expert precision. As he shut down the ship, a sigh escaped his lips that was as much resignation as relief, and he sat for a moment in stillness, staring out at the huge, cavernous Dart Bay without seeing it while he listened to the metal that housed the Jumper’s reactor core tick softly as it cooled. Then, steeling himself for the ordeal ahead, he punched the door control before he could change his mind.
Rising from his seat, John turned to face the back of the Puddle Jumper, his hand resting casually on the gun strapped to his thigh and his eyes wary as he watched the rear hatch open. The last time he’d been invited to board one of Todd’s Hives, three Drones had stunned him and his team to unconsciousness the minute the ramp had dropped. He wasn’t taking any chances.
But as the hatch touched down, the open portal revealed only a dimly-lit docking bay, empty and eerily silent. John frowned, wondering at the lack of a welcoming committee, and popped the thumb-snap strap that retained his Beretta as he started forward to investigate.
He hadn’t taken more than a few cautious steps, however, when Todd suddenly emerged from the shadows and started up the ramp to meet him. Tall and imposing in his black leathery coat and boots, he looked every inch the mighty Commander – except for his hair. That, as usual, was a barely tamed rat’s nest.
Sheppard couldn’t help but grin at the familiar incongruity in the wraith’s appearance as he met Todd’s gaze, and found him smiling back, his pale, craggy face open and relaxed like he was genuinely pleased to see him. He also seemed to be alone, and unarmed – aside from his feeding hand – and John felt the constricting band of anxiety encircling his chest loosen just a little bit.
That all changed the instant Todd reached the top, and his pleasant expression morphed into a rictus of surprise. Serrated teeth flashing in the low light, he stumbled back a step as if struck and gave his head a quick shake like he was trying to clear it. Already on high alert, a fresh rush of adrenaline tightened John’s muscles and he reached instinctively for his sidearm, confused as to what was happening and how to respond, when the wraith finally composed himself enough to choke out a greeting.
“I came to welcome you to my Hive and offer you rest and refreshments before we started back, but you’re making my eyes water, Sheppard. Before we do anything else, let’s get you cleaned up.”
Despite the fact that he'd achieved his intended goal in spades, John bridled at the remark, and its implications. “Well, if I didn’t have to make a half-day’s journey to get here, it wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place,” he shot back, his irritation with Todd’s stipulation that he act as his personal taxi service spilling over into anger.
Instead of rising to the bait, Todd raised both hands in a placating gesture and offered a rueful smile. “I intended no insult, Sheppard. I was merely stating facts. Wraith are especially sensitive to olfactory input, and while I usually find your scent appealing, it was rather… concentrated after being in an enclosed space for such an extended period of time. It caught me off-guard.”
Reacting viscerally to the implied threat of the wraith’s feeding slit so close to his chest, John’s fingers tightened around the grip of his weapon as his gaze flickered between Todd’s face and his palm, ready to draw if necessary. Although he felt as oddly complimented as he was incredibly creeped-out by Todd’s assurance that he liked the way he smelled, he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot if push came to shove.
The wraith seemed to notice that John was keeping a nervous eye on his upraised hand, because he sighed heavily and dropped it to his side.
“Sheppard, I know you may find this difficult to believe; but I do have better things to do with my time than lure you into the far reaches of the Pegasus Galaxy just so I can feed on you.”
John snorted in disbelief, but relaxed his hold on the Beretta. “That’s another thing,” he countered, unwilling to let Todd off the hook so easily. “Why did I have to make the trip out here at all, when you already have a perfectly serviceable Hive? And why are you in the middle of nowhere? If you were so adamant about having me pick you up, the least you could have done was take up position a little closer to a world with a stargate, where it’d be easier for you to make a general nuisance of yourself like you usually do.”
John’s biting comments seemed to amuse the wraith, and an appreciative chuckle issued from his mouth before he sobered. “While it might have been more convenient for you, it would have been immeasurably more dangerous for me. We were recently ambushed by two Hives from another faction that were infringing on my territory, and we barely escaped with our lives. After we managed to give them the slip, I relocated here. It’s far enough off the beaten path for the ship to rest in relative safety while repairs are effected, and for the hull to finish regenerating from the damage it sustained in battle.”
“Oh,” was all John was able to muster, his ire fading into vague embarrassment for losing his temper when all Todd was doing was the exact same thing John would have done in a similar situation. Just as his discomfort reached the point where he was starting to feel compelled to maybe speak up and apologize, the wraith interrupted his thoughts with a bark of laughter and a beckoning gesture.
“Don’t hurt yourself, Sheppard. Come and take a break, and I’ll have a team of Drones come in and wipe down the interior of your vessel while you do.”
“I don’t know how I feel about that,” John balked. Although he did. He absolutely did not want unsupervised Wraith crawling all over the Jumper for an hour or more, doing who knows what to his ship when he wasn’t there to keep a close eye on them. He might have a crumb or two of trust saved up for Todd, but he was the only one.
“Besides,” the wraith continued as if John hadn’t spoken, his tone taking on the same cheerful, smug edge as his smirk, “since you are technically acting under the directives of my terms, for my convenience, and the disinfection is necessary for my comfort level on the trip back, I don’t see that you have much say in it.”
Sheppard opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. They needed Todd’s help on this project, and he was vital enough to its success that Sam had sent John halfway across the galaxy to get him. If he antagonized the wraith now, there was a chance he’d be heading back to Atlantis alone, and the last thing he needed was having to explain to Commander Carter why he’d returned empty-handed.
