John is not happy when plans do not go as planned.
John peers out the front of the jumper. The planet that is their destination rests against the backdrop of space like a blue-green jewel on a bed of satin dusted by distant stars. This planet has no moons, just the convoy of the Queen's hive and support ships hanging in space above it, which are now joined by Todd's single hive. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
He can hear the amusement in Todd's voice without looking. "It could not be simpler, Sheppard," Todd drawls. "On the planet, we will meet with the Queen's delegation, you will tell them about the gene therapy, I will tell them the First supports this alliance, and they will return to the hive to present to their Queen the truth that there is more possible advantage here than just the Qureshi parasite."
"Yeah." John peers at the other hive again, surrounded by its carrier ships. "What could possibly go wrong?"
Todd's laughter echoes through the jumper. "The planet is considered a part of the Queen's territory, so no other Wraith will bother us," Todd reasons. "And the Queen has not found the planet useful for centuries, so there are no outposts stationed here."
John grimaces. He's aware that "not useful" means that there are no humans here. He sidesteps that and instead gripes, "I've heard this story before. 'There's no one in this abandoned house,' right before the killer jumps out from behind the closed door."
Todd is unimpressed. For reasons that probably seem obvious, horror movies have not played a prominent part in John's sporadic attempts at cultural sharing.
"Sheppard," Todd says soothingly, "do not worry." John can feel Todd's eyes on him, and he isn't surprised when Todd touches his face before dropping his left hand to John's shoulder. "It will be well."
John breathes in slowly and nods. "Sure," he allows. "I believe that."
There isn't time anyway, on the short trip from the hive's bay to the planet, to worry. Especially when he's spending most of his time keeping an eye out for the Queen's ships to pull some surprise and turn on Todd's hive. But it doesn't happen; the Queen keeps her ships just out of range of Todd's hive's weapons. Todd's hive looks a little lonely set opposite to the Queen's carrier group but the fact that they're outnumbered bothers John a lot more than it does Todd, who's already gone over all of this with his Second. Battle tactics isn't really in John's purview in this instance, but he supposes he's used to being in charge of everything and that control's hard to let go of.
The only other thing John can think of to distract his mind is wondering what to call this queen, in his mental compiling of reports if nowhere else. Once on this track, he spends the rest of the flight debating if he should bring it up with Todd or not. Kenny's rejection of John's naming doesn't bother him but it kind of highlights that John's highhandedness in that area isn't exactly appreciated. He does want to do this trip right and not piss off other Wraith when they might choose to join up for the gene therapy instead of trying to kill him and everyone he knows, but old habits are hard to break sometimes.
John eases the jumper down through the atmosphere with only mild trepidation.
The Queen's delegation gave them coordinates for the meet up, but John brings the cloaked jumper in a wide sweep around the area, just to see what's to be seen.
The planet is a vibrant green over most of the lower elevations at this latitude. The jumper's picking up a high oxygen content in the atmosphere, which could be related. There's no Stargate, and no other discernible civilization. They fly over a mountain range and then down over a vast spread of green tangle that looks like heavy jungle that stretches for miles, or acres, broken only by the bright blue of a large lake and the pale tan of broad beaches surrounding it. There are large amphibious creatures moving in and out of the water and burying themselves in the sand. Raising his eyes, John sees, far off in the distance, a descending spiral of what almost looks like buzzards zeroing in on dinner. He curves the jumper back around to where the jungle rises to meet mountain peaks.
The coordinates are on one of the outcroppings of higher ground that's still well below the tree line of the mountains. "I'm reading six Wraith in the Queen's party," John says as he lands the jumper. He barely notices his jaw tightening, but he does notice Todd moving uneasily beside him.
"That is more than I would have thought," Todd muses. He'd promised John that their being only two was a show of strength, but John kind of feels like six is a stronger number. He would say something but Todd sounds... distant. John looks up at him, and Todd is staring out the viewport even though there's nothing to see but jungle. John touches his arm and Todd pulls his attention back, his eyes focusing on John. "It will be well," he repeats.
John shakes his head but can't hide a grin. Yeah, this could go sideways, but really the thrill of it, the excitement and adventure, is what he's come to love about life in the Pegasus Galaxy.
They put down far enough from the coordinates that they can hide the jumper and then walk the rest of the way. John checks all his equipment methodically before they step out; he's got a single block of C4 in his vest pocket, the Ka-Bar in its sheath at the back of his vest, and the Colt at his hip. His P90 was unpopular with his allies and John has gotten out of the habit of carrying it, though there's still a few magazines in one of the supply bags in the jumper. Technically he's on a diplomatic mission but landing in the middle of a jungle makes him think that next time he's going to double check and stash a rifle in the jumper along with the extra ammo, just to have one on hand, diplomacy or not. He's got the dagger Ronon gave him tucked into his boot, but it's not really a replacement for the P90. He looks up at Todd and grins; he hadn't counted what might be the most useful of his defensive weapons, and certainly the most entertaining. John reaches for Todd and Todd leans into him, stealing a quick kiss before letting their foreheads rest together for a moment. Todd returns John's smile.
The thick vegetation of the jungle is further obscured by a heavy fog which makes it hard to see anything further away than his outstretched hand, and John's pretty sure the chill he feels run up his spine isn't from the chill of the moisture in the air. He can hear the sounds of animals and insects moving but can't see anything other than the flicker of Todd's coat vanishing into the fog mere steps ahead of him. It's not exactly what John would call an auspicious beginning.
Or maybe it is fortunate, because in the fog he and Todd manage to walk right up to the Queen's delegation without being noticed until they're practically on top of the Wraith. Maybe John's just gotten better at moving sneakily like a Wraith, but he would probably give the credit to the fog. They step out into a small clearing filled with rocks and have six surprised Wraith staring back at them.
The fog has burned off in the open air of the clearing and he can clearly see all six Wraith. The rocky clearing edges on a drop-off of some kind and on their nine o'clock the area where the jungle comes back together beyond the clearing is much lower, leaving a huge expanse of bright blue sky visible.
John turns his attention to the Wraith. Two are warriors and four are full Wraith; two of the Wraith are advancing on Todd with expressions of interest, like they've just realized they recognize him. John's eyes flicker to Todd; he appears to recognize the other Wraith as well, but not necessarily in a good way because he's tense as hell.
The Wraith who seems to be the leader of the delegation is one of the ones who recognizes Todd. He has his hair in long twisted locks and a facial marking of a single line that traces up the left side of his nose and then continues above the heavy ridge of his brow, being joined there by a pair of parallel lines, one to each side of the central line. John mentally dubs him Brad. The other Wraith who also seems to know Todd is taller than Brad, slender of frame, and has his head shaved bald paired with a beard woven into a complicated braid. John dubs him Greg. Greg also has a facial marking, one that looks like a weird parody of the top half of Todd's starburst; there are three peaks to the star above his left eye, and the line starts more to the center of the forehead so that the central peak is centered over the eye. There isn't any marking below his eye except for the tail of the single line that's kind of just to the edge of his nose and then continues up above the eye, the same as Brad has, along the inside of the line of the star though it doesn't cross the peak. It's the way the star is similar that has John realizing that all three of them- Brad, Greg, and Todd- have the same marking: the inner line of the double line that is the first peak of the star above Todd's eye, is the exact same line that Brad and Greg have. John wonders just how well Todd knows these guys; he closes his fist and touches the palm of his hand, not sure if matching tattoos could be an old army buddy kind of thing or is an ex-boyfriend kind of thing- or if those are the same thing to Wraith.
The third Wraith John dubs Paul because he has a sour look on his face like a guy John had known in basic. John's running out of time and since he's on Paul he just dubs the last Wraith Ringo. As far as he can tell, or Todd has said, the warriors have little in the way of personality, so John doesn't bother naming them. He only keeps half an eye on these four Wraith, while all of them are watching him with sharp interest. John inhales slowly and, pulling up the sleeves of his jacket, lets his right hand rest open against the top of his thigh so they can see the marking on the inside of his arm. And if Brad and Greg want to play the matching tattoos game, hey, he can play, too.
Ringo sees his arm first, but Greg gives him the longest check out. Knowing that Wraith are telepathic, John had expected a lot of the conversation to happen silently, so he jumps when Greg hisses loudly and says, "This one?"
Todd bares his teeth. "Sheppard," he purrs in that tone that says he's annoyed about something, "these are Wraith who were brothers of mine from long ago." He doesn't elaborate, but John thinks it's probably safe to read ex-boyfriend between the lines of brothers and that long ago probably means during the war with the Ancients.
"Great." John smiles tightly. "You wanna talk about old times? I think my team technically won that one." Maybe they'd fled the galaxy, but the Ancients had survived and he'd going to count that.
Todd laughs, and Greg joins in with a softer guffaw. "I believe we are here to discuss something else," Todd reminds him, but Brad, still silent, starts pacing around Todd until they both are circling each other with wary tension. Brad doesn't seem interested in talking.
Greg is watching both Todd and John with interest. "You are the representatives of the alliance?" He sounds eager, so John nods.
"Yeah." John raises a hand warily to his Colt as Ringo comes too close. "You wanted to talk about it?"
Brad snarls the others to silence, and Greg seems to bow to his wishes.
John does not like this. He taps his fingers against the butt of the Colt, mentally tallying his arsenal again but trying to be lowkey about it. If Brad engages with Todd that leaves five Wraith for John to take care of by himself. No pressure. Also, if they blow this meet then the hive might not be able to offer them back up against the Queen's greater ship power. Awesome. This was a solid plan. He glares at Todd for good measure.
Brad is sizing Todd up, and he has his lip curled in a way that probably means he's not going to be giving them a go-ahead on the ally-ing part of this mission. Todd's eyes suddenly narrow in a way that, if he was human, would have meant he just said something rude and was waiting to see how it hits. Brad snarls and pulls a knife as he throws himself at Todd.
Todd is grinning as he catches the attack, sidestepping the knife and grabbing the other Wraith by the wrist to grapple with him. John's not sure of everything that happens, but Brad gets his leg behind Todd's and brings them both to the ground.
John steps forward, tension rising in him, but instead of interfering he raises the Colt and points it at Paul, who is advancing on him speedily. John shoots Paul in the face; John sidesteps away from Paul and pulls his Ka-Bar in his other hand as he takes another step back. Paul goes down, for the moment, and Ringo snarls at John in turn. John checks the other Wraith, but Greg is standing back and looking up at the sky. Ringo steps back, like he's regretting his brief attempt to threaten John, when suddenly there is an unearthly screech and a flurry of wings, and Ringo vanishes under the weight of an enormous...
Well, it fell from the sky like a hawk on a mouse, and John is stumbling backwards, stepping behind the cover of the tree line and staring at it. Its wings blot out the visible sky; its skin is leathery and a grey-blue color that darkens to almost black along its spine and the bony ridges of its wings. As it turns its head, its huge, luminescent eyes scan the clearing. Its wide jaws part, and it raises Ringo, clutched in one clawed forepaw, to its fanged mouth and bites down.
"Holy shit," John mumbles. It's a dragon, a living, breathing, larger than life but really alive, dragon. It turns to look at him and he takes another step back, but he's not looking where he's going so he steps wrong and turns his ankle, falling ungraciously on his ass and dropping his knife.
The dragon screeches again, its mouth black with Wraith blood. It whirls around, and it turns out to be a good thing that John's in the trees and sitting down because the thing sweeps the entire clearing with the weighted length of its tail, taking out two of the trees in front of John, and knocking over anyone who still remained standing with the spread of its leathery wings as it turns to face the clear side of the cliff and springs off of the edge with a massive thrust from its rear legs. Its wings catch the air and pull it up into the sky. John is reminded of the spiral of "buzzards" he'd seen as they were landing, because now he's thinking they weren't that at all.
"Holy shit," John says again, louder, because it's still not enough, and he has to get back to the jumper, he has to call Rodney, Ronon, Teyla, Woolsey, hell Keller, does he know any zoologists, it's a motherfucking dragon! He doesn't even realize that he's grinning like crazy but, "I knew Pegasus had more things to show us."
Something moves near him, and John's attention is brought back to the immediate present as he raises his gun. He scans the clearing and doesn't see Todd. He inhales slowly; he can't worry about that now. He searches for the other Wraith, to try to number his remaining opponents. He's spotted Paul pushing himself to his feet when a large hand grabs John by the wrist, forcing him to drop the Colt he's holding. John snarls as he tries to pull away, but one of the warriors lifts him up until all he can do is swing from its meaty grip and hope it hasn't seen Star Wars. But it's holding John with its left hand, and it raises its right hand and John knows there's no need for ripping limb from limb. He braces himself to wait for it to begin the strike, then he can reach for Ronon's knife at his ankle and stab it in the hand.
"Hold," a voice says, and Greg walks up. He looks shook by the dragon, but he levels a piercing look at the warrior. "We must keep this one alive. He will lead us to the transport vessel he used to arrive here." He reaches out and grabs ahold of John's vest and pulls him over and, importantly to John, out of the grip of the warrior.
Paul walks over with a wet growl, blood still pouring out of the bullet holes in his jaw. He shoots John a dark look. John fakes a stumble as Greg pulls him out toward the clearing, not as fake as he'd like since his ankle is sore from how he fell on it, and manages to grab the Ka-Bar from where he'd dropped it earlier and tuck it into his sleeve.
The other warrior appears, and Greg tells the three other remaining Wraith, "Find the Commander." As they fan out to do so, he turns his fierce eyes on John. "You will be kept safe," Greg says, and John kind of wants to snort his disbelief of that statement, but he's a little worried about Todd, because he and Brad are both gone. Did the dragon somehow take them as well as Ringo? John's really trying not to focus on the worst-case scenario, but then one of the warriors walks up holding a torn piece of leather that looks like Todd's coat and John kind of loses it a little.
"What happened?" he demands, pulling at Greg's hand still tangled in his vest.
Greg takes the torn coat from the warrior. "They have fallen, off the cliff face." He walks over, dragging John with him and they both peer over the edge. The cliff falls sharply and is thick with brush that obscures any possible view.
"Todd!" John yells. He fights against Greg's hold, but Greg's not letting go anytime soon.
There's a rustle from a particularly thick patch of brush, and John feels his heart jump in his throat, but come immediately crashing back down when he catches sight of Brad's long locks.
Brad pulls himself up the short way to the clearing. He snarls at John and stalks toward him with intent, right hand raised, but Greg intervenes. He doesn't speak this time, but afterward he does turn to John. "Where is the vessel you came here in?"
John isn't really listening, and Greg shakes him and asks again, "You came here in a Lantean vessel, yes? Which direction?"
John glares at him. "Where is Todd?"
Brad snarls at him, but Greg answers, "They fell separately, and your companion continued to fall down the cliff when the Commander's fall was halted."
John nods. He licks his lips. He's not sure what he's planning to do next- he's not sure he's thought enough to plan anything- but there's another screech, and another of the dragon creatures falls from the sky. This one is a brilliant emerald green, and it lands on one of the warriors, taking the masked Wraith in its massive jaws.
John uses the distraction to bring up his Ka-Bar and slice it across the tendons in Greg's wrist. He pulls free from the suddenly lax grip, turns his back on them, Wraith and dragon all, and is several steps away before he even hears Greg's snarl of pain. John runs across the clearing and into the jungle.
His ankle isn't that bad because it's holding his weight, which is good. The Wraith are distracted enough by the dragon that he has a decent head start, but John needs a place to regroup. He's got the block of C4 in one of his vest pockets but other than that he's down to the knives, and he'd prefer to find a way to take out his pursuers one at a time so they can't overwhelm him.
Or maybe if he finds a good place to lay low, the dragons will take care of the job for him.
He startles up a group of some kind of lizards that flee before him, scattering back under cover so quickly all he can tell is that he's pretty sure he caught sight of six limbs.
John stops and leans against a tree. He takes a deep breath and turns to check for pursuit... and he falls backward through the rock beside the tree, into some sort of underground structure.
Todd's had better days.
As the Lantean vessel flies over the verdant planet, Todd feels the touch of hive.
It is an old sensation- Wraith he shared hive with long ago. He is not certain if this will be of benefit to their negotiations, or if it will be otherwise.
