It was dark, had probably always been dark.
It was never quite silent; there was a sort of harsh buzzing to the air that never went away, even in sleep, drowning out every dream until the only dream was the buzzing.
It was pain, it was… Just pain. Pain of the hands, of the hand most of all, pain of poking and prodding and deep, deep slicing, and little interested hmming and quiet conversation. It was pain of needles, what was the point of needles under the claws? It was pain of cutting for cutting's sake, and it was the itchy pain of slow and steady knitting back together. It was the pain of bruises from the crash too, of a broken ankle that had not been allowed to heal properly and now twisted every dragged step down that wretched and damp hallway.
It was silent in all the ways that mattered, in the absence of promises made that should never have been trusted, in the absence of anybody at all. It was the silence of total isolation at the end of the world, of the rest of the galaxy drowned out by that never-ending buzzing.
It was damp, always damp, and cold, always cold.
It was nothing, and pain, and nothing, and then in the loud silence there was a sound. There was a light.
It was the fading afterimage of Teyla, burned onto the backs of his eyelids, and Lastlight knew he had lost his mind because he could still see her there, like a totem, like a path, like a lifeline, and then the human who was adamantly not a doctor clicked their tongue and reached for the knife again, and somehow Lastlight still had it in him to scream.
It wasn't fun or fast, but John was pretty sure he was getting better. He'd been hurt before, of course–there was always The Incident in Afghanistan to compare the rest of his life against–but it had been a while and, no matter what Rodney had said after his first encounter with Todd, he wasn't getting any younger. Every morning had to start with painkillers or it didn't get very far at all, and even though Dr. Keller had grudgingly allowed him to leave the wheelchair in the infirmary after a few days, he was still limping around with a cane. There was definitely something patently unfair about living on a floating fortress on an alien planet with portals that could take him anywhere in the galaxy (the alien galaxy) in .38 seconds, but he still had to use a damn cane to get around the floating fortress.
It wasn't like he could stay in bed for a week, either. No, like an idiot he had gone and gotten himself promoted high enough that he was the sucker in charge of the place until the SGC either sent Carter back (he hoped) or sent them someone new to break in. So John had to limp himself out of bed, over to the command tower, across the gate room and through a mountain of paperwork every damn day. Between Schuyler's impatience and Todd's visible and increasingly bitchy fatigue, the remaining week was already shaping up to drag on endlessly, but it was the paperwork, more than any irritable wraith or human unease at irritable wraith, that was really making the whole thing especially crappy.
All things considered, the wraith were turning out to be less of an issue than John had feared. Schuyler remained bizarrely irrepressible in a Zen kind of way, though it was clear enough he was chomping at the bit to go rescue Michael. Todd kept mostly to himself, probably in no small part because he was starting to look at humans like Wile E. Coyote looked at Roadrunner. Although he wouldn't have admitted it (and wasn't that a weird thought in and of itself), John found himself hobbling out of his way to avoid the hallway where the wraith were staying.
It wasn't that he was scared of them; if anything, he was a little disturbed by how little the two of them scared him. It was just that before, he had started thinking of 'Future Todd' as some kind of goalpost, some kind of symbol of cooperation, and yet here 'Present Todd' was, cooperating and hanging out and generally being chill (if a little snacky), and it made John wonder if maybe Todd hadn't been trying to cooperate all along. Watching him with Schuyler was another profoundly weird experience. If someone had asked John around year one if he'd thought wraith had lovers, or even friends, he'd have laughed, but Schuyler, it seemed, loved everybody, and Todd loved Schuyler. No point dwelling on it; that wasn't the reason John was avoiding them.
John set the pen down as the letters failed to un-blur and shut his eyes, raking his hands back into his hair. It was the death notification letters that always got to him, though he'd never had to write them as a base commander before. Desperate for anything else to latch onto, his mind would skitter away from what it was doing, like trying to catch a mouse with his bare hands. This was one of the guys who'd gone with them to Michael's lab, too. One of the ones who hadn't been as lucky as John, for all his complaints about healing speed and canes. What kind of asshole led good men to their deaths and then spent his time worrying about alien relationships anyway?
"Colonel Sheppard?" John raised his head sharply, trying to rearrange his face and posture into something decorous. "It's weird seeing you here." Dr. Keller hovered in the doorway, looking perpetually anxious.
"Not as weird as it is to be here." John waved her in, presented the chairs in front of the desk. As she sat, John shuffled some folders over the letter he had been not-writing. Future John problem. "What do you need?"