As his shoulders slumped, Todd’s smile widened. Without another word, the wraith turned and made his way down the ramp, expecting John to follow. Expelling a heavy sigh of his own through pursed lips, Sheppard reluctantly clicked the safety back on his gun, then grabbed his overnight bag off the rearmost seat in the forward compartment where he’d left it and followed Todd into the Hive.
After a quick shower and shave in the surprisingly comfortable and well-appointed Worshipper quarters Todd had brought him to, John changed into his other uniform and stuffed the musky one in his bag. Then grabbing his tactical vest, he slipped it on as he met the wraith at the door.
“That’s much better,” Todd stated as he gave John a considering glance that started at the top of his head, then slowly trailed over the length of his body. A strangely pleasurable frisson ran down John’s back, playing along his spine like cool fingers under the almost-physical weight of that stare, and as the wraith met his gaze it was all he could do to suppress a shudder.
Dammit, Todd; knock it off, John muttered silently to himself as he glared back, while aloud he managed to grind out his thanks through gritted teeth.
The ghost of an amused smirk twitched the corner of Todd’s mouth upward as he turned away, and John suddenly had the distinct impression that he’d picked up on his non-verbal response as easily as his verbal one. But before he had a chance to raise his objections to the wraith’s suspected intrusion into his head, Todd extended his arm to indicate the direction they should go, and with a rumbled “Shall we?” proceeded down the shadowy corridor.
“I assumed that you would want to leave as soon as possible,” the wraith said as John fell into step beside him. “So rather detain you further with a sit-down meal, I had provisions delivered to your vessel. It was the least I could do in light of the numerous concessions you’ve been forced to make.”
Although Todd sounded sincere, John gave him a side-eyed glance to see if he was being sarcastic or not, but the wraith’s attention was focused on guiding them through the maze of twisting corridors.
“Uh – thanks,” he replied after a long moment, finally deciding to accept the olive branch for what it probably was just as the pause was becoming awkward.
“Don’t mention it,” Todd murmured, unexpectedly lobbing the conversational ball back into Sheppard’s court and leaving him scrambling to come up with a suitable response. Small-talk had never been John’s strong suit, and he no idea what the hell you'd chat about with a Wraith, anyway. Desperate to salvage the situation, he finally resorted to the tried-and-true subject of the weather, and launched into a monologue about the cold days and even colder nights on the planet they were heading to. He was just informing the wraith that the temperatures dipped so low the entire Away Team had to pack up and return to Atlantis every evening before sunset, when they emerged into the Dart Bay.
Saved by the bell, John tossed his baggage into the back of the Puddle Jumper and forgot all about weather reports as he spent the next twenty minutes inspecting it inside and out for anything out of the ordinary. Without having McKay there to go over the Jumper with a scanner, he had to rely on his own limited knowledge; but once he was reasonably certain that nothing untoward had been done to his ship, he walked back over to where the wraith was patiently waiting at the bottom of the ramp.
“Satisfied?” came the sardonic inquiry as Todd studied him, his enigmatic golden eyes glittering faintly in the dim light.
“I’m gonna have to be, aren’t I?” John snapped, an edge of frustration evident in his tone. “I don’t really have a choice, or we’re not going anywhere.” A frown creased his brow as he brushed past the wraith and started up the ramp, when a firm grip on his upper arm stopped him.
His heart leapt in his throat as he stared down at the green fingers holding him fast so effortlessly, wondering if he had the strength to break free as he felt Todd lean closer.
“I know this is difficult for you,” the wraith all but breathed in his ear, “but believe me when I tell you that my crew has no reason to tamper with your ship.”
John canted his eyes up to meet Todd’s, so close he could watch the other’s slit pupils dilate into pools of darkness that nearly swallowed the yellow iris which surrounded them. “I guess we’ll see about that, won’t we,” he replied noncommittally, his mistrust clear in his expression as he glared back. The wraith released John’s arm like he’d been burned and pulled away, giving John the opportunity to retreat the rest of the way up the ramp and into the vessel.
As he sat down in the pilot’s chair and initiated a call to Atlantis, he heard Todd trailing in behind him, and John wondered how the hell they were supposed to survive being locked up together in a Jumper for thirteen hours when the wraith was already getting on his last nerve. His irritation spiked even higher when Todd finally settled into the seat next to him. Instead of offering a cheeky grin or a snarled challenge that John could vent his pent-up ire on, Todd’s features were arranged in a mask of studied indifference and his manner was subdued.
John rolled his eyes in the wraith’s direction, his gaze gone flinty and cold as he refocused on the question Colonel Carter had just asked him. “Uh - Yeah, he’s here,” he answered her. “We’re just about to head out.”
“Understood. Are you sure everything is okay, John? Is Todd… prepared for the journey?” Samantha Carter’s voice was faint and staticky as it came across the headset, probably due to the Hive’s shielding, but he could still hear that perfect blend of confidence and concern which had quickly endeared her to the entire Expedition.
John quirked his eyebrow at Todd questioningly as he repeated her inquiry. “Colonel Carter is asking if you’re ready for the trip.”
Todd offered a small, careful nod. “Yes, of course,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I made sure to feed as soon as I received word that your ship was approaching. There shouldn’t be any problems.”
John didn’t even try to conceal his discomfited wince as he looked away and tapped his earpiece again. “Yeah, everything is just fine and dandy on this end,” he drawled sarcastically. “Looks like we’re good to go.”
