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All's Fair

Chapter Text

Another foggy San Franciscan night greeted the lone, white-haired figure as he tugged the lobby's plate glass door closed behind him. Hearing the distinctive click of the latch as the lock engaged, the being paused on the front stoop, listening to the night breathe around him. A smile played on his lips as he lifted his face to feel the moisture bead on his skin, and golden cat's eyes slipped shut with the simple pleasure of experiencing fresh air and precipitation. If his purpose in leaving the house tonight hadn't been for something far more mundane, it would have been the perfect night for a hunt.

The fog had rolled in several hours earlier and decided to stay. Dense and cold, and smelling of the ocean, it deadened sound and coated everything with a thin layer of briny condensation as it wrapped itself around the city like a sodden white blanket and settled in for the night. Far from being cold or miserable, Todd reveled in the evening's bracing coolness, enjoying the sharp, salty tang in the air as he drew it deep into his lungs. Although he suffered not at all, he took a moment to pull on a pair of black knit fingerless gloves, zip up his jacket, and turn up his collar against the damp chill anyway. To a casual observer, the actions would have gone unnoticed, which was just what he wanted. The wraith had worked hard to make his movements appear as natural as possible; and this was something he'd observed Sheppard doing many times during the week they'd explored the city together when the evening turned cool. He felt secure in the knowledge that it was an appropriate – and expected – human response to the weather.

With a quick glance up and down the glistening, deserted street, Todd turned and strode silently toward the corner, moving with the sure-footed grace of a predator. He slipped his hands into his pockets – another studied gesture - fingers automatically curling around the items he carried with him: keys and cellphone in one pocket, and a small rectangular piece of embossed plastic in the other – one of John's credit cards. The smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth broadened. It pleased him that the human had gone to such lengths to see to his comfort. Thanks to Sheppard's unstinting generosity, he possessed not only a base of operations, but also abundant coin of the realm – and tonight he was looking forward to his first opportunity to actually purchase something with it.

The wraith slowed as he neared his destination - the corner convenience store. He paused just outside the pool of light bathing its entrance, watching the mist swirl around the glowing halo like a swarm of tiny insects. Although the shop looked innocuous enough, it was only Todd's second week on Earth, and the first on his own, and he had no desire to undo all of Sheppard's carefully-laid-and-executed plans with a reckless misstep. John had put himself at considerable risk by helping Todd escape from Atlantis to keep him out of the IOA's hands, and staging his death so that the government agency wouldn't come looking for him. The wraith felt he owed it to Sheppard to remain undiscovered.

Todd took a deep breath and quieted his mind, allowing millennia-old survival instincts to take over, which dictated that he get the lay of the land before committing himself to any further action. Keeping to the shadows just beyond the bright sodium spotlight while he made his observations, the wraith casually folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall like he was waiting for someone. All the while he covertly peered through the mini-mart's plate glass window, extending his senses to assess the situation inside. Todd knew that in the mere seconds it would take him to pick up the frantic thoughts of a Lantean who had just recognized him in a crowd, it would already be too late; so without Sheppard around to identify other members of the Atlantis expedition for them to avoid, the extra precautions were a necessary evil.

Although encountering members of the Atlantis crew was his primary concern, it hadn't taken the wraith long to realize that even without consciously recognizing him for what he was, he still possessed the innate ability to unnerve the inhabitants of this world if he wasn't careful. Among his own kind, he stood out from his brethren for his human traits, with his out-going personality and curious nature; but on Earth his preternatural stillness and the intensity of his stare, alone, could set off primal human fight-or-flight instincts. In fact, it had - on several occasions. Tenaciously-firing at the base of their skulls in spite of their dulled, domesticated senses, that all-but-ignored, atavistic response to danger was still able to alert some of the more observant to the fact that there was a predator in their midst.

With the ultimate success or failure of Sheppard's plan hinging on his ability to hide in plain sight, Todd knew it would just be a matter of time before he came to the attention of the wrong people if he kept alarming the citizens of San Francisco. So like the survivor he was, he'd risen to the challenge and adapted.

Left to his own devices, the wraith would never have chosen to purposely-cultivate more human characteristics than he already possessed, but it was a simple task once he'd put his mind to it. After dealing with humans for literally thousands of years, it had only taken a few days of observation and practice before he was successfully mimicking his prey – the way they walked, the way they stood, even their inability to sit quietly for more than a couple of minutes at a time. His painstaking efforts had paid off handsomely, too. By the time Sheppard had reluctantly returned to Atlantis, Todd's proficiency at pretending he was harmless had reached the point where the disquiet he'd sensed from within the herd earlier in the week had dropped to negligible levels.

Fortunately, he had never had to pretend to be anything other than himself with John, much to his relief. As worthy adversaries, they may have offered each other half-truths and misinformation in the years spent on opposite sides of their alliance, but he and Sheppard had recognized each other for who and what they were, right from the start. In fact, that had been one of the things which had drawn Todd back to the human, time and again. John had seen him at his worst, and in spite of it, still actually seemed to prefer it when the wraith let his true nature off its leash.

Pushing aside fond thoughts of his absent consort, Todd focused on the small crowd of humans inside the store, a frown of consternation creasing his brow. He hadn't expected quite so much company at 3 A.M., and had chosen the time for the express purpose of avoiding humanity, if possible. The plan had made perfect sense to him when he'd implemented it, but it seemed that San Francisco didn't keep regular hours. The side streets – the neighborhoods – were quiet enough, but apparently this close to Market Street and the clubs, there were still a number of people out, regardless of the time.

He completed his scan of the group inside the market, finding not a single mind occupied with anything even remotely-related to Atlantis or the Pegasus Galaxy. Satisfied that it was safe to enter, Todd pulled the door open and stepped inside, blinking against the blinding fluorescents lighting the interior. When he could see again, he nodded absently at the clerk as he passed the front counter, stopping a few meters away when he sensed the female's sudden, intense interest. Looking back over his shoulder, his golden eyes narrowed when he met her gaze. The woman arched her brow and smiled saucily, and the wraith was treated to the unmistakable lure of her pheromones as she brazenly considered the way he filled out his faded blue jeans, apparently liking what she saw.

With a low growl Todd turned and stalked down the nearest aisle, more than a little surprised by the shop assistant's boldness. While the female's unexpected offer had been... appreciated, he'd only come in for milk and oranges.

He was much more accustomed to the reaction he received in the Pegasus Galaxy, where humans knew their place and exhibited mainly fear and trembling in his presence. Even members of the Atlantis expedition were, for the most part, still gratifyingly-nervous around him, regardless of the fact that he was probably the one Wraith who could be counted on to not run at any of them – with the exception of Sheppard, of course – but John could be particularly maddening when he wanted to be.

Being on Earth was a very different experience for him, with humans who kept insisting on treating him as an equal instead of deferring to him as their Master. Although, to be fair, he was trying to pass himself off as one of them, and these people had no knowledge of Wraith. They hadn't a clue, actually - regardless of his exterior - as to who or what they were really dealing with. A wolf in sheep's clothing John had called him, and indeed he was, living among those he would normally prey upon, unbeknownst to them. It made for a fascinating study, and one he was certain no other Wraith had ever had the opportunity to participate in. He found the whole situation mildly amusing.

Todd stopped halfway down the aisle, stealing glances back toward the young female at the front of the store while he feigned interest in light bulbs and automotive supplies. Distracted by customers who'd come to the register, her attention was focused elsewhere, so he had the opportunity to observe her unawares. Heavily made-up with bright pink lips and rainbow hues painted across her eyelids, she sported shaggy, disheveled hair dyed several shades of purple and cut in a style reminiscent of John's, while her revealing summer dress showed off the multiple tattoos that marched up her arms and across her chest in vivid reds, blues, and greens. While many people in San Francisco displayed similar, vibrantly-colored markings, the woman's collection far surpassed any he'd seen on Wraith or human in quite some time, and he wondered briefly at the significance of her chosen designs.

Enthralled, he watched as she interacted with her customers – or more significantly, at the way they interacted with her, curious to see their reactions to her unusual appearance. Todd was well-aware that he didn't look human at all, with his pale green complexion, sharp teeth, and unique bone structure, and so it had surprised him that he'd been accepted at face-value from the very first day he had walked the city's streets. Although he'd mostly kept his misgivings to himself for the sake of Sheppard's peace-of-mind, the wraith had been mistrustful of the warm reception, and had been finding himself waiting for the grace-period on humanity's tolerance to expire.

Apparently it wasn't scheduled anytime soon, if the patrons' utter lack of response to the woman's kaleidoscopic skin and unnaturally-colored hair was anything to go by.

Their reaction intrigued the alien, and seemed to confirm something Sheppard had been trying to tell him: that his appearance mattered less than he'd thought it would. Although he trusted John's judgment – he'd placed his life in the human's hands many times, after all – Sheppard's assertion that Todd's best disguise was none at all, had seemed simplistic and ill-advised.

John may have been right, after all.

Spying a row of glass cases at the other end of the aisle which contained cartons resembling the one Sheppard had left in the refrigerator, Todd set the bottle of brake fluid he'd picked up back onto the shelf, and ambled deeper into the store. A close second to his astonishment at being thought of as human regardless of his very obvious physical differences, was that he was being found attractive – and had been found so several times since he and John had begun wandering the city together.

Although in Pegasus it was unusual to find human/Wraith pairings anywhere other than on Hives, with Worshippers, it seemed that on Earth, Sheppard was not alone in his fascination with Wraith – he had simply been the first from his galaxy with the opportunity to cross the line. Todd suppressed a grin as he faced down the bewildering array of dairy products, idly wondering how many others in the Atlantis expedition, and on the planet, for that matter, might choose one of his kind if given half a chance.

He was still lost in thought when he sensed a presence hovering hesitantly by his elbow. A soft, male voice followed close behind, timidly whispering Excuse me even as a pale, black-nailed hand reached for the handle in front of him. The wraith took a step back, watching as a lean young man, sleek and muscular and wearing only a pair of black leather shorts and a series of straps and rings in place of a shirt, pulled open the case and took a carton of half-and-half off one of the lower shelves.

Black leather bracers graced the man's wrists, and a pair of gladiator sandals, his feet. His long, blue-black hair, thick and lustrous, was pulled back smoothly from his face into a club at the nape of his neck, which was encased in a wide, studded collar. All of this Todd observed dispassionately, although his curiosity was piqued. He'd seen many unusual sights in his lifetime, but he could honestly say he'd never before encountered a man who was spotted from head-to-toe like a predatory cat. A leopard, to be exact, if he remembered correctly from one of the nature shows he and Sheppard had watched together.

The man looked up and caught his eye, offering a small smile as he closed the door, and setting Todd's pulse racing when he beheld how thoroughly the human male had transformed himself. Bright-green slitted pupils gazed back at him from almond-shaped eyes thickly-outlined in black, with two parallel lines running down either side of his nose to its equally-blackened tip. At second glance, Todd could see that the man's eyes were covered with artificial lenses of some sort and the markings on his face had been done with artfully-applied cosmetics, but the spots on the rest of his body were skin-deep.

Fascinated, the wraith gave him an openly-appraising once-over, the uniqueness of the man's appearance temporarily overwhelming his carefully-crafted human responses. The scent of embarrassment mixed with lust assaulted his senses as the human nervously edged closer to the person holding the end of the leash hooked to his collar, reddening under the wraith's blatant stare.

“You are upsetting my pet, Sir,” the small red-haired woman murmured tartly, as she reached up to stroke the male's spotted face with gentle, reassuring fingertips. The collared human gazed down at his Mistress with rapt adoration, and Todd sensed the returning calm her touch engendered in the man, before pulling away from his mind and turning his attention to the female.

She was dressed in a tight, black leather skirt and jacket, and knee-high boots with such tall, spiked heels and pointed toes, the wraith wondered how she managed to walk in them. A small, veiled hat completed the look. Perched at a rakish angle on her forehead, it accentuated to perfection her pale face and copper-red hair which was pulled into a severe chignon. At least a foot shorter than Todd, himself, the human female nonetheless possessed the bearing and attitude of a Wraith Queen. In fact, the tiny, leather-clad woman exuded such an air of imperious authority that the wraith's first impulse was to bow.

He caught himself – but only just - his spine stiffening before he actually moved. A master at the intricate power struggle otherwise known as Wraith politics, Todd had faced down much more compelling monarchs and prevailed - he just hadn't expected to encounter one here on Earth. The human female had the regal bearing and red mane of a fertile Queen, and caught off-guard, he'd instinctively reacted to her like one. He recovered quickly in spite of being blindsided by the woman's forceful personality, suppressing a snarl as he drew himself up to his full height. He'd felt the unyielding grip of a female's hand on the back of his neck often enough to know he did not welcome it, regardless of the galaxy.

“My apologies,” Todd replied cordially enough, offering a conciliatory smile instead of a bow, although he sensed that she would have preferred his submission. “He is certainly a rare breed, the likes of which I have never encountered before. It was not my intention to discompose him.”

The woman's blood-red lips split into a feral grin. “You must be new to the neighborhood,” she replied, oozing charm and pheromones. “I haven't seen you around here before.” Icy blue eyes took in his face and form with an acquisitive intensity Todd recognized from countless experiences with a multitude of Queens, and it only served to confirm his initial impression of the little female.

“You are a rare breed, yourself,” she purred, as she studied his rugged, angular features. “And as you've probably already figured out, I do love exotic pets.” She reached out to the leopard's chest and ran a perfectly-manicured red-lacquered fingernail slowly down his bare torso from sternum to navel, her smile widening as Todd's gaze, which had followed the trail she'd blazed on the man's skin, returned to hers.

“Maybe we could work something out,” the redhead continued breathlessly, rising excitement lending a husky quality to her voice.

The wraith steeled himself and stood his ground as she inched closer, warming to the subject. “I can tell you like my pet, and I guarantee you - he likes you, too. Perhaps you two could get better acquainted – under my watchful eye, of course.” She glanced up at her plaything. “I know he wants that very much. Don't you, dear?”

The man nodded, his unnaturally-green gaze never leaving the wraith's face.

Todd regarded the woman and her charge with impassive golden eyes. This was an occasion. He'd been on the receiving end of smoldering looks and open stares and coy, come-hither glances for two weeks - but this marked the first time he had actually been approached. Although he would have been lying to himself if he'd claimed he wasn't intrigued by the woman's proposition just a little – he was male, after all – in the end, her offer wasn't really even a consideration. The wraith had only just acquired the prize he'd been chasing with single-minded intensity for three years. He wasn't about to toss it aside for a moment's pleasure – no matter how tempting it might be.

“I appreciate your generous offer, “Todd replied, bowing his head slightly. “However, I must respectfully decline. I would never presume to touch so wild and dangerous a creature.”

A frown marred the female's porcelain brow as she gazed up at him with cold, blue eyes and an expression of incredulous indignation. She'd been certain she'd held the winning hand.

“Pity,” she spat, although even without scanning her mind, the wraith could tell she probably felt very little of that tender emotion. “You don't know what you're missing.” Her calculated scowl coincided with a genuine smile from the leopard, who seemed to stand a little taller in the traces for the wraith's remark.

“So sorry to disappoint,” Todd ventured mildly, his tone as carefully-neutral as he could muster. If this scenario had played out on a Hiveship, with a real Queen, his life might very well be hanging in the balance at this point.

The redhead rolled her eyes and feigned an ill-concealed yawn. “Bored now,” she drawled, as she coiled the leather lead around her small, pale hand. The woman raked her eyes over Todd one last time, then turned on her stiletto-clad heel and tugged sharply on the leopard's leash. “Come along,” she snarled over her shoulder as she stalked away, boots clicking loudly on the tiled floor.

Abruptly-dismissed as unworthy of Her Highness' further consideration, the wraith watched the pair disappear down the snack aisle. Torn between amusement and relief, he finally just shook his head, then turned to face the dairy case again. It was time to get what he came for and get out. Without hesitation Todd tugged the door open and grabbed the first carton his hand came in contact with, hoping it was something that would go well with coffee. He was just closing it again when the same presence he'd sensed earlier returned to haunt him.

Enough, already.

Todd spun around with a low growl, surprising the leopard, who gasped and jumped back a step.

The man was alone.

“What happened? Did you slip the leash?” The wraith inquired gruffly, relaxing from his defensive stance.

The leopard just shook his head and smiled meekly.

Of course not. For all that the man was collared and tethered, he was with the woman willingly. He obviously enjoyed the domination in a way Todd never had.

The human stepped closer, holding out a business card. “Mistress says that once you've had time to think about it, and realize you've made a mistake, you may call her at the number on the back.”

It was the alien's turn to smile as he accepted the card the man pressed into his upturned palm. “She apparently does not know how to take 'no' for an answer,” he murmured.

The leopard-man shook his head. “Not when she sees something she wants.”

Todd snorted, grimly amused, but before he could offer a comment as to the insatiably-avaricious nature of Queens, the man flashed him a wide grin and scampered off to find his Keeper.

Alone again, the wraith took a moment to study the card. The front announced in elegant script that the red-headed woman was a 'Dominatrix' who specialized in several very interesting practices. The back revealed her name and phone number scrawled hastily in blue pen.

Todd chuckled softly as he ran the pad of his thumb over the bold, raised lettering. He'd apparently rated her consideration, after all.

He was just slipping the card in his pocket, when the wraith was suddenly slammed into from behind with a crash and a clatter, the full-body impact knocking him off-balance. Anger surged within him at being taken by surprise, and dangerous reflexes took over as he turned with a snarl, feeding hand raised with fingers splayed in a rictus claw. Ready to defend or attack, he came face-to-face with his erstwhile assailant, a tall male in his prime, dressed in nondescript black sweatpants and a sweatshirt. The human looked as astonished as Todd felt, having just bounced off the all-but immovable wraith like he'd hit a brick wall.

“S – sorry, dude,” the man stammered, holding up empty, placating hands; the apology dying on his lips when he got a good look at the wraith's game face. Bloodshot brown eyes widened in slowly-dawning horror as he took in the narrowed, golden cat's eyes glaring daggers, pale lips pulled back to reveal wickedly-pointed, shark teeth - and a hand that looked like it was poised to rip out his heart.

“What is the meaning of this?” The wraith growled and took a step forward, invading the other's space in a menacing way that countless centuries of experience had perfected.

He paused as the man shrank from him, focusing on the human as an individual for the first time, as opposed to simply seeing him as a potential enemy in the heat of battle. As tall as the wraith, himself, and as broad as a drone, it wasn't the male's size that arrested his gaze, but the fact that almost every inch, every plane, of the human's face was covered with silver studs arranged in designs that flowed from one to another by virtue of the channeled scars cut into his skin.

Sensing no malice emanating from the human – only confusion and rapidly-escalating fear, Todd cautiously stood down, rearranging his features into a more civilized expression as he slowly dropped his hand by his side, thankful the open maw was concealed by his glove.

The abrupt shift in the wraith's demeanor broke the spell that had frozen the other in place, and the man gulped nervously as he desperately tried to separate reality from imagination, wishing he hadn't smoked that last bowl before he'd left the house.

“I was reading a magazine, and wasn't paying attention to where I was going.” The human gabbled apologetically, the wild hammering of his heart clearly audible to the wraith's keen senses. “I didn't hurt you, did I?”

Already looking suitably distressed, the man's expression grew even more dismayed when he glanced from Todd to the floor. The wraith followed his gaze to a crumpled and torn gardening periodical lying on the tiles by their feet. It was liberally strewn with greasy orange triangles smelling of salt and stale cheese, which had spilled from an open, brightly-colored foil bag that had come to rest close by.

With a forlorn sigh, the human bent to gather his scattered items, allowing Todd to get a better look at him. The deliberate scarification continued over the top of the man's bald head in a web-like network of lines. Tiny metal balls adorned the elaborate pattern at regular intervals as it wove its way to the base of his skull, where the tracery and implants petered out. The overall effect was strangely compelling. Like the leopard-man and the cashier, this one had transformed himself into a piece of living art.

The man stood again, bag and book in-hand, offering the wraith a wan, uncertain smile. “I'm really sorry about that. Are we good?”

Todd suppressed a start of surprise. Although he'd realized it must be an Earth expression, he still had not expected to hear one of Sheppard's oft-used phrases coming out of someone else's mouth. While the casual remark threatened to release emotions the wraith had carefully wrapped in a protective cocoon a week earlier, soon after John had left, he managed to wrestle the wave of yearning that washed over him back into submission behind a calm, impenetrable mask.

“Of course,” he replied mildly, smiling and nodding. “I understand it was not intentional.”

Social contract successfully-fulfilled, the human heaved a sigh of relief, finally convincing himself his initial impression that the green-skinned man was actually a terrifying monster had only been his overactive imagination. He wished the wraith a good night then turned and meandered toward the front of the store, clutching his damaged goods to his chest.

Todd stared after him, berating himself that he had come so close to blowing his cover with such little provocation. Thankful that his great age and the iron control he'd acquired over the years had given him the time and clarity he'd needed to avoid making a grave mistake, the wraith was nonetheless amazed at how easily he'd been able to bring the rapidly-escalating confrontation back under control.

The human had been terrified of him - and rightly so - but even with the man's instincts screaming for him to run from the wraith's true visage, the situation had been successfully diffused with with just a few civil words and a pleasant expression. Once Todd had pulled himself together and put the mask back in place, the man had calmed almost immediately, to the point where he had dismissed his own survival instincts in favor of playing nice. As an outsider looking in – and an apex predator at that - it was a fascinating sociological study, learning the extent to which he was able to manipulate unsuspecting humans with their own societal rules.

Until this moment, the wraith had been certain his appearance would be the one insurmountable obstacle in his attempts to integrate into the city's population. However, as the same creature who had just almost frightened a man to death, and then was able to soothe him with the bland platitudes of expected social interaction, in reality it seemed that the key to fitting in was ultimately linked to his actions, and not his looks. Even though he'd seen evidence of this willful blindness when he and John had been out together, Todd had been hesitant to test the theory independently. Now - forced to interact with humanity on his own, he realized that as long as he acted like a human, in the eyes of the many he would be seen as no more monstrous or alien than the shop girl or the leopard man. Exotic - yes, but of decidedly terrestrial origins.

Todd chuckled, delighting in his newfound anonymity. Apparently, in the big scheme of things, a lone Wraith wandering the streets of San Francisco wasn't going to draw much attention, after all. He was only one curiosity among many, and a rather minor one, at that.

His chuckle evolved into a full-throated laugh as the weight of uncertainty he'd borne for the past two weeks lifted, startling an old woman who was muttering to companions he could not see while she counted out small coins by the cat food. The fact that she glared at him like he was the crazy one only made him laugh harder, aware that his sudden outburst in the middle of an all-night mini-mart just confirmed his place among the ranks of freaks who called San Francisco home. He was invisible in a sea of the unusual and strange, and for the first time since he'd landed on Earth, Todd felt the exhilaration of true freedom.

As he lifted a hand to wipe his streaming eyes, the wraith suddenly remembered he held something and glanced down, relaxing his death grip on the waxed cardboard container of milk in his hand. The smile that lingered on his lips widened as he hefted the only slightly-crushed carton, then headed for the Produce section located against the far wall.

His mind eased and his spirits lifted, Todd committed the details of this night to memory. Sheppard had promised to be back in a week - two at most, and the wraith looked forward to telling him all about it.

Chapter Text

Todd stared into the middle distance, absently picking at the chipped black polish on one of his claws. He re-focused when he felt some of it give, and watched as a tiny black flake popped off and landed on the edge of the desk. With a snarl he reached out and brushed it away, then returned to the soothing, systematic demolition of his manicure.

The artificial coloring of nails by both males and females was an affectation the wraith had noticed soon after he'd taken up residence in San Francisco, and one he'd wholeheartedly embraced. Although he disliked how terrible the shiny black enamel smelled going on, and how quickly it started peeling once it had been applied, it looked good – and it fulfilled two very necessary functions. First, it helped make up for the deficit he still felt keenly, having to keep his claws trimmed to a much shorter length than he preferred; and second, it offered him another layer of camouflage, hiding his telltale grey nailbeds from curious human eyes, should anyone be in a position to scrutinize him that closely. Now that he ventured into public more often, and interacted with the locals on a semi-regular basis, that had become more of a concern.

Ensconced, as he usually was on Sunday nights, in the butler's pantry, pulling together research and reports that were coming due the following week, Todd shifted restlessly while he waited for the computer to process his latest computations. The machine whirred and grunted softly to itself as it tried to catch up, and the hard-drive light flickered wildly, drawing his attention like a wounded bird fluttering before a cat ready to pounce. The wraith watched the flashing green light with the impassive stare of a predator until it slowed, then immediately swamped the buffer again, impatient fingers dancing effortlessly over the keys. As he sat back in the black leather executive chair with an irritated sigh, preparing to wait some more, his golden gaze drifted once again to the cellphone lying next to the keyboard. While he could practically hear the computer wheezing, the phone remained stubbornly silent.

The wraith had kept it with him ever since Sheppard had handed it to him three months earlier, only begrudgingly allowing it out of his sight every three or four days when it required a few hours of recharging in the dock by the coffeemaker. Other than that it was either in his pocket or sitting nearby on the desk while he worked. He even took it into the bathroom and left it by the sink while he showered, lest he miss Sheppard's call. Like a talisman of protection against the curse of uncertainty, Todd clung to it as a symbol of John's promise that he would return. Unfortunately, the alien's faith in this reassuring electronic touchstone had been faltering of late, when the three-month mark of the last time he'd seen Sheppard had come and gone, with still no sign of the man.

It might have helped matters if he'd at least heard from John in all that time, but to-date the wraith had received exactly six communiques: three text messages thanking him for his payment, courtesy of automatic withdrawals from Sheppard's account, and three phone calls, none of which were from John, himself. The first was from Dr. McKay, twelve days after Sheppard had left, hesitantly letting him know that John's promised visit was being pushed out. The Colonel had suddenly been called away on urgent business elsewhere in the galaxy and he wouldn't be back for another week or so.

The second came exactly a week later from Dr. Jennifer Keller. Sheppard still wasn't back, but while the beginning of her message had practically echoed McKay's word-for-word, she'd then deviated into uncharted territory and proposed a rather intriguing joint-venture for the two of them to collaborate on while John was otherwise occupied. By this point, the wraith had been eager to do something to keep himself distracted and busy, and the ideas she'd planted like seeds had quickly taken root and grown.

Soon Todd was hacking his way into various systems in order to set up an identity and create a history for himself. Masking his presence, he'd easily defeated every firewall and security feature he came up against, providing 'Todd Hunter' with all the documentation he could possibly need: a birth certificate, a social security number, a high school diploma, several college degrees and a couple of doctorates, a driver's license, a passport, and a checking account. In only a few days the wraith had firmly-established himself as a citizen of Earth, with all the rights and privileges thereof.

From there it had been a simple matter to lay out a bogus paper trail, incorporating a business and plugging all the credentials that were necessary to meet the IOA's exacting standards directly into the government's own databases. He even gave himself top-secret clearance and added himself to the roster while he was at it. By the time Dr. Keller had called back somewhere around the six-week mark, Todd had not been surprised when she'd inquired about a new facility on the list of civilian labs she was allowed to work with, asking him if Hunter Diagnostics was his company. He'd acknowledged it as his, pleased that she'd so-readily picked up on the name he'd left like a clue for her to find.

Unlike McKay, Dr. Keller was relaxed and chatty, promising him as much billable work as she was able to generate, and expressing her eagerness to move forward with their independent research. Unfortunately, she had then gone on to inform him that John was once again off-world. Feeling like he'd taken a sharp blow to the abdomen upon learning of Sheppard's continued absence, the wraith had concluded the conversation as civilly as he could through gritted teeth. Jennifer was the only human among those who knew what he was – besides John, of course – who truly seemed at ease with him, and in her unique position as Chief Medical Officer of Atlantis, she was a valuable source of information. There would have been no reason to alienate the good doctor by snarling at her for something which was beyond her control.

Since that call, the phone had vibrated once more with notification of another payment received, but otherwise it had been a quiet month-and-a-half. Of course it had also been the point at which he and Jennifer had switched to emailed communication. Under the guise of researcher and contracted government lab, they had every right to contact each other, and although they'd had to remain circumspect due to the possibility of their missives being audited, with careful wording they'd had no difficulties in getting their messages across without raising red flags.

“Finally,” Todd snarled under his breath when the interminable rotating hourglass disappeared from the computer screen. With effort, he pushed aside his less-than-pleasant ruminations, and once again gratefully dove headfirst into the work at-hand, just as he'd done from the beginning.

As soon as John Sheppard had shut the door behind him, heading back to Atlantis, Todd had known he'd need something to do to keep his mind occupied. Without the numerous distractions commanding a growing armada of Hives usually afforded him, Todd had found himself with too much time on his hands, and his thoughts had begun to plague him. They had finally driven him from the apartment by the end of his first week on his own, and once he'd emerged, he'd haunted San Francisco like a ghost almost every evening, learning its layout and where the best hunting could be found; although, Superior Hunter and Tracker that he was, it hadn't taken the wraith long to familiarize himself with the city, and soon he'd been at loose ends again and looking for the next challenge.

It was around then that Jennifer had asked him to assist her with her research, and he'd been compelled to cast a critical yellow eye on his and John's lair. Echoing and empty and bereft of Sheppard's presence, with its unresponsive walls painted an eye-searing white, the second-floor apartment was virtually bare of furnishings, save for the king-size bed in the Master suite. It had been purchased during the same four-day buying frenzy which had netted him a place to live, a computer, a few dishes, a coffee maker, two six-packs of beer in the back of the refrigerator, and some clothes to add to the ones the Satedan had provided him when Sheppard had helped the wraith make his escape from the Ancient City.

The emptiness and solitude had reminded Todd a little too keenly of his time with the Genii, so for weeks he'd used the same strategy he'd employed as their guest, and simply ignored his surroundings to the best of his ability. It had never occurred to him to make use of the credit card John had left except for small purchases, even though Sheppard had specifically told him he was free to furnish and decorate the place as he saw fit. While the wraith had looked askance at John's idea at the time he'd made it, uncertain how to even begin approaching a project like that on Terran soil, Jennifer's request had finally tipped the scales, and Todd had found himself revisiting Sheppard's suggestion.

The wraith's first consideration had been where to set up his workshop. After some thought, he'd determined that rather than taking over the guest bedroom, the lab would be better off located on the ground floor in the garage. According to Sheppard, when the place had been constructed in 1906 during the changeover from horse-and-carriage to motorized transportation, the large, unfinished space which ran parallel to the lobby had been intended to house both. Impressed with its ample square-footage, high ceiling, and large double doors leading to the garden in the back, Todd had wasted no time bringing in a contractor versed in the specifications necessary to frame and finish a working laboratory. Although it eventually took up almost half of the garage, the wraith had made sure there was still plenty of space in front for a vehicle - in case he desired one in the future - and the barrels for the building, which were stored along the wall by the roll-up garage door that faced the street.

Once the lab was done to his satisfaction, Todd had given the man free reign to work on the apartment. So while painters, carpenters, plumbers, and interior decorators took his abode by storm, the wraith had retreated to the ground floor, setting up and calibrating the various pieces of testing and diagnostic equipment that were being delivered daily, for his work with Dr. Keller. Refrigerators, freezers, and chemicals and consumables in boxes, bags, and drums soon followed, and before long he'd been up and running, with not only jobs from Atlantis, but also other government and military installations.

He was an approved civilian lab, after all.

The irony of it amused him sometimes. Some of the same agencies which would have been happy to lock him away - an unwilling test subject at their cold, clinical mercy – now were contracting him to run their tests and relying on the reports he submitted. Although Todd found it exhilarating to walk the fine line between concealment and discovery, he understood the danger he exposed himself to with every package he mailed off to a top-secret government office. To ensure they remained ignorant of his true identity, he took extra care to remove any trace of Wraith DNA from the samples that needed to be returned, unless of course it was work he was doing for Keller which required it.

As the jobs had rolled in, Todd settled into a kind of routine, glad for the billable time and distracting labor. Sometimes he became so engrossed in what he was doing, a whole handful of hours put together went by that Sheppard didn't cross his mind. Inevitably, though, thoughts of John crept in when he least expected them, sending the wraith rifling through drifts of paper in search of the phone to check it for messages.

Finally the day had come when the second floor was finished. With the contractor paid and the last of the work crews gone, Todd took pleasure in touring his blessedly-quiet, newly-renovated home, relieved to have the place to himself once more. The apartment might have reeked of fresh paint and sawdust, but with the walls covered in soft hues of grey and taupe, and the rooms filled with furnishings of black leather, dark wood, and gleaming metal, it reminded him of the quarters he'd inhabited on his last Hive. He found the overall effect oddly-soothing after living with empty, stark-white rooms, and he'd felt a layer of tension melt away that he hadn't realized he'd been carrying.

The Master bedroom, especially, had pleased him immensely. A lush, private retreat, its dark, moss-green walls, heavy drapes to close against the sun, and thick, vividly-patterned rug covering most of the polished wood floor were worthy of a Commander and his consort. The luxurious fur throw draped across the bed itself, and a myriad of pillows tossed with artistic abandon against the headboard only added to its sensual splendor.

The secluded bower seemed to invite intimacy, and the desire it had awakened in him to seduce John Sheppard on the transformed king-size mattress had been almost painful in its intensity. As time passed, though, and Sheppard had stayed away, the yearning it inspired eventually became more than he could endure. Finally - rather than face the room which had promised so much and delivered so little, much like the human he was doing his best not to miss, the wraith had started seeking his repose on the large leather sofa in the den.

Todd stared, unseeing, at the overflowing bulletin board hung on the wall near his right elbow, the multitude of brightly-colored business cards, sticky notes, and corners torn from napkins and envelopes with scribbled numbers and names fading to a blur before his unfocused eyes. Each one was a veritable cornucopia of anecdotes and memories, stored up over the past three months when he'd still thought Sheppard might actually be interested in what was going on. As things stood now, he was less sure with each passing day. John had been so consistently unavailable, so regularly out-of-reach, it was starting to feel like their three years of dancing around each other in Pegasus all over again.

Only this time it was worse.

In truth, they had been apart for far longer spans of time in Pegasus without contact, but there had also not been an understanding between them, as he and John had come to the day the superhive had been destroyed just outside Earth's atmosphere. That same night they had finally crossed the line that had kept them apart, or so the wraith had thought – so Sheppard had professed with eager hands and a willing body. Yet for all the pleasure they'd shared that evening and the week that followed – all the emotions that had seemed to be engaged – John had repeatedly broken the one promise he'd made before he'd returned to Atlantis – that he would come back.

Compounding the issue was the fact that other than the pheromones of lust the man had given off in abundance, Todd had no idea of Sheppard's real feelings or intentions. The human's mind had remained stubbornly closed to him, even at the height of their passion. Without the open sharing of emotions mind-to-mind that should have occurred but hadn't, Todd had nothing to go on except John's word. Unfortunately, while the wraith had been able to count on that in Pegasus, things seemed to be playing out differently since they'd landed on Earth. It left him feeling unsettled and vulnerable, at a loss as to how to deal with so much uncertainty in a relationship so intimate; and he blamed himself for not pushing harder for a deeper connection when he'd had the chance.

If the Colonel had been a Wraith, their pair-bonding would have already been a well-established fact by now. Even another human would not have been able to have held Todd off for so long, but John garnered concessions from him in a way that none before had managed, and one had been that he would not push Sheppard to join with him mentally until the man was ready.

It was a promise the wraith wished he'd never made.

With a stronger bond Todd was certain he would have been able to reach John, even across the vast reaches of the Milky Way – the link calling to him regardless of the distance. He would have been able to at least make sure the man was alright, and ascertain what was keeping him away. Without it, Sheppard had been impossible to locate, even during the wraith's deepest meditations.

In hindsight, allowing his consort the luxury of choice in something so vital had probably not been the wisest course of action. John's continued insistence that Todd stay out of his head even after they'd coupled, and the man's refusal to consciously reach for him concerned the wraith, and he wondered what it was that Sheppard didn't want him to find. As much as Todd hated to admit it, once again he was in the unenviable position of not knowing where he stood with John, and the doubt that had started creeping in lately whenever he thought about his human lover, burned like an insidious poison coursing through his veins with no way to purge it from his system.

The wraith snarled with frustration as he pushed himself away from the ponderosa pine built-in desk, suddenly claustrophobic in the sheltered alcove of the butler's pantry. It was probably better not to think about it at all until his head was clear and his emotions were back under control. What he needed right now was a distraction.

He stood and grabbed his keys and phone, then stepped into the hallway, pulling the apartment door closed behind him. Wearing only a pair of jeans tucked into his ubiquitous Wraith boots, and a black tank top whose neon green, yellow, and white logo announced to the world his devotion to the tattoo parlor being run out of the first floor apartment, Todd wasn't really dressed to go out for the evening.

Fortunately, he wasn't going far.

The soft, sonorous drone of a tattoo machine could be heard drifting up from the lower floor like the soothing hum of hundreds of Wraith minds in a busy Hive. Todd turned the key in the lock, a smile of relief relaxing his tense features as he followed the sound downstairs to the glass-windowed door of the shop below.

The tattered dark green shade was pulled up and the light was on, and Todd paused for a moment with his hand on the knob, taking in the interior of the shop past the words carefully painted on the glass:

BIOHAZARD TATTOOS

Exposing the toxins that lurk just below the surface since 1993

Joseph Murphy, Proprietor

The lettering surrounded a biohazard symbol done in acid green that matched the one on his shirt.

From where he stood in the century-old hallway, redolent with the scents of dust and old wood, what Todd could see of the tiny reception area was empty, but he could just make out the muffled sound of a deep male voice over the hum of the needle and the higher-pitched response of one that sounded barely-past adolescence. The wraith turned the knob and pushed the door open, setting off the little bell that dangled over the top of the entrance, which jingled merrily to announce his presence.

He'd barely closed the door behind him before the buzzing abruptly fell silent and the owner of the shop poked his head around the corner. Of medium height and medium build, with a full head of unruly steel-grey curls cut high and tight, at fifty-five Joe Murphy still exuded the no-nonsense confidence of a man long-associated with the military.

The older man's suspicious scowl melted into a genuine smile when he met the alien's gaze.

“Hey, Todd – buddy! Come on in,” he said, waving him inside as he disappeared around the corner again, not bothering to check and see if the wraith was following.

By the time Todd had passed through the waiting room, with its truly-uncomfortable molded-plastic orange chairs and flash-covered walls, Joe had already limped back to his latest victim and resumed his seat. The grizzled Navy veteran peeled off his gloves then took a moment to settle himself and his artificial leg more comfortably.

“You don't mind if my friend watches, do you?” Joe asked of the young man straddling one of the orange nightmares, his bare arms crossed on the back so the tattooist could reach his shoulder blade.

The younger male glanced up at Todd, his eyes widening slightly when he caught sight of the wraith's skin and eyes, and the intricately-interwoven black designs that ran across his chest just below the collarbone and down his left arm, prominently on display in the tank top he wore.

“No,” the youth breathed, sounding duly-impressed. “No problem.”

“Good man,” Joe chuckled as he slipped on a fresh pair of black nitrile gloves with a flourish and a snap, then leaned in to pick up where he'd left off.

Todd offered a mild half-smile as he pulled a stool out from under the workbench, placing it so he had an unobstructed view of the proceeding, and sat down with a contented sigh. It wasn't the first time he'd watched over the human's shoulder as he'd marked someone with original, indelible art. Between the thrill of seeing the piece come to life with line and color and shading, and the almost-hypnotic drone of the machine, itself, it usually proved to be a relaxing, diverting couple of hours, and Todd was ready to rank it right up there with hazelnut cream in his coffee as one of his favorite guilty pleasures.

The trio fell into companionable small talk interspersed with even more-companionable silences while Joe inked and Todd observed; so it was a unexpected jolt back to reality when the wraith's phone, which had been tossed on the counter with his keys, began to buzz about an hour later.

Todd glanced over, surprised to see its face lighting up with John's number. He'd been anticipating another email from Dr. Keller within the next couple of days, so an actual phone call was especially unforeseen. A surge of excitement shot through his body before he had a chance to squelch it, leaving him tingling.

“Sounds like someone's looking for you,” Joe quipped when the wraith hadn't moved. “You gonna get that?”

Ignoring the way his heart pounded in his chest, Todd nodded as he casually picked up the phone, then looked questioningly at Murphy. The human gave him a knowing grin and with a tilt of his head indicated the wraith could go out back if he needed privacy.

Todd wasn't even halfway down the corridor before he answered the vibrating phone, keeping his fingers from shaking by force of will alone as he rushed to pick up before he missed the call. “Who is this?” he asked, his voice gruff with suppressed hope and anxiety.

There was a pause on the other end, just long enough for Todd to reach the end of the hall. As he pushed open the squeaky screen door leading out onto the porch, someone responded, although all he was able to discern over the rusty squeal was that the speaker had been male. The wraith let the angry-sounding door swing shut behind him and stepped up to the railing overlooking the night-darkened back yard, allowing hope to tip the scales. Scarcely daring to breathe, he inquired again in a tone that had softened to a low rumble, “Who is this?”

“Uh – hi, Todd,” came the hesitant response.

“McKay,” the wraith ground out from between clenched teeth. His fingers tightened on the fragile plastic casing, angry that he'd deluded himself, even for a moment, into believing this time would be different.

The astrophysicist sighed in his ear. It had a weary, ragged edge to it. “Look, I understand you're upset. I'm sorry I'm not John.”

Todd snarled with impotent rage, aching to lash out, but while McKay was an easy target, the man was only the messenger, after all. The wraith took a moment to try and calm himself, resorting to pacing the deck from one end to the other to burn off some of his anger. Without warning, it suddenly drained away as he faced the inescapable truth that once again Sheppard was not coming. Left with only an aching emptiness, he stopped and sank down onto the top step leading from the porch to the garden with a resigned sigh, feeling very, very old.

“What happened this time?” Todd asked when he could trust himself to speak.

“The same thing that happens every time,” McKay replied, a note of frustration creeping into his voice.

“You mean he returned from one mission, then turned around and left again with the next departing team.” It was more of a statement than a question. The wraith was already well-aware of the drill.

“Yeah... Wait a minute – how did you know that's what was going on?” Rodney's surprise was evident. “That's all supposed to be classified information.”

Todd snorted, grimly amused. “Remember with whom you are speaking, McKay. Technically, I am classified information, as well, and yet my whereabouts and activities could be easily-discovered by anyone who knew where to look.” If McKay was unaware that his own consort, Dr. Keller, had been providing Todd with details of Sheppard's alarmingly-regular comings and goings, then far be it for him to reveal her secret.

McKay grunted. “Then maybe you can tell me why they keep sending him out with no downtime.”

“I am beginning to be persuaded that it must be his preference. If he'd wished it otherwise, he would have done something about it by now,” the wraith countered, bitterness seeping into his tone. “Besides, I would think that kind of information would be more readily-available to you, anyway, McKay. You are his teammate, after all.”

“Was,” Rodney snapped resentfully. “Since we've been on Earth, things have changed drastically.” It was all Todd could do to suppress a humorless bark of laughter at the human's assertion. The wraith had been dealing with the actions of a John Sheppard he'd never encountered before for three months. This was not news to him.

“Now that Stargate Command is being run out of Atlantis, all the Pegasus teams have been dismantled and assimilated by the Milky Way teams. I've been bumped completely from the roster as superfluous. As Chief Science Officer of the Expedition, I'm stuck in the City with esteemed colleague and supreme pain-in-the-ass, Daniel Jackson, going over five years of records and research from Pegasus with a fine-tooth comb.”

Todd sat up straighter. Jennifer had not told him that the Earth Gate's keepers had been stationed in the Ancient City. It made sense, though. The more powerful intergalactic Ring that Atlantis had brought with it would have superseded the Ring buried under the mountain as soon as they'd landed. “Go on,” he murmured unobtrusively when McKay wound down, his curiosity piqued.

“I'm not sure what else to say.” Rodney heaved a frustrated sigh. “Except I doubt I'll be seeing any of the Milky Way besides Earth anytime soon. Between overseeing the on-going repairs to Atlantis, itself, and Dr. Jackson breathing down my neck 24/7, I've been relegated to my lab for the duration.

“And with the SGC here, now there's too much brass – too many layers of command - for me to find out anything. Since I'm not military, I don't 'need to know.'”

The wraith couldn't help but smirk. From the emphasis in the human's tone he could easily envision McKay putting air quotes around the phrase.

“And it's not like I can nip down to the office and ask Woolsey,” Rodney continued gruffly. “These days he's only here once in a while. He spends most of his time commuting between San Francisco and Washington DC, trying to keep everyone with their fingers in the pie from gutting the City before we can get the hell out of here and back to Pegasus. General Landry's in charge for now. He's never been fond of me, and I get the impression he doesn't like John either. Every time I request a few minutes of his time, he has something else to do.”

McKay paused to take a breath. “I wish I had good news for you, Todd. I really do, because I know that as much as I miss him, it's got to be ten times worse for you.”

Todd growled as he threw his battered defenses back up again, trying to block the sudden storm of longing that raced through him so swiftly it physically hurt. As usual, it had been a mistake to engage Dr. McKay in conversation. The man's callous reminder of the magnitude of pain the wraith must be experiencing was like a slap in the face after he'd let his guard down. While McKay's intentions may have been good, his clumsy attempt at sympathy was neither appreciated nor desired, and in fact – to borrow a phrase from the man, himself – it had made things ten times worse.

“McKay,” he snarled, civility be damned, “do not contact me again. Bi-weekly reminders that Sheppard is off-world and unavailable are... counterproductive.”

“Wait – what?” Rodney stammered. “But John wanted us to check in with you regularly.”

“I will contact you if I need anything,” Todd answered, finding it difficult to speak above the turmoil that was fomenting just below the surface. “Otherwise, your services are no longer required.”

The human was still sputtering when Todd abruptly ended the call. He stared at the cellphone for a full minute, torn between keeping the torture device he'd been willingly-inflicting upon himself for months, or crushing it into tiny bits of metal and plastic. Heaving a bone-weary sigh, the wraith finally just stood and slipped the phone into his pants pocket, then squared his shoulders and made his way back down the hall.

By the time Todd rejoined the humans, he had managed to force the most turbulent of his emotions back in their cage. Uncharacteristically subdued, he stared into the middle distance as he settled quietly on the stool, his expression pinched and thoughtful. After a few moments of tense silence broken only by the buzzing machine, Joe paused and slanted a concerned, sidelong glance in his direction, before the older man dipped the array of needles into one of the tiny cups of color lined up by his elbow and bent once again to his task.

“There's beer in the fridge if you want some,” Murphy said nonchalantly over the hum of the machine, carefully avoiding eye contact while Todd collected himself. Eventually, the wraith rose and brought back two, twisting the cap off one and setting it on the workbench close enough for Joe to reach it easily, before taking his assigned seat again.

He appreciated what the man was offering. Many were the evenings they'd sat out back in the garden, after Todd was done in the lab and Joe had locked the door on his shop, sharing a bottle of whatever the human had bought that day, while Joe relived the motorcycle accident which had claimed his leg, or lamented his mate's untimely death and how much he missed her.

If only.

If only.

If only I'd taken a right instead of a left. If only I'd spent more time with her. Love, loss, and regret - the length and breadth of the human condition. Joe had proffered friendship in return for absolution, and with his ability to keep his grief in check blunted by drink, he'd poured out his sorrows while the wraith sat quietly next to him, gazing at the stars and listening.

Todd raised the bottle slightly in a wordless salute to the human, letting him know he was fine, then took a sip. In truth, he was far from alright, but there was nothing Joe and a few bottles of fermented grain could do to help. His consort – the human he had killed for – the human he'd almost died for on several occasions - had reneged on his pledge yet again, and the pain of it – and McKay's pity - felt like a knife twisting in his gut.

He took another pull on the beer, smiling benignly at Joe and the boy from behind a mask of calm, while he waited for what little relief the soft, short-lived buzz of alcohol in his bloodstream offered. Unfortunately, the wraith's metabolism sped it through his system so quickly, its euphoric effects were too brief and mild to do him much good.

He required something more intense to take the edge off.

For him – for all Wraith, the only thing which even came close to drowning the sorrows of one in the throes of grief or some other acutely-distressing emotion was losing himself in the savage pleasure of copious, violent feeding. While Todd could feel that he was slipping closer to that danger zone, the need to dull the ache which was growing harder to ignore with each broken promise - each passing day without hope of Sheppard's return – hadn't reached the point where it outweighed his ability to resist.

Not quite yet, anyway.

Chapter Text

The stealthy rustle of surreptitious movement brought Teyla Emmagan out of a sound sleep with a violent start. After long years of self-defense training and a lifetime of living in fear of Wraith attack, the transition to wakefulness had long ago become as instantaneous as the flip of a switch. Poised and still, the Athosian woman listened intently as she tried to place the sound, but all she could hear was Kanaan's slow, measured respiration as he slumbered beside her, and the faint hiss of the waves at the base of the tower as they dashed themselves against the City's foundations.

Since the birth of her child, Teyla had watched many a night fade to morning as she'd sat and rocked Torren back to sleep, and she'd become somewhat of an expert at determining the time by the quality of the light. Although the baby had mercifully begun sleeping through the night a few months earlier, the Athosian had retained her skill, and judging by the grey, pre-dawn sky just starting to brighten behind the open-weave drapes that covered the bedroom windows, it couldn't be later than six-thirty. In her estimation, it was far too early to be awake, never mind trying to determine if they had an intruder. The alarm wasn't set to go off for another hour.

Frowning slightly, Teyla sat up in bed and warily scanned the room, trying to locate the source of the phantom noise. After a few moments of relative silence, she started to wonder if she'd actually heard anything at all, or if it had been a fragment of the dream she'd been having right before she awakened. In it, she had been kneeling beside a very still John Sheppard, dressing him in the traditional Athosian robes one garbed the dead in before cremation.

Teyla shivered, although it had nothing to do with the cool, early-morning air. The dream had seemed so real, she couldn't shake the image of John's cold, lifeless face from her mind's eye. Emotions welled up, sharp and painful, while details from the nightmare played out again and again in her head, and the Athosian found herself suddenly fighting to hold back tears. Unfortunately, the particulars were not surprising to her, as heart-wrenching and sad as they were. She'd been worried about John for quite a while now, without any news of his well-being to ease her concern. She had expected that her sleeping mind would eventually start showing her the worst of her fears when she had no strength to push them away.

Blinking away the unshed tears, Teyla finally decided that she must have been imagining the noises. With a resigned sigh she started to lie down again, when the sound repeated itself along with a soft coo. Suddenly it was as if the dark clouds had parted, and a warm smile suffused the Athosian's face when she realized its origin.

It was Torren John, of course, wide awake before the sun, and oddly-content for being up so early in the morning.

Teyla threw back the blankets with renewed vigor and grabbed the cream-colored spa robe draped over the foot of the bed, pushing down her inner turmoil so the child would not sense it. She wrapped the soft, luxuriously-warm garment around her slender form before stepping quietly up to Torren's bed, curious to see what was entertaining her son so completely.

Not wanting to disrupt whatever he was doing, the Athosian silently glided closer, moving with the stealth of a hunter creeping up on its unsuspecting prey. She carefully peered over the top of the bumper-covered crib to discover Torren lying on his back and busily playing with his teddy bear, alternating between sticking the toy's ear in his mouth and pushing it away so he could stare intently into its brown glass eyes.

Teyla couldn't help but snort with delight at his antics, alerting her son to her presence, and Torren't face lit up when he saw her. He pushed the bear away and reached for his mother, showing off all two of his brand new teeth with a sunny smile that melted Teyla's heart. She echoed his grin with one of her own as she put down the side of the crib and leaned in to pick up her favorite boy.

The Earth-style child's bed had been a gift from Rodney and Jennifer for Torren's first birthday, which had been celebrated about a month after they'd landed just outside of San Francisco. It had been a very thoughtful and much-needed present. Torren had outgrown his Athosian cradle months earlier, and even he had seemed to appreciate having more room to stretch out.

It had been a bittersweet day – Torren John's birthday. For all that her partner, Kanaan, fellow Pegasus native and teammate, Ronon Dex, and Teyla's chosen family from among the Lanteans, had celebrated with food and a cake, singing and presents, there had been one special person who had not been in attendance. John Sheppard, her son's namesake, had not been able to make it and his absence had been keenly felt. The affinity which had existed between Teyla and John from the moment they'd met on Athos soon after the Atlantis Expedition had arrived in Pegasus, had grown into a deep and abiding friendship over the five years they'd known each other. He had long ago become far more to her than just the Military Commander of Atlantis whom she respected for his leadership and integrity. He was as dear to her as a brother.

