Except for the chatter of birds high in the trees, the forest lay quiet and still under the midday sun. Motes of pollen danced in thin shafts of sunlight that lanced down through the canopy, and the leaves of the trees rustled gently in the warm summer breeze.
In the midst of this primeval setting, the forest reluctantly gave way to a circular clearing which was paved with rounded cobblestones laid in swirling, complex patterns. At the center of the design, rising like a naquadah monument to the ancient gate-builders’ art, stood a Stargate atop a stone platform. Its graceful arch gleamed dully under centuries of accumulated dirt and grime, while the sun - the Ring’s most faithful companion on its lonely vigil - passed overhead as it had every day for countless millennia.
Despite its weatherworn appearance, the chevrons that lined its curved edge lit up in sequence for the second time that afternoon. When the final point glowed a bright cerulean blue, a whirlpool of energy shot violently from its center, testing the limits of the ring that constrained it before settling into the deceptively calm aquatic shimmer of an established wormhole. A moment later, several figures dressed in black leathery garments emerged like sea monsters from its watery depths. Each had pale, green-tinged skin and long hair that fell over broad shoulders in shades ranging from pure white to ivory to silvery grey.
The leader of the group, tall and lean with a star-shaped tattoo surrounding his eye, glanced sharply around the clearing before turning to his followers.
‘Remember: don’t fire unless fired upon,’ the wraith currently known as Todd admonished his guards telepathically as the last one stepped through the azure event horizon and joined him on the platform that supported the Stargate. ‘This is a scientific mission, not a military one.’
He glanced at each one in turn. The pair of masked drones that accompanied him were part of his personal guard. They’d served him faithfully ever since he’d taken command of his current Hive, and the unique patterns in their face masks were as familiar to him as their quiet, subservient minds.
With one of the four warriors it was the same. His Chief of Security was newly risen to his position, but was One whom Todd had long considered a friend. Their views on almost all subjects diverged widely and Todd often engaged him on them just for the opportunity for a rousing debate, but their hope for a lasting peace between Wraith and humans was one they’d always agreed on.
On the other hand, the other three Warriors just happened to be on duty and stationed nearby as Todd had swept down the hall toward his shuttle. A quick scan of the presence they projected into the psychic web showed him their readiness to act on his orders, but little else. He would know more of them after today’s adventure, of that he was certain.
Last were the members of his science team, which consisted of an archaeologist, a structural engineer, and an information retrieval specialist. They were another last-minute acquisition that his Chief of Science had been able to provide at a moment’s notice only because they lacked the experience to be otherwise immersed in a project. Junior Thinkers, all, they were young and relatively new to the Hive, having been added to the crew during a recent stop at an allied Queen’s creche world. The archaeologist was tall, willowy, and bare-faced, with dark, youthful streaks still in his hair. The structural engineer was almost his exact opposite: broad and stocky, and in the process of attempting to grow what was most likely his first beard. Only the IT specialist, compact, sleek, and silver-haired, looked like he was even old enough to be aboard.
The warriors and drones all snapped to attention and acquiesced to his order with curt mental responses, while his scientists moved closer together and glanced at him cautiously.
Even if Todd hadn’t been able to see the subtle signs of tension in their posture and the fear that overshadowed their carefully neutral expressions, at this distance, he had no trouble picking up echoes of the nervousness that they were trying, unsuccessfully, to hide. He understood their trepidation. They were researchers, after all, not fighters; and although he had no doubt that, as Wraith – even young ones, they could defend themselves if necessary, at this moment they were out of their element. They knew enough to know that it was already unusual for them to be ordered into the field to study ancient ruins when there was a possibility of running into opposition, and even more so for their Commander to be joining them.
Although he preferred not to let his defenses down too often and reveal what could be misconstrued as weakness, he nonetheless offered them a reassuring nod as he met the trio’s gaze instead of the cold, pitiless glance of a powerful, ancient Wraith Commander, which seemed to go a long way toward calming them.
As their anxiety dissipated, he ordered his security detail to locate their quarry’s trail, then led the three scientists down the moss-encrusted steps. The wormhole disengaged with a whoosh behind them as they reached the dialing device, and they lingered there while the warriors scouted the clearing surrounding the Stargate for clues that Todd had no doubt they would find.
Feeling more at ease in his presence, the science team turned their attention to the diagnostic equipment they carried. As they fell into a quiet discussion on the technical merits of various types of sensors through the hive sense that connected them all, Todd took a step away from the group. With his fighters busy beating the bushes and his thinkers preoccupied with comparing notes, he was momentarily freed from the onus of command. Locking himself behind his inner barricade, he allowed the scientists’ subdued conversation to fade to an indistinct buzz while he tilted his face toward the light and let his golden eyes slip shut so he could bask in the afternoon sun. Unlike many of his brethren, he enjoyed the warmth of sunlight on his skin and the feel of planetary breezes ruffling his hair; and his appreciation of both had only increased since his decades-long imprisonment.
This particular planet – a small moon, actually: M2H-587 by the Lanteans’ reckoning – circled a gas giant that traveled around an orange star. Based on initial scans, it appeared to be currently uninhabited by either humans or Wraith, although it was densely forested and teemed with a diverse, flourishing ecosystem of flora and fauna.
Devoid of herds to cull or rivals to defeat, it was a world he normally wouldn’t have given a second thought to, but today it held special interest for him - in the exceedingly attractive form of a certain dark-haired military commander named John Sheppard. The same John Sheppard he’d been trying to get closer to ever since he and the human had bonded during their escape from the Genii, who, Todd had it on very good authority, had stepped through this very Stargate a short time before he had.
In fact, seeing Colonel Sheppard was the only reason he was here. Not that John – or even his own crew – needed to know that; or the lengths he’d gone through to arrange such a rendezvous.
As far as his people knew, he’d been informed by his spy network of a discovery the Lanteans had made which could potentially impact the Wraith. In truth, his information had come from another, much more reliable source: Atlantis, itself.