“Have fun,” Sam teased, trying to lighten the mood as she picked up on his acerbic tone. “And try to get along. Remember: we need his help.”
“If you say so,” John deadpanned. He wasn’t promising anything. “Sheppard out.”
Ending the transmission, he finished up the last of his pre-flight checks and closed the rear hatch. Then, with Colonel Carter’s admonition to behave himself still ringing in his ear, he glanced at Todd again with a weary sigh. For all that the wraith always had some sort of hidden agenda, and seemed to enjoy invading his personal space and pushing his buttons a little too much, John begrudgingly had to admit that he’d been nothing but pleasant and accommodating since he’d arrived. He trusted that even less, but regardless of whatever ulterior motives lurked behind Todd’s veneer of cordiality, he figured it couldn’t hurt for him to try and play nice, too – at least until the wraith slipped up.
“Alright,” he announced in Todd’s general direction, “It’s time to get this show on the road. We have a long way to go.” Hoping a marginally friendlier tone of voice would be sufficient to dispel the awkward tension that had arisen between them without actually having to address it, he fired up the engines with a thought, brought up the HUD, and began maneuvering the Jumper out of the hangar.
Apparently it worked, because the next thing he heard was a soft inhalation of breath as Todd, who’d been unusually quiet since their earlier run-in, broke his silence to respond. “When I first learned of your route, I had my Navigator conduct a search of the immediate area to see if there might be another option. As I had hoped, he found an abandoned world with a space gate close to our present location. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in time for you to avoid having to make such a long, arduous journey; but if we were to use it, it would significantly shorten the trip back.”
John scowled thoughtfully. “We did a search, too, and turned up nothing. I wonder why it didn’t show up in Atlantis’ database.”
Todd shrugged, an oddly human gesture that John found mildly amusing. He was fairly certain the wraith had picked it up from him.
“The planet is deep in Wraith territory. It’s possible that whatever civilization once flourished there was culled to extinction sometime before the final siege that forced the Alterans to abandon Atlantis and escape to Earth. They probably removed it from their list of viable addresses a long time ago.”
“Huh,” John replied, interested in spite of his deeply ingrained distrust of any suggestion Todd might make. “How close is it?”
“About two hours, as you measure time,” the wraith replied, pulling a small data pad from his coat and showing the coordinates and gate address to John.
“Well, why didn’t you say so,” Sheppard quipped as he adjusted the Jumper’s heading. “Let’s go check it out.”
As they made their way to the coordinates Todd had provided, John contacted Atlantis again to advise them of the possible change in plans. “… I don’t know if the gate actually exists, or what condition it’s in,” he concluded, “but if it’s there and it works, we’ll have Todd disarming booby traps in no time.”
“That will certainly be a big help. Doctor Zelenka ended up in the infirmary today with a fractured ankle after tripping one in an area we thought we’d already cleared.”
“I’ll let you know when we’re through. Otherwise, expect to hear from me in twelve hours at the next check-in.”
“Okay, sounds good,” Colonel Carter replied. “Atlantis out.”
They reached the planet soon thereafter and located the gate without difficulty. As they brought the Puddle Jumper to a halt a short distance from the stargate, John dialed the address into the DHD. But although the individual chevrons lit up, nothing happened.
“That’s strange,” he murmured, and tried again. This time it connected, but the event horizon shimmered and pulsed in such a way which seemed to indicate that something was very wrong. The pair watched the surface flicker erratically, each lost in their own thoughts until it whooshed closed.
Todd shifted uneasily in his seat. “Perhaps we should forego gate travel and continue on our way,” he suggested, as he pondered the empty ring. “We have not deviated very far off-course. Our detour shouldn’t add too much extra time to our trip.”
“Let’s try it again,” John said, even as he was punching in the gate address a third time. Unlike the other two attempts, the ring activated instantaneously, and the event horizon that formed was solid and unwavering.
“Seems fine now,” John remarked. “It was probably just because it hasn’t been used in over ten thousand years.”
Todd glared at the gate, deliberating silently for a moment before he glanced at John uncertainly. “If you’re sure about this, Sheppard.”
“We’ll be fine,” John blithely assured him as he urged the Jumper forward and brought it around so they could approach the ring at speed. Everything appeared to be normal as they drew closer, but just as John retracted the drive pods and headed through the gate, arcs of energy suddenly began dancing between the chevrons, hitting the Jumper repeatedly like bolts of lightning as it passed. Components all over the ship overloaded and blew simultaneously, and as they exited the gate on the other end, they were both forced to throw their hands up to shield their faces as small explosions lit up the control panel and smoke poured from the auxiliary systems embedded in the bulkheads.
Instinctively going for the Jumper’s manual controls, John fought to adjust the vessel’s course as it careened toward the planet, but too many of the circuits had been fried by the electrical discharges for it to even attempt to respond, either manually or to his mental commands. He spared a thought to the fact that they were surrounded by blue sky, and he was grateful that by some minor miracle the planet they’d been heading for had a ring that was already in the high reaches of the atmosphere instead of outer space. With no way to correct their trajectory, they’d have burned up on re-entry for sure.
Of course, they were still dead if he couldn’t bring the Jumper’s systems back on line, and they were rapidly running out of time. Sweet-talking the ship for all he was worth and determined not to give up, Sheppard wrestled with the nearly unresponsive controls, his eyes streaming from the acrid smoke filling the cockpit as he watched the altimeter’s numbers hurtle toward zero. All he needed was a tiny course correction. Just. A. Couple. Of. Degrees.