Teyla sighed as she grabbed the baby's blanket off the mattress and wrapped it securely around him. Still desperately trying to stave off her lingering melancholy, she held Torren close and buried her face in his dark, baby-fine hair, inhaling his sweet scent as she carried him through the main living area and out onto the balcony so they could greet the rising sun.

It was fortunate that their quarters obliquely faced the Bridge and the city of San Francisco, itself. Besides having a picture-perfect view of a beautiful, bustling Earth city, with the bulk of Atlantis between them and the Pacific, they were shielded from the worst of the ocean breezes. Even now, in the autumn of the year with the days and nights starting to grow cooler, the pre-dawn air was temperate and the wind, mild.

Teyla closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, taking in the salty morning air with relish. It was one of the few things the Athosian had found that was truly universal – the smell of the ocean – and for a moment she imagined that the Ancient's City had been transported back to Pegasus. The thought brought a serene smile to her lips that faded when she opened her tawny eyes to the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge being slowly engulfed by fog. It was undeniably breathtaking – but it wasn't home.

With a surprising twinge of nostalgia Teyla suddenly realized just how much she missed the Pegasus Galaxy. In spite of the continuing threat the Wraith posed – in spite of all the unexpected dangers that the Expedition had been forced to face on an almost weekly basis for five years - at least when Atlantis had been in Pegasus, things had made sense.

Since they'd landed on Earth it seemed that all the pieces of their lives had been tossed in the air like a child's puzzle, landing in strange, undecipherable patterns that didn't quite fit together anymore.

When she and John and Ronon had returned to Atlantis after their visit to San Francisco, Teyla had looked forward to what was to come. She had assumed that everything would continue on as it had before, with the Colonel leading their Team, and the four of them exploring the planets in the Milky Way as they had done in Pegasus. She had been eager to meet the people who inhabited the worlds of this galaxy, hoping to learn of their traditions and beliefs - and most importantly, their struggles - and helping them if she could. Although, truth be told, the promise of this exciting new endeavor had appealed to her on many levels, not only as a leader in her own right, reaching out to assist those in need, but also as a member of the Atlantis Expedition. She was proud to be part of an organization whose purpose seemed to be that of trying to keep the galaxy – whatever galaxy they were in – safe from those who would subjugate and enslave its population.

Sadly, decisions had been made in their absence which had neatly removed Teyla from consideration as a member of any of the Milky Way Stargate teams, as she had soon discovered. She had been enjoying a cup of Athosian tea and a quiet reunion with Kanaan and Torren in her quarters when a soldier she had never seen before came to her door with an invitation from General Landry, requesting she meet with him in his office. It had been an awkward meeting for the usually-composed Athosian, taking place in what had been Mr. Woolsey's sanctuary on the Command Deck just a week earlier. What had bothered her the most as she had surreptitiously glanced around the office, was that it had been so thoroughly scrubbed of Richard's presence. Not a picture remained, not a book – nothing to indicate that the mild-mannered yet surprisingly-outspoken leader of Atlantis had ever inhabited it.

Although the General had left the comfortable chairs and wooden shelves in place, he had chosen a much more utilitarian approach in decorating. An impressive red leather chair, a few files scattered on the bare shelves, a few photographs of smiling strangers, and an American flag in the corner were all he had brought with him, and it seemed to Teyla to reflect the personality of a man driven by duty, perhaps to the exclusion of sentiment.

So when the General had engaged her in what, on the surface, had seemed like light conversation, she had offered him a cordial smile but had instantly been on her guard. After he had asked after her trip, and her opinion as to how she thought John was holding up, he had gone on to inform her that with the sudden influx of Atlantis Teams which had to be absorbed by the Earth-based ones, some sacrifices had had to be made, and she had been one of them.

Not to worry, though, Landry had quickly assured her. He had been impressed with the mission reports he'd read that had mentioned her bravery and prowess in battle, and expressed his hope that with her invaluable mastery of a martial-arts style unfamiliar to Earth's soldiers, she would consider focusing her energy on imparting her knowledge to the troops stationed on Atlantis.

While the Athosian had no qualms about training soldiers – she'd done it often enough in Pegasus, after all – she had not wished to lose the privilege of stepping through the Ring, and the opportunity to embark on new adventures. She'd said as much to General Landry and he had nodded in a way which had seemed quite sympathetic. Encouraged, Teyla had politely petitioned him to reconsider his decision, and had watched in amazement as his eyes had grown flinty, although his smile had remained.

Without missing a beat Landry had denied her request, going so far as to invoke concerns about Torren's well-being without her, and avowing that she would be much happier being able to stay home and take care of her son, instead of running all over the galaxy. The underlying steel in the General's demeanor had brooked no arguments, regardless of his friendly manner, and as simple as that, Teyla had been relegated to Earth for as long as Atlantis remained in the Milky Way.

Torren shifted in her arms, and with a happy squeal he reached for her hair, securely grabbing hold of the closest copper-colored curl with chubby fingers as he stuffed his other fist in his mouth and started gnawing on his knuckles. Teyla settled him a little higher on her chest and smiled indulgently at the top of his head while he drowsed against her shoulder and played with her hair. She had always cherished spending time with her son, and had especially resented when Landry had subtly, but very clearly, called her devotion as a mother into question as a way to try and dissuade her from her ambition to remain on a Gate Team.

In addition to her frustration over losing her position, the Athosian had been dismayed to find that with it had gone her access to information. Even something as simple as looking into what was going on with John had turned into an unexpected lesson in futility. He had been gone for more than three months already without any explanation, and her repeated inquiries as to why still remained largely unanswered. After weeks of trying, all she'd been able to glean was that Colonel Sheppard was acting as an adjunct to the existing Teams, jumping from one to the next, as needed. Other than that, she hadn't been able to discover any additional details.

It was just another example of the troubling disparity between how Atlantis had been run in Pegasus and its present administration's policies. In Pegasus, she had been considered part of the Expedition. As a citizen of Pegasus and member of the City's First Gate Team, she had been included in every way that had mattered, and was privy to the decisions that affected Atlantis. On Earth, not only had she been ejected from the inner sanctum – forcefully and without recourse – Teyla could not help but sometimes feel that regardless of Landry's reassurances, her status had been reduced to that of a barely-tolerated guest.

Torren John heaved a contented sigh and sagged against his mother's shoulder as he drifted off to sleep in her arms. Teyla rubbed tender circles on his back as she watched dawn break over the two cities, the rising sun a hazy ball of light behind the morning fog.

Left to linger at the edges of the City's daily hustle and bustle, Teyla had little choice but to initiate the program Landry had requested of her. She supposed she should have been grateful that the General had recognized her ability to take down a Marine in unarmed combat and offered her a place as an instructor. At least with her dojo and the directive to offer classes, it gave her something to do until Atlantis was ready to return to Pegasus.

More importantly, it provided her with the distraction she desperately needed when she started wondering where John was, how he was, and when he would return safely to the fold.

0*0 0*0

Jennifer Keller groaned as she rolled over and groped, bleary-eyed, for Rodney's evil alarm clock which was beeping loudly on the nightstand next to her ear. After a couple of unsuccessful whacks in its general direction, she finally pushed herself up on her elbow so she could tackle her electronic nemesis head-on. Unfortunately, even with both eyes open, it still took the mashing of several random buttons and accidentally changing the time before the sleepy, disgruntled blonde doctor managed to silence the discordant monstrosity once and for all.

With a frustrated sigh Jennifer set it back on the bedside table, and decided that Rodney's choice of timepieces desperately needed to be upgraded. Usually McKay just shut it off himself, even if he had to reach across her to do it, so normally it was a minor irritation. However, once in a while - like this morning – he had to get up early for a briefing, and it was left to Dr. Keller to face Rodney's clock alone. Every time she did, it reminded her how much she hated the thing.

It must have been twenty years old if it was a day, with huge, glaring blue numbers that burned vague afterimages through her eyelids at night, and an alarm that could wake the dead. While Jennifer could easily imagine little Rodney reaching for this self-same clock on his first day of high school, it was really well-beyond time to put sentiment aside and drag the man - kicking and screaming - into the twenty-first century. A sleek new clock-CD player combo, like she had, would be just the thing. They could wake up to music in the morning – she had plenty of CD's for Rodney to choose from, instead of something that sounded vaguely like the bleating of a fire truck horn, and at least she'd know how to shut the damn thing off.

Problem solved, the blonde punched her pillow into a more comfortable shape and snuggled back under the covers. Luxuriating in the perfect softness of McKay's new queen-size bed, she sighed contentedly as her eyes drifted shut again. The faint sound of the shower running let her know that Rodney hadn't left yet, so there was really no rush for her to get up. She'd just have to wait for the bathroom, anyway, if she did. Jennifer had learned early-on that McKay had some very particular bathing rituals, one of them being his extreme dislike of company while he was in the shower, so it was better just to stay out of his way until he emerged.

While it had been a bit of a disappointment for her – Dr. Keller did enjoy a little hot, steamy shower sex every now and again, she had tried to be pragmatic about it. Rodney might not be the most exciting, innovative partner Jennifer had ever had, and he might take a little longer to finish than she would have preferred, but he was a tender, considerate lover. He tried so hard to please her, and he always made sure she was satisfied. A small smile curled Jennifer's lips. She knew from more sexual encounters than she'd ever admit to, that that in itself made Dr. McKay a keeper.

Sexual compatibility aside, his genetics alone made him the perfect candidate to eventually father her children. He was intelligent and good looking, as was his sister, who – although Jennifer would have never said it to his face - was even smarter than Rodney. And Jeannie's daughter, Madison, already showed all the early signs of having inherited the previous generation's brilliance. These were all encouraging indicators, and ones that had made Dr. Keller even more eager to claim McKay as her mate.

Fortunately for Jennifer, she understood Rodney better than most, and had used it to her advantage. They actually had a lot in common, for all that that they had been raised in different countries. Their brilliant minds had set them apart from the herd early on, and they'd both finished their schooling years ahead of their age mates, going on to complete Doctorates before they'd hit their twenties. Unfortunately, thrust into the hallowed halls of higher education and expected to act like grown-ups when they were still essentially children had left them both a bit socially awkward.

Surprisingly, it had ended up being that very awkwardness which had ultimately drawn them together, with declarations of love in the midst of chaos and lightning, burst pipes and freezing water. It was Pegasus-style romance as only Rodney McKay could offer. In his own ill-timed and inappropriate way he'd swept her off her feet, and Jennifer had been more than happy to overlook his more glaring faults for the sake of having a pair of strong arms around her and a smart, insecure man she could call hers.

Ronan may have been an early favorite – he was handsome and tall, and his arms were sinewy - but for all his strength, and the puddle of pulse-pounding lust she'd melted into whenever she was with him, Jennifer had never felt secure with the Satedan. He was too stubborn for his own good, to begin with, and his predilection for finding danger and wading into the middle of it – and bringing her along with him to enjoy the fun, had quickly tarnished their budding romance, and eventually knocked the brawny Specialist Dex out of the running. Once Jennifer had realized that she'd outgrown the need to bring a bad boy home to scandalize her parents, she had taken a second look at Rodney. McKay had been a last-minute entry – a dark horse – but after assessing his qualities with her head and not her libido, it had become clear to her where she needed to focus her energy.

The low roar of the shower fell silent, and the sudden quiet pulled Jennifer out of her sleepy reverie. The doctor turned on her side, brushing strands of honey-blonde hair back from her eyes as she settled down again facing the bathroom door. Based on her past experiences, she knew it would be a while yet before Rodney opened the door. For all that they had been sleeping together on a pretty regular basis since they'd returned from the conference, he had remained oddly-private. Okay – truth be told, Rodney was odd in a lot of ways, but Jennifer was certain that with time, she would not only get him to open up to her, she would also succeed at molding him into the kind of man she could be proud to venture into public with.

It wasn't that she found him ugly or a slob, Jennifer had already seen how nicely McKay cleaned up. And it had nothing to do with his intelligence. The man was a genius. No – it was neither his looks nor his brains that needed improvement – it was his non-existent interpersonal skills. While she enjoyed being with him – and being seen with him - when they were out together, she spent most of her time cringing whenever he opened his mouth, for fear that he might potentially insult or berate whoever happened to be around.

The blonde heaved a long-suffering sigh. Rodney certainly seemed to have an uncanny knack for getting under peoples' skin. Like a splinter, he could be irritating and painful to deal with, and although he'd never had occasion to turn his scathing temper her way, Dr. Keller had been present when he'd unleashed it on others. She knew it stemmed from Rodney's desire for perfection, and his impatience with those he considered less intelligent then he was – which was just about everyone – but that didn't excuse his behavior. She looked forward to taking him in hand and teaching him to curb his tongue, at least - if not his arrogant attitude of superiority. That – strangely – she found rather endearing.

In contrast to the way he treated the general public, Rodney had never been anything but attentive and eager to please her. By Jennifer's estimation, McKay's gentle consideration meant that she had obviously made the cut when so many others had not. She was part of an exclusive club, and it made her feel special that he considered her 'worthy' to associate with. The downside was that she wasn't the only member. For some reason, Colonel Sheppard received similar treatment. In fact, Sheppard had been part of McKay's tiny inner circle for far longer than she had.

Reaching out, Jennifer grabbed Rodney's pillow and hugged to her chest, pushing down the twinge of jealousy that rose uncomfortably-close to the surface whenever the tall, dark, and handsome Lieutenant Colonel crossed her mind. It was bad enough McKay trailed after Sheppard like a puppy, and spent inordinate amounts of time with him both on and off the clock. She refused to lend credence to Rodney's intense emotional attachment to the man by acknowledging Sheppard as competition for her boyfriend's affections.

Besides, that was something else that was going to change. In fact, the current situation – while it hadn't played out exactly as Jennifer had foreseen, was nonetheless a step in the right direction as far as she was concerned.

When Atlantis had still been in Pegasus she had done her best to dissuade Rodney from his little crush with gentle admonitions and carefully-timed comments, but it hadn't seemed to have done much good. Once they'd come home, and the Colonel had helped Todd escape, she had figured that Sheppard's near-obsession with the wraith would have eventually eroded his friendship with Rodney, leaving her to pick up the pieces.

What she hadn't counted on was Sheppard suddenly going out on back-to-back missions from the minute he'd returned to the City. As Jennifer had told the wraith several times already, she had no idea if it was a glitch in the scheduling or the Colonel's own choice. What she hadn't said was that frankly, she didn't care. The important thing was that with the Colonel out of the picture, and Rodney at loose ends and going Cold Turkey without his best friend, it had been a simple matter for Jennifer to insinuate herself into the vacuum left by Colonel Sheppard's absence, and escalate things with Rodney more rapidly than she'd originally planned.

In addition to the swift and decisive resolution of the 'Sheppard issue' that had been plaguing her for months, Dr. Keller's research was progressing in leaps and bounds, as well. With Todd moping around, too, while he waited for the Colonel's return – what was it about that man – the wraith had been more than receptive to the idea of assisting her with several of the projects they'd started together in Pegasus. If things continued moving along at the pace they'd been going, by the time Atlantis left the Milky Way she might actually have some solutions that could help ease tensions in Pegasus.

Jennifer's eyes fluttered open when she heard the soft snick of the lock on the bathroom door being disengaged. She quickly combed her fingers through her tangled hair, giving it a sexy, tousled look, then rolled up onto her elbow and pushed the covers down to partially-reveal the soft mounds of her breasts and an abundance of cleavage. Thus suggestively and artfully arranged, Dr. Keller waited for Rodney to emerge, although she had no designs on him this morning other than to ensure his return tonight. Men were so easy, and with the dearth of female companionship in his life up until now, McKay especially so. Give him a little eye candy to start the day with, and she knew for a fact that he'd search Atlantis top-to-bottom to find her in the evening.

A cloud of steam billowed from the bathroom when Rodney finally opened the door. He stepped into the room bare-chested and distracted, and still trying to tuck the end of the towel in at his waist. Years of dangerous, physical missions had trimmed all the extra fat from his body, leaving him solid and surprisingly muscular.

Jennifer cleared her throat loudly, causing McKay to stop fiddling with the terrycloth. Mildly startled, he looked up, an expression of pure adoration lighting his face from within when he caught her eye, and the coy, seductive goddess gracing his bed smiled back. It was abundantly clear to her that the man was almost ready to worship, and she could almost guarantee that in another couple of weeks or so, perhaps a month – he'd be on his knee with a ring.

Dr. Keller's smile widened at the thought as Rodney sat next to her on the bed, reaching to brush gentle knuckles down her cheek. Thanks to John Sheppard being anywhere else but Earth – for whatever reason - things were good in Jennifer's little world these days.

Very, very good.

Chapter Text

John Sheppard palmed the control panel to his quarters, his eyes scanning the empty hallway and his darkened room automatically. Satisfied the coast was clear, he stepped inside and locked the door behind him.

“It took you long enough,” the gravelly voice murmured from behind him. A pale-green hand slithered around his midsection to rest lightly on his lower abdomen, thumb casually hooked into the waistband of his fatigues, with claws curled possessively to rest against his crotch.

Surprised, but not alarmed, the dark-haired man looked down at the luminous skin, almost glowing in the faint incandescence given off by the tiny lights embedded in the columns and walls of his room. He watched the tendons of the alien hand shift beneath the smooth skin, as the powerful male behind him stepped closer, drawing the unresisting human back against a leather-clad chest.

“I've been waiting for you,” Todd whispered in a tone that was both seductive and menacing. Sheppard lifted his head and shivered slightly as warm breath ghosted over his exposed ear and neck. As far as he was concerned, it didn't really matter which way it had been intended - it left him tingling with anticipation, either way. John's eyes slid closed as the tip of his ear was licked, then taken between sharp teeth. He could feel the tall wraith smile against the captive cartilage as he bit down gently, exerting just enough pressure to make Sheppard gasp as a thrill of desire coursed through him.

Todd's other arm twined around him, holding John in place while he licked and bit his way down the side of Sheppard's neck. The wraith's talented tongue found all of John's sensitive spots effortlessly, wringing low moans from the Colonel as he lost himself in the sensations. Soon, fingers that had brushed across the growing bulge in his pants were scratching deliberately at the front of his fatigues, claw-tips stimulating his already-hardening cock. Beyond thought, John groaned, his hips instinctively bucking toward the gentle caress as he sought to increase the maddeningly-light pressure of the teasing claws.

A breathless chuckle and a nip at his ear told him Todd was pleased by his response.

Aching for more, Sheppard only offered a half-hearted protest when he felt his t-shirt being worked out of his pants. The chill of the ambient air on his exposed abdomen was quickly replaced by a warm hand, sliding up under the olive-drab fabric and caressing his muscular stomach and chest with reverent fingertips.

The wraith shivered as he stroked John's chest hair, and Sheppard's head fell back against the alien's shoulder, letting him. Without warning, Todd rocked his hips forward sharply, panting raggedly in John's ear as he ground something thick and long and hard against Sheppard's taut ass cheek. Even with layers of fabric and leather between them, Sheppard could feel its impressive size. The obviously-aroused wraith grasped John's erect length through his fatigues and massaged it as he thrust against Sheppard from behind, the low growl emanating from the back of Todd's throat rising and falling with his movements.

Fingers splayed against Sheppard's chest as the wraith pulled him back again and again, and John could sense the tension building in the creature behind him as Todd fought the urge to press palm to skin. Finally settling on leaning in to bite Sheppard's shoulder where it met the strong column of his neck, John struggled to remain silent as the intoxicating sensation of pleasure mixed with pain left him trembling with need.

A moment later, the wraith broke through Sheppard's skin with his sharp teeth, then sealed his lips around the wound and began to feed, slowly drawing the human's life out along with the trickle of blood. The bond between them flared to life, and John could feel Todd's pleasure as well as his own surging through him. He gave himself over to it, and was soon drowning in the ecstasy of their mingled enjoyment as it expanded exponentially.

The shimmering bond limned in his life force, Todd's hand drawing exquisite sensations from him as he caressed his cock, the feel of the alien's powerful body moving behind him as he drove relentlessly toward his own release – it was finally all too much for the overstimulated human. John Sheppard arched and came hard, panting and grunting as his body spasmed in the wraith's arms.

Still panting, Sheppard sat bolt upright on the lumpy, uncomfortable folding cot he'd been calling his own for the past two weeks, his legs tangled in the sheets. The come which had pooled in his navel started rolling down his side as he moved, glinting in the dim light from a lantern left burning just outside the tent flap.

“Dammit,” he snarled under his breath. He hated sleeping in a wet spot. Quickly tucking the tip of his wayward cock back under the waistband of his boxers with one hand, John reached for the napkins he'd stuffed under his pillow with the other so he could mop up the mess. Unfortunately, this kind of thing had been happening a lot more often lately, so he'd taken to hiding a few tissues close by to clean up discretely when it did. In a fully-occupied eight-man tent, that took some doing.

He shivered in the cool night air as he swiped at his abdomen, his body covered in a sheen of sweat – and no wonder. Rather than fading upon awakening like most of his dreams, the ones that featured Todd usually lingered, and true-to-form, he could recall every nuance of this one. Sheppard had especially liked the part where they had connected mentally, and the pleasure had shot right off the charts. He wondered briefly if that was what it was really like, never having allowed Todd that close. It had been pretty damn hot. So hot, in fact, that he suddenly grew concerned that he might have been... loud.

John froze in place, heat rising in his cheeks. He surreptitiously glanced around the tent, his eyes wide in the dark as he tried to pick out details. Thankfully, the deep, regular breathing and occasional snores of his bunkmates continued unabated, and no one seemed to be gazing back, so it was probably safe to assume that his embarrassing mishap had gone unnoticed.

He shouldn't have been surprised. This mission, helping to rebuild a large, wooden trestle bridge that had been washed out by spring floods, cutting off travel and supplies to this planet's capital city, was especially challenging. They all needed as much rest as they could get.

Pushing the soiled tissues into the end of the pillowcase, to be disposed of in the morning, John finger-combed his sweaty hair back from his face, then turned and felt his pillow. That was damp with perspiration, too. Grimacing, he flipped it over to the dry side, then gingerly laid back down, trying to avoid the creased, sweat-soaked sheets as much as possible before pulling the blanket up over his shoulder with a resigned sigh.

After three months and change, Sheppard been on Earth just over a week. The majority of that time consisted of the first five days after Atlantis had landed in San Francisco Bay, when he'd been holed up with Todd in the hotel. The 'just over' part was the accumulated half-hours here, forty-five minutes there between missions, and – oh yeah – he couldn't forget the day he'd managed to spend almost the entire afternoon on Atlantis, when he'd come back early from a two-week stint checking fence posts, with a strange rash he'd picked up from an indigenous, poison-ivy-like plant.

He'd actually hoped to have a chance to speak to Rodney, or maybe track down Teyla or Ronon that time, but he never got the chance. The minute Dr. Keller had determined he was fit for duty and handed him a tube of cream, John had been escorted back to the Stargate and sent out with SG-12. He'd spent the next two weeks helping to dig irrigation ditches on a little backwater planet he couldn't even remember the Gate address for. All he knew was that the residents were trying to build some semblance of an independent society after centuries of domination by the Goa'uld – the Milky Way's answer to the Wraith.

If he wasn't so worn out and frustrated by bigger concerns, he would have been able to appreciate how satisfying the work was in its own way. He'd done it often enough in Pegasus, after all.

During his time on Atlantis, John had learned that the people you helped today could be the very same ones who might show their gratitude with generous trade agreements when the crops were harvested. While he realized that the stakes were different here in the Milky Way than in Pegasus, and nobody expected to be paid in livestock and vegetables at this end of the wormhole, he'd found that a little goodwill went a long way, regardless of the beneficiary – and sometimes with unexpected results.

Todd was a perfect example of that. When John had offered a bedraggled Wraith his chance to escape from Kolya, and kept his promise to get the creature home, he never could have foreseen the chain of events which would eventually unfold from that simple act of kindness.

Sheppard rolled onto his back, his quiet snort of affectionate amusement sounding as weary as he felt. No, he mused, he had no problem with little backwater planets – or helping people out. What bothered him was that he hadn't had a break since he'd returned to duty, and not only was he exhausted, but he missed that damn wraith more and more every day. The alien's strong, oddly-soothing presence, the scent of him, the feel of that muscular body - dreams just didn't do justice to the real thing.

John could feel his cheeks growing warm again, glad for the concealing darkness. He knew if he'd been dating a woman, he wouldn't be half as self-conscious about what he was feeling – or about cleaning up after a wet dream, for that matter - but being involved with another male was something he was still processing, and the reality of it caught him off-guard sometimes.

During the day Sheppard buried how he felt about the wraith under his concerns for whatever project was at-hand, compartmentalizing his emotions with long-practiced ease. He really had no choice. The military frowned on fraternizing not only with the enemy, but one of the same sex, and Todd was both. But at night – especially when it was late and John's defenses were down – emotions he'd only recently come to terms with rose to the surface full-force, leaving him feeling raw and vulnerable. It was only then, in the quiet darkness, that he could admit he ached for Todd's touch so badly he couldn't stand it sometimes – and when dreams of the wraith brought him to orgasm in his sleep, he welcomed them, although his cheeks still flushed with shame afterwards.

Oddly-enough, the fact that the male in-question was actually a dangerous alien from another galaxy made him feel a little bit better. Todd was exotic and alluring in a way John had never encountered before, and he blamed that, more than even the Brother bond that had connected them from the beginning, for his eventual, inevitable deflowering. Not that he minded.

What Sheppard did mind - even more than being unable to get back to Earth for any significant length of time, was that he had no way to get in touch with Todd to let him know what was going on. Never mind the fact that John didn't quite know, himself, but it would have been nice – reassuring – just to be able to talk to the wraith, and listen to the tone of his voice drop into that soft, gravelly purr he seemed to reserve for John, alone.

Unfortunately, even if, by some unknown miracle, Sheppard actually had the opportunity to speak with Todd, he had no idea what he'd say. Telling the wraith he missed him, while absolutely true, probably wouldn't work out too well. First of all, John was pretty sure that with the problem he had expressing his feelings, he'd never be able to get the words out. Second – he understood Todd well enough to know that the sentiment, alone, would not be appreciated. The wraith would want to know what Sheppard was going to do about it.

A smirk tugged at the corner of John's mouth. Todd was a Wraith after his own heart. Like the alien, Sheppard had always been a man of action, too, and rather than whining about their being apart, he'd want to be able to tell the wraith that he'd be there soon. The problem was that Sheppard had already been struggling to make that happen for three months, and he hadn't managed it yet.

John's fast-fading smile was replaced with a frown. The morning he'd returned to Atlantis after his week with Todd, he'd barely had time to stow his bag in his quarters and take a quick inventory of furniture that was going to need replacing, before his door had chimed. It had been a soldier with a message from Major Lorne, requesting Sheppard's presence in his office. Mildly amused that the internal comm system hadn't been restored yet, John slipped out of his quarters as quickly as possible and followed the Airman through the halls, hoping the man hadn't noticed the wholesale destruction in his room. Of course, after living with the rather extensive damage that had been done to so much of the City's infrastructure and systems, it probably hadn't even registered as something out of the ordinary.

Although, at second glance, John had noticed that the majority of the damage within the City looked like it had already been addressed. Corridors which had been nearly impassible after Atlantis' battle with the Hive, and the rough landing in San Francisco Bay, had been almost entirely cleared of debris. He couldn't help but be impressed with the amount of clean-up that had been accomplished in just a week's time, although he had noticed that his guide was avoiding the transporters. If they were still down, as well as the comm-links, then the repairs had been focused mainly on structural and cosmetic damage as opposed to getting the technology up and running, and Sheppard had wondered idly which bigwig Woolsey was trying to impress on their next visit.

He had been just about to ask the Airman if anyone had been in to tour the City, when their interminable trek had ended at Evan's door. The Major had welcomed him back warmly, then asked John to sit down.

The interview had been brief and devastating.

In the scant five days since Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon had been away, everything had changed. Woolsey, for all intents and purposes, was gone, replaced by General Landry; and John's team – in fact all the Atlantis teams – had been broken up and slotted into the existing Milky Way ones.

Due to John's rank, and 'special status' as Atlantis' military leader when they were in Pegasus, Lorne had emphasized nervously, and Sheppard's possibly still-fragile emotional state after the whole fiasco with the Wraith's death, it had been decided to put him on Light Duty until further notice.

John had seethed while Lorne talked, clenching his fists in his lap hard enough to leave angry, red, crescent-shaped marks in his palms. He'd wondered how long it had actually taken for things to go off the rails so badly, that it had become standard operating procedure for something this important and life-changing to come from someone of lower rank. Sheppard was receiving what amounted to a demotion. Hearing about it from his Second-in-Command went against every protocol and regulation he could recall. This sort of thing should have been coming down the chain of command directly from Landry – not up.

Evan had kept glancing at him, then away, his gaze sliding off John's face to land on his shoulder, or the zipper of his jacket. It had been easy to see that the Major was well-aware this was not how things were done, and Sheppard had taken what small measure of satisfaction he could in the knowledge that Lorne at least had the good grace to be unable to look him in the eye. Sheppard had walked into Evan's office as Atlantis' Military Leader and Head of her Flagship Gate Team, and would walk out as an adjunct member of whatever established Milky Way team needed an extra body. He had been given a window seat, which meant that although, technically, John still retained his rank and his title, until the Ancient City returned to Pegasus – when-and-if that was going to happen remained to be seen – he had been effectively stripped of his team, his leadership, and his Command.

“Lorne...,” Sheppard rasped, after a moment of stunned silence. “Evan – I understand that Landry might still harbor a little resentment after the last time I was assigned to a team in the Milky Way – but what did I do to deserve this?”

Major Lorne's brow furrowed and his kind blue eyes clouded with consternation, but at least he finally raised his head and met Sheppard's gaze. “Honestly, John – I couldn't say. I was told that if you have questions, you'd need to take them up with General Landry.”

“Damn right, I will,” John replied as he rose from his seat, his temper banked like glowing coals just waiting for a few sticks of kindling to burst into flames. This had to be some kind of mistake – or someone's idea of a sick joke.

“Colonel – wait.”

Sheppard turned in the doorway, his face set in that blank, cold expression Lorne usually only ever saw just before the killing started. It was such a subtle change that others might miss it, but Evan knew from experience it wasn't a good sign when John started shutting down like that. Without breaking eye contact, Evan slowly and carefully pushed two sheets of paper across his blotter.

“You're going to need these.”

John stalked back across the room to the Major's desk and flipped the top sheet off the bottom with a careful finger, as though he expected them to be booby-trapped. After the conversation they'd just had, Lorne didn't blame him.

“What are they?”

“It's your copy of AF Form 469, Duty Limiting Condition Report, and a schedule with the missions you're going on for the next few months.” Evan sat back. “You're a popular guy. Once the other Teams heard you were available, everyone wanted you.” He offered one of his best disarming smiles, dimples and all, hoping that this little bit of good news might help bring Sheppard back from the edge.

The Colonel glanced from the roster to his Second. He was not amused.

“Major, these are all literally back-to-back. Where's my time off?” The last thing Sheppard needed was a SNAFU with the schedule, too, on top of everything else. He'd promised Todd he'd be back in a week or two. “And I'm scheduled to go out this morning,” John's frown deepened. “I'm not going to have time to talk to the General about this today.”

Evan leaned forward and turned the schedule, tilting his head to read it. “You're right,” he replied, pitching his voice into the pleasant, noncommittal tone he often used to calm civilians. He was actually kind of relieved that John wouldn't have time to speak with Landry before he left. It was pretty obvious that Sheppard was too worked up to sit down with the General at the moment.

Even on short acquaintance, Lorne could see that Landry and John were a lot alike. Both came across as laid back and easy-going - until they reached their limits, but when push came to shove they were tough as nails, and willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone when they felt it was necessary. Sheppard needed some time to cool down before he pleaded his case, or the pair would be locking horns in a matter of minutes. “SG-6 is probably waiting for you at the Gate right now,” he ventured.

John scooped up the papers with an aggrieved sigh, hastily folding them and stuffing them in his jacket pocket. “Do me a favor, Evan. Let General Landry know I'll need to have a word with him when I get back from this mission. Okay?”

Major Lorne stood up and snapped to attention, giving his superior officer a heartfelt salute.

“Yes Sir, Colonel Sheppard.”

At the moment, John was the Head of nothing – in charge of no one – but with a single gesture of respect, Lorne let him know that regardless of Landry's orders, as far as Evan was concerned, Sheppard was still the Military Leader of Atlantis and Lorne was his man.

The Colonel paused and returned the salutation, his compressed lips relaxing into a small smile. There was no reason to be angry with Evan. He was only doing as he'd been ordered. At heart, Major Lorne was a good man, and John couldn't have asked for a better Second.

“As you were,” John murmured, not unkindly, as he turned to leave, pretending he didn't hear Lorne's profound sigh of relief.

“Yes, Sir.”

Stuffing his frustration down as far as it would go, Sheppard had geared-up and made it to the Gate in record time, ready to embark on his first vital mission to keep the Milky Way safe for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Instead he'd spent a week slaving like a migrant farm worker alongside the rest of SG-6, harvesting crops. While it might have been good for the soul, and possibly his physique, it had done nothing for his growing agitation.

Exhausted after long days of hard work in the fields under sun-drenched skies, John had crawled into his bedroll every night with the back of his neck burned a little darker by the bright, binary star, and his body aching in places he hadn't known could be sore. When he'd finally settled himself as comfortably as he could on the thin padding, John had done his best to sink into restful oblivion for a few hours, to soothe his afflicted body and ease his agitated mind, but try as he might – exhausted as he'd been - sleep had evaded him.

After the rest of the team had dropped off and the tent had grown quiet except for soft snores and the occasional faint rustling of someone turning over, Sheppard had often laid awake for hours, agonizing over the untenable situation the two slips of paper in his jacket had put him in. Although he'd found it somewhat ironic that he'd been placed on Light Duty when he was busting his ass like a draft horse, coming back from his R&R to the order hadn't been amusing at all. It had blindsided him, and hit him hard.

In hindsight he should have expected it.

Restricted Duty wasn't just for someone recovering from physical ailments, it was also given to people dealing with PTSD and other emotional issues that might affect their judgment or ability to respond to situations correctly. Basically, Stargate Command had been afraid John would fuck up because he wasn't on top of his game, so they'd done some spin control to mitigate any potential situations. While, technically, there was no stigma attached to it, it still bothered Sheppard to know that he'd been found less-than-fit to resume his duties – even temporarily. Like it or not, it had become part of his permanent record, and it was going to be looked at and weighed every time he came up for a promotion. It wasn't as though he didn't have plenty of black marks already, but they were all for actions he'd taken – decisions he'd made, not his perceived inability to do his job. The most galling part about it was that the ostensible reason he'd been put on Light Duty – so he could recover from the death of the Wraith - was a falsehood.

It had taken several long nights of mulling it over, before John had begrudgingly come to the conclusion he should be glad that was the extent of what was being put in his file, after the multitude of laws he'd broken to free Todd. Although it hadn't cheered him up very much to admit it, he knew it was decidedly better for him to live with the lie of a little mental instability, than own up to any of what he'd actually done. After giving aid and comfort to the enemy, plotting and executing an escape from a military facility, harboring a fugitive, falsifying reports, and drawing others into a conspiracy, on top of it all - Sheppard figured he was lucky there wasn't an order of Court Martial in there, and a prison sentence.

The other sheet Lorne had handed him – the schedule - was more of a nuisance than anything. For some odd reason, it didn't give him any downtime. That could be rearranged, but he needed to speak to the General, himself, apparently, to do so.

Unfortunately, Sheppard didn't get his meeting with Landry when he got back from his first mission – or his second – or third. Whenever he returned, the General was either in a meeting, or on the phone, or just unavailable for one reason or another. It hadn't help that the off-world missions John had been committed to were all scheduled within an hour of his return from the previous one, so he never had the luxury of waiting around until Landry could see him.

So much for resolution – or a break, for that matter.

Not only did he lose his narrow window of opportunity to meet with the General on a regular basis, John had no occasion to find his friends, either. After wasting precious minutes dutifully showing up outside Landry's office at the end of every mission, only to be turned away, Sheppard usually had just enough time left to shower, change his clothes, and restock his pack. By the time he was done and ready to return to the Gate, the chance to locate any of his teammates, never mind whoever had the cellphone so he could give the wraith a call, was long gone – although on one occasion he'd come tantalizing close to both.

As he'd left for his third mission, about a month after he and Todd had parted, John had caught sight of McKay out of the corner of his eye, calling his name and surreptitiously flashing the phone as he ran into the Gate Room just as Sheppard had begun to enter the Event Horizon, but by then it had already been too late. Another step, and John had been on the other side of the galaxy again, heartsore and feeling like he'd been cheated. Effectively cut off from his friends, his home world, and the wraith by circumstances beyond his control, if Sheppard hadn't known better, he would have sworn someone was trying to keep him away from Earth on purpose.

After a month-and-a-half and four unsuccessful attempts to meet with the General, Sheppard had finally had enough of what had started to feel like deliberate avoidance, so the next time he'd set foot in the Ancient City, he'd tried a different tack. Instead of seeking out Landry, the Colonel had managed to corner Evan in his office.

The younger man had given a guilty start when he'd glanced up and met John's gaze, and in that instant the suspicions Sheppard had been doing his best to convince himself were his imagination, had all been confirmed.

Something was going on, and Lorne was privy to at least a portion of it.

“Evan...”

“John,” Lorne cut him off before Sheppard could go any further, “There's nothing I can do. You need to speak with General Landry.”

Sheppard ran frustrated fingers through his short dark hair, snorting derisively as he did so. “You know that's not going to happen. I've tried to see him every time I've come back and he's been busy. I don't think that's about to change anytime soon.”

The Major kept his eyes focused on the pen he rolled nervously between his fingers. “Colonel, I don't keep the General's schedule. You'll just have to keep trying.”

John rested his hands on his lean hips – leaner still after six weeks of what amounted to hard labor, considering his Second through narrowed eyes. “At least tell me why I'm being punished like this. It has to be more than just disobeying one of Landry's orders in the interest of saving Atlantis from the Replicators.”

Lorne's gaze flickered up to meet his then slid away again. “You're not being punished,” he murmured uncertainly.

“I beg to differ,” John snarled. He loomed over Evan's desk, ticking off each point with his fingers, “I've been reduced to being a fifth wheel on other people's teams; I'm being sent out on every hard, heavy, back-breaking job no one else wants; and I haven't had a rest break in six weeks, with none in sight because the General is perpetually unavailable. That sounds a hell of a lot like a punishment to me.”

Evan sighed, a noisy exhalation of defeat, meeting Sheppard's weary, outraged gaze with sympathetic eyes. This whole situation had been eating at Lorne since its inception a month-and-a-half earlier, and he hadn't been sleeping well. From the look of things, neither had the Colonel.

“Listen... Let me see what I can do about getting you and the General some face time. You'll need to patient, though.” The Major checked his watch. “I know you have to get ready for your next trip out. I'll give you an update when you get back. Okay?”

John straightened, his eyebrows rising in surprise at Evan's sudden change of heart.

“I'll try to be patient, but I'm almost to the end of my rope,” Sheppard replied gruffly. “I can't guarantee anything at this point.”

“Please promise me you will.” Lorne leaned forward over crossed arms, his eyes intent. “Just show up for your missions and keep your head down.”

John's gaze traveled over his Second's tense face and form – taking in all the little clues that made up human body language with a wary stillness that was vaguely Wraithlike. He didn't like what he saw. Everything about Lorne's posture and demeanor indicated there was more on the line than Sheppard knew, and he needed to tread carefully. After a moment of intense scrutiny, John nodded once in understanding.

“I will. Thanks, Evan.”

Lorne nodded back. “Good. It'll make my job a whole hell of a lot easier if you do.”

John's face relaxed into a crooked smirk. “Yeah,” he drawled. “I guess I can be a handful sometimes.”

Evan snorted. “You have no idea.”

Overheating under the heavy wool, John kicked the blanket off again. While he understood that the military was a large, ponderous machine whose wheels ground slowly, patience had never been his strong suit. It was one of the reasons he ran up against Air Force regulations time and again. In truth, the situation – still unresolved now after almost three-and-a-half months – had continued to weigh heavily on his mind every night regardless of Lorne's reassurances. It had taken every ounce of discipline John possessed to 'show up for his missions and keep his head down,' while he tried to give Evan time to set his plan in motion, when what Sheppard really wanted to do was tear Atlantis apart, find Landry, and demand an explanation as to why this was happening.

Fortunately, John had managed to hold both his temper and and his tongue, and it looked like his forbearance was finally getting ready to pay off. Two weeks earlier, as SG-8 had gathered in the Gate Room, jokingly asking each other how one rebuilt a trestle bridge, the Major had met him and taken him aside. In low, urgent tones, Evan had revealed that the Conflict Resolution Form he'd submitted on Sheppard's behalf had finally borne fruit. Forced by protocol to take action, with the threat of third-party mediation ready to step in if he didn't, General Landry had, reluctantly, set aside some time to meet with John when he returned from this mission.

Sheppard pulled the covers up again, settling the blanket over his legs. Finally finding a happy medium between freezing and roasting, John's eyes slipped closed and his mind started to drift. Only a few more days now, and he'd be back in Atlantis. While he was excited to be going home, and eager to get things resolved, it was disconcerting that it had taken such drastic action to get Landry to speak with him.

John knew he and the General had a little history which might account for the man being less-than-happy to see him again, but nothing particularly Earth-shattering – nothing that should have resulted in Sheppard being avoided and ignored for more than three months. He'd only worked under Landry briefly, as leader of one of the Milky Way Gate Teams when the entire Atlantis Expedition had been sent packing by Helia and her ship of Ancients. Although John's short stint on Earth had ended with him stealing a Puddle Jumper in order to return to Pegasus against the General's direct orders, he couldn't believe Landry would still be holding it against him, although try as he might, Sheppard had no idea what else he might have done in a past life to have earned the General's ire.

Whatever it was that had put them at odds, John was looking forward to getting it all out on the table. He could only hope that once he finally found out what the problem was, he'd be able to strike a happy medium with Landry, too. At least then, he might have a chance in hell of falling back to sleep again when he woke up at Balls A.M., instead of lying awake, brooding, until the alarm went off.

Chapter Text

When John Sheppard stepped out of the event horizon on Atlantis three days later, the unobtrusive wave of his Second was the first thing to catch his eye. Hefting his backpack, Sheppard made his way over to the Major's side through the small crowd of milling Gate Teams – both incoming and outgoing - technicians, and crates of supplies ready to go out with the next off-world mission.

“Hey,” Lorne greeted him quietly, taking his arm and pulling him aside. “You ready for your meeting?”

“Do I look ready?” Incredulous, John spread his hands and looked down at his dusty uniform, dirty nails, and the dried mud flaking off his boots, then back up at Evan. “Can I get a few minutes first, to shit, shower, and shave?”

Major Lorne's gaze drifted anxiously up to the Command Deck, then he gave Sheppard a quick nod. “Yeah, but make it fast. You're scheduled to go out with SG-18 in forty-five minutes. I'll let the General know you're on your way.”

John thanked him, then started off down the corridor at a trot, dodging civilians and military alike in his haste to get to his quarters. Before he had gone more than twenty paces, the sound of Evan's voice calling his name brought Sheppard to a halt, and he glanced over his shoulder expectantly.

“The transporters have been repaired, Colonel.”

Thank God.

With the blessed convenience of working transporters, John was back in the Gate Room in thirteen minutes flat, freshly showered, barnacles scraped, dressed in a clean uniform, and wearing an old-but-serviceable pair of boots he kept in reserve for just this kind of quick change, already polished and ready to go.

Sheppard paused and glanced across the vaulted gallery toward the balcony where Woolsey, Carter, and before them both, Elizabeth, so often stood, offering words of encouragement or keeping anxious vigil. Leaders – all of them – that he had come to rely on, that he'd looked to for guidance when the going got tough. Ones that, in turn, had trusted him – trusted his judgment and abilities even when he had doubted himself. John seldom allowed himself to acknowledge how much they meant to him, but at this very moment he missed them – even Woolsey, who, in his own deceptively-mild and bureaucratic way, had worked as hard for the greater good of Atlantis as any of them. Now Major Lorne stood in the very same spot, nervously alternating between checking his watch and gripping the rail with white-knuckled intensity while he waited for Sheppard's return.

Catching sight of John on his next visual sweep of the Gate Room, Lorne jerked his head sharply, indicating that the Colonel needed to join him ASAP. With a nod, Sheppard crossed the intricately-detailed mosaic that covered the floor and climbed the back staircase to the Control Room, absently smoothing his hands down the front of his shirt and making last-minute adjustments to his uniform as he joined Evan. John might only be dressed in fatigues, but there was still a correct way to wear them, and he wanted to be ready for the scrutiny he was sure to receive in the next few minutes.

Sheppard followed his Second past the DHD console and the workstations that controlled the City, back to the Commander's glass-enclosed office. Unlike his predecessors, General Landry had chosen to make the translucent walls opaque and close the door, effectively cutting himself off from all but those he gave express permission to enter. Up until now the Colonel had felt that exclusion keenly, but as he stood poised on the threshold with a guaranty of admittance, he knew a brief moment of panic that set his fingers and toes tingling. The last thing he wanted to do was meet with a man it had taken an official complaint and the threat of external arbitration to coerce into meeting with him face-to-face.

Too late to back out now. Not that Sheppard really had a choice in the matter. It was imperative that he meet with the General to get his schedule changed. He needed some time off before he dropped dead from exhaustion, not to mention the long-overdue visit he owed the Wraith he'd promised he would come back to – three months ago.

Steeling himself to face the inevitable, John drew a shaky breath and let it out slowly to steady his nerves, then gave Evan a thumbs up.

Lorne rapped on the door sharply, a strange, hollow sound that echoed down the short hallway.

“Sir, I have Colonel Sheppard to see you,” he said, pitching his voice to carry through the dense, frosted glass.

After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, a sharp Come in, floated back to them through the barrier.

Evan pressed the keypad by the door and it slid open swiftly and silently, as it probably had up until the day the Ancients had abandoned the City. John drew himself up to his full height and stepped inside, only jumping the tiniest bit in surprise when the glass panel whooshed shut behind him.

A dry wheeze of laughter brought John around to face the desk, and he immediately snapped to attention and saluted.

“Colonel Sheppard, as ordered, Sir.”

Hank Landry leaned back in his burgundy leather chair, gripping the upholstered arms as he surveyed the man before him with a critical eye. It was obvious from the General's avid gaze, which traveled slowly and deliberately over John's face and uniform, that he was searching for any small detail which might have been overlooked or wasn't within regulations, and Sheppard was glad he'd taken the time to clean up and change. His instincts on the tone of this meeting had, unfortunately, been correct.

After a long moment Landry finally, reluctantly, returned the salutation, releasing Sheppard from his frozen stance.

“At ease, Colonel,” he ordered gruffly, giving John time to adopt a less formal attitude, before pushing himself to his feet and coming around the desk. Not a foot away from where Sheppard stood, the General leaned against the work table and crossed his arms over his chest, resuming his confrontational glare.

John stared straight ahead under the other man's withering glance, hiding the mild amusement that rose within him. It occurred to him that Landry was trying to be intimidating by invading his personal space and giving him the stinkeye. What the General didn't know, was that after Sheppard's long association with a master at the game, he had long ago become immune to both techniques. General Landry was small potatoes compared to going toe-to-toe with a Wraith.

The uncomfortable stalemate stretched out until Landry finally leaned in even closer, his head cocked at a curious angle like he'd discovered a new species of cockroach.

“Why were you so determined to see me, Colonel Sheppard?”

John's amusement drained away and he lifted his chin in subtle defiance. He'd waited a long time for his chance to be heard, and this was it.

“My understanding was that if I had any concerns about my status or assignment, I was to come directly to you.” Hazel eyes flashed accusingly as they shifted from the middle distance to focus on General Landry's face. “I've been trying to do that for three months.”

An expectant smile that didn't reach his bright blue eyes curled the edges of Landry's mouth. “And what – exactly – do you have concerns about?”

John's visage darkened with anger as he fought the almost-overwhelming urge to punch the gloating expression off the General's face, his fingers curling into a fist behind his back. This might be some sort of twisted game to Landry, but he was messing with Sheppard's life.

“For starters,” John replied, “I didn't appreciate being informed by my Second-in-Command that I'd been placed on Restricted Duty and given the equivalent of a demotion.” Sheppard met Landry's cold gaze with an icy one of his own. “We both know that something like that should have come down the chain of command, not up.”

The General's smile grew into a mocking grin of delight. “I'm surprised at you, Colonel Sheppard,” he said, chuckling softly. “From personal experience, as well as what I've read of your file - and it's a pretty thick one – you don't go by the book when there's a faster, easier way to do something. Since you don't seem to have much respect for the chain of command, anyway, I figured it wouldn't bother you unduly if I did things your way, for a change.”

A frown of consternation creased John's brow as he once again mentally sifted through the laundry list of infractions that peppered his official record, wondering what he'd done to piss off the General. After they'd put aside their differences regarding the Replicator incident – or at least after Landry's complaint had been buried under the Commendation Sheppard had received for saving O'Neill and Woolsey, his only other contact with General Landry involved their brief discussion about bringing Todd through the Stargate to help Rodney. Landry had been understandably concerned about allowing a highly-resourceful and dangerous alien access to the SGC, but otherwise he hadn't seemed particularly perturbed, either by John or the situation. Even when the wraith had momentarily 'gotten away from' his keepers and drained Wallace, the General had taken it in stride. In truth – it wasn't the worst thing to have ever happened in Stargate Command, and although Sheppard might have fudged the report a little bit and left out a few key details, he had actually done everything else by the book on that trip.

“I don't understand, Sir,” John finally replied, genuinely perplexed. “What did I do?”

The smile abruptly slid off Landry's face. “It's as much what you're capable of doing as what you've done, Colonel. You're a loose cannon who thinks the rules don't apply to you.”

“Sir, I've done everything that has been asked of me.”

“Along with several things that were not. That seems to be a recurring problem with you, both on Earth and in Pegasus, and it's one that has cost lives.”

John maintained eye contact by force-of-will alone, but inwardly he flinched at the General's harsh words.

“Sir, I...”

“I don't like you, Sheppard,” Landry cut him off. “I don't like you, and I don't trust you.

“Why do you think you're not leading a team this time around? Why do you think you've been relegated to all the low-risk, low-priority assignments? Because I can't afford to have you out there, stirring things up in our galaxy like you did when you woke up the Wraith in Pegasus.”

John winced – outwardly this time. Here, then, was the crux of the issue, and Landry had scored a direct hit. While the incident, in broad terms, wasn't classified, the details of what had happened and the outcome of the inquest were included in his service record, which the General had apparently only recently decided to read through. Waking the Wraith was something that still sometimes plagued Sheppard with guilt, even after five years – regardless of the fact that it had not been intentional, and done in the course of trying to protect himself and his teammates. He'd spent many hours of countless nights rehashing the events that had led to the Keeper's death before he'd come to terms with it, finally accepting that he was never going to find a scenario that would have left her alive and the Wraith in hibernation. It was a tenuous peace he'd found, at best, but it allowed him to get some sleep.

Now Landry had ripped the bandage off the wound, forcing John to revisit an incident he desperately kept trying to leave behind. He supposed he should be used to having it thrown in his face at unexpected moments by now, but it never got any easier.

“With all due respect, Sir,” Sheppard replied, his voice gaining strength as he readied himself for the inevitable confrontation. “I was trying to save my Commanding Officer.”

“By shooting him?” General Landry snorted, unimpressed. “Remind me to never bring you along as back-up, Sheppard. You have a funny way of showing your support.”

John's uncertainty fell away as his anger broke the surface. “Permission to speak freely, Sir.”

Landry glared at the Colonel for a moment, letting him know just how little he cared to hear what Sheppard had to say, then nodded curtly.

“Sir, Colonel Sumner was already compromised by the time I was in a position to do anything – and he knew it. That Keeper was about ready to crack his mind open like an egg and pull the coordinates to Earth right out of his head. The Wraith would have been here five years ago if I hadn't pulled the trigger when I had the chance.”

The General's frown deepened. “Marshall Sumner was a good man, an exemplary soldier – and a long-time friend, and I resent the hell out of anyone implying that he couldn't have held his own against that Queen.”

John met Landry's gaze with narrowed eyes. “Have you ever tried to keep a Wraith out of your head? Do you have any idea how strong they are? They are telepathic by nature and very, very old. Colonel Sumner knew he was losing the fight. He's the one who gave me the go-ahead to take the shot. The last thing I wanted to do that day was kill my CO, but it was vital to keep Earth's location out of Wraith hands, and Sumner understood that.”