It had taken him several visits to the City of the Ancients and an extended stay to assist in defeating the Replicators for him to acquire the transmission frequencies the Expedition used, along with backdoor access to their computer network. It had been simple enough, once he’d achieved this, to begin keeping track of their mission schedules and monitoring their communications on the sly. Of course, he was wise enough not to jump every time Sheppard left Atlantis - that would have alerted the man to his surveillance much too quickly and precipitated additional security measures which might have locked him out for good; but ‘accidentally’ bumping into him from time-to-time had become a delightful game of cat-and-mouse that the wraith was thoroughly enjoying.
Todd had been at it for over a year now, as the Lanteans measured time, and he knew that the risk of discovery increased with every encounter. But as far as he was concerned, it was more than worth it. Any opportunity to be in the presence of this remarkable human, who had so thoroughly captivated him from the moment they’d met that he’d had gifted the man with the precious life force of their vanquished foes and called him Brother, he would take and gladly.
Sensing the One in charge of security drawing near, he quickly buried the tumultuous, passionate emotions that stirred every time he thought of Sheppard as he opened his eyes and turned his expectant gaze upon his subordinate.
‘Commander, you were correct. The humans are here, and appear to have gone in that direction,’ the other wraith reported deferentially as he pointed toward a small opening in the dense foliage.
‘Excellent,’ Todd replied with a fierce grin that exposed pearlescent shark teeth. He issued a swift, silent command to the group, and as soon as the engineer finished repacking the device he’d pulled out of his rucksack to impress the archaeologist with and slung it over his shoulder, they moved out.
The swish of long coats through the tall grass was the only sound to be heard as the cadre of Wraith carefully wended their way, single-file, through the forest. Barely disturbing the lush undergrowth as they slipped like wind past the trees, he listened in as his warriors noted with disdain the broken-off branches and trampled groundcover that littered their path, clear indicators of the previous group’s passage. Even Todd, who generally kept his personal opinions to himself and tended to give Sheppard and his people the benefit of a doubt due to their relatively recent arrival in Pegasus, found himself snorting derisively as he cautiously stepped around the distinctive imprint a Lantean boot had left in the mud. For all that the Atlantis Expedition had been sheltering a Runner in their midst for the past few cycles, they certainly seemed to undervalue the extensive range of survival skills he had to offer.
A short time later, the trees thinned to reveal a large dome-shaped building, almost completely camouflaged by shrubs and saplings that had grown up around it and overgrown with vines. What little of the dressed stones that could still be seen through the leafy stalks were gleaming white, and although they were chipped and crumbling in places from countless centuries of wind, weather, and invasive roots, it was clear that the edifice had been built with care. A set of broad, shallow steps led to an arched, heavily-carved stone portico and what looked like a banded metal door that, although rusted, seemed solid and impenetrable.
As they stepped into the open, the drones and warriors immediately came forward and raised their weapons as they fanned out in a semi-circle, surrounding the group of startled Expedition members who stood between them and the entrance to the abandoned outpost that was their mutual destination.
Todd silently reinforced his order to his team to hold their fire as he came to a stop not far from the Lanteans. The barest hint of a smile played on his lips as he looked around laconically at the humans with their guns poised, his features deliberately inscrutable. The members of Team Sheppard all stared back along with two scientists Todd recognized from his time in the Ancient City, their expressions ranging from abject terror to seething hatred. A half-dozen marines accompanied them. Their identical hard glares and set jaws, dull and uninteresting.
His gaze finally settled on Colonel Sheppard, who was watching him warily over his P-90, and a thrill of excitement shot through him like an electric current. As their eyes locked, the human’s narrowed, and Todd’s smirk stretched into a satisfied grin. Good, he thought to himself, pleased that the man he found so fascinating had managed to exceed his expectations yet again. Just as he’d hoped, Sheppard could tell something was amiss although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He was as sharp as a Wraith and just as suspicious – not that Todd would ever admit it out loud. He doubted John would take it as the compliment it was meant to be.
“What are you doing here?” Sheppard challenged, shifting his weapon in Todd’s direction threateningly. “Are you following us?”
Todd inhaled deeply in preparation of speaking aloud, but also to try and catch the man’s scent. There! Amidst the sour stench of fear and anger emanating from the rest of the humans, Sheppard’s unmistakable musk lingered pleasantly on the palate along with a faint whiff of arousal. This was what called him back, time and again, hypnotized and helpless to resist like a moth drawn to a flame by its seductive warmth.
“Of course not, John Sheppard,” he purred, spreading his arms wide with his hands palm-up as he luxuriated in the heady aroma that rose from his future paramour’s skin. The gesture of conciliation seemed to alarm the Lanteans even more, if the sudden spike in tension was anything to go by. “It’s purely coincidental. Your people aren’t the only ones interested in studying the past to inform the future.”
Todd’s enigmatic gaze traveled lazily over Sheppard’s features in the pregnant pause that followed, although he watched the myriad of emotions flickering across the man’s face with keen interest. Like the rest of the Lanteans, who were also eyeing the Colonel for his reaction, he was waiting to see if he believed him.
Never mind the fact that he was lying through his teeth.
He had the satisfaction of seeing the tension in John’s shoulders ease slightly and the muzzle of his P-90 dip, a heartbeat before the hum of an activated energy weapon broke the stillness and Ronon Dex pushed his way to the front of the pack. Arm straight and elbow locked, the former Runner raised his pistol and aimed it at the center of Todd’s chest.
“You’re a liar,” the big Satedan snarled with conviction.
“Ronon, stand down!” John barked, but the Runner’s intensely focused gaze never wavered. He pulled the trigger just as Sheppard shouted at Todd to watch out, but the wraith was already moving. He rolled out of the way and onto his feet, stunner in-hand, at the same instant his head of security jumped in front of the spot where he’d been standing, taking the shot that had been meant for him.
As the soldier collapsed, dead before he hit the ground with a smoking hole in his chest where his heart had once been, the tension between the two groups ratcheted up to unbearable levels. The click of safety locks being simultaneously disengaged echoed through the clearing from both sides as they prepared to open fire.