It is not until he and Sheppard step into the clearing and he sets eyes on them that Todd truly remembers them. It has been a long, long while since he shared hive with these Wraith, but they had been close once. It was the first hive he came to after leaving the hive of his progenitor and they had all been young Wraith there, together for a time. The Wraith of the Half-star had been a member of that hive before Todd. The Wraith of the Lines had been a later addition, coming to that hive soon after the war with the Asurans had begun. In that time, Todd will admit that this one's zeal was something that had intrigued him deeply but looking back now Todd cannot compare what they shared to the depth of what he shares with Sheppard. To find him standing as Commander of this hive is a surprise that is not particularly welcome. The Wraith of the Half-star was a truer brother, in every sense of the word, and Todd remembers him with fondness.
Now they approach him with a similar caution, though the Wraith of the Half-star with more affection and the Wraith of the Lines with more antagonism.
You are the commander of the hive we contacted? The Wraith of the Lines pulls back his lips in a silent laugh of derision.
We had thought you were dead, the Wraith of the Half-star adds, his mental tone touched with wonder and pleasure.
You left the hive, the Wraith of the Lines continues with censure. And you did not return.
I left to pursue a knowledge that was of benefit to all Wraith, Todd replies. And you have left our previous hive as well.
I am pleased to see you again after many centuries,the Wraith of the Half-star interrupts in a familiar attempt to sooth the rising tension between the two of them. How many Awakenings since we together served the Queen who Hides the Darkness?
Many. Todd is growing annoyed and is not interested in the past at the moment. He would attempt to turn the conversation to something more productive, but the other seizes the opportunity first.
Enough time to change even those who were once known companions, the Wraith of the Lines says. He approaches Todd, his expression suspicious. I would not have expected to find you here, the one who once cheered with us that the Lanteans were defeated. You now bring us tales of the fabled Ancient One, that she has lowered herself to treat with humans as equals. What fantastic lies.
They are not lies, the Wraith of the Half-star reminds his companion. Our Queen has seen the truth of what is spoken concerning the Ancient One's protected feeding grounds. We are here to see if our Queen gains anything by being party to the Ancient One's 'alliance' with the Lanteans. He tilts his head, curious. We did not hear your fighter land. Or did you come in a scout ship?
We traveled in a Lantean vessel, Todd replies. As a gesture of our alliance with the new Lanteans. He indicates Sheppard and he can feel the Wraith of the Half-star's interest.
Todd senses also Sheppard's tension beside him, and he privately thinks that Sheppard is doing much better than even he would have expected at being excluded from the conversation. He wonders if Sheppard understands who these Wraith are.
I do believe your Queen will gain much more than she envisions, Todd continues. As many have learned that there is benefit to the ideas that come from the minds of humans, including myself.
He is marked low on his cheek to signify that he intimately bound to another, but Todd's sleeves cover him down to his hands and thus hide the specifics of his attachment. Contrarily, Sheppard has pulled his sleeve up to bare the skin of his forearm, and his declaration is clearly seen. The Wraith of the Lines recoils in distaste when he understands, but the Wraith of the Half-star is amused.
"This one?" he cries. He is very unusual. He watches Sheppard with interest.
"Sheppard," Todd explains, "these are Wraith who were brothers of mine from long ago."
"Great." Sheppard's wry voice indicates he understands what that means. The Wraith of the Half-star, as Todd remembers him being, is fascinated by conversing with Sheppard, and in discussing the alliance. But then there is the Wraith of the Lines.
The idea that humans have "thoughts" is amusing, the Wraith of the Lines says, but they are truly worth only one thing.
You have not changed in nine millennia, Todd tells him. What befell the judgement of your hive that you are Commander there?
All the Wraith flinch from this, and Todd realizes he may have stumbled into something he did not intend. He remembers belatedly that the reason this Queen seeks the Ancient One's access to the Qureshi parasite is because of deaths on the hive after encountering the Hoffan virus.
The Wraith of the Half-star narrows his eyes at Todd in reproof. It is a familiar gesture from when they served together as Wraithlings on their first hive, and Todd reaches for him, trying to reestablish the weakened paths of hive that once lay between them. This human is called Sheppard, he shares. His life is precious to me.
The Wraith of the Half-star nods, replying, What is precious to you is of value to me, my brother.
Todd is filled with affection to have reconnected with this one he had known so long ago, though the pleasure is dulled somewhat by the presence of the Wraith of the Lines.
You are not worthy to speak the words of the Ancient One so we will not listen, the Wraith of the Lines says. You are not worthy to bear the memory of the Queen we served.
Her memory is tainted by your very existence, Todd retorts, and they close.
The Wraith of the Lines has grown stronger in the many years that have separated them, but he still has the edge of impulsivity that had initially drawn he and Todd to each other when they were young Wraith serving together. That recklessness has perhaps hardened into something angrier, and Todd feels the surge of triumph from the other when he manages to turn the struggle so that Todd falls to the ground beneath him. It doesn't truly help him when Todd takes advantage of their nearness to headbutt him, which shocks the other long enough that Todd easily reverses their positions. Todd feels the thrill of alarm from the newly awakened and still nascent hivesense as the Wraith of the Half-star tries to reach for them, but the danger itself is upon them before he can react or even truly comprehend it.
A wild shriek rends the air as an enormous creature lands with enough force to shake the ground, capturing one of the other Wraith in its taloned forepaw and consuming him; Todd feels the echo of pain of broken hivesense through the Wraith of the Half-star. The Wraith of the Lines snarls in rage and tears himself free of Todd to face this new foe.
Todd pushes himself to his feet and backs away from the creature, dropping low again in a crouch. He looks for Sheppard but doesn't see him.
The Wraith of the Lines moves to attack the creature, but it spreads its massive wings and the long frontal bone of the wing strikes the Wraith of the Lines, sending him stumbling backward to the edge of the clearing. He flails for balance, and his eyes meet Todd's before he slips off the edge of the cliff face there and vanishes.
Todd barely has time to register this before the creature continues turning, and the weighted end of its tail strikes him in the chest, sending him flying as well. He grunts as he impacts a collection of thick branches. They halt him from flying further out into the open sky, but his long coat tangles in the branches. The creature snarls at him as it sweeps the clearing another time, striking down at him again as it parts company from the ground, its claws shoving him down and tearing at the leather coat. The branches he is tangled with refuse to part from the coat, and, with a wrenching pain in his arm, he tears free of it as he is pushed downward by the force of the creature's strike and pulled that way as well by the weight of gravity.
The initial pain is almost immediately eclipsed when he collides heavily with a tree growing out from the side of the cliff. He loses track of the objects he collides with until he passes from awareness.
When he returns to consciousness his first main and overwhelming thought is of pain.
Todd snarls and drags himself up onto his hands and knees. His right arm is reluctant to obey him and burns when he tries to move it. He is covered in cuts, some small and some deep, many bleeding profusely. His chest is sore, and, as he presses his left hand against it, he feels something shift. With a grimace he locates a small branch that is impaled lower through his abdomen. He wraps fingers around it, but it takes several deep breaths before he has the focus to pull it out. The fresh stab of pain whitens his vision for a moment, and he presses what's left of his tunic to the wound in an attempt to staunch some of the flow of blood. He needs to move, to find a more defensible place in which to recover, but at the moment the best he can do is to stagger to his feet and stumble a few steps to hide himself under the thick, undamaged branches of a nearby bush instead of lying under the open sky.
He passes out for a time. When awareness returns to him again the shadows cast by the trees above him are long and his open wounds have stopped bleeding, for the most part. His arm still hums with agony and when he shifts his position his entire body thrills with painful reminders of what has occurred, some dull like bruised flesh and some sharp like still healing bone. The experience is enough to encourage a cessation of movement, but he is seized by the need to leave where he is and find Sheppard.
Sheppard, he thinks, but his head is too distracted with pain to achieve the mental room where he can touch Sheppard. He cannot even trace the more natural bonds of hive and reach his Second, above the planet. He is more worried for Sheppard than he is concerned for his current physical condition, but any attempt to linger on such thoughts is interrupted by the arrival of Wraith.
It is the Wraith of the Lines and a warrior; the other looks like he fared far better in being thrust over the cliff, Todd observe sourly.
They find the place where Todd fell and begin to cast around in search of him. Todd snarls silently. He is in no state to fight them, but they will find him soon enough. His thoughts are too scattered for them to find him easily with the touch of their minds. Todd takes a deep breath in search of focus, that instead yields fresh, stabbing pain. If he can calm his mind enough, he can deliberately dull his mental presence, making it even more difficult for them to trace him. The trail of dark blood he has left on the floor of the jungle is somewhat harder to hide.
The Wraith of the Lines looks upward suddenly, and then both he and the warrior depart quickly, running through the trees as if they are pursued. Todd wonders what could have sent them away- he hopes, briefly, that it is Sheppard in the jumper. But then another of the enormous reptilian creatures lands, its wings shaking the trees, and Todd remembers it from before the fall.
The creature snarls and presses its nose to where Todd bled in the dirt. It snuffles and turns its attention to the tree where Todd hides, but the branches he is under are thick enough that it can't see him, and it seems perplexed when its nose cannot find him in the branches above. A shadow passes over them and a distant call summons the creature's attention to the air. With an answering call, the creature crouches and propels itself upward, the backwind of its wings pressing Todd further to the ground as it leaves.
When it is gone, Todd pushes himself to his feet with a grimace, He must leave this place before any of them return.
He staggers through the jungle. Fortunately, he is no longer leaving a trail of blood, but he is not moving swiftly, or quietly, enough to matter if he does not wish to be found. He comes to a riverbank, the waters loud and fastmoving before him, and catches sight of another Wraith across the way.
The Wraith is not looking his way. Todd snarls, the sound of the water hiding any noise he himself makes. He debates his options, but they become limited when the other Wraith turns and catches sight of him. The Wraith's expression is bloodthirsty; he appears an eager pupil of his current Commander's professed mindset.
Todd surrenders himself to the river's embrace.
By the time he manages to pull himself from the river he has no idea how long it has been, but full night has fallen. He drags himself up onto the riverbank and out of the water but has little energy left for further movement. His body has taken too much damage and has reached an impasse as far as healing is concerned. He lies back on the bank of the river and looks up at the stars.
He is not planning on it, but if he dies here at least he is beneath a wide-open sky. A sky that Sheppard returned to him. Todd sighs. He tries to reach in, to Sheppard's room, but his mental vision swims in and out of focus until he can no longer see what he is reaching for.
"Sheppard," he whispers to the air, and the only answer is the sound of the water moving, the soft hum of insects, and scurrying of small animals. He hopes that Sheppard is safe. He would give much to ensure that. Sheppard can return to the jumper and leave this place. He will be safe. A not small portion of Todd needs to believe this. If he cannot even reach out to Sheppard, then there is no way that Sheppard can find him or would even know where to begin to look.
Todd closes his eyes, but he sees light behind them and opens them to a wondrous sight.
The darkness of the night sky is broken by rippled flares of luminescence. As Todd watches, the luminescence coalesces into a large creature. This creature is a broad, flat, slow moving one that wafts through the sky. Patterns drawn over its skin are alight with the luminescence and create an outline of its massive shape. There are different patches of the luminescence, and he realizes there is a group of them swimming through the sky. They call to each other with low noises, and as one of them swoops low it passes close enough that Todd can see that it doesn't have teeth, only what appears to be a filter woven of dense hairs, which strains small beings from the air as it flies.
Todd watches them as they swim across the sky above him. Having taken that moment of respite, he sets to pulling himself from the bank of the river and under the cover of the trees.
Before dawn, he is stumbling between the trees. He's fairly certain that he is headed toward where they left the jumper; though he has little faith in his ability to judge direction, he has faith in Sheppard. As much as he wants to believe that Sheppard will take the jumper and save himself, he knows that Sheppard will not. We don't leave people behind, Sheppard growls in his thoughts.
So, he keeps moving. If he can't reach out to Sheppard, he will find Sheppard. Breathing is slightly less agony inducing today, so perhaps his body has healed more than he thought it was capable of.
He is thinking about Sheppard and not about what is around him, which was a mistake on his part. Thankfully he remembers the sky-borne predators before he walks into an open clearing, and stops, feeling eyes upon him.
He sees the Wraith of the Lines looking at him through the trees. He appears to have parted from the warrior he traveled with earlier, and Todd notices this time that the other Wraith is holding Todd's coat, torn from him in the fall.
Todd snarls possessively. He wants that back.
You have become disappointing, the Wraith of the Lines says as if it's a wonder. You were the most promising of all of us. And now you whimper and cry for the humans.
Todd narrows his eyes at the other. You understand nothing, he returns evenly. Knowing now just how sore of a subject it is he taunts, How you hold the post of Commander is a bafflement to me and shows the poor taste of your Queen.
The Wraith of the Lines snarls and attacks.
Todd is aware that he is not healed enough to win such a conflict, but he'd thought he would at least be able to fight for a short while before succumbing. He was mistaken. The Wraith of the Lines barrels into him, knocking him to the ground and Todd grunts as the pain of half healed bones newly unsettled thrums through him.
You are not worth the Wraith I have lost on this mission, the Wraith of the Lines hisses.
Todd is not listening; he is trying to grab hold of his coat in the other's grip and reach into one of the pockets. The Wraith of the Lines drags them out into the open area, forgetting the sky-borne creatures, though, as he is looking up from the ground, Todd is in the perfect position to see the approach of one. With an eldritch shriek, it descends.
The Wraith of the Lines has a moment for the shock to pass over his face before he is snared by the creature's talons. His grip falls lax, and Todd claims the coat. He tries to roll back under the tree cover but is only partially successful. He searches through the pockets; in one of them is a device that Sheppard had given him, and he had not thought he would need to make use of.
He glances up to see the creature is looking at him. There is dark blood smeared on its face and its eyes almost appear intelligent, fixated on its prey.
Even through the haze of his own clouded thoughts, Todd can feel the blunt telepathic touch of the creature's mind. No wonder it hunts so intently even through the cover of the trees- it is tracking the Wraith with something other than scent or sight.
Todd snarls in challenge at the creature.
John makes a discovery.
So, obviously the rock wasn't a rock but some sort of doorway.
Getting up and dusting off his ass, John starts looking around. The back of the doorway looks like a doorway rather than a rock, so it's easy to find from this side. He puts a hand against it, and he can pass through it easily, back out to the jungle. The inside here looks like a narrow passageway that's lit by a fluorescent substance that seems to be growing on the walls. He follows the passage down from the entry and finds himself in what he is going to have to call a laboratory because of the flickering light from multiple interfaces.
John scans the room, and listens carefully, and checks other entry points, but there's no one here, it's abandoned. He touches the bioorganic interface, the screen waking out of some standby mode to display Wraith writing. So, it's a definitely Wraith laboratory. Just great. "And here I am without anyone who reads Wraith," John mutters under his breath. The room is dusty with disuse, the only footprints his own and the marks of small animals, but the entryway hadn't been overgrown at all by the surrounding foliage.
The fluorescent goo growing on the walls is pretty useful and by its light John makes a thorough search of the facility, despite the fact that his ankle is insisting he pay it some attention. The priority is to secure his location.
After the entryway- or probably backdoor, as the hall leading to it is narrower than the others- and what looks like the main lab, there are a series of containment units of varying sizes that look like they were designed to hold large animals, or whatever the lab was creating. A shiver runs over his skin and he remembers Michael's lab with the eyeless monsters that hunt by sound. Thankfully all the units are empty and look as dusty as the main lab. Pausing by the largest one, John wonders if maybe that's not a good thing actually. Whatever was in here is probably now running around the planet. But there aren't many of the large units, so they're probably on the other side of the planet by now. "Probably," he murmurs to himself.
After the containment units there's a small set of side rooms that look like quarters. Everything in this area looks abandoned as well, and nothing reveals anything about whoever was running this lab. He touches a folded blanket. It's woven with a pattern that looks vaguely familiar, but he can't place it. Abandoned, but within the past few years, or months. If it had been abandoned since the time of the Ancient war the cloth would have disintegrated by now.
After that, John's search leads him to a huge, open cavern. There are boxes of supplies stacked on one side, and he can see sky down at the end of the cave. He makes his way toward the pale blue smear. There are a lot of boxes and most of them are labeled in a language that John can't read and that doesn't look familiar. Some are broken open; there's a group of broken ones that look like they had contained sawdust, which is now spilled across the floor in heaps. He opens one box near to him; the contents seem to be scientific in nature- glass cylinders and flasks. He should organize a thorough search of the boxes later and he's thinking about that when he sees the dart.