Even as the words left Sheppard's lips, a missing piece of the puzzle fell into place. He had assumed that his conduct when he'd disobeyed the General's order might have contributed – at least in part, to the man's antipathy toward him, but John had unknowingly impacted Landry on a much deeper, personal level. With General Landry's admission that he had considered Colonel Sumner a friend, he confirmed Sheppard's gut feeling that his three-month sentence of hard labor had been a deliberate act of revenge as opposed to an unfortunate glitch in scheduling.

“I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, then, Sheppard, because I don't believe you for a minute.” Landry stabbed an accusatory finger in John's direction. “I think you saw your chance to take an impediment out of your way, and you jumped on it.”

The General turned away from the stunned Colonel and returned to his desk. He sat down with an aggrieved sigh and rifled through a thick stack of neatly-clipped papers.

“It's too bad I'm the only one who can see through your B.S. You seem to have fooled everyone else. In spite of the fact that you're the one who started trouble almost as soon as you arrived in Pegasus, you keep getting glowing reports and recommendations from all the Atlantis Expedition Commanders you've worked with.”

He shook the pile menacingly.

“Believe me – I've gone over these reports with a magnifying glass. If there was anything even slightly irregular or questionable in any of them, I'd have had you reassigned back to McMurdo so fast it would have made your head spin.” Landry chuckled - a mirthless sound. “See how you like Antarctica with no Stargate, no Chair, no Ancient artifacts to play around with - no excitement. Nothing to do all day but wait for someone to need a ride. I hear it's a lot of fun in the winter, with nothing but a handful of scientists for company.”

John swallowed with a dry click. Even the remote possibility of him being sent to Antarctica again left him cold with fear. He already knew all about the interminable days of enforced inactivity, the solitude of a nearly-empty base, and the long, quiet, frigid nights with hours and hours of nothing to do but remember... and regret. It had eventually gotten so bad, that several months into his exile his bedtime ritual had begun to include taking out his sidearm and laying it on the nightstand, the better to admire its sleek, oiled beauty and contemplate the release it promised.

It was a good thing General O'Neill had shown up when he had, looking for a chopper pilot to ferry him out to the top secret excavation going on farther inland. If John hadn't inadvertently lit up the Ancient tech like a Christmas tree, and ended up being included in the Atlantis Expedition, he could say with certainty that he wouldn't have survived McMurdo for very much longer. It was a dark time in his life that Sheppard would rather never have to look at again, and with effort he pushed the memories back into the dim recesses of his mind where they belonged, and forced himself back to the present.

“... and after your little mental breakdown when the Wraith died – the enemy, by the way, in case you'd forgotten - I'd be wondering if you were qualified to lead, and just where your sympathies lie.”

Landry shot him a long, considering look. “It's out of my hands, though. The IOA seems to have faith in your abilities – although I can't help but wonder if that's Woolsey's doing, lobbying to keep you. You have him wrapped around your little finger. After reading some of the things he wrote about you, I'm surprised you can't walk on water, too.

“For whatever reason, they want you to stay so you can resume your duties of Military Commander when Atlantis leaves again for Pegasus. That is the only reason I tolerate you at all – but I don't have to like it, and I don't have to give you free reign to cause problems in the Milky Way.”

Sheppard allowed himself to relax by degrees, so grateful it was almost humiliating. As much as Landry might want to be rid of him, he wasn't going to be sent to McMurdo, after all – thanks to Richard Woolsey, of all people. John promised himself to thank the man the next time he saw him.

The General continued, unaware of the terror he'd momentarily inspired. “I was ready to assign you to KP duty or chain you to a desk and bury you under mountains of mindless paperwork, then the suggestion was made to keep you as busy as possible because you were so broken up about that alien, and it made my job easy. So rather than ground you, which would have kept you here on Atlantis all day, every day, to be a general nuisance and a pain in my ass, I signed you up for every low-priority irrigation ditch, farm hand, and public works project I could find, determined to keep you as far away from anything you could escalate into a galactic incident as possible.”

“If you want me doing community service, so be it,” John jumped in when Landry paused for breath. “I don't mind helping people – but you have to dial back the schedule so I get breaks in between missions like everyone else. In the past three months I haven't been here for more than a half-hour at a time, before I'm sent out again. I need to be put on regular rotation so I can have a few days off once in a while.”

“I don't have to do anything, Sheppard. Do I have to remind you who's in charge here?”

“No, Sir. I'm aware of that,” John replied through gritted teeth, his ire on the rise again. As much as he wanted his team reassembled and under his command, he was going to have to let that go – temporarily, at least. The General had made it clear that he didn't trust Sheppard as far as he could throw him, and for the moment, Atlantis was Landry's command by default, due to the City's more powerful Stargate. It was the General's call how he chose to allocate his resources and manpower while he held the reins.

What Sheppard would not back down on, though, was the unreasonably-harsh schedule Landry was demanding he adhere to. It went against every policy and regulation John could call to mind, and while he may have had some difficulty following the rules that governed the military, he certainly wasn't ignorant of them. In fact, Sheppard was particularly well-versed, which had stood him in good stead whenever he'd needed to skate by in the grey area of some regulation or another, and had probably kept him out of at least twice as much trouble as he'd ever gotten into.

“Sir,” John began, a glint of challenge igniting in his hazel eyes. “May I remind you that there has already been an official inquest surrounding the circumstances of Colonel Sumner's death, and I was cleared of any wrongdoing. You might not like the decision that was handed down, but that doesn't mean you get to be judge and jury on something that has already been settled. So, unless you have another valid reason for keeping me on such a punitive work schedule without any time off, you are in danger of being censured for abuse of authority, and retaliation.”

Landry sat back in his leather chair, a look of thinly-veiled surprise crossing his angry features. “What makes you think I'm punishing you, Sheppard? Perhaps it's your guilty conscience making you feel that way.”

Colonel Sheppard glared at the General while the last shred of John's humanity folded away and the cold, calculating military leader he had grown into rose to take its place. After enduring three and a half months of Landry's frontier justice, Sheppard was done playing games.

He knew that some people called him 'lucky' when he faced down Wraith Hives, Genii treachery, and Ancient technology gone awry, playing underdog to any number of more powerful opponents, only to prevail time and again. In reality, luck had very little to do with it. The secret of Sheppard's success came from knowing when to launch his counterattack, and where; and while his conflict with Landry might not be a physical confrontation, it was a military engagement, nonetheless, to be won with superior strategy and carefully-aimed firepower. Fortunately for Colonel Sheppard, the General had made the same mistake as many others, and underestimated him. Landry had forgotten there was a commander's mind as formidable as his own behind John's pretty-boy face and easygoing attitude, and had overplayed his hand, not only openly-revealing the chink in his armor, but handing John the ammunition. It was time to stop holding back, and fight fire with fire.

“You and I both know that engaging in any activity which smacks of a personal vendetta carries severe penalties, and your self-proclaimed friendship with Colonel Sumner makes your actions suspect.”

Landry snorted with derision. “You can't touch me, Colonel. You have no proof,” he said with a smirk.

Sheppard bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile, although his eyes were cold and flat. “You've forgotten about that official complaint, Sir. We both need to sign off on it in front of a notary, saying that the issue has been resolved. If I don't, an arbitrator will be brought in to go over the facts and make an independent determination. Are you sure that what you've been doing will stand up to that kind of scrutiny? I'd hate to see you jeopardize your otherwise-spotless career over something so petty.”

The smug expression fled the General's face, and the muscles in his jaw tightened. “That's coercion - blackmail,” he sputtered.

Sheppard offered a minimal shrug that could have been interpreted as apology or casual dismissal. Either way, the playing field was level now.

“Those are such ugly words, Sir,” John murmured, his tone full of gentle reproach as he took a step closer to the desk. “I'm just presenting a situation. What you choose to do is entirely up to you...”

Chapter Text

John stepped out of the transporter closest to McKay's lab, grateful he hadn't had to hoof it over here like he'd done the last time he'd made the trek from the Command deck. It was hard to believe it had been three and a half months since that fateful afternoon when he'd pulled Rodney aside and asked for his help springing Todd before the IOA took the wraith into custody.

Still vibrating from the adrenaline rush of victory coursing through him after his meeting with Landry, Sheppard paused just outside the closed doors of Repair Central, hands on his hips while he took a few deep breaths to calm himself. He glanced around the clean, quiet corridor and marveled at the difference, remembering the barely-contained throng of technicians milling around in the wide hallway while they tried not to trip on debris, Rodney at the heart of the chaos shouting orders and insults, and the blinding illumination of the emergency lights that had greeted him the first time John had ventured down here after Atlantis had landed. Now, with the cosmetic repairs just about complete, it was almost as if that day they'd battled so desperately to save Earth had only been a dream – almost being the operative word. Between the sore, aching muscles and repetitive-stress injuries Sheppard had accumulated from laboring like a slave for the grounded City's interim Commander, and the raised scar on his neck which acted as a visceral, daily reminder that his relationship status had been irrevocably changed from 'solitary man' to 'it's complicated,' John knew better.

He reached out and ran the flat of his hand along the pristine wall next to the entrance, where he distinctly recalled there being a sizable stress fracture from the beating the ship had taken. The only indication it had ever existed was the paint they'd used to cover the repair, which was just a shade off from the rest of the section. Even the light fixture that had been lying in a pile of rubble on the floor below it had been rehung to once again cast its soft, diffused glow over the hall as it had been doing for thousands of years, with just a small chip out of the rim. At first glance it certainly appeared as if everything had been seamlessly put back in place, but like a cracked sconce illuminating the slightly-darker paint which marred an Ancient corridor, and the scar from a Wraith bite that forever marked him as Todd's, the subtle aftermath of cataclysmic, life-altering changes were everywhere for those with eyes to see.

Atlantis had come home, and they'd all been affected by it. Even the City, itself, had not been immune.

Not that John minded too much. The scar had never bothered him. Well, it hadn't once he'd ascertained that it wouldn't be easily seen when he was in uniform – and after he'd started getting his head around the 'belonging to a Wraith' part. Fortunately, Todd had helped him appreciate some of the benefits which went along with that special connection during their week together.

As for the public works details Sheppard would remain assigned to, they had immediately been made more bearable once he'd successfully persuaded General Landry to put him on regular shift rotation. At least now John could look forward to having a few days off in between missions to rest and recuperate, instead of breaks that could be counted in minutes. More importantly, it meant he was finally going to have the opportunity to log some more quality time with Todd, and maybe even reconnect with his friends – his teammates. He'd missed them all while he'd been gone.

In fact, that was the reason John was hovering awkwardly outside Rodney's lab. Other than the brief glimpse he'd gotten of the man as Sheppard had been herded through a wormhole a couple of months earlier, he hadn't seen or spoken to McKay since they'd first plotted to free the wraith, and he needed a moment to pull himself together. Just contacting Rodney as John had left Landry's office, letting McKay know that he was back in town and on his way down to the lab, had been difficult for him. Sheppard had immediately known he was in trouble when the swell of emotions from just being able to utter the words over the comm-link had threatened to choke him with unshed tears, never mind actually being able to see the man again.

Sheppard drew a shaky breath. If he was this affected by his impending reunion with Rodney, he could only imagine that seeing Todd again was going to be ten times worse. Quite frankly, the intensity of John's feelings scared the hell out of him, and if he hadn't just won the battle he'd been fighting for three months to gain this very privilege, so he could be with the people he cared about the most, he'd almost be tempted to run away.

Grimly amused by that little bit of irony, John finally managed to lock away the irritating urge to cry with a self-deprecating snort, and swiped a quick hand over his face to make sure nothing had leaked out. Satisfied that he was back in control, Sheppard thought 'open' at the door before he could second-guess himself again, and the panels parted with a soft sigh.

Rodney sat at the same table they'd shared by the light of McKay's laptop, as they'd spied on the wraith and discussed holograms and internal sensors. Although the room was as devoid of personnel as it had been that mid-summer evening, at least the lights were on this time, giving Sheppard a good look at Rodney when the man glanced up at him expectantly. What he saw made John pause just inside the threshold, suddenly unsure.

A myriad of emotions shifted rapidly across Rodney's features before he tightened his lips and looked away, leaving John to question whether he'd actually witnessed them at all. Sheppard understood that he was one of McKay's best friends, and Rodney had been waiting for him for a long time, however, the depth of feeling he thought he'd caught in the high-strung astrophysicist's eye was unexpected. A puzzled frown creased John's brow, but before he could even begin to ponder the implications of what he wasn't even sure he'd seen in the first place, Rodney turned back to face him and gave John one of those crooked smiles Sheppard had missed so much – and the world righted itself again. Dismissing his barely-formed concerns as overactive imagination, John grinned back and sauntered over to the work bench, giving the lab an appraising once-over while he did.

“I like what you've done with the place,” Sheppard quipped as he pulled out the stool next to McKay and sat down, hoping the glib banter that had always been a hallmark of their relationship would help to ease their way past this awkward start.

“Nice of you to take time out of your busy social calendar to drop by,” Rodney replied acerbically, although the smile still lingered in his pale blue eyes, following John's lead, as always.

Friendship firmly re-established and back in familiar territory, the pair spent a little time catching each other up on the highlights of the past few months, with a promise to spend an evening together sometime soon to drink a six-pack of beer and race their RC cars up and down the halls.

Then John grew pensive. Cognizant of the fact that the walls might very well have ears, he glanced carefully around the empty lab before leaning close to murmur in Rodney's ear. “What about Todd?”

Taking his cue from Sheppard's wistful expression, McKay fumbled the cellphone out of his hoodie and pushed it across the table. “He 'dismissed' me a couple of weeks ago.”

The Colonel's eyebrows shot up in surprise as he picked up the phone. The memory of programming names and numbers into it and its twin, and showing the wraith how to use it, rose sharp and clear as he cradled it in his hand for the first time in fourteen weeks. It felt a lot longer.

“Why?”

Rodney sighed. “I guess he got tired of hearing me tell him you weren't around.”

John absently ran his thumb along the edge of the casing, wiping fingerprints and what looked like peanut butter off the plastic. “Yeah,” he nodded thoughtfully, “I can understand that. I got tired of not being around.” Sheppard glanced up, his gaze raw and open in a way that McKay had never seen before.

“I have to make a phone call,” John said decisively, sitting up straighter. He removed his comm-link and laid it on the work bench, then scanned the room like he was looking for something. “I just need a couple of minutes.”

“I figured as much,” Rodney responded, a small, lop-sided smile stretching his lips. “Use my office, if you want. I can guarantee that it's private.” He pointed to the small room at the back of the lab that housed a desk he seldom used and a couch he used too often, along with a two-cup coffeemaker and a stash of really good dark roast. It was his retreat when the idiocy of his colleagues grew too great for a genius of his caliber to bear without a time-out and a jolt of caffeine.

“I have some things to do, anyway.” McKay pulled the laptop closer and turned his attention to the screen. “Take your time.”

Sheppard had barely closed the door to Rodney's sparsely-furnished office behind him and brought up the lights before he was dialing Todd's cellphone number for the first time in over three months. He sank down on the arm of the sofa while he listened to it ring, his palms clammy and his heart hammering against his ribs, almost sick with anticipation and dread. Just as he counted the fifth ring and thought the call might go to voicemail, the wraith answered with a growl.

“McKay – I thought I told you not to bother me anymore. I do not need to be reminded every two weeks that Sheppard is unavailable.”

Surprised by the unexpected vehemence in the alien's voice, John pulled the phone away from his head and stared at it, his chest heaving with too many emotions to process in the brief span of a few heartbeats. Even angry and defensive, Todd's familiar, gravelly snarl was music to his ears, but the pain behind the wraith's words tore his heart out.

Sheppard had really hoped that he'd been the only one suffering, that the calls from his teammates would have been enough to tide Todd over until they could be together again. Unfortunately, it was clear from the wraith's outburst they hadn't, and deep down inside, John had known it was only a stop-gap measure, at best, right from the start. The bottom line was that Sheppard had promised he was going to come back in a couple of weeks, and he hadn't - and now it was almost four months later. Even though the circumstances surrounding his extended absence had been out of his control, it devastated John to realize that from Todd's perspective, it probably would have appeared that he'd been abandoned yet again, and Sheppard could tell from the tone of the wraith's voice that he had felt every minute of it.

John bowed his head, his lips compressed into a thin line. If Todd needed to rage, then so be it. John probably deserved whatever the wraith threw at him, anyway. The least he could do was let Todd take it out on the one he was angry with for a change, instead of the messenger. Anticipating the worst, Sheppard lifted the cellphone to his ear again and forced himself to speak, regardless of the lump in his throat and the shame that threatened to overwhelm him.

“Todd – it's John.”

In the stunned silence that followed, John pressed the phone closer, straining to differentiate the almost-inaudible sound of the wraith's soft, ragged respiration from the quiet hiss of the open line. Desperate for a response – something, anything - he focused all his energy on listening, greedy for every breath, every tiny noise coming through the receiver which proved Todd was really on the other end, and that regardless of the outcome, they had actually – finally - reconnected.

“Sheppard,” the wraith finally whispered brokenly, then faltered to a stop.

John's eyes slid shut and he smiled in spite of himself at the sound of his name on Todd's lips. He'd missed the damn wraith so much it hurt, and it was clear that their separation had been just as hard on the alien.

“Hey, buddy,” John murmured hesitantly, his tone soft and intimate. “It's so good to hear your voice.”

“It is... good to hear yours as well,” the wraith replied after a protracted sigh, his voice dropping into that low, unguarded rumble he only used with Sheppard in their most private moments, and John felt a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe Todd didn't hate him, after all. “Where are you?”

“I'm in Atlantis,” John said, as he stood and began nervously pacing the short distance between the couch and the desk. This was the part of relationships he hated, where he actually had to communicate about what he needed. It was something he usually avoided like the plague, but there was no getting around it tonight. This was too important to him. “I... I'd like to see you. I mean – do you want to see me?” The words tumbled out in an embarrassed rush, vaguely horrifying Sheppard who could only hang on for the ride. There was no telling where this was going to end up. “I literally just got back about a half-hour ago, and I finally have some time off. I could grab some clothes and call a cab, and be there in an hour or so. Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Todd murmured in a tone that had grown calm and measured, and John couldn't help but admire the alien's ability to compose himself like that. It was always such a struggle for Sheppard. “After all this time, I can wait a little while longer.”

“Yeah – about that...” John began ruefully as he rubbed the back of his neck, his fingers unconsciously tracing over the mark there.

“Save it, Sheppard,” the wraith cut in, his voice gruff but not unkind. “Tell me when you get here.”

“Will do,” John answered, as a wave of relief washed over him. He might not be forgiven yet, but Todd was at least interested in hearing him out. Sheppard gripped the phone tighter, his heart suddenly so full of emotions he didn't dare put a name to, that they spilled from his lips before he could stop himself. “Listen, Todd. I... You... Damn,” he stammered. “Let me try this again...”

A rusty chuckle erupted over the line. “Some things never change, do they, Sheppard,” the wraith said, affection and amusement evident in his tone. “Get your clothes. Come to me. I will be waiting.”

John emerged from the office a few minutes later with a smile curling the corners of his mouth that he couldn't quite suppress, and Rodney couldn't help but respond to. Grinning back, he pushed his computer away and stretched his arms over his head, listening to vertebrae pop and crackle as he unfolded from his hunched position in front of the screen. “Everything went well, I see.”

Sheppard's smile faltered for a moment before reasserting itself. He nodded warily, uncertain how much he wanted to share with McKay about the nature of his 'friendship' with the wraith. Although from Rodney's casual, matter-of-fact inquiry, he sensed that however much the other man knew – or guessed – McKay seemed oddly okay with it.

“Yeah,” John finally replied, cautiously letting his guard down just enough to test the waters of acceptance. “It actually went better than I'd thought it would. I'm going to head over there as soon as I throw some stuff in a bag. I figure...”

Whatever Sheppard had figured, died on his lips when the door to the lab unexpectedly opened and two MP's entered. John surreptitiously slipped the phone into Rodney's hand as he turned to meet the soldiers, blocking their view of McKay until the phone disappeared into the front pocket of the Canadian's sweatshirt.

“What's going on?” Sheppard demanded.

“Sir, you couldn't be reached on your comm-link,” one of the Marines replied, his gaze cutting from Colonel Sheppard to the discarded earpiece sitting on the table.

“But, I'm off-duty,” John said, a frown of consternation furrowing his brow.

The soldier came to attention. “No Sir, Colonel Sheppard, Sir. General Landry advises that according to regulations, a week's notice is required for time-off requests. There's a team at the Gate waiting for you, Sir. Your leave and your new schedule begins when you get back from this assignment.”

John glanced from the MP to Rodney, his face darkening with anger. After forcing Landry's hand by using the letter of the law, it seemed the General was going to screw him one last time with the same strategy.

When Sheppard didn't move or speak, too busy trying to tamp down his rage to react, the soldier shifted uneasily.

“We're here to escort you back to the Gate Room, Sir,” the Marine finished almost apologetically. It was a well-known fact – or at least an oft-repeated rumor - among the military personnel on Atlantis, that the General had been smoking Colonel Sheppard for some unknown reason, working him too long and too hard because of some sort of grudge. Being sent out again was probably the last thing Sheppard wanted to do after three months of hard labor, but his orders were to deliver the Colonel to the Gate Room, and orders were orders, like them or not.

“Understood.” John combed frustrated fingers through his mop of unruly dark hair, then reached for the abandoned headset with a defeated sigh. Carefully fitting the comm-link over his ear with his back to the waiting Marines, Sheppard caught Rodney's eye and mouthed the words call Todd.

McKay gave him an almost-imperceptible nod, and was rewarded with a small smile of thanks when John's pinched, worried expression eased into one of mere concern before the Colonel was escorted out between the two MP's, not quite in-custody, but very definitely being taken someplace he did not wish to go.

As soon as the door shut behind the departing trio, Rodney pulled the cellphone out and gazed at it with trepidation, realizing that although the difference was a matter of degrees, he was in the same boat as Sheppard – both of them being sent on missions they didn't want any part of. John had asked him to contact Todd and let him know about the change in plans, and as usual, McKay would do whatever Sheppard asked of him. However, after the last conversation Rodney had had with the wraith, and the fact that he was the bearer of bad news yet again, it was a phone call McKay dreaded having to make.

Chapter Text

The fog suddenly lifted in one of those capricious weather-changes San Francisco was famous for, and sunshine poured through the tall, stained-glass windows that graced Teyla's dojo. It dispersed shadows that had lingered in the corners of the large, octagonal room all morning, and filled the entire practice space with its diffused golden glow. After pooling in deep, jewel-tone, geometric patterns on the mat-strewn floor, the light glanced off the vinyl covers to bathe a pair of combatants in the center of the room with splashes of brilliant color, although so intense was their focus on each other, neither seemed aware of the soft, kaleidoscopic radiance which had unexpectedly engulfed them.

“C'mon, McKay. Let's try that again.”

Ronon Dex extended a strong, battle-scarred hand to the disgruntled scientist glaring up at him from the practice mat, tightening his lips against the smirk that threatened to erupt into a full-blown grin as he did so.

All Rodney had to do was block an incoming punch, then step in with a palm heel strike to the chin, and so far the astrophysicist hadn't even made it beyond parrying the Satedan's fist. Regardless of the extensive instructions and numerous demonstrations he'd patiently provided, with the help of a willing Marine who was also using the practice room, Ronon had just sent McKay sprawling three times in as many minutes. After bearing witness to the Canadian taking it squarely in the sternum and ending up on his backside three times running, it was getting difficult to keep a straight face.

“Don't you know you're supposed to pull your punches when you're training someone, Conan?” Rodney grumbled as he swatted away the proffered assistance. He clambered slowly to his feet, rolling his shoulders and turning his head this-way-and-that with a speculative frown wrinkling his brow.

“I think you threw my spine out of adjustment that time,” McKay complained, when a quick twist of his head ended with an audible 'pop' as a vertebra shifted back into place.

The Satedan, who had been watching Rodney's antics impassively, snorted. “Then block me next time.”

They had been going at this for the past twenty minutes; thirty, if he counted McKay's elaborate – and ineffective – warm-up routine, and the big warrior wondered for perhaps the hundredth time that morning, how someone as brilliant as Dr. Rodney McKay couldn't seem to grasp the basics of simple self-defense. It had been a slow-moving apprenticeship from the start, ever since the Satedan had first agreed to teach Rodney hand-to-hand combat skills soon after Atlantis had splashed down in the Pacific. Getting the man to let go of his natural tendency to over-analyze and learn to trust his body's responses was a constant, uphill battle on a good day, but even McKay didn't usually have this much trouble.

Rodney scowled darkly as he shook out his arms and legs, one appendage at a time, then settled into a fighting stance. “Ready.”

Taking McKay at his word, Ronon instantly dropped into an en-garde position, and the ill-concealed twinkle of amusement in his eyes hardened into the glittering, intense stare of a man who knew first-hand what it was to use these skills in actual life-or-death struggles. With his left hand foremost, his right ready to block low, the Satedan began moving slowly to the right, forcing McKay to follow suit. Cold green gaze locked onto anxious blue as the pair circled each other warily, once, then twice, before Ronon suddenly brought up his leading guard hand and shifted on the balls of his feet, using the torque generated by the twist of hips, torso, and shoulder to drive the fist he'd hidden by his side until the last second.

Caught unprepared yet again, McKay's eyes widened in surprise, and before he could bring his arm across to block, the warrior's blow connected with his chest. With a loud Oof, Rodney flew several feet across the room to land ass-first on the pad-covered floor. He actually bounced once before he came to rest on his back, gasping like a fish out of water and startling a pair of women, two civilian scientists, who had been working their way through a series of partner yoga stretches in the far corner.

Ronon immediately dropped his defensive stance and approached his downed pupil, crouching over the panic-stricken scientist who was making terrible keening noises as he struggled to draw breath.

“Relax, McKay,” the warrior advised gruffly, when Rodney, red-faced and frantic, grabbed onto the front of Ronon's shirt for dear life. “You just got the wind knocked out of you. You'll be fine in a minute or two.”

As the Satedan had predicted, in a matter of minutes Rodney's breathing had eased enough for Ronon to help him into a sitting position.

“What are you trying to do? Kill me?” Rodney wheezed when he could speak again, grimacing in pain as he reached up and tenderly rubbed the center of his chest through his t-shirt.

Ronon did smirk then, as he clapped a friendly hand on McKay's shoulder. “McKay, if I wanted you dead, you'd be dead,” he replied matter-of-factly. “And believe me – no one would blame me.”

“Oh, ha ha. Very funny,” Rodney countered sarcastically as he struggled to rise. “Now get your big, meaty paw off me so we can try this again.”

The Satedan's grip tightened and exerted just enough pressure to push the scientist back onto the practice mat, earning him another glare.

“Not today, McKay. We're done. You have something on your mind, and it isn't self-defense. I'd never hear the end of it from Teyla if you wound up getting hurt, even if it was your own fault for not paying attention.”

Rodney sputtered, starting to protest, but the words died unspoken on his lips. Instead he heaved a weary sigh and nodded, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “Yeah. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I guess you're right.”

Ronon gave McKay's shoulder a final pat, then sat back on his haunches while Rodney climbed to his feet and made his way gingerly across the dojo, trying to hold it together in spite of the bumps and bruises he had sustained while they'd sparred. In sharp contrast, the Satedan rose to a standing position with the unconscious grace of a predatory cat and trailed slowly after him, curious now as to what could have caused his feisty teammate to give in so easily.

Although a casual observer would have been hard-pressed to discern it based on Ronon's reserved, surly demeanor, he actually considered McKay to be among the handful of people he counted as friends. Regardless of the fact that Rodney could be an irritation sometimes – a lot of the time – the Satedan felt a sense of protectiveness and a rough affection toward the man.

After all, not only had McKay healed him of the scars on his chest and back that he'd borne with shame for years, simply because Rodney had known on some level that they'd bothered him, he'd also proven his courage and fortitude time and again when they'd had to think their way out of a bad situation. Ronon knew it was highly unlikely McKay would ever amount to much of a fighter based on their three months of lessons; but it was clear that he had the heart of a warrior, and the Satedan respected his quick-witted intelligence as much as he did Sheppard's bravery and ability to command.

In fact, truth be told, Ronon was a little envious. He'd been a student at one of the halls of higher learning – what the Lanteans called 'university' - when the Wraith had come and culled his civilization to extinction, cutting short his formal education in favor of a crash course in survival. He knew that with his barbaric exterior it was a constant surprise to Rodney whenever anything even remotely intelligent passed his lips, and that the man hadn't known how to react when Ronon had read and understood the electrical theory manual McKay had handed him as a joke. What the scientist failed to realize, was that beneath the Runner's tough outer shell which Ronon had had to construct in order to stay alive, a frustrated scholar still thirsted for knowledge he would never have access to again.

Fortunately, Ronon was willing to forgive McKay his shortcomings, just as he tried to put aside his feelings about some of Sheppard's decisions - with one glaring exception - for the sake of his teammates, and the friendships that had gotten under his skin against his will, even if they weren't technically a team at the moment.

The Satedan joined Rodney on the bench which had been placed by the door, watching as the other man fumbled clumsily for the shoes he had tossed underneath with such vigor just a half-hour earlier.

“So, what's going on with you, anyway?” Ronon asked with his usual bluntness.

McKay looked up from the surprisingly-painful process of tying his sneaker, surreptitiously glancing around the room before he met the warrior's green gaze with a pleading expression on his face.

Ronon nodded his understanding. Not here.

“Let's go, McKay,” he said, almost unseating the astrophysicist with a robust cuff on the back. “You need to keep moving for a while or you're going to stiffen up.”

Levering himself carefully to his feet, Rodney toddled after the Satedan as they left the sanctuary of the practice room. He did his best to keep up, but as abused leg and back muscles screamed louder with every torturous step, McKay quickly fell behind the tall barbarian's ground-eating strides until he finally lost sight of Ronon when he turned the corner ahead of him. Stumbling to a halt, Rodney sagged against the embossed wall of the corridor and closed his eyes, humbly grateful for the cool metal against his overheated cheek.

He let out an undignified squawk a few moments later when a pair of muscular arms suddenly wrapped around him from behind and he was lifted off the ground.

“Hey! Put me down!”

The Satedan chuckled next to Rodney's ear as he set him on his feet and stepped back. “I told you to keep moving McKay,” he rumbled, clearly amused. Before Rodney could frame a suitably-scathing comeback, Ronon slung his arm around his irascible companion's neck and dragged him down the hall, heedless of the man's ineffectual struggles.

0*0*0*0

Ronon methodically worked his way down the empty gallery, trying the sliding doors that ran along the long wall one after another, but thousands of years sitting on the bottom of the ocean had left the tracks embedded with silt and stones, which had hardened into concrete once the City had risen to the surface. Heaving a frustrated sigh, the Satedan reached for the handle of the last one. He flipped the lock and gave it the same experimental tug he'd treated the others to, pausing in surprise when the glass panel actually moved. He pulled again with renewed effort, and was rewarded with a blast of cold Pacific air when the door slid farther along the track with only minimal resistance.

As the warrior stuck his head outside, glancing up and down the length of the balcony, he wondered briefly who had pried the panel loose in this far-flung and uninhabited section of Atlantis; who else might have made use of the deck as he and Rodney hoped to do. With no answers forthcoming, the Satedan turned and beckoned for McKay to join him.

“Good job, Ronon,” Rodney murmured sincerely as he reached the open doorway. Although the scientist's features were pinched with exhaustion, he offered a wan smile. “I really need to sit down for a couple of minutes. I was almost ready to just lie down on the floor.”

The tall warrior started to tell his companion that someone else had actually done it, then changed his mind. It wasn't often that McKay praised him at all - for anything, and he didn't want to ruin such a rare occasion with the truth. Instead he simply shrugged. “No problem.”

Ronon stepped back and let the older man go ahead of him, feeling an unfamiliar twinge of conscience when Rodney limped over to one of the benches by the rail and sank down slowly and carefully on the seat like every bone in his body hurt. It probably wasn't far from the truth. After basically handing McKay his ass in the dojo, the Satedan had then dragged the man along on what amounted to a forced march through Atlantis' halls, and although Ronon had pushed Rodney's limits with the best of intentions, it was becoming clear that he'd likely overdone things on both counts.

“Take all the time you need,” Ronon remarked as he stepped up to the rail, resting his elbows along the top and his foot on the end of the bench that McKay occupied. The warrior inhaled the salty air as he looked out over the ocean, squinting against the afternoon sun which glinted brightly off the dancing waves, but offered little warmth. Rodney shivered once in the chill breeze but said nothing, and it suddenly struck the Satedan how little McKay had complained since they'd left the practice room – in fact, how little he'd said at all. It was so unlike him that Ronon took a moment to examine the man slouched next to him, the curiosity he'd felt earlier suddenly expanding into full-blown concern.

“McKay, what's the problem.” It was a command this time, not a question.

“I'm worried about Todd,” the scientist blurted out before he could stop himself, realizing his mistake even as the words left his mouth and Ronon's eyes narrowed with a dangerous intensity. Rodney immediately glanced away and compressed his lips into a thin line. Wrong audience.

Unlike the Satedan, McKay actually liked the wraith. For all that Todd was a vampiric, life-sucking monster, he did have some redeeming qualities, as well. Unbelievably ancient and incredibly intelligent, his skills and knowledge, alone, always left Rodney almost giddy with admiration, and over the years, McKay had come to look forward to working with him. Based on Ronon's reaction, Rodney somehow doubted that the Satedan held a similar viewpoint, and he realized – maybe too late – that for the sake of the wraith's safety it probably would have been better if he'd just not said anything, and kept his anxiety to himself.

“What do you mean?” Ronon's disquiet now liberally laced with confusion and anger, he nudged McKay's thigh with his foot indicating that he wanted him to slide down a bit. When Rodney complied, the Satedan joined him on the bench, leaning forward and clasping his hands between his knees so he could see McKay's averted face better, and silently willing the man to look at him.

Rodney sat very still, desperately trying to figure his way out of the corner he'd painted himself into. Until they'd returned to Earth, Sheppard had always been Rodney's go-to person with problems of this magnitude, but with the Colonel off-world on an almost-constant basis since they'd landed, he'd had to rely on Jennifer to listen to him when something agitated him or made him feel ill-at-ease. As McKay had learned quickly, however, when it came to John – or anything that was even remotely-related to John – Jennifer usually just dismissed his concerns as unimportant.

Since his issue had to do with Todd, it narrowed his field of potential confidants considerably, leaving only Teyla and Ronon. Rodney had originally favored the Athosian, feeling the need for her cool head and measured words in this situation as opposed to the Satedan's impetuous, knee-jerk reactions. Of course it had to be Ronon who saw him first and noticed right away that something was amiss, and in McKay's haste to unburden himself, he had mistaken Ronon's insistence for sympathy and blundered ahead without thinking.

What Rodney hadn't taken into account was the Satedan's deep and abiding hatred of Todd, and the promise Sheppard had wrung, unwilling, out of Ronon to keep his hands – and his sites – off the wraith. While McKay might have been apprehensive about the way his phone conversation with Todd had played out the evening before, he certainly didn't wish any harm on the alien. Unfortunately, that was exactly what the Satedan looked like he was planning at the moment, and the last thing Rodney wanted to do was set the Runner off with conjectures that might later prove to be false.

After a couple of minutes, McKay finally looked up, hesitantly meeting Ronon's questing green gaze and feeling vaguely like a deer in the headlights. His only option now was obfuscate and fudge as much as possible, and hope the Satedan didn't notice he was backpedaling.

“I don't know if you know this or not, but John's back – or he will be,” Rodney began slowly while his mind raced. “He stopped by my lab last night thinking he was already off-duty, and he called Todd to let him know he was on his way to see him. Turns out that Sheppard had one more mission to go on before he could take his leave, and he had to go before he could call the wraith back to say he wasn't coming. I contacted Todd afterwards to tell him, and he seemed... kind of upset.”

Ronon sat back, a frown creasing his prominent brow. “That's it?” he asked, scratching at his dreads. “You're worried that you hurt its feelings?”

“Well... yeah,” Rodney replied lamely. While technically it was the truth, he had worded it very carefully with an eye toward keeping the Satedan ignorant of his very real concerns. Dissembling as best he could, McKay winced and shrugged his shoulders like he knew he was being silly, all the while studying the warrior to see if he was buying the act.

Ronon snorted, amused, as the clouds of anxiety lifted from his features, and McKay allowed himself to relax by degrees. He hadn't won a Sears Drama Festival award as a child for nothing.

“McKay, that thing doesn't have any feelings you need to be concerned about. You had me worried for a minute that there was really something wrong.”

“Sorry about that. It's really been weighing on my mind since last night. I didn't get much sleep.”

Ronon smirked and shook his head, reaching out to ruffle the scientist's short hair with something akin to affection. “You're ridiculous. You know that?”

Rodney scowled and irritably pushed the Satedan's hand away. “You'd never do that to Sheppard.”

“You're right,” Ronon agreed, deadpan. “He uses too much product.”

It was McKay's turn to snort as the warrior stood and beckoned him to follow. “C'mon. Let's get you back to civilization before you stiffen up so much I have to carry you.”

Rodney made sure to keep the conversation light and the subjects innocuous on the way back to his quarters, reminding Ronon of amusing incidents from their numerous adventures through the Gate. By the time the Satedan left him by the open door to his room, McKay was completely done in, both physically and mentally. It was hard work, having to actually interact socially with people and make pleasant small talk, and he'd just about reached the limits of his endurance.

Slipping into his quarters, Rodney closed the door behind him and keyed in his locking code. All things considered, he felt confident that he'd put in a pretty good performance. He just wished he could distract himself from thoughts of the wraith as successfully as he'd redirected Ronon.

McKay slowly pulled off his sweat-stained t-shirt with a distraught sigh. He balled up the damp fabric and tossed it into the wicker laundry basket he kept by the bathroom door, then sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. Hissing in pain when his leg muscles cramped at the sudden movements as he tried kicking off his sneakers like usual, he finally gave up and leaned over to begin the painstaking process of picking the knots out of his laces.

After seeing the Satedan's almost-predatory response at the mere mention of Todd's name, Rodney was glad he'd managed to catch himself before he'd revealed the true extent of his misgivings. What he hadn't told Ronon was how the wraith had taken the news when McKay had called to tell him John wasn't going to be able to make it again.

Badly.

In fact, very badly.

Of course, considering how increasingly anxious the alien had been growing lately about seeing Sheppard again, starting the conversation with a forced chuckle and, 'Hey Todd, guess what?! John's not going to be able to make it, after all,' in a jovial, upbeat tone of voice, might not have been the best way to begin. McKay had only been trying to lighten the mood while delivering the bad news, but the wraith had lost it immediately afterwards, before the phone went dead with a chillingly final-sounding clatter and crunch. In spite of Rodney's repeated attempts to call him back so he could expound on what had transpired in the lab, and assure Todd that John was as disappointed about their delayed reunion as he obviously was, McKay had been unable to reach him.

After frantically hitting redial for another half-hour without success and leaving several rambling messages, McKay had eventually given up and gone to bed, only to spend a mostly-sleepless night tossing and turning, alternating between kicking himself for upsetting the wraith, and wondering how he was going to make it right if Todd didn't answer his phone. The alien had been so testy with him the last time they'd spoken, it had been almost a relief when Todd had informed McKay that he didn't want to hear from him again. Now he understood why. The wraith had apparently been close to some sort of breaking point, and Rodney feared his careless, mischosen words may have pushed him right over the edge. If something bad happened because of this, McKay lamented, it was going to be his fault, and all because he'd botched the delivery of a simple message.

With a final tug, Rodney finally succeeded in working both of his sneakers off and dropped them wearily by the side of the bed with a muffled thud. Despondent, and desperate for a hot bath, he fell back on the blanket with a groan so he could wriggle his way out of his sweatpants, but once supine, lack of sleep caught up with him and his eyelids began to droop almost immediately.

Right before he nodded off, McKay's last coherent thoughts drifted to John when he'd emerged from the office in the lab the night before, and the irrepressible smile that had lit up his face because he'd gotten to speak with the wraith. A sleepy grin quirked the corner of McKay's mouth at the memory. Whatever was going on between Sheppard and Todd was apparently doing John a world of good; Rodney couldn't remember when he'd ever seen John so unabashedly elated in all the time he'd known him. And why shouldn't he be? After all the ups and downs the pair had endured over the past three years, they deserved whatever happiness they could find together.

McKay only hoped that they could weather the storm he feared he may have set in motion with his thoughtless, ill-conceived words, and he sent up a wistful prayer that whatever the outcome, John would be able to find it in his heart to forgive Rodney for being an idiot.

0*0*0*0

No sooner had Ronon left McKay's quarters than the warrior's stride lengthened and he broke into a run, the pleasant expression he'd had plastered on his face while he'd joked with Rodney melting into a clenched-jaw grimace of fury. Snorting with rage, Ronon charged into the nexus at the end of the corridor like a rampaging bull then barreled up the stairs on the other side of the gallery. Heedless of the exclamations of surprise he wrenched from a group of startled Marines who'd been loitering by the transporters, he let his anger set the pace, lungs heaving like bellows as he pushed himself to take the treads two at a time.

The Satedan barely slowed down when he reached the next level, veering right as he instinctively followed the route he and John had often traversed on their morning jogs. As he headed for the less-populated sections of the city, Ronon could only hope that the familiar sensations of flexing muscles, pounding feet, and pumping blood might help to clear his head and soothe the rage that was still threatening to overtake him.

As soon as Rodney had started talking about John's short visit to his lab, the Satedan's temper had gone critical and nearly breached the bonds of his meager self-restraint, and it had been all he could to do keep from lashing out with violent outrage. It had nothing to do with Colonel's imminent return. On the contrary, Ronon had felt the man's absence keenly. What had almost put Ronon over the top was the fact that Sheppard's very first action upon returning to Atlantis had been to call the Wraith.

Anger suddenly gave way to an unexpected surge of grief, and Ronon ground to a halt on a forgotten catwalk between two largely-uninhabited sectors of the City, resting his hands on his quivering thighs while he caught his breath.

As far as the Satedan was concerned, initiating contact with the creature of his own volition after three and a half months of separation meant John was even more broken than Ronon had originally thought. He had hoped that the thing's influence would have faded like it always seemed to in Pegasus, but the damned Wraith apparently still held Sheppard in its thrall.

Ronon straightened and cracked his knuckles menacingly, a sneer of disgust twisting his otherwise handsome face. While the tall warrior's default expression was usually a facade of bored indifference, Todd, in particular, had a way of getting through his defenses every time, and the Satedan was sure he'd let the mask slip when he'd been with Rodney earlier. He snorted grimly. It had been almost comical how the incessantly-yappy scientist had shut right up about the Wraith almost as soon as McKay had opened his mouth.

The other thing the Satedan had picked up on immediately was that once cornered, McKay had started lying to cover something up, and done a bad job of it. It had taken every shred of self-control Ronon possessed to just muss up McKay's hair under the guise of friendship, when the Satedan had itched to dig his fingers into the scientist's short nap and pull his head back, demanding he reveal what worried him so much about the monster, when it was bad enough that the thing was roaming the streets of San Francisco. As he considered it now, though, it became painfully obvious that all Rodney had been concerned about was keeping John's dirty little secret – as if Ronon hadn't already figured it out - and preserving the Wraith's 'friendship' with Sheppard.

The whole thing sickened the Satedan just to think about.

He didn't care what anyone said about the 'connection' between John and the Wraith, Ronon recognized it for what it was. He'd seen it often enough in Pegasus. Hell – he'd experienced it first-hand, to his everlasting shame. The Wraith had turned John into a personal Worshipper for its own twisted reasons, and the Colonel was either too blind, or too stubborn – or too enslaved – to see it. If only Ronon wasn't under obligation to Sheppard not to interfere with it, he would have gotten rid of the vermin long ago.

The warrior snarled with frustration. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option at the moment.

Faced with the disturbing revelation that three-plus months apart hadn't been sufficient to break the Wraith's hold, Ronon could only hope that Sheppard's schedule picked up again soon. He might miss John's presence, but even more than that, he missed the Lantean Warrior that he'd first met in Pegasus – the one who hated all Wraith as much as he did – without exception.

Ronon started off again, passing through two empty, echoing galleries and down a poorly-lit staircase, to a service door that brought him out onto the Eastern Pier. He paused again, resting his hands on his hips as he breathed deeply of the salt-laden ocean air and watched the sunlight glance off the water.

The best outcome – the only outcome that gave the Satedan any peace of mind when he contemplated it – was for the Wraith to die, sooner rather than later, if possible. In fact, despite his skepticism that there was anyone to hear him, Ronon had actually sent up a few fervent prayers to the Ancestors to that effect, clinging to the hope that if Sheppard and... Todd were kept apart for long enough, John would eventually return to his senses, and Ronon and Sheppard could make the kill together.

Chapter Text

The rapid slap of sneakers on pavement slowed as the dark-haired figure suddenly banked left then skidded to a halt in an unfamiliar alley. Trembling with exhaustion and fear, the young man, barely out of his teens, stepped back into the shadows that hung thick and dark in the narrow, man-made canyon and leaned against the wall for a moment to catch his breath. Chest heaving as he gulped desperately for air, he reached for the Hi-Point C-9 hidden in a holster under his sweat-soaked shirt, re-seating the magazine and thumbing off the safety with swift, sure movements, before he inched his way toward the corner of the warehouse.

Gun in hand, he peered cautiously down the seemingly-deserted street, trying to discern whether there was any movement between the intermittent pools of light barely-illuminating the sidewalk, and cursing under his breath with frustration. With streetlights scarce in the warehouse districts dotting the otherwise-beautiful port city with unexpected clusters of squat, ugly buildings, picking out anything in the shadows was next to impossible. The youth squinted longingly back at the busy intersection more than two city blocks from where he hid, the distant flash of traffic lights and the headlights of cars crossing back-and-forth but never turning, disturbing reminders of how far off the beaten path he'd ventured in so short a period of time.

Fighting down his rising panic, he ignored the nerve-induced dampness of the palm he scrubbed over his stubbled face, while he tried to overcome the effects of too much weed and too many whiskey shots so he could figure out the fastest way out of this unfamiliar labyrinth. Of course, the most direct route was back the way he'd come, but that was out of the question. The 'thing' that was after him was lurking in the darkness somewhere behind him, and the last thing he wanted to do was meet it face-to-face.

He'd only caught a brief glimpse of it since their bizarre game of cat-and-mouse had begun almost an hour ago, when he'd stepped away from his companions and staggered into the alley by the bar to relieve himself - and that had been once too often. The hideous green visage leering at him from the shadows like something out of the deepest pit of hell and whispering his name through a mouthful of evil, pointed teeth, had been enough to send the man's alcohol-soaked, lapsed-Catholic brain into a spiral of blind panic. Paralyzed with fear, he'd still been struggling against the mortal terror that had frozen him to the spot, when the faces of every woman he'd forced at gunpoint and each confrontation which had culminated with his bullet had begun unreeling across his mind's eye. It had been as if someone was rummaging around in his head, pulling the memories out of storage and into the light like old, home movies.

Then the thing had chuckled and given him a knowing wink, its low, throaty laughter finally breaking the spell that had bound him in place.

Overwhelmed by a belated rush of guilt and shame, the man had barely managed to stuff himself back into his urine-soaked jeans before he'd taken off running, to the fading sounds of his friends' jeers about not being able to hold his liquor, but he didn't care. That had suddenly become the least of his worries. The horrific, cataclysmic revelation that Hell and the Devil were absolutely real, and that something had been sent to fetch him, opened up a bottomless, razorblade-lined chasm under his feet which he needed to escape from at all costs.

Try as he might, though, he hadn't been able to shake his pursuer. The creature had been relentless, making its unearthly presence felt with fiendish laughter and the sensation of invisible fingers as cold as the grave brushing the back of the man's neck. Confounded and terrified as he'd been driven ever-onward, before long he had been startling at every gust of wind and random noise, making it easy for his tormentor to herd him away from civilization, and into this isolated wilderness of cinder block and silence.

Even now, the sound of its rusty chuckle rang in his head, as it had whenever his strength had threatened to fail and his footsteps had lagged. Heart beating a rapid tattoo against his ribs, the youth tensed and whirled around, the muzzle of his weapon quivering slightly as he pointed it down the alley. Wild-eyed, he scrutinized the concrete corridor to see if the thing had crept up behind him in the dark, but other than the barely-relieved gloom from the next street, which threw the barrels and pallets and debris that stood between him and freedom into vague, shadowy relief, the night resisted his futile efforts to pierce its depths. After a moment of tense watchfulness he decided the passage must be empty, and he blew out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding as he slowly lowered the gun.

Wondering if he might have finally outpaced the demon enough to escape, the young man spared another glance back the way he'd come, before cautiously moving deeper into the narrow canyon. If his luck held, he figured that once he emerged from the other side, he could double back and head up to the main street. The monster might have caught him off-guard when it had appeared next to him at the bar, and taken advantage of his initial shock and surprise to cut him from the herd, but it was a tactic the man had used himself on several occasions. He knew that if he managed to rejoin the hustle and bustle of the shifting crowds, his pursuer would be unlikely to follow, and he'd be safe. At least he'd be safe enough until he found a way to send the creature back where it came from – without him.

Holy water, cross, salt, silver bullets... His mind clamored with possibilities as he blindly inched his way along past several overflowing barrels in the dark, unable to determine what might be genuinely useful and what was just made-up bullshit from that supernatural TV series he watched once in a while. More to the point, he realized with a snort of derision, it might all be bullshit – even the Catholic mumbo-jumbo, which up until this moment had always seemed legit.

After all, how many people had ever actually faced down the demonic in real life? A few crazy people who turned up in the media once in a while who insisted their houses were possessed? A handful of priests who might have 'exorcised' the mentally ill, then claimed they'd cast out devils? Even if what they'd encountered had been genuine, they'd just been dealing with malevolent intent and some scary noises. The man doubted very much that there was any information - anywhere - on how to contend with a real, corporeal, denizen of hell.

His fingers tightened reflexively on the C-9 in his grip. This, he decided, as he hefted its comforting weight in his hand; this was how he was going to deal with the bastard. His gun was as real as the thing that hunted him - and the weapon hadn't let him down yet.

Bolstered by his faith in the god of firepower, and promising himself the pleasure of shooting the hellspawn right between the eyes when he got the chance, the man calmed considerably and began moving with purpose for the first time since this whole nightmare had started. Carefully testing each placement of his foot before risking another step, he passed what felt like the halfway point a few minutes later, and he finally allowed himself to believe he might get out of this, after all.

Optimism had just blossomed in his chest when a small, scuffling noise behind him made him freeze in place. He broke out in a cold sweat as a fresh wave of adrenaline swamped his system, washing away all his false bravado and fragile hope in the blink of an eye, and leaving him desperate and dangerous in its wake. He strained to differentiate actual sounds from imagined over the soft, ambient background noises of distant traffic, while primal fight-or-flight instincts on high-alert screamed for action.

He didn't realize how intently he'd been listening until the second, unmistakable rustle of furtive movement startled him a moment later and his body involuntarily lurched with alarm.

Heart hammering painfully in his chest, he took a few deep breaths to steady himself, his hands shaking as he surreptitiously cocked the gun and steeled himself to turn and face whatever it was that had followed him here. Weapon at the ready, he swung around, a puzzled frown creasing his young brow when he gazed upon an alley as empty as it had been when he'd entered it.

What the fuck? Tilting his head in confusion he started to retrace his steps, only to halt with a terrified gasp as a bloodcurdling yowl rent the night air. Suddenly a small, dark feline shape rounded the corner at a run, its small, furry body brushing past the man's leg as it tore down the passage and bolted out the other end. It paused in the mouth of the alley just long enough to arch its scrawny back like a Halloween decoration and hiss in his general direction, before it careened around the corner and out of sight.

The young man's sharp intake of breath devolved into a relieved chuckle, which died in his throat when it was joined by a deeper, more sinister one. Jerking his arm up with adrenaline-enhanced reflexes, he brought the gun to bear on the shadows from whence he'd come with the hair-raising realization that this time the evil laughter wasn't just in his head. This time, it echoed off the walls of the concrete canyon – overly-loud and yet oddly-intimate at the same time.