“Calm down, everyone!” Sheppard yelled. He held his hand out with the palm down in a soothing gesture that was meant to encompass them all, although he was glaring pointedly at Specialist Dex. “The last thing we need is bloodshed.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Todd growled, forcibly pushing down the howl of grief that threatened to push past his teeth at the irreplaceable loss of his friend’s presence within the web, and let his ire rise to the killing edge at the senseless slaughter of one of his most loyal followers. Dangerously glinting eyes darted from Colonel Sheppard to Ronon Dex and back again as he mentally reached for the group of Wraith under his command, all of whom were as outraged as he was by the human’s actions, and issued a very similar order to them to remain calm. Despite John’s repeated promises whenever they met that the next time all bets were off, he was aware that the man had warned him right before Dex had fired. He wanted to believe that the Satedan had disobeyed Sheppard’s orders and acted independently; but before he was willing to let down his guard again, he needed to hear confirmation of that from the Colonel himself.
As the two commanders stared each other down while they struggled to maintain order and keep the tense, hair-trigger situation from escalating into an actual firefight, an oddly familiar whine began emanating from somewhere near the entrance, too high for human ears to hear. Todd risked a glance in the direction of the doorway, and saw that a small aperture had opened in the central carving at the apex of the portico which was emitting a noise that sounded suspiciously like a Wraith transport beam. He turned his attention back to Sheppard with alarm in his eyes and a warning on his lips, but before he could draw breath to speak, a blinding flash of light engulfed the entire clearing and everyone vanished.
Suddenly, Todd found himself standing in a dark, cold place that smelled faintly of mold and old decay. Blinking owlishly in the absolute darkness that surrounded him, he breathed shallowly as he tried to get his bearings. Other than the stench - and the fact that he couldn’t see anything but the greenish afterimage the transport beam had left imprinted on his retinas, he seemed none the worse for wear, although the reassuring weight of the stunner he’d had in his hand was gone.
He immediately reached out telepathically to his fellow wraith to make sure they were alright, and across the psychic web that connected them received confirmation from them all, along with undercurrents of confusion at their unexpected location and weaponless state which matched his own. While he was checking on his crew, exclamations of consternation and surprise had begun rising from nearby human throats, and he could only surmise that wherever he and his men were, the Atlantis Away Team was there, too.
“Goddamnit, Todd. What the hell just happened? Where’s my gun?” John Sheppard’s voice rang out accusingly, bouncing off what sounded like a cavernous ceiling. Then Todd heard shuffling and the distinctive sound of a stumble, followed by a muffled curse.
“What we need is lights,” Sheppard griped from somewhere close by.
“Yes,” the wraith agreed; and no sooner had he spoken the word aloud than lights embedded in the walls around the perimeter of the room began to brighten. As they came up, they revealed both Todd and Sheppard’s teams standing in roughly the same places they’d been outside - all but John, who’d crossed the invisible divide between the two factions in the darkness, and was closer to the Wraith’s side by nearly two meters.
At his silent command, his warriors and scientists remained in the loose formation they’d taken up when first encountering the Lanteans. Lacking stunners, they became weapons themselves as they assumed the relaxed-yet-alert at-ease posture of proud apex predators, and stared speculatively across the open space at the members of the Expedition, who’d instinctively moved closer together by the far wall like the herd animals they were, the humans’ anxiety heightened by the fact that they were no longer carrying their guns either. Admittedly, they were right to be concerned. At the moment, Todd could sense that their fear response was triggering the hunting instinct in his men, and they’d be easy pickings if his warriors were hungry. Thankfully, they were too well-disciplined, and had been drilled too many times about not feeding on Sheppard’s people to consider it for very long.
The only exception to the humans’ general retreat was the Colonel himself - of course - who crowded into Todd’s space with a determined set to his jaw, demanding to know what the wraith had done with his P-90.
“I have done nothing with your gun, Sheppard,” Todd replied evenly, although he was secretly excited by the man’s closeness and impressed by his audacity. “In case you hadn’t noticed, ours have gone missing as well.”
“You must know something,” John insisted belligerently. “You knew what was happening. I could see it in your eyes right before we got transported in here.”
Todd hesitated, knowing that any admission was likely to spark even more distrust, before nodding reluctantly. “Actually, I did; but I only realized what was going to happen a moment before it did. I had intended to warn you, but didn’t have the time to do so.”
“Yeah, right,” Ronon Dex cut in, ignoring the Athosian woman standing next to him and her efforts to curtail his outburst. Shaking her hand off his arm, he snorted doubtfully from his position at the front of the knot of humans like a feral canid protecting its flock. “We are unarmed and at your mercy. You don’t expect me to believe that you didn’t have a hand in this.”
Rather than try to argue his innocence with a man who was predisposed not to believe him no matter what he said, Todd suppressed a sigh as the Runner glared daggers at him, and glanced around the room instead.
They were in what looked like a large, hexagonal entry hall with a vaulted ceiling. At one end stood the other side of what looked like the same broad metal-banded door they’d all been standing in front of just a few moments before. Along three of the other five walls, interspersed between the lights, stood open doorways leading to rooms beyond, which were also lit by the warm glow of wall sconces that reminded Todd of those he’d seen in Atlantis during his many trips to and from his holding cell. The entire space seemed to be constructed from large blocks of the same white stone as the exterior, and was entirely empty and devoid of decoration except for hexagonal indentations high up on the walls that might have been shuttered windows, and bundles of rags strewn here and there on the polished floor.
Curious as to what they might be, Todd took a step closer to the pile near his feet – the one that John had tripped over, and realized what it was even before he knelt beside it and turned it over.
Sheppard must have sensed something in Todd’s reaction because the next thing he knew, the Colonel had crouched down on the other side of the body, giving the wraith an opportunity to observe him unawares while John studied the rags and bones on the floor between them. He quickly looked away when Sheppard sat back on his haunches, but not before he caught a flicker of dawning concern in the back of the human’s eyes.
