1. Introductions by dragonflower
2. Camping by dragonflower
3. Anticipation by dragonflower
4. Morning by dragonflower
5. Diversion by dragonflower
6. Arrival by dragonflower
7. Awakening by dragonflower
8. Battle by dragonflower
9. Pilgrimage by dragonflower
10. Inevitable by dragonflower
11. Resurrection by dragonflower
12. Regret by dragonflower
13. Proposals by dragonflower
14. Appellation by dragonflower
15. Brinksmanship by dragonflower
16. Anamnesis by dragonflower
17. Contrition by dragonflower
18. Confession by dragonflower
19. Penance by dragonflower
20. Absolution by dragonflower
21. Fever by dragonflower
22. Realizations by dragonflower
23. Feast by dragonflower
24. Famine by dragonflower
25. Restraint by dragonflower
26. Friends by dragonflower
27. Disconnect by dragonflower
28. Revelations by dragonflower
29. Crisis by dragonflower
30. Resolution by dragonflower
31. Desire by dragonflower
32. Bonds by dragonflower
33. Gifts by dragonflower
34. Compromise by dragonflower
35. Harvest by dragonflower
36. Teamwork by dragonflower
37. Bloodletting by dragonflower
38. Taboo by dragonflower
39. Compassion by dragonflower
40. Legends by dragonflower
41. Exegesis by dragonflower
42. Epiphany by dragonflower
43. Relief by dragonflower
44. Reassessment by dragonflower
45. Preparations by dragonflower
46. Praxis by dragonflower
47. Crossing by dragonflower
48. Questions by dragonflower
49. Disclosure by dragonflower
50. Crucible by dragonflower
51. Concessions by dragonflower
52. Shelter by dragonflower
53. Truce by dragonflower
Rodney gently squeezed his forearm again, wincing at the surprising amount of pain radiating from the raw gash hidden under the hastily-applied field dressing. He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket to check on it and was dismayed to find blood starting to soak through the bandage.
If only it had bled this freely when he'd wanted it to, when he'd actually dredged up the courage - or insanity – he was still trying to decide which, to cut his own arm with the sharp edge of a mollusk shell he'd found on the beach. His plan had been to let the blood run down his arm and off his fingers, sprinkling a false trail for the Wraith to follow, but the damn cut had kept clotting on him and Rodney had been forced to nick himself repeatedly to keep it flowing. With much cursing and swearing, he'd managed to leave what he hoped was enough blood to lead the life-sucking alien astray.
McKay knew it was a gamble, wasting precious time doubling back, but without Sheppard to come up with a brilliant diversion, it was the best he could come up with on short notice.
Rodney stopped for a moment, trying not to think about John as he wiped sweat from his brow and fumbled for the canteen for a quick drink. He pulled a Power Bar – his last - out of his vest pocket, and thoughtfully munched on it as he considered the sun's altitude, surprised not only at how quickly the morning had heated up once the sun had risen, but how fast the day was passing. As far as he could tell, it was already mid-morning. He was going to have to move fast if he wanted to make it to the outskirts of the City by noon.
Making his way up a slight incline, McKay found himself atop a ridge that seemed to run in almost a straight line in the direction of the Ancient City. He glanced behind him – the ridge continued on behind, as well, disappearing under dense tree cover about 50 meters off. It looked oddly human – or Ancient – made, although Rodney was hard-pressed to figure out why they'd bothered building earthworks in the middle of a forest.
Shrugging it off as probably unimportant, McKay started off at a slow jog, grudgingly grateful that John had taken it upon himself to encourage – well, force – Rodney to get up off his ass and get in at least some semblance of shape. Sheppard had been a slave-driver, making him run and work out, and even throwing him to Ronon once in a while for some self-defense lessons.
Rodney knew he was the weakest link in Sheppard's team, and he didn't like that, so as much as he'd had whined and complained, in the end he'd sucked it up and done the work. While he'd resigned himself from the beginning to the fact that he'd never be as fit as John, over the past few years, the Canadian had made vast improvements.
All that pain stood him in good stead now, as he traveled at an easy lope under the shelter of the trees, moving toward his destination – and safety.
The Wraith glided through the forest quickly and surely as he followed the scent of human blood no more than a few hours old. It felt good to finally be moving, after his self-imposed confinement to his camp all morning. It had been sheer torture waiting for the sun to reach its zenith. Beyond desperate to feed, his hunger burning within him, and he had considered several times just starting out sooner.
