The wraith that they’ve thrown him in with is slighter than the ones that Rodney’s grown used to over the years. Its hair, a shade closer to gray-ish brown than the typical shock of white, is cropped close to its skull, pockmarked by small white scars that litter its scalp like miniature craters. Looking at the small marks - some of which are still scabbed over and angry looking - Rodney can only conclude that the wraith has been shaved often, likely by force, and that whoever did the shaving didn’t much care how painful it was.
Its skin is pallid and waxy, but there’s something almost human about the curve of its cheek - the slant of its nose.
The creature is clearly a prisoner. But why?
They take the wraith on day two, and when they bring it back hours later, there are new bruises on its body and dark blood on its lips.
Rodney watches it warily, waiting for it to spring on him. Surely now, he thinks. Hungry. Hurt. Beaten. It will use him to heal itself. Now, now, now.
Nothing happens. The wraith lays on the floor where they unceremoniously dropped it, clawed fingers clenching and unclenching, spasms of pain wracking its body. It stays like that for hours, cheek pillowed on the cold floor, back heaving with each breath it takes, and then, slowly, painstakingly, it crawls back across the floor and into its corner, where it lies, slumped in a huge pile of rags and unwashed limbs in its corner.
It doesn't speak. It doesn't fight. It makes no move to heal itself, no move to eat Rodney.
It just watches him with those terrifying yellow eyes, unblinking.
The pattern repeats itself. They take it again two days later, and then two days after that.
On the sixth day, Rodney is poking hesitantly at the thin gruel that they’ve given him when the wraith is tossed back into the cell. It isn’t cowering in pain the way it usually is, and the break in pattern is almost strange enough to think that they’ve finally come for him.
Nope. Not today. The guards leave, unconcerned as usual, and Rodney’s cellmate calmly makes its way back to its corner and sits. No wincing, no spasms, no clearly suppressed grunts of pain. Just… sits, and goes back to watching Rodney.
To distract himself from wondering, he paces a few short circuits around his side of the room, harrumphing loudly. Stomping a bit.
“Okay,” Rodney says at last, whirling on it from a safe distance. He’s kept his silence for a week now and he can’t keep ignoring the giant gray space alien in the room. He'll go crazy. The wraith regards him with a long, slow blink, catlike and unconcerned. “I give up. What’s your deal?”
It cocks its head at him, rewarding him with another unconcerned blink.
“My ‘deal’?” it finally asks, the corners of its mouth twitching up into an unmistakable smile.
Its voice is, if anything, even more alarming than its appearance. Clear and masculine, it comes out in a slow, lazy drawl - lacking the otherworldly chest-heavy bass that all wraiths seem to possess. Impossibly, it sounds halfway human.
“Yes,” he says with a nod, pretending that the word doesn’t come out as a squeak. “You’re different. I want to know why.”
It arches one eyebrow, its smile growing slowly. It’s a shark's smile, the only thing sharper than its teeth the flash of dark amusement in its eyes.
It licks its lips and with one smooth, graceful move, pushes itself to its feet. Rodney twitches backwards, wincing as his back thumps heavily against the wall.
“Woah, woah, what are you doing? There’s no need to get up,” he yells, waving his hands frantically as the wraith begins to close the distance between them. “You looked so comfortable over there in your corner! Oh god, oh god, okay, I’m sorry, don’t eat me.”
He cringes, eyes fixed on its feet as it looms closer and closer. Why did he ever think it was small? It isn’t small. It might be roughly his height, but it takes up space the way that he never will.
And then, it stops. Right in front of him, boxing him in easily with its sheer presence.
Rodney can hear it breathing, a quiet, easy rhythm that he matches without thinking, trying to ease the galloping of his heart. He risks a quick glance back up at it, and then, nope, nope. Teeth. Can’t do it. Teeth are too big, too vicious. For a species that eats through their hands, he’s always wondered why evolution decided to give them such ridiculous teeth.
The creature's hand reaches out to him, tipping his chin up with one sharply pointed claw. Rodney shudders again, blinking in the general direction of its chest for a few times before he can make himself meet its eyes.
“What’s your name?” it asks him, almost kindly.
“Dr. Rodney McKay,” he says quickly, out of sheer reflex. He winces.
“Rodney,” it repeats, smiling lazily. “Can I call you Rodney?”
He swallows harshly, adam’s apple brushing against the monster’s knuckles.
“Sure,” squeaks out of him.