"Input, I guess? I don't know if it's a permission thing, since I don't really know what I want to do in the first place." She seemed to be waiting for a response, so John shrugged. "Okay, so… The wraith, or I guess Schuyler in particular, want limited record access. Mostly Schuyler wants to see the unredacted version of the wraith retrovirus project, which does make sense, and he wants to see what we have on the original encounter with the Hoffan virus." The thing he thought Michael could cure and the thing that had pissed him off in the first place. Well.
"You want my permission to hand the files over?" John guessed.
"That's the thing, I don't know yet." Keller sighed. "Are we trusting them now? Are they part of the team? I'm not saying we aren't or they're not, I just have no idea where they stand right now."
"Well–" John hesitated. Probably the technically correct thing to do was to pretend he knew what he was doing, issue a decisive order, then keep the pretense going after it blew up in their faces. But that plan sucked. John had never been any good at keeping up appearances.
"I don't know either," John confessed instead, and knew he had chosen correctly by the relief that slid over Keller's face. "I was just thinking about that. Pretty much. A lot of it is gonna depend on if they send Carter back, or if we get someone new who doesn't get the situation."
"To be honest, Colonel, I don't think I get the situation yet either."
"That is the situation. But you get that, at least. I think." Keller laughed, or made a noise that sounded like it could have been a laugh with about nine more hours of sleep. "My point is, one of the problems is that whatever decision I make about them, ultimately it's going to be up to the next guy. Or gal," John amended. Personally, he was hoping at least they sent another woman (or ideally, Colonel Carter). Trying to send a man to negotiate with wraith Queens wasn't something they'd had to try yet, and it sounded like it was going to go poorly. Besides, they'd had a good run of women in charge.
"But if I give them the files, they might be able to help now…" Halfway through, Keller seemed to realize what John had been getting at, and her face twisted. "Oh, and then that's information they have if whoever our next boss is decides to burn them and they go back to being our enemies."
"Right, you get the issue here. I'm only technically in command, and only for a week. Whatever we do now can't be undone, but can be screwed over, and I don't know who we're going to be dealing with next week." John leaned back in his chair and shrugged as best he could without tugging on any stitches, while Keller watched him with a pensive expression.
"You want to trust them," she said eventually.
"You sound surprised." Of course, she was also right.
"It's a little out of the ordinary for us, yeah. For the military in general, in my experience. Which, granted, is not all that much."
"You're not wrong," John admitted. "We, by which I mean Atlantis specifically, have a bad history of getting stabbed in the back by the wraith." Sitting up a little straighter, Keller opened her mouth, then hesitated, visibly rethinking. "And, okay, as a result we have occasionally been more paranoid than we needed to be, and we might have preemptively backstabbed before we could get backstabbed ourselves. I was there, I can admit it."
"But you trust these wraith."
"I want to," John corrected, not completely accurately. "Michael is going to be another story, but I think it might be worth our while to give Schuyler a chance, and Todd a… Third or fourth chance."
"But we can't do that until we know the next boss isn't going to kick them to the curb… Or line them up against the wall." As a chill rolled down John's spine, Keller slumped in her chair. "You know, I thought I was overthinking, but it's actually worse than I thought, isn't it?"
"Welcome to Pegasus, Doctor." Keller stared at him a moment longer, then pushed her chair back and stood.
"Thanks, Colonel… I guess we have to wait." John nodded as she left, staring down at his paperwork. It hadn't actually occurred to him that whoever beamed down from the Daedalus might decide executing Todd and Schuyler was a better option than working with them, turning them loose or imprisoning them. Michael's life was bound to be a little tenuous on Atlantis, but somehow John had managed to dance around the idea that the other two might be seemed too dangerous to keep alive. Bates would have done it for sure; Sumner too, John was willing to bet, although he hadn't known the man long before his death.
John uncovered the letter, stared at it, glanced at his watch, covered the letter again, and decided now was probably the best time to try and have a chat with their pale guests. Anything to keep the letter in the future. It wasn't like it could be picked up for more than a week anyway.
Getting over to the habitation tower was as hard as it always was, which was to say it was very easy if he hadn't been recently impaled. A few minutes of shuffling and nodding later, and John stood in front of the door of the room that had been assigned to the wraith, right as the impetus of his impulsive decision was beginning to wear off. He made himself wave a hand over the door controls before he could lose his nerve, heard the chime and the answering growl inside.
When John waved open the door, he found Todd sitting cross-legged on the bed, apparently alone. He had that damn baby name book spread out in front of him, and belatedly John remembered his broken promise to get Schuyler more interesting reading material.