“Mother of God,” he whispered through trembling lips when the alleyway was suddenly plunged into darkness to the pop and tinkle of a shattering streetlight bulb. Unable to move, afraid to breathe as the night pressed in on him from all sides, he could only watch, horrified, when a tall, vaguely human-shaped silhouette materialized out of nowhere and blocked his path. The youth's eyes widened instinctively as he tried to focus in the impossible blackness, but the figure seemed to merge with the night-filled passageway like a phantom, its form indiscernible from the surrounding shadows.

The man took a faltering step back, his knees threatening to turn to jelly at any moment even as his features hardened into a grim mask of impotent rage. “Stay back, demon!”

Another quiet rift of laughter floated down the alley in response.

“I mean it!” The young man asserted belligerently, waving his weapon threateningly at the darkness. “I'm not afraid of you!”

This time the merriment was full-throated and genuinely-amused – and closer. “Ah... but your scent says otherwise,” came the gravelly, gently-mocking reply.

“Goddamn it!” the man snarled angrily as he squinted and pulled the trigger, firing wildly into the shadows. The sharp report echoed loudly off the narrow, concrete walls, and it was all he could do to keep from wincing and covering his ears.

“You missed,” the creature observed wryly after a moment of ringing silence. “You are entirely too easy to agitate,” it continued, an undertone of something akin to delight in its grating, multi-tonal voice. “I almost regret that our association is destined to be so short-lived. This evening has been great sport, but like all moments of pleasure, it must soon draw to a close.”

The man swallowed hard. He'd always prided himself on being hardcore, but this bastard sounded like a psychopath. Another jolt of fear shot through him and he backed up a few more steps, hoping he didn't trip over something in the dark.

“Keep away from me, you prick. I'll kill you before I let you drag me to hell.”

“Hell?” The disembodied voice snorted with amusement - even closer than before, the man was quick to note. “Is that where you believe I came from?”

The young man nodded as he slowly maneuvered his way backward, step-after-careful-step, trying to keep his distance. “Of course,” he challenged, a hint of defiance – maybe even pride - in his tone. “You've come to take me back with you.”

“After looking at everything you've accomplished at such a tender age, I am inclined to agree that is probably where you belong; but believe me,” the other's voice became a low, intimate growl that verged on tenderness – almost affection. “I am not taking you to hell.”

The young man blindly scanned the alley, desperately trying to get a bead on something – anything – that might show him where the creature was so he could shoot it, but somehow, even in this narrow passageway, it remained hidden, playing the shadows like a master. He was about to give up when something caught his attention. He watched carefully, and suddenly there it was again - the soft glow of catlike eyes flashing in the darkness, not more than a meter in front of him.

I have you now, you bastard.

With a surge of elation, he savagely controlled the tremor of terror that made the gun shake in his palsied grip, and before it even became a conscious decision, he'd squeezed off two shots in quick succession. The afterimage of the thing's eyes were lost in the muzzle flash sizzling across the youth's night-sensitized retinas, while its agonized roar was drowned out by the concussive noise of the shots which left the man's ears ringing.

Temporarily rendered both deaf and blind, he paused, tense and uncertain in the echoing silence that followed. When the moment stretched to the breaking point with no groans of pain; no sounds of breath or movement in the dark, the young man grinned as he relaxed by degrees. Talk about bragging rights, he mused with a triumphant snort. He'd just knocked off a demon! The guys were never going to believe him unless he came back with a trophy.

He listened to the eerie quiet which had fallen for another minute or so, aware that his time was limited by the cops who were eventually going to show up to investigate the gunshots. It was now or never. With a decisive nod he slid the C-9 back into its holster and reached for the blade in his back pocket.

He was still trying to decide whether he should take an ear or a finger as a keepsake when he was suddenly grabbed roughly by the front of the shirt and thrown against the wall with violent force. The knife flew from his hand upon impact and skittered down the alley, and the back of his head bounced off the painted concrete so hard that bursts of light flared behind his eyelids, and he felt the hot, wet sensation of blood as it trickled down the back of his neck.

A body pressed against his, male, powerful - and for a panicked second the youth wondered if he was going to be raped. Dizzy and disoriented, he flailed clumsily beneath the thing that held him captive, trying to escape, when it grabbed him by the throat with one immensely-strong hand and tore open the front of his t-shirt with the other.

“Bastard!” he croaked weakly, right before the creature's fingers tightened, choking off his airway. Clawing ineffectually at the iron grip that held him as he fought a losing battle against the oxygen-deprived oblivion which reached to claim him, it took a moment to register that the demon had leaned close and was chuckling wickedly.

“I may have promised that I wouldn't take you to hell,” it murmured, its breath hot and labored in his ear. “I never promised I wouldn't send you there on your own.”

No sooner had the creature made this ominous declaration than the fingers which had constricted the man's throat now covered his mouth, and the flat of the demon's other hand came down hard against his sternum. In the next instant its terrifying words became reality, when ice then fire flooded the man's chest, growing unbearable in a matter of seconds. Soon he was writhing and arching as the sensation of being roasted alive in his skin burned throughout his entire system, and his muffled screams beat against the palm that was clamped firmly over the lower half of his face, one after another. Out of his mind with panic as he fought for his life, the youth thrashed helplessly against the monster pinning him bodily to the wall, until eventually both his cries and struggles grew weaker, and finally ceased altogether.

Thankful for the returning quietude, both internal and external, the wraith pulled his feeding hand away from the boy's mummified chest and stepped back, watching dispassionately as the body crumpled to the ground.

Dazed and sated, Todd followed, sliding slowly down the wall until he rested on his denim-clad haunches, head tilted back to rest against the bricks and golden eyes slipping shut as the human's stolen life rolled through him in sensuous waves. He had to admit, the solitary vigil he'd kept while he'd waited for this one to emerge from the tavern had been worth it. The inebriated boy had been so deliciously full of anger and fear, it had made him especially violent and unpredictable once he'd been herded into unfamiliar territory, providing the wraith with a splendidly-invigorating hunt. Even at the end, the young killer had put up a respectable fight – and his life, when Todd had finally drained him dry, had been as rich and vibrant as any the wraith could have hoped for.

It had been a hard-won and glorious feast.

Pain suddenly lanced through him, and Todd hissed as the sting of healing gunshot wounds distracted him from his reverie. He caught one of the misshapen bullets as it was ejected from the wound in his shoulder, while the other one tumbled from his chest and through the hole in his shirt, hitting the ground with a dull click. He fumbled for it before it rolled away and tucked both into his pocket. No sense in leaving spent ammunition lying around covered in Wraith blood for the local constables to find and wonder over.

Drowning in the intoxicating pleasure of too much life force rocketing through his system, a blissful smile stretched the corners of the wraith's mouth. After two kills tonight, alone, combined with the dozen or so he'd claimed in the past week, it was a wonder he could think at all. Unlike his feeding frenzy when he'd escaped from the Genii, when he had required what he'd taken just to recover from years of starvation and heal his near-fatal wounds, this was gluttonous overindulgence. Conspicuous consumption for the sake of the exquisite sensations that seared along his nerve-endings and dulled the pain of Sheppard's betrayal.

His lover, his consort, in many ways his lifeline - John was the closest thing to Hive that Todd was likely to get while they remained on Earth; and being with Sheppard – and the hope of seeing him again, had been all that had made the wraith's exile bearable. Now, even the mere thought of the treacherous human was enough to resurrect memories of the call Todd had received from him - every soft, caring word the wraith had hung on; every honeyed, apologetic inflection he'd believed; every lie that had ravaged him to the core of his being.

The fall from ecstasy to agony had been swift and sudden – not even ten minutes before his phone had rung a second time – but it had done damage the wraith wondered if he would ever truly recover from. The surprisingly Genii-like cruelty of Sheppard's endgame had been what had ultimately broken him, when the human had snatched back his tantalizing promise of a reunion too-long denied, even as Todd had stretched out his hand toward its salvation. In that moment it had become clear to him just how little he meant to Sheppard, in spite of the man's protestations otherwise. Set aside so easily John hadn't even bothered calling back himself; McKay had been so cavalier and dismissive about the whole thing that something inside the wraith had snapped, just like the phone he'd left lying in pieces on the kitchen floor.

Todd snarled as he hit the wall behind him with his fist, cracking masonry and sending up puffs of mortar. He had no one to blame but himself for his current predicament. He should have heeded his own misgivings – trusted his own instincts – but each time the wraith reached his limit, John had unfailingly reeled him back in with promises both spoken and implied. And in Todd's feverish desire to build a bridge across the chasm which separated their species so he could reach the human he'd wanted for so long, he had allowed Sheppard to sway him. He had let down his guard in spite of his reservations, and unlocked the armored vault of his innermost feelings to let the man in – and John had played him every step of the way.

A surge of righteous anger swept through him, burning away the tendrils of grief which threatened to pull him back under, and as Todd was buoyed up with the cresting emotion, he realized that he was done. He was done playing House for a partner who had been absent for nearly four months. He was done playing Human for a man who had no qualms about being monstrous - and he was done abiding by agreements they'd made when Sheppard had no intention of holding up his end of them.

The acknowledgment, rather than exhilarating him with a sense of freedom, left him raw and hollow and sad, and the wraith wondered what his future held if he could no longer count on John being in it.

Besides his serious doubts as to ever being able to function again if he did not have Colonel Sheppard by his side, the human had been the key to the alliance he had hoped to negotiate with the Lanteans. Unfortunately, after all the physical and emotional lines he and John had crossed once they'd landed on Earth, he doubted there was any way either of them would be able to fall back to a point where platonic, diplomatic relations would even be possible. Without Sheppard, there was no foundation upon which to build a lasting peace between his people and humanity, and with no way to manage resources or alleviate the distrust and fear the Hoffan virus had created in its wake - issues Todd could offer no solutions for without the Lanteans - there was no reason for him to go home at all. Left unchecked, the situation in Pegasus was destined to only grow worse, and he had no desire to watch the civil unrest brewing among the Wraith come to a head, and finally tear his brethren apart.

No, Todd decided, it certainly no longer mattered if – or when – Atlantis returned to Pegasus, if he and Sheppard were not to be. He was staying on Earth, and getting as far away from John Sheppard's empty promises and unfathomable mind as possible. The wraith had gambled and lost, and now there was nothing to do but try and pick up the pieces. An entire world full of humans awaited his touch, and the sooner he left behind San Francisco and its heartrending memories, the better.

Todd glanced over at the remains of the boy with a sad, wistful smile. The people on this planet were so full of vitality. Sheppard had been the first to show the wraith their strength, and for that Todd would be forever grateful. He had tasted traces of it again in Wallace's penitent offering – and those he had fed upon over the past four months. After countless centuries of watching the food supply in Pegasus dwindle to barely-sustainable levels, and then having what was left randomly tainted, making each feeding a perilous undertaking as he literally took his life in his hand; Todd counted himself very fortunate, indeed, to have obtained exclusive hunting rights to the vast, healthy, untapped herds of humanity that roamed Earth's surface. He had been afforded the rare opportunity of being able to feast on the population of this planet at-will, and he'd be a fool not to take advantage of it.

The far-off wail of police sirens interrupted the wraith's thoughts just as he reached to stroke the corpse's short, whitened hair, which had been as dark as Sheppard's mere moments before. Coming back to himself with a growl, Todd pushed aside his melancholy musings, then rose gracefully and stepped over the body, searching for the blade the boy had dropped in the struggle. With his night-sensitive cat's eyes, the alien located it easily, slipping it into his back pocket before he returned and hoisted the cloth-wrapped pile of skin and bones over his shoulder. He took a moment to scan the alley for any tell-tale signs of their encounter which might inspire a second glance, and found none. With no discernible evidence of the first bullet, which had ended up embedded in the concrete, who-knew-where, and only faint traces of blood left behind from the human's head wound, which he'd cleaned off the wall with a corner of the boy's shirt, it looked like any other alleyway in the industrial park.

Todd listened as the sirens grew closer, then quickly and silently slunk out of the alley with his grisly cargo. If he dumped it with the rest, then headed back to the apartment to shower, change, and pack, he could be out of the city well before sunrise.

0*0*0*0

Rodney paused by the deployment bag he'd dropped to one side of the main staircase in the Gate Room, checking his watch and glaring at the Ring for the umpteenth time before he resumed his frantic pacing. If it were up to him, he’d be curled up in bed instead of loitering awkwardly by the Stargate like he was waiting for a bus; but John was due back any minute, and it couldn't be soon enough for the beleaguered scientist. He was desperate at this point for a little peace of mind – and some shut-eye, both of which had eluded him for the past week, and Sheppard's return was the only hope McKay had to ever sleep through the night again.

Ever since his brief conversation with the wraith a week earlier, Rodney had been haunted by the grief in Todd's pained cry. The creature's inarticulate roar of rage and loss had replayed itself in McKay's head for the past five days in an on-going loop, while worst-case scenarios as to why Todd wasn't responding to any of his subsequent voice messages preyed upon Rodney's overactive imagination, disrupting his rest and destroying his concentration. Sleep-deprived and distracted, he'd grown increasingly agitated as the week had worn on, until his restless nights had finally taken their toll earlier in the evening, when the fuse on his already-short temper had blown, and he'd snapped at Jennifer for asking him if he'd eaten dinner yet.

The only thing which had kept McKay marginally sane since his aborted phone call to the wraith had been following the local news. Morning and night he'd scanned the latest on-line edition of the Chronicle, searching for anything that sounded suspiciously like a Wraith kill - any references to mummified corpses with odd holes in their chests which might indicate Todd had gone off the deep end and wasn't tracking well enough to dispose of the bodies. Fortunately, other than a few seemingly gang-related disappearances in some of the shadier sections of the city, it had been a relatively quiet week, Rodney had clung to the reassuring news articles on organized crime and gang warfare like a drowning man hung onto a life preserver.

If he'd had any idea of where Sheppard had stashed the alien, McKay would have made the trip into San Francisco himself, so he could ease Todd's mind and his own conscience, but Rodney hadn't wanted to waste his time on what he could almost guarantee would have been a wild goose chase. He had a sneaking suspicion that the 'official' address the Colonel had supplied as a point-of-contact was most likely a tiny, empty condo purchased in his name, somewhere far away from Todd's real abode. With John's upbringing, and the money and power he still had at his disposal whether he talked about it or not, Rodney was pretty sure Sheppard would have buried his ownership of the wraith's actual hiding place under as many layers of shell corporations and intentionally-obfuscating documentation as his family's lawyers could have created in the time allotted.

McKay completed another lap from one end of the staircase to the other, stopping to kick the black canvas tote with SHEPPARD stenciled on its side in white, as his frustration mounted. He hoped John didn't mind too much that he'd overridden the lock on his quarters and entered to pack the bag the Colonel had never gotten the chance to the previous week, especially once Sheppard realized it meant Rodney would have gotten a good look at the shambles John and Todd had left it in.

What Sheppard did in his own quarters on his own time was none of McKay's business - but quite honestly, the level of destruction had frightened him a little and impressed him a whole lot. In fact, it was so remarkable, it had been impossible not to speculate on what John and the wraith could have possibly done to trash the place so utterly, other than literally throw pieces of furniture at each other. It had brought a smile to Rodney's face and warmed the cockles of his nerdy little heart as he'd ransacked Sheppard's dresser and stuffed toiletries and random articles of clothing into the bag, wondering which one of the pair had hurled the heavy objects and which one had read the poetry, or if they'd taken turns.

A bubble of amusement rose to the surface again at the oddly-appropriate 'Klingon Mating Ritual' reference from Star Trek: TNG, and McKay snorted as he checked his watch, his smirk fading quickly when he saw the time. It was already twelve thirty, fifteen minutes beyond SG-18's supposed ETA, and McKay had had enough.

He glanced up in the direction of the Control Room, wishing he could actually see Chuck from where he stood so he could glare daggers at him for supplying faulty information. After bribing Campbell with enough Canadian chocolate to choke a horse in order to net the date and time of Sheppard's return, the Technician had apparently still gotten it wrong. Lips compressed into a thin, exasperated line, Rodney was just about to start up the central staircase, determined to take back whatever remaining Coffee Crisps Chuck hadn't already stuffed down his gullet, when the claxon of the incoming wormhole alarm sounded throughout the Gate Room.

“... Sheppard's IDC,” was all McKay caught from his position, frozen halfway up the stairs, but it was enough. He turned just as the liquid blue of the Event Horizon established itself, and with a sigh of pure relief he returned to the bag and waited for his friend to emerge from the Gate's rippling surface.

His eager anticipation was satisfied a few moments later when John stepped through behind the rest of SG-18, looking as impatient as Rodney felt. McKay waved at Sheppard, catching his eye over the heads of the milling Team and the small army of technicians who had materialized out of nowhere to help off-load returning tools and supplies, and with the merest hint of a smile and a nod, the Colonel made his way over to the foot of the stairs.

“How did you know we were scheduled to come back tonight?” John asked by way of greeting as he joined the scientist, hefting the pack he had slung over one shoulder.

“We don't have time for niceties, Colonel,” McKay murmured urgently while trying to maintain a casual, nonchalant expression in the midst of the frenetic activity and controlled chaos that incoming and outgoing Teams always brought to the Gate Room. “You have someplace you need to be.”

Sheppard had just spied his other bag sitting by Rodney's feet, and a frown of concern replaced his smile even as he glanced up sharply to take in McKay's tired, worried features.

“What happened?” John asked, a sudden knot of apprehension tightening in his gut.

“I haven't been able to get in touch with him since the night you left,” Rodney replied softly as he picked up Sheppard's bag.

The Colonel, who had been sliding his pack off his shoulder, paused mid-shrug. “What?” he hissed, his eyes narrowing in anger and disbelief. “You mean you never told him I couldn't make it?”

“No. I mean – yes,” McKay responded nervously, John's rapidly-escalating temper rattling his already-frayed nerves.

“Rodney...,” John growled warningly as he handed the scientist his pack and grabbed the deployment bag from McKay's nerveless fingers.

Rodney took a deep, steadying breath. “I did speak with him – once,” he clarified, and was rewarded with an audible sigh of relief from John. “I told him you weren't coming, but we got disconnected before I could explain why, and I haven't been able to reach him since.”

“Shit,” Sheppard cursed under his breath, his irritation drowning in a wave of foreboding.

“Yeah,” Rodney agreed. “You have to go. Now.” He settled John's backpack on his shoulder and indicated they should get moving with a jerk of his chin. Not waiting to see if Sheppard was following, he started off down the hall, the Colonel effortlessly falling into step with McKay's purposeful stride a moment later.

“I scheduled a pick-up for you on one of the smaller Naval vessels patrolling the waters around the City,” Rodney added quietly when they reached the transporter. “It should be waiting at the North Pier by the time we get there.”

He cast a sidelong glance in John's direction, meeting Sheppard's worried gaze with one of his own as the door slid open silently to receive them.

“Thanks, Rodney,” John said gratefully as they stepped inside and McKay began tapping coordinates into the transporter's control panel. “I really appreciate this.”

“Don't mention it,” Rodney replied – and he meant it. After all, it had been his ineptitude at passing on a simple message that had precipitated this potential crisis, and John was going to find that out soon enough. “What are friends for?”

Chapter Text

Sheppard managed to keep his anxiety under wraps all the way to the North Pier of Atlantis and for the entire trip across the choppy, night-darkened waters of the Pacific in the cabin of a Coast Guard craft. It wasn't until he'd been dropped off at the Pier 39 Marina and was safely ensconced in the back seat of a cab that the full force of his apprehension finally got the better of him. With quick, nervous movements he pulled the phone that McKay had slipped him on the way to the boat out of his jacket pocket, cradling it in his palm. He watched glints from streetlights glide hypnotically down its shiny case again and again as the taxi traveled down broad, well-lit city streets, dreading this moment as much as he'd impatiently anticipated it.

Of course he'd believed Rodney when he had told him that his repeated attempts to reach Todd had been unsuccessful, but that didn't stop John from dialing the wraith's number as he'd been itching to do from the second the cellphone had been placed in his hand. Scarcely daring to breathe, he brought the phone to his ear, schooling himself for impending disappointment as he counted the rings, while at the same time firmly-convinced the alien would pick up at any moment. When the unanswered call finally went to voicemail, the message that the mailbox was full came as no surprise, but the confirmation of McKay's multiple messages still sitting unchecked in the inbox only added to John's growing concern for Todd's well-being.

He slid the phone back into his pocket and stared at the passing buildings, doing his best to tamp down his rising panic. It was only a twenty-minute drive from the waterfront to the Castro District address he'd given the driver, and the neighborhood was already starting to look familiar. He took a few deep breaths, willing himself to some semblance of composure as he forcibly unclenched the fists resting on his knees and rubbed his clammy palms against his fatigues. There was no telling what he was going to find when he arrived, all he knew was that he needed to be clear-headed in order to deal with whatever awaited him.

Sooner than John thought possible after months of interminable delays, the cab pulled up in front of the four-story building he'd taken great pains to make sure no one knew he owned. Sheppard paid the cabbie on auto-pilot, barely registering either the fare or the bills he peeled off and handed the man. He was too busy being distracted by the second floor apartment's lit windows, hoping against hope that he might catch a glimpse of the wraith's silhouette against the curtains.

Waving away the driver's attempt to give him his change, Sheppard climbed out of the back seat, gripping the handles of his bag with white-knuckled intensity as he took in the sight of his home-away-from-home for the first time in four months. Other than the pair of low-wattage art nouveau wall sconces that burned dimly in the lobby, and the soft, warm glow of diffused light spilling from the second floor through sheer drapes and the open slats of wooden blinds, the well-preserved Painted Lady was dark and quiet – as was most of the street.

John glanced at his watch. One forty-seven. No wonder.

Grateful all over again for McKay's thorough packing job, Sheppard pulled a set of keys whose edges were as sharp as the day they'd been cut, out of the small, zippered pocket on the side of his tote. After a couple of tries, he located the one for the front door and let himself in.

The faint, welcoming aroma of old wood and lemon oil engulfed him as he crossed the threadbare oriental runner that bisected the tiled floor and took the broad century-old stairs two at a time, passing the door to the tattoo parlor on the first floor without a second glance. All John could think of was how long he'd been away, and how close he finally was to his destination. His body tingling at the prospect of seeing Todd again, Sheppard climbed the last flight of stairs that separated them, until only a wooden door stood between him and the creature who had changed his life so profoundly. A small smile played on his lips in spite of his anxiety, and for the first time since Rodney had met him at the Gate, John allowed the excitement which had been bubbling just below the surface all along to break through his trepidation.

This is it, he mused, a frisson of anticipation making him shiver as he fumbled with the ring of keys again, trying to locate the right one for the deadbolt.

Suddenly the door opened and John gasped as he came face-to-face with an equally-surprised Wraith. Todd's eyes widened as he reached for Sheppard, and the next thing John knew he'd been dragged into the apartment and shoved against the wall, the door slammed shut so forcefully behind him that it rattled in its frame.

“Whoa, big guy! I missed you, too,” John chuckled as he tried to regain his equilibrium, his fears dispelled in a rush of giddy relief. It wasn't until he felt the wraith's grip tighten ominously on the fistful of jacket he held firmly in his grasp, and looked up into the rage simmering in the depths of Todd's hooded golden eyes, that Sheppard realized he was in trouble – serious trouble.

“What are you doing here?” The wraith snarled, his lips peeling back from sharp teeth in a furious grimace as he shook John roughly.

“I'm here to see you,” Sheppard rasped, dropping his bag and grabbing the fist that held him fast. It was rare that Todd had ever unleashed even a fraction of his vast power on him, but John felt it now in the prodigious strength of the hand that had captured him so effortlessly, and the knuckles that pressed threateningly against his Adam's apple.

As Sheppard clawed desperately at the wraith's unyielding fingers, he found it disturbingly ironic that after three-and-a-half months of eagerly anticipating Todd's touch, his first act upon their long-awaited reunion should be a desperate bid to escape his lover's clutches. Unfortunately for John, his struggles only made things worse. The violently-aroused alien instinctively pulled him closer and lifted him by the front of his uniform until John was dangling, the toes of his combat boots barely grazing the floor.

Todd studied him with a golden gaze gone hard and cold. “Why?” he growled challengingly. “Why bother?”

Sheppard's hands stilled their futile efforts as his eyebrows shot up in shock and dismay, and he momentarily forgot about his precarious position. Didn't the wraith know by now – couldn't Todd tell how much he meant to him?

“Because... I care,” John finally choked out, blushing furiously.

The wraith's nostrils flared, and John knew from experience that Todd was testing his scent. He had no idea what the alien was looking for but he must have found it, because a moment later Sheppard noticed that although Todd hadn't loosened his grip, John had been lowered enough that he didn't have to struggle for every breath.

He hadn't been let off the hook, though. Not by a long shot, if the distrustful, wary expression on Todd's face was anything to go by.

“You care only for the games you play, human. They no longer amuse me,” the wraith asserted, the emotions he kept under tight control bleeding through in an almost-imperceptible weariness of tone that Sheppard picked up on right away.

John searched Todd's impassive features, sickened and saddened by the sudden awareness that things between them had once again degenerated to the point where the wraith was questioning Sheppard's integrity - and their relationship. It seemed that no matter how hard John tried, or how honorable his intentions, he tended to have that effect on anyone he got involved with, sooner or later. What made this time even worse was that he and Todd had already been down this road, and Sheppard had promised him it wouldn't happen again.

“Todd... I'm not playing games,” he began softly - brokenly. “Please...”

The wraith's fury, which had begun fading to a dull, despondent ache, spiked again at Sheppard's heartfelt plea.

“How dare you show me your pain! You cannot begin to imagine what I have suffered!” Todd snarled in John's face, the facade of indifference slipping to reveal the rage and grief the wraith kept so carefully hidden. “I trusted you – trusted that you would return when you said you would. Instead, you walked away and left me here without a word and barely a connection between us, only to finally break your silence with a promise which McKay reneged on for you not ten minutes later.”

Todd's featured hardened and his eyes flashed dangerously. “And now you have the temerity to show up a week after dismissing me, expecting the Wraith you... kicked to the curb... to crawl back to you yet again, so you can begin your games anew.” He gave John another violent shake which rattled Sheppard's teeth and knocked him off balance, the alien's hand clenched in his clothing the only thing keeping John from falling.

“I think not,” the wraith growled. “The John Sheppard I encountered on that Genii moon would not have broken his word so easily. The John Sheppard who took me to his bed and helped me escape Atlantis would not have been so callous. I do not know who you are, but you are not the man I thought you were. It takes a sick mind to cut so deeply and so many times, and yet leave the victim breathing.”

“Todd, I'm sorry,” John tried again, his voice rough with desperation. “It was out of my hands. You were collateral damage in a game that I only found out a week ago General Landry was playing with me! We were both victims. I didn't want to break my promises – any of them! Believe me.”

“I have no tolerance for your lies, human.”

“Todd, listen to me. I'm not lying!”

The wraith roared and thrust John back against the wall throat-first, his forearm pressed across the human's neck. Years of self-defense training kicked in automatically, and before John was even aware he'd done it, he had reflexively grasped Todd's powerful arm and pushed back. The muscles in his arms and chest quivered with tension as he tried to keep his windpipe from being crushed, but otherwise Sheppard had gone still, well aware that if he resisted too strenuously, the wraith would only press harder.

“Please let me explain,” John gasped, trying to draw breath, but as far as Todd was concerned, he'd heard enough.

“No,” the wraith growled. “I will see the truth for myself.”

Sheppard stiffened with fear. If the wraith was willing to violate John's mind without even a twinge of conscience, things were far worse than he had imagined. Not even the night of the jailbreak, when Todd had been so angry he'd almost throttled Sheppard to unconsciousness, had the alien gone back on his word to stay out of his head.

John had endured many things at the wraith's hands, but mind rape was something they'd never be able to come back from. Regardless of how deep Sheppard's feelings ran, all bets would be off, for real, if Todd actually crossed that line in the sand; and John certainly didn't want things to end that way – in pain and bloodshed and death. He doubted the alien did, either – not really – for all that they'd thrown that phrase back and forth at each other for three years. He only hoped he could keep Todd out long enough for the wraith to come to his senses.

Sheppard steeled himself for the attack an instant before the wraith invaded John's mind, intent on taking what he wanted. He had barely pushed past its outer edges when Sheppard cried out defiantly, and suddenly a barrier, solid and strong, repulsed the intruder.

With a brilliant flash of light that lanced through his eye like a red-hot poker and an excruciating jolt of pain, Todd was flung back into his own skull. Shaken, he released the human with a surprised grunt and staggered back a step, resisting the urge to rub his eye, to see if his finger came away bloodstained. Instead, he settled for slowly clenching his hands into fists and glaring balefully at the human as John gingerly prodded his tender, bruised throat with his fingertips.

Tears of pain streamed unnoticed down John's ashen face. “Damn it, Todd! No,” he snarled as he squinted up at his adversary, hoping the wraith didn't make another attempt. Sheppard knew he didn't have the strength to fend off a second attack, and the last thing he needed right now was Todd in his head, seeing things he didn't want him to see and learning things he didn't want him to learn. Not tonight, anyway, when they already had enough to deal with.

Both panting in the aftermath of their skirmish, the pair regarded each other warily for a long moment until Todd abruptly turned and stalked into the den, peeling off his jacket and throwing it forcefully onto the chair in the corner of the living room as he passed.

Interpreting the wraith's retreat as an unofficial breather between rounds, John quickly swiped his face dry with his sleeve while he unlaced his boots and pulled them off, then hung his jacket in the closet, giving himself a chance to take in what he could see of the apartment from the front hall. The last time he'd seen the place it had been an empty, stark-white shell. Its dramatic transformation into a warm, inviting home was a change he approved of wholeheartedly.

It was only then, as he catalogued the details of paint and décor, that his gaze lingered on the remains of the cellphone scattered across the kitchen floor, and the backpack he'd given Todd the night the wraith had made his escape from Atlantis, packed to bursting and resting in the hall by the arch that led to the living room. A shock of anguish rocked Sheppard's body as he connected the dots, leaving him gasping for air as surely as if someone had punched him in the gut. At the same time John had been attempting to unlock the door, Todd had been on his way out – for good. If Sheppard had been even a few minutes later, he might have missed the wraith altogether.

John glanced at the creature he could see moving around in the shadowy den, swallowing hard against the rush of emotions that tightened his throat. If he'd thought he was in too deep four months ago, he was way over his head now. He couldn't afford to lose this battle.

The good news was that Sheppard had survived Round One. He was still alive and Todd hadn't forcibly cracked his mind open yet. As far as John was concerned, that was a step in the right direction. Even more significant was that as angry as the wraith obviously still was, and as close as he'd been to leaving - he was still here, and apparently willing to go a second round.

John heaved a resolute sigh. Now, if there was still enough left of the tenuous bond between them that Todd would eventually listen to what he had to say, they might actually be able to salvage something from the wreckage.

Exhausted from a long day of breaking down camp on the far side of the galaxy and still reeling from the wraith's attempted mental assault, a weary John Sheppard stepped into the living room just as Todd turned on the fireplace. He heard the faint hiss of gas right before the low click of the ignition, and suddenly blue-and-yellow flames roared to life in the pass-through firebox. John paused and gazed wistfully at the fire's welcoming glow. He'd much rather be tangled up on the sofa with Todd, vegetating in the drowsy warmth already radiating through the glass panels, than gearing himself up to try and explain his extended absence to a dangerous, infuriated alien.

Unfortunately, John already knew he was going to have to go through a hell of a lot of bitter before he got to the sweet. Todd was at the end of his rope and ready to leave, and John needed to prevent that from happening at all costs – even if they had to fight all night to do it. Maybe later, he promised the flames as he passed through the archway into the den – if he and Todd made it through the evening in one piece.

0*0*0*0

Todd glided from the fireplace, to the window, to the sofa and back again, while he waited for Sheppard to join him in the shadow-filled den, his restless movements the only indication of the yearning and rage that roared through him in turns. Torn between his anger at Sheppard's confusing, injurious actions and the desire he could not quell, the wraith found himself hating his traitorous body and the connection that drew him to Sheppard regardless of what John had done.

In fact, his emotions had betrayed him the minute he'd laid hands on the man. Even as his fingers had tightened in the fabric of John's jacket and his knuckles had brushed Sheppard's throat, the bond between them had blazed to life, and every instinct had screamed at the wraith to take his wayward consort, mark him, and remind him to whom he belonged. Even in the instant before John had revealed unexpected reserves of strength and repelled Todd as he had torn through Sheppard's flimsy mental barrier, determined to know the truth once and for all, a part of him had wanted only to embrace the man in spite of his treachery.

Snarling under his breath at his own foolishness, the wraith ground to a halt as he drifted restlessly past the fireplace again, and in a desperate bid to distract himself, he began lighting the candles that lined the ornately-carved white marble mantelpiece.

Like it or not, he'd been effortlessly drawn in once more by the human he cared about so deeply and unwisely he'd put aside his own misgivings repeatedly in pursuit of the man, and Todd wondered bitterly if this time was going to be any different, or if he could expect to be deceived and cast aside yet again. Startled by the unexpected rancor of his thoughts, he glanced up and met his own haunted gaze in the antique Venetian glass mirror which hung over the fireplace as his hands stilled in the midst of their self-appointed task. Betrayed far too many times in his life already, he found himself contemplating whether he should remain and risk it happening again, or if he should just leave now as he'd originally planned. Although the possibility was already fading fast, the wraith knew this brief interlude was his last chance to make a clean break, if he so chose. Once Sheppard walked in, the man was sure to complicate things with his mere presence like he'd been doing throughout the entire course of their relationship.

As if the thought had summoned him, John chose that moment to come through the archway into the den, looking svelte and sleek in a form-fitting long-sleeve black shirt and black BDU's that showed off the man's solidly-muscled chest and arms, narrow hips, and the curve of his appealing backside to full advantage, and Todd's decision was made for him. He surreptitiously watched as the human slowly circled the room, touching furniture and artwork with curious fingers, before reluctantly tearing his gaze away to concentrate on lighting the last tealight. When Sheppard's scent alerted him to the man's proximity as John joined him by the mantel, Todd moved away from the fireplace and took a seat on the oversized leather couch which dominated the center of the room, lest Sheppard's nearness and his tempting aroma cause the last of the wraith's fast-eroding reserve to crumble.

Disappointment etched itself on John's features for a fleeting moment before he pulled himself together, and with a look of pained resignation he met the wraith's disinterested gaze. It was then that Todd noticed the dark circles beneath the human's eyes and the way his pants hung loose on his frame; and with a slow, deliberate sweep of golden eyes and a tilt of his head, the alien let down his guard enough for John to catch a glimpse of his curiosity and concern.

It was possibly more than the man deserved, but it was obvious that Sheppard had gone through some sort of tribulation which had left him haggard and thin, and since they were doing this the Human way for now, he needed John to tell his tale. With a deep, centering breath, the wraith stilled his mind and opened all his senses so he could allow the human's emotions and musk to wash over him. As Todd had discovered from their confrontation on a secluded Lantean balcony four months earlier, once Sheppard became caught up in his story, the wraith had a good chance of being able to discern the truth from John's scent and body language.

Encouraged by Todd's wordless inquiry, Sheppard hesitantly recounted his fifteen-week ordeal, finding the warrior's sudden change in demeanor unnerving after the flurry of violence, both physical and mental, which had accompanied their first encounter. Anger, accusations, recrimination – those John could understand, but Todd sat as unmoving as a statue on the sofa while Sheppard paced and gestured his way through the story, the glitter of the wraith's impassive yellow eyes as they followed him the sole indicator that he was even paying attention.

Although, in all honesty, the alien's preternatural stillness didn't bother John half as much as it had the night he'd broken Todd out of the holding cell in Atlantis and had to convince the wraith he hadn't been toying with him. What bothered Sheppard more than Todd's silence and the general lack of social cues, was that this felt like a repeat performance, and this time there was even more riding on the alien believing him than before.

Meanwhile, Todd struggled to contain the inner turmoil that fomented just below the surface, as he listened attentively to John's tale of grueling physical hardship and insurmountable bureaucratic roadblocks with a mixture of anger, relief, and regret. If everything John asserted was genuine – and so far, Sheppard's emotional and pheromonal responses lent the distinctive ring of truth to his story – then it seemed that John had not betrayed and abandoned him, or kept him lingering for some twisted purpose. Instead, Sheppard had been hapless prey, himself, caught in a web of duplicity and revenge much like the wraith had become ensnared in when he'd been delivered into the Genii's hands all those years ago, and Todd found himself empathizing with the man's plight.

When John reached the part where he finally confronted General Landry and adroitly outmaneuvered him, Todd could not remain aloof any longer, and his mask of indifference melted away. He glanced up at Sheppard with keen interest and the ghost of a smile that revealed the tips of gleaming shark teeth. If anyone was going to successfully extricate himself from a trap so cleverly-set, it would be John Sheppard, and the human's pride in his accomplishment infected Todd with a thrill of exultation.

The wraith's pleasure was destined to be short-lived, however. In Sheppard's next breath, he mentioned Dr. McKay and reiterated the gist of the actual message John had asked him to pass on, and Todd's grin degenerated into a scowl. Just like their last conflict, pieces of the puzzle had been missing which had kept the wraith from seeing the whole picture clearly. Now that they were falling into place, it became apparent that it had been McKay's feeble ramblings which had ultimately pushed the overwhelming intensity of Todd's emotions to the breaking point; and thus misinformed and wounded, he'd lashed out indiscriminately.

“Todd – what's wrong?” Sheppard asked softly as he paused by the mantel, addressing the wraith directly for the first time since he'd entered the room.

The wraith's eyes burned like live coals in the firelight as he canted them up to meet John's puzzled hazel gaze. “I believe we have unearthed the root of our misunderstanding,” he replied slowly, enunciating carefully around the rage that was building in his chest. “It was the incompetence of your messenger.”

“What do you mean?” John cocked his head and frowned, his obvious and sincere confusion a soothing balm on the wraith's fury. It seemed Sheppard honestly had no idea how badly McKay had botched the job.

“When Dr. McKay contacted me to let me know you wouldn't be joining me, so soon after your tender, conciliatory phone call, he sounded decidedly gleeful, as if the whole thing had been some sort of capital joke. Indeed, his jocular tone and cavalier attitude, and the timing of his dismissive call all seemed planned - like the incomprehensible moves of another twisted mind game - and I finally reached my limit.”

“Hence the shattered cellphone in the kitchen.”

“Yes.”

“In case you hadn't noticed, Rodney's not very good with people,” John murmured, to Todd's disdainful snort.

“You are quick to defend him.”

“All I know is that whatever he said, he didn't mean it the way it sounded. This has never been a joke to me. Not ever.” Sheppard compressed his lips into a thin line as he stared pensively into the flame of the closest tealight dancing in its clear, cut glass holder. “What bothers me about this is that you were so ready to believe the worst of me,” he challenged after a moment, his frustration evident in his tone. “Why is that?”

“Perhaps it is because that is what you have shown me, more often than not,” the wraith replied, the glint of suppressed anger in his golden eyes giving lie to his controlled voice.

The furrow in John's brow deepened. “That cuts both ways,” he countered as he glanced in the alien's direction, his fingers tightening on the smooth, timeworn edge of the white marble. “I was just trying to win a war, the same as you. Getting as much information as possible by any means necessary, while giving nothing away, was par for the course. A little misdirection – a few key points left out of the plan – that was the name of the game, and we both played it to perfection. You can't pretend to be wounded by it when you did the same thing.”

Todd nodded. “I am guilty of similar actions; I will not deny it. But for me, playtime was over when I chose to inject myself with Dr. Keller's gene therapy. While its success would have meant salvation for my brethren in the aftermath of Michael's legacy; in the end I did it for you, Sheppard – no games, no artifice – just a desire to cross the divide which separated us.”

John met Todd's steady gaze, wincing inwardly when he saw the truth of the wraith's words clearly reflected in his face. Todd had been ready to give up his ability to feed, at the expense of his regenerative capabilities and extended lifespan on the off-chance that Sheppard might have found his advances more... acceptable, and all it had brought him was misery and degradation at John's hands.

Sheppard had still been smarting over the alien's hijacking of the Daedalus when Todd's grand experiment had gone horribly awry, and the wraith had made the desperate decision to seek assistance from the Expedition. Risking everything, he'd put himself and his ship at Atlantis' – meaning John's – mercy, and all Sheppard had seen was a chance to even the score. He'd taken advantage of Todd's plea for help and used it as an opportunity to kill his entire crew, so pleased with himself for getting back at the alien and ridding Pegasus of another Hive full of Wraith in the process, John had never stopped to consider the implications of Todd's actions.

No wonder Todd had a hard time trusting him.

“But you employed your artful tactics on me even then,” the wraith continued, dragging John back from his brutally-unforgiving self-assessment. “When I was locked in one of my own holding cells, sick and in pain, you came to me and promised to send me where I most wanted to go in exchange for my aid in landing the Hive. At some point after-the-fact, I can only imagine you were glad for personal reasons that you had spared my life, but even as I succumbed to your charms, I knew your pledge was a purely mercenary decision to save your own skin, and that the heartfelt gratitude I expressed when we parted was falling on deaf ears.”

“It was more than just a mercenary decision, but I was still angry... upset...” John offered lamely as he started to build his defense, but his voice petered out under the weight of the guilt he'd loosed on his own head. If anyone had a right to be angry and upset it was Todd. The wraith had lost hundreds of loyal warriors and a number of ships in a heartbeat to the Attero Device, and in fact, had witnessed the disintegration of one of his cruisers with his own eyes through the front viewport of the Daedalus. If the shoe had been on the other foot, Sheppard knew he would probably have believed he'd been betrayed, as well, despite platitudes to the contrary, and done exactly what Todd had in order to try and save the lives of his people - including taking control of an enemy ship and launching it at a planet. It wouldn't be the first time.

“When I next reached out to you,” Todd murmured as if John had not spoken, “seeking rescue from a desolate planet, along with the smoking wreckage of my Fighter and information vital to the safety of your precious Atlantis, and ultimately Earth, itself, you continued your attempts to manipulate the situation to your advantage.” He offered a rusty, humorless chuckle. “I must admit I did play along to see how far you would go, and while I was amused by your uncanny ability to know just what to say to me, I would have given you any information you desired for the asking - including the Gate address where I'd hidden that cache of Zero Point Modules. Your threats – while entertaining – were unnecessary.”

“I didn't think...,” John began, only to be cut off by the wraith's impatient snarl.

“No, you did not. You never even considered that I might have specifically sought you out for any reason other than to try and gain some sort of strategic advantage. I could have easily called another of my Hives to come and pick me up and had them relay a message to Atlantis, but the energy cell from my ship had been damaged and only had the strength for a single transmission – and time was of the essence. It left me no choice but to contact you, although I was aware I would be once again subject to your uncertain charity. I knew you would not trust any communication from a Wraith other than myself, and I was... concerned for your safety.

“My Second blamed you and Atlantis for all of our recent woes, including the Attero incident, and I was certain he would set course for New Lantea as soon as the Hive had reached full strength. I felt it was imperative that your warship engage the superhive as soon as possible, and had hoped that the Daedalus' weapons would have been strong enough to take out it before it had a chance to complete its growth.”

Sheppard spread his hands helplessly. “I had no idea, Todd. I had no way of knowing any of this.”

Todd glared up at him, unappeased. “A little introspection on what transpired would probably have been enough to provide you with some insight. It is painfully apparent, though, that you have not given anything I have done much thought.”

John's hand fell limply against his thighs, his cheeks burning with shame as the wraith's accusation hit home. While he had appreciated Todd's valuable heads-up on the superhive, and the ZPM's they'd needed so desperately, there was no denying that Sheppard had just accepted there must have been a hidden purpose behind Todd's actions in those last two encounters, as there had been in all the rest. John had been so sure of it, in fact, that he hadn't even speculated on the possibility of altruistic motives – not from a Wraith, and certainly not from the one who had burned them as often as he'd helped them.

The sad irony was that in the end it had been Sheppard who had proven himself untrustworthy, as he'd postured and bullied, and made unconscionable decisions under the guise of protecting the human inhabitants of Pegasus and Earth. Add Landry's punitive work schedule to the mix, which had kept them apart for four months with no explanations, and Rodney's less-than-stellar people skills exacerbating an already-tense situation. All this, while John insisted that the wraith stay out of his head, which had probably made his actions even more suspect to a creature whose primary form of communication was telepathic, and it was a wonder Todd hadn't just killed him outright when he'd walked through the door.

There was nothing left to do now but apologize.

“I guess I don't have a very good track record, do I...” Sheppard mumbled.

“No. Not in some respects,” the wraith replied, his gruff voice softening at the end, as though trying to take the sting out of his blunt rejoinder. “In others, however, I can rely on you without question. While your behavior when my crew and I were afflicted left much to be desired, you did come aboard and try to assist; and even though you made me doubt our bond with the things you said to me once Atlantis had landed safely on Earth, you still returned later and helped me escape.”

Todd appraised the man standing nervously by the fireplace, raking his golden gaze thoughtfully over John from his undeniably-attractive face, now pinched and uneasy, to his sock-clad feet and back again.

“Apparently, I can trust you with my life,” he rumbled when he met Sheppard's melancholy gaze. “I am not so sure about my emotions.”

John just nodded and looked away, fighting the sinking feeling that threatened to overwhelm him. Todd wasn't the first one to ever say something like that to him. Half-turned toward the mantel, he fidgeted with two of the candles on the ledge, trying not to burn himself on the hot glass as he carefully nudged them closer to each other.

“Why do you put up with me?” Sheppard finally inquired, his voice soft with the dismay that rolled off him in palpable waves.

The wraith's lips twitched with secret amusement. He must have asked himself the same question hundreds, if not thousands, of times since he and John had first crossed paths. The answer was simple – and right under the Colonel's nose; although Todd was not about to point out that which should be obvious to the man he'd claimed as consort, and hoped to someday take as mate.

“Probably for very similar reasons to those which brought you here tonight,” Todd offered instead, although his mild comment belied the intensity with which he studied the human from beneath his pale lashes. Spiracles flaring, he sat poised and alert for any changes in scent or expression, no matter how minuscule. He was rewarded almost instantly when John's eyes slid closed and his brow furrowed against a barely-contained rush of emotions that seemed almost painful, and a surge of something akin to desire which tickled the wraith's scent receptors in a most appealing way.

When Sheppard finally met the wraith's gaze again a moment later, his eyes shone a little too brightly, and his breath caught in his throat, a little too ragged. With a candor he rarely allowed himself, he unabashedly studied the alien who observed him so intently, drinking in Todd's ruggedly-handsome features like a dying man who'd suddenly discovered an oasis in the middle of the desert.

Although he could only guess at Todd's motives at this point, John knew why he was here. It was because the damn wraith had gotten under his skin like an addiction he couldn't shake – like a vital part of himself he'd been missing his entire life. After struggling to deny a habit that had only grown stronger and more irresistible since it had started three years earlier, he'd finally given himself to the wraith and taken what he had to offer with shameless gratitude - and now Sheppard was well-and-truly hooked.

In truth, he had no clever arguments for why Todd shouldn't just walk out the door, only his fervent wish that the wraith wouldn't. And like the addict he was, John wasn't above begging for his drug of choice.

“Please don't go,” he rasped, barely above a whisper, his voice raw and vulnerable in a way the wraith seldom heard it.

Todd regarded his consort impassively, although he found it difficult to maintain his guarded expression in the face of John's impassioned entreaty. The wraith knew better than most what it cost Sheppard whenever he expressed anything close to his to his true feelings, and even without access to the man's thoughts, it was easy to see that John had suffered from their separation as deeply as Todd had. Sheppard's extended absence had been involuntary – the wraith believed that, and he had no desire to inflict the same torturous uncertainty on his prodigal lover as John had inadvertently caused him. He was not about to hold a grudge for that which had been out of John's control.

The same could not be said for McKay, who had made a bad situation infinitely worse, and Todd promised himself that the next time he encountered the scientist, they would have words. For the moment, though, vengeance would have to wait for the one who deserved it. The dark-haired man across from him did not.

“I will stay,” the wraith responded reassuringly with a small nod, to Sheppard's shaky exhalation of relief.

“Good,” John breathed before a lingering doubt brought his trepidation roaring back, and his fading frown returned full-force. “But... you were so ready to walk away from everything; from the house, and the life you've built here. Now you're going to stay, just like that?”

Todd leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees as he weighed Sheppard's question. He wasn't fooled for a second. He knew that John was really asking how the wraith could have been prepared to walk out on him so easily, and if Todd might arbitrarily choose to do so again at some time in the future.

“I did not wish to leave,” he replied as he met Sheppard's concerned gaze, “but as far as I knew, you had already cast me aside. I did not believe I had any reason to stay.”

The tension in the human's features melted into sorrow.

“Todd – I'm so sorry,” John murmured, stricken. “Can you ever forgive me for what I put you through?”

“I already have, Sheppard,” Todd assured him, the merest hint of a smile flickering across greyish-green lips. “We would not be speaking at this moment if I had not.

“However...,” the alien went on, his face falling for a moment before he hesitantly lifted it again, yellow eyes glinting like molten gold in the firelight. “There is something I need to tell you for which I believe I may have to ask your forgiveness, as well...”

Chapter Text

A charged silence filled the den when Todd finished his dark narrative of anguish and grief, and the measures he'd taken to alleviate his pain when it had finally grown too great to bear. It had been a difficult confession to make, but after John's genuine remorse and heartfelt apology for his part in the rift between them, the wraith had felt compelled to seek absolution as well, knowing he'd crossed boundaries Sheppard had been counting on him to abide by.

Anxious, and uncertain of the man's reaction, Todd studiously examined his interlaced fingers while he waited for the maelstrom of conflicting emotions pouring off Sheppard to coalesce into something recognizable. Barred from reaching for the human telepathically, he shot furtive glances in John's direction, reduced to wondering what the man was thinking as Sheppard methodically worked his way down the line of crystal candleholders, cupping his hand around each one and blowing out the flickering tealight it contained before moving on to the next.

By the time John snuffed out the last flame, leaving the room lit only by the brightness of the fire merrily dancing in the gas fireplace and the light spilling obliquely through the dual archways from the front hall, Todd had almost reached the limits of his endurance. Tense and apprehensive, he bit back a snarl of frustration when the human finally turned to face him. At this point, he almost didn't care what came out of Sheppard's mouth, as long as the man didn't draw out the interminable agony of anticipation any longer.

“So you broke your promise because you thought I had broken mine,” John began, speaking deliberately as if trying to understand.

“No,” the alien replied, his gaze falling once more to the chipped black polish on his thumbnails. “I disregarded it because I thought it no longer mattered.”

The scent of the human's rapidly-escalating wrath alerted Todd even before the rustle of cloth-on-cloth betrayed Sheppard's movement. Just as John stepped away from the fireplace and reached for him, the wraith glanced up, golden eyes narrowing suspiciously as he caught hold of the human's wrist right before Sheppard's hand connected with his face.

“Touch me in anger at your peril,” Todd growled menacingly, his own temper rising to meet the man's head-on. He had not had to endure a direct assault from a human since Ronon Dex had attacked him in the Jumper, and before then... the Genii.

Never again, the wraith promised himself, as he savagely pushed the memories below the surface and flashed his serrated teeth in a fierce snarl of barely-contained fury. Although he'd left behind the underground bunker over three years earlier, decades of starvation and abuse were not so easily forgotten. Between the stress of his and John's extended altercation and the human suddenly looming over him stinking of rage, the emotional rollercoaster ride had begun to trigger deeply-ingrained responses Todd was finding it difficult to control.

“I – I wasn't going to,” John stammered, genuinely confused as to why Todd had visibly flinched when he'd stretched out his hand. He'd had no intention of striking the wraith.

“You lie, human,” Todd snapped as his grip tightened. “I can smell it on you.”

Sheppard made a small, startled noise in the back of his throat, then looked away, suddenly unable to meet the wraith's eyes.

Humans had died. Of course they had. John knew what Todd was – and what he... required, and for that very reason it had taken much soul-searching and a hell of a lot of denial before he'd let the alien loose in San Francisco. As a way to live with a decision he knew was costing lives, John had gotten the wraith to agree that he would hunt only what Sheppard had euphemistically termed 'bad guys.' But over the past week Todd had ruthlessly slaughtered more than a dozen people, and by the alien's own admission, there was a good chance at least a few of them had been innocents. It was in direct violation of the covenant the pair had made the morning they'd fled Atlantis together, and Sheppard knew he should be livid and ready to cut the wraith down like a mad dog in the street for what he'd done.

But he couldn't be angry with Todd. Not this time, anyway.

Although Todd might have been the one who'd hunted and fed indiscriminately for the past five days, as far as Sheppard was concerned every one of those deaths rested squarely on his own, all-too-human shoulders, not the alien's.