It's parked to the side, not far from the opening of this cave, which must have functioned as a landing bay. John approaches it carefully, but, as with the rest of the facility, there's no one here. He opens the dart and hops in.
It comes to life around him, though with a slowness that feels like the batteries are low or it's been sitting here a long while, and John takes a deep breath. He activates the long-range communicator. "Anyone read me?" He fiddles with the controls, and tries again a few times, but there's no answer. The blue sky is fading to darker tones and he knows that night is coming. He could do a flyover and look for Todd, but he's not sure the dart's sensors would penetrate the jungle cover. Also, dragons. He shivers. They seem to be attracted to movement, or higher life forms, or hell he has no idea, but they're probably not going to let him overfly the jungle multiple times without interfering. He could take the dart and leave, return to the hive. They could send back more people to look for Todd, with extra firepower to hold off the dragons.
It might make sense strategically, but John doesn't like it. And he's not sure he knows Wraith procedure. Kenny seems pretty loyal, but if the commander doesn't come back are they really going to send a search party out for him? In the quiet stillness of the dart, John reaches in, to the mental room he shares with Todd. He's comforted when it's still there. That means Todd's alive, right? It has to mean that. But Todd isn't there. John tries yelling, and banging around, but he can't feel Todd responding at all. He inhales and writes on the wall of the mental room, Not far from the clearing where the dragon attacked, there's an underground lab. Looks Wraith made. He hesitates, but adds, I'm okay. The room is here so Todd is alive, John repeats to himself. Though the fact that he's not here and doesn't seem to have been here since they were separated isn't a good sign.
John growls and pushes himself out of the dart. The sky is turning red with the sunset. Going back out into the jungle is not a good idea, since an unfamiliar jungle in the dark without any backup isn't exactly a good place for a man with an increasingly dodgy ankle. While it makes sense, he hates the idea of sitting here, doing nothing while God only knows what's happening with Todd.
He pushes himself to action rather than thinking about everything he can't do at the moment. There's not as much of the fluorescent material in the cavern, so he begins searching the boxes and piles of junk to see if he can find anything useful before he loses the rest of the sunlight.
He does find an elastic sort of webbing and, back in the quarters, a crystalline rod slightly shorter than his forearm. The webbing works well as a support for his ankle, and he luckily isn't at the point where he has to cut his boot off; he wishes he had packed some NSAIDs on his person instead of just in the emergency med kit in the jumper, because anti-inflammatories would also be a help. The crystalline rod he tucks into his vest; he's not about to discard any possible potential weapons. There's a dripping sound that turns out to be a water cistern and John fills his canteen. Thankfully he does carry water purification tablets on his person; that's a lesson learned before the Stargate Program.
Moving back into the laboratory, John sits with his ankle propped up and decides to give it some time to work on being less swollen while he also distracts himself with trying to see if he can activate the data terminals. It keeps him busy, keeps him from worrying, and keeps him distracted from eating the single powerbar he's carrying; It might be reasonable to think that he'd gotten better at remembering to carry more of those, but apparently not. Food is definitely on the list of things he's hoping to find in the supplies in the cavern.
By sheer chance, or maybe the crossroad of anxiety and boredom, he's looking up at where he has his ankle propped up on the terminal and he sees a… hole of some kind in the surface. He pokes it and realizes that it's a recessed button, that just happens to be the perfect size for his crystalline rod to press into. How's that for a find?
Holographic images appear above the terminal, and John feels a shiver run up his spine when they are images of the dragons. Of course they are. They're some sort of Wraith creation, because of course. Frowning, John tries to manipulate the image, but he can't read the writing. All he can do is open what seems to be some sort of calendar, charting how the owner of this lab appeared to be trying to increase the dragons' size. "Well you succeeded there," John mutters. "They're fucking huge."
A few hours of fiddling with the interface and he doesn't learn anything else. The only other screens he can access are just text that he can't read.
John takes a deep breath. The powerbar is history. He's pretty sure he can find his way back to the jumper in the dark; there's more rations in the supplies there, and even if he can't get the scanners to work at least the jumper can do invisible flyovers. He rewraps his ankle, which does seem to be less swollen. With the webbing he's pretty sure he can walk on it reasonably well. He feels naked without a gun, but he's just going to have to make do with two knives and a club. And a block of C4. He sighs.
The jungle is noisy at night and John moves slowly, keeping his eyes open. The six-limbed lizards he noticed earlier are apparently nocturnal because he sees several of them catching bugs with their tongues like chameleons. He sees one rooting out what looks like a nest of miniature Iratus and doesn’t linger. He doesn’t want to think about there being Iratus on this planet; he has enough to worry about.
There are nests low in the trees that seem to hold smaller versions of the dragons. They're no bigger than housecats and the owner of the nest he disturbs glares and hisses at him with a similar affront at having been woken. The dragons aren't nocturnal then.
Or at least that seemed to be the case, but the brush of wings makes him halt and a dragon with a body easily the size of a human lands on the tree in front of him, claws latching in the wood as it peers at him with curious eyes.
John breathes out an even, controlled breath. "You don't want to eat me," he says calmly, his fingers curled tight around the Ka-Bar. The creature is beautiful in its own way and he doesn't really want to kill it. He rests his left hand on the crystalline rod tucked in his vest; maybe he can smack it on the nose and it'll leave him alone. Or that'll piss it off.
Before he can test this hypothesis, the creature rustles it wings and flies away. John can see it joining two others in what seems to be a hunting party. They swoop up toward something that John can't see well through the trees, but he hears a series of alarmed and pained animal noises as the hunters are successful, and he gives a wide berth to the following noises of predators eating. Apparently when they can't get Wraith, the dragons eat invisible sky creatures.
John skirts around the clearing where they met the Queen's delegation and is almost back to the jumper when he runs into the first Wraith. It's the warrior, and John ducks behind a tree, watching.
The warrior walks right past the jumper like it knows the ship is there but it just can't see it. But it can't see it, and as John waits patiently the warrior walks away, back into the jungle.
John slips into the ship and immediately treats himself to another powerbar from the rations. He looks through the other supplies. As he remembered there's extra magazines for a P90 he doesn't have, and a first aid kit which he deprives of its NSAIDs.
He sits in the pilot's chair and looks out at the jungle. He can do a flyover, but unless Todd is in the open somewhere the scanners aren't going to penetrate the jungle. And... their landing site is a point of contact that Todd might use to return to. If he moves the jumper, even if he takes it and parks it in the cave, it will remove it from Todd's landscape, leaving the clearing as their only common point of reference.
He's reluctant to do so, because he knows what he's going to find, but he reaches into the mental room. As expected, there's no change there, and John touches the walls of the room and whispers, "Todd." He needs to find Todd.
Making his way through the jungle in the now pre-dawn light, John finds his way to the clearing where he and Todd first met with the delegation. He sits and watches the clearing for a solid hour before he moves in closer, just in case someone is watching for him to return. He doesn't see anything. That doesn't mean they aren't there, but he takes the chance.
John makes his way to the edge where Todd had fallen. He looks down through the tangle of broken branches and jutting rocks. He can't be dead, John reminds himself. His hands clench in the dirt and, despite himself, he reaches into the room one more time just to make sure it's still there.
It's still there. And still undisturbed.
John gets up and starts trying to find a way down.
John slips on some loose shale and it twists his already abused ankle more than he was expecting. He bites off an expletive.
"I hear you," a voice says, and John freezes. "Do not be alarmed."
Slowly, a Wraith eases branches out of his way and steps from behind a tree. He's got a shaved head and the half-starburst on his face, and if John was going to run into anybody Greg was probably his best bet.
John's fingers are clenched tightly around his Ka-Bar but he asks mildly, "How's the hand?"
Greg grins. He reaches into his coat with his left hand and he slowly withdraws John's Colt. "I will return your weapon," Greg says. "Will you feel more at ease then?"
John scowls. "Not really," he says honestly.
"Then, for the gesture of it," Greg insists. He holds out the Colt and then tosses it so that it lands near John.
John watches him warily, but he reaches out and picks up the Colt. He points it at Greg and pulls the trigger, getting just a click in response. As he'd suspected there's dirt and gunk jammed near the firing pin, causing a failure to fire. Greg flinches from the expected bullet but doesn't try to dodge or attack. When there's no bullet, Greg looks at John warily.
"What's your game?" John asks him.
Greg leans back, thoughtful. "We came here not knowing that the Ancient One's representative was the brother who, in the long-ago war, served with us on the hive of the Queen who Hides the Darkness."
"Yeah, your buddy didn't seem very happy about that."
Greg grins sadly. He raises his right hand before his face as if he's looking at his arm, then points to John's arm, indicating his tattoo. "There was something else he did not care for." He tilts his head, as if inquiring, but doesn't ask anything verbally.
John frowns at him. He touches his cheek in the corresponding place where Todd's newest facial tattoo remarks upon the longevity of their relationship. "Yeah, well, he's just going to have to get used to it."
Greg laughs. "I am pleased."
John narrows his eyes. "Are you really?"
Greg spreads his left hand in a gesture of openness and sincerity. "I have missed our brother since we were called to different hives. He has always been one to be... interesting."
"Interesting," John repeats, wondering how he should take that. "Again, your other pal didn't seem thrilled. He always been a dick?" Greg cocks his head, intrigued. "He's an asshole," John elaborates.
"Ah, it is a comparison," Greg seems to understand. "What is 'dick'?"
John huffs a laugh and gestures.
Greg nods thoughtfully. "No, the Commander has not always been so brashly argumentative, though he has long been one who is quick to jump to judgements, and in his judgement humans have no use other than to feed us." His expression is distant for a moment before his orange-yellow eyes refocus on John solemnly. "Because I care for my long-ago brother, I protect your life from the others, including the Commander."
John clenches his jaw. Greg has been the one who's seemed interested in taking him prisoner when the warrior and then Brad had wanted to suck him dry right in the clearing. "Can you..." God, he almost doesn't want to ask. "Can you find him?" He touches his finger to his temple to indicate he means telepathically.
Greg looks like he wants to answer that even less than John wanted to ask. "No. But that does not mean that he is perished," he rushes to add. "If he is hiding from the Commander then he will try to smother his presence as much as he can." He seems to be thinking something else, but he only adds it when John stares at him pointedly. "If he is injured and at some distance then I would not feel his mind; not without a stronger connection than a thread of hivesense that is millennia old."
The air above them is filled with shrieks and Greg crouches low between the trees, looking upward apprehensively.
"Is there a reason that you scheduled this meeting for a planet that's full of Wraith-eating dragons?" John asks testily.
"It was not!" Greg protests with a hiss. "This planet lies within my Queen's territory. It has been deserted for centuries."
John stills. "No one from your hive has been here in over a hundred years?" Greg isn't paying attention, but the dragon ends up flying away and the most important thing is, "I need to find Todd."
Greg looks at him and nods. "These creatures... I believe they hunt by following our minds," he says uneasily.
"I did not need to know that," John mutters.
Greg bares his teeth in agreement. "We should begin the search at the bottom of the embankment."
John stuffs his jammed Colt into a vest pocket and continues down the cliff. Maybe it's a good thing that Todd's so lowkey he's off the grid.
It's afternoon by the time they reach the bottom. Greg says he smells blood, and John follows him, the Ka-Bar once again clenched in his hand.
They find where it looks like Todd landed. There are broken trees and the area is smeared with enough dark blood that it makes John feel sick.
Todd's not there, though they surprise a flurry of the lizards who appear to act as scavengers when there's no bugs around. John shudders.
"He walked away, here," Greg says, pointing. "The Commander was here, later." He looks up. "They left quickly."
"But not in the same direction," John says and Greg looks at him. John glares back; he maybe trusts that Greg's on Todd's side in this, and he's useful, but John still has a good grip on his Ka-Bar. "I know a few things about tracking," John tells him, and Greg grins.
Greg looks up suddenly, and John hears, like an afterthought, the echo of an explosion. Greg doesn't speak, but starts off in the direction of the sound, moving intently, and John follows.
It's almost sunset again, the area under the canopy of the jungle already falling dark, when they stumble upon the outstretched wing of one of the largest of the dragon creatures that John's seen yet. It's lying limply against the ground, and John's shocked to realize that it's dead. They'd seemed so fantastical, dropping from the sky, but he supposes they are flesh like any living being. John hasn't seen anything native to this place that's capable of taking out one of the creatures, so it seems likely that this is the source of the sound they'd heard. He tries to hold back the feeling that's trying to choke him as he follows Greg around the creature's body.
Now that they're close, Greg moves slowly, stopping often. Whenever he stops John freezes, just in case Greg may have spotted one of his former associates. But after they've been working their way through the trees for a few minutes, Greg halts again in a way that feels unsteady, like he just saw something he expected but isn't prepared for. John moves up, closer behind him.
He can see what killed the dragon and caused the sound they'd heard; it looks like the creature exploded from the inside, its entire chest cavity a cavern of exposed flesh and crushed organs. Scavengers scatter away as they approach, but John hardly notices them. He's not sure what could cause this... unless the dragon somehow ate some C4. "Shit," John mumbles. Todd had some C4 in his pocket. "Shit, shit." John screws his eyes shut but he can't reach the room and he wonders if that's because it's not there. "Don't you dare," he mutters, and he is not crying, but he has to take a deep, slow breath. Think, John... The C4 was in the pocket of Todd's coat; the one that got torn from him when he fell. John breathes more easily. Brad had Todd's coat.
Greg is kneeling beside a smaller section of remains within the overall carnage, and John can make out what looks like an arm. He turns away, giving Greg whatever privacy he needs, but also to think. There isn't much chance that Brad figured out how to fire a detonator while being eaten. Someone else was here. John tries to remind himself that there's the other warrior out there still, and Paul too, and not start yelling carelessly, but he can't not. "Todd," he calls. "Please, please, tell me you're here."
He waits. He stops breathing. And he hears, so faint, "Sheppard."
John inhales and shudders. He turns toward the sound so fast he stumbles. His eyes scan the deepening dark as he searches.
He finds Todd where he must have dragged himself under a tree whose low branches shield him. His hair is matted with dark blood, and his visible skin is heavily marred with bruises and bloody lines where wounds have partially healed. As John kneels beside him, he opens his eyes. "Sheppard," he repeats, and a tension that he had been holding melts out of him. "You are well?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." His ankle isn't worth mentioning, even though the abuse he's put it through today means that it might not let him walk on it now that his burning drive might not feed him. John reaches out and rests his hand on Todd's cheek. "I'm fine," he repeats. "You..."
Todd chuckles, a dry, empty sound. "You should take your jumper," he murmurs. "Leave this place."
John doesn't have the space to tell him where to shove that idea, because Todd suddenly becomes aware of Greg, the tension filling him again. "Sheppard," he says in warning.
John turns, lifting the Ka-Bar and pointing it, effectively halting Greg's advance, though what he says is, "It's okay. He led me here."
"Hmmm." Todd observes, but he seems to have given John as much coherence as he's going to and is fading out.
John slaps his cheek. "Hey, stay with me." Todd's eyes snap open and he glares up at John. "We've got to get you up." John pulls at his arm.
Todd grimaces and makes a sound that John's never heard anything that's not dying make. John instantly releases his hold. "Shit." He leans over Todd, his fingers ghosting over Todd's face, almost afraid to touch him.
"Sheppard," Todd murmurs. He seems to rouse himself slightly, as if John's presence is finally sinking in. "I think it is out of joint."
John realizes he's talking about the shoulder and grimaces in his own turn. "I can fix that, but it's going to hurt like a bitch."
Todd nods weakly, and John doesn't push him for more. He feels his way along Todd's arm and shoulder and all down his side as well, and he wants to vomit because he can feel some of the bones moving under his touch. He takes a deep breath and doesn't think about it. He pulls Todd's arm out and rotates it up until he feels the joint slide back into place.
Todd screams, a short, sharp, pained sound, that fades into a soft murmur of duller pain.
John lies on the ground next to him. Even in the falling darkness Todd's pale face is still visible. John leans their foreheads together.
Todd chuckles. He winces but lifts his right arm to brush the back of his fingers over John's face. "Sheppard," he murmurs again. John had thought they weren't exactly trusting Greg at the moment, given Todd's earlier apprehension, but Todd looks behind John, and John's pretty sure he's looking at Greg. Sure enough, he hears Greg move and John turns in time to catch the solemn look on his face.