"What is a fox?" Todd asked as the door slid shut behind John, throwing him so far off his guard that the only thing he could do was gape like a fish. After a moment of this, Todd looked up at him, and grinned sharply at his expression. "This name you gave me, it says it refers to an Earth animal, but I have never heard of this creature."
"They're, uh, orange," John said eventually, accurately but also a little idiotically. "And smart, supposedly. Fluffy. Sharp teeth." It looked like Schuyler had finished picking the knots out of Todd's hair, and it now hung straight around his face, brushing a little past his shoulders. There were little braids in there, too. Bored wraith, huh.
"That does not sound like much of a resemblance," Todd observed.
"Well," John said weakly, "you're a little fluffy," and Todd laughed.
"Please," Todd said, gesturing toward the single desk chair, "sit. To what do I owe this visit?"
"Just, you know, seeing how you're getting along."
"You wish to confirm I am not an imminent danger to your soldiers? I am not." He definitely didn't look threatening, sitting barefoot in bed and reading a baby names book. John knew better than to think Todd wasn't dangerous, he just didn't think that danger was for the people of Atlantis.
"No," John said before he could stop himself, "I trust you."
The ensuing silence was complete. Todd looked visibly shocked, something that John didn't think he'd seen before, and he couldn't bring himself to be the first to look away, because the absolute worst part was how firmly he meant it. Amazing that Todd had to save his life twice for it to take, but take it did.
"Thank you, Sheppard," Todd purred at last, still looking a little dazed, though that could have been the hunger. "I will endeavor to be worthy of your trust."
"Me too," John said. Todd blinked and hmm ed, though he sounded much more pleased than dubious.
"Is this truly a social call, then? I never thought I would see the day." Slowly and deliberately, Todd shut the book and put it back on the pillow behind him, never quite taking his eyes off of John. The steadiness of his yellow gaze gave John goosebumps, but he wasn't sure he didn't like it.
"Kind of. Your, uh, Schuyler has been asking for records, and I was hoping to… Follow up on that." Todd's expression slowly darkened, and again it struck John as odd that he knew what a friendly wraith looked like in the first place.
"So much for trust," Todd said flatly, and John couldn't quite stop himself from cringing.
"Look, it's not that. I mean, it's not all that. The problem is that I only get to make decisions until next week, then whoever comes after gets to make all of the decisions going forward." It was a pretty bad excuse, but some of Todd's anger lifted.
"We are both prisoners and not prisoners until your commander arrives. I see. I suppose both he and I can understand that."
"Sorry. I know it sucks."
"It… 'Sucks' less than the last time I was here." John dropped his eyes, picked at the handle of his cane. He'd had good reasons to mistrust Todd, just as Todd had had good reasons to mistrust Atlantis. Of course, Todd's concerns had proved a little more well founded, but who knew what would have happened if they'd shown up unarmed like they'd been asked to.
John pushed himself laboriously to his feet before he could say something he maybe meant but would definitely regret.
"I'll see what I can find that's more interesting than a list of names, but maybe not mission-critical." To his surprise, Todd stood as well, a little unsteady on his feet and awfully close in the confined space of the small room. John adjusted his grip on the cane between them. He wasn't between John and the door, so it wasn't that John felt trapped, Todd was just… Very close. Very large. Deliberately, with almost comedic slowness, he raised his left hand and touched his fingertips to the center of John's chest. It reminded John like nothing so much as trying to pet a new horse's nose for the first time, when you weren't sure if the horse was going to bite. John didn't think he felt like biting, but he was concerned by the possibility that Todd could feel how hard John's heart was racing.
"Later, then, John Sheppard," Todd said, and dropped his hand. The phantom pressure of his claws remained over John's heart for the rest of the night.
There was no light at all, but that was a good thing, because the light meant guards, meant a new chorus in the pointless masterwork of pain. At least in the dark there was something like peace. At least now there was a benefit to being so completely alone, if the alternative was the pain.
The room was carved out of rock and floored in packed dirt. There was never time to get a good look at it, between the flashes of light from the door opening and the guards' clubs, but in the dark, curled into the corner, hands scrabbling in the dirt and on the rock, there were deeply carved grooves. It was a bit of a stretch, but they were about the span of claws, though of course any kind of stretch was added torture on the wounded hand. The gouges went around the small room in a ring, and stretched as high as the low ceiling, in clusters of five. There were chips and shards, in some of them, of a material somewhat softer than stone, but apparently more persistent. No doubt in the light there would be old black blood, in addition to the fresh spatters decorating the cell now.