Like it or not, this time John had no one to be angry with but himself.

The wraith had never actually pointed a finger, but it had been clear from his story that Sheppard's prolonged absence and broken promises had finally been what had pushed him over the edge. John couldn't help but agree. The issue with Landry had been his to resolve and although he'd deluded himself into believing otherwise, Sheppard had known all along that it was taking too damn long.

John compressed his lips into a thin, frustrated line. Instead of being by Todd's side, he had toiled under foreign suns while he waited like a good little soldier for an audience with the General, pretending he didn't feel the growing apprehension that gnawed at him as weeks of separation had turned into months. In lieu of soothing the wraith's anxiety with his presence, Sheppard had tried to convince himself that Todd would be alright on his own, leaving it to others to pass on information that was little better than speculation and hearsay while John had wasted time playing paperwork games.

In the end, it didn't matter to Sheppard that their separation had been orchestrated by forces beyond his control, and he'd had no other option but to patiently unravel the miles of military red tape which had kept them apart. The fact remained that he hadn't been there for Todd when he'd said he would be, and it was going to be a long time before he'd be able to forgive himself for letting the wraith down.

“I'm angry with myself for driving you to that,” John confessed quietly as he turned back to the alien, his gaze barely grazing the other's face. “I'm not mad at you.”

“Ah.” Todd's simmering fury receded and his expression softened to one of reserved speculation as he released the human's arm. Once again Sheppard had surprised him with the depths of his self-loathing, and he ached to know what secrets dwelt behind his consort's forlorn features that compelled him to take responsibility for even a Wraith's loss of control.

No longer restrained, John closed the distance between them and cautiously laid his hand along the side of his companion's upturned face. As their gazes locked, he felt the wraith tremble under his palm, Todd's golden eyes guarded and wary, and Sheppard's brimming with tender emotions they both knew would never cross his lips.

The tumult of John's pent-up feelings sent an answering shiver through his frame as he lowered himself down next to the seated alien. Although he still harbored a few qualms about the passionate, physical relationship which had sprung up between himself and the wraith, there was no way to deny his affection for the tall, spare, apex predator, and for the most part, Sheppard had given up trying to fight it. The problem was that acknowledging his feelings didn't make them any easier to express.

Fortunately, John had always prided himself on being a man of action, so rather than stumble over sentiments he had no hope of articulating, he remained silent and let the eloquence of his gestures to speak for themselves.

Throwing caution to the wind, he gingerly wound his other arm around Todd's lower back, for a brief instant feeling like a lion tamer audaciously embracing one of his unpredictable, ferocious charges in the center ring. When the wraith allowed it, yielding ever-so-slightly in his grasp, John pulled him closer; so near he could see golden eyes darken as slitted pupils dilated, and feel the soft rise-and-fall of the other's chest where it pressed against his own. As Sheppard's gaze traveled tenderly over his lover's alien features, the hand which rested on Todd's prominent cheekbone followed suit. Trailing his fingertips down the wraith's cheek and jawline with exquisite care, John let the desire reflected in his eyes and the gentleness of his touch convey what he couldn't say out loud.

Meanwhile, Todd struggled with his own demons. Vivid recollections of his years with the Genii and the cruelty he'd suffered while in their custody flooded his consciousness, leaving him far too agitated to give in to John's gentle advances. Tormented by menacing phantasms of isolated, subterranean cells and threatening figures doing unspeakable things, the wraith's first impulse was to pull away, to conceal the momentary weakness which had brought him to his knees more often than he cared to admit, from anyone - Wraith or human - who might take advantage. But the hazel eyes which beheld him with such tender yearning were not Wraith, and they had long ago ceased being merely human. They belonged to Sheppard, and John belonged to him - his chosen one, for better or worse; their bond forged in the same dungeon Todd once again battled so vehemently to escape, if only in his mind.

As the wraith met his lover's gaze an unexpected spark of optimism ignited in his breast, and he nourished the tiny flame of hope that kindled there in spite of the memories which threatened to overwhelm him. Perhaps with Sheppard by his side this time, instead of descending once again into the darkness of the underground bunker, the man's strong, comforting presence might release him – as it had three years earlier – from the imprisonment he'd endured for far too long.

Fighting the stirrings of instinctive distrust the feel of a human hand against his cheek instilled in him, Todd deliberately leaned into the John's familiar touch and took what comfort he could from the calloused palm and work-roughened fingers. Focusing on the hypnotic sensation of Sheppard's caresses to the exclusion of all else, the wraith's world narrowed to the soothing patterns being traced on his pale-green skin until the nightmarish visions began to loosen their grip on his beleaguered psyche. One after another they faded away as he succumbed to John's tender onslaught, and before long, Todd quivered with breathless anticipation instead of apprehension as he awaited the brush of Sheppard's fingers against flesh left sensitized and tingling in their wake.

More grateful to the human for delivering him from the shadows of the past than he could ever convey, the wraith's eyes slipped shut just as the last vestiges of John's anxiety dissolved in a wash of desire. Drowning willingly in its sensuous oblivion, Todd dove in without a backward glance, surrendering to the musk of human lust that lured him with its irresistible siren call. With a pleasured sigh, he lost himself in the magnetic pull of the Brother bond, and the pulse of precious life force emanating from the man he had missed with the same intensity that Murphy mourned the loss of his leg - something he had resigned himself to doing without, with the sure knowledge that bereft of its presence he would never be whole again.

Todd groaned softly, almost a purr, as he relaxed into the gentle scratch of his lover's nails raking through his unkempt beard, when the human suddenly cupped his chin in his hand. The wraith's golden cat's eyes snapped open in surprise to meet Sheppard's dark, searching gaze, and he wondered what John was seeking so assiduously in his visage. He wished yet again that he had the man's permission to reach for him telepathically, and regretted that he had tried to take him by force.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” John inquired after a moment of intense study, his voice soft with affectionate dismay. “You're a brutal serial killer with a mass grave of dessicated corpses hidden somewhere in the city, and all I can think about is how much I missed... this...” Sheppard's cheeks flamed as he pressed his lips against the wraith's, the heat rising from the man's skin intensifying the scent of his arousal.

At the first taste of his consort's delectable mouth, Todd groaned and pulled John impossibly closer; his hands, which had lain quiescent in his lap as Sheppard had stroked his face, possessively clutched the man's shoulders and combed through his dark hair as though the wraith had been released from a spell. His strong fingers massaged the back of his lover's neck as he feverishly returned the kiss, holding John gently-but-masterfully in place so he could tease the human's mouth open with his clever, questing tongue.

Controlled effortlessly by the wraith's hand tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck, Sheppard yielded to the alien's tender, insistent persuasion, his lips parting invitingly as the tip of his tongue darted out to meet Todd's agile, grey one. John had forgotten how incredibly hot it was to be dominated so completely by the powerful being who restrained him, and a raw moan of desire was torn from his throat as his body responded to the alien's possessive grip.

Sensing the human's submission, Todd snarled triumphantly as he tilted his head and covered Sheppard's mouth with his. Their lips melded with reckless abandon as they deepened the kiss, tongues intertwining in a passionate dance which left them both dizzy with need by the time John finally pulled away.

He barely had a second to catch his breath before Todd bore him down onto his back with a fierce growl. In the next instant, John found himself gazing up into a pair of yellow cat's eyes amidst a forest of tangled, white hair as he was pressed into the soft leather by the larger male's lean, muscular frame. Welcoming the keenly-missed and oft-imagined weight of his lover's body settling along the length of his own, John twined his leg around the alien's to pull him closer. His movements rubbed together aching arousals held in check by twill and denim, and the pair gasped in unison as the friction sent long-denied sparks of ecstasy shooting through them both. In a frenzied rush of lust they found each other's lips once again, while their bodies instinctively strained and rutted violently against one another in a desperate rhythm.

“... Missed you,” John groaned through swollen, Wraith-bitten lips when he broke the kiss a second time, panting raggedly in Todd's ear as he tugged the wraith's t-shirt up enough to skim his hands greedily over the smooth skin of the other's muscled back.

“Yes,” Todd breathed in agreement as he lowered his mouth to the human's vulnerable throat, intent on giving Sheppard the first mark of many he planned on bestowing before first light.

He had thought it would be so easy to turn his back, quit the city, and leave Sheppard behind forever, but Todd realized now that he'd only been deluding himself. For all their cross-cultural misunderstandings, years of mutual distrust, and matching hair-trigger tempers, John completed him in a way no one ever had before. The unsettling truth was that it was already too late for the wraith. Sheppard was a part of him – his greatest strength and his most glaring weakness, and Todd needed him on too many levels to ever walk away.

As for John's mulish stubbornness and worrying resistance to strengthening their bond, the alien silently vowed to strive for patience while he awaited his paramour's change of heart. In the meantime, until he could reach for Sheppard's mind as freely as he embraced his body – when all boundaries between them were gone and he could trust the man without reserve, one thing was certain - John was warm and inviting, and he desired Todd as fiercely as the wraith did Sheppard.

Slitted pupils blown with lust, Todd pulled back just enough to gaze at the human stretched out beneath him, languorous and aroused.

“You are in so much trouble, John Sheppard,” he promised darkly, his voice a low, seductive purr.

John arched sensuously against the wraith as a wave of yearning rolled through his body at the alien's ardent words, his fingers still quivering with the force of it a moment later when he slid his hand under long, pale hair to explore the sensitive flesh between the bone spurs on the back of Todd's neck. With practiced strokes he grazed the alien's erogenous zone, reveling in the reaction his touch elicited as the overstimulated wraith gasped and snarled with each voluptuous touch, while the hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Sheppard's mouth.

“I'm counting on it,” John whispered hoarsely as he tightened his grasp, pulling Todd down to capture his lips in another hungry kiss.

This was the kind of trouble John liked. In fact, he encouraged it. Sucking Todd's lower lip between his blunt, human teeth, John nipped at it in a way he knew drove the wraith crazy with lust. He was rewarded with an impassioned snarl as the alien shifted and snaked a demanding hand between them to deftly unfasten Sheppard's pants, which had grown uncomfortably tight the moment Todd had invaded John's mouth with his tongue.

Aching and eager, John squirmed as the wraith bunched his shirt up under his armpits to expose his abdomen and chest, then delved into his BDU's to free him from layers of restrictive fabric. A moment later Todd succeeded, and the low growl of impatience still vibrating in the back of the alien's throat melted into a groan of longing when his fingers finally encountered flesh.

With a moan that rivaled his partner's, John released the wraith's captive lip. His breath ghosted past Todd's cheek in short, desperate puffs as cool, alien fingertips reacquainted themselves with his anatomy, curiously trailing up and down the length of his throbbing manhood and fondling its sensitive head. Losing himself in the delicious sensation of a hand other than his own caressing him for the first time in what felt like forever, Sheppard's face went slack with pleasure when Todd wrapped his fingers around him and gave an experimental tug, smearing the pearls of pre-come already leaking from the slit over the engorged glans with his thumb.

The wraith trembled as he attempted to rein himself in, overwhelmed by the tingling surge of heat pooling in his groin. Between the feel of John's erection responding so eloquently to his touch and the scent of human desire permeating the air, heavy and alluring, it was all Todd could do not to flip the man over, rip off his clothes, and mount him, unprepared. Primal impulses dictated he mark his errant consort inside and out as deeply and profoundly as possible to hammer home the lesson that John belonged nowhere else but by his side. Finally having the human pinned beneath him was almost more temptation than he could endure.

The wraith nearly lost the struggle when John bucked into the strong fingers that encompassed him with a fervid cry, begging him not to stop. Unwilling to relinquish his hold on his lover's taut, muscular body, but too close to the edge of his own rapidly-crumbling control for Sheppard's safety, Todd pulled back with a snarl. He needed to open the human – and fast. They'd both been craving this intimacy for far too long; the last thing he wanted to do was injure the man unintentionally once passion-fueled instinct kicked in.

“What's the matter?” John asked as the alien climbed to his feet, leaving Sheppard sprawled, half-naked and painfully-aroused on the couch. Shivering from the sudden loss of body heat that the wraith had taken with him, John propped himself up on his elbows, wondering at his lover's abrupt retreat. He didn't have long to ponder before a tube of lubricant the alien had retrieved from an end-table drawer was tossed onto the cushion next to him.

“Nothing we can't fix, Sheppard,” Todd replied, his voice husky with need. The wraith reached to unbutton his jeans, his eyes smoldering with a feverish intensity that set John's pulse racing.

Lying back against the warm leather with a knowing smirk, Sheppard sensuously ran his fingers through the soft, dark fur on his chest. His attention never wavered from Todd's rapt expression as John trailed a hand enticingly over his torso and across the scar above his sternum where the wraith had first claimed him as his own three years earlier. Even in the den's shadowed semi-darkness, John could see how much his display affected the alien, as golden cat's eyes whose pupils were already large and dark with passion dilated to round pools of desire.

“Take off your pants,” the wraith ordered with a guttural growl, barely able to form words as he was consumed by the longing that burned through his veins like hunger. It didn't help that he could smell Sheppard's rising excitement, intoxicating and rich, or that the man's breath had hitched so fetchingly at the terse command, before his fingers left off their teasing tracery to comply with the wraith's directive.

While John enthusiastically pulled his shirt off the rest of the way and began wriggling out of his BDU's, Todd unzipped his jeans and worked them down his hips as the rub of metal teeth and canvas against his straining cock suddenly went from minor impediment to intolerable obstacle with his skyrocketing desire. Releasing his aching member from the confines of its denim prison with a relieved groan, the wraith took himself in hand and stroked his ridged length to full hardness as his keen, predatory gaze traveling covetously over his paramour's trim, athletic body.

“Enough,” Todd snarled, once Sheppard had managed to liberate one of his legs from his uncooperative trousers. Unable to wait any longer, the wraith impatiently swatted John's hands away from the tangle of fabric still bunched hopelessly around his other ankle, then grasped the man's bent knees and pushed them apart before fumbling for the lube. Finesse would come later. Tender lovemaking would have its turn over the next few days. Right now there was only voracious appetite and an unrelenting drive to mate, so primitive and powerful it swept the wraith along in a tidal wave of lust that was impossible to resist.

Without preamble he reached between John's spread legs and rubbed slick fingers over the man's puckered rosebud, in preparation of the coupling they both longed for. He was rewarded with a shudder and a gasp from his reclining partner, and a deluge of human pheromones that overwhelmed his scent receptors and hardened his weeping cock even further, forcing another drop of crystal clear liquid from the sensitive slit.

Todd teased John's pulsating opening for only a moment longer, until the promise of breaching the human's tight entrance inflamed him beyond rational thought, and he pushed a lube-covered digit past the ring of muscles, working it inside to the sound of his lover's amorous moans. Once he slipped it all the way in, the wraith twisted his wrist until his hand was palm-up, then crooked his finger in a 'come hither' gesture that brushed it back and forth across John's prostate. The unexpected stimulation shook Sheppard to the core of his being and with a passionate shout he spasmed, his hips lifting clear off the cushion as he arched with pleasure.

Almost undone by the blistering intensity of John's erotically-charged reaction, Todd growled low in his throat as he withdrew his finger and immediately inserted two, scissoring them rhythmically to relax the human's muscles. It was a short-cut he hadn't resorted to in the past with Sheppard, but even the night he'd finally bedded the man after three years of patient pursuit, the wraith hadn't faced the urgency of the rut response he contended with now. Unlike their first mating in the Ancient city, this time he was poised to loot a treasure he had already had the pleasure of plundering and knew well its worth, and he ached to reclaim the prize he deemed precious beyond compare.

“Todd... please...,” John moaned, as he groped frantically for the creature who bent over him, tormenting and arousing him in turns, and driving him to the very edge of his sanity. “You're gonna to make me come, and we haven't even started yet.” He ran his hand urgently up and down Todd's arm as he gazed up at his sleekly-muscled, green-skinned lover, all his desire and longing for the wraith shining in his lust-darkened, hazel eyes. “I need to feel you inside me,” he managed to choke out in a harsh whisper. “Please.”

The impassioned entreaty of his raven-haired consort, disheveled and desperate beneath him, finally pushed Todd to the breaking point. With a dangerous snarl, the wraith pulled his fingers out of John's hastily-prepared entrance and grabbed his legs, dragging Sheppard closer so he could drape the man's ankles over his broad, green shoulders and raise John to the optimum angle for ravaging.

Yellow eyes reflected the firelight with a feral gleam as the alien reached for the lube and quickly coated the dark-grey arousal jutting proudly from the opening in his jeans, generously slathering its flared head and the engorged ridges which encircled is impressive length until he was slick and ready. Then, resting a hand by John's shoulder to brace himself, Todd suppressed a shudder of barely-contained excitement as he pressed the sensitive, glistening tip of his cock against the human's rosebud with the other and sheathed himself with a single, violent thrust.

A deep, satisfied groan resonated in Todd's chest as he sank into Sheppard's tight heat, and the wraith threw his head back in rapture, raggedly panting as he rode the overpowering sensation. For four months he'd dreamed of this moment, when he and his human consort were truly reunited - when he would once again feel the exquisite embrace of his lover's body; and now that they were finally together as one, he savagely held himself back to savor it for as long as he could.

His fragile control shattered a heartbeat later when John arched sensuously against the leather, writhing wantonly on the thick cock buried inside him, and crying out with the searing ecstasy of being penetrated so suddenly and completely. Incoherent pleas and demands spilled from the man's lips as he begged to be taken, his passage clenching around the wraith's throbbing member with such sublime pressure, it was all Todd could do to keep from climaxing right then and there.

It was a battle he was destined to lose when his next intake of air brought with it an irresistible wash of human lust. Drowning in the pheromones that flooded his senses, the alien bared his sharp teeth and growled in response to his consort's challenge, all his tender affection transmuting into a burning desire to stake his claim on Sheppard once and for all. With an impassioned snarl, Todd gave in to his most primitive urges, pulling back then hilting himself ferociously in John's willing body with a barbarous snap of his hips. Lost in sensation, he pistoned in and out of Sheppard's tight entrance at a frenzied pace, his thrusts hard and deep and desperate. The brutal rhythm and hot, sweet friction drove the wraith closer to the edge with each punishing stroke, and he knew he wouldn't last long.

“God... yes,” John groaned, when Todd leaned in and increased the tempo of his forceful onslaught, the slap of powerfully-built thighs against Sheppard's backside escalating rapidly as the alien chased his fast-approaching orgasm. Clinging tightly to the wraith's taut, corded arms, the muscles bunching with tension beneath silken, green skin, John's breath faltered as he teetered on the razor's edge between ecstasy and agony, not sure whether he could disentangle one from the other at that precise moment, and not sure he even cared. He'd been aching for the stretch and burn of this welcome invasion since the night he and Todd had parted, and now that he could feel the wraith's ridged, alien length moving inside him once again, Sheppard realized just how much he'd missed it – how desperately he'd needed it to feel complete.

Even as his face flamed with embarrassed heat at this admission, John gave himself over to his lover's relentless assault, succumbing to the battering ram of a Wraith cock that threatened to split him wide open as it plunged into him again and again. Small, needy noises issued from the back of his throat as the alien reduced him to a puddle of pulse-pounding endorphins until Todd's shaft found John's prostate, unexpectedly rubbing across it once, then again – then each time the wraith drove into him, and Sheppard's moans devolved into cries of unrestrained passion. As his discomfort melted into mind-blowing bliss, John reached for his sensitized, straining cock, his entire body shivering with jolts of electric pleasure radiating from deep inside. Aching with the need to come – and soon, he pushed into his fist as he instinctively rocked his hips, meeting the alien's vigorous thrusts with a groan of agonized delight.

Racing toward the point of no return, Todd's movements faltered as the delectable friction of Sheppard's tight passage clenching around his ridged length with each roll of his hips took the wraith apart at the seams. Lust-glazed golden eyes met hazel just as the alien's loins tingled with the leading edge of his climax, and in the next instant he unraveled with an inarticulate roar. Lurching and shuddering as violent paroxysms of unbridled pleasure overtook him, he pumped his seed, jet after sticky jet, deep inside his lover's body, the anxiety of their separation and the uncertainty of their reconciliation burned away in a firestorm of blazing passion.

Undone by the perfection of the wraith's surrender to the fierce lust that ravaged them both, John lost control a heartbeat later. His sweat-slicked body, drawn as taut as a bowstring and quivering with the tension of imminent release, spasmed as the intensity of his climax shot off the charts. Erupting over his fingers with Todd's name on his lips, Sheppard bucked and thrashed in the throes of ecstasy as he painted his chest and chin with the hot, creamy proof of his pleasure.

Sated and spent, the pair's frenzied movements stilled as they tried to catch their breath in the aftermath of their ferocious coupling. The wraith's arms shook from the effort of holding himself up, and with a groan of sublime satisfaction he sagged against the backs of his lover's sweaty thighs as his powerful chest worked like bellows. Each labored inhalation brought with it the scent of the human's heated, fragrant skin, and Todd took the opportunity to revel in it while Sheppard panted beneath him, one hand curled loosely around his softening length, the other still locked on the alien's forearm where John had blindly scrabbled for purchase as he'd come.

Slitted pupils round and dark with everything he felt for the man clear for John to see, the wraith looked down and met Sheppard's gaze, unexpectedly finding emotions which matched his own reflected back in their unguarded, hazel depths. Time stood still, and as the unfiltered honesty of what was between them was laid bare, their bond crackled to glorious life of its own volition. Todd's eyes widened in surprise even as John's breath hitched and his passion-flushed cheeks reddened further as he looked away, leaving the alien struggling to regain his composure as his emotions soared with exaltation. In that timeless moment, Todd had been treated to a fleeting glimpse of what they had the potential to become, and as he tamped down his elation and hastily schooled his features into a carefully-neutral expression, the wraith finally understood how humans found their life partners without heightened senses or telepathic abilities.

Reluctant to let go of Sheppard for any reason now that he had him where he wanted him – especially after his lover's unintentional revelation – Todd knew he was going to have to if he wanted to get even closer. Offering a deceptively-mild smile to the man beneath him when Sheppard cautiously caught his eye again, the wraith grudgingly slipped out of his boneless consort then reached up and gently grasped John's ankles, helping him walk down his chest and lowering him onto the sofa as he pulled back. As Sheppard stiffly turned over onto his side with a pained grunt, the alien quickly divested himself of his t-shirt and jeans, aching to feel the slide of John's mammalian, fur-covered body along his own, smooth, hairless one.

Todd kicked aside his discarded clothing before crawling onto the broad leather sofa and cradling the limp, unprotesting human to him. He nuzzled the nape of John's neck as he curled up behind the man, burying his face in the short, dark hair and inhaling his lover's musky scent. Then John laughed, soft and intimate, and shifted provocatively in his arms, and the wraith pulled Sheppard's back against his chest with a possessive growl.

The sensation of the human's backside rubbing against his still-engorged length and the first, long-awaited caress of skin-on-skin as Todd drew him closer, conspired to reignite the wraith's barely-quenched ardor with an intensity that left him gasping. Basking in the overwhelmingly-sensual experience of the human's naked, firmly-muscled body so compliantly stretched out beneath him, Todd propped himself up on his elbow to trail lingering kisses down the strong column of John's neck before latching on at the juncture where it met the man's shoulder. With hollowed cheeks, he sucked hard at the human's salty flesh, John's moans of pleasure as the wraith worried it with his tongue and the tips of his sharp teeth exciting him even more.

While Sheppard still backpedaled whenever they drifted too close to acknowledging the true nature of their relationship, the man's rising lust and willing submission to being marked yet again told Todd a different story – very similar to the one which had kept a besotted Wraith coming back again and again for three years. If it was good enough for then, and they'd come this far - the alien decided as he released Sheppard's freshly-bruised skin with an impassioned snarl – it was good enough for now, until John came around.

Todd's breath was hot against the back of his lover's neck as he compared the latest purple welt to the slightly-raised ring of scar tissue next to it. His gift to Sheppard the night they'd finally given in to what they'd both wanted – what they both still wanted; and if the human's pheromones were any indication, what John wanted more of, right now. With an eager, anticipatory shudder, the wraith took hold of himself and guided the head of his arousal down between Sheppard's cheeks to line himself up with the man's leaking, semen-slicked entrance.

“Do I at least get to take off my pants first?” John whispered gruffly, caught between desire and dismay when the tip of the alien's cock invaded his abused, pleasantly-sore ass. Unimaginably grateful to Todd for overlooking that awkward little moment they'd shared, Sheppard was also well-aware of the irony – or the hypocrisy – he wasn't sure which, of his relief. He had barely avoided blurting out words which once spoken, would have made things super gay, super fast; and yet here he was, hungrily arching to receive the rock-hard shaft Todd impaled him on for the second time that night, its impressive length sliding home with a soft, wet sound.

“Later, Sheppard,” the wraith promised, his voice little more than a passionate groan. Sweeping the palm of his feeding hand up over the sparsely-furred skin of John's muscular thigh and across his abdomen, the alien wrapped strong fingers carefully around John's reawakening erection, stroking it with the same rhythm as his languid thrusts.

“You don't waste any time, do you,” John gasped, all his unease giving way to a surge of passion as he bucked into his lover's skillful grip.

A low, seductive chuckle tickled his ear. “I believe we've wasted enough time already, Sheppard,” Todd rumbled huskily, as he picked up the pace of both hand and hips. “Wouldn't you agree?”

“Yesss,” John hissed, shivering with perverse delight at the sensation of the wraith's ridged cock moving inside him as they began again.

“Definitely.”

Chapter Text

Inhaling deeply of the fresh, salty air and the morning's peaceful solitude, Todd exhaled a sigh of contentment as he spread out his newspaper on the frosted glass-top table the previous owner had left on the back deck. As had become a daily ritual early on in his tenancy, the wraith had adjourned to the secluded outdoor dining set seeking this very state-of-mind with his first cup of coffee and the morning paper, although finding his center had been oddly difficult this morning.

Then again, today was shaping up to be anything but typical.

It had begun the moment he'd opened his eyes and known a brief, dizzying moment of disorientation, when instead of waking up alone in the den as he'd been doing for quite some time, he had awakened to the moss-green walls of his bedroom and the warmth of his lover beside him.

Confused by the unfamiliar surroundings, and half-convinced he was dreaming, he'd still been trying make sense of where he was when memories of the previous night's passion began slotting themselves into place. In the next instant Todd had found himself instinctively curled around his very-real sleeping companion, his arms wrapped around the man in an attempt to anchor himself as he'd been swept away in the deluge. Drowning in the heated images flooding his consciousness, the wraith had had no choice but to hang on for dear life, riding out the vividly-recalled echoes of their rapturous coupling until they'd faded to pleasurable background noise.

Once the initial shock of having Sheppard in his bed had worn off enough for him to function again, the alien had hastily pulled himself together and picked up the threads of his normal routine like he'd never dropped them. Thankful that no one had borne witness to the wash of emotion which had left him so vulnerable and shaken, he'd leaned in and placed a tender kiss on the back of the human's neck before slipping out of the warm cocoon of blankets. Careful not to disturb his softly-snoring consort, the wraith had grabbed some clothes and padded silently down the hall, repairing first to the guest bathroom for a shower, then to the covered porch so he could meditate and greet the day.

The time Todd set aside to contemplate and reflect was sacred to him, and this particular hour was his favorite. The brief flurry of activity which signaled the mass exodus of adults either leaving for work, or herding their young to lessons – or both, was long past, and the midday rush of tourists looking for parking spaces within walking distance of Market Street had not yet begun. Wedged in between like an unexpected gift, the only sounds to be heard in this fragile lull were the songs of birds in the hundred-year-old tree that shaded the yard, and the crinkle of the newsprint as he refolded the early edition into a manageable block of text.

Unlike many of his brethren, who preferred the infinite vacuum of space to any time spent on the ground other than that demanded of them by duty and hunger, Todd had always enjoyed being planetside. He found comfort in the regular wax and wane of natural light filtered through atmosphere; and was both invigorated and humbled by the wild, capricious variations in weather and temperature created by the spin of the planet, itself, reminding even one such as him of his insignificance in the timeless dance of a vast, uncaring universe.

After the violent upheaval of his unexpected reunion with Sheppard the previous evening, he'd felt it especially vital to adhere to the familiar patterns of existence he'd grown accustomed to, in order to recover his equilibrium. Hours of passionate mating, of repeatedly marking the man as Todd had taken him over and over again, and of holding an exhausted Sheppard in his arms afterwards as the human had slept, had all strengthened the wraith's resolve to remain steadfast until his lover was ready to deepen their connection. Unfortunately, it had also left in its wake a wistful, melancholy ache for the very thing he had promised to await. While he might be an ancient member of a patient race, Todd already desired the human beyond all reason. His wish to bind John to him had only increased after their heartfelt reconciliation, and he hoped, for both their sakes, that Sheppard overcame whatever reservations he had sooner rather than later.

A sudden breeze fluttered the corner of the page he'd been staring at, unseeing, bringing with it the smell of unwashed Sheppard mingled with his own earthy scent and the musk of sex. The intoxicating bouquet made his cock twitch hopefully in response as the alien's eyes shifted from the newspaper to those of his semi-conscious paramour, who had appeared in the doorway holding two mugs of coffee in his hands.

Outwardly calm in spite of the instinctive desires the man's presence triggered in him, Todd remained still by sheer force-of-will as his golden gaze traveled lazily over the human's features. With sensual, heavy-lidded cat's eyes, he took in the tantalizing sight of John's puffy face, tousled hair, and stubbled cheek, before lingering on what he could see of Sheppard's muscular neck peeking over the gaping collar of his haphazardly-tied robe. The smooth column of his consort's throat was peppered with purplish-red bite marks, and it gratified the alien on a primal level that the bruises he'd left stood out so starkly against the human's skin. For the next week, at least, John would have only to glance in the mirror to be reminded that he belonged exclusively to the one who had claimed him so profoundly.

A slow, satisfied smile spread across Todd's face even as he struggled to regain his composure, carefully setting aside the paper and folding his arms across his chest. After the number of times he had jumped Sheppard on any given morning during their week-long hotel stay, spurred on by this same irresistible combination of passion-marked flesh, tempting aroma, and vulnerable dishevelment, the wraith wondered briefly if John knew what he was doing to him - although he doubted it. Between Sheppard's somnambulistic shuffle and unfocused stare, it was clear that the man was barely awake. He certainly didn't look like he was trying to entice his Wraith lover into another round of bed sports just yet.

Ah, well, Todd mused philosophically. Maybe later.

“You look suitably debauched this morning,” the wraith rumbled in greeting, sounding pleased with himself.

“You ought to know,” John drawled as he ambled closer, carefully setting his coffee on the glass-topped table. “You're the one who did it to me. Twice on the sofa... and I lost track once we got to the bedroom.”

Sheppard snorted as he put the other steaming mug in front of Todd, moving the cup the wraith had brought outside with him earlier to the side. “The way we were going at it, it's a wonder we didn't stop in the dining room, as well.”

“We almost did.” The alien's reply was deadpan, although amusement twinkled in his yellow eyes.

“I figured as much,” John said with a smirk, his knee brushing Todd's as he lowered himself gingerly onto the chair closest to him. “I thought I caught you eyeing the table on the way through.”

Sheppard winced as he settled more comfortably in his seat. He didn't remember being this sore last time. Of course, it had been a while since he'd participated in the pleasurable activities they'd engaged in the night before, and Todd had pulled no punches. Not that John would have wanted him to. In fact, neither one of them had held back, and although it had left Sheppard aching deep inside this morning, if it meant that the wraith forgave him for four months of silence and neglect, then a tender backside was a small price to pay.

Todd grinned lasciviously in response to John's comment, although he also took the opportunity to observe the man carefully out of the corner of his eye until the pained expression which had briefly pinched his companion's handsome features had faded. Satisfied that John only appeared to be suffering from mild discomfort, the wraith unfolded his arms and picked up his mug two-handed, bringing it close to his face and inhaling deeply. “I see you found the hazelnut cream,” he murmured approvingly after taking a sip.

“Yeah. I hope you don't mind that I helped myself to some of it.”

An exaggerated scowl creased the alien's brow as though he needed to mull it over, his eyes narrowing dramatically. “I suppose I have to share it with you,” he conceded with mock reluctance as he set his cup down a moment later, a wry twist to his lips. “You are my consort, after all.”

Sheppard smiled hesitantly up at him, and Todd was struck by the shadow of uncertainty that months of separation and the previous night's altercation had left lurking in his companion's hazel eyes, in spite of their night of carnal pleasure and this morning's easy banter. For the wraith, simply having John by his side again had gone a long way toward healing the residual damage left by their rift, but he also had the advantage of being able to pick up on Sheppard's emotional responses from his scent. He could easily understand that without that ability, and no mind-to-mind link between them to erase all doubt, John might still feel anxious enough to need some reassurance that all was well.

Seeking to assuage his lover's fears in one of the only ways left to him, Todd dropped his guard and let his teasing smirk soften into something warmer and more genuine, in one of those rare displays of tender emotion the wraith only allowed himself when they were alone.

Sheppard's smile brightened immediately in response, the line of his shoulders relaxing as the remnants of doubt which still haunted him melted away in the warm approval of Todd's expression. Heaving a relieved sigh, John sagged back in his chair and started to stuff his hands in his pockets, only to straighten from his slouched position with a startled Oh, and begin fumbling with the thick, soft, terry robe until he finally produced an orange from its voluminous folds.

“I almost forgot...,” he murmured as he placed it in front of the alien, a triumphant grin lighting Sheppard's face. “This is for you.”

Todd stilled for a heartbeat before gently closing his hand over the fruit, honored by his lover's gift. It might only be an orange – a small gesture by human standards, to be sure - but to the alien it symbolized something much deeper. In essence John was offering to share sustenance with him, an incredibly intimate act among Wraith that strengthened the bond between giver and receiver with even the smallest exchange. Sheppard might have a vague concept of the repercussions such a symbiosis wrought after their ordeal with the Genii, but Todd knew that the human really had no idea how significant his openhanded generosity was to a Wraith – especially one who felt the way Todd did about him. Freely given with no expectation of return, John's tribute was tantamount to a declaration of the most profound devotion, and Todd couldn't help but be moved by the man's offering, even if Sheppard wasn't aware of its connotations.

“Thank you,” the wraith growled fondly, an indulgent smile still playing at the corner of his mouth as he watched his sleepy consort slowly come back to life between sips of coffee.

Feeling the weight of Todd's stare, John glanced over and met the alien's candid expression. Unprepared for the raw emotions reflected in the sunlit depths of the alien's feline eyes, so similar to those they'd inadvertently revealed to each other only a few hours earlier, Sheppard's breath clogged in his throat. Quickly averting his gaze, John focused on a spot of paint peeling off the edge of the table, caught somewhere between squirming embarrassment and overpowering gratitude as he blushed under the wraith's scrutiny.

Todd cursed himself for an old fool as he watched the human's cheeks stain with color. He'd known that even after their brief, shining, emotional connection the night before, John wouldn't be ready to open up to him so freely, and yet the wraith had let the intensity of his feelings overrule his better judgment and he'd pushed things too far too fast – again.

Shuttering the honesty of his gaze behind a casual facade to give his lover the opportunity to collect himself, Todd shifted gears and took a more circumspect route to try and draw Sheppard out again. With slow, careful movements, he pushed the citrus fruit back into John's line of sight across the quarter of curved table that separated them. “Peel this for us?”

Trap set and baited, the wraith made a show of returning to his reading as though it was of little concern to him whether Sheppard complied or not, although he kept a surreptitious eye on his discomposed consort. When the man picked up the proffered fruit after a moment's hesitation and dug his thumbnail into the rind, Todd suppressed a triumphant, self-satisfied smirk and turned his attention to the sports section.

John concentrated on tearing the skin off the orange, thankful for any distraction that would help him bring his treacherous feelings back under control. His cheeks cooled as he denuded the fruit, and by the time he handed the wraith his half, Sheppard was within sight of his comfort zone again.

Leaning cautiously back in the painted wrought iron chair, John allowed himself to relax an inch at a time as he absently peeled off a section of the sweet, fragrant citrus and popped it in his mouth, taking in his surroundings for the first time since he'd sat down for breakfast. The homey, domestic landscape of newspapers and orange peels and coffee cups scattered across the table comforted him further, and he was almost content by the time he'd leisurely scanned the cloistered privacy of the enclosed yard and his gaze finally settled on his exotic companion.

It was when the wraith was still and quiet, like he was now, that John could more-readily appreciate just how utterly alien Todd was – how different they were from each other – and just how irresistibly-drawn he was to him. Barefoot and dressed in a pair of black sweatpants - and what looked suspiciously like John's long-sleeve black shirt from the night before – Todd was a sight for sore eyes as he lounged in the mid-morning sunshine like a contented lion. With his gloriously-disheveled mane of knotted, white hair hanging loose past his shoulders, and golden cat's eyes glinting in the light as he slowly savored his orange and casually perused the open newspaper, the alien looked as deadly and beautiful as any big cat.

A lump formed in Sheppard's throat as he contemplated the being he'd come running back to as fast as humanly possible, and how close he'd come to missing the wraith altogether. He couldn't even begin to imagine what he would have done if that had happened. In spite of John's lingering discomfort with this new level of intimacy which seemed to be developing between them, it thrilled him that he was the one the unpredictable, dangerous creature across from him had claimed as lover. So thrilled, in fact, that even when Todd had shoved him up against the wall and snarled dire threats in his face, Sheppard had just been so glad to be with him again, all he'd cared about was finding a way back into the wraith's arms – back to the first place that had felt like home in longer than he could remember.

“It's good to be home,” John rasped around the emotions that threatened to choke him, his eyes widening in surprise as the statement slipped out before he could stop it.

Todd glanced up from the previous day's football scores, the human's intriguing choice of words and the tumult of his companion's feelings bringing an exultant smile to his lips.

“Yes,” he purred, in that soft, rumbling growl he used only with Sheppard, “It pleases me that you are here.”

John's cheeks burned again as he struggled in vain to subdue yet another run-in with his feelings, and the effects of Todd's soft, seductive, multi-tonal voice which made his body suddenly tingle and clench with lust. Realizing the futility of fighting his almost-Pavlovian response to the wraith, John was about to give in when he happened to glance at Todd's feeding hand, which was currently cradling the wraith's last orange slice, and his fragile peace-of-mind shattered as reality hit full-force.

Sheppard's gaze turned pensive and he sighed again, this time in dismay. In spite of all the pleasure he derived from being in the wraith's company, there was a definite downside to being involved with a life-sucking monster. Once in a while they slipped the leash – and when they did, people usually ended up dead.

“I guess you had your work cut out for you last night,” John murmured, the last of his ardor doused by the same influx of apprehension that narrowed his hazel eyes.

Confused by Sheppard's Earth idiom, the hint of a frown marred Todd's smooth brow. He was about to ask for clarification when a wash of anxiety hit his scent receptors just as he sensed the human's stress level rising, and the pheromonal context clues added the pieces he needed to solve the puzzle on his own. Comprehension dawned, and all at once it became clear to him which of the previous evening's activities John was likely referencing with his enigmatic words.

The wraith's smile faded. “Ah,” he replied, suddenly wary. “The bodies.” From tender feelings very nearly expressed, Sheppard had chosen to backpedal to a safe distance by reminding them both of what Todd was and what he'd done, effectively crushing the faint stirrings of harmonious accord the alien had sensed blossoming between them. Unfortunately, Todd had seen John do this too many times not to be on his guard. Once Sheppard gave in to his mistrust and anger, and allowed it enough time to burn off the more intense emotions he barely had the ability to accept, never mind convey, the wraith would be off the hook; but until his paramour reined himself in, Todd expected nothing less than the sharp, jagged, cutting edge of John's volatile temper.

It surprised him then, when Sheppard closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath, and the explosion the wraith had sensed building in his companion receded to a dull throb of resigned irritation with John's slow, measured exhalation.

“Yeah, the bodies,” Sheppard repeated tersely, pinching the bridge of his nose against the headache he could feel brewing. His expression clearly conveyed that he was completely done with the subject already, although they hadn't even started. “Where are they?”

“Do you really wish to know?”

Eyes closed, John nodded as he rubbed his forehead.

“Very well. In a warehouse by the waterfront,” Todd informed him, carefully keeping his voice as calm and measured as possible, although it was out of respect for Sheppard's temper, not fear of it. In fact, he usually quite enjoyed engaging the human in verbal combat, and found that when John wasn't threatening to kill him, he could be highly-entertaining when riled. It was just that Sheppard was trying so hard to be reasonable, which, in itself, was a rare enough occurrence that the wraith wanted nothing in either his tone or demeanor to set off his already-agitated partner. “I rent storage space for some of the chemicals I use that I have no room for here.”

“Wait... What?” Caught completely off-guard, Sheppard turned wide, startled eyes toward the wraith, seeming to forget all about his headache. “Chemicals? What chemicals? What are you talking about?”

“Ah, yes... I had forgotten. There is much you do not know. I have a laboratory set up in the back of the garage, and have been assisting Dr. Keller with several projects since you left.”

“Oh.” John blinked slowly as he assimilated that tidbit of unexpected intelligence. He had wondered what Todd had been doing over the past four months to stay out of trouble, and keep his agile, eternally-curious mind occupied. Sheppard knew he eventually would have gotten around to asking, but between the high of last night's emotionally-charged reconciliation and the unwelcome reminder that he was an accessory after-the-fact to the wraith's killing spree, that particular question hadn't even been on his radar.

“I'm glad to hear you found something to keep yourself busy.”

The wraith slanted a sidelong glance in Sheppard's direction as he nodded noncommittally, aware that his carefully-neutral expression was being mistaken for agreement. Todd knew better than to mention the fact that while Dr. Keller's projects took up a small fraction of his time, it was the multitude of jobs he received from military bases and government research facilities all over the country that filled his days. It wasn't that he wished to keep the information from John. It was just that the human was beginning to show signs of calming down, and the wraith could almost guarantee that the outburst which had been barely-averted would indeed occur, if he were to advise Sheppard that he misled his potentially-dangerous clientele on a daily basis into believing they were working with a very-human Dr. Todd Hunter.

Todd had learned to choose his battles carefully with his tempestuous lover, and news of his perilous deception was sure to receive a much more rational response once they got through the current crisis, and John's forbearance was no longer teetering near its breaking point. For the present, the wraith preferred focusing on the matter at-hand.

“So... the corpses,” Todd began, attempting to steer Sheppard away from the questions about the lab he could almost see forming behind the human's eyes. “They are in the storage space.”

“Yeah,” John uttered grudgingly, as he twisted his cup back and forth in a wet coffee ring on the glass-topped table, his curious expression crumpling into a scowl. “In all honesty, I don't really want to know any of this, but is that what you usually do?”

“No,” Todd shook his head, although Sheppard's gaze was centered not on him, but on the mug before him. “I actually have several methods for disposing of remains...,” The wraith broke off when John glanced up at him sharply. After a moment of awkward silence during which Sheppard scrutinized him like he'd never seen him before, the man swallowed with a dry, audible click and indicated with a subtle lift of his chin that Todd should go on.

The alien watched John watching him, his spiracles flaring imperceptibly to catch the human's rising stress response, and it was all he could do to suppress a sigh as he studied Sheppard's tense features. Although John should be inured to this by now, or at least prepared to hear it, he always acted as though Todd's dietary requirements were an unpleasant surprise.

Taking into account that getting rid of the dessicated husks of his victims was something he would not normally be expected to attend to aboard a Hive, Todd had gone to a lot of time and trouble to discover the best, most complete means of disposal, and his painstaking efforts had been their own reward. The scrupulous attention to detail he'd employed had kept him undiscovered for four months already, and regardless of John's ongoing difficulty digesting details of the wraith's existence, Todd felt no shame in relating them. On the contrary, he took pride in his recently-acquired skills.

“Each is a process which takes time – and a clear head,” the wraith continued, his voice unwavering. “However, I was far too distracted and had racked these up far too quickly to even begin to deal with them. At the time, my main concern was simply dumping the bodies someplace they would not be found.”

John's unfocused eyes flicked up to meet Todd's mild gaze when the wraith fell silent, nodding slowly as he processed everything the alien had said.

“You did the right thing,” Sheppard murmured vaguely, still engrossed in his own thoughts. “So... what did you end up doing with them?”

“The warehouse is one of the older ones, with a wooden floor. I pried up some of the floorboards, intending to hide them there, and discovered the crawlspace had a dirt floor. It only made sense to take advantage of such an unexpected windfall, so to ensure the remains were not found, I dug a trench and entombed them.”

“You buried fourteen bodies in the crawlspace under your storage unit?” John asked, his tone puzzled and even softer than before. “You must be renting a pretty big warehouse.”

“Not really. The corpses were little more than skin and bones to begin with; they didn't take up much room.” The wraith shrugged. “Now that I'm staying, I'll eventually have to take care of them, but I can do that at my leisure.”

With an explosive exhalation of breath, Sheppard bolted upright in his chair, scrubbing a hand through his thick, dark hair, while the other curled into a tense fist on the table. “Jesus,” he croaked. “I can't believe this is happening. I guess it's what I get for not being there when you needed me.”

Todd instinctively reached across the frosted glass as John's rapidly-escalating anxiety suddenly swamped his scent receptors. Closing the distance between them, he gently engulfed the human's tightly-clenched fingers with both hands as he searched his lover's troubled features, his own open and unguarded. “Do not blame yourself, John, for something which was not your fault.”

Sheppard's eyes were dark and sad when they met the wraith's solicitous gaze. “If I don't blame myself, it means blaming you. Then I'd have to kill you, and I don't want to have to do that.”

The alien snarled with annoyance. As usual, John was inclined to take on more than his share of guilt.

“There is no need for you to carry the burden of those lives. If blame must be laid, then place at the feet of those who are truly responsible: Dr. McKay for his ineptitude at passing on a simple message. Or better yet, your Commander... Landry, for the games he played which kept us apart in the first place.”

Sheppard's eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Are you trying to justify this?”

“Merely stating the truth. If it were not for those two factors, I would never have reached the state I did, and this would not be an issue.”

“No,” John countered, his voice heavy with self-recrimination. “You and I both know that the real reason the situation escalated the way it did is because we had no way to communicate with each other. If we'd had that telepathic bond you kept asking for and I wouldn't agree to, none of this would have happened.”

Todd's lips tightened into a thin line as he glanced down at their clasped hands, unable to meet his consort's eyes for the vortex of conflicting emotions the human might read in his face.

The wraith ached to establish a mental link between them with an intensity he doubted John could even begin to understand; yet while it was true – what Sheppard asserted - Todd didn't have the heart to hold the man responsible for its lack. Not when the alien knew he was as culpable for the state of things between them as John. After all, the wraith was the one who had agreed to abide by the boundaries Sheppard had set, when Todd had seen how skittish the human grew every time they skirted the issue. Unfortunately, reminding John of that fact when the man already had himself worked up was likely to make things worse, so he remained silent. The last thing Todd wanted to do was give John another reason to hate himself, especially for something the wraith had promised he would allow Sheppard to agree to in his own time.

John snorted, grimly amused. “You can't even look at me. You know it's true.”

Finding himself compelled to speak by Sheppard's insistence on shouldering all the blame himself, Todd assembled his features into a more tranquil expression and canted his slit-pupiled cat's eyes up to study his lover's face. “I do not hold you accountable for that. You made it clear that you were not ready and I did not wish to force you.”

“Yeah, and that's really been working out well for both of us,” Sheppard snapped acerbically, his self-loathing in full swing. “What happens if I get back to Atlantis in three days and get sent out on a big project, and you don't hear from me again for another four months? How long before the silence and uncertainty drives you to another massacre? How am I supposed to live with myself, knowing that there's a very real possibility I could come home to a repeat performance – or something worse?”

Todd trailed his thumb back and forth across the human's captive wrist, gently stroking the dark fur on the man's forearm in a soothing rhythm. “Now that I am aware the chance of extended absences exists,” he replied, pitching his voice in as low and reassuring a tone as he could manage, “I will be able to patiently await your return.”

Sheppard shook his head. He wasn't buying it. “What happens if I'm gone longer?” he challenged. “Five months? Six?”

“We have gone much longer than that in the past without contacting each other,” the wraith cautiously pointed out as he met Sheppard's piercing gaze. “I assure you, I will be fine.”

John's eyebrows rose as anger gave way to incredulity. After the wraith's volatile reaction to four months of separation, he had a hard time believing that, no matter what Todd promised.

Suddenly weary, Sheppard heaved a long, drawn-out sigh. “Yeah, but that was before this,” he said, gesturing back and forth between them with his free hand. “Before we were... together. It's all different now.” He shrugged, trying for nonchalance although the unspoken dread he could feel in the pit of his stomach whenever they broached this particular subject was already growing. “You know as well as I do that there's a whole new set of expectations in-play. You want to know where I am. I want to know you're alright. That's just how it is.”

“Are you saying you wish to deepen what is between us?” Todd asked faintly, scarcely daring to hope that the next step in the evolution of their relationship might possibly be at hand. A tingling surge of excitement rocketed through him that left his heart hammering in his chest.

“I didn't say that,” John held up his hand in the universal 'hold-on-a-minute' gesture and huffed a breathless, uncertain chuckle. “I'm only doing this now because I'm afraid if we get separated again, you're going to wonder and worry and work yourself up to another killing spree. I just want you to be able to find me.”

Todd's eyes slipped shut against the disappointment that suddenly stabbed at him, so keen and unexpected on the heels of his elation. After three years of waiting, Sheppard had finally agreed to open up to him mentally, and now the wraith found himself in the unenviable position of having to put the man off. Based on John's statement, it was going to be a very long time before he was anywhere near the right frame of mind for the kind of bonding the alien desired.

Forcefully pushing his anguish below the surface where Sheppard would not see it, Todd's settled his golden gaze, now cold and dispassionate, once more on the human's face.

“Sheppard, you are under no obligation to do this,” the wraith murmured icily from behind the same impassive mask he had presented to countless Queens: courtly and unfailingly polite, yet so remote they had no hope of even scratching the surface. “If your sudden change of heart is in any way connected to last night's transgression, I apologize again for overstepping my bounds. I will not push again.”

John shook his head dismissively, so caught up in trying to control his own anxiety he was unaware that the alien's attitude toward him had cooled considerably. “It's alright. I understand that you'd reached the end of your rope. This has nothing to do with last night. I just think we need to get it over with – the mind-melding thing. Now - before we do anything else.”

“After all this time, and you're ready, just like that?” Todd asked, his voice flat and expressionless as he echoed the human's query from the night before.

Sheppard opened his mouth to answer when the distance in Todd's eyes and his lackluster tone finally sank in, and a frown creased John's brow as he caught onto the fact that the wraith had withdrawn behind a wall of studied indifference. If Sheppard had learned anything about Todd since they'd upped their game from adversaries to lovers, it was that when that happened, it usually meant John had seriously fucked up somewhere.

He paused for a moment to re-run their conversation in his head, although it didn't take a genius to figure out what he might have said that had hurt the wraith enough to shut him down so fast. Sheppard suspected he already knew, and he felt like a complete heel about it.

In the vain hope that he could somehow allow the alien in and yet at the same time still keep him at arms' length, John had let his fears get the better of him, and cut the wraith to the quick in the process. He'd completely downplayed the significance of what Todd was offering to its most basic component, when John knew – had always known, even as he'd railed otherwise – that the bond the alien sought was so much more than just a way to keep tabs on him.

Todd deserved better. He deserved as much of the truth as Sheppard was capable of admitting.

“No,” John replied, his expression softening as he met Todd's wary cat's eyes, sickened by the knowledge that he'd been the one to put that guarded look on the wraith's face yet again. “Not just like that. I've thought about this long and hard – for the past three years, in fact; every time you've asked and every time I've said 'no.' I know this is important to you, I just never realized how vital it was to your mental well-being until now.”

The wraith regarded him for a long moment. He could taste the truth in Sheppard's words, and some of the tension in Todd's body eased even as he marveled at the man's impeccable timing. Once again Sheppard had pulled him back from the edge with a modicum of hope - as John did with unerring instinct whenever he pushed the alien to his limits.

He was destined, it seemed, to be incapable of holding himself aloof from Sheppard for very long. Nor did he wish to; not after the human confirmed what Todd had suspected for the past four months, ever since he'd caught a glimpse of his lover's wistful expression the last time John had refused his telepathic advances. Now that the wraith knew for certain Sheppard had been second-guessing his decision after each missed opportunity, just as he had conjectured, Todd allowed himself to believe it was possible the man might be ready for the right reasons, after all.

The only problem was that regardless of his paramour's fine words, Todd could smell Sheppard's underlying fear.