Its smile goes the widest that he’s seen it, the corners of its eyes crinkling up in pleasure. It’s the closest that he’s ever seen a wraith get to an actual grin. Brilliant if it weren’t so frightening. No, no, it is brilliant, possibly because it’s so pants-wettingly terrifying.
“Good,” it croons, dropping its claws away from his throat and leaning back in what is clearly, undeniably, a fucking slouch. “Call me John.”
“John,” he repeats incredulously.
The wraith - John - makes a face, nose wrinkled, bottom lip jutted out a bit, nodding as it shrugs. “Didn’t have a name before. Figured this one’s as good as any.”
“John,” Rodney says again, a touch of disbelief coloring his voice. He’s three easy steps away from a total meltdown, not because he’s a prisoner aboard a hive, or because he’s being kept in a cell with a monster that could eat him, but because said monster is calling itself John.
“I need to sit down,” he breathes, and slowly slides down the wall.
The wraith joins him on the floor, folding itself into an elegant sprawl three feet away from him.
John blinks at Rodney attentively with its - with his - freaky, yellow monster eyes and waits.
“Okay,” Rodney says once he’s gotten his breathing under control. He sits up, spine straightening, and only winces a little when it cracks in three places. “How.”
John shrugs. “Don’t know, don’t care.”
“C’mon, you must know something!”
“All I know is that when your lot tried their hand at genetic engineering, the wraith didn’t like it much.”
“Michael,” Rodney whispers, grimacing. God, he knew that was going to come back and bite them in the ass.
John nods. “So, they tried their hand at it.”
Rodney looks him over, moving from the hair to the teeth to the strangely human nose - the eyebrows. Christ, he has eyebrows. And now that Rodney’s looking, there’s a tint of green to his eyes. But despite the clear humanity there, he definitely isn’t human. “Clearly, it didn’t work.”
“Clearly,” John says drily, picking at his claws. “I don’t remember much.”
Rodney thinks about that for a moment. The wraith just sits there, legs crossed, hand propping himself back against the floor. His body language is so human. If it weren’t for the teeth and claws, he’d seem totally harmless.
“Do you feel like a human?”
John sighs, giving Rodney a look. “I don’t know. Do you?”
That gives Rodney pause. “Okay, point taken.”
They’re quiet for a moment, just looking at each other. Rodney wonders if he’s the first human that John has seen. Wonders if he’s ever eaten anyone - if he even can. He shivers and decides against asking.
“So, how do we get out?” he asks.
Slowly, John starts to smile. “I was hoping that you would ask me that.”
“This is a horrible idea,” Rodney says. He’s said it a dozen times already, with ever increasing levels of panic.
“Noted,” John tells him, shifting beside him. He’s very close. Close enough that if Rodney wanted, he could count the pale lashes framing John’s eyes. Close enough that every time he takes a breath, it comes out hot against Rodney’s collarbone. His eyes are distant now, distracted, listening for any sign of approach.
John hisses, coming back to himself and refocusing on Rodney long enough to swat at him with one hand. Rodney yelps reflexively, but the claws don’t get anywhere near him.
“Stop thinking,” John growls. “Start doing.”
“Easy for you to say,” Rodney mutters, nose wrinkled, but reluctantly puts his fingers back into the box. And then, “Look, do you really need to be that close while I’m doing this?”
John glowers at him.
“Why?” he drawls. “Am I bothering you?”
“Believe it or not,” Rodney tells him, hissing in pain when one of the crystals zap him. He pokes back at it vindictively, sticking the injured digit into his mouth. He mumbles the rest around his thumb, only half squinting in John’s actual direction. “Having something with sharp teeth breathing down your neck is not actually conducive to one’s thought process.”
John barks out a loud, abrupt noise that might be laughter, his breath tickling the hairs at the base of Rodney’s neck. “I’d have thought it would be good motivation.”
“You’d be wrong.” Rodney stops, staring at the box when it makes a clicking noise and the door releases. He huffs out a disbelieving breath, hands spreading out before him in amazement. “I got it?” He spins in a circle, crowing with success. He turns, giving John’s chest two sharp jabs with his pointer finger. “I got it! Take that, you shark-toothed pessimist!”
John stares at him flatly, then carefully takes Rodney’s wrist and removes it from his person. “Good for you, we didn’t have to resort to Plan B yet. Now keep quiet, it’s not too late for me to eat you.”
And with that, he’s out the door.
“A thank you would have been nice,” Rodney calls, grumbling as he follows after.