“Hang on, we’re going in!” he exclaimed, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Todd grip the console in front of him, lips peeled back from sharp teeth in a fierce snarl of defiance as he braced for impact. But just as the virgin forest rushed up to meet them, John somehow managed to bring the Jumper’s nose up at the last second and instead of plunging into its depths, they skimmed above it, shearing off treetops and leaving a swath of destruction behind them that went on for miles.
Although that helped to slow them down considerably, in the end it was no use. Even with his expert piloting skills, John had virtually no maneuverability, so when the steep, rocky slope of the first in a series of foothills that had been in the distance when they’d descended suddenly loomed large, the Puddle Jumper plowed right into it.
It was sometime later when John came to with a startled gasp, his mind foggy, his body cold, but his nerve-endings alight with the tail-end of a strangely familiar surge of elation and pleasure that left him tingling all over. Disoriented and confused, his eyes flew open. When he could focus, he found himself gazing up into golden cat’s eyes, and it was only then that he could feel the pressure of the wraith’s hand against his chest.
“What the hell!” he cried as he grabbed at Todd’s wrist with both hands, adrenaline scorching through his system as he prepared to fight for his life. He should have known that the minute he couldn't defend himself, the damn wraith would try something!
“Relax, Sheppard,” Todd intoned, rolling the ‘r’ like he enjoyed the sound as he sat back on his haunches. Carefully disengaging from John's sternum, he pulled out of his weak grasp easily. “I was not feeding on you. I pulled you from the wreckage of your ship, injured. You required the Gift of Life.”
With the heat of the wraith’s hand gone, John shivered as everything came back to him in a flash: the malfunctioning gate, the unresponsive Jumper, the crash. “My ship!” he exclaimed as he tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness and nausea rolled over him and he had to lay back down again.
“My head!” he complained. “What happened?”
Todd visibly hesitated, and John’s anxiety level went through the roof. “What happened,” he demanded again through gritted teeth.
“I will explain everything to you, but first I would like to get you cleaned up and closer to the fire. The sun went down a short time ago and the temperature has already dropped precipitously.”
Even through the remnants of his fading headache, John recognized the danger they were in and knew they needed to get off the planet - fast. He tensed as he automatically reached up to tap the communicator nestled in his ear, only to find that the mechanism wasn’t there.
Todd, who’d been tracking his movements with avid, glittering eyes, shook his head. “I didn’t see your earpiece. It must have been knocked loose in the crash.”
“Doesn’t matter,” John rasped in response, letting his arm drop as he realized the futility of his action. “They’re for local communication anyway, and it's a sure bet that everyone’s already gone for the day. I have no way to contact Atlantis unless you can get me back to the Jumper. Otherwise, no one will know we need help until we miss our next check-in, and that isn’t for hours yet.”
“Then we have a long, cold night ahead of us.”
“Night…” John echoed faintly as he looked away, registering his surroundings for the first time. Lying on his back just inside the entrance of a cave, he caught glimpses of stars through a scrim of leafy branches that obscured the opening in what appeared to be a windbreak. It seemed to be working, because other than the pervasive cold that hung heavy in the air, he couldn’t feel much of a breeze blowing across his bare chest. Without conscious thought, he brought his hands up to touch the skin there, to linger in the same place Todd’s hand had been, and felt the torn edges of his t-shirt brush against his fingers where the wraith had apparently ripped it open to administer the Gift of Life. Aware that Todd was probably watching, he blushed and let his hands fall to his sides again. Pressing them to the floor, he could feel the layer of evergreen boughs between him and stone beneath.
How long was I out if Todd was able to do all of this? How badly was I hurt? What about the Jumper? So many questions without answers. But as he turned to meet the wraith’s gaze to ask them, he realized for the first time that he was seeing him by the green glow of a chemlight he’d hung around his neck on what looked like a shoelace, and “Did you get into my tac vest?” was what he asked instead.
“I did,” Todd answered readily. “I assumed it would be best if we pooled our resources; and since you are unable to see in the dark, I thought you’d appreciate the light.”
“Harrumph,” John grumped at the lack of remorse in Todd’s voice. He rolled away from the wraith, doing his best to breathe through the swirl of dizziness that hit him as he tried to sit up. “I do; but you could have asked.”
He heard a snort behind him. “Of course, Sheppard. The next time I find you unconscious, I will definitely ask your permission before rifling through your belongings.” The faint creak of leather followed, and the next thing John knew, a strong arm slid around his shoulders and supported him as he pushed his way into a sitting position.
Leaning back against the rock wall, John gulped in the cold night air, a sheen of sweat breaking out on his forehead despite the temperature as he tried to quell his nausea.
Todd considered him quietly for a moment, then rose and made his way deeper into the cave, taking the glow stick with him. Alone in the dark, John fell into a fitful doze, until a hand on his shoulder and his name spoken softly startled him awake.
“Huh-?” was all he managed to get out before a small container was pressed to his chest. It was so cold it burned against his bare skin and he yelped, then scowled as he glanced up and met the golden eyes that seemed to glow in the gloom.
“What the hell is this?” he asked, even as he automatically accepted it from the wraith and began to examine it. It was obviously a canteen of some sort, although it was more oblong than round, with a cap on one of the short ends, and straps that dangled in accordion pleats like it had been folded up for a long time. The whole thing was constructed of what appeared to be the same material as Todd’s coat.