“That’s a Wraith,” John stated mildly enough, although his gaze was intense as he took in the number of similar piles around the room. “And it was fed on. Are they all Wraith?”
“Hard to tell,” Todd replied as he looked up from the jagged-toothed skull and the jagged wound in the desiccated leathery sternum he’d been contemplating. “Although I believe, based on the type of clothing on a number of them, that there are human remains here as well; and they are from many different times and places.”
“Dammit, Todd. What did you get us into?”
The wraith swallowed a snarl of indignation. All he’d wanted was a little quality time with Sheppard, not to provide another opportunity for the man to cast aspersions in his direction.
If deflection was what John wanted, then two could play that game. “What I got us into? This wasn’t my idea. We came here for the sole purpose of exploring this facility, not to interfere with whatever you were doing. Although, come to think of it, perhaps it is I who should accuse you of the same thing. Your group arrived at the site before we did, after all. For all we know, you were forewarned somehow that we planned on coming here. Your mission could have been to lay some sort of trap for us, and you inadvertently got caught up in it when it was sprung.”
John’s face turned an interesting shade of red as he gathered himself to launch a verbal counter-attack, only to be distracted by one of his own team.
“Does anyone know where we are right now?” The unexpected inquiry came from Doctor Rodney McKay, who had his back pressed up against the wall, clutching his tablet to his chest like his life depended on it as he peered around the room fearfully.
Interesting, Todd mused. No weapons, but the doctor still possessed his diagnostic equipment.
“I would think that would be obvious,” the wraith replied acerbically as he rose to a standing position in a single, graceful movement. For all that he’d always found McKay to be a brilliant, inspired scientist, he wasn’t the most observant human being in the universe. “We’ve been transported inside the structure, and I believe that is the front door.”
“In fact…,” Todd extended his arm in the direction of the stout, banded barricade, and with the pointing of his finger and a telepathic order, his structural engineer bowed his head in acknowledgment. The scientist knelt and pulled one of his precious sensors out of the bag that had also somehow come through unscathed like McKay’s computer, and one of the drones accompanied him to the door to examine it.
“You, and you,” John stated gruffly as he climbed to his feet as well, indicating Doctor McKay and one the marines who’d formed a living wall between the cluster of wraith warriors and the human science team. The men side-eyed each other nervously before they cautiously joined the pair at the entrance.
The quartet quietly moved around the room, methodically examining the doorway and each of the six walls in turn while everyone watched and waited with bated breath. Once they’d completed their circuit, the stocky engineer turned away from the portal with a slow, regretful shake of his head.
“Commander,” he murmured apologetically as he flipped a mass of ivory-colored dreadlocks back over his shoulder, “I do not have the ability to open the door, and have been unable to discover any kind of latch, locking mechanism, or control panel in this room. I have to assume that it is elsewhere in the building.”
“Rodney, can you confirm that?” Sheppard asked the astrophysicist, clearly skeptical. He must not have expected the response he received, because his eyebrows shot up in surprise when McKay answered in the affirmative.
“Too bad our C-4 didn’t make it through,” John snarled wistfully. “We’re going to have to try it another way,” and with a brusque command to his military attachment, the marines - plus Ronon - converged on the entrance, intent on mayhem. When Todd saw what the Colonel was trying to do, he sent his five warriors in to throw their considerable strength behind the humans, but rather than melding into a cohesive unit, the two groups seemed reluctant to intermingle. In spite of Todd and John’s joint exhortations, after several uncoordinated attempts to either force the door open or break it down, the Wraith Commander recalled his troops with an irritated shake of his head.
Beside him, Sheppard exhaled an explosive sigh that echoed his mood perfectly. “I should have known that it wasn’t going to be as simple as just turning the knob and walking out,” John said, running a frustrated hand through his dark hair as he turned to Todd. “I guess we’re going to have to conduct a search of the entire building for the door control.”
“We?” Todd’s tone was incredulous, “as in all of us working together? Specialist Dex has already attempted to kill me, and succeeded in killing one of my men. And in case you’ve forgotten, the entire group was ready to shoot each other not five minutes ago; and just now seemed to be actively working against each other. As much as I appreciate your desire to combine our forces, I’m not sure this arrangement will be conducive to effective teamwork.”
“Do you have a better idea?” John retorted, his hazel eyes flashing angrily as they met Todd’s doubtful gold ones. “If we separate, each side will be wondering if the other is scheming against them. If we stick together and keep an eye on each other rather than worrying that the other group is lying in wait around the next corner, maybe we’ll actually get something accomplished.”
As much as Todd hated to admit it, Sheppard had a point. Without their weapons – their only means of protection against the possibility of attack, the humans would probably be next to useless on their own due to their concern for their personal safety. Or worse, as in the case of Ronon Dex. He was a former Runner, and was unpredictable at the best of times. Faced with this many Wraith under this set of circumstances, he could prove to be downright dangerous.
Although Todd’s first choice would have been to feed on the Satedan and be done with it, he doubted John would go along with that course of action. Like it or not, he was going to have to settle for making sure the man didn’t instigate any more trouble than he already had.
It was the wraith’s turn to sigh as he acquiesced to Sheppard’s plan with a begrudging nod. This assignation was not turning out as planned.
As Todd had predicted, expecting humans and Wraith to put aside their enmity and work together as equals – a lovely dream that he inwardly hoped he and Sheppard might someday be able to make a reality – was not going to happen today. Between the humans’ lingering fear that kept his men on edge, Ronon Dex’s repeated attempts to sneak off or pull marines aside to plot a hostile takeover, and the smug superiority two of his warriors, in particular, had been exhibiting toward beings they apparently considered little more than pets of the Commander’s that they were not allowed to drain, there was very little cooperation and even less trust among the factions.