The sound of footsteps ringing down the hallway brought with them a wave of sickening terror, and as the door cracked open once more, between the oppressive darkness of the cell and the blinding light of the hallway, Teyla saw the hands stretched out in front of her were long-fingered and bone-white, their green nails cracked and oozing black blood.
For the fourth time in as many fitful nights, Teyla woke up screaming.
At least, John guessed, it was quiet, though the very act of thinking it made him look around for wood to knock on (no luck since they'd relieved the vases of their sticks on day one). He wasn't sure how he'd do if he had to deal with actual pressing problems on top of everything else. The letters still weren't getting done, of course. Schuyler and Todd weren't getting any more or less impatient to be on the move, though Schuyler did have a weird habit of being suspiciously absent whenever John went to talk to Todd. And Todd was… John found himself taking the hallway past their room on his way back every evening, and if he happened to stop inside for longer and longer each night, well, keeping an eye on their maybe-prisoners was his responsibility as the guy in charge of this mess, wasn't it?
He had tried lending them his copy of War and Peace , but Todd had handed it back the next night, claiming both he and Schuyler had given it a go and found it incomprehensible. Which John couldn't really blame them for, since he'd done more or less the same thing himself. Unfortunately, that exhausted John's literature collection.
The next night, instead of passing it without looking as he had been for the past few days, John slowed to a stop in front of the other door he'd been avoiding. It had been his idea to take the letters off of Lorne's plate; five was a lot of men to lose all in one thundering crash, and at least as heavy a weight as the building had been. The mission, after all, was John's, and he was the ranking officer, so it made sense, and someday he'd even follow through on it.
John realized he'd been standing in front of Lorne's door for far too long, staring at it instead of ringing the chime.
"Okay," he said under his breath, squared his shoulders, and waved his hand over the doorbell. There was a moment of silence, and John began to hope that maybe Lorne wasn't home after all, but before John could make his escape, Lorne called for him to enter, and he did.
Lorne's room was about the same size as the one Schuyler and Todd had been put in, and marginally less impersonal. John hadn't seen what it looked like before, but if he'd been asked to describe it from imagination, he would've been pretty close. Lorne sat in the desk chair, broken leg and its cast propped up on his bed. When he saw his visitor was John, he reached for the crutches leaned up against the other side of the desk, but John waved him off.
"Don't get up on my account, Major. I just wanted to see how you're holding up." Not, pointed out a cynical part of him, that John should expect any kind of real answer. He sure as hell wouldn't tell a superior officer he was doing anything other than 'fine, sir."
"I'm fine, sir," Lorne said, though he sounded surprised, so maybe John wasn't being a complete asshole right now. "Thank you, though."
"Okay, good. No problem." The room felt about as relaxed as a wake, which was pretty on par with most of John's attempts to talk about his or anyone else's feelings. "If you ever, uh. Do need to talk to someone… About things…"
"Don't worry, sir, I'll ask someone else." From Lorne's tone of voice, John could tell it was meant to lighten the mood, and accordingly he rocked back on his heels and made a sound that could have been the dried-out cousin of a chuckle. Maybe he should've let Lorne write the letters after all; he really did seem like he was handling stuff okay. Better than John, which wasn't hard. So far.
"That's a weight off my shoulders," John tried, and even he could hear it go a little flat. Across the small room, he could see Lorne frowning, so John tamped down his panic and asked the first thing that came to mind: "Hey, do you have any books?" Lorne's frown smoothed out into confusion, which was kind of like progress.
"Like… Self-help books?" Lorne asked, evidently too puzzled for honorifics.
"No! No, just… General books. The wraith are getting bored, and I was looking for something more interesting than War and Peace but less potentially dangerous than… Well, any of our reports, more or less." Lorne stared, and John imagined he could see the request for reassignment Lorne was probably drafting in his head.
"No, I didn't bring any books. Um, sir. But there's always the library, I guess?" John waited a moment, but Lorne still seemed serious, if puzzled and possibly regretful of the life choices that had led him to this place.
"As far as I know, the nearest library is about three million light-years out of my way, Major."
"Oh." Lorne blinked. "Katie started one before she put in for a transfer, and it kind of grew from there. It's in a storage closet a few doors down from the botany labs. It's not really a library, people just drop off whatever they have and are sick of, and pick up whatever they want to read next. There's a lot of Clancy novels."
"Learn something new every day, I guess." Probably a good idea to skip the Tom Clancy. John could kinda see why nobody had told him about the place, but reading something other than War and Peace was starting to sound pretty good after five years. "Let me know if you need anything, Major?"
"Yessir," Lorne answered, and John mercifully went in search of the library.