It brought the wraith up short, torn between his growing concern that merging telepathically with the man while John was in this state could very well be a mistake, and his desire to entertain Sheppard's idea, which tugged suggestively at Todd's resolve in spite of his misgivings. He scrabbled desperately for the remnants of his conviction, only to have it disperse like insubstantial wisps of smoke even as he reached for it. With nowhere left to turn, he was forced to acknowledge that any thought of denying Sheppard was a futile gesture. In spite of his token resistance, Todd had wanted this too much, for too long, to refuse.

“I must admit that being compelled to deal with you head-blind has been a struggle these last three years. Even more so since we began sharing a bed,” the alien murmured thoughtfully as he capitulated to the inevitable and lowered his defenses by degrees. “There is a level of intimacy between consorts which can only be achieved through the telepathic link.”

The barest hint of a smile stretched the corner of John's mouth as he entwined his cold fingers with the wraith's, his changeable greenish-brown eyes glinting with both question and challenge when they met Todd's. “I'd say we've done okay with the intimacy part, regardless.”

“I would have to agree with that,” the wraith conceded with a nod and a warm smile of his own, his pupils dilating as he gazed into his consort's, “but it will be even deeper and richer once we can share ourselves mentally as well as physically.”

“Then let's get to it,” John quipped, releasing Todd's fingers so he could rub his clammy hands together briskly in what he hoped looked like eager anticipation.

“Sheppard, I can smell your anxiety. Are you sure you are ready for this?” The wraith asked cautiously, making one last bid for higher ground.

Forcibly reminded yet again that Todd could see through his facade almost too easily, John paused mid-swipe to glare at the alien, his palms pressed together as if in prayer. “I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be,” he remarked tightly, a stubborn set to his jaw. “I don't think it's going to get any better than this.”

With a resigned sigh, the alien met Sheppard's determined, hazel gaze. If all went well, he would soon know what went on behind those amber-green eyes, although at the moment, Todd doubted very much that anything about this hasty and ill-conceived plan was going to pan out as expected.

“Very well. Let us get more comfortable, then we'll make an attempt.”

Chapter Text

Taking John at his word, Todd's gaze never wavered from Sheppard's strained features as the wraith pushed back the white-painted metal chair he was sitting in and rose slowly to his full height.

His powerful, black-clad presence cast John into deep shadow as he loomed over the man and extended his feeding hand palm-up, inviting his lover to join him. Instead of the handclasp he'd expected in return, though, John remained perfectly still - except for his guarded hazel eyes. They glittered with a life of their own as they canted up to track the wraith's movements like prey overshadowed by a hunter, while a kaleidoscopic array of emotions flickered across Sheppard's face too quickly to interpret.

Confused by his consort's sudden and unexpected wariness, Todd was about to ask what was wrong when an electrical charge of tension crackled through the air, emanating from the human in waves, and the scent of fear assailed his scent receptors a heartbeat later, revealing all too clearly from whence it sprang.

The alien suppressed a sigh.

In spite of John's confession and his reassurances to the contrary, the man obviously still harbored serious reservations about proceeding, and Todd knew it would probably be better for both of them if he backed off. To be fair, he had made the effort to retreat although his heart hadn't been in it; but John seemed so determined to make the attempt regardless of his trepidation, Todd just couldn't find the strength to keep resisting. So against his better judgment, the wraith found himself once again lingering at the crossroads – as he had done countless times before – wondering if this was destined to be the day the man finally reached for him.

Meanwhile, John glanced at the proffered hand doubtfully, before his gaze shifted once again to meet the softly-glowing cat's eyes scrutinizing him so intently from the wraith's otherwise-impassive visage. As much as Sheppard hated to admit it, he'd brought this on himself – had, in fact, insisted upon it. He recalled when the alien had provided a very detailed mental image of the same appendage the last time Todd had endeavored to join with him telepathically in the halls of Atlantis, although now that he was staring at the wraith's outstretched hand and inquiring gaze, he wasn't sure he could go through with it. He'd been assiduously avoiding this for the past three years, after all, and although he understood the necessity of mentally bonding with the alien as soon as possible for the sake of Todd's sanity, it didn't mean he had to happy about it.

For a moment he considered balking – it wouldn't be the first time, after all. But even with the wraith's face in shadow, John could see the tightness around Todd's eyes as he prepared himself for another rejection, and Sheppard knew he couldn't put him off again.

Heaving a shaky, anxious sigh, the Colonel stood and accepted what the other offered. As he took the wraith's hand, John also took a small measure of satisfaction in the sound of Todd's sharp, indrawn breath when he grazed his fingertips across the raised seam that ran the length of the alien's palm before interlacing their fingers once more.

“You are positive about this?” Todd growled softly when he'd recovered his composure, shaken as much from Sheppard's provocative touch on a very sensitive part of his anatomy as the shock of the man's unforeseen acquiescence. Instinctively cautious in the face of such unexpected good fortune, he savagely held his burgeoning excitement in check as he awaited Sheppard's confirmation with bated breath, not daring to overstep his boundaries at such a critical juncture.

John hesitated for barely a heartbeat before his grip tightened and he met the other's guarded gaze, nodding once in affirmation.

Elation and relief rocketed through Todd's system, washing away the last of his restraint in a flood of adrenaline. Doing his best to ignore the sudden thundering of his heart and the tingling in his fingers, he tugged gently on Sheppard's hand as he turned and led his unresisting consort back inside.

As they made their way down the hall, he glanced over his shoulder from time-to-time to examine the human's handsome, determined features for signs of uncertainty. Finding none, the alien tendered a small, pleased smile just as they reached the den, which glowed in the indirect, mid-morning sunlight that bounced off the building across the street and brightened the sheer curtains. He gave John's fingers an almost-imperceptible squeeze before letting them go when the pair paused in the doorway, leaving Sheppard to linger there while Todd set about making the necessary preparations for their first attempt.

John watched, fascinated, as the wraith moved about the room with a domestic ease that was oddly human, shaking out the fox fur throw and spreading it out smoothly on the sofa, then stopping by the fireplace to twist the knob and bring the flames to life once again.

“If you do not mind my asking, how were you able to create the barrier which repelled me last night?” Todd queried companionably over his shoulder as he walked into the living room, breaking the spell he'd unknowingly cast on the beguiled human.

John shrugged as he stepped up to the ornately-carved mantelpiece, unconsciously extending his chilled hands to warm them in front of the glass-enclosed flames. “About a year before you and I met, I spent a few months with some people who were seeking Ascension. They meditated every day for hours on end, but I was having a tough time of it. I just couldn't concentrate on nothing for that long. Thankfully, one of them took pity on me and gave me a 'project' to work on while I was sitting there: build a mental shield, and learn how to bring it into being and banish it. Some of them had started to develop rudimentary telepathic abilities, so I actually got the opportunity to practice.”

The wraith appeared in the archway next to him holding a suede throw pillow, the supple hide dyed a deep, midnight blue. “You learned your lesson well. It was most effective.”

“Thanks.” John grinned, his cheeks coloring faintly with pleasure and pride. That was high praise, indeed, coming from a Wraith. “It was a good thing you didn't try again, though,” he admitted ruefully. “It was a one-shot deal. Took everything I had.”

Todd tilted his head and considered the man beside him, remorse clearly visible in his golden cat's eyes. “Then it is a good thing I did not try again. I should not have attempted it the first time.”

Sheppard laid a hand on the wraith's shoulder and squeezed gently. “It was in the heat of battle. All is forgiven. We're good.”

“You are certain? You need to be able to trust me implicitly.”

“I trust you,” John assured him with more confidence than he felt, surprised to discover as he uttered the words that they were absolutely true. He did trust the wraith – for the most part, anyway - and in this instance, he meant every word. His uneasiness only extended as far as what he'd agreed to let Todd do, not to the alien, himself.

Todd studied him another long moment without discernible expression before he finally nodded, then moved past Sheppard to the sofa. The alien took the opportunity to twitch the luxurious fur blanket into place one more time then sat at one end, leaning the pillow against his leg. “Then come and lie down,” he purred, patting the dark pelt stretched across the leather.

John swallowed hard as he made his way slowly to the sofa, inwardly cursing. The damn wraith called his bluff every single time.

He untied his robe and tossed it aside, revealing the ratty grey sweatpants and oversize USAF t-shirt he'd pulled from his bag that morning, its blue logo faded from repeated washings. Neither would have been his first choice of clothing for Todd to see him in, but since he hadn't packed the bag, Sheppard figured beggars couldn't be choosers.

Comfortable in the room's growing warmth, he sat gingerly next to the alien, who watched his every move with the same predatory air he'd exhibited when John had first shown up with the coffee. As always, it both terrified and delighted him.

“Lie down, Sheppard.” Todd's murmured close to his ear, the wraith's husky command sending an unexpected shiver of arousal through John which raised goosebumps on his arms, and he briefly reconsidered the robe. Then a hand touched the small of his back, slowly working its way up as it rubbed circles over the thin fabric of his shirt. With a sigh that released a whole lot of tension he hadn't been aware he'd been holding, Sheppard arched into his lover's caress like a cat, wishing they could just forget about the mind-melding and stay like this for the rest of the day.

Todd indulged him for a little longer before his fingers finally came to rest on the back of John's neck and tarried there, the tips of the alien's pared-back claws stroking through the short hair at his nape. Although Sheppard normally melted once the wraith started playing with his hair, in this case he knew it was his cue, like it or not. Reluctantly swinging his feet up, he stretched out on the fur-draped leather, grateful for the throw pillow under his shoulders as he settled his head comfortably on Todd's muscular thigh.

The alien laid his feeding hand gently on John's chest, carefully tenting his fingers to indicate it was not meant as a threat, while combing through Sheppard's glossy, dark mane with the other as he looked down at his human consort with fond amusement.

John frowned back, the feelings of vulnerability he refused to acknowledge twisting into a surge of irritation that welled up inside him. He clung to it like a lifeline, letting it distance him from the unsavory fact that he was getting ready to open up to this creature in a way he'd never done before, to reveal things he'd never shared with anyone.

“Look – can we just get on with it?”

Todd heaved a long-suffering sigh, a crease furrowing his brow as well. “John, you are going about this the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?” Sheppard muttered belligerently, although he was already well-aware he was being difficult in a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable.

The wraith paused, taking a deep breath in order to center himself. This was far too important to allow for any misunderstandings. “This is not simply a challenge for you to bull your way through, so I can implant some sort of... telepathic locator beacon to help us to find each other's minds over distance,” he began, choosing his words with care. “Nor is it a penance to endure, to appease the guilt with which you seem determined to burden yourself. It is an opportunity for us to strengthen the psychic and emotional bond which already exists between us, and bring us closer in ways you cannot even begin to imagine.”

Todd's throat ached, tight with equal measures of dread and longing. He was not demonstrative by nature, millennia of being lied to and deceived by treacherous, unworthy partners having schooled him long ago to err on the side of caution when it came to matters of the heart.

Until John Sheppard.

Throwing that selfsame caution to the wind, Todd had dared much to advance his suit with the man in any way he could over the past three years, but never to the extent of revealing his deepest desires as he had just now.

The wraith swallowed hard against the anxiety that constricted his airway. At this stage of the game, John still retained enough autonomy to decline; although after baring his soul to the man, Todd quite honestly didn't think he would survive it if Sheppard chose to walk away. Nevertheless, it was crucial that John understand both the nature of the binding he was suddenly so keen on strengthening, and the level of commitment required for it.

Drawing a shaky breath, Todd continued, his voice rough with the emotions he could not quell. “It should not be entered into lightly or with misgivings, but approached with the awe and reverence such a joining deserves; and if you have not yet reached that point, you have only to let me know and we will try this another day. It is your choice, Sheppard, when and if we do this, but understand that once begun, it will open doors which will be difficult, if not impossible, to close afterwards.”

The wraith fell silent, and it was John's turn to study the being who watched him from behind a carefully-constructed mask of indifference. This was the same life-sucking monster he'd had all but declared his feelings for the night before on this very sofa. And now, in an ironic twist of fate John had actually set in motion himself, the creature was asking to merge with him in a way humans weren't meant to, putting the courage of Sheppard's convictions to the test sooner than he'd expected.

Only Todd's golden eyes revealed his thinly-veiled apprehension as he awaited John's answer, and as Sheppard gazed into them he knew he was already a lost cause. Truth be told, in spite of his continued reluctance to accept the wraith's invitations, John craved this connection with a ferocity he knew should frighten him.

In fact, he'd wanted it from the very start, ever since a starving Wraith - the edge of his hunger still keen and sharp - had nonetheless slowed the absorption of Sheppard's life to a mere trickle the third time he'd fed, admonishing the startled Colonel to pretend it was more painful than it was through a fine thread of communication spun directly from his mind to John's. Shocked into compliance by the sudden, unexpected connection, Sheppard had followed the lead of his monstrous ally without question, obediently writhing in the chair while the Wraith had carefully sapped just enough of John's life force to add a few more wrinkles and transform his hair from grey to silver, then pronounce to Kolya that the human was near death.

John had never forgotten the desperate intensity of the alien mind which had embraced his, or the light, sure touch – gone almost before it had been established, despite the immense power he had sensed being held at bay which could have overwhelmed him effortlessly.

Since then, Sheppard might have pushed Todd away whenever the wraith had come around looking for a repeat of that alluring, terrifying intimacy, but each time he'd denied the alien the access he desired, John had fervently wished it could be otherwise. Now with the added impetus of keeping the wraith sane should they be forced to undergo another lengthy separation, he knew it was time to stop running.

“Let's kick down some doors,” he replied with a bravado he didn't feel, his focus sharpening as he met Todd's searching gaze.

Outwardly cool and collected, Todd's demeanor remained unruffled by his bold declaration, although Sheppard could feel the wraith's fingertips tremble against his sternum, revealing the true depth of the alien's reaction hidden behind his otherwise-calm exterior. A heartbeat later the traitorous hand stilled, and John had only an instant to marvel at the display of brutal self-control before he sensed the other’s presence at the edge of his consciousness, like something glimpsed out of the corner of his eye.

Sheppard grunted in surprise and instinctively tensed against the incursion, but Todd seemed content to remain at the periphery for the moment, extending his influence no farther than John had grown accustomed to over the past three years. Lulled by the soothing touch of the wraith's mind skimming the surface of his own, Sheppard found himself succumbing to the oddly-comforting sensation, the connection unobtrusive and warm with affection as it had been the morning of their picnic in Golden Gate Park. As his tension melted away, John's breathing slowed to match his companion's, and with a contented sigh he unwound into the alien's cautious mental caress.

The wraith discreetly pushed another subliminal undercurrent of relaxation through the tentative mental link when he felt the human's body and mind begin to unclench by degrees. With infinite patience he bided his time, waiting until John's head rested heavy on his leg and the man's eyes started to drift shut before he dared to infiltrate a bit more – just enough to keep Sheppard awake without alarming him. As much as Todd desired this joining, he knew better than to move too quickly - especially when his goal was so tantalizingly close he could almost taste it.

'Are you ready?' the wraith murmured softly across the telepathic connection, his heart hammering against his ribs with barely-contained eagerness.

John's heavy eyelids lifted reluctantly, and his eyes rolled sleepily for a second before he focused on the alien's strong, craggy features. “Yeah,” he croaked, when he'd roused himself sufficiently to answer.

'Shhhh, Todd chided gently as he touched a cool fingertip to Sheppard's slightly-parted lips. 'Speak to me not with your voice, but with your thoughts. Open up and reach for me mentally, and we will communicate mind-to-mind as we were meant to.'

John drew a sharp breath past the press of the alien's finger just as it was pulled away, unconsciously preparing to respond verbally – to remind the wraith that this was not how he was meant to communicate, but the tart rejoinder died on his lips. The fragile hope burning in Todd's golden eyes was a twin of the same emotion John had glimpsed through the bars of a subterranean cell three years earlier, when Sheppard had dared to offer the possibility of escape to a desperate, nameless Wraith. It was an expression which spoke far too eloquently of a cherished desire too-long denied, for John to extinguish it with a careless word.

So Sheppard did the only thing he could. He rose gamely to the challenge and tried to do as Todd asked. A moment's reflection was all it took to dredge up the lessons the People of the Cloisters had imparted on the finer points of meditation, and he knew a pang of regret when he realized how little he actually remembered. Wishing he'd been a more attentive student, John cobbled together what he could and let his eyes drift shut so he could focus on the basics.

As he’d been taught, he pushed aside as much of his lingering apprehension as possible and inhaled his first deep, cleansing breath. He’d scarcely drawn it all the way into his lungs when six months of intensive daily meditation sessions kicked in, and before his brain even caught on, his body and mind had already responded to the familiar combination of concentration and respiration. Techniques he hadn’t realized he still possessed spontaneously relaxed tense muscles and quieted turbulent thoughts, and he gratefully rode the wave of inner peace that flowed through him until he managed to reduce the noise in his head to a dull roar.

When he'd finally achieved a state of relative calm, Sheppard took his cue from Todd's earlier invitations to bond, and envisioned his own, human hand. Strong and calloused from months of hard labor, he concentrated on making it as real and three-dimensional as possible - right down to the ragged hangnail on his thumb. Once the image was solid and unwavering in his mind's eye, John extended it outward, hoping he was heading in the alien's general direction.

For what felt like an eternity, he groped around like a blind man stumbling toward an unknown destination in an unfamiliar setting, but all he encountered was the limits of his own mind and the solitude of his own thoughts. There was no answering caress - no deluge of alien consciousness pouring into his head like he'd anticipated; just the quiet affection which flowed freely from the wraith across the slender thread stretched between them.

Confused, Sheppard cracked one eyelid to check on his companion's reaction to his failed attempts, but Todd's fond, curious expression remained unchanged. The alien cocked his head quizzically when he caught John peeking, a silent inquiry which caused Sheppard's brows to knit in consternation. It was obvious from the other's response that even though John readily-sensed Todd's presence all around him, the wraith couldn't seem to feel his valiant efforts; although, for the life of him, Sheppard couldn't figure out why.

It took three more goes before John literally ran up against the mental barriers he'd never lowered, and finally put two-and-two together. The shield Sheppard had spent six months of his life building against an invasion similar to the one he was currently courting was refusing to budge, locked down tight by the residual fear he couldn't quite erase.

Determined to reach out to the alien as an equal, John regrouped to make one last attempt. Although he was well-aware Todd was more than capable of simply sweeping in and establishing a telepathic link at any time if he simply asked, it was something they both knew that Sheppard would never do – nor did he imagine that the wraith would actually take advantage of such an offer if he made it. No matter how much Todd might claim he wanted this connection or how often he'd inquired after it, the fact that he'd held off for so long made it abundantly clear he prized Sheppard's independence even more. He wanted John to be an active participant in their joining – at least as far as he was able, and for that consideration alone, Sheppard figured he owed it to the wraith to try and meet him halfway.

Squeezing his eyes shut, John narrowed his mental focus to try again. All he needed was a millisecond of perfect calm and he was sure he'd be able to bring down the shield enough to initiate contact.

Todd observed Sheppard's face with a sense of growing apprehension. It was apparent from the man's pinched expression that he was caught up in some sort of internal battle, and the wraith's fingers curled into a fist on John's chest as he counseled himself to remain patient. Although it would be nothing for a Wraith as ancient and powerful as he was to deepen their bond whether Sheppard was truly ready or not – to breach the fragile barrier the human presented and discover the origins of John's dilemma for himself; in truth, he had no wish to force the issue. Not when they'd traveled so far and victory was so near-at-hand. But when the connection between them remained dormant, and the man seemed no closer to surmounting whatever obstacle stood in his way, Todd began to lose heart.

Suppressing a sigh, the wraith was just preparing to withdraw from the fringes of Sheppard's mind when John's eyes snapped open to stare, unseeing, at the ceiling. Todd held his breath and watched closely as they narrowed, and a frown of concentration creased the man's brow. An instant later John turned his intense, hazel gaze upon him, and the wraith felt the first tentative brush of Sheppard's mind against his own, much like his feather-light caress of fingertips on the human's lips earlier.

'...Like this?'

Brave man.

Hardly daring to breathe at so rare and precious an opportunity, he carefully took hold of Sheppard's mind as it trailed past him like a rope drifting by in the water. With an almost-audible crackle the connection between them ignited at his touch and John's mind was suddenly open to him, spilling a flood of formless thoughts and emotions across the newly-formed link.

A rumble of delight issued from deep within the wraith's chest as the deluge washed over him, and he reveled in the singular pleasure of experiencing his lover again for the first time on a completely different level. As he shared the rush of exhilaration that threaded through Sheppard's fear like it was his own, Todd gazed down at the gasping, dark-haired man with a look of disbelief and wonder painted across his usually-stoic features. So John trusted him a little bit, after all.

'More than you... probably deserve,' Sheppard growled across the thread as he tried desperately to calm his erratic breathing.

The pleased expression on Todd's face resolved itself into a grin. The Brother-bond that already existed between them apparently enhanced the telepathic link, if the human had been able to pick up a stray thought like that so easily.

John glared up at him. 'So now what...?' The half-formed question was all he managed to convey before the first stab of an almost-forgotten-but-familiar ache began coalescing behind his eyes, and he winced in pain. The act of deliberately opening himself up to the wraith was already taking its toll.

Through their bond, Todd detected the onset of Sheppard's headache, and its suddenness and severity confused him. What they were doing shouldn't hurt – John had agreed to it of his own volition.

Realizing that something was very wrong, he quickly rifled through the emotions rising thick and fast to the surface of Sheppard's mind, his grin fading when he detected the human's escalating panic and the internal struggle that had sparked it. Although John had assented willingly enough, he was fighting his own decision, wavering between allowing the wraith in and desperately trying to keep him out, while the warring factions of anger and fear battled for supremacy as Sheppard vacillated between the two extremes.

Unconsciously mirroring his lover's indecision, Todd also wavered between between severing the connection immediately to alleviate John's distress, and trepidation over what might be causing such an intense reaction. After a moment's hesitation, he risked delving a little deeper, his own enjoyment in being allowed access suddenly a secondary concern to locating the source of Sheppard's inner conflict.

Badly-healed and never dealt with, it didn't take long to uncover, and it was worse than the wraith could have ever anticipated.

Strewn across the psychic landscape of John's mind like so much debris, the broken remains of the man's mental battlements lay twisted and torn, and Todd bit back a groan of dismay as he surveyed the carnage. Recognizing the destruction for what it was, and from the nightmarish images that flickered across Sheppard's besieged subconscious, who'd inflicted it, he finally understood his consort's repeated refusals to agree to this kind of merging. Any time John had encountered anything even close to what they were attempting, he'd been resisting a Wraith Queen who'd been trying to mind rape him for information.

With an apprehensive sigh, Todd steeled himself for what he feared he might find and carefully started to pick his way through the rubble. He'd barely begun when evidence of even deeper wounds quickly became apparent, and his dreams of effortlessly melding with John on a telepathic level – of strengthening their relationship – of making the man his mate anytime in the near future – withered on the vine.

A firestorm of blind fury blazed to life within the wraith's breast at the discovery, scorching through his veins like molten lava. Unable to contain his rage, Todd instinctively shielded Sheppard as it erupted, protecting the man with everything he had before John could be exposed to the destructive force of raw emotions the human had no defenses against, never mind that the alien's wrath was directed elsewhere. It took several deep breaths and the limits of his iron-willed control before Todd finally managed to curb the visceral urge to tear the long-dead females to pieces for daring to lay hands on what belonged to him.

Once he'd wrestled his murderous impulses into submission and could focus again, the wraith regrouped and carefully extended his consciousness, probing gently at the old trauma. At the first tentative touch, John's entire body convulsed in agony, and they both cried out sharply as torturous jolts of pain seared the man's mind and ricocheted through the wraith's.

Pulling back with a surprised snarl, Todd quickly reassessed the situation, and he didn't like where his thoughts took him.

From what he could discern based on the extent and severity of the injuries, the bitches must have brutalized Sheppard - each in her own special way - as they'd tried to force their way in. Although none of them had actually made it through, they'd succeeded in doing catastrophic damage to the man on the psychic plane and warped an act of intimacy and trust into something the human now feared.

No wonder John had been reluctant; all he'd ever known of the telepathic link was subjugation and torture. Undoing that kind of callous mutilation could take years.

Todd wanted to howl in frustration. Instead, he forcibly reeled it in and managed to reply with surprising equanimity: 'Now we take it slow and learn to trust each other all over again.'

'...good to hear,' Sheppard replied shakily, his relief a tragic counterpoint to the spasms Todd felt shaking the man's frame as echoes of John's torment ebbed and flowed like the tide across the open conduit. Beneath the paroxysms of pain, he sensed his lover's determination to hang on regardless of his tribulation - to ride it out for as long as he could – until a wave of such harrowing intensity washed over them that even the wraith shuddered with the force of it, and Sheppard's resolve showed signs of crumbling under the strain.

Not wishing to trigger any more suffering than he'd already unintentionally unleashed, Todd prepared, albeit reluctantly, to release John's consciousness, trying not to think about the fact that the human would probably never let him in again after a debacle of this magnitude. A swell of regret too sudden and swift for the alien to subdue rose to meet the anguish still pouring across the link, eddying like oil in turbulent waters as Todd slowly withdrew from the man's head - when John began scrabbling for purchase on the disintegrating connection in spite of his exponentially-increasing migraine.

'Don't you dare let go,' Sheppard commanded sharply, his internal voice cracking with emotional static as his hand crept up to cover the wraith's where it rested over his heart. 'You're not getting rid of me that easily.'

The significance of the moment was not lost on the ancient warrior, who halted mid-retreat, honored – and a bit surprised, by the human's continued willingness to entrust his well-being to a Wraith. After all John had endured during the Queens' interrogations, and the botched mess that Todd, himself, had made of their first telepathic encounter by unwittingly tampering with the scars which had been left behind, it touched him deeply that Sheppard still desired his presence.

'I won't. You have my word,' Todd replied as he cautiously stabilized the link, modulating his touch to the lightest he could sustain while still keeping hold of John's mind.

As the wraith did his best to make his companion comfortable, anger that his chosen consort had been interfered with to such an extent bubbled below the surface of the alien's consciousness, to be revisited later when he could safely vent his ire. But for the moment – for Sheppard's sake – Todd maintained his outward calm as he reduced their line of communication to a single, shimmering filament and carefully cocooned the human in a protective mental embrace.

No sooner had the wraith turned down the volume than the leading edge of John's headache began to abate. Thankful for the reprieve, minor though it was, he reached up to wipe his streaming eyes with a trembling hand. While he breathed a sigh of relief that the worst of the pain was starting to recede, he regretted that it was at the cost of losing the fragmented stream of emotions and memories he'd been receiving, of places he'd never been and things he'd never experienced. As they dimmed to faint afterimages, he couldn't help but wonder how much had flowed in the opposite direction – how much of his torment the alien had been subjected to before Todd had all but shut down the link.

Sheppard's answer came a heartbeat later, when a sudden flood of warm affection wrapped around him like a blanket and a storm of Wraith possessiveness followed hard on its heels. The second was strong and fierce – and bordered on menacing, and John could only surmise that Todd had also picked up on his run-ins with the Wraith monarchs – the Keeper and the Queens – who had made this kind of vulnerability a terrifying proposition for him.

In fact, Sheppard had the distinct impression he could pinpoint exactly when the wraith had unearthed it. It had been at the moment he'd felt Todd reach the same threshold John had always felt compelled to defend with the greatest ferocity, and where the females had concentrated their strikes as they'd stormed his defenses.

At that moment he'd been abruptly placed on hold – it was the only description which felt even remotely accurate to the sensation. Todd had been a presence in his mind one second – then gone, leaving him suspended in silent darkness – then back again. When he'd returned, Sheppard had caught the faint echo of a barely-avoided catastrophe, like a thunderstorm that had passed a few miles off. Of course, that hadn't stopped the agony which had followed soon after when the alien had started poking around, but John had a vague feeling the wraith's strange and sudden disappearance had saved him from something infinitely worse.

For the past three years John had dreaded this day, and the eventuality of Todd finding out what had happened to him. At first it had been because he hadn't trusted the other enough to hand him that kind of leverage, but later – when things had started changing between them, Sheppard had kept it hidden because he'd feared that on some level it might diminish him in the wraith's eyes, as he was already degraded in his own.

It had all started the moment John had stabbed the red-headed Keeper on the Wraith homeworld, desperately trying to prevent her from plucking Earth's location out of his head. Still telepathically connected, she'd done her best to tear him up from the inside out as she'd died, and it had gone downhill from there. Mentally assaulted by alien minds far stronger than his on more than one occasion; brutally violated in ways he couldn't even begin to describe; psychically damaged beyond his comprehension or ability to repair, Sheppard had never spoken of his experiences to either Beckett or Keller – or god forbid, Heightmeyer. While Carson and Jennifer might have expressed disinterested medical concern for his well-being and run some inconclusive tests, he'd always suspected that Kate would have probably found him unfit for duty and had him shipped back to Earth, never to set foot in Pegasus again, if he'd ever breathed a word.

So he'd limped along on his own, pretending nothing was wrong while he dealt with the crushing migraines that lasted for days – sometimes weeks – after a close encounter with a Queen, hoping no one noticed his inflamed eyes, shorter-than-usual temper, and excessive alcohol and analgesic consumption.

And in spite of his best efforts, now the wraith knew the truth.

John hesitantly glanced up at Todd, hoping he was wrong, but the unguarded solicitude in their golden depths only confirmed the worst of his fears – and the extent of his weakness. Try as he might, he hadn't been able to keep the attacks and their aftermath under wraps, and his cheeks burned with shame at the knowledge that one of his most closely-held secrets had been revealed so easily – almost as soon as he'd granted the creature access to his head.

As John turned bloodshot hazel eyes toward the fireplace, the wraith sensed Sheppard's self-loathing and he couldn't help but empathize. He, too, guarded secrets that would make it difficult for him to face his consort if they were divulged. And yet in John's situation, at least - the shame the man felt for his imagined failure was misplaced. As stubborn and formidable as Sheppard was, he was no match for a Wraith intent on mind rape; and even less so when it came to fending off a Queen's mental attack. He was only human, after all.

Risking John's temper, Todd gently brushed his lover's sweat-slicked hair back from his forehead. He felt Sheppard tense at his touch, but otherwise he remained still. Emboldened by the man's tacit permission, he continued, his cool fingers trailing gently over the human's feverish brow and throbbing temples.

'You have nothing to be ashamed of,' he ventured after a moment, earning John's undivided attention and a stern warning glare.

He knew that look all too well. It meant Sheppard would rather not discuss it – ever; but instead of allowing the man's disapproval to dissuade him, he ignored John's frown and doggedly forged ahead. Silence was the one thing the wraith could not sanction – not now. It was that kind of avoidance which had allowed the human's hidden wounds to fester, untended, for so long in the first place.

'It is not often that a human goes toe-to-toe with a Wraith Queen – in your case, several – and manages to come out relatively intact.'

Sheppard winced. 'I don't know if I'd call this intact,' he ground out, his tone rough with fresh misery as a sharp twinge of pain lanced through his head, the effort of transmitting even a single statement almost too much for him.

'You resisted long enough that your foes were able to be dispatched before any of them violated you. That is no mean feat.'

'That's not true,' John replied. His cheeks flamed with humiliation. 'I'm... broken inside. Last time I checked, that was the definition of being violated.'

Todd's eyes flashed as waves of Sheppard's suffering reverberated through the open connection, and he sensed that John had just about reached the limits of his endurance.

'You did not make it through unscathed, this is true, but you can still function and reason; and your mind – as far as I can tell – is not irredeemable,' the wraith murmured reassuringly across the silken thread spun between them, hoping to assuage his consort's fears before he was forced to break contact. If the man was ever going permit him to do what was necessary to heal him of his battle scars so they might someday have a chance of reaching the next stage in their relationship, it was vital Sheppard taste the truth in his words.

If ever Todd needed him to believe him, it was now.

'I will admit that the damage you sustained is considerable, but what you do not realize is that it is as much an indicator of your strength as it is the vehemence of their attacks.' The alien left off massaging John's temple and with a gesture both tender and possessive, laid his hand across Sheppard's forehead. 'If any of them had actually made it through your defenses, I can assure you that you'd be a mindless, drooling mess right now. Instead of wasting your time on remorse and regret, you would do better to take pride in the fact that you withstood their assaults as well as you did without buckling. There's many a Wraith who would not have been able to do so.'

In spite of his skull feeling like it was being cleaved in two with a dull ax, John's spirits lifted at Todd's candid assessment of his condition, and the sincerity that flowed in a sweet undercurrent beneath the wraith's assertion. Savoring the first faint stirrings of optimism – and a spark of hope that maybe he wasn't such a loser, after all - a surge of gratitude swelled in Sheppard's chest. Instinctively reaching for the mind entwined with his, he pushed the emotion across the link without thinking, and immediately regretted his decision. A backlash of agony shot through his head like a bullet at close range, forcing a cry from his lips as it ratcheted up to nauseating levels.

His consciousness greying out around the edges, his body writhing in helpless torment, John didn't protest when he felt Todd take it upon himself to disconnect their telepathic two-way radio. By the way the alien visibly flinched when he did it, Sheppard was certain he'd gotten a taste of it, too, and he felt badly that he'd inflicted that on the alien. It wasn't Todd's fault – not really. He'd had no way of knowing what he was getting himself into when John had agreed to let him in, and Sheppard had thought it might be different this time, since he wasn't trying to fight him off.

Apparently not.

Floundering in the sudden free-fall of the abruptly severed connection, John's fingers instinctively fisted in the fur blanket as he breathed through his mouth to try and swallow his rising gorge. Dizzy and disoriented, he turned eyes still glassy with pain toward the wraith, who observed him with a pensive, unreadable expression.

“How did you manage all these years like this, Sheppard?”

John brows knit in consternation, attempting to focus beyond the pounding in his head. “I dunno. Bravado? A bad-ass attitude? Sheer, dumb luck? It isn't really a problem unless I get captured by Wraith.”

Todd snorted, unamused. “Which happens to you with alarming frequency.”

Sheppard gave him a self-deprecating grin that ended in a grimace. Even the act of smiling hurt. “Yeah, I guess it does.”

The wraith gently finger-combed his consort's hair, the soothing sensation lulling both of them. John watched the hooded golden eyes above him, first inwardly-focused and deep in thought, then meeting Sheppard's inquisitive gaze with one of determination.

“I think I can help you, if you will let me.”

John stiffened, hoping Todd didn't mean what he thought he meant. “How, exactly?”

The wraith's gaze traveled over his face like he was memorizing its details. “I believe I can undo most of what has been done to you.”

“Other than giving you the opportunity to rummage around in my head, what good is that going to do?”

“Once you have healed, I'll be able to teach you how to build a shield that will keep even a Queen out, and how to sustain it. I will also give you the means to access the bond between us. Should you ever need additional strength to fend off an attack, you'll have the ability to draw on mine.” The wraith's pupils, already blown in the shadow-laden den, dilated even more when he caught John's eye. “I will not lie to you, Sheppard. The road back promises to be long and arduous, but at the end of it you'll have a barrier that will be all but invincible.”

“You mean that?” John breathed, scarcely daring to hope. He'd originally agreed to this for Todd's well-being. He'd never considered that strengthening the telepathic link between them might be beneficial for him, as well.

“I do.” The wraith's expression softened to one of tenderness.

“When do we begin?”

Todd smiled down at him, sharp teeth glinting with an opalescent sheen in the diffused daylight that filtered through the silk sheers. “We have already begun,” he replied, his voice a low purr of approval. “You have agreed.” He stroked his fingers through Sheppard's dark hair one last time before sliding his arm protectively across the man's chest. “Now you must rest and give your headache time to fade. We will speak more of this later.”

“Okay.” Too wrung-out to do more than offer a wan smile and a half-hearted nod, John turned over on his side and closed his eyes. Sinking into Todd's comforting embrace he fell asleep that way, his head pillowed on the wraith's thigh.

Chapter Text

An hour before sunrise, a Coast Guard Defender-class Response Boat carefully wended its way past the multitude of vessels moored at the Pier 39 Marina, its propellers churning the black water white and foamy in its wake. Alone except for a chartered fishing-party boat at the end of one of the docks on-loading its daily catch of tourists eager to get an early start, the military craft headed past the breakwater and out into San Francisco Bay under clear, October skies. As it left the relative safety of the harbor the wind picked up. It whipped the ocean into whitecaps, while the darkness which lurked just beyond the halo of the marina's lights pressed in on it from all sides. Unimpressed by this aggressive display of dominance, the vessel's red and green running lights boldly winked back as the dual masthead lamps mounted atop its wheelhouse illuminated the boat's exterior and the surrounding ocean with their blinding phosphorescence, pushing back the night with a vengeance.

The ample lightspill lit the interior of the cabin as well, falling like a spotlight on its two occupants, although both were oblivious to its harsh glow. The helmsman barely glanced up from his instruments as he steered the craft with a calm eye and sure hand, years of patrolling California’s coast having acclimated him long ago to the halogen's glare. The lone passenger, huddled in the seat closest to the heater, was sound asleep and softly snoring, his cheek resting against the window.

The stars faded and the sky grew pale, slowly transitioning from grey to blue as the vessel headed out into deeper waters, bound for seemingly-empty ocean. By the time they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge the horizon had turned to lavender then rose, and soon after, dawn broke at the same instant the small craft pierced Atlantis' cloak, pouring over both cities like liquid gold. As the Ancient City suddenly loomed before them, the first rays of morning light fell upon San Francisco's skyline and the Bridge's towers, throwing their distinctive shapes into silhouette while simultaneously bathing the Atlantis in its roseate glow. Its dazzling spires burnished to copper, the City shone like a beacon of hope across the sunlit water, calling the weary traveler home.

It wasn't until the boat cut is engines as they approached the North Pier that Sheppard roused from his slumber with a start, suddenly aware of the cold permeating the cabin regardless of the tiny furnace's best efforts. He suppressed a shiver as he opened bleary, hazel eyes and took in his sparse, utilitarian surroundings. It was a far cry from awakening under a pile of warm blankets curled up in the muscular arms of a sleepy Wraith as he'd been doing for the past four days, and he missed it with an ache that went even deeper than the early morning temperatures chilling him to the bone.

Wondering how he'd managed to fall asleep at all, John lifted his head from the half-inch thick plexiglas and watched as they drifted the last few meters to the dock. Pointedly ignoring the soreness of stiff fingers and the migraine which still crouched at the base of his skull, poised to spring at the least provocation, a smile nonetheless played at the corners of his mouth. In spite of his beleaguered body and bruised mind, Sheppard's spirits were higher than they'd been in months after his brief hiatus with Todd, and he marveled at the marked improvement in his outlook in such a short period of time.

As soon as they bumped gently against the wharf's pylons, two of the small contingent of Coast Guard personnel assigned to Atlantis for the express purpose of receiving incoming vessels trotted out of the mobile office set up on the pier to meet them. While they tied off the boat so he could disembark, John struggled to his feet and slung his bag over his shoulder, traces of giddy anticipation still fueling the grin that lingered on his lips. The same craft which less than a week earlier had ferried him, anxious and uncertain, across dark, turbulent waters to an unpredictable future, now returned him to Atlantis in such a radically-altered state he almost didn't recognize himself. It was amazing what a few days of R&R and a little peace-of-mind could do to boost morale.

After heading to Evan's office so he could sign in and pick up his paperwork for the upcoming mission, Sheppard stopped by his quarters to drop off his laundry, change into a uniform, and repack the rucksack Rodney had left propped against the bed for him to find.

Fastening the last strap on his bag, he straightened and took a look around, assessing his surroundings with a critical eye. The place was still in the same condition it had been left in the night of Todd’s escape, laid to waste by the destructive force of their passionate first encounter. While every stick of damaged furniture brought back memories of that night with an intensity that made John's breath hitch, McKay’s sly comments about Klingon mating rituals had hit a little too close for comfort. Sheppard had intended to try and do a little clean-up of the disaster area his room had been reduced to upon his return, but it was clear that a mess this large was going to take a lot more than an hour of his time and a couple of trash bags. After staring bleakly at the devastation for several long minutes without a clue as to where to begin, he decided that it could wait for another day when he could get his hands on a six-pack of beer… and a bulldozer.

Suddenly free, with almost an hour to spare, he realized he actually had time for breakfast. Taking the final step in his transition from off-duty civilian to on-duty soldier, he settled his comm-link over his ear and opened a channel.

“Sheppard to McKay. Do you copy?”

The scientist's loud, enthusiastic response crackled across the receiver, grating on nerves already rubbed raw by the headache he was barely keeping at bay with copious amounts of ibuprofen.

“Hey, Rodney,” John drawled by way of greeting. “Yeah, I'm back. Where are you?”

Wincing at the pain that the vibrations of McKay's voice stirred to life, Sheppard forestalled the hand that rose automatically to rip the communicator out of his ear. He forced a chuckle instead and let Rodney know he'd be joining him in a few minutes.

Taking one last look at the remains of his quarters, John shut the door behind him and keyed in his personal locking code before he turned and made his way to the mess hall. Choosing to walk instead of taking the transporter, a peaceful sense of homecoming descended upon him as he strolled along quiet corridors and past softly-bubbling energy conduits. He felt at one with the strange beauty of the Ancient City, as he had from the first moment he'd set foot on the tiled floor of the Gate Room.

It's good to be back again, he mused, for a lot of reasons. His thoughts drifted once again to the monstrous creature he'd left in San Francisco, instantly reviving the self-satisfied smirk that Todd had succeeded in putting on his face not two hours earlier, when the wraith had wrung every last drop of pleasure from him while pumping Sheppard full of alien seed. Even now, John could feel it seep from his aching, mercilessly-pummeled ass at random moments. He found it oddly erotic – a sweet, perverse secret dampening his underwear as he walked the corridors of the Ancient City. A reminder, the wraith had whispered gruffly in his ear, like the marks on his neck and shoulders.

Duly prompted, Sheppard grasped the fold of the black turtleneck he wore, pulling it up and settling it against his neck a little more securely. It was a good thing they were midway through October now; he could get away with wearing it. He was sure someone would have made a comment about his choice of wardrobe if it had still been summer.

The low murmur of voices and the rattle-and-chink of cutlery on stoneware reached John's ears as he entered the short hallway that led to Atlantis' cafeteria, and he ground to a halt just outside the door, a jolt of anxiety setting his stomach aflutter with nervous energy. Feeling more like an actor waiting in the wings for his cue than an Air Force Colonel back on-base after an extended assignment, he tried to collect himself one last time before he faced his adoring public. So much had happened since that fateful day Todd had contacted Atlantis from the surface of a small, barren planet, his downed Dart smoking in the background as he'd revealed the existence of the Superhive and its potential threat. Emotions Sheppard had denied for years had suddenly become inescapable, a relationship he'd never thought possible had suddenly become a reality; and even after four months there were times when it was all just a little too much for him to process.

Like now.

He suddenly felt so raw – so exposed, like anyone looking at him would immediately be able to see where he'd been – who he'd been with – what he'd been doing, and he wondered if heading into the City's mess hall to grab a cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat before gearing up for his mission was such a good idea after all. It had excited him while he'd been changing, but now that John was here he found himself vehemently wishing he was elsewhere. Somewhere he didn't have to hide the things he was feeling and the person he was becoming.

He longed to be in the other city... with Todd.

Three days plus a wake-up hadn't been nearly long enough to reconnect with the wraith, not after what the two of them had been through; although they'd certainly done their best to make the most of the time they'd had. Forced to linger in the apartment for the rest of that first day while John had recovered from the worst of his crushing headache, it hadn't taken much for them to fall effortlessly into the same pattern of existence they followed the week they'd been camped out in the hotel. Room Service in the form of Chinese food and pizza delivered to the door had made its appearance later in the afternoon, and by the time Sheppard had arisen that evening, feeling marginally human again and ready to go out, their entire holiday had been reset to factory default. Nights were spent out on the town, exploring the city or going places Todd had discovered in the past four months he'd thought John would enjoy. Days were whiled away in bed - dozing, watching TV, or clenched in a passionate tangle of sweat-slicked limbs.

All in all, their reunion had been an unequivocal success – except for establishing a usable telepathic bond – and even that had turned out better than he'd expected.

When their initial attempt had failed, and Sheppard's secret had been revealed, he'd been certain he was going to be on the receiving end of Todd's considerable wrath or disdain – or both. Either response would have been entirely justified, as far as John was concerned. After all, he'd hidden his condition for years, choosing instead to carry the burden alone - damaged, raw, convinced he was defective - and flinching at every touch of the wraith's mind for fear he would discover it. To his astonishment, Todd had taken it surprisingly well, and when the alien's unguarded, tender smile had been the first thing John had seen when he'd awakened from his nap, it had been as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

He knew Todd would have preferred to have just kept him chained to the bed so he could keep an eye on him, and quite honestly, Sheppard would have liked nothing better than to stay; but they both knew that was an impossibility. So with the telepathic link still a no-go - for the moment, at least - John had allowed the wraith to do whatever he'd felt was necessary to feel comfortable about letting him go.

Todd's comfort level seemed to have been achieved once he'd pounded Sheppard into the mattress that morning before they'd rolled out of bed. Then again while they'd showered, marking him not only inside, but out, as well – with a deep-purple lovebite right under the line of his jaw that was difficult to hide even with a turtleneck. Not that John had minded – at the time, anyway. Now he tugged self-consciously at his neckline, hoping no one noticed it. He was going to have to ask Todd to leave his hickeys a little lower next time.

Squaring his shoulders, he took a deep steadying breath and plastered one of his trademark devil-may-care grins over the mixture of anxiety and smug satisfaction he could scarcely contain. Then Sheppard gave his collar one more quick adjustment and strode into the cafeteria in search of his breakfast date.

He wasn't difficult to find.

No sooner had John paused in the doorway, hands on hips, to scan the crowd for a familiar face, than Rodney jumped up from his seat by the large, multi-paned window on the other side of the mess. Gesticulating wildly above the sea of breakfasting humanity, he beckoned Sheppard over, pointing to a cup of coffee and two donuts ceremoniously arranged at the only unoccupied place at the table.

A second glance revealed Teyla's trim figure seated next to the overstimulated astrophysicist, and the solid mass of Ronon, who took up the seat across from her. Only the Satedan's dreadlocks and broad, muscled back were visible as he hunched over and shoveled food into his face like someone might try and take it from him at any moment. At the risk of losing a hand at the very least, Sheppard couldn't imagine anyone crazy enough to make the attempt.

The Athosian's tawny-brown eyes found his over Ronon's head, and John's smile softened into something more genuine as he sauntered across the busy cafeteria. He wove his way past tables to hails of 'welcome back' and 'good to see you,' graciously acknowledging his subjects with nods and thanks as he seamlessly assumed the mantle of Military Commander - and the heightened visibility it brought with it - in the twenty paces it took him to cross the mess hall and slip into his seat.

“Hey, Chewie,” John murmured amiably to Ronon as he hitched his chair closer to the table, forgetting for a moment how tense things had gotten between himself and the Satedan those first few days after Atlantis had landed. He winced inwardly an instant later when he recalled Ronon’s outspoken opposition to his plan to help Todd, and the brief conversation they'd had about it afterwards which had only served to sweep the matter under the carpet, unresolved.

Concerned that he'd inadvertently overstepped his bounds in his excitement at being with his team again, John turned apprehensive eyes toward the burly warrior, wondering if he'd been forgiven yet. The Satedan halted his methodical intake of nourishment just long enough to meet Sheppard’s inquiring gaze and grunt what might have been a greeting around a mouthful of pancakes, before applying himself to his breakfast again with renewed vigor.

Even in the midst of turmoil, apparently some things never changed.

Grateful that Ronon seemed to have gotten over his anger - or at least put it aside enough to acknowledge him, John allowed himself to breathe a little sigh of relief. With all the upheaval that had taken place on Atlantis since they'd returned to Earth, Sheppard needed all the friends he could get. He was glad he could still count the Satedan among them, in spite of their vastly-different views regarding the care and treatment of one particular Wraith.

He turned to his other two companions with a snort of amusement and a shake of his head, prepared to offer a glib remark about Ronon's indefatigable appetite, only for the joke to stall behind suddenly-uncooperative lips. Rodney's familiar blue eyes caught his gaze, full of concern and unasked questions at the same moment Teyla graced him with one of her warm, welcoming smiles, and John was forcefully reminded that he was with his Team again for the first time in months, together like they'd never been apart. A wave of yearning for the way things used to be before they brought Atlantis to the Milky Way suddenly washed over him. It blindsided him with its intensity, and he struggled to swallow against the rising tide of nostalgia that tightened his throat until he could hardly breathe - never mind speak.

He should have expected this.

As evidenced by his as-yet-undeclared feelings for Todd, which he'd attempted and failed to express on several occasions, Sheppard's inability to give voice to his emotions when it really mattered was still very much intact. This time, instead of being confronted by what he felt for the wraith, he floundered in the face of his affection for some of the most important humans in his life. More than just teammates to him, Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney were friends – family – or the closest thing to it; but rather than letting them know how much they meant to him, and how grateful and relieved he was to be with them, his first instinct was to run from the emotions that rendered him silent.

“Welcome back, John. It is good to see you,” Teyla said, unconsciously echoing the sentiments of the cafeteria at-large, but with a sincerity that was heartfelt and personal. She reached across to lay her hand over Sheppard's where it rested on the table and gave it a gentle squeeze, only to feel the man tense at her touch. The Athosian immediately let go, her gaze full of understanding as she pulled back and wrapped strong fingers around her mug of tea instead. Although she couldn't help but be dismayed by John's response, she knew better than to take it personally. She had long been cognizant of the Colonel's... difficulties when it came to displays of affection.

Fighting his initial reaction to recoil from the unexpected contact, John left his hand where it was through sheer force-of-will, although he shifted in his seat, suddenly feeling a little claustrophobic.

“Uh – thanks,” he finally replied, as his gaze slipped self-consciously from Teyla's sympathetic, knowing expression to the breakfast laid out before him. Seizing upon it as an opportunity to regain his equilibrium, he pulled the cup closer, retreating to more mundane matters.

“Two creams and a sugar?” Cautiously lifting the plastic cover off the cardboard cup, John peered suspiciously at its steaming contents before pointedly glancing up and meeting Rodney's curious, pale blue eyes.

Blissfully unaware of Sheppard's internal battle, McKay snorted, his crooked, slightly-uncertain grin broadening as he took up the challenge. “Genius here, remember? Even though a trivial detail like how you take your coffee is beneath an intellect as superior as mine, that doesn't mean it escaped my notice.”

John couldn't help but smirk. Leave it to Rodney to insult him and compliment him all in the same breath. “Gee, thanks for thinking of me,” he intoned sarcastically, then lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip. “Perfect.”

“Of course,” McKay said, looking pleased with himself. “What did you expect? I grabbed your favorite kind of donuts too.”

“So you did.”

Carefully replacing the cup's lid to keep the contents hot, Sheppard reached for the first of the honey-dipped offerings. His movements minimal and concise to keep the turtleneck from slipping, he broke off a piece and popped it in his mouth. As he concentrated on the taste of the confectioners' sugar glaze dissolving sweetly on his tongue, much of his anxiety likewise melted away. He let slip a sigh of contentment that eased the tension in his shoulders as the world started to right itself again, and he allowed himself to unwind bit by bit. He was already getting a feel for how much moving around he could do without risking exposure of the telltale bruise the wraith had left; all he had to do was keep the conversation light and steer it away from anything to do with emotions, and he'd be fine.

Feeling like he was back on solid ground for the first time since he'd gotten off the boat, John stole another glance at Teyla and noticed that she was dressed in a powder-blue velour track suit. “Rodney told me you'd been taken off the Gate team,” he said, indicating the velvet ensemble with a lift of his chin. “I was sorry to hear it.”

“Thank you, John,” the Athosian responded with a gracious nod. “Yes, I have been relegated to Earth for the duration of our stay.”

“That's a raw deal.” John winced in sympathy. “Landry has no idea how valuable you are.”

The Athosian's usually-serene features darkened. “On the contrary. The General does believe I have value; unfortunately, his ideas of where my worth lies are much narrower than my own."

She took a deep breath and exhaled in a slow, deliberate fashion as she concentrated on resettling her shoulders in a less defensive posture. “But rather than dwell on that which has been temporarily moved beyond my reach," she continued when she'd regained her composure and could once again offer him a smile. "I have chosen to focus instead on the task he has charged me with: to train anyone stationed here who wishes it in Athosian self-defense and meditation techniques. The classes I offer are popular and well-attended, and I am grateful I have been allowed to remain active, even if it is in a somewhat-limited capacity.”