To make matters worse, his and John’s efforts to corral the Satedan while attempting to shepherd their reluctant charges through a seemingly endless series of rooms, wasn’t helping the relationship he hoped to develop with the man in the least. Instead of uniting them in any meaningful way, it was rapidly driving a wedge between them that the wraith wasn’t sure how to stop, let alone fix. He’d always had a short fuse – it was one of his many failings. And with each new snarl at a subordinate he caught eyeing a human with bad intent, and every mental nudge he needed to administer to his young, inexperienced scientists to exhort them to overcome their burgeoning panic at being thrown into such a chaotic situation and share their findings with McKay, he felt himself slipping closer to the edge.
Unfortunately, Sheppard’s temper was as volatile as his own. But rather than take it out on his men, he’d been unleashing it on Todd himself; and it seemed that the man had reached his breaking point.
“… Damn it, Todd! I’m sick and tired of your bullshit,” John shouted as he rounded on the wraith, his voice echoing off the walls of the small hexagonal chamber that seemed to serve as a pass-through from one larger cell to another. “Why don’t you just admit that you orchestrated this little clusterfuck, and tell me the real reason we’re locked in here so we can all go home.”
As their barbs and jibes had grown more vehement, John and Todd had fallen farther and farther behind their flock. So while warriors of all stripes were in the next room cataloguing corpses by race and stage of decomposition, and the scientists had wandered even farther afield in their fruitless search for an exit, the pair found themselves alone just in time for the beleaguered wraith to lose the battle with his anger, too.
With this final insult to his integrity, the last shreds of Todd’s tattered self-control disintegrated into dust, and in a flash, John Sheppard went from being the one person he desired a connection with more than any other, to the most unrelenting, infuriating, willfully blind human this Wraith Commander had ever met. Beside himself with fury, he suddenly reached his limit of the man’s never-ending insinuations and accusations, and as a roar of unbridled rage issued from his throat, he grabbed Sheppard by the front of his jacket and drove him up against the nearest wall, feeding hand raised and poised to attack.
But before he could strike and rip the life from his struggling prey in great, heaving gulps, heavy doors slid into place across both entrances with a whoosh and a thud, locking them in the antechamber together. In some distant part of his rational mind, Todd caught a brief flash of alarm at his outburst across the threads of the hive sense, along with a quaver of excitement from his IT specialist at the discovery of some sort of control panel in one of the walls, then all telepathic communication was abruptly cut off.
The attendant shock of the severed connection forced a gasp from Todd’s lips even as it brought him to his senses. His eyes widened as he realized he was staring deeply into John’s with every urge to devour him writ large across his features, and that the man’s, as they stared back, were full of the same desperate defiance which had seduced the wraith from the very start.
Dropping his feeding hand to his side, Todd hastily released the fistful of fabric he’d been clutching. Then he stepped back from Sheppard and looked away, ashamed that he’d almost let his temper get the better of him, especially with this fragile human that he cared for so deeply.
“Sheppard, I…,” he began, but John cut him off.
“You realize that if I had my P-90 on me, you’d be dead right now,” John drawled. Other than the man’s ragged panting, the fading scent of fear still oozing from his pores, and the sound of his heart which the wraith could hear beating like a triphammer in his chest, he sounding oddly calm – and almost jovial.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Todd whipped his head around to survey his adversary, who was in the process of tugging his jacket back in place. “You could have tried, but I doubt you would have succeeded before I took you down,” he replied, although there was no heat in his words.
“I guess we’ll never know now, will we.” John quipped with a rakish smirk as he gave Todd a long, considering look. Then he settled his hands on his hips and turned to glance around the room for a way out, leaving Todd to marvel at the ease with which Sheppard had accepted their physical, nearly fatal altercation as just another variation in the same strange life-and-death dance they’d been engaged in ever since Kolya’s dungeon. Both of them stumbling through steps neither of them knew to music they’d never heard before.
Feeling the last of his irritation dissipate in a surge of fondness for the man that he had no hope of suppressing, Todd heaved a sigh of amused defeat and stepped closer to the door to see if he could find some kind of mechanism for unlocking it, when the pounding and shouting began from the other side. Listening closely, he could just make out the raised voices of both Wraith and humans on the opposite side of the barricade as they bickered over the best way to get it open, although they sounded faint and far away. Before he could do more than press his tented fingertips to the cold metal and feel the vibrations of their blows, John came up beside him and started pounding back to gain their attention. Once they quieted, he began knocking in the rhythmic tattoo of a simple communication code.
Without conscious thought, Todd also reached for his own crew mentally, trying to access the telepathic web spun between them so he could reassure them that he was alive and well; but for some reason, he was unable to. He made a second attempt, concentrating on specifically reaching out to one of the drones, which should have been easy - but it was no use. It was as if a barrier had been erected on the psychic plane, as surely as it had on the physical, effectively cutting him off from everyone but the human who was trapped with him.
Forcing down a bubble of trepidation, he reluctantly admitted this disturbing new development to Sheppard, who, rather than gloat as he’d expected, studied him for a moment with eyes so piercing that Todd wondered what secrets they were discovering in the expressionless façade he had so carefully constructed, then surprised him by offering to relay any message he might wish to send. Relieved and grateful for the Colonel’s assistance, they began the tedious process of transcribing his orders in short bursts of information. But after several long minutes of waiting for the man to tap out instructions to his Wraith a letter at a time, reminding them to keep their hands to themselves and cooperate with the humans, Todd could once more feel his frustration starting to rise – along with a sense of isolation and helplessness that he’d hoped never to experience again.
By the time John was done and rubbing at his sore knuckles, the wraith was pacing.
“If only we had a little information about this place and its intended purpose, perhaps we could figure out how to escape,” Todd growled, focusing on his exasperation so he could ignore the anxiety that had begun to trickle into his system like an insidious poison as he measured the length of the room in steps: four one way, then turn and repeat. Although the chamber they were currently in was hexagonal, not square, it was the exact length as the cell he’d been trapped in for so many, many cycles.
John nodded. “I agree. With only bare walls and empty rooms, we have nothing to go on.”
In the next instant, the walls lit up with markings and symbols, and the sound of gears grinding filled the room as an iris Todd had mistaken for a tiled mosaic pattern in the center of the floor spiraled open.