By the time John made it back to the habitation tower, his side was starting to ache alarmingly, from a combination of heavy books and painkillers wearing off. He paused a moment to collect himself in front of the wraith's door, leaning heavily on the cane and trying to stop panting. Once he had pulled himself more or less together, he waved an elbow over the door chime.
Much to his surprise, the door slid open almost immediately. John didn't think he was struggling visibly, but Todd reached out to take the books from him as soon as he saw them, although not quite fast enough to hide the tremor in his hands.
"I was beginning to doubt you would visit tonight, Sheppard," Todd purred. "Please, come in." He turned and crossed the small room in a few strides, dropping the books on the desk and himself in the chair, which left John to choose between standing and sitting on the bed. After only a moment of waffling in the doorway, John chose bed. Todd, meanwhile, had picked up one of the volumes and was examining the cover.
"I do not recognize either of these words," he said, turning the book so John could read the spine as well. "Is this another very long story?"
"No, it's not a story. I don't actually know what 'Britannica' means… Probably something to do with Britain, which hey, you can find out about in like the second or third book. An 'Encyclopedia' is… Pretty much explanations of everything on Earth the authors could think of."
"How interesting." Todd opened the book in his hands and glanced down at the page. "You mean all Earth knowledge is contained in these five books?"
"Hey, c'mon, give us a little credit. There's at least ten more books, I just can't carry them all at once. And it doesn't have everything , I guess, just stuff whoever compiled it thinks is the most important." Todd smiled down at whatever he was reading, then glanced up at John.
"What a strange way of transmitting such a large quantity of information." He shut the book and set it aside, but his expression didn't change, so maybe it wasn't about what he was reading after all.
"Don't knock books, books were the best thing we had for information until less than a century ago. Although there's an online version now. Meaning, uh, on a network anybody can access and add to and change. So I imagine the books are just about obsolete on Earth, too."
"I see. Thank you, Sheppard."
"No problem," John said. "Hey, I've been wondering something, and it's not an emergency, I just don't get it." Todd leaned back and spread his hands in invitation. "Not that I care one way or another, but where is Schuyler? I've never seen him in here. I would've expected you guys to be joined at the hip, I guess."
"Ah. When Dex does not have other demands on his time, he is with Dex." John nodded slowly, but something of his remaining confusion must've shown on his face. "We have been together for a very long time, Sheppard, and we have spent much longer spans apart than the last fifty years. The only difference there was being separated in mind as well."
"What does a long time even look like for you guys?" Todd had said he was around to fight the Ancients, hadn't he? That made him at least ten millennia old, which was such a huge amount of time that John had trouble even thinking about it.
"That is a complicated question. In short, most of his life, so something approaching eight thousand years." John whistled.
"That's longer than human history, on Earth anyway. My marriage didn't even make it a decade." Probably shouldn't even have lasted as long as it did , but John was nothing if not stubborn, and Nancy could be twice as bad when she put her mind to it.
"You must remember that most of a wraith's life is spent asleep. Nonetheless… Yes, it is a very long time. Even for wraith. And humans are so fleeting." Todd leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and John was suddenly very aware of how little distance there was between the desk and the end of the bed. "He likes to make the most of the short time he has with the humans he cares for." There was something about the directness of Todd's gaze that made a hot itch bloom under John's skin, but he couldn't look away.
"Is that normal for wraith?" John asked, remembering the conversation he'd had with Ronon at the operating theater. Todd laughed, as always very dryly.
"No, Sheppard. To 'care for' humans as he does is an exiling offense at best, though not the one he was eventually exiled for."
"Just as he does, huh?" It was supposed to be a casual, conversational question, and John thought it just about was. Smiling enigmatically, Todd seemed to think that one over for a moment.
"Wraith are less sexual overall than most humans tend to be. He is an outlier in that respect. I am not." Todd flashed sharp teeth in a dangerous grin. John didn't lean back. "Conversely… How do I put this… Most wraith view humans as livestock, or at best wild game." At that, John did lean back. Most of it wasn't new information, of course, he just hadn't quite put together what other conclusions the normal wraith disregard for human life led to. No wonder Schuyler had snapped at his vegan joke.
"I'm not sure if I should feel insulted," John said at length. Todd shrugged.
"That was not my intention. I assumed you were aware of the general wraith attitude toward humans, just as I assumed you were aware that I do not agree."
"I was. I mean, I am, I guess." John was also hyper-aware of the spare inch or so separating their knees. Todd must've shifted closer; if John moved forward again he was pretty sure they'd be touching.