This ship is as dark and creepy as any wraith hive ship, but it's the smell that gets him, like blood and damp and living things. Organic.
Rodney shivers as he follows along after John, wondering if maybe he should have taken his chances in the cell.
Plan A isn’t completely horrible. The only thing awful about it is how simple it is. Get out of cell, somehow get to wraith dart without bringing the whole damn hive down on them, have John pilot it out of here and hope that they’re somewhere near a stargate.
Now, trusting that John will actually take him where he needs to go instead of having him for a mid-flight snack once he’s in the belly of the dart… that’s another thing entirely. Rodney hasn’t gotten this far in life without a healthy dose of paranoia. If he were Ronon or Teyla or… basically anyone other than himself, he would probably be considering how best to counter when the friendly neighborhood wraith turns on him, but Rodney is stuck. He needs John if he wants to get out. Needs.
If there was another way, he’d have thought of it already.
John hustles him around a corner with a hand pressed low to Rodney’s back and Rodney swats at him absently.
“You have got to stop doing that,” he hisses. “You’re going to give me a heart attack.”
John narrows his eyes and pointedly doesn’t remove the hand as he gets them up a hallway and past two wraith guards without being detected.
“You’re good at this,” Rodney tells him some time later, after they’ve crossed two more hallways and three more guards. “I’m finding it harder and harder to believe that you actually needed me for your great escape.”
“Are you complaining?” John whispers back, peering around a corner and then hissing as he reels back, grabbing for Rodney and tugging him around to his other side. His hands press firmly against Rodney’s side, the tips of his claws poking through thin cloth.
“If it gets me eaten, then yeah, I’m complaining.”
John looks at him, vexed, and after a moment, uncurls his fingers and offers his hand, palm up, to Rodney.
Rodney takes it warily, tugging it closer and squinting against the dim lighting. Where there should be a feeding slit, all red and pink and gross, there’s only smooth skin. Fascinated, Rodney presses down firmly, watching as the skin gives faintly, denting under the pressure. There are lines across the palms of his hands, Rodney notes, stroking a finger up what, on a human, would have been John’s life line.
Beneath his fingers, John shivers. Rodney wonders if this is the first time that someone has touched him without the intent to hurt.
“Do you believe me now?” John asks impatiently, tugging his hand back. “I’m not going to eat you because I can’t.”
“I suppose I have to,” Rodney muses, considering. If John can’t feed like a wraith does, what have they been feeding him? Clearly he’s been on this ship for awhile, and while he is clearly starving he isn’t, y’know, dead, so they must have been giving him something.
John makes to move, but without thinking, Rodney grabs for his hand and tugs him back.
“Where are you going to go?” he asks quickly, John’s hand hot under his. He quickly lets go of it. “After we get out of here?”
For a long moment, John stares at him. Over the last few hours, it’s gotten easier and easier to spot the things marking him as other. There are faint freckles dusting the bridge of his nose, subtle, smudged things that he wouldn’t have noticed before. His brow has definition to it, shaped rather than smashed flat and reptilian like most wraith. His lips are full with a flush of color. He has eyebrows, for god’s sake.
But for all that, everything that marks him as other, he is still clearly wraith. No human settlement would take him. And after this, no wraith would either. Michael, maybe, if John could track him down, but ordinary wraith? At best, they’d kill him. At worst, they would use him the way these have.
John holds his gaze steady, and Rodney knows that he knows it. Knows that there isn’t anywhere for him to go out there, in the huge wide reaches of the Pegasus galaxy.
John licks his lips, quick and darting. A nervous gesture, either carried over by the human dna that’s altered his entire genome or learned. Maybe even from Rodney. With a sigh, John looks away. “I’ll figure it out.”
Rodney bites down on his lip, hard, and wonders if he’s going to regret this. “What if you came back with me?”
John barks out a short, bitten-off laugh, eyes wide and incredulous. “To Atlantis?”
“They wouldn’t let me within a foot of the city and you know it,” John says. “And if they did, it would be more of the same. Your people are the ones who tampered with our genome in the first place and here you are, saying they won’t seize upon the first chance they get to continue their little experiment?” He shakes his head once, furiously, expression twisting into something unreadable.
Well, he isn’t wrong. Maybe Rodney could talk Sam into it, and after some trust is built, maybe the people on base would even be able to see John as one of their own, but eventually, someone earthside would get wind of it and raise a stink. After all, it wasn’t every day that a lab rat willingly walked themselves through your front door.
Not to take advantage of that would be stupid.