He snarled and jumped back from the opening that had appeared almost under his feet just as a rectangular column slowly emerged from it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room John pressed himself against the door, his hand automatically fumbling for the empty holster strapped to his thigh. Frozen in their respective places, two pairs of wide, startled eyes were glued to the plinth as it rose to about waist-height, then stopped, along with the discordant whir of ancient machinery.
“Holy shit!” Sheppard exclaimed in the ringing silence that followed.
“Indeed,” Todd murmured in assent as he shook off his initial shock and cautiously stalked closer to the pedestal. The top of it appeared to house a control panel of some sort. The center held a frame containing nine sigil-covered blocks that looked like they could be reassembled into different configurations, and all around it bristled a confusing array of levers and toggles with no discernible pattern or order. On the far ends were indentations that resembled handprints, two on either side, and above the carved fingertips sat a row of ten softly lit buttons, marked with designs similar to those on the blocks.
As Todd studied the board, trying to make sense of it, he absently spread the fingers of his feeding hand to match one of the hollowed-out carvings on the right side. Curious to see if it would fit, he was inches from pressing his palm against the cool stone when John slapped it away with a sharp “No!”
Snatching his hand back, the wraith curled his other one around it protectively as he whipped his head up to glare at Sheppard across the pedestal, lips peeled back from serrated teeth in a surprised hiss. “What was that for?”
“Don’t touch it,” John warned, his frown creased in alarm and the stench of adrenaline in the air. “I’ve encountered something like this before. If it isn’t solved correctly, it could kill you.”
“What happened?” Todd asked as he glanced down at the board again, this time with his hands conspicuously by his sides.
Sheppard sighed. “The long and short of it is that we heard there was a ZPM on a planet, but we had to solve a puzzle to access it. Kolya caught wind of our mission and showed up to take it away from us once we found it….”
Todd tensed as he lifted his head enough to meet the human’s eyes, feeling like he’d been blindsided by the blunt end of a Lantean gateship. “Kolya,” he ground out, before his voice was choked off by a swell of such intense hatred, fear, and disgust that it threatened to close his throat.
“Yeah,” John drawled, although this time there was no humor in it. “Fucking Genii. You’re not the only one who hates them, and Kolya, especially. He and I go way back. He led a strike force that invaded Atlantis once, but we fought back and kicked them out. I took out a bunch of his soldiers in the City, and then managed to bring up the gate shield just as a troop of Genii reinforcements were coming through. I probably killed about sixty of his men in that little maneuver alone. I tried to get him, too. I thought I had, just as he was heading into the wormhole. But he survived – the cockroach. Ever since then, we’ve had it in for each other.”
“Huh,” was all Todd could reply as he fought to bring the darkest of his memories and the most destructive of his emotions back under control. It helped, actually, to know that the reason he and John had met was because Sheppard had singlehandedly struck such a devastating blow to the monster who’d tortured and abused him, first under Cowen’s direction, then for his own sick amusement, for so many years that he’d lost track.
“Are you… uh, okay?” John asked a moment later, and it was only then that Todd realized he was staring, unseeing, into the middle distance, while images from a chapter in his life he’d rather forget played out in vivid detail across his mind’s eye. Although he felt he should have been alarmed at being so obviously caught out, something in the casual yet concerned way the man inquired left him feeling oddly comforted instead. It was almost if Sheppard might actually understand what he was going through.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, the wraith straightened his shoulders then caught John’s eye with an expression on his face that he hoped denoted cool indifference. “Of course,” he murmured. “Please continue.”
Sheppard watched him for another second or two, then picked up the threads of the narrative. “Uh – yeah, the puzzle. So, anyway, since we finally figured out that the Ancients loved puzzles, and were real fuckers when it came to safeguarding their stuff, we were being cautious about solving it; but Kolya got impatient. One of his soldiers decided to show us how it was done, and slapped his hands down in the prints. He got a shot of poison in his palm for his troubles, and was dead in less than five seconds.”
Todd stared at him in silence while his heart leapt in his chest. If that was the case, then it was possible that Sheppard had saved his life twice that day, both times with warnings that were heartfelt and instinctive. It seemed that his dark-haired Air Force Colonel might not be entirely indifferent to him, after all.
“Then by all means, John Sheppard, let us be cautious in solving this conundrum,” Todd replied with a faint grin, which was about as close as he could come to, ‘thank you for stopping me before I made a deadly mistake.’ From the small nod and crooked smile that John offered in return, it seemed that the message had been received.
Two hours later, they were still wracking their brains, trying to figure out the logic of the control panel, but while they came up with a number of theories, nothing seemed like a solid enough solution to risk touching it. They even turned to the writing that decorated the walls, but it while it all seemed vaguely familiar, the symbols appeared to be strangely truncated and skewed, and remained indecipherable no matter how long Todd stared at them.
They’d heard from their teams intermittently while they’d worked, checking in to let them know they were all still alive, and no closer to a solution than Todd and John were. The last flurry of Morse-coded messages had been sent and received not fifteen minutes earlier, and although they’d both offered what reassurance they could, the looks they’d exchanged as Sheppard had tapped them out told a grimmer story. If they couldn’t figure this out, there was a good chance they’d all die here just like the others who’d come before them.
Stymied by the stubbornly unreadable markings, and their inability to make any meaningful progress, the wraith left Sheppard standing by the pedestal. The multitude of possible combinations that all the separate elements on the board represented had finally conspired to make his head spin, and he felt the need to move around. Unfortunately, in doing so, he immediately ran up against the limited dimensions of the chamber, and he soon found himself pacing like a lion in a cage from one side to the other and back again. Unable to stave off the memories of interminable isolation and starvation the action had originally accompanied, the feelings he'd pushed down earlier resurfaced with a vengeance, and his windpipe constricted in panic as the confined space seemed to close in around him.
It wasn’t long before he felt himself getting lightheaded and the edges of his vision started to grey out. Within another couple of turns, the octagonal chamber began to fade as the barred the cell he’d inhabited in the past superimposed itself on the present, and the hopelessness of being unable to escape finally engulfed him and swallowed him whole.