"The point I was trying to make is this: It is conceivable, though reviled by most wraith, that a wraith could desire sexual contact with a human. That is a known punishable offense. To love a human, however…" Todd paused and pushed himself out of his chair, making his way over to the window. "Or many humans, enough that you prioritize their existence over one of our own… It is not something that the Queens consider. I imagine ours was quite shocked when he did so." Twisting to keep Todd in sight tugged at John's stitches, which was the only reason he rose as well, coming to a stop close behind Todd.
"So that's why Schuyler was hunted like a human." Todd didn't answer, but he didn't really need to. John stared at the broad lines of Todd's back, at the alien ridge of his spine visible under his shirt. There was a question that was crawling its way up his throat, and he should probably have gone before it made its way as far as his mouth, but here it was, prying open his teeth without his permission: "And would this unthinkable act happen to be something you're guilty of as well?"
"Guilty?" Todd looked back at John, and to his surprise, Todd was smiling. "No. I am not guilty. But yes. I have loved humans. I have sacrificed a hive ship to keep them safe, as you may remember."
"Them?" John took a step forward, and watched his hand raise as though of its own volition, with no real plan as to where it should land, when Todd turned around and settled the matter by grabbing John's hand and pressing it over his sternum. It might've just been John's imagination, but he almost thought he could feel Todd's pulse racing as fast as his own.
"You," Todd said, too quiet to hear if they'd been any further apart, and lay his right hand carefully on the center of John's chest. Through his shirt, John could feel the rippling of the feeding organ, but nothing sharp so much as grazed him. Todd's breathing was unsteady (so was John's), and where they touched John could feel tremors running through them both.
"I hope you know I would heal you if I could," Todd said urgently. "I will grant you the Gift again in a heartbeat, when I can. If you allow me."
"Yes," John found himself murmuring, dazed, before what he had agreed to caught up to him, and he forced himself to take a step back, to detach from Todd's slight warmth. The Gift had been… Both debilitating and invigorating. The initial bite of the hand, the rush of numbness as the enzyme did its work, then the overwhelming flash fire of pleasure that had wracked his body afterward, the memory creeping up on him at odd times for weeks after and making his knees weak. John had never had as much of a sex drive as folks seemed to expect of him, but if it was like that maybe John would've felt differently. And how much better would it be at home, safe, in bed, rather than laying on the ground and staring up at the stars of an alien planet, near the dead husk of an enemy soldier? And how would he be able to do his job when the order came through that the wraith had outlived their usefulness?
"Let's cross that bridge when we come to it," John said finally. He was distantly aware that he sounded as though he'd been running a marathon, though it was hard to hear over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. He groped blindly around behind him until he found the cane, eyes fixed on the increasingly confused-looking Todd until finally his fingers made contact with aluminum and he was able to look away, catch the cane before it fell.
"I better, uh, get going." John turned to do so. Behind him, he heard a sigh and a groan of springs, and did not look back to see how Todd collapsed into bed.
"Good night, Sheppard," he heard as the door closed. "See you tomorrow."
Everything was dark. It had been dark for days now, and silent. If anyone at all walked past the doorway, they did so without making a sound. The cell had no features but the door, designed to hold a prisoner who never needed food or water. Whether or not it was doing so now was up for debate.
The hand wounds had to be bound, now, or they would keep bleeding longer than the patience of the one who was not a doctor. There was a dull gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach, a pale cousin to the hunger that now seemed to belong to another lifetime. Whatever it was that brought the end, despite the efforts of the torturers, the unquestioning inquisitors, it would happen soon. It had to.
The thought floated up from nowhere out of the great silence and darkness. There was no energy for more than a brief shudder.
The voice was almost audible, though of course when all stimulus is taken away the brain will start to make things up to fill the void. And there was so much void.
I am not a figment of your imagination.
If there was any voice it would have made sense for the void to echo with, it should have been Scholar. It should have been the last voice to call out from the perpetually distant murmuring, from the cold silences that suddenly descended with too much proximity. Why of all things would the mind dredge up Teyla?
You are not imagining me! If you would just release me, I would leave you alone!
The thing that tore Teyla from sleep that night, finally, was not the pain of torture or the pain of starvation, but the indescribably worse pain of hearing every voice in the galaxy dim and fade one by one, of the sudden loss of any scrap of the dull roar and chatter of connection and family that had been an ever-present noise for thirty-odd years. It was the sudden void in the place where thoughts and memories and any semblance of love should have been, worse than the loss of a limb, like the loss of a soul.
In the dark of her room, Teyla held her child and shuddered.