"Hey," John protests, because he has an idea what that was about.
"Sheppard." Todd tries to push himself up with his left arm, but it looks like it was broken at some point in the recent past and it crumples under his weight.
John inserts his body alongside Todd's. Todd gets his right arm around John, and John hauls him up from the ground, but Todd only manages to get his feet under him, not actually use them to carry his own weight. Todd is heavy, and John's not sure he can carry Todd's weight by himself. He looks over at Greg.
Greg looks downright disturbed and very unhappy at the state Todd's in. "He needs to feed," Greg murmurs.
John tries to haul Todd along with him, but he barely makes a few steps before he realizes their current position is not going to work for longer than that. The weight would be easier in a fireman's carry, but he feels like that would be a lot more unpleasant for Todd. "That's not helpful," he snaps at Greg.
Todd is sliding from his grasp, and John can see that the movement has opened one of the wounds on Todd's abdomen and it's sluggishly leaking black blood. With a soft sigh, Todd reaches for John's face, his left hand curling clumsily against John's cheek. "Sheppard," he murmurs again. His voice is softer.
John raises his hand to slap him again, but when he brings it down, instead his just strokes his fingers along Todd's jaw. "Don't," he says, because Todd seems to be accepting this and John doesn't know if he can make him keep fighting.
Greg shifts his weight and says worriedly, "He does not have the energy necessary to heal his injuries."
John's about to snap back at him again but he stops, a sudden realization halting the words behind John's lips. Feed. And there's only one person sitting here with what Todd needs. Theoretically there's Greg, but he doesn't look like he's going to be volunteering anytime soon, which John doesn't blame him- he can't think of anyone he hasn't seen in a thousand years that he'd be willing to trust his life to. A calmness settles over John. He's the only human on the planet, so he can't even be a total shit about traipsing off and looking for someone like Wallace, eaten up with his own grief and guilt, because there isn't anyone else. There's just his life and the alien he loves, and he can't have one without the other.
John inhales. "Okay," he says. He reaches for Todd's right hand.
Todd's fingers curl around his at first, but as John pulls Todd's hand to his chest, Todd starts to fight him. "No, Sheppard." Todd tries to pull away, but John easily holds on to his hand. Todd snarls, "I won't, John. No."
"Hey, hey," John soothes him. He fits his right hand over the back of Todd's, sliding their fingers together so that the words written in both their skin are pressed to each other. He reaches with his left hand and touches Todd's face. "We've done this before, right?" Todd looks at him, but his usual searching and penetrative gaze is dulled. John hates it. "You need it, you take it." Todd shakes his head, but John continues, "I trust you to give it back."
"John," Todd begins, but further words die on his lips and he sighs, his fingers holding more tightly to John's.
John strokes Todd's cheek again. He takes a deep breath. "I wrote it in my skin, remember? My life. It's yours." He kisses their joined knuckles and slides Todd's hand to his chest.
He might regret it when the pain hits, but not enough to stop.
Todd's feeling better, and ready to be done with this mess.
The life force surges into him and Todd roars with the feeling. Sheppard is so strong... Todd lifts himself from the ground and curls his left arm around Sheppard, holding him, their foreheads pressed together. Sheppard is shuddering with the experience, the pain contorting his expression. Todd hums to him soothingly. He closes his eyes, focusing on the flow of the lifeforce between them, paying careful attention. He will not take everything that Sheppard offers; he cannot.
He releases, finishing the feeding, and Sheppard shivers in his arms. "Better?" Sheppard whispers.
"John." Todd kisses him. He lifts Sheppard's frail arm and kisses his palm, and the mark on his skin where he promised his life to Todd. "I will not fail you."
Sheppard laughs shakily. "I'm kind of banking a lot on it," he says carelessly, but his words are belied by the fearful eyes that he raises to meet Todd's gaze.
Todd understands that John fears his own physical frailty and the feeling of helplessness it generates. "I will not," he promises. He is pleased that Sheppard smiles, his face relaxing in belief at this assurance.
Returning his attention to his surroundings, Todd turs to the Wraith of the Half-star.
The other Wraith stands not far away, his face raised to the breeze, listening. But Todd soon "hears" what it is that truly flows to him through his hive connection to the other Wraith on this world, when the Wraith in question uses the remaining warrior in one of its common functions, to boost his own mental power and make himself be heard by all.
The Commander is dead, and you will soon also fail to return to your hive, the Wraith promises. You think you are clever, but you are weak.
The sound of an explosion echoes over them, more startling in the fallen night. Sheppard inhales abruptly in alarm; Todd tenses, pulling Sheppard against him. The jungle around them echoes with the sound of creatures disturbed by the blast.
"What the fuck was that?" Sheppard asks.
He may have intended the question to be rhetorical, but the Wraith of the Half-star answers him. "The Third Scout has blown up your transport ship."
"What?" Sheppard looks up sharply. "Paul blew up the jumper? How'd he find it?"
"In thick vegetation and close cover it can rest unseen, but it is still present," Todd observes. "Something must have fallen against it, or in some other way it revealed its location." He is filled with a fond exasperation for Sheppard's habits and isn't surprised by the Wraith of the Half-star's curious look.
"What is 'Paul'?" the Wraith of the Half-star asks.
Sheppard starts, as though he hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud. "Uh." His thin shoulders shrug. "I give you guys names, to help me tell you apart. It's just for my, you know, keeping things straight. It doesn't have to mean anything."
The Wraith of the Half-star cocks his head in interest. "I had heard you call our brother 'Todd' but I thought it was a symbol of your close bond."
"It is," Todd agrees before Sheppard can speak. "As are many other things. Sheppard's tendency to assign names is not something I can claim sole right to." John looks slightly embarrassed.
"Do you call me something?" the Wraith of the Half-star asks in curiosity.
"Um." Sheppard shifts uncomfortably. "Greg."
"Greg," the Wraith of the Half-star tastes the word. "It is unusual."
Todd is amused, but the situation overall is somewhat grim. "Your transport is the only way to depart from this planet. He will be waiting for us to approach him there." His expression hardens. He will not permit Sheppard to leave, he predicts.
The Wraith of the Half-star nods. He destroyed your vessel to bring you to confront him, but he will also do this to hurt you and your alliance. His mental voice is not judgmental when he observes, You killed the Commander.
Todd agrees. As good as.
"There's a dart in the cave," Sheppard puts in.
"What cave?" Todd asks with a frown.
Sheppard shrugs. "It's like a laboratory. I think someone was breeding the dragons."
The Wraith of the Half-star leans back. "This word you have used before. Who is 'dragons'?"
"The... sky creatures," Sheppard amends, spreading his fingers to mimic wings. He turns to Todd. "He," he waves a hand at the Wraith of the Half-star, "said before that no one's been here in a hundred years, but it looks like this lab's only been abandoned for a few months." He hesitates. "I wondered if it might be one of Michael's."
Todd's lip curls. "Take us to this place."
Sheppard stands and starts to lead the way, but his body will not support his spirit's energy and he stumbles. He huffs angrily and glares, but Todd reaches for him. He gathers Sheppard into his arms. "Will you let me be your strength?"
Sheppard looks rebellious, but then he rests his forehead against Todd's bare shoulder. "Fine," he grumbles.
Todd kisses him. He can feel the Wraith of the Half-star's eyes on him, but he does not let it deter him from kissing Sheppard thoroughly. Sheppard relaxes into his ministrations, his hands rising to tangle their weakened grip in Todd's hair. Sheppard breaks the kiss to smile fondly at Todd. "We're a mess," he says softly.
"But we are together." He touches Sheppard's face tenderly, then shifts Sheppard's weight so that he can carry Sheppard on his back, Sheppard's arms around his neck. With Sheppard guiding him, he moves through the forest toward this cave.
"So, um, you know Greg- I mean, this... Wraith guy here. You knew him before."
Sheppard's words are a mutter near his ear, and Todd does not have any trouble dividing his attention from the terrain before them even in the darkness. "Yes," he answers. "Usually, when Wraith approach six hundred years they are considered old enough to leave the hive of their progenitor. They then go to serve on other hives. This Wraith and I served together on the first hive I came to."
"Wow." Sheppard's arms tighten around Todd's shoulders. "That's some pretty serious playground cred."
He can decipher neither Sheppard's words nor his tone, so Todd merely continues speaking. "We lost track of each other over the next millennia. I took a position on another hive in order to pursue the knowledge related to the Asurans. Which proved useful again in more recent times."
"And we joined the hive of our previous Queen's progeny," the Wraith of the Half-star says as he walks closer, referring to himself and the Wraith of the Lines. "We thought you had not survived this long." His eyes flicker over Todd to rest on Sheppard evaluatively.
Todd bares his teeth in a grin that is not entirely friendly. "It should have been I who was doubtful. How that idiot got himself made Commander of the hive you currently serve is a mystery still."
The Wraith of the Half-star snarls. You ensured he would not hold the post long.
"He allowed himself to be taunted into the mistake that cost him his life," Todd reminds the other. "He used to be more cunning, though he was never particularly intelligent."
There is silence for a few paces as they walk before the other Wraith replies, "No, he wasn't, was he?" Sheppard snorts, and the Wraith of the Half-star looks at him. "You have always had rather unusual tastes."
Sheppard groans, his face pressed to Todd's shoulder.
Todd sighs. "I was very young," he allows. "It is not a mistake I would make again." He turns his head and hums comfortingly at Sheppard before he realizes that Sheppard's discomfort is not physical.
The Wraith of the Half-star's mind is warm with amusement. They walk for a while more before he says, "You may call me 'Greg' as you call my brother by the name 'Todd.' I do not mind it."
Sheppard turns his head. "Thanks," he says, though his voice is wary, and he elucidates, "That doesn't mean we're sharing him."
Greg's laughter echoes through the trees. "Such was made obvious by your marking of declaration," he replies.
"We have discussed this, Sheppard," Todd grumbles, but he is amused as well, and pleased- not that John would feel jealous, but that he would not be shy to make his claim known.
Sheppard has some difficulty finding the entrance to the laboratory, but when Todd lets him down and he walks the steps himself he finds the markings for the path he took.
Once in the laboratory, Todd's attention is given to the information display. Sheppard shows him how he used the crystalline rod to unlock more pages of the scientist's notes.
"The creatures are native to this planet, but this scientist put a great deal of work into increasing their size," Todd notes. He brings up the size chart; they had at one time been creatures that no Wraith would have given any thought to, now grown large enough to devour adult Wraith. "They do hunt by tracking telepathic fields." Todd frowns. "I wonder if this was a trait he bred into them or a naturally occurring one he took advantage of."
"He doesn't sign his private work notes with any signifier, but I believe it likely." Todd flips to later pages. "He was having trouble controlling them."
"That's good news." Sheppard sighs.
"Hmm," Todd agrees. "I cannot tell if he abandoned the project or if events conspired that he was unable to return."
"This place is pretty well cleared out," Sheppard observes. "I think he left not intending to be back for a while."
Greg returns from checking on the fighter. "It will fly, but it is old." He hesitates. "I would not trust the beam."
"Why not?" Sheppard asks.
"Beams on older ships or those in poor repair sometimes do not reintegrate," Todd says. And with Sheppard's frailty he would not trust Sheppard's life to the beam in any case. But Sheppard cannot fly the dart to the foreign hive, and if they return to Todd's own hive they will likely be fired upon.
"That's good to know," Sheppard grouses.
Greg sighs, no doubt having come to the same conclusion as Todd. "We cannot use it to leave," he observes. "I do not like to leave with matters unfinished, in any case." He meets Todd's eyes but says for Sheppard to hear as well, "If I return to her now, I can tell my Queen only that again her commander is dead. I wish to give her more hopeful news."
Sheppard nods, but looks doubtful. "She sent him to head the negotiation, I feel like it's pretty clear where she stands on the idea of the alliance." He looks at Greg, eyes narrowed. "No offense."
Greg looks troubled. "Our Queen very much desires the knowledge of the Ancient One's worlds. I do not think she would jeopardize the seeking of it by refusing the alliance."
"She has not," Todd counters. "She sent her representative, and I killed him."
"Yeah, that does look bad for us," Sheppard admits.
Greg shakes his head. "I think she will still pursue it," he insists.
Todd knows there is something more that Greg is not saying. "You said again her Commander has died," he leads.
Greg sighs. "The Queen's Commander was known as her Favored One. Our Queen cared for him... almost unnaturally, and for all of his get." Todd waits, and Greg sighs again. "The first of their offspring remained on our hive as Keeper. She died as well."
"Queens rarely keep their own offspring so close after maturity," Todd replies in surprise.
"They were very close. That is part of the concern. With the Keeper and the Favored One both taken from her after feeding at the poisoned planet, our Queen is... very much concerned."
"Ahh, this explains many things," Todd observes.
"She's not... crazy with grief or anything?" Sheppard asks warily.
"No," Todd assures him.
Greg looks scandalized. "Our Queen is a most intelligent and reasoned being!"
"She reached out to the alliance. She is still reasoning," Todd says to Sheppard. "This is not like Gift's case."
Sheppard nods, satisfied, and Todd assures Greg, We do not doubt your Queen, but we recently dealt with a Wraith who was scarred when his Queen's grief drove her mad.
I understand, Greg says, mollified.
There is another? Todd pushes. You said, 'all of his get.' There is one left who holds her affection? That she would protect from future poisoning?
Greg's mind shuts him out of that question so quickly that Todd is startled.
"If you think she'll listen maybe we should find a way to go to your hive, or hell to anywhere else that isn't filled with giant flying things that want to eat you, and talk about this a bit more," Sheppard points out.
"I'm not leaving until we are finished here," Todd snaps. He turns to Sheppard. "This place was ill chosen, and the fault for that lies with her. I'll not leave this place until I can return your years. The Scout wishes to force me to seek him, then I will take his life and give it to you."
Sheppard's expression, tense from his uneasiness, relaxes in exasperated affection. "You don't have to do that," he murmurs, but it is a token protest; Todd can feel that he is pleased with this idea.
"He is right," Greg puts in. "You can gift him life elsewhere."
Todd snarls, "I will gift him your life if you become tiresome."
Greg reals back, eyes narrowed and teeth bared.
I do not desire that, my brother, Todd tells him, but Sheppard is dear to me and I will not leave him in this fragile state longer than I must.
Sheppard is looking between them, and Greg turns to regard him. Humans are fragile, he observes.
Sheppard is strong, Todd counters. "If the Scout expects us to seek your vessel, you will bring me there."
"Hey, wait," Sheppard protests. "We should have some kind of plan of attack."
"You will stay here," is Todd's response. The cave is hidden; Sheppard will be safe here.
Sheppard's expression tightens. "I'm decrepit not deficient," he bites back.
Todd snarls, "I do not want you near him."
Greg raises his left hand between them placatingly. "Perhaps if you seek the Scout I can remain with John Sheppard here, seeing what else can be learned from this laboratory?"
Sheppard narrows his eyes suspiciously, but Todd likes this plan. You would defend him? he asks Greg.
He is important to you, and I will protect him against any of my hive, Greg promises.
Todd turns to Sheppard, who sighs angrily. "Sheppard," Todd tries to reason, but Sheppard shakes his head.
"You're not going to let me do anything, so just go," Sheppard says. "Take care of this so that we can get out of here." He moves stiffly toward the room in the back, pulling his sidearm out of his pocket as he goes. "I should clean this so that I can use it," he grumbles, and leaves them.
Todd sighs, but he is not moved to retract any part of what he has said or determined, and so he turns to Greg. Show me the place where your vessel is landed.
Greg shares the memory with him. He also cautions, This Wraith has stood as Scout since he came to our hive. He is... unpredictable. Do not underestimate him.
Todd nods. This would seem obvious given his actions so far, but it is good advice nonetheless. He strides toward the passageway to the jungle outside.
He hears Sheppard call him, and he turns and goes into the inner room instead. Sheppard has spread a blanket over the bed and his weapon is disassembled in ordered pieces atop it. He gets up when Todd comes in and comes over to him, leaning against him for a moment, his face resting against Todd's collarbone. Todd raises a hand and cups the back of his head.
John sighs. He leans back and begins to take off his tactical vest. "You won't let me come, at least take this," he insists. "There's some C4 I haven't used yet, and the Ka-Bar."
"John," Todd protests, but John's fingers cover his mouth.