The next thing he knew, he was leaning with his shoulder pressed against the wall, his face turned toward the corner, and his arms crossed protectively over his chest. Someone was beside him, speaking words that at first made no sense at all to the addled Wraith, but the tone and timbre were soothing, and the undercurrent of emotions that accompanied them were sincere, and as he listened, he began to recall himself to the present moment.
“…Breathe. That’s right,” he suddenly realized what John was saying, and with a lurch and a snarl, Todd pulled away from the hand that was tentatively encircling his upper arm and stalked across the room on unsteady feet, trying to get as far away from the human as possible. Although the crushing despair which had overwhelmed him had faded somewhat, the feeling of being trapped had not, and as he turned his attention to it, he immediately felt the band of tension encircling his chest tighten once more.
“Your… pity is unnecessary, Sheppard,” he snapped from the opposite end of the chamber, torn between the aching need for another being to understand the extent of the mental anguish he still suffered from his extended stay with Genii, even though he knew from past experiences that it would eventually fade with time; and mortification that John had witnessed a moment of weakness he’d never allowed another to see. “I’m fine. We should get back to work.”
John considered him for a long moment before answering. “You weren’t fine, though," he explained as he stepped forward, raking an uncertain hand through his hair. “You were hyperventilating and then you kind of stumbled into the corner; I held you up and tried to talk you down while you decided whether you were going to pass out or come around.”
Unwilling to continue a conversation which only exacerbated the humiliation he already felt, Todd stared fixedly at the levers that he still couldn’t crack the code on from his new corner, trying to ignore the racing of his heart as the panic that momentarily felt beyond his ability to contain spiked again. And hoping Sheppard would take the hint.
“Listen, there’s nothing wrong with having anxiety attacks – or even flashbacks,” John continued doggedly as he stepped up to the other side of the pedestal. “I've known a lot of people who had pretty bad issues with both. It’s just what happens to people sometimes. It doesn’t make them weak; it means they were traumatized by something beyond their control.”
No such luck today, it seemed, Todd fumed silently.
“It’s none of your business, Sheppard,” he snapped, as he leaned back against the wall while his vision started to fade around the edges again and another wave of dizziness washed over him. He only realized he’d closed his eyes and let his head fall back when he had to lift it and crack open his lids to peer at John, who'd seemed to suddenly appear by his side and grasp his forearm just as the wraith's knees started to buckle.
“I’m not getting rid of you anytime soon, am I,” Todd panted through cold lips as he met the other's troubled gaze. Although his voice was laced with consternation and sarcasm, a bigger part of him was glad that the human was there to help keep him upright.
“Nope,” Sheppard replied matter-of-factly, popping the ‘p’ as he took a step closer and squeezed Todd’s arm a little tighter as if to back up his assertion. “Look, just hear me out. Then you can tell me to go to hell, and I’ll go stand in one of the other corners. Okay?"
The wraith barely avoided rolling his eyes as he heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Proceed.”
For a moment, John got the same shuttered, faraway look in his eye that Todd imagined he’d had earlier, and when he finally spoke his voice was oddly subdued. “Before I was chosen to participate in the Atlantis Expedition, I served in a country on Earth called Afghanistan. I had some… uh, experiences there that left a mark. While I was in the hospital, recovering, a shrink came by to see how I was doing, and gave me a sheet of instructions for grounding myself in case I ever experienced any anxiety. Since I was having… um, bad dreams once in a while, I found that it helped.”
As John talked, Todd couldn’t help but pick up surface impressions from the man’s mind through their bond that was always at its strongest when they touched, and some of the disdain with which he’d begun listening to Sheppard’s tale faded as he sensed flashes of loss, fear, and incarceration, which while brief, was almost as horrific as his own.
It was Todd’s turn to study John when the man fell silent - so close that he could feel the man’s warmth where he grasped his arm, and yet so far away from where he wanted Sheppard to be. He couldn’t help but wonder what other hidden depths of delight and torment were locked up tight behind John’s imperious command to stay out of his head; but before he could follow up that train of thought with any actions he might regret, John derailed him with a simple question.
“So, do you want to give it a try? It’s like a game, and we’ve got nothing else to do.”
Now Todd did roll his eyes, which was about all he had the strength to handle at the moment. “Very well, Sheppard. Lead on.”
“Alright,” John replied. “I want you look around and name five things you can see. It can be anything.”
The wraith huffed with incredulous astonishment. “You want me to name five things I can see? How is that supposed to help me?”
Sheppard paused and pondered for a moment. “It’s to distract you; to get your out of your head, and reconnect you with the physical world.”
Ah, that he understood. The warmth Todd could feel at the single point on his arm where he and John were connected was already helping to ground him. Perhaps there might be something to this exercise, after all.
“Very well,” he responded. “Let us begin,” and together they counted down from what Todd could see, which included Sheppard, himself, who was subjected to a visual once-over that was as slow and sensual as a lover’s caress and left the man blushing, to the acknowledgment of the touch the wraith could feel through the leather of his uniform. From the sound of John’s heart, which Todd could hear thundering in time to his own in the stillness of the locked room, to the human’s scent, intoxicating and complex.
Somewhere along the way, the Brother Bond had flared to life, its tendrils wrapping around them both and drawing them together; and as they worked their way down through the numbers, Todd started to breathe a bit easier. Encouraged by the genuine concern Sheppard felt for his well-being which poured like sweet nectar across the connection, Todd also found himself revealing small tidbits of information from his time as a prisoner of the Genii. Things he’d never spoken of before to anyone, like the way the size of the antechamber they were in was similar to the dimensions of his cell, and how being in a small, locked room now triggered anxiety and claustrophobia as it had not done previously.
He didn’t impart any of the more graphic details of his time spent in captivity – the torture he’d endured – neither of them were ready for that much honesty; yet even the few secrets he shared had provided the relief valve he’d so desperately needed and he felt like he was no longer quite so alone.