“You’re right,” Rodney admits after a long moment, watching John check and then round the corner. “Stupid question.”
Rodney was right. Their luck does run out.
His shoulder is on fire, lips pressed tight together, heart thumping frantically as John keeps him up with a firm hand wound around his waist. Shots flash by over head and there’s a streak of Rodney’s blood across John’s cheek.
“We’re going to make a run for it,” John whispers, fingers flexing against the curve of Rodney’s hip.
“You’re trying to kill me,” Rodney says faintly, staring as John gets two lucky shots off over his shoulder, the blaster that he’d stolen off one of the first guards held in a tight grip.
“I’m not trying to kill you,” John says, rolling his eyes. “Now stop whining and go.”
There’s no one guarding the darts. John carefully props Rodney against the sleek side of the nearest one, passing him the stolen blaster.
“You do know how to use this, right?” he asks, already crawling up the side of the craft.
“Can you even fly one of these things?” Rodney asks waspishly in response, wincing and putting pressure on the claw marks pockmarking his poor shoulder. Overhead, the alarms start wailing. Right on time. He grunts, readying the blaster in his hand.
“I think so,” comes John’s muffled response. His head appears above Rodney’s, upside down. Sharp teeth flash. “Guess we’ll find out.”
Three wraith appear across from them and Rodney curses under his breath; fires. “Any time now!”
“Okay,” John shouts down to him. “I’ll pick you up and let you down when we reach safety.”
“Yeah,” Rodney scoffs. “If we reach safety.”
“Well, think about it this way. If we die horribly, at least you won’t have to feel it.”
Rodney thinks about that, and grimaces, firing off another shot. Another. And another. “Yeah, that’s still bad. Just… do your thing. Quickly!”
Presumably, John does his thing, because the next thing Rodney knows, there’s soft green grass beneath his back and several aches and pains making themselves known from where he hit the ground. His shoulder is killing him.
“Nice landing, John,” he grumbles to himself, brushing dirt from his backside. He squints at the sky as the dart circles back to him, landing neatly nearby.
When John crawls out of it, there’s a new bruise across his jaw and dark blood trickling from his nose, but he’s smiling and they’re alive, so it must have not gone too horribly.
“Turns out I’m pretty good at flying,” he says happily, eyes darting around the treeline. His nostrils flare as a breeze goes past them.
“Good for you,” Rodney mutters, pacing in a slow circle and trying to get his bearings. Unsurprisingly, nothing about the place stands out. There’s grass and trees and the sound of a river somewhere nearby, so… an exact replica of a good thousand other planets just like it. “Where are we, exactly?”
“Don’t know,” John says. “It has a stargate though.”
Rodney looks at him. “Why on earth didn’t you just set us down next to it?”
John shoots him an indecipherable look.
“There was a village nearby,” he says slowly. “Didn’t think they’d much appreciate a wraith dart landing in the middle of their village.”
Rodney blinks at the whole-lotta-nothing surrounding them. “How far?”
“A mile, maybe? Not long on foot.”
They blink at each other uncomfortably. Rodney realizes that he doesn't know what to do now. He can't possibly take John with him to the village.
“So…” he says, licking his lips.
“So,” John agrees.
“It’s been interesting.”
John blinks at him. “I suppose it has.”
Rodney shifts uneasily on his feet, darting looks from the forest and then back to John. “What will you do?”
John shrugs. “Dunno. Something will come to me.”
He should say something, Rodney thinks. Something encouraging. Instead, he licks his lips and says, “And you’re sure that you don’t want to come with me? I’m sure I could get my people to come around to the idea of having you in the city.”
“Eventually, maybe,” John says, giving him a look. “I don’t particularly want to be there while you try to persuade them.”
He watches Rodney for a moment and then grins, sharp teeth showing. He steps into Rodney’s space, and before Rodney can protest, claps an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. He rubs their cheeks together slowly, like a cat would, and then he’s pulling away, leaving Rodney reeling in startled confusion.
“Don’t worry, Rodney,” John tells him, stepping back. “We’ll see each other again.”
Rodney licks his lips. Inexplicably, he finds himself blushing.
John grins wider. His teeth are still sharp, but Rodney finds that he doesn’t fear them so much anymore.
“Word has it that you’re the smartest man in the universe,” John teases, taking another step backwards towards the dart. “Think you’ll find a way to reach me.”
Then he turns, and walks away.
Rodney watches him go.
“Yeah,” he says, watching the dart rise into the sky. “Guess so.”