"You're going to take it," he says, and his voice is soft and intent. "I've still got Ronon's knife. And once I get the Colt cleaned I have an extra magazine, too. And my dragon smacking club, even if it is actually a fancy page turning device." He cups Todd's chin, and Todd nods.
John nods back to him, and he turns without another word to see to his weapon.
In the jungle, Todd moves carefully, his eyes on the cover above him, and the gaps in it through which he can see wings in the sky. The Wraith transport is landed near to the clearing where they initially met the Queen's delegation, on a rise above the location. It is not difficult to find.
Finding the Scout is more of a problem. Todd reaches for his mind, but he does not sense any Wraith nearby. The Scout is likely hiding himself, similar to how Todd himself had attempted to do.
Todd frowns and reaches mentally for the warrior; he is not of its hive, but he is a Commander- perhaps, if it is near, he can usurp it.
But he doesn't feel it near. Todd frowns. He does not like this. If the Scout expects him to attack here, then he should have his remaining support here as well.
Todd crouches hidden in the greenery, looking down at the ship, and thinks.
"Your human is skilled with his weapon," the Scout's voice echoes through the air. Todd tenses, but he can't tell from which location it is coming. "Is that why you keep him around? Or does he taste good? I can smell that you've tasted him." Todd doesn't respond and the voice falls silent for a moment before returning. "Or does he help you lure in more of them, is that why? Truly, I can't divine what possible use you have for your pet that makes it worth keeping around."
Todd ignores the words, knowing that the other Wraith is trying to incite him to reveal his position. He slowly and quietly eases his way toward the direction he thinks is the source of the voice.
"Perhaps I will taste him myself, hmm?" the Scout continues. "Or make a gift of him to the Queen. He is free of the poison, or you would not have survived. She will be pleased by this gift."
Todd realizes that he misjudged the direction a split second before the Scout fires the stun rifle in his possession. He manages to dodge to the side enough that the blast mostly grazes him, but it throws him off balance and the Scout tackles him to the ground, hand snared in Todd's hair to pull his head back and knife at Todd's throat. The Scout grins.
Todd snarls and pulls the Ka-Bar from John's vest, stabbing the blade into the flesh of the Scout's leg and jerking his head down to protect his throat. Thrown off by his sudden pain, the Scout fumbles the knife and it only gashes Todd across the bone of his jaw under his chin; bloody, but hardly the desperate wound the Scout was hoping for.
The Scout rolls away and pulls the Ka-Bar from his thigh with a snarl. They regard each other, having switched blades. Todd feels he is rather the loser in that exchange- John's knife is larger than the slender Wraith blade he holds now.
The Scout regards the Ka-Bar with interest. "Perhaps humans are not entirely without uses. This is well made for killing."
Todd sees something move out of the corner of his eye but doesn't dare turn away from his opponent. The Scout can see whatever it is and reacts in outrage.
"Betrayer of hive!" he snarls, and Todd knows that it is Greg.
Greg responds with confirmation to his mental touch, and Todd glances at him quickly before looking away. Why are you here?
"I have come to claim the transport," Greg says easily. He narrows his eyes at the Scout. "You misrepresent our Queen's wishes by pursuing this course."
"You think she will forgive them after what happened to her Favored One?" the Scout snarls. "What she wishes is to destroy all of the Lanteans who brought the plague."
Todd is displeased that Sheppard has been left alone, and he is growing more and more annoyed by the Scout. He dives at the other Wraith, attempting to lay hands on him, but the Scout snarls and then vanishes into the jungle.
Todd waits a few moments to see if there is any indication of further attack, and then he snarls in displeasure. "What are you doing here? Where is Sheppard?"
Greg spreads his left hand placatingly. "John Sheppard is well in the cave. I finished looking through the notes stored in the device- there are more projects than just the initial one, did you know- and remembered that I had brought a data copier in the transport. John Sheppard suggested that I should retrieve it and make copies of the information."
Todd growls. "How cursedly like Sheppard." The Scout has vanished, and Sheppard is alone. "I will return for him. Bring the ship closer to the cave."
Greg nods easily and continues into the transport while Todd turns and runs back through the jungle.
He enters the cave quickly and is displeased by how quiet it is. Sheppard is not in the laboratory, and Todd walks immediately through to the inner chamber. Sheppard is not there either, and his weapon is no longer spread over the bed. Todd does not wish to acknowledge the fear that is rising in him as he walks quickly on to the large cavern.
The stone walls of the passageway are cracked and broken, the floor covered with rubble. The cavern itself is in disarray; part of it appears to be collapsed.
"Sheppard!" Todd calls as he pushes through the detritus. He reaches for John's mind, but he is nowhere near.
Todd snarls helplessly, closing his eyes and forcing himself to reach deeper.
John does something stupid, but, in his defense, it's not entirely his fault.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
John shoves the plug down on the guide rod and clicks the barrel bushing back around, and he can't help but think that reassembling his Colt was easier before he had cataracts.
He slides the magazine back in, and the gun into his holster, and goes back out to the lab.
Greg is staring transfixed at the lab notes and barely looks up. "I was aware of the venandi," he murmurs, "but I had no idea that there was a related volant species."
"What?" is all John can say to that. He almost has the feeling he gets when trying to parse a conversation between McKay and Zelenka when they really get going.
Greg taps the screen with one forefinger and explains, "The venandi are reptiles that are somewhat common on many planets in different systems. They are natural predators of the Iratus. The creatures this scientist used for the basis of his experiments seem to have an evolution that diverged from the venandi into an airborne species."
John nods. "And he dialed them up to eleven so that they would be big enough to give Wraith a run for their money."
Greg cocks his head. "Is eleven a large number on your world?"
John waves it away. "Never mind."
Greg looks dissatisfied, but he returns his attention to the screen in front of him to observe, "It is very audacious."
John's already dealt with Michael and audacity, so he interrupts to move the conversation on to something more immediately relevant. "So, your Queen. If she's so serious about wanting to join the alliance, why did she send your jackass former Commander to meet with us?"
Greg sighs. "That my brother was Commander was... an unfortunate occurrence, especially at a time when his unsuitedness for the position would be so strikingly obvious. Though we were hive brothers and even closer, he has always been... difficult. He did not have a curious mind, and of late our duties had brought us to different places in the hive. He served as Armentarior since the last Awakening. When the Queen's Favored One and the Keeper both perished and the Queen was distraught, his becoming Commander was not objected to. I knew he would not be able to carry out our Queen's will, but I was not in a position to be heard on this matter when so many were still grieved and angered."
"What is your position?" John wonders.
Greg bows his head. "I serve my Queen as Second Scientist," he says with no small bit of pride. "She appreciates my dedication to the study of biological sciences, though my foremost area of interest is not considered of much use."
"What area would that be?"
Greg grins. "I am, and have always been, very much enamored of the products of human culture."
"You're an anthropologist? You study humans?" If that's his history, it really explains how interested he'd been in John himself even before they found Todd again. And his continued insistence that his Queen is interested in the alliance might be a bit of projecting of his own desired outcome.
Greg bows his head. "It is very much something I wish to learn more about. Alas, it is not something that many Wraith have an interest in."
"No kidding." John thinks he understands why Greg looked disgruntled earlier, and he explains, "There's a joke where I'm from, about turning dials that usually only go to ten up to eleven instead." Greg looks interested and John offers, "We get out of this, I'll see what I can do about getting you a copy of the movie." He clears his throat, because he's talking about Spinal Tap with an alien and this just got really weird. "So, about this Scout."
"As you call him, 'Paul'?" Greg grins.
"You think Todd can take him?"
Greg sobers. "I have every confidence in my brother's abilities."
"Great." John shifts his weight and all his bones creak. "So, do you have a way to copy these notes and take them with you?"
Greg brightens. "I did bring a data recorder to take readings of the planet. It is in the transport vessel."
John nods. "You know, the guy who set up this lab doesn't like people reading his notes. The lab might not be here for much longer."
"Are you certain?" Greg looks worried. "Perhaps I should return to the transport and retrieve it." He's half risen from his seat.
"Maybe you should," John agrees.
"You will be well?"
"I think I'll take a nap. I'm really tired," John says, and God does he feel tired, it's so far from being a lie that he hates it even more.
"I should not leave you alone," Greg says decisively.
So much for that idea. "Look," John growls. "Let me put it this way. If you don't get out there and give Todd a hand, I'm going to shoot you with my now functional sidearm."
Greg regards him with more amusement than fear, but he nods. "When you 'put it this way,' I understand. I will go. You will stay here?"
"I'm going to take a nap," John repeats. "Promise."
Greg nods, and he leaves without another word. John snatches his dragon-smacking-club-cum-fancy-page-turner up, tucking the end of the rod in his deepest pocket.
Being horizontal sounds like a great idea- his limbs feel like they're made of wood- and John goes into the quarters and lays himself gingerly down on the bed.
The tiredness is a vague aching in his bones, not really sleepiness, and he doesn't truly fall asleep but just doses.
He's pretty sure his hearing is shit, but he's lying still so it's hard to miss that the echoing footsteps he can hear aren't his.
John sits up slowly, reaching for his holster. It can't be Greg coming back, because if he didn't continue on to help Todd John is going to kill him, and it can't be Todd, not this quickly. So, the owner of these footsteps is either Paul, or someone else, neither being options that John is excited about.
John gets up stiffly and moves so that he can see down the hallway. It seems his guest is the remaining warrior. At least that's better than it being Paul. Probably. He'll think of a reason why in a minute. The warrior goes into the room with the empty containment units.
The Colt probably won't be enough to take him out, and John doesn't have the strength to win in close combat, so he ducks across the passageway and retreats to the large cavern; if he can get in the dart, he can use it to fire on the warrior. Or fly out above the cave and land it next to the transport maybe. That's actually a decent idea, he might just do that.
He's barely past the first row of supplies stacked in the cavern when he realizes he has another visitor.
There's a flutter of wings and John sees a reptilian head peak up over a pile of packing crates. It turns and focuses on him. Shit, John thinks.
It's the pile of crates that had looked like they had spilled huge piles of sawdust over a wide area of the cave. He can see what looks like a deflated oversized football lying half out of the sawdust and realizes it much be an egg. There are dragon eggs buried in the sawdust.
The dragon crawls completely over the packing crate and John sees that it's a small one, relatively speaking. Its head is about as long as his forearm, covered in iridescent blue scales, jaws making up over half of that. It turns its head and fixes him with one large, luminous eye, blinking slowly.
John blinks back at it. "Whaddya want from me?" he asks it, because it obviously sees him.
It chirps, a sound somewhere between a bird and a lizard. "Don't suppose the word 'raptor' means anything to you," John drawls, and he is pulled out of the wonder and remembers his situation. He starts trying to edge around the thing more quickly.
The eye follows him as he moves, but the dragon doesn't seem like it's going to attack. There's a thud behind the creature and John realizes there's another one nosing through the packing crate behind the first one.
"How many of you are there?" he asks, kind of loudly, not expecting an answer, but getting four more heads turned in his direction, for a total of five, one of which immediately turns into a pile of flailing wings as the creature turns too quickly and loses its balance. A sixth one is still drying its wings it's so newly hatched, and they all seem awkward, tripping over their wings and tails.
"Great," John hisses. "What the hell kind of dragon lays its eggs in a Wraith's secret hideout?" He tries to edge away from them faster, but his knees don't work like they're supposed to.
The first one chirps at him again, cocking its head like it's really trying to listen. The others all look interested as well, for a moment anyway before turning to poke through the boxes looking for food.
Until one of them scents the warrior.
The warrior is entering the cave now, from the corridor. He sees John but doesn't seem to see the dragons yet.
The entire group of dragons looks up- as soon as one of them sees it, they all see it. They start hissing, a low thrum, almost lower than John can hear, and they begin to advance on the warrior with far more poise than John would have credited to them after having seen them fall over their own wings. He moves so that the dragons are between him and the warrior, edging his way back practically to the opposite wall and pulling his Colt.
When they come together it's not pretty, both sides operating on an instinctive survival level. John manages to get two shots in the warrior before the dragons are in the way. The warrior uses its weapon to stun one of the dragons before they rush him, and he breaks the wing of the first one he gets a hand on, throwing it against the parked dart before rushing to the dart himself.
John wishes he'd thought to disable the dart, to prevent the warrior from flying off with his backup exit, or, as it were, gaining control of the biggest gun in the room. John's moving, as best he can on his ancient legs, back toward the inner cave in search of a long range counter-weapon, or at the least some rock walls between himself and the dart's weapon's systems, but it turns out he needn't have concerned himself.
The warrior barely makes it to the dart; he's streaming blood from more wounds than John can count, and three of the dragons immediately dive inside the cockpit, preventing the canopy from closing.
There isn't really any warning before the dart explodes.
John is standing behind what shelter the cave's inner wall can provide, and he manages to turn falling to the ground into something of a controlled endeavor, arms wrapped protectively around his head and neck as he gets pelted with debris.
When it seems like everything that's going to fall has fallen, he looks out. "Shit," he observes. Half of the cave is collapsed; if there is anything left of the dart it's flattened under rock. The inner wall, near him, feels brittle when he touches it, but nothing big fell on or near him and the passageway that he can see back up to the laboratory looks clear.
There's an eldritch shriek and a dragon lands on the outer edge of the cavern. Shit, John thinks again, ducking down behind the wall. It's a big one, its head easily bigger than the jumper, and the sunlight ripples down what seems a vast expanse of blue scales as it moves inside the cave.
The dragon noses through the wreckage, making small wounded noises as it discovers the remains of what John is assuming were its offspring.
He's getting stiff and he has to shift his position so that he's not sitting on the crystalline rod, and the creature's head immediately snaps to focus its eyes on him.
"Shit," he hisses with feeling. He takes a step backward, but, on the rubble strewn ground with his wooden limbs it's not really a surprise when he stumbles and falls back against the other side of the passage.
When he looks up the dragon has its nose shoved as far through the opening from the cave as it can fit. The beaked end of its jaw is inches from John's leg, and he can see the creature's massive teeth. Though... it doesn't seem to be trying to bite him? It's not baring its teeth or growling or anything like that. It's just making a small, needy sound, and trying to shove its head further into the hole.
"Stop that," John mutters. "There's nothing here for you. I'm sorry about your little creatures, but there's nothing that can change that."
The dragon pulls its head back, but it doesn't leave- only turns its head so that it can stare at him with one massive eye. It turns back and tries to shove its jaw into the hallway.
"Stop," John says, trying to sound more authoritative. He curls his fingers around the crystalline rod. Maybe he can try using it to actually smack a dragon this time.
The dragon does stop, its nearer eye focusing on him, large, luminescent, and whirling with color. John stares at it, and he must be somehow tripping because he can hear the colors and they sound like anger and sorrow.
John shakes his head. "What the fuck."
Brown, brown sorrow. The purpose of the device- orangey brown. Red-brown- stupid small should know that purpose. Blue-grey- memories, when the other one was here, the angry one, he wanted her to fly and speak to him of what she saw. Arrogance- yellow- he didn't understand what she saw.
John drops the crystalline rod. He can no longer hear color. He takes a deep breath. He picks up the rod again.
Green, green, curious, you are different, not like the angry one. Grey- the angry one was like the prey, he tasted like prey in her mind, grey grey.
"Green," John says.
The dragon's eyes are whirling green.
"Michael- is that the angry one?"
The dragon hisses softly and her eyes are grey and red.
"Okay, never mind. Green, think green thoughts. You like me, I'm green and new."
Her eyes are whirling green and blue again, and John reaches out slowly to rest his hand against the top of her snout. Her skin feels rough and warm. He strokes his fingers back and forth.
Green. The dragon's eyes are green. Green and flying.
The ceiling above him creaks warningly, a crack splitting the stone for most of the length of the passageway toward the laboratory.
"Okay, the explosion may have damaged the structural integrity of the entire complex," John says calmly. Calm is good, stay calm.
The dragon is unconcerned. She shifts her weight, which leans her more against the wall, causing another, wider crack to split up the side wall and begin to split down the ceiling as well.
"Fuck." John jumps back intending to head toward the inner chamber, but the loose rubble under his feet shifts and he falls against the dragon's snout.
Her face is as long as the jumper, but about two-thirds as high and half as wide, and he's bent over her nose, the crystal rod in one hand and the fingers of the other pressed against her warm skin.