And most amazing of all, as Todd talked, John listened, the strong grip on his forearm never faltering as Sheppard nodded with understanding for what the wraith had gone through. The same way Todd could see in his mind’s eye that the man had done in the past for brothers-in-arms who’d seen too much, done too much, experienced too much. What was also clear was that John hadn’t leaned in as he was doing now, unconsciously lending his physical closeness to his wordless support and thoroughly distracting Todd with his proximity.
It was no wonder then, when they finally reached the one thing he could taste, that they both froze at the same instant at the realization that the Colonel was a hairsbreadth away from pressing himself against the length of Todd’s body, and that the wraith was staring at John’s lips with a hungry look in his eye which had nothing to do with feeding.
After a long, tense pause, John laughed uncomfortable and pulled away, shattering the awkward tableau and destroying the moment of intimacy; but not before Todd caught something else that he was more than pleased to add to the list of things that he could smell: the faint, lingering musk of human desire.
Feeling much revived in both body and soul, Todd did his best to suppress the swell of exultation that surged in his breast at John's unintentional but enthusiastic response. Schooling his features into an impassive mask, he trailed after Sheppard as the man quickly retreated and started talking about the puzzle again, following the enticing pheromones the human left in his wake as he headed back to the pedestal.
“I was thinking about it,” John stated, scanning the control panel with the air of someone dedicated to focusing on anything except what had almost just happened. “Maybe we’re coming at this from the wrong angle. Maybe it isn’t complicated at all. Maybe it’s really straightforward and simple.”
Intrigued, Todd joined him at the plinth and stood as close as he dared, spiracles flaring slightly so he could inhale Sheppard’s mesmerizing scent with every breath. “What is your theory?”
“Every time you and I agreed on something, we got it. Right? We got lights in the main lobby, and we got useless script and a puzzle we can’t solve when we agreed we needed more information. I think that maybe the answer has been right in front of us the whole time.
“Look at the hand impressions,” he suggested, and Todd did. One was human-sized, the other had longer fingers and gouges for claws, suggesting a wraith-shaped hand. There was even a raised seam in the right one, indicating a feeding slit.
“Maybe,” John continued, his voice growing stronger as he warmed to the subject, “it’s more about working together than it is about solving a complex puzzle.”
He lifted his chin and met Todd’s gaze for a long moment of silent communication, and for a heartbeat the wraith was transported back to the underground Genii bunker where they met, and that instant when they first chose to put aside their differences in pursuit of a common goal. Recalled to the present by the spark of recognition in the Colonel’s hazel eyes for what must have shown on his face, he gave John a decisive nod which the human returned before they turned as one and faced the pedestal together. Without hesitation, Sheppard placed his hands on the human-sized depressions, then glanced expectantly over his shoulder at the wraith.
A sense of rightness coursed through Todd as he stepped up behind the man, his solid chest pressed against John’s back as he fitted his hands into the wraith-sized handprints, his thumbs just grazing the human’s pinkies. The moment he pressed his palms to the cold surface, the walls lit up even brighter, and parts of the text that had been hidden before were now visible – and clearly some sort of hybrid of Ancient and Wraith. Then the cacophony of whirring machinery suddenly filled the room, and the doors which had resisted their best efforts to breach slid aside to the surprised consternation of the Wraith and humans gathered on the other side, who were still arguing on the best course of action, their own conflicts forgotten in their concern for their leaders. A distant, thunderous boom followed that made them all jump, as the heavy door which guarded the main entrance flew open as well, allowing fresh air and sunshine into the entry hall that was only a few rooms away for the first time in millennia.
Above the din of the fading echo, Todd heard John’s quiet gasp, and although the human didn’t pull away physically, he jerked his hands back from the panel as if it had burned him. At the same instant, the acrid smell of the man’s fear at being seen in such a compromising position overwhelmed all else, and the feelings which had flowed so freely across the Brother Bond were suddenly locked behind a mental barricade Sheppard slammed into place without even realizing it.
Cut off from the man’s thoughts so abruptly, Todd’s first instinct was to release him immediately, but instead of putting the distance between them that he sensed John required, he found himself hesitating. Right here - right now - he was so close to what he’d wanted for so long that he could almost taste it, and he was reluctant to let it go. Then John shifted self-consciously in the circle of his arms, and Todd knew he couldn’t put it off any longer.
Suppressing a sigh, he took a step back, the picture of cordial restraint as he let his own hands fall to his sides, although he couldn't resist surreptitiously trailing them over the human’s arms on the way down. Giving one final, teasing caress to the taut skin of Sheppard’s tightly clenched fists before pulling away, he received a pleasant shock of surprise when the man’s fingers relaxed and uncurled under his touch, as if he would have reached out and grasped Todd’s hands if he could have.
In the next instant, the group burst into the room en masse, and Todd allowed John’s teammates to crowd him out as they gathered around Sheppard, while his own crew, more reserved but no less concerned, reached out to reconnect telepathically - the young ones especially, alarmed by the extended separation and seeking an immediate reunion.
Meanwhile, Rodney scanned the backlit script and amid the clamor, related a ten-thousand-year-old tale of a small sect of Wraith and Humans who’d dedicated themselves to brotherhood and built the shrine together, as a test for those of each race who would commit to building a future together.
While they each soothed their respective teams, reassuring them that they were truly unharmed, Todd and John caught each other’s eyes over the heads of the small crowd, who were herding them away from each other and toward the now wide-open entrance, and the Stargate beyond.
‘A test for those of each race who would commit to building a future together?’ Todd mused silently. His tone was droll, almost mocking, but his eyes burned with intensity, knowing that John could hear him across the fine thread of connection first spun between them in Kolya’s dungeon. ‘Is that what we just did?’
Sheppard’s face flushed red and he looked away, but Todd could still sense the magnetic pull of his presence and feel his reluctance to part as well; and the tiny flicker of hope that he’d secretly nurtured in regards to the man ever returning his feelings burned just a little bit brighter.