“It’s a portable water skin,” Todd supplied, amusement evident in his voice. “I found a stream nearby as I was gathering wood and was able to fill it.”
“Why do you even have one in the first place, though?” John blurted out, his confusion growing as he finally figured out how to open the cap and peered inside.
“You are not the only one who carries necessary items on their person, Sheppard,” came the soft reply as Todd turned away and set down a small pile of things he’d brought with him. “And even Wraith thirst.”
Struck by the guarded tone in Todd’s voice, John just stared at his back for a moment, putting two-and-two together as the wraith began to lay out the items on the pine needles.
“That’s something else the Genii used to torture you with, wasn’t it,” John ventured, his guess confirmed almost before the words were out of his mouth when Todd suddenly froze in place mid-crouch, his face turned just enough for John to see his profile. This close, John was able to catch a glimpse of the haunted expression that flickered across the wraith’s craggy features before he managed to hide it behind a mask of indifference.
The tableau stretched out for a span of several heartbeats while Todd considered him out of the corner of his eye, then sighed as if coming to a decision he might regret.
“Yes,” he admitted as he knelt slowly, his gaze firmly fixed on the soft pack of antibacterial wet wipes he held in his hand. “They discovered that particular weakness early on, and immediately added that knowledge to their arsenal, promising and then withholding it for their amusement until I was weak and delirious with dehydration as well as hunger.”
“So, when you were railing at me in Kolya’s cell about not being allowed to drain me dry, and comparing it to human thirst…”
“I suffered from both.” Todd glanced up then and met John’s eyes warily, as if concerned that he’d revealed too much. But before John could respond and let him know that he could appreciate better than most what it was like to be taken prisoner by captors with axes to grind, both in Pegasus and on Earth, the wraith nodded toward the canteen and recommended that John take small sips while he cleaned him up, signaling that the conversation was over.
As Todd set to work quickly and efficiently stripping him of his outer shirt and shredded t-shirt, John could feel the strange sense of kinship growing stronger, and as the wraith wiped down his face, chest, shoulders, and back, he went out of his way not to complain even though it felt like he was taking a bath in a walk-in freezer. After all, this was above and beyond the call of any arrangement they’d made.
It was only when the frigid air acted on his damp skin and began siphoning off his body heat faster than any Wraith could feed that Sheppard felt the need to voice his concerns. Or would have, if his teeth weren’t chattering so hard that he was afraid he might actually bite his tongue off. Just as panic threatened to set in and his body tensed with the animal need to lash out in a desperate, instinctive bid to stay alive, the alien had him raise his arms and slipped a long-sleeve shirt over his head. The fabric was soft and thin, but he instantly felt warmer than he had since he’d first awakened, and the shivering subsided almost immediately.
“Better,” he murmured as he watched Todd gather up the used wipes and bloody clothing into a bundle. “But I have a question: if you have a fire going, why couldn’t we do all this back there?”
“I doubt you have the strength or stamina to move around much at the moment in your current condition, so I wanted to give you the opportunity to relieve yourself here before we get settled in.”
A mortified blush crept up the back of John’s neck. “Why not outside?” he countered. “I’ll be quick.”
“Because as cold as it is in here, it’s already much worse outside,” Todd replied. “You’re close enough to the entrance here, and far enough away from where we’ll be resting, that it won’t matter. In fact, I believe it’s already below freezing; I’m sure it will turn to ice shortly anyway.”
Seeing no way out of the dilemma, John sighed and asked the wraith to at least turn around and give him some privacy. With a condescending smirk and a raised brow ridge, Todd complied, leaving John to his own devices. After a few aborted attempts to stand, he finally settled on rolling up onto his knees. Fortunately, the floor sloped away from him and down toward the way in, and he was able to take care of business without soaking his pants.
Thankful for small favors, he tucked himself away then fumbled for his zipper with cold, clumsy fingers. No sooner had he managed to zip his fly than Todd was by his side, ready to slip an arm around his shoulder and offer a hand up. Sheppard stared at the raised seam of the feeding slit highlighted by the chemlight's glow for a long second, desperately trying to find a way to do this without the wraith’s help. But after having already proven to everyone present that he couldn’t, he knew he really had no choice. With a resigned sigh that frosted the air between them, he reluctantly grasped the proffered palm, and together they brought John to his feet in a single motion.
He regretted the move immediately when his ears started ringing and his vision greyed out. As the world melted away, he was marginally aware of fingers digging into the meat of his deltoid to keep him upright, but even that was dim and far away. It was only when he came back to himself a few moments later that the pain suddenly registered along with the realization of how close he was to Todd’s tall, powerfully built frame, and how tightly he was clinging to the arm that the wraith had thrown across his midsection to keep him from pitching forward.
He started to pull away, his cheeks blazing again with a mixture of fear and embarrassment, but a low chuckle near his ear stopped him. Warily, he side-eyed the wraith, whose yellow eyes gazed back serenely from mere inches away.
“I wouldn’t if I were you, Sheppard,” Todd murmured, every word uttered sending a puff of warm air across John’s cheek. The sensation triggered memory, and John shuddered as the details of everything he’d managed to stuff down and pretend he’d forgotten from the first time Todd had fed on him in Kolya’s dungeon and returned it all in an orgasmic rush, came flooding back with the alien’s proximity. Now, like then, the wraith was too damn close for comfort – on a lot of levels.
“You will likely fall if you try to move about on your own,” Todd continued, seemingly unaware of the tension that suddenly sang through John’s body as he dragged him back to the present, “and although I have enough reserves to heal you should you injure yourself again, I would prefer that you avoid doing so.”