Rocks-brown- fall, and crush- red red, bad. Rocks bad, red-brown! Green, blue- flying and no rocks, high high in the sky, blue blue blue.
John inhales a hysterical laugh. "I don't suppose you go faster than two-hundred miles per hour," he murmurs, but the cave isn't safe, and he can barely move anyway, and the dragon doesn't want to eat him, and dear God, he agrees with her, the sky is singing in her mind and he wants to sing back to it.
He feels his way along her face and down her neck, thinking he might try to climb onto her back. But she curls her long talons around him until they are locked against each other, forming a cage he can't fall out of, and she lifts him easily, walking three-footed. He can glimpse the cave and the sky and they're airborne, he can feel her wings catching on the wind, lifting her higher and higher as he braces his hands against the inside of her foot.
She lands eventually, and carefully sets John on the ground. He looks around dazedly. She brought him to a lake with broad, sandy beaches. He's pretty sure it's the one he flew over on his initial arrival before flying up to the meeting place halfway up one of the mountains. The beach is filled with dragons sunning themselves and scratching hard to reach itches against the coarse sand by rolling on their backs like dogs, and running in and out of the water like it's the best fun in the world.
John waves the crystal rod. "Let's try that again," he suggests.
Green- curious, small not like angry one. Blue flying?
"Yes, take me back up that way." He gestures back toward the mountains.
Red, mountain, eggs, brown, rocks, red red red.
John sighs. Michael's notes had said he couldn't control the creatures, but John curls his hand more tightly around the crystalline rod. "Please take me back up to the jungle on the mountain." No need to think about rocks or caves of hatchlings that had died to save his life.
Green- curious, jungle above, less good than jungle below, but blue- flying, flying is good, will take small not like angry one to blue and green-curious place.
John exhales. "Okay, and can I maybe drive on this trip?"
After regarding the rather alarming assortment of spikes along her back, John manages to wedge himself between three of them and over the top of her spine, so he doesn't fall to either side. He's a little worried he might break a hip trying to manage this, but it shouldn't be an issue for long. Hopefully he can get the dragon to fly over the clearing and maybe drop him off there. "Do you know the clearing, where some of your types ate some Wraith?" He frowns. "Yummy grey-feeling things?"
Yummy, she muses, tasting the sense of the word in his mind. Grey is very yummy, good taste, good taste in mind. Where are grey? Jungle above, place, was grey, but was eaten.
"Yes, can you take me to the place where the grey was?"
No grey now, but maybe more?
"Maybe," John encourages.
The dragon crouches and pushes up from the ground, shoving herself into the sky.
Yeah, he's definitely going to break a hip, and he'd make some crack about it even with no one to listen, except that he's entirely out of breath, the wind stealing it away.
The sky stretches out below them- and he's seen it before, he's seen it from better vantages, but it's so different. There's nothing between him and the endless expanse of sky, and there's nothing here with him except the breathing warmth and power of a temperamental animal that could decide at any moment she's had enough of him. It's exhilarating. Forget the broken hip, he's probably going to induce a heart attack because his body can't handle this but his entire being loves it.
He sucks in air- the entire trip was mere moments and before he knows it they're circling over the clearing.
"Let's get closer," John urges. "Just land and let me off and then we'll look around for your tasty treats."
But the dragon suddenly smells something tasty. Grey, she demands, and she veers to the side, landing with a crash in thick trees. Grey grey.
John clutches the crystalline rod. "No," he demands. "No eating the grey."
The dragon rears back, teeth bared. Her eyes swirl red with, liar red liar, bad as angry one, red grey.
John's already sliding down her shoulder because she landed on the trees and there's a clear part to her side where he won't break too many of his bones, and he hits the ground and rolls. Between this landing and the dart explosion, he's starting to really feel the bruises.
He's a little slow getting up because of it, and he shouldn't be surprised when Paul grabs him by the shirt and hauls him closer, but he kind of is because if he'd known he wouldn't have minded letting his new dragon friend eat this Wraith.
But Todd is there too, and as Paul reaches to settle his right hand on John's chest, Todd grabs the other wraith's hand in his left hand, pulling it back against the ground so fast he probably broke something, and slamming his own hand down on Paul's chest with a sharp anger.
John pulls free of the tangle and coughs up some dirt and leaves he'd apparently tried to inhale, watching, shivering, as Todd drains Paul's life.
Todd looks up. "John." He sounds a little rough, and John reaches for him, welcoming him closer.
The dragon calls out, and Todd pulls John underneath him protectively, even as John is trying to crawl over top of Todd, waving the crystalline rod up at her. "No, no," he insists. "No eating grey. Go away."
And with a sound that's half bellow half snarl, she does.
John exhales. "Goddamn dragon."
"John." Todd's left hand cups his face, his right hand trailing fingers over John's chest.
And dear God, John is so eager for it he's almost worried, but he can't not nod eagerly and whisper, "Please, Todd," and Todd doesn't even wait, he feeds the life into him until John is crazy with it, it's fizzing through his veins and he feels good, feels alive and whole.
"Todd," he murmurs, and he buries his hands in Todd's hair and pulls him closer.
"John." Todd nuzzles against John's throat, his face tucked against John. "You were gone, from the cave."
"Yeah, the warrior showed up and tried to steal the dart, but it exploded."
Todd leans back and snarls, but his eyes rest on John's face and he calms himself. "You are well," he assures them both, brushing his fingers back through John's hair.
John slides his right hand over the back of Todd's until their fingers lock together, the words marked in their skin all lined up. "Yeah." He takes a deep breath and just relaxes into the feeling of being together with Todd. After a few minutes he grins. "I rode a dragon."
Todd chuckles. "Did you discover how to master the creatures?"
"Sort of? The page turner is also a communication device." He lifts it up and regards it. "They think in strong emotions, and if you can connect with something they want you can kind of bargain with them. Or just yell really loudly and see where it gets you. I bet it didn't work so well for Michael, because he smells like a Wraith." John frowns, pushing himself up from where he lies. "Let's get out of here."
Todd says with alacrity, "Agreed."
I wanted to mention that I cribbed a lot of my ideas about the dragons from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsdawn, even though a lot of my headcanon about the creatures didn't make it into the actual story. I really like McCaffrey's more "scifi" dragons; one of my favorite things about them is that six-limbed creatures have genetic precedence on the world the dragons are from, making a four-limbed + two-winged creature seem less fantastical, and so that was something I wanted to establish on my planet as well.
Todd and John meet with the Queen.
Hey look, it's a truckload of my crazy Wraith head canon! ...Who ordered that?
Heads up: in this chapter incest is discussed, and derogatory language and behavior is directed toward an individual with a genetic condition.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Todd touches Greg's thoughts to confirm his location, and he and Sheppard walk back to the transport. Sheppard is only slightly annoying as he insists on waving the crystalline rod over Todd's head periodically, but it is a tolerable exchange in order to have him restored.
Greg is waiting when they arrive. "I went back to the cave," he starts, but Sheppard cuts in.
"It got blown up. Did you get the info?"
Greg nods. "I was able to access the laboratory file. But you were quite correct, it was suddenly destroyed."
"Even when not intentional, I think Michael's just got that kind of luck," Sheppard mutters.
Todd herds both of them onto the transport. "We will go now to present the alliance to your Queen."
Greg sighs. "It is best, though I do not know what her response will be. She wants this, but to have lost more Wraith will not please her."
"Some consolation in that it will not be new information we give her," Todd observes. "She will have felt her warriors' demise."
Greg shakes his head doubtfully, and Todd will agree that this does not help their position. She may already know what has happened through the ties of hivesense that bind her to her hive, but it will not make her any more pleased to have felt the loss.
Sheppard looks between them both. "It's why we came," he says softly, and there is a strength under his words. He is hale now, but even with all that has happened to them since arriving on this planet Sheppard remembers their goal and what it will mean. Todd wishes very much that they could return to his hive immediately. He has a particular place he would like Sheppard to be, and particular things he would like to do to Sheppard there, and he does not think that Sheppard will appreciate him doing these things with Greg present to observe.
"So it is," he allows.
Sheppard walks over to Todd and holds out his coat in offering.
Todd touches the fabric. His own coat was surrendered to the dragon and lost in the ensuing explosion, and his tunic in the fall before that. He bares his teeth remembering the torn shreds of it soaked dark with his blood, and almost snarls at the loss of the coat. That coat represented many things he wished to continue to be reminded of- his finding his own way in a world made unfamiliar, and Sheppard, speaking truth and needing truth spoken. Todd has lost many things in his long life, and at least he still has Sheppard, but the loss of the coat is something that... irritates him.
But it cannot be helped. He releases Sheppard's coat and shakes his head. Sheppard nods and lays it over a console. He strokes his fingers over Todd's bare chest in mute approval, his eyes lighting with mischief. Todd grins and kisses him, and afterward Sheppard leans back in reluctant acknowledgement of the task that lays before them and which prevents them from exploring each other fully at this time. He is little better than Todd in appearance, his clothing torn and dirty with what he has also been through. Todd brushes the back of his fingers over Sheppard's bristly face. "She will have us as we are," he says, teeth bared. Sheppard nods and smirks.
Todd is displeased enough with this Queen already and thinks that perhaps it will do well enough to remind her that he has served other queens who came before her. He has served them well; the truth of it is written all down his back.
Greg settles the transport on the floor of the hive and opens the door.
There are Wraith arrayed in the ship bay, watching Todd and Sheppard. They stand in ranks upon ranks, fading back into the dimness of the bay's depths. They stand at careful attention and their eyes are hard and intimidating.
Todd looks out over them, his lip curled in a matching anger, restrained. In a more usual case, he would expect the Queen's Commander to appear and address them, but he knows well that this hive is not a usual case. He does not look at Greg, but does ask him, What will she do?
Having returned to the full embrace of the hivesense, Greg's thoughts have grown tense and wary. He replies, "The Queen's representative comes." He opens his mouth as if he would say more but does not and turns away tensely. His thoughts are protective, though of what Todd cannot determine without trying to force more than Greg will give.
Sheppard stands easily beside Todd, though his hand is held at an almost unnatural angle so that the words written on his arm are easily viewed by all. He looks up at Todd, and Todd reaches over to cup Sheppard's cheek in his left hand, briefly. Sheppard responds by taking Todd's wrist in his own left hand, his fingers lingering on Todd's skin. Todd's own right arm hangs between them and as he parts from Sheppard, Todd ensures that the marking there is well visible to all.
The Wraith do not whisper as he has heard humans do, but Todd can feel the ripple of knowledge that runs through those present as they look and see. There are many who would approach or speak, but their Queen's power holds them still.
Her power is great, even for a queen's, Todd muses. From Greg's mental impression of her he can tell that she is old, no young thing for him to easily manipulate. He hadn't been certain what to expect from her, given that the hive's first contact with his own hive had been through his Second, and in return Todd's first contact with them had been with the Navigator. At the time he had known the hive was in disarray and had not questioned it, but he realizes now it must have been when there was no Commander yet to replace the Queen's Favored One who had perished.
The Queen's representative strides down the length of the ship bay toward them, flanked by two warriors. For a moment Todd thinks that the Wraith who walks toward them is another Keeper, for this Wraith has dark hair like a queen and there is an echo to the mental presence the Wraith generates that suggests a queen's power. When Todd brushes the other's mind in truth, he senses that the echo is merely that, and the mind he feels is that of a Wraith, not a queen. The figure strides in the manner of a male Wraith, wearing a long, straight coat rather than the figure-hugging gowns preferred by queens. Also, queens walk without urgency, as though the world waits for them. And yet, there is something other than mere shade of hair that makes Todd question himself as the Wraith halts before them and raises his face. The Wraith shakes back his dark hair, and rests his eyes on Greg, his expression softening slightly. "I am Second Navigator," the Wraith says as he turns his attention to Todd, barely acknowledging Sheppard. "I will take you before the Queen."
Greg is unhappy and Todd presses his thoughts to determine why, concerned that he fears treachery. But Greg only says, Do not harm him. His earlier protective thoughts settle around the Second Navigator, and some things are explained.
They follow the Second Navigator and the attendant warriors down the halls of the hive. Sheppard, having mastered the mental room enough to touch it while navigating simple tasks, reaches for Todd there. He observes, "So, with the slightly shorter stature, delicate features, and the dark hair I was leaning toward guessing the representative was a female, but between the way he acts and his voice, now I'm guessing... not that?"
Todd is hesitant to respond without confirming the truth of his guess with Greg, who knows this hive. But Greg has returned to not answering him, so he says to Sheppard, "Genetic abnormality is rare among Wraith and carriers are usually not permitted to live to maturity, if that long." Biological science has never been his area of specialty, but having worked with Doctor Keller on the gene therapy he has some understanding of how the humans explain the processes. "Usually a Wraith carries only one set of genetic information, from the queen who spawns him. But a queen is born of two Wraith and carries the information of both of them. This Wraith is not a queen but appears to carry the genetic information of two Wraith." He tries again, softly, to reach for Greg's mind, but Greg will not hear him.
Sheppard is contemplative. "Second Navigator is nothing to sneeze at on a hive this big." Trust Sheppard to be counting their numbers, and at Todd's query Sheppard affirms, "I count at least fifteen hundred, and that's just the ones who came to say hi."
Todd replies with a surge of affirmation. The hivesense he brushes is dull with sorrow, but it is pulsing with life. Though she holds but one hive in this time when alliances are common, this Queen commands many Wraith.
Sheppard continues, "This guy might not be legit but he's good at what he does if he's that highly placed." Sheppard notes the way the other Wraith they pass stare with revulsion at the Second Navigator, an intention of violence barely held in check.
Todd affirms this observation. He wonders though, why the Queen would choose this one as her representative. Surely on such a large hive there is some other Wraith she could send to them; the mere existence of such an abnormality does not reflect well on her. Even to have sent only the warriors in summons would have been an acceptable move for a queen- to have not done that suggests that she understands Sheppard, as the human representative of the alliance, would not understand or be able to speak to the warriors, but it seems like too much to suspect that she chose to not proceed in that way as a courtesy to humans. "Greg will not speak to me on the matter, but I believe this one is of relation to the Queen."
Sheppard's quick mind makes the connection. "The Keeper she kept when she shouldn't, and now a genetic curiosity she let live when she shouldn't." Todd can feel Sheppard's strong disapproval of the idea that this Wraith be discriminated against because of an accident of birth.
"It is rare that such a one is able to survive to maturity; the embryo usually dies in the transfer to the shipwomb, where Wraith finish maturing, or is malformed such that it does not develop," Todd tells him, but he looks at the Second Navigator- he is strong and must be intelligent to, as Sheppard observed, hold such a high position in the hive even when so obviously disliked by his fellow Wraith. "Or, that is what is believed by many. Perhaps it is not as true as was thought." He feels the wash of Sheppard's approval at his willingness to question this belief; it is not something he has ever encountered or had need to test before.
They arrive at the throne room, the warriors peeling off to stand at the walls, and John says to the Queen's representative, "Thank you."
The Second Navigator shoots him a mystified look and does not respond. He strides forward to bow to the Queen, sinking to his knees before her. The other Wraith who line the room can't seem to decide if they should stare at the Second Navigator or at Todd and Sheppard. Todd can feel their contempt for the Second Navigator rolling off the surface of the hivesense; Greg, standing behind Todd, bristles with his protective anger. But Todd also feels the hive's pointed distress at the loss of another Commander and that is more directed toward him.
The Queen reaches out to rest her hand on the Second Navigator's head in a gesture that is both claiming and affectionate. She sweeps the room with a broad sense of distaste for any who would offer the Second Navigator their contempt, but her need to remind the hive of this reveals some contradiction between her own actions and beliefs. Her eyes fall on Todd and he realizes she is searching him for signs of revulsion; he had not thought on it after all of the things that have been unforeseen on this voyage, but they could have refused to follow an obviously malformed Wraith through the hive to meet her, or disregarded his position as Queen's representative and tried to kill him themselves, a possibility against which she seems to have sent her warriors to guard him. That Todd has not struck at this representative of hers, he believes, reflects well on his and Sheppard's devotion to the alliance.
Todd is discomfited by the idea of this Wraith who is an abnormality, but mostly he is wondering what this means- why would the Queen do this? Unless... that is the answer- this is her test to see how they respond.
Here in her hive, in her throne room, Todd knows better than to make any attempt to speak first. The Queen will speak to them when she is ready. But Sheppard does not have such patience. Todd has taught him better than to consider addressing the Queen directly, so instead he walks forward and sits on the ground next to the Second Navigator.