John had definitely not gone back to avoiding anybody at all. Major Lorne, after all, wasn't quite back up to his full duties, like a reasonable person with a broken leg, and if John happened to be nowhere near the few places Lorne could get work done, that was a coincidence. As for Todd, the wraith hadn't answered the last time John had knocked on their door. It wasn't like John had knocked very loud, but he didn't want to risk maybe waking anybody up, so he'd left the rest of the encyclopedia next to the door and hobbled away. No avoiding at all.
The trouble with not avoiding people (or things) was that you had to stay busy enough to justify not being around those people (or doing those things). This was how John found himself actually limping into the infirmary on schedule for his follow-up with Dr. Keller and not, say, writing letters to the families of the five Marines who had died in Michael's lab.
John rounded the last corner to Keller's office, narrowly avoiding a collision with a very solid-looking nurse, and stumbled to a startled halt as Schuyler's eyes met his. The wraith wore one of the more miserable expressions John had ever seen on another person, including when John had watched Schuyler drip a trail of blood all the way from the stargate to the infirmary. Slumped in a chair, his arms were wrapped tightly around himself, his lips pulled back from sharp teeth in an agonied rictus, and John didn't know wraith wept, but there were clear tears welling in his eyes.
John put two and two together, and his heart stopped beating.
"What h–" he started, but Schuyler abruptly broke eye contact to hunch over the bucket on the floor between his feet.
"Um," John said.
Schuyler made a noise that could have been a phrase in his own language or could have been retching, but was probably retching. As though summoned by the sound, Keller poked her head up from behind her monitor.
"Oh, you're actually here. I just… Assumed you'd be late. Or. Very late." Keller made her way around the monitor, pausing along the way to pat Schuyler's shoulder. At least the noises had subsided.
"What's the matter?" He wasn't really sure which one to ask, but Schuyler didn't so much as look up, so evidently he didn't feel the need to.
"We're experimenting with gut flora. It's going… Well, it's certainly going. IV feeds are showing diminishing returns on their own, so we're going to have to figure something out, but it's not quite an emergency yet."
"Is that a wraith thing?" John asked, he thought reasonably, but apparently Schuyler was insulted enough to look up from his (thankfully still dry) bucket with a dirty look.
"It is not, which is the problem." John fought back a wince. Schuyler's voice sounded like he'd been trying to eat sandpaper, which was an accomplishment given how rough wraith usually sounded.
"We can't really digest food without bacteria in the digestive tract, which we, meaning humans, start to collect in utero and just kind of pick up along the way. Wraith… Don't do any of that. So there's something there, because you can't go eight thousand years without picking up any little friends, but it's practically clean. Which is bad," Keller clarified, seeing how little of this John was absorbing, but not quite seeing that he wanted to be absorbing even less.
"So is he… Are you… Going to starve to death?" It'd be some kind of irony, John supposed, though the joke wasn't exactly funny when he thought about it happening to Schuyler. But Michael had lived this long, so there had to be something.
"No, we just need to figure out the right balance of bacteria to break down food but not get attacked by a hyperactive immune system. Dr. Beckett left some notes from before, but they glossed over this part. Fortunately the intestinal mucosal barrier seems to be fine, which seems odd considering the circumstances, but I'm not one to look a gift wraith in the… Uh." Apparently realizing where that metaphor was headed, Keller trailed off sheepishly. "Anyway, I can check on your wounds now." John patted Scholar's shoulder as he passed, and the wraith made what was probably a rude gesture on some planet.
When Keller had finally finished poking John, Schuyler was long gone from the infirmary, and he had helpfully taken the bucket with him. John had gotten permission not only to leave the cane behind, but to scale back on the painkillers at his discretion, which he did not feel the need to tell Dr. Keller he had been doing anyway (and which she probably already knew).
"Colonel." John paused with one foot out the door, leaning back around to where he could see Keller at her desk. "I know I'm pretty new to the horrors the wraith have been inflicting on this galaxy, but… I think we should trust them. Schuyler and Todd, I mean, which I guess means trusting Michael, if he's really alive. Whoever the Daedalus beams down tomorrow, I'm going to advise we cooperate completely."
"Me too," John said, before the middle of what Keller had said caught up to him. "Wait, that's tomorrow ?" It didn't feel like enough time had passed, though now that he looked back on the hours he had spent at that miserable desk, John could see the days and nights they made up clearly enough. He had lost track of time, but it had kept on keeping on anyway.