Unwilling to take Todd’s word for it, John pretended he didn’t notice the way his cock twitched in response to the harmonic overtones in the other’s low, rough voice as he took a quick self-inventory of his physical condition. He was dismayed to realize that between the lassitude which still dragged at his limbs and the random waves of swooping vertigo that were only beginning to show signs of abating, Todd was probably right.
“Great.” John grimaced petulantly as he sagged in the wraith’s grip, reluctantly resigning himself to Todd’s care. Allowing him close enough to wash his back and help him change his clothes might have been innocuous enough activities, but he was way out of his comfort zone here.
Leaning as far away as he dared without falling over, John finally settled for glaring at Todd accusingly as they made their way deeper into the cave. Although a faint, uncertain glow at the other end of the passage promised light and warmth, getting there was another story. Even with a chemlight to guide the way, John, already unsteady on his feet, stumbled several times and would have fallen in the darkness if the wraith hadn’t hauled him upright and tucked him securely against his side each time.
Just as he was beginning to wonder if he was going to make it, the narrow corridor widened into a small cavern about three meters in diameter. In the center, surrounded by a circle of stones, burned a fire, small and bright. The air was noticeably warmer here - which at the moment meant it was probably hovering just above freezing - and a quick scan of the ceiling revealed a narrow crevice that seemed to be acting as a natural flue, so it wasn’t as smokey as John would have expected. A stack of broken branches was piled nearby, ready to feed the flames, and on the other side of the firepit, a thick layer of evergreen boughs covered the floor. As Todd brought him across the space, John could see the silver of a mylar emergency blanket - courtesy of the USAF - glinting from beneath the nest of greenery, to help keep the cold seeping through the stone floor at bay.
John’s tactical vest was balled up at one end, and everything he usually carried in it was laid out on the floor, along with several items that were obviously Wraith in origin. Although at any other time he'd be curious as to what they might be used for, he was too exhausted to care at the moment, and sank down gratefully on the pile of needles.
“Stay here,” Todd instructed as he straightened, but John didn’t need any urging. Hugging his knees to his chest, he leaned as close to the fire as he dared and shivered as the wraith moved purposefully about the cavern.
“What are you doing?” he wondered aloud, as he watched Todd remove another of the silver sheets from its packaging and stare from it to the passageway.
“Insulating,” came the distracted answer, and while John looked on, Todd proceeded to adjust a setting on his stunner, and used it to melt the edges of the mylar blanket to either side of the passage. Even with the gap at the top where it fell short of the naturally vaulted arch, it created a foil barrier that not only blocked the majority of the cold air being funneled in from the entrance, but also reflected the heat from the fire back into the space.
That done, Todd grabbed another emergency blanket, added some more wood to the fire, then headed back over to where John sat and knelt beside him so they were eye-to-eye. “Is this seat taken?” he quipped, although his eyes were vaguely uncertain.
John sighed. A part of him had known this was coming from the moment he’d opened his eyes to find Todd peering at him intently, and he still didn’t know how to handle it. It was one thing to be hip-to-hip with the wraith while Todd helped him get from one end of the cave to the other, but it was an entirely different story to curl up all nice and cozy with him for the entire night. The whole situation was fraught with feelings he just wasn’t prepared to admit to at the moment - if ever, and the longer he could put off facing those things about himself that he wasn’t sure even he could condone, the better.
Considering the dire straits they found themselves in, though, he wasn’t sure that was an option. Sharing body heat was going to be a necessary evil at some point if they both wanted to survive the night, so he replied “I guess not,” and scooted over a bit to give Todd room to sit down. But instead of doing so right away, the wraith paused and gave him a speculative look, then opened the last mylar blanket and draped it around John’s shoulders before settling down carefully next to him.
John grasped the edges of the foil emergency sheet and pulled it around him, hyperaware of the being next to him, and fighting a losing battle against the almost overwhelming urge he had to turn and feast his eyes on him in the firelight. Putting a stop to that line of thought was especially difficult because he wasn’t sure that he wanted to win; but he sucked it up like the good little soldier he was, and did what he did best whenever unacceptable emotions threatened to surface: change the subject.
“So… you were going to fill me in on what happened,” he prompted when the silence had stretched to an uncomfortable length.
“Yes, I was,” Todd agreed, and John could have sworn he felt the heat of the wraith’s gaze on his cheekbone and jaw as he turned to look at him, unencumbered by the restraints that Sheppard had placed upon himself. “If you still want to know.”
“I do,” John replied, allowing himself a quick flicker of a glance in Todd’s direction like he was getting away with something, before he made himself look away again.
“I will tell you, of course; although you may not like what you hear.”
John shot him another appraising look, this one tempered by a feeling of unease. Why was Todd suddenly being even cagier than usual? Aloud he said,“I’m prepared for that. But I have higher-ups I’m going to need to answer to, and it’d be nice to have all the missing pieces.”
"Very well," the wraith sighed, although he sounded somewhat dubious. “Right before we crashed, I braced myself against the console and received only minor cuts and a broken wrist from which I healed almost immediately. But you hit your head on the control panel on impact, then the forward support beams crumpled and came down on you as well. There was… a lot of blood, and your face was not in good shape. You had a severe orbital fracture and I had to reset your nose so you could breathe. I have to assume that you sustained a concussion; and considering the weight of the debris I had to pull off you to get you out, if I were to hazard a further guess, I would say that you also suffered severe internal injuries from which I doubt you would have recovered had I not been there. Luckily, I was able to reverse much of the damage, but you will have some lingering side effects as your body continues the healing process.”