A ripple of incredulity passes through the other Wraith in the throne room. Todd can feel their disgust and their disbelief that Sheppard should acknowledge the oddity.
The Second Navigator glances at Sheppard, lips curling back from his teeth in wariness. But Sheppard just gives a small smile and says, "Hey." He makes no other movement.
Perhaps he notices, as Todd had, the Queen's sharp interest. Her long fingers curl over the edges of the armrests of her throne and her eyes are hot on Sheppard, waiting for something. Todd feels tense in a way that hadn't been quite so familiar before the past two days; Sheppard's disrespect and tendency to throw himself into situations is entertaining, except when Todd is wondering if he will need to fight an entire hive to protect him.
But Sheppard sits on the floor of the hive and pulls out something that he begins to flick between his fingers in an affectation of boredom. He radiates a calm assurance that is also very clearly masking a tense, nervous energy. The Second Navigator watches his movements with an unwilling fascination, flinching, as if suddenly brought back to awareness of his environment, when the Wraith beside the Queen's throne shifts his weight.
The Queen pulls her attention from this and rests her eyes on Todd. This human belongs to you, she observes.
We are sworn to each other, Todd corrects. And have gained much by it.
She bares her teeth in amused disbelief, but her expression quickly returns to somber contemplation.
"We come to offer to you and your Wraith the opportunity to join an alliance of benefit," Todd says, speaking aloud so that Sheppard might hear. "You may feed in places that are assured safe, or," he pauses, "you may not require to feed at all."
Some of the Wraith present hiss softly, but the Second Navigator looks up sharply, his eyes touching on Todd before returning to the Queen and then immediately dropping to the floor before him.
"What is a Wraith that does not feed?" the Queen says, her voice measured and deliberate, like her mental touch. The Second Navigator clenches his right hand; Todd suspects that his feeding hand is malformed, from his reactions as well as the way he is holding it. He must have been fed by his progenitor, and then by others to have survived as long as he has.
"A Wraith that doesn't worry about getting shot," Sheppard replies. His fingers still for a moment in their twirling and Todd can see that the object Sheppard is holding is the knife that Ronon Dex gave him, small and concealable, in its leather sheath. "Or getting poisoned," he adds.
Todd would have warned him against mentioning it so directly, but it is done now, and the Queen bares all her teeth and hisses in anger at Sheppard, the sound reverberating through the hive, all around and above and below them. Sheppard merely closes his hand around the knife's hilt and looks up at her steadily from his seated position.
"Rather than fight other hives for dwindling resources, your hive could be well fed and safe," Todd says, trying to redirect her attention to him.
You I have heard of, the Queen says to Todd without looking away from Sheppard. I know you served my progenitor long ago in the time of the old Lanteans and the Enemy. My Wraith read your declaration markings with envy, how you served She Who Is Skyborn in Fire faithfully and for long millennia. I know the Ancient One favors you also, and I remember her when she was far more easily pleased than she is now. Her eyes rise from Sheppard and narrow as she looks at Todd. She was pleased, in fact, to take my offspring's arm to finish her crown.
Bad blood between ancient queens is nothing new; but with this Queen so recently bereft of others she held dear it could prove tricky if she wishes to hold such actions against the Ancient One and demand acknowledgement before considering the alliance.
Todd moves to answer her, but she stops him, the weight of her mind halting his words with little effort. I do not need to hear anything else from you, she says. Her eyes flicker back to him, and he sees them linger on the marking on his arm that binds him to Sheppard.
"You say you come with words, but you come with teeth bared and daggers drawn," the Queen says. "You killed my Commander. You killed my Scientist. You killed my Scout. You killed my warriors."
"We didn't do most of that," Sheppard replies, even as he reaches for Todd in question. "I thought Greg was a Scientist?"
"There was another in the party," Todd replies. "The first the dragon came for."
Sheppard realizes, "Oh, Ringo," before speaking to the Queen again. "The planet you chose for this meeting is full of giant, Wraith-eating dragons." He pauses, and then defines, "Flying reptiles as big as this room."
She doubts Sheppard's truth, for the Queen looks sharply at Greg, who raises his chin. What he shares with her he must share with all the room, for the hissing of other Wraith fills the space.
Sheppard continues, "I think all told we only killed the Scout."
"You admit you struck at him when you came under truce?" The Queen purrs in warning, her Wraith falling silent.
Todd bares his teeth, but Sheppard must be the one to answer her; she has refused to hear Todd's words. Fortunately, Sheppard has many words. Though perhaps they are not the best words.
"Fuck yes we struck at him." Sheppard scowls. "The ground you chose was unsuited to the meeting," he says, and these words almost sound as though a Wraith would say them, though a Wraith who wished to live a long life would never speak so sharply to his queen's face. "When your Commander made it clear he had no interest in discussing the alliance with us," Sheppard raises his right arm to impart the reason her dead Commander refused to treat with them and the Queen's eyes snap to what would be a threat among Wraith to find her eyes focusing on the words that darken Sheppard's palm. "Your Scout agreed with him instead of doing what he'd been ordered by his Queen to do." Sheppard's voice is hard, without mercy in this case for one who could not see the will of their ruler done.
The Queen observes Sheppard silently.
Beside Sheppard, the Second Navigator shifts his weight. "What is it that you are holding?" he says, and while there is curiosity in his voice there is also reluctance, and Todd knows he speaks at the Queen's prompting.
Sheppard's head turns slightly to regard the Second Navigator. He is disgruntled by the shift in the conversation but responds well. "It's a gift a friend of mine gave me," Sheppard says in his easy drawl. After a moment's consideration, he flips the knife so that he is holding it by the sheathed blade and reaches out to offer the hilt to the Second Navigator.
There is a moment where every eye in the room is fixed and watching. Todd can feel Greg step forward anxiously before catching himself and halting. The Second Navigator glances away from Sheppard to the Queen as if to gauge what his response should be, but then he seems to act without waiting for her approval when he reaches out with his left hand to take hold of the knife's hilt.
Sheppard releases his hold on the knife, and the Second Navigator pulls it closer, grasping the sheath with his right hand and pulling out the knife. The blade is a flash of light in the quiet room. "It is beautiful," he says, voice soft, as if he is wary to express admiration.
"Keep it," Sheppard replies. The Second Navigator looks at him in surprise. "It was a gift to me, and I'm gifting it to you," he says, though he reaches for Todd and asks, "Can I do that? Or does it mean something?"
Todd's reply is heavy with exasperated affection. "Gifts are given between brothers. You are saying only that you consider him your brother, meaning a bond stronger than just hivebrothers but not to the level of being sworn- perhaps at the level at which humans would understand the word. He is unlikely to have had this offered to him by many, even within the hive. Though you are human, so he may be insulted."
And truly the Second Navigator appears torn between responding as though he is affronted or pleased. It does not take him long though before he cradles the gift against his chest, holding it in both hands. He bows his head against the surety of the Queen's anger.
But she is watching this play out with the expression of someone who has had a difficult problem solved. "You say that Wraith will not need to feed," she muses, returning to the thread of earlier conversation and following it through to the conclusion, "You can care for Wraith that do not feed."
The Second Navigator tenses, his fingers closing tightly around the gift and his shoulders hunching down protectively as if he expects a blow. Todd feels that Greg is angry with his Queen for speaking thus.
"I'm told blueberry pancakes are a huge hit," Sheppard says. When the Queen merely stares at him, he stands slowly from the seated position where he weathered her questions and now bows his head, saying simply, "Yes. It is the goal of the alliance that all will eat without fear."
The Queen stands, raising her right hand.
Todd startles forward half a step in tension before restraining himself.
The Queen flicks her fingers, and Sheppard stumbles back from her, regaining his equilibrium after a moment to walk more normally to rejoin Todd. Todd sees the Second Navigator looking after Sheppard.
"You will return to your ship," the Queen says. Second Scientist, you may show them.
Todd bows to her, and Sheppard mimics the posture, before they turn and follow Greg from the room.
Once they've left the room, Sheppard reaches for Todd tentatively. "Should we leave without getting more of a promise from her?"
"It was well done," Todd assures him. "She will not want to appear hasty to accept, but Greg was right- she wants this. She will let the hive think on it, so that, when she accepts, they will applaud her for her wisdom."
Sheppard feels relieved. "Can't believe that went as well as it did, after all the trouble on the planet."
Todd wants to take hold of him and not let go for a long while. "'Trouble' he calls it," he grumbles, and he feels Sheppard's amusement.
They arrive back in the bay and make their way to transport that brought them here. The Wraith who had awaited their original arrival are gone, but there are some Wraith who still linger in the ship bay.
One of them sneers at Greg and says words that Todd, without a more connected hivesense, does not hear. He does feel Greg's responding surge of protectiveness and anger.
One of the other Wraith pushes past the sneerer and regards Sheppard with curiosity. "I have never seen a human marked in the Wraith style," he observes. Two other Wraith follow him, and the three of them gather around Sheppard, who holds out his right hand for them to see, though he eyes them with some wariness.
A fourth Wraith is regarding Todd appraisingly, reaching out the touch of a tentative hiveconnection. I have heard tell of you, who served, with other Wraith of this hive, our Queen's progenitor. And I see how you served the Queen called Skyborn in the Fire with such honor that she has written many words concerning it upon you. Will you join our hive now? Our Queen has need of a powerful Commander.
Todd glares at him. It is not a request that is beyond the bounds of what is accepted, especially when there are such large holes in the hive's hierarchy, but he wants no part of it. He realizes that everyone else around them is looking at him, even Sheppard, who pokes one of the Wraith next to him and demands to know what's going on.
"The Fourth Technician requests that your Commander remain here and be Commander of our hive," the Wraith reports. He seems as though he's not sure he agrees with the Fourth Technician. "Since he served so well She who is Skyborn in Fire, and our hive needs a new Commander."
Greg's mental presence whirls with unhappiness and upset, that Todd should come here knowing that he would have to kill one he had previously called brother, but Todd is pleased that Sheppard does not appear to doubt his intentions.
"I have hives of my own that require my presence," Todd replies. And no desire to serve your queen.
Not wanting to serve their Queen, who is of course the most excellent queen of whom they can conceive, is enough of a puzzle that they draw apart to converse among themselves and do not bother him further. Todd turns to Greg. "You believe this is why I came here?" he says.
Greg sighs. "I do not know what I believe," he replies tiredly.
Todd reaches for his mind. You have had much to deal with in recent times. I understand. He sends comfort along the bond that lies between them. Will you not tell me of the Second Navigator?
Greg pulls away from him, then sighs. "The Keeper who perished was the first brooded by the Queen when she favored the Wraith who became known as Her Favored One. This was in the time when most slept, and the Fayn were remembered."
"Perhaps two thousand years ago," Todd asides to Sheppard.
"There were others born to the Queen, but none were as special to her as this first one born of this pairing and she kept no others with her, sending them out to be queens of their own hives. The Keeper herself chafed at the Queen's heavy affection and wished to spawn her own Wraith for her own hive, and perhaps brood her own queens, though that is only rumor." This was great arrogance from a Keeper, and Greg's hard eyes hold Todd's gaze; This is a thing that should remain a forgotten rumor, he says, though I must speak of it now so that you understand. "The Keeper had but one spawning and the one who is Second Navigator was the only survivor of that nest. Many said she was too young when she spawned, and that was why the offspring were malformed." Greg's right hand closes tightly into a fist and his voice falls softer. "Some said that she cast her own favor on the Queen's Favored One, and thus was struck down by her own avarice so that when she attempted to brood she managed only a spawning of ill-made Wraith."
"Do not repeat this to any Wraith," Todd says to Sheppard, passing on Greg's warning. Sheppard agrees but Todd can feel his desire to know why. Todd doesn't have time to explain that a Keeper challenging a Queen's desires, and usurping her chosen partner, is tantamount to war within the hive, so he emphasizes the part he thinks Sheppard may not have noticed without the use of the more parental terminology that the humans use. "The Queen's Favored One was the Keeper's own parent, and then the parent of her child," he explains, and he feels Sheppard's rush of understanding as well as a combination of distaste directed toward the absent Keeper and a feeling of sympathy toward the Second Navigator.
Greg's voice grows clearer as he continues, "When the Wraith was born to her ill-favored, the Keeper hid him from the Queen to protect him from the purge she knew would come. But when he reached the age when he must feed, she could no longer hide him from the hive. She and the Queen quarreled. The Queen was very much angered, but the Keeper insisted that this one was beloved of her and could not be destroyed. The Favored One upheld her position, and so the Queen allowed it."
Sheppard nods. "So now the Keeper's dead, and instead of cherishing memories the Queen's stuck inheriting the pet she never wanted in the first place?" His tone is critical.
Greg bares his teeth and snarls, right hand half raised. "The Second Navigator is a Wraith of incredible intelligence and strength!"
Sheppard is smirking as though he well knew his words would produce this response, and so Todd keeps his observation private. You care for him.
Greg sighs and looks defeated. I wish for him to be cared for, he replies.
Todd has noticed the Wraith in question approaching them surreptitiously. The Second Navigator looks as though he knows he is the topic of conversation, which is likely proved true to him when Greg looks away guiltily as he approaches nearer.
The Second Navigator lifts his chin and strides over to them. He holds out his right hand, bearing the knife that Sheppard gave him. "Here is your knife," he says flatly.
Sheppard folds his arms, informing Todd, "I'm not taking it back until it's going to cause a huge incident. He needs whatever protection he can get." The words are underlaid with images of Sheppard noticing the Second Navigator constantly flinching from blows he expects to fall, and the dark looks from other Wraith that only do not become blows because the Queen's thoughts are very much focused upon the Second Navigator at this time.
Todd shakes his head; he doesn't know what the Second Navigator means by this offer. "Do you value so little the gift of brotherhood offered?" he asks the Second Navigator harshly.
The Second Navigator hunches his shoulders again, but his words are strong, and his voice does not waver. "I know you only gave it to impress the Queen. I would not want you to depart without this thing you valued."
"That's where you're wrong," Sheppard says. "I gave it because I wanted to give it to you."
The Second Navigator looks up, eyes narrowed in suspicion. His gaze darts to Greg, and then to Todd. "Perhaps because you are human you do not understand," he says slowly, "but no one gives things of value to one who is deformed." The Second Navigator looks at Greg challengingly and Greg hisses in anger.
"They just give them a high position in the hive instead?" Sheppard scoffs purposefully.
The Second Navigator turns an affronted look on Sheppard. "I have earned my place in the hive," he snarls.
Sheppard smirks, but it is without humor. "I know," he replies. He gestures to the knife in the Second Navigator's hand. "The blade's pretty slender so it'll probably break on bone. But it's really sharp, so some jackass gives you trouble, stab him in the stomach and jerk it down. That'll give him something to think about before he tries fucking with you again." With that Sheppard turns and walks away, continuing to the transport vessel.
The Second Navigator stares after him in fascination.
Todd smiles. He cannot react otherwise.
Greg moves next to him. Even one such as this, he murmurs, his eyes flickering to the Second Navigator. One who is not-a-queen but not-truly-Wraith either, your humans will treat with honestly?
That is Sheppard's nature, Todd replies. Though other humans may react differently. But I do not think your brother's condition will be the great bar to him that it is here.
We are only hivebrothers, Greg denies Todd's implied stronger bond, and then sighs because he knows Todd will ask why this is. I... was overzealous to defend him once before, and he believes I do not trust him with his own safety in the hive. He will not forgive me.
Ahhh. This explains much of Greg's confused reactions when it comes to the Second Navigator.
The Second Navigator turns to Todd, watching him as though he expects Todd to grab for the knife now that Sheppard has left it. The young Wraith swallows and holds the knife close. "He cannot mean what he says," he murmurs, and looks as if he wants to offer the knife to Todd but also wants to keep it.
"Sheppard rarely speaks dishonestly," Todd observes. "I believe he very much would be pleased if you used his gift to inflict injury upon any who trouble you."
The Second Navigator's eyes brighten. His gaze turns to Greg as if expecting him to say something, but Greg is silent, and the Second Navigator's face falls slightly. He nods decisively and turns to run after Sheppard.
You do not make it better, Todd observes.
Greg sighs again. I do not know what to do! When I tried to protect him, he was deeply angered. I thought that if we were sworn to each other, others would not harm him, but he refused me.