Teyla picked up her fork and poked at her fruit cup. "But enough about me and my challenges; you are the guest of honor this morning, and yours are the stories we are eager to hear." Her head tilted in inquiry as she speared a cube of yogurt-covered cantaloupe. "So, please tell us, John - if you are able: what have you been up to these past four months?"

John took a swig of coffee to wash down the bite of donut, inordinately grateful for the opening the Athosian had given him. “Believe me,” he replied with a grin, “Other than the fact that I've been traveling through a Stargate to other planets, nothing I've been doing has been even remotely top secret.”

Ronon drank his coffee in silence. Bringing all the hunting skills his grandfather had instilled in him as a child, honed to a keen edge during his years as a Runner, to bear, he became still inside – and watchful, as John interacted with Teyla and McKay. He couldn't help but notice that there was something off about Sheppard; had been since he'd first sat down, although the Satedan couldn't quite put his finger on it. Whatever it was, it set off all of the warrior's inner alarms.

His observant green eyes jumped from face-to-face over the rim of his white ceramic mug as the three bantered back-and-forth, although he barely followed the drone of conversation. Instead, he allowed it to wash over him while he immersed himself in analyzing facial expressions and body language for he knew not what, convinced he would recognize it when he saw it.

In his state of heightened awareness, the Satedan observed the affection and interest in Teyla's guileless features and the genuine ring of joy her laughter. She had once mentioned to him the recurring nightmares she'd been having which featured Sheppard's demise in a variety of terrible and inventive ways. After months of anxiety over his well-being, her relief in seeing him alive and well was almost palpable.

Turning his attention to Dr. McKay, Ronon caught the shadow of impatience in the man's eyes and the thinning of the scientist's lips as he waited for Sheppard to finish relating a story, with the look of someone eager for his turn to speak. The Satedan guessed that it probably had something to do with McKay's concern over the Wraith's 'hurt feelings,' and Ronon almost snorted out loud, both at Rodney's comical expression, which made him look like he was about to burst at the seams, and the idea that someone might actually be worried they'd hurt a Wraith's feelings – like they had any.

Last, he focused his attention on Colonel Sheppard, scrutinizing him with an intensity the other would have found disturbing had he noticed. John was distracted by his teammates, though, allowing Ronon an opportunity to study him at leisure. After an uncertain start, Sheppard had grown decidedly more animated as he'd warmed to the task of regaling them with highlights and misadventures from his missions. Relaxing in his chair, the Colonel had even draped an arm casually over its back while he related events in a way calculated to get a laugh between sips of coffee and bites of donut. Basking in the glow of an appreciative audience, Sheppard was the picture of a happy man.

Upon closer inspection, however, the cracks in the facade were readily-apparent for those with eyes to see. John looked tired and frayed around the edges. The weariness which sometimes lingered at the outer corners of his eyes was present – and pronounced, and a line of tension ran through the man's body in spite of his studied nonchalance.

Still waters run deep, the Earth natives were fond of saying. Perhaps it was a simple as that. Like himself, Sheppard was a man of few words when it came to emotions even when they churned just below the surface, and the Colonel had just been reunited with his team after being off-planet for four solid months. Or maybe it had something to do with the Wraith, whom Ronon knew John had run to the second his feet had hit the tiled floor of Atlantis' Gate Room four days earlier. It was an idea the Satedan didn't even want to entertain, considering the vile, unnatural things the creature probably would have required of its personal Worshipper after such a lengthy separation, but it was an option that couldn't be ignored. Either way, it was obvious that Sheppard was hiding something.

John chose that moment to glance up at him, startling him out of surveillance mode. “You're quiet this morning,” he remarked, attempting to draw the taciturn Satedan into the conversation.

“Ronon doesn't say much on a good day; you know that,” Rodney volunteered.

The warrior shot a withering glance in McKay's direction. Unlike the scientist, Ronon didn't talk just to hear the sound of his own voice.

With a soft snort of agreement, John's gaze flicked to Rodney and Teyla before it slid back up to meet the Satedan's. “This is true - unless he has something worthwhile to say. Then none of us can stop him.”

Ronon conceded the point with a nod, earning a companionable grin from Sheppard before John turned back to his teammates to pick up the thread of their conversation. Left to lapse once again into the preternatural stillness of a hunter awaiting its prey, the Satedan's patience was rewarded almost immediately when Sheppard reached for the second donut. As John leaned forward, he surreptitiously pulled the collar of his turtleneck up, but not before Ronon saw the edge of a purplish-red bruise high on the man's neck, with shallow puncture wounds in an arc around the perimeter which could only have come from Wraith teeth.

Of all the things the Satedan might have suspected, he'd never wanted confirmation of this . Ronon's eyes widened in shock and horror, then narrowed as rage, hot and dark and murderous, bubbled up inside him, and before he'd consciously made the decision to do so, he reached out and grabbed John by the arm, spinning him around roughly in his seat.

“Whoa! What the hell...!” John exclaimed, his hand instinctively going for the pistol strapped to his hip. He managed to stop himself before he actually drew the weapon – but only just, his knuckles white with tension as he clutched the textured grip.

Teyla gasped as she set her mug down hard on the table, sloshing lukewarm tea over the rim. “Ronon! What are you doing?” she hissed, catching the startled looks some of their fellow diners slanted their way, while Rodney froze in place with his scrambled-egg-laden fork suspended halfway to his mouth.

The Satedan's features settled into lines of pity and disgust as he raked Sheppard's face and form with a disparaging glance that was unconsciously Wraith-like, and John guessed from his expression that Ronon must have seen Todd's mark on his neck.

Ronon knew!

Sheppard stiffened as a thrill of apprehension coursed through him, leaving his fingers and toes tingling with the adrenaline rush. This was exactly what he'd been trying to avoid – for so many reasons. The revulsion reflected in the warrior's eyes after he'd finished examining John like he'd never seen him before was one, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The wariness and mistrust in their green depths when he and Sheppard locked gazes again was what cut John to the quick. It had taken so long to gain Ronon's trust – to win his friendship, and Sheppard had a terrible feeling he'd just lost both – perhaps irrevocably.

The barely-contained violence he could sense simmering just below the boiling point when Ronon's grip tightened on his upper arm another – and at the moment – more immediately-problematic issue. Recognizing the threat for what it was, Sheppard's face went blank as he folded away his humanity and clutched his sidearm tighter, the tendons on his hand straining and taut. He really hoped the Satedan wasn't going to force him to defend himself right here in the middle of the cafeteria.

Time slowed to an agonizing crawl, the tension in the air ratcheting up to almost unbearable levels as the silence between them stretched to the breaking point. They stared each other down for what felt like forever, although the impasse lasted for only a heartbeat before the warrior blinked, his eyes shifting from John to Teyla and Rodney as if he suddenly recalled where he was. Compressing his lips into a thin frustrated line, a mask as aloof as Sheppard's descended over Ronon's features, until only a muscle jumping in his jaw betrayed the fury John had seen clearly written across the Satedan's face just a moment before.

An instant later Ronon turned back to him, releasing the death-grip on his arm to pull John into a rough embrace. Caught off-guard, Sheppard's initial instinct was to break the Satedan's hold – to fight back, but when the pair of brutishly-strong arms that enveloped him didn't immediately try to squeeze the life out of him, John cautiously went with it, wondering what the hell Ronon was doing.

“Welcome back,” the warrior huffed into John's hair, his words caring, although his voice was tight with the suppressed rage and repugnance Sheppard could all but feel rolling off the Satedan in waves.

Realizing that Ronon's move was just a ruse to cover his impulsive misstep, and what it must be costing the warrior not to go ballistic right then and there, John tentatively returned the hug, even improvising with an awkward pat on the back as they parted. A look of understanding passed between them as green eyes met hazel, and Sheppard nodded warily. Not here. Not now. Nothing had been forgiven – and probably never would, but for the time being at least, their unavoidable confrontation would have to wait. The deeply-ingrained habit of watching their teammates' backs took precedence over whatever unresolved conflict might lie between them, and by silent mutual consent they agreed to dissemble for the sake of Teyla and Rodney's peace-of-mind on what was supposed to be a joyous occasion.

“Is that it?” McKay griped petulantly as his fork fell from nerveless fingers to clatter on his plate. “You missed him? For a second there, I thought you guys were going to kill each other.” With an exasperated shake of his head, the scientist fished his utensil out of his hash browns and went back to eating, while Teyla's pensive gaze bounced back and forth from John to Ronon, watching their interchange as she mopped up her spilled tea.

“Yeah, I missed Sheppard,” the Satedan admitted softly, a multitude of unspoken accusations in his eyes as he studied John's face. “Still do.” With that, Ronon tossed his balled-up napkin into the pool of maple syrup left on his plate, rose from the table, and strode out of the mess hall without a backward glance.

Rodney hesitated in the midst of reaching for his apple juice, a bemused frown creasing his brow. “What did he mean by that?” he asked, drawing Sheppard's attention away from the warrior's retreating back.

Heaving a despondent sigh, John turned to glance at the scientist, at a loss as to how to answer. He'd been so looking forward to getting back to Atlantis – and his friends, and now all he could think of was escaping through the Stargate to someplace thousands of light-years away. This was why he tried to avoid getting involved with people on anything deeper than an acquaintance level. It always hurt way too much when he let them down – and in the end, he always did.

Chapter Text

Situated in what had once been a stable, near the large double doors through which horses had been led into the yard a hundred years before, Todd’s lab took up the back half of the Edwardian Painted Lady’s ground floor garage. Finished and framed to the exacting standards of the twenty-first century, it was like stepping through a rift in the fabric of time – a Wellian glimpse into the future in the otherwise painstakingly-restored building. Inside, pristine white countertops of epoxy resin shared the space with glass-front cabinets full of meticulously-labeled supplies and curiously-shaped objects of glass and metal. Around the perimeter of the room, state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment squatted at regular intervals, whirring and chirruping quietly amongst themselves, their sleek, almost-organic designs and blinking lights hinting at conscious thought - at sentience.

On the few occasions it had stood empty since its creation, silence reigned supreme, disturbed only by the soft, intermittent whoosh of climate control and the steady, subliminal tick of a large wall clock. Today was not one of those days. After an unprecedented two weeks of stillness, the pregnant pause had been broken that very morning. Its Master had returned in a flurry of intensely-focused activity and the lab rang with the sounds of life again, subsuming the soothing metronomic rhythm in the rustles, thumps, and occasional muttered curses of single-minded occupation.

Todd glanced up from the vials he'd just finished carefully packing in foam to check the clock with a self-deprecating snort, torn between irritation and amusement that he'd allowed the sweep of the second hand, and the slow, inexorable march of minutes and hours to become important. For Wraith, time was measured in the first breaths taken after a battle, in the entertainment of ideas and the completion of thoughts, in the surge and satiation of hunger - in the birth and death of stars. To a creature such as himself, who stood outside of time's grasping clutches and defied its ravages, the passage of an afternoon was but an infinitesimal drop in the unlimited well of eternity. In the normal course of events, it would hold such little significance for him that marking its lapse would be considered unnecessary. Even for the humans of Pegasus, the majority of whom eked out a meager existence growing crops and herding animals, the ebb-and-flow of the seasons and the rising and setting of whatever sun they toiled under was usually sufficient for the population to regulate its activities by.

But Earth was different. Farmers it had, of course - in abundance. They were necessary to feed the vast sea of humanity which roamed its surface; but that bucolic setting and its ancient, agrarian timetable ruled... elsewhere. Living in the heart of one of the planet's large, bustling cities, he'd somehow gotten as caught up in the metropolis' frenzied pace as the people around him. Before long he'd found himself as obsessed as the rest of them, constantly checking to make sure he wasn't missing one of the arbitrary deadlines or appointments with which they seemed to delight in cluttering their short lives as they raced toward death.

Oblivious to the alien's scrutiny and indifferent to his scowl, the clock measured out the passing seconds with the perfect impartiality of the inanimate, its white face and brushed-aluminum frame bright against the pale-blue wall.

Quarter of five. Todd noted. Good.

That meant he still had fifteen minutes before the courier was due to arrive. Bending attentively to his task once again, the wraith double-checked the seals on each glass tube to confirm they were secure and placed the samples he'd been contracted to test into a polystyrene container. He added a bubble-wrapped packet of used slides and an activated cold pack, then set the cover on top and pushed it down to close it, grimacing as the unbearable squeak of the mating parts set his sharp teeth on edge.

With a sigh of satisfaction, he laid the folded work order on top and added the box to the pile of stryofoam cubes sitting on the edge of the counter, taking a moment to congratulate himself on a job well-done. After neglecting his busy work schedule for twelve days, he'd spent most of this one just catching up on things which had fallen by the wayside. It had taken a little creative juggling of time and resources, but he'd managed to complete every project that was due to ship.

Thankfully, this was the last of them.

Not that he regretted the effort he'd expended to make up for the unintended time off. On the contrary, he'd found it eminently worthwhile. After descending into the grief-stricken madness which had compelled him to seek comfort in a week-long feeding frenzy, followed by the ecstatic high of reuniting with Sheppard, it had felt good to get back to a routine he'd come to rely on. The added benefit was that the sheer volume of the backlog had kept his mind off the anxiety he’d been wrestling with ever since he’d had to allow John to return to Atlantis that morning.

Unlike their last parting, when Todd had been optimistic and certain of Sheppard's swift return, this time around he was reluctant to set store in a schedule which had yet to prove itself. While his faith in John's promises had been restored; in truth, Sheppard's word was only as good as the deal he'd wrung, unwilling, from General Landry. And it was the knowledge that John's Commander had been the one to order the punishment in the first place which made the alien uneasy. He could only hope that the hold Sheppard had over the General posed enough of a deterrent to keep him from manipulating the roster again, or they were destined to face more delays and lengthy separations – while Todd could do nothing but wait on the sidelines.

Hating the feeling of powerlessness the situation engendered in him, an impotent snarl escaped the wraith's lips as he turned his thoughts back to the task at-hand. Plotting to snap Landry's neck like a twig wasn't getting the packages ready for shipment.

He took a final, appraising look around the small, tidy lab he'd had constructed in the back of the garage, reassuring himself that all was as it should be. The last in a series of three consecutive rooms, he'd spent the better part of his days here ever since the workers he'd contracted to build the place had packed up their tools and left two months earlier, and it had become as much of a sanctuary for him as the apartment upstairs.

Satisfied that the instruments were all running their appointed analyses on the next day's assignments, Todd turned and carefully picked up the tower of precariously-stacked boxes. He tucked the topmost under his chin as he carried them to the lab door, unusually grateful for the beard-guard he normally cursed from one end of the day to the other. It was a necessary evil, as was the bouffant cap he tucked his hair into as part of the gowning process. Both were ridiculous-looking accessories, and mildly uncomfortable to wear after the first couple of hours or so, but it better than the alternative. His continued safety and freedom depended on remaining undetected, and the last thing he wished to do was leave stray hairs – and evidence of Wraith DNA – for his potentially-dangerous customers to discover.

Using his shoulder to push open the swinging door between the lab and the office, Todd deposited his handiwork onto the one clear space in the center of his cluttered desk. Empty cardboard shipping cartons and a thick stack of multi-page reports took up the rest of its horizontal surface, along with an open shoebox which contained packing tape, fine-point markers, and rolls of miscellaneous hazardous-material warning-labels. An assembly line of sorts, awaiting these last vital components before production could begin.

As he distributed the polystyrene cubes and test results into their respective boxes, Todd's thoughts couldn’t help but wander through the events of the past few days, inevitably leading him to tantalizing mental images of a certain dark-haired Air Force Colonel sprawled naked and wanton beneath him. The wraith's hands slowed, then stilled as his mind tarried on the intimate details of their numerous couplings, until he found himself pressing a palm against the front of his lab coat, adjusting himself in his suddenly-tight jeans.

The tall alien recalled himself to the present moment with a snarl of impatience. While he appreciated John's unique ability to stir his desire like he was a century old and pursuing his first conquest, indulging himself in erotic fantasies of Sheppard would have to wait until later. For now he needed to focus on what he was doing. Time was growing short, and he'd barely made a dent in the job laid out before him. Forcing both his lustful thoughts and unruly body into compliance with iron-willed determination, he reached for a fine-point permanent marker and began filling out the address labels.

Steering his ruminations in what he hoped was a less distracting direction, Todd contemplated the fortuitous alignment of circumstances which had brought John to his door four nights earlier, just in time to prevent him from quitting the apartment forever. Convinced that Sheppard had finally cast him aside in the cruelest way imaginable short of killing him outright, the wraith had planned to leave his shattered dreams, the city, and its bittersweet memories behind, never to be seen or heard from again as he melted into the darkness like the ageless Hunter he was. It wasn't until he'd wrenched the front door open and come face-to-face with John's shocked visage on the other side that Todd had realized as much as he hated Sheppard in that particular moment, his passionate affection for the man remained as undiminished as ever.

Greyish-green lips compressed into a thin line as the alien methodically worked his way down the row of cartons, sealing each box in turn and applying the appropriate shipping and warning labels. It still left him cold inside when he considered what might have happened if the boat which had carried John to shore had taken a few moments longer to dock, or the cab had been delayed by even one additional stoplight. With so many variables in play, he could only marvel at the razor-thin margin Sheppard had made it by, when they could have just as easily missed each other.

Of course, that kind of appreciation for their incredible good fortune hadn't come until long after they'd moved the festivities from the den to the bedroom, and he lay in a pleasure-drenched haze of repletion, listening to John's slow, even respiration while the man slept safely in the curve of his arms.

When he'd initially dragged Sheppard into the apartment earlier that night, the wraith had been hurt and angry and inches from bloodshed, and had had very little appreciation for anything except revenge and retribution.

Somehow, John had made it through those first rocky moments of their reunion intact, successfully navigating past the alien's threats of physical violence only to run headlong into the second barely-averted disaster of the evening when Todd had lashed out in blind fury and attempted to mind rape him. Poised to scramble Sheppard's brains in search of the truth he refused to believe from the human's lips, it was the shock of bouncing off the surprisingly-impenetrable barrier of John's shield which had finally brought the enraged wraith back to his senses.

The memory brought a flush of shame to his cheeks, as hot and grey as they'd burned that evening when he'd descended from the precipice of his wrath enough to realize what he'd almost done, and a surge of gratitude toward the people who'd taught Sheppard to defend himself from just such an attack arose in Todd's breast. If John hadn't been strong enough to repulse his first assault, the wraith would have laid waste to his mind in a heartbeat. He knew that – knew it with the certainty of past experience, and it grieved him that he'd lost control and allowed his temper to get the better of him – especially with Sheppard, who could be maddening on a good day.

Unbelievably, he'd received a full and unwarranted pardon from his wronged lover, who'd downplayed the assault by chalking it up to the heat of battle. Todd was not so forgiving. His unconscionable conduct had nearly cost his precious human consort his sanity, his identity - perhaps even his life, and it would be many cycles before the wraith found it in his heart to forgive himself.

Heaving a wistful sigh, he viciously pushed his self-loathing below the surface of his mind in the vain hope of drowning it, and concentrated instead on transferring the prepared packages into a large canvas bag the courier had left with the last delivery. He cinched it closed with an air of finality, then carried its scant weight across the office and into the outer chamber of the laboratory.

As vital as the inner sanctum, itself, this buffer zone was the first line of defense between the outside world and the carefully-maintained, sterile environment of the lab. A coat tree stood sentinel beside the steel-plated outer door, and a series of white metal storage units ran the length of the wall next to it. Directly across from the cabinets, two doorways ranged side-by-side, one leading to a fairly large bathroom fully-loaded with a tiled shower and an eye-wash station, the other to a separate gowning area.

Closing the door to the office behind him, Todd left the bag by the bentwood coat rack and stepped into the dressing room. He faced his reflection in the alcove’s full-length mirror, sneering disdainfully at the ludicrous figure he cut as he began removing the protective gear he'd donned that morning. Thankful there was no one around to see him wearing such a preposterous outfit, he took off his lab coat and draped it over one of the hooks hung in a row next to the mirror, then peeled off his latex gloves. He tossed them onto the nearest of the two orange, molded-plastic chairs that lined the wall – a present from Joe Murphy he'd felt obligated to accept for the sake of friendship, after the man had replaced the seats in the tattoo parlor's waiting room with a new, but equally uncomfortable, sofa and loveseat.

Next, he ripped off the hated beard-guard and head-covering with a groan of relief that bordered on sexual. Shaking out his luxurious, white lion's mane, the wraith ran his fingers through its silky length a few times until it fell in long, tangled waves across his shoulders and down his back, then he absently scratched his goatee back into shape as he lowered himself onto the other chair. The last order of business was to pull off the shoe covers that enveloped the foot portion of his boots, which he accomplished with the flick of a nail under the elastic edges, and the crumpled paper slippers joined the rest of the debris next to him.

Finally unencumbered and feeling more like himself again, Todd stood and stretched, sinewy arms reaching for the ceiling as he arched his back. Vertebrae realigned themselves along his spine in a series of crackles and pops, and a sigh escaped his lips as the tension he'd carried all day in muscles drawn taut by looming deadlines and concern for John eased for the first time in hours. With a pleasured grunt and a final roll of his broad shoulders, he straightened and slowly lowered his arms, tugging the hem of the grey silk thermal top he wore back down where it had ridden up to reveal smooth green skin.

After resettling the lightweight knit which clung to his sculpted pectorals and washboard abs like a lover's caress, Todd reached for the accessories he'd left hanging on one of the other hooks. He slipped the bear claw pendant he'd purchased from a Fisherman's Wharf street-vendor over his head, then threaded a pair of small silver hoops through earlobes which showed no signs of having ever been pierced, although he'd just removed the earrings that morning. He pushed them into unblemished flesh without hesitation, the healing so instantaneous that he barely registered either the sharp sting of pain or the satisfying pop as they emerged from the back. Last, he strapped the new chronometer John had gifted him with to his wrist, automatically checking the time as he did so. Realizing he only had a couple of minutes left before the messenger was due to arrive, the alien's golden gaze slanted toward the mirror again for a final inspection. Pleased with what he saw, he offered his reflection an approving nod, then turned and strode back into the entryway.

Barely slowing his pace, Todd wrapped the canvas bag's drawstring around his hand and slung the light, bulky sack over his shoulder. He glanced around the room one last time to ascertain that everything was in order, then flipped the panel of light switches by the door to the 'off' position with his palm and headed out into the darkened garage. Pausing long enough to pull the heavy, steel-clad security door shut behind him, he then stalked across the garage proper, the soft scrape of Wraithskin boots on concrete little more than a whispered echo in the cavernous space. Senses heightened in darkness relieved only by a thin seam of light that seeped in under the garage door, his exceptional night vision allowed him to pick out details easily in spite of the shadowy gloom: a deep utility sink and two fifty-five gallon drums nearby, wooden shelves laden with cans of paint against the far wall, and a row of trash and recycle bins by the roll-up garage door. He passed them all with scarcely a backward glance, his thoughts drifting inexorably back to John as he made his way toward his destination.

After so violently breaking the promise he'd made to stay out of Sheppard's head until John gave him express consent to enter, the wraith had never expected to receive an invitation the very next day. At the time, he'd just assumed John's easy absolution had come from ignorance of how much danger he'd actually been in – how close to oblivion he'd actually come. Little had Todd known what manner of secrets the human had kept hidden behind his perpetually-wary amber-green eyes.

It had been both a devastating blow and a huge relief to finally learn the truth. The psychic damage the Queens had inflicted was deep and extensive, and the unwelcome revelation had all but destroyed Todd's aspirations of binding Sheppard to him as his mate anytime soon, setting his plans back by months – perhaps years. But even as the wraith had resigned himself to patiently endure whatever interminable delay was required to heal John's wounds, he'd immediately understood why Sheppard had sidestepped his telepathic advances in the first place, and three years of uncertainty had been dispelled in the blink of an eye. Raging against the females for what they'd done, and regretting the torment he'd inadvertently visited upon John in his ignorance of what had transpired, a part of Todd had yet rejoiced at the realization that the man's repeated refusals had had more to do with avoiding the pain he'd come to associate with such a joining, than it did with hiding nefarious intent or emotional duplicity.

And when he'd had to eventually dissolve their tentative bond for fear of hurting John even further, the human's continued willingness – nay – his determination, to try and maintain the mental connection, once established, had revealed more to Todd of Sheppard's true feelings for him than the deepest mind probe.

In the midst of John's pain and fear - in spite of the agony which had crashed over both of them in pounding, relentless waves - Sheppard had trusted him. Knowing what a momentous leap of faith that had to have been for the man in light of everything he'd suffered, Todd sensed that the attempt, itself, meant they'd begun creating a more profound bond between them, even without the benefit of a telepathic link.

His thoughts turned to the text message he'd received from John a couple of hours after he'd left. 'Miss you already,' was all it had said, but those three little words had spoken volumes. He paused to fish the phone out of his back pocket so he could read the backlit message again, a faint smile momentarily softening his alien features as it had that morning when he'd first received his lover's brief missive. Based on the time-stamp, it had been tapped out mere minutes before Sheppard, and whatever team he'd been assigned to, had stepped through the Ring.

Yes, it seemed his skittish, prickly Colonel was finally starting to come around.

He slipped the cellphone back into his pocket, then pushed open the door that separated the garage from the ornate main lobby, his gratifying train of thought suddenly derailed by the bright afternoon sunlight that flooded the foyer with a vengeance. Blinking rapidly against the unexpected brilliance, he instinctively brought up a hand to shield night-sensitive eyes from dazzling, rectangular blocks of daylight reflecting off polished, century-old Carrara marble floor tiles. Nearly blinded by the full-spectrum glow of natural light after the cool, controlled radiance of the fluorescent bulbs illuminating the lab, and the comforting darkness of the garage, the wraith's vision nonetheless adjusted quickly. By the time he'd made his way across the faded oriental runner to the plate-glass door he could see again, and as he stepped into the sun pouring through the glass, he welcomed the light and heat that washed over him as he let the bag slide from his shoulder to the floor. Then with yellow cat's eyes whose pupils had been reduced to the narrowest of slits in the direct sunlight, Todd glanced at his watch before his gaze turned toward the street to search for signs of the truck.

He'd barely begun his vigil when the step-van he'd been so determined to meet rumbled into view and pulled up to the curb in front of the house. Exhaling a sigh of relief that he hadn't missed the appointed rendezvous, the alien's features redrew themselves into the aloof, dispassionate lines which came so naturally to Wraith as the driver put the vehicle in park and shut off the engine.

A moment later the passenger-side panel door slid open and a young man in his mid-twenties emerged. Stocky without being overweight, and dressed in the familiar brown shorts and shirt that made up the company uniform, the courier paused to check the sheaf of papers attached to the clipboard in his hand. A thick forelock of auburn-brown curls fell into light grey eyes that lit up when he noticed Todd waiting for him in the foyer, and a shy grin split the boy's rapidly-pinkening face before he was able to catch himself. Glancing away quickly, the youth composed himself with what appeared to be a deep, steadying breath, then offered a more restrained smile and subdued wave of greeting as he headed around to the back of the truck.

The hint of a smirk stretched Todd's lips as he roused himself from his motionless predatory surveillance and returned the salutation, careful to lift his off-hand as he watched the young man – Nicholas – begin scanning and setting aside packages. Although they'd only been acquainted since Hunter Diagnostics started doing business, somewhere along the way Nick had ended up on that short-but-select list of humans the wraith counted as part of his personal entourage.

Nicholas was one of the few people in San Francisco, apart from Murphy, that Todd interacted with consistently, and in the two months they'd worked together he'd developed a liking for the boy. Nick's eagerness to serve – his desire to please – these traits, on their own, would have endeared him to any Wraith almost immediately; but it was the unrequited attraction the youth harbored for him which had cinched the deal. Nicholas might believe he was doing a good job of 'keeping it in his sneaker' as Sheppard was fond of saying, but to the wraith the young man's interest was obvious – both by sight and scent.

Unexpected, surely, but not unwelcome.

In fact, at another time, in another place, Todd would have already taken the human up on his unspoken offer and claimed him as a Worshipper long before now. As was customary for Wraith who were planetside for any extended period of time it was not unusual to handpick servants from among the indigenous population, and he'd always contended that the most loyal slaves were the ones who felt some measure of affection toward him. He could certainly use someone to help perform the menial day-to-day tasks around the apartment and, with a little training, keep an eye on the diagnostic equipment when the alien's presence was required elsewhere - and Nick was the perfect candidate: young, strong, willing. If Todd wasn't absolutely positive that Sheppard would have an issue with the sudden addition of a young human male to the household, he would have snatched Nicholas up in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, the possibility of taking on a Worshipper or two was a subject he and John had not touched upon during their initial negotiations, and as such had put no provisions in place for its eventuality. At the time they'd both been more concerned with the restrictions John had sought to impose on his feeding, and the importance of maintaining a low profile in the middle of a densely-populated human city. The making and keeping of servants hadn't even been on their radar. Truth be told, it was an oversight he'd only come to regret recently with the gradual-but-steady influx of projects, and one he'd intended on addressing with Sheppard – before the emotional highs and lows of the past two weeks had driven it from his mind. It was a courtesy he deemed necessary to extend to the man due to John''s exalted status as his consort, even though Todd highly doubted his lover's human sensibilities would make allowances for such an arrangement. Until he could make Sheppard understand that the desire to lay claim to those who faithfully served him and gather them under his protection sprang as much from the ancient concept of noblesse oblige as the instinctive urge to assert his dominance, the wraith could almost predict it was an argument he stood no chance of winning – not while they remained on Earth, anyway.

Ah, well, Todd reflected philosophically, I'll have to make do on my own.

It was no less than what he'd done since the beginning of his exile, even though he was well-aware there were other ways around his dilemma if he was willing to compromise. He could choose to hire an employee. It was an option he was sure Sheppard would not object to, even without prior discussion. At one point he'd actually considered bringing in a lab technician or housekeeper – and had just as quickly discarded the idea as unworkable. In this situation, a human with that much autonomy was simply not an acceptable substitute. Between the extremely sensitive nature of the government projects he was involved in and the need to keep his true identity a secret, anyone working with him that closely – that intimately - would have to be bound to him as a Worshipper so he could ensure their obedience and silence.

Although John ultimately had no say in whether or not he retained servants, for the sake of a peaceful life, Todd begrudgingly accepted the fact that for the time being, his hands were tied. Without his consort's agreement – or at least acquiescence – to that course of action, as much as he might wish to acquire Nicholas and his much-needed services, for now he would have to content himself with the young man's daily return in the role of trusted messenger, and leave it at that.

Seeing that the human in-question was almost done processing the numerous envelopes and boxes which he had then stuffed into two canvas bags much like the one Todd had brought from the lab, the wraith hoisted his onto his shoulder once more and pushed the door open to step out into the warm, October afternoon. A light ocean breeze gently blew his disheveled mane back from his face and rustled the leaves of the sapling which stood by the curb. Sunlit branches overhung the sidewalk, offering a patch of dappled shade for him to step into. Grateful for the young tree's sparse shadow, the alien lowered the bag to the ground, inhaling deeply of the salt-tinged air as he waited patiently for his young companion to join him.

“Hey, Todd,” Nick murmured breathlessly, going for casual and failing, as he crossed the cracked pavement a moment later and set the two full bags of incoming mail down with a labored exhalation.

“Nicholas.”

The boy's irrepressible grin was back, as was his blush. “It's good to see you. I was wondering where you'd gotten to. I have two weeks' worth of deliveries here. When you weren't here to receive them I should have been returning them to the depot, but I kept them in the back,” he cocked a thumb toward the truck behind him, “hoping you'd turn up.”

“That was kind of you,” the wraith replied evenly, rewarding the youth a small smile and a nod of approbation. “I had some... personal matters to attend to, and was unavailable.”

The tips of Nick's ears reddened further at the praise. “Hey, not a problem. Just – next time, give us a call before you leave and we'll hold your stuff for you. 'Kay?”

“Of course.” Todd took the handheld device the boy pulled from a holster on his belt and offered him, scribbling his alias across its smooth surface with the attached stylus.

“Is that for me?” Nick asked, pointing to the canvas tote by the wraith's feet when Todd handed back the electronic scanner.

The alien nodded and the prisoner exchange was accomplished without further ado. With a promise to see his young friend the following afternoon, Todd left Nick to sort the contents of the outgoing sack into the truck and headed back inside.

Carrying the two bags the courier had barely been able to lift as if they weighed next-to-nothing, the wraith retreated gratefully across the sunlit lobby to the garage, and the dimmer lighting he preferred. He stashed the sacks in the lab's antechamber, to be dealt with in the morning, then emerged once again and tugged the armored door closed behind him. Fingers flying over the buttons, he keyed the security code into the panel by the knob and listened as the locking bolts slid into place, before turning toward the fifty-five gallon drums and his final task for the evening.

Todd stretched out a hand as he stepped up to the deep, polypropylene laundry tub and flipped a switch which had been wired to a nearby stud. An exhaust fan set high in the wall sprang to life, the whir of its blades rising to a soft, subliminal hum as they reached speed, while a single twenty-five-watt bulb in a ceramic socket illuminated the immediate area with a glow that would have been judge feeble by human standards.

It was more than enough light for the alien to work by.

Instinctively glancing around the garage one more time even though he was sure he was alone, he reached for the pair of protective goggles dangling from the faucet and slipped them over his head. Once he'd adjusted them to his satisfaction, he donned the pair of heavy neoprene gloves draped over the lip of the sink and unhooked the ring of keys which depended from one of his belt loops. With the quick, efficient movements of long practice, Todd grasped the heavy-duty padlock on the nearest of the two barrels and unlocked it, pulling it free of the handle it kept securely fastened. He set the lock aside on the edge of the sink, then took a deep, preparatory breath and slowly – carefully – lifted the lever that held the lid closed. As the cover's seal was broken, the stench of caustic chemicals rose in a toxic cloud. It enveloped the wraith, sending him staggering back as the noxious miasma burned his lungs. He succumbed to a fit of coughing, finally spitting black blood into the sink when it eventually subsided.

Wishing he could wipe his streaming eyes, Todd pushed the cover back all the way to reveal a thick, viscous liquid. Exposed to air, the fluid heaved and undulated as bubbles percolated around the edges, and what appeared to be human features began to materialize in its cloudy depths. The ghostly specter drew closer as he watched, and the remnants of a man's skull broke the surface a moment later, buoyed up by the fetid gases of accelerated decomposition. A few gobbets of flesh and hair still clung to the pitted, crumbling bone as it bobbed in the deadly acid bath, its empty eye sockets staring mutely at the unfinished rafters.

The wraith returned the skull's silent, accusing gaze with one of cold, clinical detachment as he assessed its progress toward dissolution, wondering if he'd misjudged the application of chemicals in his haste to pack and leave. The last of the victims he'd taken down during his violent bout of grief, he'd brought it home with him rather than make the long trek back to his storage unit. Like several of his earlier kills, he'd submerged this one in a corrosive cocktail of his own devising, but after leaving the body to stew for four days, he had hoped it would be farther along than it was. With thirteen more waiting patiently for his attention under the floorboards of the warehouse, at this rate it was going to take him months to finish cleaning up the trail of death and destruction he'd left behind him.

Deciding that some judicious adjustments might be in order, he bent to retrieve a stainless steel can he had stashed under the laundry tub. He unscrewed the cover then poured some of the contents into the vat, taking care not to splash. Once the container had been re-capped and placed back underneath the sink, he straightened and cautiously pushed the human head down into the fluid again with tented fingers.

So overpowering was the acrid stench of acid and decaying flesh, and so focused was he on his task, it wasn't until the bank of fluorescent work lights suspended from the rafters suddenly flooded the garage with light that Todd realized he had company. With a start he whipped around to face the intruder, a growl rumbling deep in his chest and an instinctive snarl peeling lips back from sharp, dangerous teeth as shock transmuted to rage.

“Hey, Todd. How's it going, buddy?”

Brown eyes met golden from across the garage, as Murphy peered around the door leading to the lobby. “I thought I heard you moving around in here.”

The wraith froze in place, not daring to move a muscle as he fought his way back from the impulses of a cornered predator to the thought processes of a rational being. Turning his formidable will inward, he consciously belayed the territorial urge to attack, forcing himself to relax his defensive stance while he quickly schooled his features into a semblance of casual inquiry.

“Joe,” he replied smoothly, clamping down hard on the physical effects the jolt of adrenaline was having on him as it roared through his system. Other than the wild hammering of his heart against his sternum – the one thing which was out of his control, even another Wraith would have been hard-pressed to tell how badly he'd been shaken by the human's sudden, unexpected appearance – or how close to annihilation Murphy had just come. “What are you doing here?”

Even as he asked the question, Todd reached out telepathically and brushed the surface of the human's mind, taking note of the fact that nothing in either Joe's thoughts or demeanor indicated he'd noticed anything untoward yet. In an effort to keep it that way, the alien rose to his full height and took an unobtrusive step forward, obscuring the man's view of the drum. And not a moment too soon. Pushing the door wider, Murphy's wiry frame filled the doorway as his quizzical gaze roamed over the scene, taking in the thick, rubbery, chemical-resistant gloves which engulfed Todd's arms to the elbows, the padlock on the sink, and what he could make out of the open barrel from across the broad expanse of concrete – before his eyes returned to the wraith's face again.

“Wow, it stinks in here,” Joe quipped from the safety of the tiled lobby, staying put in spite of the curiosity the alien now sensed rolling off him in waves. Thankfully, the man knew better than to advance any further. Todd had long ago warned Murphy of the dangers of disturbing him while he worked, and especially to beware the caustic nature of the chemicals in these particular drums, and the wraith was grateful Joe was following his instructions. With a decomposing body – the most recent victim of Todd's eternal, unquenchable hunger - in plain sight and on the verge of discovery, it was even more imperative that Murphy heed his injunction to keep back. Regrettably, he'd have no choice but to slay the human immediately if Joe ventured even one step past the threshold.

Todd attempted to quirk a sardonic brow ridge, exasperation vying for dominance with something he might have identified as amusement if all his instincts weren't on high alert and screaming for blood. Finding the movement an impossibility with the safety goggles firmly in place, he settled for cocking his head. “That is what you wished to tell me?”

Joe chuckled, blissfully unaware of the danger he was in – how perilously close to the tipping point his life teetered.

“Nah. I know this is about the time you usually knock off for the day, and I figured I'd stop by and see if you were up for a couple of beers.” The weathered, mahogany skin around the man's dark brown eyes crinkled in deeply-etched smile lines. “My next client isn't due for another hour,” he continued distractedly, his gaze drifting inquisitively back toward the barrel again.

Todd regarded the man as though considering his offer, all the while struggling to curb the nearly-overwhelming desire to protect his privacy at any cost, even if it meant taking the life of a human he considered a friend. He glanced down at the open vat – at the skull lying just below the surface of the chemical bath, and in that instant he realized how deeply it would sadden him to ever see Murphy staring back at him from its murky depths. His murderous rage bled out a heartbeat later, leaving him apprehensive but resolute. If there was any way he could prevent it, the man would not die by his hand. Not today. Hopefully, not ever.

Choosing to ignore, for the time being anyway, what that might mean for his own continued existence down the road, the alien quickly pulled himself together and nodded tersely. “Wait there; I'll be with you in a minute.”

Careful not to show the fine trembling which still thrummed through his muscular frame – the aftereffects of murder and mayhem narrowly avoided - Todd resumed his labors. Using his uncontaminated hand, he lowered the cover back in place and pressed the lever down to re-engage the seal, then reached for the lock and threaded the shank through the hasp and handle, squeezing it shut with a decisive click. Giving the padlock a final jiggle to make sure it had caught, he turned his attention to stripping off his protective gear.

Neutralizing the acid on his gloves with a dusting of baking soda from the open box sitting on the sink's backsplash, he divested himself of the gauntlets and rinsed them off throughly under the tap. After draping them across the edge of the tub, he undid the clasp on the goggles and pulled them off as well, hanging them in their accustomed spot over the arch of the faucet. The wraith finally wiped his eyes with a sigh of relief, then shut off the light and fan and turned to his companion, whose exaggerated, theatrical scowl and comically-impatient stance of crossed arms and tapping toe brought a smirk to his face.

“Are you quite ready?”

The alien nodded once again, the amused quirk of his lips breaking into a grin as the last of the tension he'd been carrying melted away. Murphy was luckier than he would ever know.

“Then come on, man,” Joe said as he turned away, beckoning imperiously for Todd to follow him. “It's Miller Time.”

The wraith chuckled appreciatively as he trailed after him out of the garage, making sure the door was shut behind him before he proceeded across the lobby. The first time Murphy had uttered that rather cryptic statement, Todd had been so perplexed by it he'd literally stopped dead in his tracks. The only Miller he knew of was Dr. McKay's sister, whom he'd rewritten the Nanite codes for, and he'd wondered how Joe knew her. Suddenly suspicious that the man might be some sort of government agent, and angry that he'd allowed himself to be caught so easily, the alien had just drawn breath to snarl, his mind poised to shred Murphy's looking for answers, when the man had burst out laughing at his clearly-confounded expression.

Taken aback by Joe's odd behavior, Todd had hesitated, giving the human time to bring himself back under control. Once Murphy could breathe again, he'd wiped the tears from his eyes and explained that the phrase was the tagline from an old beer commercial, unaware that for a few, tenuous moments he'd literally been laughing in the face of Death. From then on it had turned it into a bit of an in-joke between them, and if the mischievous twinkle in the man's eye and the sunny, self-satisfied grin on his face every time he got to work it into the conversation was anything to go by, it never got old.

Todd was still shaking his head fondly at the human's remark as he climbed the stairs behind him, when it struck the wraith forcefully, as it did every now and again, just how much Joe reminded him of Sheppard.

He often wondered if that's why he liked the man so much - why he and Murphy had hit it off so famously right from the start, and why, in spite of the speed with which Joe could elicit a violent response from him, he hadn't killed him yet. There were obvious parallels between the two humans, of course: their military backgrounds and the guilt their overblown sense of responsibility forced them to carry for things which were out of their control. But more than that, it was the older man's ability to catch Todd off-guard with acerbic, entertaining comments or unexpected insights which struck such a chord of eerie familiarity; as was his uncanny knack for showing up at either the absolute-best or most abysmally-worst possible moments. As far as humans went, Murphy was almost as unpredictable as John – and both excelled at keeping a Wraith on his toes.

Perhaps that was why he'd come to terms so quickly with the prospect of having to take his time exploring Sheppard's consciousness, allowing the mystery of the man to unfold slowly as he healed, petal by petal - layer by intriguing layer. Perhaps it was because - as much as the wraith complained otherwise - at the end of the day maybe he enjoyed the surprises.

Buoyed up by the buzz of epinephrine and feeling expansive, Todd clapped a hand on Murphy's shoulder and offered him a fierce, shark-tooth smile as the pair reached the door of the tattoo parlor. Reunited with John and secure in his consort's feelings for him for the first time in three years, relieved that he'd managed to prevent Joe from discovering his secret without bloodshed, and grateful for the exciting opportunity to keep his warrior's reactions and hunter's instincts honed to a razor's edge, it had been a very good day, indeed.

And with Murphy's promise of alcohol, camaraderie, and an evening of entertainment, watching him push ink into the appendage of some willing human or other, it was rapidly shaping up to be a pretty good night, as well.

Chapter Text

The days that followed passed in much the same fashion, as Todd resumed his regular routine like it had never been disrupted. A minor deviation from the schedule occurred two days after Sheppard left, when the body in the barrel finally liquefied to the point where it could be disposed of, and a late-night trip to the storage unit for another one became necessary. But other than that, life had returned to normal.

Unfortunately, 'normal' also included wondering whether John would be allowed to return to him a week hence, as promised, or if General Landry's thirst for revenge would ultimately prove stronger than the Colonel's threat of exposure. Although Todd had assured Sheppard that another lengthy separation wouldn't be a problem for him if it happened, in truth, it was a possibility the alien was loathe to even consider. While he would scarcely have noticed a few extra days or weeks of waiting in almost any other aspect of his life, when it came to John Sheppard, his long game was practically nonexistent.

To keep the hollow ache caused by Sheppard's absence from sending him into another downward spiral, the wraith looked to his daily schedule for salvation. With a fervor that bordered on religious, he focused all his energy on moving from one task to the next, letting the simple, repetitive activities guide his head as well as his hands. Mornings started with coffee and a newspaper before he devoted the rest of the day to working in the lab. Evenings found him hanging out with Murphy or wandering the city in search of mindless entertainment.

Nights were another matter entirely.

Off the clock and on his own, there was nothing to distract the wraith from his troubled thoughts. In vain he tried to lose himself in a book or movie, seeking to soothe the heart of the lonely hunter that beat within his breast. But when even graphic images of bloodshed and violence splashing across the screen failed to divert his attention, and the political intrigues sandwiched in the pages of War and Peace paled to insignificance - he paced. For long, solitary hours, he wandered from room to room, mired in a fugue of anxiety and uncertainty over eventualities he could neither predict nor control.

Inevitably, there were moments during his nightly vigil when the apartment took on the dimensions of a prison cell rather than a sanctuary, when the walls closed in and he struggled to draw breath. But in spite of the intermittent flashes of nightmarish memory which intruded from time to time, and his instinctive desire to escape – he didn't dare leave. He knew that in that state-of-mind, he'd kill. Feed - although that was the last thing he needed.

What he needed – what he required – was sleep; even a few moments of oblivion to rest his racing mind would have been appreciated. But with the abundance of life force he'd taken the week before Sheppard's return still hurtling through his system, the longed-for escape of slumber, and its promise of peace and forgetfulness, was yet beyond his grasp. If he'd been on a Hive, with its ceaseless activity and multitude of humming minds to tap into, he could have tracked down some pressing problem or repair to turn his hyper-focused awareness on, but here there was no such deliverance.

Forced to remain conscious by a surfeit of energy that even left him too restless to meditate for any significant length of time, the alien was reduced to stalking from one window to the next like a caged animal. With golden cat's eyes turned toward the night sky, he watched the waxing moon track its course across the heavens from behind the invisible bars of his self-imposed confinement, until the stars winked out one by one with the coming dawn.

He'd been at it for exactly seven days, as confirmed by the calendar tacked up in the office space he'd carved out of the butler's pantry, when Todd's regimented existence took an unexpected turn. He'd just settled down to a quiet afternoon of analyzing and comparing test results when his concentration was shattered by a telepathic incursion of sight, sound, and sensation.

Suddenly blindsided by a barrage of information which had somehow circumvented his mental boundaries, the wraith clutched at the edge of a workbench he could no longer feel. Insensible to his immediate surroundings, the blare of an alarm filled his ears while the familiar, strangely pleasurable after-effects of recent Gate travel - intense cold, quickly-dispelled – permeated his body. His vision was likewise compromised when an impression of afternoon sunlight filtering through stained glass caught his eye, falling in rainbow-hued shafts across a broad staircase whose words of Ancient greeting embedded in its risers lit up in mute welcome and glowed a soft, electric blue.

The the sensory experience washed over him, as fleeting and bright as the phosphorescent brilliance of a fireworks display. Lost in the auditory and visual overload which made his ears ring and burned faint afterimages into his mind's eye, it wasn't until they began to fade that he realized with a start he knew where he was – and who had called him.

“John,” he whispered, fingers and toes tingling with a rush of excitement as he instinctively reached for the energy signature he recognized; the same one which had inexorably drawn him like a moth to a flame for years. Just as he did so, the connection dropped off as abruptly as it had appeared, leaving him gasping. No more than a tiny spark of awareness which flickered briefly then was gone, it was enough to alert him to the fact that his consort had returned to Earth.

Shaking with reaction he would have surely hidden had there been anyone else present, the alien leaned over the lab's smooth white counter, bracing himself with locked arms while he caught his breath. Although Todd doubted Sheppard was aware he'd done it, apparently even without a true telepathic bond between them, their new closeness had allowed him to sense John's presence the moment the man had stepped through the Ring. Back from whatever corner of the galaxy the Colonel had been banished to in order to harvest crops or dig irrigation ditches like a common laborer, Sheppard's first thoughts when he'd set foot on Atlantis had been of Todd, and the wraith had felt it.

Elated by the nature of the unexpected forewarning, Todd set aside the slides he'd been examining and immediately began preparing for his lover's imminent return. By the time John finished up with whatever debriefing was required of him by SGC protocol, the wraith wanted to be ready for him. Figuring he had about an hour – maybe two, he quickly shut down the lab, then headed upstairs to shower and change.

0*0*0*0

Clad only in a pair of jeans and a towel draped over his broad shoulders, Todd padded around the apartment doing some last-minute cleaning. The alien paused now and then to distractedly rub at his still-damp hair with a corner of the lush terrycloth as he paced from the kitchen, to the living room, to the den and back again, returning books to shelves, gathering up scattered newspapers, and adjusting throw pillows he'd straightened a dozen times already.

The few moments' reprieve he'd managed to find under the shower's forceful blast, when he'd let the hot water pummel the tense muscles in the back of his neck into submission, had dissipated almost as soon as he'd stepped out of the tub. By the time he'd dressed, the anticipation that crackled just beneath the surface of his skin like an electrical current had once again taken hold, and he was restless and anxious for Sheppard's call.

His infatuation with the man bordered on obsession, he knew that. Realization didn’t change a thing. He’d been doomed from the moment John had swept into that stinking Genii dungeon like a violent summer storm three years earlier, and changed the course of both of their lives forever.

Although Sheppard had shouted and raged defiantly at first, Todd had fully expected the human to crumble once he faced the agony of his rapacious appetite, like all of Kolya's prisoners before him. But this one had surprised him. Twice fed-upon and weakened, yet unwilling to admit defeat even in the face of certain death, the intrepid Lantean Colonel had done the unthinkable. He'd reached across the divide that separated their two species and allied himself with a Wraith – the enemy, the very instrument of his torture – and together they'd made the escape neither could have alone.

In the span of a single day, John Sheppard had achieved what the wraith had given up on attaining years before. He'd not only freed Todd from decades of isolation and captivity, but renewed his lost hope, restored his failing body, and irretrievably stolen his broken, world-weary heart in the process, bringing the ancient warrior to his knees with a swiftness he'd never before experienced.

From the very start, Todd's desire for the man had overwhelmed him with its intensity, and any time spent apart awakened a need in him to be reunited with his consort that was almost too painful to be borne. His other half, his second self. Without a shadow of a doubt, Sheppard was his once and future mate, and the alien's conviction in this regard had only grown deeper since their relationship had taken a turn for the telepathic – or at least since they'd made the attempt to do so.

In fact, John deliberately opening himself up despite the psychic wounds he carried, all for the sake of Todd's well-being, brought the wraith to a decision he'd been mulling over for quite some time.

Their temporary inability to establish a mental link notwithstanding, the human already meant more to him than any of the consorts he'd taken in the past, with less to show for it. After Sheppard's extraordinary act of trust, Todd realized it was well beyond time to make inroads toward officially claiming the man as his partner. He'd hesitated these last three years with good reason, but now that he was certain John returned some measure of the affection the alien had dared not express openly until now, it seemed appropriate to offer a small token of his esteem – an outward sign of the growing bond between them.

He'd just placed the morning's empty coffee cup in the sink with a decisive nod when the phone began to buzz, vibrating its way toward the edge of the marble mantelpiece where he'd left it. Lunging across the living room with a snarl, he caught the cellphone in mid-air just as it leapt off the ornately-carved precipice and launched itself at the granite hearth below. A relieved smile played at the corners of his mouth as he cradled the fragile communication device in the palm of his hand, savoring the sight of John's name lighting up the screen for a moment before he answered the call.

“Sheppard,” he purred in a low, gravelly register, drawing out his lover's name in a way he knew for a fact sent shivers of pleasure down the man's spine.

“Hey, buddy. I'm home,” John announced, and even in that brief salutation Todd could hear the weariness in Sheppard's voice. Weariness, and something else - something mournful and uncertain.

Sensing something was amiss, the alien reeled his enthusiasm back in and opted to take a slightly more neutral tack until he could figure out what was going on with his unpredictable Colonel. “Welcome back,” he ventured cautiously.

“You don't sound surprised to hear from me.” From the tenor of the human's voice, Todd could almost see John's eyes narrowing in suspicion.

The wraith hesitated for a moment before answering. While he'd promised Sheppard he would not lie to him when he asked a direct question – technically, this wasn't really a question, so there was no need to reveal that he'd sensed the pulse of John's life the instant he'd returned to the Ancient city. Not yet anyway. With this deeper level of understanding between them barely a week old, he didn't want to risk startling his already-wary consort back into his shell.