John’s hands flew to his head, dislodging flakes of dried blood as his fingers slid through his matted, crusty hair to touch his still-tender scalp. Hissing in pain, he immediately jerked them away again.
“That is a lot of blood,” he murmured as he stared at his rusty fingertips.
Todd nodded; his face carefully neutral. “Yes. Your scalp was badly lacerated as well.”
John glanced over and met the alien's gaze, trying to figure out what he wasn’t telling him. “I guess I should thank you for putting me back together instead of taking the opportunity for a quick snack,” he eventually drawled, grudgingly expressing the gratitude that had lodged in his throat like a bone. Regardless of whatever other feelings he might have for Todd, the fact that he was pretty sure he couldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him hadn’t changed, and the wraith’s obvious reticence wasn’t helping to convince him otherwise.
Todd’s expression was indecipherable as he studied him for a long moment before replying. “We are Brothers, Sheppard. Just as you would never leave one of your teammates behind, I would be as loath to let you die like that as I would a member of my own Hive.”
Feeling vaguely chastised by the slight hurt he could detect in the wraith’s tone, John felt a telltale flush heating his cheeks and looked away, abashed. He could never tell if Todd was manipulating him or in earnest whenever he revealed glimpses of relatable human emotions. Either way, it was particularly irritating when it worked; and against his better judgment, he wondered if maybe he was being a bit harsh with Todd. He had healed him after all.
Ignoring the sting of humiliation that still pricked his conscience, he released a frustrated sigh through pursed lips as he turned back to the waiting wraith, deciding to play along.
“So... brother,” he began conversationally, “if I was so banged up you need to administer the Gift of Life, how bad is the Puddle Jumper?”
Here Todd hesitated a beat too long for Sheppard’s liking. “What’s the matter with my ship?” he repeated as he dropped the act and struggled to rise, each word growing increasingly harsher and more strident with his rapidly escalating temper.
“So much for being prepared for things you don’t want to hear,” Todd sneered and pushed John back down onto the bed of pine needles with a snarl. “Your ship is gone, Sheppard. Vaporized. Between the electrical charges and the crash, the power generation core was badly damaged. It overloaded and blew the entire ship to pieces moments after I carried you to safety. The wreckage is probably still burning. In hindsight, it was fortunate that we landed on a rocky slope as opposed to a heavily-wooded area, or we’d have had a forest fire to contend with as well. As it was, the explosion took an impressive chunk out of the side of the hill.”
John could feel his hackles rising. “How do I know you didn’t deliberately blow up my ship?” he growled as his suspicions took over. Damn wraith; that’s what he got for letting his guard down, even a little. “Maybe you suggested going through that wormhole on purpose, knowing it would mess with the Jumper’s systems and cause us to crash!”
Todd looked at him in surprise. “And jeopardize my own life in the process? Why would I possibly want to blow up your ship in the middle of nowhere on a dead world?”
“I don’t know,” John shot back angrily, grasping at straws in the face of Todd’s logical response and seemingly genuine reaction. “Maybe this was all just an elaborate plot to discover the location of the planet. Maybe you don’t want sensitive wraith information to fall into human hands and figure if we can’t access the facility because you have to go back to your Hive to recover from this ‘little incident’, we’ll give up and you can come back with your own team later.” He lifted his hands from where they clasped his shins and bent his fingers into air quotes for emphasis.
Todd tilted his head slightly at the unfamiliar gesture before meeting John’s gaze again with narrowed eyes. “While I am impressed with your wraithlike way of thinking, Sheppard, please believe me when I tell you that this was not how I planned to spend my day. As you have so-conveniently forgotten, I was also the one who suggested we take the long way when the wormhole seemed unstable.
“If I had not wanted you to obtain the data, I simply would have refused to take part in this joint venture, leaving me safe aboard my Hive and you none the wiser. But I did agree, and I am here as promised. While I will admit that I wish to be present in order to have some say in what information is disseminated and what might be too… sensitive to share between potential allies at this early stage in the game, I am as eager to explore the facility and discover what is in the database as you and your people are.”
“I’ve heard enough,” John snarled disbelievingly, still bristling in spite of Todd’s assurances. “I’m going to sleep.” He turned onto his side, facing away from the wraith, the silver foil crinkling as he tried to get comfortable. “It all sounds pretty fishy, if you ask me.”
He heard a long-suffering sigh escape the other’s lips. “Then it is a good thing that I did not ask you,” Todd replied acidly, and the next sound John heard was scuffling as the wraith shifted and moved – and left him alone.
With a self-righteous huff of anger, John wrapped the mylar blanket tighter, trying to keep warm as he ran the argument through his head over and over again on a loop. Unfortunately, rather than finding justification for his baseless accusations as he analyzed it again and again, he began to think that the wraith might be more trustworthy than he was giving him credit for.
Not that he trusted him completely; he'd be a fool to do that. But the facts remained that not only had Todd healed him when he could have let him die – or worse, fed on him – he’d been honest about all his reasons and motivations for taking part in the mission, and he’d taken on the task of making sure they both survived the night, and done so admirably. So much so, that at this point it was only John’s incessant need to drive Todd away before things John wasn’t ready to reveal slipped out that stood to jeopardize the wraith’s carefully laid plans.
So if we freeze to death overnight, it'll be my fault.