He does care for you, Todd observes. Even I can see it, having just met him. Can you not trust him to defend himself?
I think that I can, but then I cannot stand by and watch him be attacked, Greg admits.
Todd watches the proud line of the Second Navigator's shoulders as he runs after Sheppard. Would you desire to be sworn to him if he did not need your protection?
Of course. Greg's mental voice is certain.
Does he know that? Todd looks at Greg.
He must. Greg looks after the Second Navigator as well, before turning back to Todd. How could he not?
I cannot say, Todd offers mildly. He begins walking after the Second Navigator, in the direction of Sheppard and the transport, and Greg follows.
Todd can still see them, and so he sees when the Second Navigator approaches Sheppard and Sheppard turns to him. The Second Navigator draws forth from an inner pocket of his coat an item that he hands to Sheppard, who brings it toward his face to look at it closely.
As Todd and Greg approach, the Second Navigator glares at them and holds tightly to his new knife as if he means to use it as instructed.
"Do you know you are being guarded," Todd murmurs to John, amused.
Sheppard looks up. "Look at this!" he says with excitement. "This is from Earth!" He is holding a roughly circular piece of green stone about the size of his palm and he shows it to Todd. "I mean, I've seen carvings like this. This dragon? That's Chinese. I don't know Chinese history but, one of the early dynasties? This looks like nice work. Probably worth a ton."
The Second Navigator looks worried. "It is a carving of a Wraith," he says loudly. But then he seems uncertain, and adds possessively, "The Queen's Favored One gave it to me."
Todd can well understand that a gift given by one of the few Wraith that this one had received affection from would be a treasured item, and one he would want to share with his new brother.
Sheppard's brows crease in confusion as he looks at the stone. Todd leans over his shoulder and looks at it as well.
The center of the carving is what appears to be a Wraith's feeding hand stretched out toward the observer, the maw opened and ringed with the curled fingers of the hand itself and its ragged, claw-like nails. The hand is held before the face, obscuring the lower part of the face so that only the bright eyes are visible. The coat the Wraith wears is covered with many small scallops, a design that Todd has never seen, and it is carved so that the off arm is crossed over the Wraith's chest and the long hair flows behind it, carved into a sinuous shape.
"It's a dragon," Sheppard repeats. "See the mouth here with the teeth, and the way it tapers off into a long curling body? Chinese dragons have really long bodies like that." He overcomes his surprise at finding something unexpected and amends, "At least that's what I see. It's really old, though."
The Second Navigator hesitates. "You find it appealing?" he begins. The object is obviously precious to him, but reciprocation is traditional when gifts are given and if Sheppard asks for the stone then the Second Navigator will give it to him.
And thankfully Sheppard sees and understands. "Mostly I was surprised," he says. "We've some stuff like this on my world, and I wasn't expecting to see it here. It's a really nice piece, but it's yours." He reaches out and places the stone back into the young Wraith's hands.
The Second Navigator regards the stone, stroking it with the fingers of his off hand. He smiles at it, a private expression, and asks, "What is it called? In your world."
"The dragon?" Sheppard asks in confusion.
"The material it is made of," the Second Navigator replies. "It is very strong."
"Oh, that's jade," Sheppard says easily.
Todd is watching the Second Navigator carefully, and he sees him take in this information, slowly mouthing the word. The Second Navigator raises his eyes to meet Todd's gaze. "That is what I am," he says, though the words are offered hesitantly. "I am Wraith, but I am not Wraith, not in the way that others are. I will be Jade."
"It is well chosen," Greg says, and his mental touch is thick with emotion. Jade looks at him and seems pleased by his words.
Todd inclines his head as he would to another commander. "We will perhaps meet again, Jade."
Jade draws himself up and nods decisively. He returns the precious possession to the inner pocket where he carries it and steps back, returning Todd's formal valediction as he wishes them, "Safe journey to your hive."
- Keeping in mind that I am not in any way even remotely a geneticist, I base my construction of Iratus/Wraith genetics off of swarming earth insects like bees, which use a haplo-diploid system of gender determination, where the male has one set of chromosomes (haplo) and the female has two (diploid). Jade is a diploid male, which for the purposes of Wraith presents as an intersex condition. (Diploid males occur on occasion in honeybees and with increased frequency in instances of inbreeding. In nature, the larvae are always eaten by the workers right after hatching but they have been grown to adulthood with human intervention. Look, a scientific article.)
- I've been plotting out Todd's history for this series, and I had already decided that he had a special Queen in his background but I was wondering what I should call her. Since I'm reading through the books at the moment, I was appalled at the lack of Wraith names having to do with stars (because wouldn't creatures that live in space have more star names??) so I googled "words about stars" and one of the suggestions was "empyrean" ... which has nothing to do with stars actually, but I really liked it and wanted to use it. So her name is Empyrean in my notes, but in an attempt to give the Greek word ("empyros" meaning "in the fire") a non-Christian connotation ("Empyrean" refers specifically to the highest level of Heaven from which fire comes and where God dwells, but I can't exactly use Christian ideology in my Pegasus naming), I ended up translating it into something that sounds vaguely like Rhaegar and Daenerys Targaryen combined their backstories... I might change the precise translation later, but at the moment it's the one I like best of my several attempts to combine the ideas of "fire" and "from the heavens."
John and Todd get back to their hive and relax. Or talk. Or both and neither.
This was supposed to be the coda to chapter 6, but Eos1969 suggested making it its own chapter, which sounded like a great idea... and made the scene five times longer than it was supposed to be, score! (And it means the story ended on a John moment, when I feel like I tend to give the emotional scenes to Todd, so that was nice.)
If I could gift chapters this one would be entirely yours, my friend! :D
John doesn't think he's ever been so happy to see Todd's hive.
Kenny and the hive's Navigator both meet them as the scout ship lands in the hive's bay. Kenny looks pleased to see them both, which John finds kind of a novel concept, but he does give them a skeptical look at the condition they're in.
"The Queen received you like that?" he observes doubtfully of Todd's toplessness.
Todd looks amused, but the way he bares his teeth isn't really a smile. "She was at fault," he says mildly, "and she knew it. It was perhaps forcing her hand, but she wanted what we came to offer enough that it didn't matter. As is the way with queens- their desires are the only protocol."
Kenny shakes his head, and John's guessing he's amused by Todd's habit of getting away with murder when most other Wraith would have gotten thrown out for pulling a stunt like that. John's been on the receiving end of enough queens' hospitality that he's still kind of amazed this worked out as well as it did.
Greg pauses in the door to the scout ship behind them before stepping forward. John's not sure what the protocol is for inter-hive hierarchy, but Kenny sneers in a way that bares a good chunk of teeth and Greg scowls but doesn't respond. Todd looks like he's sighing internally, and he must chastise both of them or something because they both relax, and Kenny inclines his head and spreads both hands in what John recognizes as a gesture of welcome.
Todd reaches out to rest his left hand on Greg's shoulder. "It is good to see you again, my brother," he says. "But I know you are eager to return to your hive."
Greg reaches with his own left hand to pull Todd a bit closer until their foreheads touch. If he makes a response, he must do it mentally. As he leans back, he turns to John and eyes him with a narrow, appraising gaze, but a warm smile. "It was good to meet you, John Sheppard." His Wraith tone of voice gives John's name a bit more weight to it, though not quite the same as when Todd can put entire sentences of meaning into just those words.
John grins. He wants to say something like, I'm glad you didn't get eaten by dragons and thanks for the assist, but manages to keep it to something slightly more professional. "My pleasure. When you get back tell Jade I said hi."
Greg bows his head and retreats into the scout ship. John follows Todd and the welcoming party back to the bridge to see the hive off, back to Atlantis.
The hive's in hyperspace and they're back in Todd's room, done with duty for the moment, and John sighs as he rubs his face. "Next time I think a trip like this sounds cool, remind me that diplomacy sucks."
Todd chuckles and pulls John back against him. "You did well," he murmurs against John's ear.
John shivers. "Yeah?" He's not sure he believes that, but they made it off the Queen's hive without needing to shoot anyone, so that's always a good sign. He leans back against Todd, leaning into the solid presence of Todd's slightly taller, slightly broader body. He doesn't want to think about how close they came to losing each other.
But it's kind of on both their minds and he's not surprised when Todd pulls him around so that they're facing, and his left hand pulls John's face up to Todd's. "Yes," Todd affirms. "John." He leans his forehead against John's. "Without you, again, I would not be here."
John immediately denies, "Whatever, you'd have figured something out." But he leans in, his lips brushing against Todd's. He reaches around Todd, arms holding him close, his finger tracing up the line of Todd's spine.
Todd huffs in amusement. "You did well with the Queen."
"Not too bad, I guess," John admits, qualifying, "If you read her right."
"She will seek the alliance," Todd assures him. "You made sure of that."
John's a little confused by his certainty. "What did I do?"
Todd reminds him, "Young Jade. He is all that remains of what the Queen loved, but she cannot understand or abide what he is. As you said, he is little more than a curiosity to her, even as he strives to prove himself to the hive. You spoke to him as to one you would defend, even as an equal. She will give him to Atlantis."
John frowns. "I think he'll enjoy it there," he says slowly. "But you think she'll commit her whole hive based on the needs of a single individual who's kind of an outcast?"
Todd touches his face. "You do not believe she would sacrifice her pride before she would sacrifice the memory of love she bore for one who has passed?" he says musingly, but he does sigh. "It is a lot to give. She may not commit to the alliance, ultimately. But she will come to explore it. She will give Wraith to Atlantis to demonstrate her commitment, and if Jade is not among them then I know nothing of queens."
"Okay," John allows. "I can see that."
Todd presses his face to John's throat. "Enough talking," he murmurs, and urges John toward the bed, sliding his fingers in the waistband of John's BDUs.
John chuckles and detours them to the bathroom. "I'm covered in sweat and dust and pieces of rocks," he murmurs back. "I'm taking a shower first." He stops; his hands are buried in Todd's hair, and there is still blood matted in it in places. John shivers and leans against Todd again, feeling the weight and vitality of him.
Todd wraps an arm around John and closes his eyes as he leans into John as well for a moment.
John shivers and says softly, "Come on."
Todd nods and follows him into the bathroom and the bathing pool.
They both disrobe and get into the water, and John scrubs soap into Todd's hair until it's cleaned of black blood, Todd sitting patiently, his left hand resting on John's hip. After that John cleans himself, and by the time he's done with everything Todd is less patient.
Todd chases him to the bed, and he wraps himself all around John and John can't pretend he doesn't want to touch every inch of Todd as well and just remind himself that they're okay. That for all the crazy shit that went down on the planet, the mission was a success and they lived through it, and that's what's important.
They lived through it, and the insistent press of flesh, and the warm heat of his lover's touch on his skin, and the restful dusk of the hive filled with the soft sounds made between them, each prove in their own way the truth of it.
Afterward, John's stroking hair back from Todd's face pressed to his chest, and he moves his other hand, caressing over the marking on Todd's shoulder. He wonders if maybe he shouldn't ask, but he can't stop himself. "Who is 'She who is Skyborn in Fire'?" he asks softly.
He feels Todd turn toward him in acknowledgement of the question, but it's a few moments until John can look up and meet his gaze.
Todd's expression is soft and affectionate, but also fierce. If he was the type to use the word, John would call it loving. "John Sheppard in this time and place my mind and body are given to you, you understand?"
John nods. He does understand. He might have some issues with Helen, but he knows... He wasn't exactly celibate before he met Todd and he can't expect that Todd was either; well, he's met Brad and Greg now, but there are words spread over Todd's shoulders and John knows they speak of a queen.
"I have served many queens, but Skyborn in the Fire was..." His voice trails off. "She was glorious."
John inhales, and he begins stroking his right hand over Todd's shoulder again. "Tell me about her. If you want. If it's not..."
"Speaking of her is always painful, but also pleasing, as it is with all those lost who were deeply loved." He leans forward, pressing his face to John's chest again, and John knows that Todd's thinking about them, how they're probably going to end. Maybe Todd was the one who got hit the hardest this time, but the odds are that it's going to be John that's the one who dies first- if not from mishap then just from time.
Todd leans back a bit and gets comfortable. He's stroking his own hand over John's skin, his fingers spreading absently over the curve of John's ribcage. "She was beautiful," he says. "I was... dissatisfied with a previous queen when I came to her hive, and I immediately worshipped her, as any Wraith should his Queen, but... she was worthy of it in a way that no other queen before her had been." His fingers move hypnotically for a moment before he continues. "I do not know if there is an equivalent in your culture, but she knew each member of her hive, she knew what they brought to strengthen her hive even if it was a gift that was not normally prized."
"Yeah," John says thickly. "We have… I mean, there are people like that. People who see everyone, who remember the names of their waitress and their mailman- the ones who aren't usually noticed."
Todd nods and his eyes are distant. "When I came to her hive, I had previously worked with an elect few to end the threat of the Asurans, and though I was younger than many of those who served her I was… perhaps, arrogant." John snorts softly, and Todd grins. " She saw something in me despite this, some potential that she wished to nurture. It was many years before I rose to be Commander of her hive, but she watched me through that time. She knew what she wanted and when I was ready, she was as well."
John's fingers press to Todd's shoulder. "How long?"
Todd's thumb rubs over John's rib. "I served her for eight thousand years."
"Goddamn," John whispers. Todd's loyalty outlasts the rise and fall of civilizations never mind relationships. He knows there's only one way this ended. "She died."
"Yes," Todd says. He sighs. "It was just under a century ago. Not long, by Wraith measure, but..." He sighs again. His face turns toward John and he inhales, sensory pits flaring, and he relaxes into where he's pressed against John's side. "I did not expect to find another that I could love so truly."
John inhales, and the air is like knives all in his throat. He turns on his side, taking Todd's face between his hands, and he's shuddering with the enormity of it. "Todd," he whispers, "God, I can't... eight thousand years... I can't give you fifty. How do you..."
Todd kisses him, and only when John stops trying to speak does Todd release his mouth, resting their foreheads together. "I have you, and I will not release you, John Sheppard. Do not think you will convince me otherwise."
John shivers and presses against him, pressing as close as he can. They were inside each other moments ago, but it's not close enough. He gave Todd his life but it's still not enough. God, he can't...
And Todd takes John's hand in his and kisses the words written there, his eyes flashing with mischief at the notion of his lips pressed to John's right palm.
John relaxes. He's already promised everything he has, and Todd, even knowing how much of a fuck up he is, had accepted it and said it was enough. "Okay," John says.
Todd grins. "Good." His eyes are soft on John.
John holds his gaze until he has to look away. He clears his throat. "So, that jade carving. Do you guys have anything like that in your galaxy?"
Todd is smirking at John's change of topic but allows him the escape. "I have not seen its like."
"Do... you think it actually came from Earth?"
"It does seem unlikely. How old did you say it was?"
John makes a face. "I don't know history that well. China measured time in dynasties, but I don't know what ones were when. I think jade carving was a big deal long enough ago that it'd be really old." He realizes that really old probably means something different to Wraith and clarifies, "Couple thousand years maybe."
"It is interesting, to think that there has been contact between our galaxies in the time since the ancient Lanteans departed," Todd muses. "Enough that artisans of your world would carve Wraith into their objects."
"I really think it's a dragon," John protests, but adds, "It does look like both, and I guess that could be intentional." He frowns. "I can't picture Wraith in ancient China, though."
"Perhaps. Would there be someone on Atlantis who would know more?"
"Oh yeah. If they take a bit of the stone off the edge of it, they can date it. And even if Jade doesn't want to do that, there's actually an anthropologist I've been meaning to set up with a Wraith-related project. I'm sure he knows people in the field who study Chinese culture and could look at pictures of the carving and compare them to examples on Earth to get a better idea of when it comes from. Assuming it came from Earth at all. Could be there's a huge jade carving underground in Pegasus you don't know about."
Todd laughs, and God, John loves that sound, the unrestrained amusement when he genuinely surprises Todd. "I suppose it is possible," Todd allows. He rolls toward John, lying on top of him, and tucking his face under John's chin. "There are many things about this galaxy it seems I am still discovering."
John wraps his arms around the body above him, lacing his fingers between bone spurs and tucking his face against white hair. He's still riding a bit of a high from coming through a successful mission, and he's wrapped all around someone he loves, and there's not much else in the universe he wants from this moment.