“You did promise you would return in a week,” the alien replied instead, his tone soothing. There was also no reason to burden Sheppard with his concerns regarding the General potentially tampering with the mission schedule again. This time, at least, they were unfounded. “And my faith in your word was restored, without question, the last time you were here. I had no reason to doubt you.”

“Oh... yeah,” John murmured, the melancholy in his voice almost palpable. “I'm glad.”

Although Todd could hear Sheppard trying to rally, the feeling that something wasn't quite right trickled across the phone line regardless, and a sense of disquiet lurked like an unwelcome intruder at the edge of his consciousness. If it was anyone else, the wraith would have simply asked what was wrong – perhaps even demanded it, but with John's deeply-ingrained inability to speak his mind when his emotions were involved, the alien doubted that course of action would net much besides a stammered denial or painful, awkward silence.

Todd knew it was never an easy matter to open up and reveal one's weaknesses to a partner. Whether Wraith or human, that kind of emotional vulnerability was almost too dangerous to admit to in the first place, and John had always had a harder time of it than most.

Traces of a bittersweet smile graced the wraith's lips. They were much alike in this regard.

“Should I expect to see you today, or do you have to go right back out again?” Todd asked as he headed down the long hallway to the bedroom, already anticipating the answer. Assuming Landry hadn't made any 'adjustments' to the board, Sheppard should have at least three days off before his next rotation.

“That's why I called.”

John replied as if focusing on the present moment was a difficult task, and the alien came to an abrupt halt halfway down the hall as a terrible thought suddenly occurred to him. What if the schedule had been changed after all, and Sheppard was due to step through the Gate at any moment?

“What do you mean?” Todd ground out from between clenched teeth, his grip on the phone tightening spasmodically until he heard the plastic case begin to crack under the strain. That would explain Sheppard's mood – his forlorn tone, his distraction.

“I'm just heading down to the North Pier to catch the boat. I wanted to let you know I was on my way.”

“Ah, good.” The wraith breathed an audible sigh of relief as the tension drained from his body, thankful that the afternoon of quality time he'd anticipated spending with his consort wasn't about to be preempted by an unscheduled murderous rampage. He strode into the dressing room and tossed the damp towel across the arm of the overstuffed chaise lounge by the windows, then turned to the bank of closet doors that lined the opposite wall and began pulling them open at random to find a shirt. “Why not meet me out somewhere? We can have a drink or two, and I'll buy you an early dinner before we come back to the apartment. You sound like you could use a decent meal and a chance to unwind.”

“Don't forget some decent company,” John drawled, starting to sound a little like his old self again, probably at the thought of food that didn't come out of a tan plastic bag marked MRE. “I could use some of that, too.”

Todd cocked his head at the noticeable change in Sheppard's voice, the immediate lifting of his spirits. So it's true, the alien mused; what he'd heard said about the direct correlation between an Earthman's heart and his stomach was apparently accurate.

“I'm afraid we're in short supply at the moment,” Todd offered with a liberal dose of mock dismay and a faint grin. “In lieu of decent company, I do hope you'll accept my poor attempts to provide sufficient entertainment.”

Sheppard laughed, a surprised eruption of genuine delight that did the wraith's heart good to hear. Perhaps whatever was worrying John was not as dire as he'd feared.

“Sounds like a plan. Where do you want to meet up?”

Todd provided him with the name and address of a popular waterfront restaurant which boasted an elegant, upscale bar, repeating it patiently while John wrote it down.

“Okay. Got it. I'll be there in about an hour. Oh – and Todd?”

“Yes?”

“I have one request.”

“Name it.”

“Brush your hair.”

Todd chuckled, a low, intimate rumble. “As you wish, Sheppard,” he acquiesced. “I will see you soon.”

The wraith ended the call with a press of his thumb, his expression pensive.

0*0*0*0

An hour later Todd was prowling the windswept pavement in front of the restaurant, waiting for John to arrive. Fighting down the trepidation that crested like a storm surge within him, the wraith's face was a mask of detachment as he paced the length of the building and back again, giving nothing away to the casual observer. Only the anxiety in his uncanny golden eyes betrayed the tumultuous emotions he kept hidden as he scanned the crowded waterfront, searching in vain for Sheppard's familiar features among the shifting sea of anonymous humanity. Until he held the man safe in his arms again, he would not rest easy, and these last few minutes of nervous anticipation were worse than the whole week combined.

A particularly sharp breeze coming in off the bay whipped the water into a white-capped frenzy, and Todd paused to turn up the collar of his black leather greatcoat against the gale, carefully attending to the details of his human masquerade in spite of his inner turmoil. Although he was affected by neither the wind nor the temperature, the alien went a step further and feigned a shiver to preserve the illusion he strove so hard to maintain, then plunged his hands into the coat's deep pockets. Thus armored outside as well as in, he resumed his slow, measured steps, feeling vaguely like he wanted to crawl out of his skin.

The thought of seeing John again so soon – and right on schedule, for a change – should have pleased him, and normally it would have, if it wasn’t for the strange tenor of the phone conversation that Todd couldn’t get out of his head. Like a broken record, Sheppard’s despondent words and distant tone had played over and over again ever since they’d hung up, until any relief the wraith might have felt for his lover's forthcoming return was all but crushed under the weight of his apprehension.

Leather slapped at denim-covered shins as another blast of cold air buffeted his tall frame, shaking the alien from his reverie. He listened as the canvas awnings that graced the establishment's plate-glass windows snapped and groaned in the wind, straining against their mooring lines, and watched as banks of clouds rushed overhead, brightening and darkening the day by turns.

In the short time since he'd taken up his post, the gusts had picked up considerably and brought with them the sharp tang of salt and a whiff of ozone - harbingers of a coming tempest. As evidenced by the increased pace of the humans around him hurrying to get out of the blustery San Franciscan afternoon, they sensed it too, and in the interests of blending in Todd felt compelled to follow suit. Retreating to an unobtrusive, sheltered spot by the door, he settled into the preternatural stillness of his kind; a leather-clad statue, impervious to wind and weather. Only his hair shifting in the erratic air currents, and a pair of glittering cat's eyes which regarded the frantic ebb-and-flow of traffic with a dispassionate stare imparted a semblance of animation to his motionless form.

Ten agonizing minutes later there was still no sign of Sheppard, and Todd finally couldn't stand the enforced inactivity any longer. He came to life again with a sharp intake of breath and a shift of weight from one foot to the other, his sudden movements startling a passerby who hadn't even realized he was there.

The young female jumped back with a strangled cry, heart pounding so wildly the wraith could hear its staccato rhythm as it beat against her ribs. Attracted to her fear, Todd's predatory responses took over and for a split second he dropped his mask as their eyes met, hers dark and frightened, his cold and calculating. Hunter and hunted silently acknowledged each other's place in the eternal dance of life and death before the alien shuttered his gaze, and he felt the human forcibly pull herself back from the edge of the abyss at which she trembled.

Released from her panic-induced paralysis, the woman quickly averted her eyes and melted back into the crowd, doing her best to lose herself in the bustling throng.

Todd watched her scurry off like the prey she was, the instinctive impulse to follow – to hunt and take – almost irresistible, in spite of the fact that he was quite satiated – and that by the terms of his agreement with Sheppard, her innocence placed her well beyond his reach.

Taking what gratification he could in his undiminished capacity to terrify the unwary, he hid a self-satisfied smirk as he deliberately turned the other way and headed across the boardwalk, intent on seeking distraction in the glut of fishing and pleasure vessels that crowded the congested waterway, looking for safe harbor from the incoming storm. He'd just closed his hand around the cold metal railing that separated land and sea, when when he heard the slam of a car door behind him and the sound of his lover's voice.

“Hey, Todd!”

The alien turned back in time to witness Sheppard reaching in through the front passenger window of the cab to hand the driver his fare. With a casual ‘thanks’ and an injunction to keep the change, John straightened and settled the strap of his duffel bag more securely on his shoulder as the taxi pulled away, giving Todd a rakish, lopsided grin when he caught his eye.

Although they’d only been apart for a week, the wraith’s gaze crawled hungrily over his lover’s face and form, eagerly drinking in every detail of the man’s expression and posture, every nuance of his demeanor. He was concerned by what he saw. For all that John seemed genuinely happy to see him, he still looked haggard – thin – and Todd had to take a second to smother the spark of rage that suddenly ignited in his breast on Sheppard's behalf, at the months of hard labor the human had been forced to perform by his General’s command.

Remembering at the last instant that John possessed a sharper eye than most when it came to picking up on the subtleties of Wraith facial expressions, Todd hastily resettled his features along more agreeable lines lest John notice his anger and think it was directed at him. The alien focused instead on the immense relief he felt at being reunited with his consort once again, and let that emotion rise to the surface as he closed the distance between them and took John in a quick, fierce embrace.

“It is good to see you,” he said as he stepped back, his pleasure at being in Sheppard's presence again evident in the small, intimate smile that played over his lips, and the warmth with which he grasped the man's shoulder.

“It's good to be seen.” John smiled up at him, although he felt his cheeks burn, as they always did whenever anything more than a covert touch or guardedly-tender look passed between them in public. After Ronon's violent reaction upon first discovering the true nature of his and Todd's relationship, and fresh from the decidedly cold shoulder he'd received from the Satedan when he'd sought him out upon his return to try and explain things, Sheppard couldn't help but feel more self-conscious than usual. Even though it secretly thrilled him to be back in the circle of the alien's sinewy arms, however briefly, Todd's unexpected act of overt affection was almost too much for him to handle.

Desperately casting about for a way back to his comfort zone, John's eyes lit on the wraith's new coat. Far from helping him regain his composure, the Colonel suddenly found himself even farther out of his league and drowning in a flash flood of desire.

Long, black, leather, with a double-breasted front, nipped-in waist and high collar vaguely reminiscent of the uniform Colonel Caldwell had had Todd unceremoniously stripped of when he'd been aboard the Daedalus, John should have known that the wraith would eventually try and locate some sort of replacement. What he hadn't anticipated was what the sight of the alien, looking every inch the impressive, dangerous Wraith Commander he was, did to him. It was like a sucker punch to his libido. Suddenly, all Sheppard wanted to do was grab the next available cab back to the apartment and let Todd ravage him – forget dinner. Instead, he swallowed hard and tried to find his voice.

“This is a... new look for you... or more like a very old one,” was all John finally managed in a weak attempt at humor. It was difficult to be clever when all the blood was rushing from his brain to... lower regions.

Spiracles flaring to catch the musky scent of the human's lust before the wind whipped it away, Todd flashed Sheppard a knowing grin, pleased by his response. “I thought you might like it.”

Not trusting himself to speak, John merely nodded as his eyes traveled over the fine figure the wraith cut with obvious approval, while Todd reveled in the caress of his lover's heated gaze.

The alien drew closer, and for a second John thought he might be in for a kiss, when he suddenly felt a drop of rain on his cheek. Todd pulled back with a creak of leather and a sigh to cast a resentful glance skyward, and the next thing Sheppard knew, a strong hand was being pressed gently against the small of his back.

“Let's get inside,” Todd murmured close enough to his ear to tickle, warm breath sending a frisson of pleasure down John's spine. Then the wraith was tugging open the heavy, redwood door, and Sheppard allowed himself to be guided into the restaurant just as the heavens opened, torn between relief and disappointment.

They paused to hang up their coats in the tastefully decorated lobby. As they did, Todd couldn't help but notice how much care his companion had put into his grooming, and was struck by how attractive John could be when he put his mind to it – and it was obvious he had. Freshly-showered, closely-shaved, Sheppard was the epitome of subtly-displayed wealth and refinement, dressed in a fitted taupe, grey, and black fieldstone plaid flannel shirt worn open over a mink-brown cashmere pullover the wraith longed to touch, and a pair of new, dark blue jeans that flattered the human's long legs and lean flanks, tucked into a pair of brown suede hiking boots. John was like a delectable present the alien couldn't wait to unwrap, and the knowledge that the man had gone to all that trouble just for him made it so much better. He heartily approved.

“You look nice,” Todd said softly as he brushed past Sheppard, giving him a lingering once-over before heading into the restaurant.

“Th-thanks,” John stammered, blushing as he followed the alien across the expansive dining room. They passed an unobtrusive army of wait-staff setting tables in anticipation of the evening meal, to a lounge area located next to a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the bay. With the lunch rush long past and the dinner crowd not due to start arriving for another hour or two, they had the place pretty much to themselves except for a few other couples scattered among the sea of linen-draped tables.

Sheets of rain driven by the high winds battered the glass as they got settled at the bar, obscuring the view until it was nothing but washes of muted color. With nothing to see outside, John glanced around the interior of the restaurant, taking in the high, arched ceiling, the dark, polished woodwork, the stuccoed walls adorned with paintings by local artists, and the light of recessed fixtures gleaming softly on bottles of high-end liquor and fancy glassware.

“Do you come here often?” he asked, a note of incredulity creeping into his voice.

The wraith followed Sheppard's calculating gaze as he took mental inventory of the room's amenities. “Once in a while, for... happy hour.”

John turned sharply to look at him. “Happy hour? You?”

Todd leaned forward conspiratorially, and invited the man closer with a crook of his finger. “If I am to hunt other predators, then I must go to the places they frequent. Like myself, they tend to seek victims at the edge of dense herds, and there are evenings when this bar is packed. Where prey congregates in large numbers, they believe themselves safe from harm and let their guard down. It is then that the hunter often reveals himself.”

The alien sat back with a complacent grin as Sheppard's brow furrowed in consternation. Whether it was at the mention of hunting strategies and herd management, or the incongruous mental image of a Wraith mingling with hordes of slightly-tipsy office workers cutting loose after a hard day at work, Todd couldn't be sure, but he'd always thought puzzlement was a good look on John's handsome features.

For the first time in a week, a sense of peace and well-being descended on the alien as he feasted his eyes upon his lover's pale human skin, shock of dark hair just beginning to show glints of silver, and hazel eyes full of curiosity and intelligence – all so familiar, so precious to him – and he heaved a blissful sigh. Whatever was bothering Sheppard would be revealed ere they left the restaurant, of that the wraith was certain. He would have it no other way. For now, though, he was content to simply have the man with him again, safe and sound, and back under his protection.

Todd took one last look at the extraordinary human he hoped to have a commitment from before the night was through, then turned to beckon the bartender over so he could request a menu, leaving his consort to his troubled thoughts.

Chapter Text

While Todd dealt with the bartender, John sank back into the bistro-style bar chair and the funk he’d been mired in all week. In spite of his best efforts to keep it at bay, the same dark imaginings of worst-case scenarios that clawed at him as he shifted restlessly in his seat had also dogged his every waking step off-world, and followed him down into sleep to turn his troubled dreams into nightmares. They’d ensured that he’d gotten very little rest since he and the wraith had last seen each other, and it showed, painfully evident in the weariness with which he scrubbed a hand over his face and the glazed amber-green eyes he turned toward the sheets of water cascading down the restaurant’s bayside window.

Staring out at the wind-driven rain without really seeing it, he felt a fleeting kinship with the boats that bobbed like corks in the choppy waters of the marina. Like them, he’d been forced to endure the ferocity of a violent storm he could neither control nor avoid.

Even now, guilt and fear warred in John’s roiling gut as his unfocused gaze blurred, and images arose in his mind’s eye with sharp, unforgiving clarity. Snapshots of Ronon’s horrified face, and the crestfallen slump of the Satedan’s shoulders as he’d turned away in disgust played on a continuous loop in Sheppard’s head, forcibly reminding him, yet again, that he’d screwed up royally this time. Feeling like he probably deserved whatever punishment his subconscious dreamed up, he didn’t try to resist the memories as they crashed over him like a tidal wave. In fact, he welcomed the pain, cursing himself as much for the disastrous set of circumstances his overconfidence had set in motion, as for the indecision-fueled paralysis he couldn’t seem to move beyond.

A frown creased the brow of John’s haggard reflection. Things would have been a lot different, he lamented, if the crisis had warranted a strategic military response. If the players had been strangers – or better yet, enemies – this whole situation would have been a non-issue. Without having to worry about collateral damage, Sheppard was certain that he’d have already formulated and implemented a decisive plan of attack long before now.

Instead, he was caught between two people he actually cared about, and he was at a loss as to how to proceed. It was crucial that he keep Ronon from blowing the whole thing with Todd wide open, now that the man had discovered the true nature of John’s relationship with the wraith; but Sheppard had no idea how to make that happen without hurting one – or both – or all three of them. As he’d proven repeatedly, he just didn’t possess the tools necessary to navigate the treacherous minefield of close, interpersonal relationships without incurring casualties.

The sound and fury on the other side of the glass faded to a whisper as John once again succumbed to his own private tempest, desperately seeking a solution to the problem which had plagued him for the last seven days, ever since he’d made the ill-advised decision to join the other members of AR-1 for breakfast.

Lost in thought, he didn’t realize how profoundly he’d fallen to brooding until a menu suddenly appeared before him on the polished mahogany, seemingly from out of nowhere. Shaken from his reverie, the dark-haired Colonel flinched and looked up, blurting out a startled “thanks” to the bartender before casting a rueful, sidelong glance at the wraith.

“Sorry about that,” Sheppard murmured, his cheeks reddening as he picked up the oversize, leather-bound volume. Doing his best to suppress the dread that had been his constant companion for the past week, he tried to focus on the here-and-now. He’d been raised better than to leave a dinner companion wanting for attention, and the exotically attractive alien beside him wasn’t just anyone; he was fast becoming the most important thing in John’s life.

Offering an apologetic half-smile to the silent, eerily-observant wraith, Sheppard turned to consider the day’s specials, feeling the white-haired predator watching him intently as he perused the menu. While being scrutinized like a lab specimen by the enigmatic creature was something he’d gotten used to, picking up the faint echo of the alien’s emotions was decidedly new. John wasn’t sure how he could tell, but he somehow knew that in spite of Todd’s cool, clinical expression, the wraith sensed something was amiss, and was concerned to the point of worry as he waited – with that creepy, preternatural patience of his – for John to reveal what was wrong.

Sheppard wished it was that simple. But as he’d learned over the past three years, when it came to the wraith, even the simplest of situations usually devolved into convoluted messes as a matter of course. Unfortunately, this one was no exception, when what had started out as a much-anticipated reunion with his teammates before he’d left on his most recent mission had ended in disaster.

John had known he’d been risking both his reputation and Todd’s safety when he’d ventured into the cafeteria sporting a big purple love bite on his neck. He’d also known that a turtleneck sweater was lousy camouflage. But in his eagerness to see his friends, he’d convinced himself that the telltale teeth marks and elliptical bruise nestled below his jawline had been sufficiently concealed. And through most of the meal it had been. With careful maneuvering and repeated tugs on his neckline, he’d managed to make it almost twenty minutes without being discovered.

It wasn’t until breakfast was almost over without anyone being the wiser that John had gotten cocky and made a rookie mistake: he’d let his guard down. It had only been for a split second as he’d reached for another donut, but it had been enough for a couple of very incriminating inches of his neck to be exposed when the collar of his sweater had slipped.

In the blink of an eye, irrefutable evidence of the intimacy he and the wraith shared had been revealed – to Ronon, of all people. The one person it had been imperative to keep it from. The one Sheppard knew would be hurt the most by it, and could hurt him the most in return. And now John’s loyalty was torn somewhere between protecting Todd, whose life had become as precious to him as his own somewhere along the way, and salvaging what he could of his friendship with Ronon Dex, his brother-in-arms, and someone he’d considered family for almost five years.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, John also found himself in the unenviable position of having to break the bad news to the wraith, the prospect of which was made even more complicated by the fact that he had no idea how to go about broaching the subject.

It was vital he inform Todd, Sheppard knew that; but how was he supposed to tell his lover that their worst enemy – who also happened to be John’s best friend – now held their freedom, perhaps their very life in his hands? Especially when that lover was an ancient, life-stealing, energy vampire who wouldn’t hesitate to kill to protect himself from a perceived threat. At the same time, how could he not, and leave Todd vulnerable to possible reprisal from an equally-vengeful Satedan? To say that the Wraith and the Runner hated each other was an understatement. They were oil and water, matter and anti-matter, and John had already managed to destabilize one. The last thing he wanted to do was set the other one off, too.

He risked another furtive glance in Todd’s direction, to find the alien still regarding him, his heated gaze almost a physical caress as it traversed John’s features. Soothed by the sensual, mildly-ticklish sensation, like phantom fingertips trailing ever-so-gently down his cheek, Sheppard’s eyelids slid shut as he gave in to it. He took a deep breath, willing himself to unwind, and found himself swallowing against the anxiety-induced dryness a week’s worth of worry had left in his throat.

Wishing vaguely for something cold and wet to soothe his parched lips and swollen tongue, his eyes fluttered open so he could call the bartender, only to discover an open bottle of beer and a pilsner glass waiting for him.

“Wait. What…?” Pleasure gave way to confusion, then vexation as John turned wide, disbelieving eyes on his companion, unsure whether to be grateful or angry for the wraith’s telepathic intrusion. He didn’t need Todd finding out about Ronon before he’d even opened his mouth. “Stay out of my head until I invite you in,” he growled.

Todd’s gaze hardened as the human’s harsh words sank in, and a self-deprecating chuckle issued from his lips – a dark, rusty sound. The wraith had held out a modicum of hope that after the major breakthrough in their relationship just a week before, and a heartfelt reunion mere moments ago, that at least a few of Sheppard’s sharp edges might have been blunted where he was concerned.

Apparently not.

The alien snorted, grimly amused. He supposed he should have expected John to run screaming from his own feelings, once the man realized how much progress they’d made toward actually acknowledging what they meant to each other. Unfortunately, understanding didn’t make it hurt any less.

Covering his disappointment with sarcasm, a spark of wry humor kindled in Todd’s yellow cat’s eyes as he lifted a squat, thick-bottomed glass filled halfway with amber liquid in a mock salute. He raised it to his lips and took a sip, eyes narrowing against the burn of the liquor as he swallowed, then he set the tumbler back on the hardwood bar.

“Never fear, Sheppard,” he replied, his voice as caustic as his laughter, “I didn’t pluck anything from your head. You should know by now that I dance attendance on your whims, and wouldn’t dare enter without your express permission.”

Feigning indifference, the alien sat back and shrugged, an apathetic gesture.

“I know you better than you think, that’s all. You kept me out for three years, which meant I had to learn how to discern your preferences… and your moods, without relying on mind-to-mind communication. In this case, I could see as soon as you stepped out of the taxi that you required refreshment, and from the acrid stench of the stress pheromones you’ve been giving off that you’d prefer alcohol. I merely took the liberty of ordering you a beverage I know you enjoy when I requested the menu.”

John bowed his head, immediately contrite. Damn it, he cursed silently, his lips compressing into a thin line of self-recrimination as he mentally kicked himself. I totally overreacted.

After spending years automatically ascribing the worst of intentions to the alien’s actions, it was a hard habit to break. In their roles as worthy adversaries, Sheppard’s suspicions about the wraith had oftentimes been completely justified as they’d circled each other warily, testing boundaries, searching for weaknesses, and outwitting each other if they could. But things were different now. This time he wasn’t dealing with an enemy or sometimes-ally with questionable motives, but a lover – a friend; someone he had begun to believe actually cared about him. The fact that all those disparate aspects were part of the same being, and that the lines were blurring beyond recognition was irrelevant as far as John was concerned. He felt that he should have somehow been able to tell the difference.

All Todd had been trying to do was help, and he’d treated him like a criminal. Again.

John hesitantly raised his eyes to meet the wraith’s enigmatic stare, and winced. In the last three years, he’d become pretty good at reading Todd’s non-verbal cues, too, cryptic though they were, and that particular expression – or lack, thereof – meant he’d hurt his consort’s feelings enough to send him scuttling for emotional cover.

Todd deserved better than that.

“You were right,” Sheppard admitted softly. “I was thirsty. Thank you.” He reached for the frost-rimed brown bottle in front of him and took a swig directly from it, bypassing the glass in favor of instant gratification, then set the beer down with a regretful sigh. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I have a lot on my mind right now, which apparently means I’m more of an idiot than usual. I’m sorry.”

The wraith chuffed a long-suffering sigh, releasing the indignation he’d been holding onto with the exhalation of breath. Based on Sheppard’s demeanor and expression, Todd could tell that his remorse was genuine, and he relaxed the rigid mask his features had assumed. As usual, his feelings for the man made it difficult for him to maintain any kind of sustained anger toward him, although considering how often John pushed his buttons, that was probably a good thing.

Before he accepted the human’s apology, however, there was one condition. Leaning in close enough to make out the intricate grey, green, and gold details of the starburst pattern which adorned his consort’s changeable hazel irises, Todd laid out his terms. “Then tell me what is troubling you, John. Let me help, if I can.”

0*0*0*0

Sometime later, John laid down his fork and knife with an air of satiated finality and a contented sigh. There was nothing like tender, perfectly-aged filet mignon to set him back on his feet again, and the restaurant’s version, featuring cracked peppercorns and traditional bordelaise sauce, was the best he’d tasted in quite some time.

His contentment was due, in a large part, to the fact that not a word had been spoken about Ronon over dinner. Sheppard had known from the moment Todd had first asked him what was wrong that he wouldn't be able to avoid the wraith’s pointed question forever, so he’d negotiated a reprieve until after he was done with his meal – and then gone on to drag things out for as long as humanly possible. Through several courses and two more beers, he’d kept the alien to innocuous topics like the weather, and what shows Todd was currently watching on TV.

It was a desultory chat, at best, which had progressed in fits and starts while John ate, slowly stuffing himself until he doubted he’d be able to fit another bite of food in his mouth even on a bet. And when the wraith’s rather transparent attempts to steer the conversation into deeper waters had finally trailed off into silence around the same time the main course arrived, Sheppard had clung to the fragile hope that his clumsy delay tactics might have actually worked.

Whatever the reason for the lull which had fallen between them – the wraith’s patience or John’s doubtful subterfuge - Sheppard now did his best not to disturb it.

With unhurried, deliberate movements he reached for the linen napkin draped across his lap and wiped his mouth, then set the crumpled fabric atop his plate and quietly pushed the decorously-covered remains of his meal aside. It joined a dish of empty clamshells swimming in white wine and butter, a glass salad bowl which still held a smear of dressing and few neglected croutons, and a cheese-encrusted crock that once contained French Onion soup. Mission accomplished, he picked up his beer and drained it to the dregs.

As the last golden drops of lager slid down his throat, John angled a calculatedly casual glance in his consort’s direction, trying to gauge his mood. But instead of meeting curious, yellow eyes as he’d expected, Sheppard found himself admiring Todd’s distinctive profile. At some point while John had been slowly and methodically gorging himself to repletion, the wraith had shifted in his chair and directed his hooded gaze elsewhere. At the moment he was seemingly engrossed in studying the other patrons of the restaurant.

Seeing that he’d bought himself some additional time, the Colonel frantically cast about for another way to forestall the inevitable. He carefully set the empty back on the bar, absently twisting the bottle this way and that in its water ring on the dark, polished wood as he tried to think his way out of the corner he’d backed himself into with Ronon – and now with Todd, as well.

And he’d have succeeded, too, if his companion wasn’t so delightfully distracting.

John was well aware that his focus should be turned inward, and his gaze lost somewhere in the middle distance along with his racing mind, but both kept drifting in Todd’s general direction to surreptitiously watch the wraith people-watch. Fascinated, as always, by the other’s attractive, inhuman features and the predatory intensity burning in the depths of those catlike eyes as they scanned the room, John couldn't help but wonder if it was like choosing a lobster from a tank in a seafood restaurant for the alien. I’ll have… that one.

Sheppard snorted at the mental image the thought engendered and went to take another swig of his beer, realizing even as he lifted the amber bottle to his lips that he’d already finished it.

That did it.

With the last vestiges of his concentration officially shattered, John gave up with a resigned sigh. If Todd insisted on making him discuss what was bothering him, Sheppard wasn’t going to lie; but if an opportunity to put it off again presented itself, he wouldn’t hesitate to jump at that, either.

Decision made to fly the seat of his pants as usual, rather than formulate an actual plan, John caught the bartender’s eye. As the man approached and began clearing dishes, Sheppard motioned toward his empty LaBatt’s and the last drops of Glenmorangie ‘extremely rare’ 18-year-old Scotch in the bottom of the crystal tumbler next to it.

“Another round,” he murmured with a smirk, mildly amused by how quickly Todd had developed such discerning taste in Earth’s alcohol. Only Top Shelf for the wraith.

He glanced at the Wraith in question to confirm his desire for a refill, but the alien was still absorbed in his scrutiny of the diners, giving John a moment to observe him unawares.

Lean and athletically-built, well-muscled without artificial, gym-induced bulk, Todd looked like sin on two legs like he always did. Long, pale hair hung loose past his shoulders, brushed to soft, shiny waves for a change, at John's insistence, instead of his usual rat's nest. The shimmering, silvery-white strands stood out in stark contrast against the fine knit of the wraith's long-sleeve silk top, stretched across his broad chest in a shade of purple so dark it was almost black, while a pair of faded, form-fitting jeans encased his powerful thighs like a second skin. The alien slouched elegantly in the tall bar chair with his sleeves pushed up to reveal hairless, tattooed forearms, and the heels of his leathery Wraith boots casually hooked in the spindle that braced the stool's long legs. His posture was at once relaxed and alert, and as regal as if he were gracing the Command Deck of a Hiveship with his presence, and John was struck yet again by the other's uncanny resemblance to a large predatory cat in calm repose as he surveyed his kingdom.

The similarity became even more striking when Todd suddenly swiveled his head and draped an alien-ink-covered arm over the back of the chair to catch a sound John couldn’t hear. An instant later the wraith stilled when he honed in on the activities of a lovely, dark-haired man in his mid-twenties and his equally-pretty blond boyfriend sitting at a nearby table. Like a hunting lion espying a pair of gazelles wandering away from the relative safety of a watering hole, Todd sat motionless, pupils blown, as the two arose and prepared to depart.

Both young men sized up the alien as they approached, having to walk right by John and Todd’s post at the bar on their way out. Watching out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard could detect the instant their natural wariness of the predator in their path was displaced by curiosity – then attraction. He heard it in the intimate, inviting tone of the greetings they offered as they drew abreast; and saw it in the flare of the wraith’s spiracles as he picked up the scent of their piqued arousal in the wake of their passage. Two new converts in a growing army of acolytes, ready and eager to worship.

Golden eyes, verdigris-hued skin, tribal-adjacent tattoos and all, Todd never lacked for admirers. With his exotic good looks and larger-than-life presence, people of all genders and persuasions were drawn to him like moths to a flame. John had seen it happen time and again when they were out: speculative glances, coy flirtation, and blatant propositions. And although the alien sometimes invited it with his inquisitive stare, Sheppard could tell by Todd’s reaction to the attention that he wasn’t doing it on purpose – wasn’t playing with their minds in any way. Although wraith took it in his stride, doling out magnanimous nods and smiles while brushing off the advances with the cool detachment of a monarch, he always seemed genuinely surprised by the adoration.

What never ceased to amaze Sheppard whenever he witnessed another repeat performance of Todd’s unintentional seduction of the masses, was how easily most people dismissed their own survival instincts when encountering the wraith. While the idea of a six-foot-four, green-skinned, life-sucking alien from another galaxy being able to infiltrate San Francisco without its residents noticing seemed far-fetched, in reality, humans apparently had an amazing capacity to explain away the unusual. As long as all was right in their little worlds, they were entirely willing to ignore anything out of the ordinary, never mind the fact that something that wasn’t even human was living right next door.

But he seemed like such a nice young man.

John sighed. People overlooked monsters living in their midst all the time.

There were exceptions, of course. Every once in a while, Sheppard would notice someone doing an alarmed double-take and slinking away with genuine fear in their eyes when they caught a glimpse of the ruthless killer behind the façade; but they were few and far between. In the Bay Area, anyway, Todd lived nowhere near Uncanny Valley. He was just one freak among many.

Nodding his thanks to the bartender for the fresh drinks, John slid the whisky toward his companion, realizing as he did so that Todd was still engaged in ogling the young couple as they left the building.

A scowl darkened Sheppard’s features as his heart lurched in his chest with emotions he didn’t want to examine too closely. He’d always kind of assumed from Todd’s possessive behavior, and the feelings neither one of them could deny had been growing stronger of late, that seeing other people was no longer an option. But he couldn’t be sure. Like the plethora of other subjects Sheppard held near-and-dear to his heart that his tongue-tied awkwardness kept him from bringing up, they’d never actually discussed the exclusivity of their arrangement.

All he knew for certain was that he hated when people invaded their personal bubble like he wasn’t there, blinded by their eagerness to approach the wraith. Almost as much as he hated that it was capable of reducing him to the stereotypical role of ‘jealous boyfriend’ with so little provocation. He was already in crisis-mode over the possible threat Ronon posed. The last thing Sheppard needed was Todd looking like he might be interested in what the boys had to offer. For all that John kept himself in peak physical condition, and was still reasonably good-looking for a man in his late thirties, he was well aware that he wasn’t as young or handsome as he used to be. If push ever came to shove, he wouldn’t be able to compete.

Unfortunately, there was nothing for it. The fact that his intriguing companion attracted attention anywhere they went wasn't Todd's fault. Just like John couldn't help the niggling doubts that cropped up every time it occurred, leaving him wondering what a creature as ancient and compelling as the wraith would want with a run-of-the-mill human like himself.

He was about to push down his jumbled feelings with a forceful shove and slap a nonchalant grin on his face like he usually did whenever someone came on to the alien, when it dawned on him that this might be the opportunity he’d been looking for.

In actuality, John had no desire to reveal either his fears or the insecurities that inspired them, but he wanted even less to discuss the Ronon situation if he could help it. Although admittedly, inciting an argument with Todd about roving eyes and relationship boundaries probably wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had, he was out of time and options. Whether he liked it or not, it would have to do.

Swallowing hard, Sheppard let the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority he usually worked so hard to avoid rise to the surface as he tapped the alien’s elbow with the back of his hand. Yellow cat's eyes glinted in the lights that illuminated the bar as Todd rewarded him with his full attention, a satisfied smirk playing on the wraith’s greyish-green lips when he turned to face him.

John didn't know whether to be amused or jealous, so he settled for a little bit of both. “You were totally checking out their asses,” he hissed, trying to keep his voice low.

Todd nodded. “I was.” He picked up the fresh drink without missing a beat and took a sip, watching Sheppard attentively over the rim. “They were quite attractive.”

John’s eyes narrowed as looked up at his companion like he'd never seen him before. “You really do like guys,” he blurted.

“You just figured that out?” The alien cocked a quizzical brow ridge.

“Yeah. No. I dunno.” Sheppard shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. For all that he found it next to impossible to talk about his feelings, he ended up doing it an awful lot with the wraith. “I thought this thing between us was special; that it meant something to you. It's been… a pretty big deal to me.”

John stopped and leaned his elbows on the counter. He rubbed his forehead between thumb and forefinger in consternation before continuing, trying to find a way not to sound like a girl. Finally admitting defeat, he straightened up with a resigned sigh, his hands resting limply on the bar. “Before you, I'd never done... I mean, I thought that you and I... that we...” His voice trailed off uncertainly for a moment, before he rallied and forged ahead, regardless. “But I guess I'm just the latest in a long line of playthings to you.”

Sheppard’s stomach tied itself in knots as a surge of panic seized him. This wasn’t a clever ruse anymore. These were real concerns he was very nearly expressing, and it was too much – he was revealing too much, and he felt raw – flayed alive. Vulnerable. If he kept going, it was entirely possible that he’d admit to things he could never take back.

But as he struggled to breathe around the lump of apprehension that had lodged itself in his throat, he realized that as terrified as he was of speaking, he was suddenly just as afraid to let the words that pressed so urgently against the back of his teeth die unspoken. Not when he’d already come so far, and said… almost said - so many things he’d been wanting to say for so long. He couldn't back down now.

Trying not to let the wraith see how much this was costing, Sheppard gathered his resolve as he turned to face him and forced his emotions past numb lips. “I still blush like a freaking teenager just thinking about you, and for all I know, you’ve been running around for the past four months chasing every pretty piece of ass that catches your eye without a second thought.”

Amazed that he’d managed to speak his mind, John fell silent, torn between a vague sense of pride at what he’d accomplished and abject terror at what he’d let slip. Cheeks ablaze with an equal measure of anxiety and exhilaration, he cast his eyes downward to stare at the dark grain of the polished mahogany while he awaited Todd’s response, certain that his outburst had ruined everything.

The alien placed his glass on the bar and gave John a long, appraising look. The human’s unusual display of emotion was surprising but not unwelcome, regardless of the accusation it contained. In fact, it boded so well for what Todd hoped to accomplish before the day was through, he had to bite back the roar of triumph that threatened to erupt from his throat. However, as much as he was inclined to count this as a victory, it also saddened him that Sheppard was still so uncertain as to the preeminent place he held in one Wraith’s ancient heart, that merely glancing at someone else could rouse the man’s insecurity so easily.

Intent on allaying his consort’s fears, Todd instinctively extended his consciousness to brush against the boundary of John’s mind as he reached out his hand to envelop Sheppard’s where it rested on the bar. The seam of his feeding slit grazed John’s knuckles as he gently squeezed the human’s fingertips – a furtive gesture of tenderness that inadvertently awakened the psychic connection between them. The combination of telepathic and physical contact was all it took for Sheppard’s emotions to break over him like a cresting wave, and in the next instant the wraith was caught up in the turbulent undertow of his lover’s anguish.

While John stared in shamefaced horror at their publicly-displayed affection, unaware that he had company, Todd struggled to maintain his equilibrium as the intensity of the human’s anxiety threatened to pull him under. Even if he hadn’t already been aware that Sheppard was waging an internal battle with something – and desperately trying to keep it hidden, the alien could sense immediately that John’s agitation stemmed from much more than petty jealousy or a simple bout of gay panic.

Truth be told, Todd usually found Sheppard’s limitless fund of conflicted emotions an intriguing distraction – a piquant feast of scent and sensation that never failed to entice, but the extent of the man’s despair was disconcerting. If it had been anyone else – Wraith or human, he wouldn’t have hesitated to probe deeper in order to find its source. But between his vow to refrain from entering John’s head without permission and the agony he knew he would undoubtedly inflict if he breached the remnants of Sheppard’s already-fragile defenses, he dared not proceed.

Heaving a wistful sigh, the alien reluctantly dissolved the tenuous telepathic link as he released John’s fingers, then raised his eyes to meet the man’s troubled gaze. Desirous to soothe his consort’s mind and alleviate what he could of John’s suffering in spite of being limited to using only five of his senses, he resorted to the only means of communication currently available to him.

“This… thing, as you call it, is special,” he replied, his voice pitched in that low, intimate rumble it assumed for Sheppard’s ears alone. “I did not choose you on a whim, John Sheppard. Have you forgotten so soon that I pursued you for three of your years? If I had merely desired the transient pleasure of bed-sports I would not have waited for you. Believe me, there was far easier game afoot, especially once I’d reclaimed my Hive and my fleet. But this I swear to you, on my life: I have eschewed every temptation, both in my home galaxy and on Earth, in the hope of gaining – and retaining - your favor, faint and far away though it has seemed at times.”

Todd’s lips curled into a small, rueful smile. “Although I will admit that I look once in a while – I am alive and in my prime, after all – you are the only one I wish to have by my side, and in my bed. I have simply been appreciating from afar that which deserves to be appreciated – nothing more. Other than the evildoers I hunt for sustenance, I have not been ‘chasing’ anyone, nor have I done anything which should cause you to question my commitment to the bond between us.”

Sheppard sat back in his seat as a strange thrill of excitement, relief, and fear flooded his system. Shaken as much by the act of almost verbalizing his own emotions as he was by Todd’s statement, John laced his fingers loosely around his beer, not trusting himself to be able to raise the bottle to his lips without revealing the fine trembling that vibrated his frame. Never mind the fact that he’d finally managed to choke out something coherent enough for the wraith to have gotten the gist of what he’d needed – which was unprecedented in its own right. Hearing Todd spell out the details of how he’d taken the feelings he had for the human he called ‘Brother’ seriously enough from the very beginning that he’d remained faithful when Sheppard had given him very little reason to be, left John’s mind reeling with possibilities he hadn't allowed himself to consider before.

“As to my preferences,” Todd went on, drawing Sheppard back from his reverie, “I have been known to bed a female on occasion, when the rare inclination strikes. I have also been called upon to service Queens more times than I care to recount in my capacity as a Commander; but that is…,” Todd paused as if searching for the right words, “a biological imperative, and as such is beyond acceptance or refusal.”

John glanced up at his companion sharply, his brow creased with alarm as the shocking implications of the wraith’s last statement sank in. “So, you’re saying it’s rape?”

Todd chuckled as he turned the crystal tumbler in his hand, watching the ice cubes swirl gently in the amber liquid. There was little humor in the sound. “Let us just say that I value my life too much to deny a Wraith Queen when she is ready to mate.”

“But…,” Sheppard’s voice trailed off uncertainly, thrown by Todd’s casual mention of what sounded an awful lot like aggravated sexual assault to him. Uncertain how to respond – or whether he should even pursue the topic at all - one look at the alien’s closed-off, rigidly controlled expression made the decision for him.

Todd sensed a surge in the man’s turmoil again as he took another sip of his drink, his impassive, golden gaze shifted from the depths of his glass to Sheppard’s pinched features. Although it gratified him that this time it seemed to stem from John’s outrage on his behalf, this was neither the time nor the place for that conversation. The wraith had more important goals to accomplish today than ripping scabs off old wounds.

“But… you are essentially correct,” he supplied when the strained silence went on a beat too long. “Left to my own devices, I will almost always choose a male.”

John released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, bracing for an impact that never came when the wraith adroitly changed topics midstream.

Alright then, Sheppard conceded inwardly. When Todd was ready to talk about it, he would. If anyone understood about not pushing someone for details when they weren’t ready to open up, it was John.

Respecting his lover’s wishes to move on, Sheppard scrambled to shift mental gears as he picked up the threads of their original conversation. “So, why did you choose me?” He asked a moment later, leaning forward with genuine curiosity. “How did I get to be the lucky one?”

Todd's expression softened and a small smile revealed the tips of serrated teeth. “Ah, that is easy to answer. You intrigued me from the start. Not only did you continue interacting with me in Kolya’s dungeon, even after you realized what I was and what I’d done to you, but you also crossed a line few others have dared to approach when you offered to ally yourself with me in an escape attempt. On top of that, you kept your word once your friends had arrived and I was no longer needed, choosing to fulfill a promise you’d made under duress to a starving Wraith, over the protests and disapproval of your comrades. A human of such honor, strength, and integrity is a rare find, indeed.”

“Are you sure it wasn't just because I'm in charge of the military on Atlantis?” The man’s tone was light, teasing, but Todd could sense the serious question beneath it: John’s need to be reassured that his tentative faith in the wraith’s motives had not been misplaced.

Todd hesitated, then nodded. “Of course, that has become a part of it. As leaders among our people, you and I have a unique opportunity to forge an alliance between Wraith and humankind that might actually work. Together we wield the power to create something which would be beneficial to both and I am not blind to that, but that was not the initial reason I sought you out. I did not discover who you were until later.”

The wraith’s gruff voice ground to a halt as he tried to interpret the fresh spike of anxiety his statement had been met with, concerned over the adrenaline-tinged scent of stress John’s skin had been exuding almost as soon as Todd had begun trying to reassure him of his constancy, and which still lingered. He believed that Sheppard finding the courage to ask in-depth questions about their relationship was a good sign. It showed he’d been thinking about it – about them – and considering where they stood and how they fit together. But the alien feared that to say anything else right now would be to reveal far more than he’d planned, and might be more than Sheppard could handle. The Colonel might look outwardly calm and composed to a casual observer, but tells only the wraith could pick up indicated that he was rapidly approaching the limits of his comfort zone.

And yet – wasn't that why Todd had asked John to meet him here this afternoon? Weren’t the very sentiments he dared not express the same ones that made him want to bind the human to him with a gift and traditional words even older than the wraith, himself?

His only hesitation was that Sheppard might balk if he gave voice to the feelings which flowed, unspoken and largely unacknowledged, between them; might find his declaration premature, or worse – distasteful. He couldn't risk that. Not after all the time and effort he'd put into courting the man, drawing him out and bringing him closer, step by slow, methodical step.

On the other hand, Sheppard was treading much closer to his emotions today than he’d willingly gone before, as if somehow sensing the alien’s intentions. If Todd was ever going to know for certain whether John reciprocated the emotions that wraith had held in check for three years, this would be the time to ask.

With an audible sigh of resigned determination, Todd set his glass down, then turned and gently plucked Sheppard’s hand from the bottle he’d been clutching in a white-knuckled death grip. He felt the man tense, an instinctive response to public contact, before forcing himself to relax. Their eyes met, and Todd understood the level of trust it took for Sheppard to allow him to draw his captured appendage across the wraith’s upturned feeding hand, to lay it palm-to-palm with the puckered maw, and to press his other one over both, tenderly sandwiching John’s hand in between. He felt the subliminal hum of their bond in the touch, the shimmering thread that connected them forever.

It was now or never.

“You saved my life,” the wraith began again, his throat tight with an unexpected swell of too many feelings, too long denied. He immediately recognized that he was on the verge of losing some sort of vital control and tried to rein himself in. But the words he’d kept under lock-and key for so long, now free, tumbled from his lips in a rush as if trying to escape before he could stop them. “You gave me hope where none had existed for countless years. You restored my will to live after it had been all but beaten out of me by the Genii.

“I could do naught else but think of you after we'd parted. How could I do otherwise? You’d claimed a place by my side as Brother, then proved your worthiness of that title in a way none of my own kind had ever aspired to. Try as I might, I could not forget the fire that burned in your eyes when you offered me a way out, or the glory of your righteous anger as you mowed down our mutual enemies without remorse. And the memory of your warm skin under my hand, and the indomitable strength of your life force as it coursed through me, was like a potent, intoxicating drug I was powerless to resist.

“That such a Wraithlike spirit could exist in a frail human body intrigued me – enticed me. I had little choice but to contrive ways to meet with you again... and then again. Each encounter strengthening the unbreakable bond that had been forged between us by our mutual need, until we both wanted more.”

Todd faltered, then, the triphammer beating of John’s heart filling the stunned silence that followed as the acrid stench of human fear swamped the wraith’s scent receptors. Damn it! he practically howled in his head. He’d known that a misstep at this juncture would be disastrous, and yet he’d blundered in, regardless. As usual. If he could have kicked himself in that moment, he would have, inwardly cursing the head-blindness he was forced to deal with that had precipitated such a foolhardy impulse.

If only he’d been able to touch Sheppard’s mind – communicate with him telepathically like a civilized being as he’d advanced his suit – he would have been able to test the waters as he went, read the subtle undercurrents of the man’s emotions and adjust accordingly. As it was, his feelings had gotten the better of him as they tended to do with John, and he’d spoken carelessly, from the heart – and now he felt certain that his lack of restraint had destroyed everything he’d been working so hard to build.

Fearing the worst, the wraith’s expression was guarded as he searched his consort’s face for some sign of reaction, some indication that the emotions he’d poured forth without guile or reservation had been met with at least some measure of acceptance.

“You do want that, do you not? More?” Todd murmured tentatively when the human remained stock still, his cheeks bright red and his face frozen in an expression of open-mouthed astonishment. At this point, the wraith knew he’d already said too much – had already probably scared Sheppard off for good. What did he have to lose?

John closed his mouth with a click of teeth and swallowed hard as he struggled to process Todd’s heartfelt confession. Or was it a proposal? He couldn’t be sure, but either way, he wasn’t prepared for it. Feeling vaguely like someone had cold-cocked him with a sledgehammer, his mind shut down while his heart raced with a high-octane mix of elation, embarrassment and terror, and it was all Sheppard could do to keep from falling off his chair. Which was probably a good thing. Because his first impulse – his only impulse at this moment – was to run.

Frozen in place like a deer in the headlights of an onrushing Mac truck, he blinked a few times as he felt himself reboot and his higher brain functions began to come back on-line. Unable to face the wraith just yet, he focused instead on his hand, now clammy and cold, still clasped between Todd’s.

As he regained the ability to think and reason again, John realized that he probably should have seen this coming. If he was being honest with himself – and he’d made a long, illustrious career out of sidestepping that if he could - he’d kind of suspected that things were heading in this direction all along. Ever since that moment in his quarters, right before he’d given in to his desire for Todd on the eve of the wraith’s escape from Atlantis, when Sheppard had first started coming to terms with the fact that the connection forged between them in Kolya’s underground bunker was a permanent, life-long bond. He’d always kind of avoided thinking about the implications of what that entailed, and what his response might be if push ever came to shove.

And now here it was, staring him in the face – literally, and the question was: did he want what the wraith offered?

It was a deceptively simple conundrum on the surface, but there were a number of factors that he needed to take into consideration. Overlooking, for the moment, the obvious impediment imposed by the US military and its stand on homosexuality, what happened when they eventually returned to Pegasus? Would John be able to remain on Atlantis, or would his romantic entanglement with a Wraith mean banishment from a place he’d come to think of as home? And what about his friends? Would they understand? He was already feeling the heavy weight of Ronon’s judgment on the matter, but what about Rodney – and Teyla?

He raised his eyes to meet Todd’s golden gaze, so full of hope and fear behind a mask of indifference, and John’s hesitation crumbled as his heart went out to him. It hurt to the core of his being to see such a magnificent, powerful, ancient being – his beautiful monster – so ready for rejection, especially when Sheppard was right there, and he wasn’t going anywhere. In that moment, John wished more than anything else that he wasn’t such a dysfunctional, fucked-up mess that froze at the first sign of emotions, or he’d have already reassured the alien that everything was alright – that they were in this together. And just like that, he had his answer.

Todd almost cried out with relief when the hazel eyes which had first captivated him through prison bars he’d never thought to escape from softened with sympathy and understanding, and an unabashed affection Sheppard rarely let show for more than a moment or two before his doubts and fears got the better of him. This time, however, instead of pulling back and smothering the tender emotion under some sort of contrived excuse to put distance between them, John covered the wraith’s hand with his own and offered a shy, self-conscious smile along with a hesitant nod.

It was enough. Enough for Todd to see what he meant to the human – enough for John to realize how the wraith felt – enough for them both to see that the feelings they had for each other were in perfect accord. Stunned by the magnitude of the revelation, they sat in silence that bordered on reverent for a moment as it sank in.

The wraith was the first to recover. “Good,” he rumbled from deep within his chest. He gave John’s hand a fond squeeze before releasing it, then picked up his glass and raised it in a subtle toast.

Sheppard’s grin grew wider, caught up in the moment. Self-recrimination, crippling doubts, and second-guessing his decision would come later, of that he was sure. For now, he sat back and reached for his beer, happy for the first time in a week.

“To us,” Todd purred with a self-satisfied smirk that he couldn’t suppress, as he and John clinked tumbler to bottle.

“To us,” Sheppard echoed, and they each took a drink. Setting his beer back on the bar, John watched as Todd caught the bartender’s eye and requested the bill, the alien’s actions suddenly brisk and full of purpose. “Now what happens?” he asked when Todd turned back to him.

Smug contentment radiated from the wraith as he regarded his consort with covetous eyes. “Now we take a little walk. There is someplace I wish to take you and something I wish to get you.”

“You don’t need to…,” Sheppard began, but Todd cut him off.

“Oh, but I do,” he asserted, pausing when the server returned with his credit card and the bill on a small tray. The alien retrieved his card, signed his pseudonym with a flourish, then stood and indicated that John should precede him.

Sheppard rose with alacrity and they made their way across the restaurant proper which was starting to fill with the first of the dinner crowd, Todd’s hand a reassuring pressure against the small of his back as he guided him through the tables.

“Giving a special gift to my acknowledged Consort is an ancient Wraith tradition,” Todd explained quietly once they’d reached the lobby and began putting on their coats. “And even though you and I have been doing our best to disregard and rewrite many of them, this is one I do not wish to change.”

John felt his face heat at the idea of wearing what amounted to an engagement ring.

“I’m not wearing a diamond,” he stated as he joined the alien on the pavement. The rain had stopped and the clouds were just beginning to disperse, allowing the westering sun to peek through now and then to glint off the puddles.

Todd cocked his head and quirked an amused eyebrow ridge. “Who said I was buying you one?” he teased.

“Oh.”

Chuckling, the wraith drew John’s arm through his as they started down the boardwalk, encountering only token resistance before Sheppard heaved a sigh and settled his hand more securely in the crook of Todd’s arm.

“And while we’re on our way, you’re going to tell me what you managed to avoid talking about for the entire meal.”