"Damn it," he murmured under his breath through numb lips. Their best chance of survival was still to work together, just as it had been from the very beginning.
Frustrated with himself for being such an idiot, John had just started the process of trying to fight his way out of the foil cocoon so he could patch things up with Todd when he felt the other's presence behind him. This time however, instead of uneasiness, John felt oddly calm.
“Is everything alright, Sheppard?” the wraith asked, his voice gruff and ragged as if venting his anger had worn him out.
There was so much John wanted to say – so much he feared he might say - as he struggled to sit up, but as Todd reached out to assist him, the only thing that came out was, “I’m cold.”
The wraith offered a faint, knowing smile, as if he understood what John was trying and failing to convey. “As am I.”
Without another word, John shifted until there was room beside him and turned to look at Todd squarely, an unspoken question - almost a challenge - in his eyes.
“One moment,” Todd replied, his gaze never leaving John’s as he reached down and uncinched the broad belt that girded his waist. While Sheppard sat and shivered, trembling as much from the cold as a sharp, anticipatory thrill that ran through him like an electric current he was doing his best to ignore, the wraith unbuckled his coat to reveal a broad chest covered with a soft black shirt similar to the one John was wearing, and snug leather pants that hugged his hips and thighs like a caress.
When the last catch was released, Todd crawled onto the soft bed of pine boughs and stretched out on his side next to him with all the terrifying grace of a tiger stalking its prey. Then he beckoned John to him, his hooded golden eyes large and dark with a look that bordered on hunger.
The alien’s intense, predatory expression and the fact that Todd was reaching out with his feeding hand should have bothered him – John knew that, but they weren’t even on his radar after the eyeful of lean, muscular Wraith Commander he’d just had burned into his brain. Doing his best to suppress the familiar, forbidden flicker of heat that had ignited low in his belly, he pretended he didn’t notice his body’s favorable response when Todd lifted the edge of his leathery coat to invite him closer. Steeling himself for this strange, unwholesome intimacy he both desired and feared in equal measure, he abandoned the foil blanket and crawled underneath, curling up against the wraith back-to-front like it was business as usual.
But while he arranged his limbs in an attitude of repose, Sheppard was anything but drowsy. Crossing his arms protectively over his chest, he quivered with tension like a spring wound too tightly, wondering if he’d just made a terrible mistake. This close, there was no way to hide the feelings he was so desperately trying to keep under wraps; never mind the fact that he was a sitting duck if the alien got peckish during the night. He shifted uncomfortably at the thought, and was about to squirm back out of the nest again, determined to die of natural causes with his secrets intact, when he felt Todd press up against his back from sternum to knee. Stifling a yelp of surprise, John froze in place and held his breath, muscles taut and nerve-endings frayed to the point of breaking as he anxiously waited for whatever the wraith might throw at him.
The last thing he expected was the gust of warm air that ghosted across the nape of his neck with Todd’s quiet snort of amusement, or the vibrations he could feel rumbling through the alien’s chest as his low, gravelly voice admonished John to rest.
Then the tenuous telepathic link he could sometimes sense between them came to life like a spark of light in the darkness, and the strange, magnetic pull of the wraith’s presence, which John had been resisting ever since Todd had summoned him, wrapped around him like a tender embrace. A soothing cocoon that felt so right, all the stress and uncertainty and fear he’d been holding onto suddenly drained away, leaving him clear-headed and calm for the first time since he’d regained consciousness.
Sheppard knew his initial knee-jerk reaction should have been to order the wraith out of his head, but as gentle waves of tranquility lapped at the edges of his consciousness, he found himself hesitating. Although Todd had clearly overstepped boundaries that he normally wouldn’t have tolerated, even John couldn’t help but appreciate the peace of mind the alien had bestowed upon him like another Gift - one almost as rare and precious as the life force he'd received earlier.
Tomorrow..., he promised himself as his mind and body began to relax, succumbing to the subtle, subliminal connection that he could no longer deny. Tomorrow he could go back to suspecting every one of Todd’s moves and questioning all of his motives. But for tonight at least - much like the night they’d slept secure in each other’s company under the stars on that Genii moon - he and the wraith were in this together.
Releasing the last of his reservations with a shaky sigh, Sheppard breathed in the other’s familiar, slightly spicy scent as he pillowed his head on the alien’s bicep. And when Todd covered him with his voluminous coat, enveloping him in such luxurious warmth after being so cold for so long, John almost felt like crying with relief.
As he began to thaw out, the day’s ordeal caught up with him, and his eyelids grew heavy despite the pins and needles that signaled the return of circulation to his extremities. Trusting that he would be safe until Atlantis found them in the morning, John finally allowed himself to give in to what he’d wanted all along, and he melted in Todd’s arms with a sigh of contentment just as the exhaustion he could no longer fight off dragged him under. He started to doze almost immediately, barely registering either the wraith’s movements as he gathered up the discarded silver blanket and spread it over them to help hold in the heat, or the feather-light sensation of what could have been fingers gently carding through his hair that came after.
He stirred when the weight of Todd’s arm came to rest across his abdomen, and his eyes opened sleepily as the wraith leaned over him and whispered in his ear: “Contrary to whatever misguided opinion you have of me, this was not some clever ruse I concocted as a way for us to have uninterrupted quality time. I really have better things to do than spend the night roughing it on a desolate planet with you.”
“Do you, though?” John asked, half-asleep and without filters.
He drifted off right after, so he didn’t hear the soft chuckle or the even softer reply. “Not really.”