By the time John made it to the wraith's door, he was beginning to regret having left the cane behind in Keller's office. The hole in his side and the bruising everywhere else might have been nearly okay again, but that didn't mean they didn't still ache like nobody's business if he tried to go too fast. John stumbled to a stop and leaned against the doorframe, panting and clutching his side as he waited for the spots swimming at the corner of his vision to fade away. He was focused enough on trying to stay alive that he didn't hear the door open. The cool touch of alien skin startled him though, gentle over the hand on his healing wound and carefully cupping his shoulder. John let Todd pull him inside the room and the few steps across the room, let the wraith pull him to sit on the bed.
"What is the emergency?" Todd asked, his voice a tangible rumble from this close, though he spoke softly. With effort, not least because of the wound, John made himself sit up, and not slump forward. The hand on his shoulder slid away, though the other stayed where it was, feeding slit closed but pulsing.
"No emergency," John admitted, after he'd had a moment to catch his breath. "Not yet, anyway. The new boss arrives tomorrow."
"You know them." It wasn't a question, but John shook his head.
"Not yet," he said again. Todd was warmer than the room, though he was cooler than John, especially after John had hauled ass to get here for no good reason. His hand was gradually warming over John's though, the tendrils of his feeding slit tickling like a cat's whiskers. John had rarely felt less in danger, but his pulse was still thundering through his veins.
"What have you come to tell me, then?" Todd smelled the same as he had in the far-flung and dusty future, like salt and warm metal. John wasn't sure when he'd drifted so close, but his cool breath tasted of nothing in particular. Under John's fingers, his fine white hair was softer than John had suspected, after so long in tangles. Todd's other hand was steady over John's waist, though Todd's breathing was unsteady against John's face. Slowly, John tightened his grip in Todd's hair until the wraith bent his head obediently at last, and at last John could kiss that dangerous mouth.
"I trust you," John murmured as they paused for air, his hands linked behind Todd's neck, Todd's hands gripping him tightly at the waist. Pressed so close together, he could feel Todd's purring deep in his chest like the bass at a concert, like engines beneath him. In answer, Todd crushed him closer, though he seemed careful not to dig his claws into anything that had recently been an open wound.
"I am honored by your trust, Sheppard," Todd rumbled against his temple.
"Might not be worth much after tomorrow," John admitted.
"I disagree entirely. The sentiment itself is priceless." John pushed his face into Todd's shoulder, feeling the slow thump of Todd's pulse. He would have to leave soon, to at least try for sleep before whatever happened tomorrow, but he could at least have this for a minute or two, this odd peace in an alien embrace.
There was dark, of course, but faint in the dark now there was a light. It was a light of the mind, but if anything that was better than a real light. Real light meant the return of the guards and the not-a-doctor. The light of the mind was always there, and when it shone brightest it brought sacred, long absent relief from the much broader darkness of the mind.
The light, when it brightened now, did so in a flash. A half-dream (or half-nightmare) like this didn't have enough solidity to it for fully realized presences, but now that the light was familiar, it was recognizable as well, in the indescribable way that telepaths recognize one another.
Teyla . Her light pulsed in answer to her name. They were not the cursed hybrid entity of recent prolific nightmares, but her anger was easily tangible nevertheless, the close heat of the only star in an otherwise empty sky.
Lastlight , she called into the emptiness. She was visible now in the darkness, faintly glowing and translucent. Slowly, she turned in a circle, examining the nothingness of the cramped cell. I do not see you. She looked down at her hands, too, but she was herself this time and not the abomination.
There is nothing to see. The floor was cold, the wall hard, but that was true from anywhere in the cell. From the floor, Teyla was a tall column of luminescence.
Why do you reach out only to hide from me? The grooves in the walls bore slivers left from the claws of the wraith who carved them, likely long dead. They were a bit too wide, but they had become familiar to the touch. Almost a comfort, the signs that at one time there was another wraith.
There is nothing to hide. Another wraith was what Teyla was looking for, and at one point there may have been another wraith in the cell. The familial chorus had been quiet, after the exile, distant, and that had been torture, but this overbearing silence was something else altogether. Another wraith could not have withstood it, and so no wraith did.
You are here , Teyla confirmed, at last settling with her back to the door. I hear your voice. I have dreamed of nothing but this cell for a week. Why do I feel such emptiness?
There is no such thing as a separate wraith, and no such person is here.
For a long, long time, the tall column of light that was Teyla Emmagan stood in silence, and contemplated the nothingness of the cell. Her expression was serene, but beneath that, the song of her self was troubled.
It was a very cruel thing that we did to you , she said at last, followed by the very cruellest lie she could have told: Help is on the way.