But no – he had told the man he would give him until midday, and having been stripped by starvation and isolation of almost everything else that made him who he was, the Wraith wasn't about to start going back on his word, as well. There was such a thing as honor, after all. So he clung to its vestiges and suffered until the sun was directly overhead, as promised.
At least his prey had been considerate enough to have cut himself. The blood made it so much easier for a hungry Wraith to track him through the trackless woods.
Although after the loneliness and grief the creature had picked up from the human during his nightly search, he was a bit surprised that the man had run at all. He had seemed too weak to have rallied enough to try and evade him. In his long life, the Wraith had seen less distress bring stronger men to their knees, and giving up, they'd waited for him, seeming almost grateful when his hand descended. Perhaps this one would give him some sport after all.
The Wraith stopped when the blood abruptly disappeared. He lifted his head into the breeze and sniffed. He crouched and searched the ground. He stood and walked back to where the scent picked up again and turned slowly in a circle, scanning the forest for some clues to where his prey might have gotten to. The human was wilier than he'd given him credit for.
Something white glowed against the leaves littering the ground in the dimness of the forest's gloom. The Hunter picked his way carefully toward it, suspicious of a trap, but it was simply a discarded wrapper, the cast-off packaging for a wound dressing, based on the faintly antiseptic odor it gave off. He crumpled it in his fist with a frustrated snarl. This one was going to make him work for his meal.
So be it.
He slowly walked ever-growing concentric circles around the wrapper he'd dropped back on the ground, trying to pick up the human's trail. After several minutes of fruitless searching, the Wraith noticed another wrapper and telltale gouges in the hillside made by hands and feet scrabbling upwards. Found you.
The Wraith climbed as well, and in next to no time he stood in the exact spot the human had occupied earlier.
Scenting the air, the creature could detect the lingering musk of sweat and the faint, underlying odor of the same blood he'd followed so far already. His prey had bound the wound but it was still bleeding – or had been when he'd first mounted the obviously man-made hill.
He couldn't help but grin, pleased that he had picked up the trail again. The Wraith broke into a trot along the ridge. The human must be heading toward the City, and had done all this to try and mislead him. The hunter's respect for his adversary rose a few notches. He'd succeeded. If the City had actually been populated, the man had enough of a headstart that the Wraith might have been in trouble. The human was certainly in for a rude shock when he arrived at his destination, only to find it deserted when he was probably hoping to incite a mob.
The warrior chuckled at the thought, but cut it short when a new scent assailed his senses. He stopped and inhaled deeply, almost gagging at the sharp, sour stench that overlaid the comfortingly-familiar ones of human sweat and blood. Green eyes widened in anger and alarm, and the Wraith took off at a dead run, amusement and anticipation forgotten in the frantic desire to reach his prey in time.
No. Not again.
Rodney was still staring at the mountain of rock, wondering what to try next, when the sounds of snapping twigs resumed, once again coming from the direction of the overgrown park. Unlike the last time, they weren't even being broken in stealth, but quickly – and regularly – and growing louder as something drew closer. McKay swallowed hard, his body tensing in anticipation of what, he did not know. He certainly couldn't run, trapped as he was. That didn't stop him from scrabbling and struggling when the tall grass at the edge of the trees started to sway, pale blue eyes widening in panic when the mystery creature finally emerged.
Massive; it was easily as big as a grizzly bear. Covered in shaggy pale blond fur with the faintest hints of darker stripes running down its sides, it was more feline than ursine, its ears and features resembling that of a big cat, right down to the slit-pupiled yellow eyes. The similarity to anything catlike ended, however, at the tips of the short, dangerously-sharp horns protruding from its forehead. It lifted its black, leathery nose skyward, scenting the breeze. After a few noisy snuffles it looked directly at the doctor, lips pulling back in a parody of a grin to reveal a row of long, sharp teeth as it dug curved, scimitar-like claws into the nearest tree trunk and pulled itself upright in a single graceful motion. Slouching forward on its hind legs, the beast rose to its full seven feet as it cleared the last of the low-hanging branches.
Terrified, McKay froze as he watched the creature lumber toward him, its dark claws flexing with eager anticipation as it drew closer. Rodney almost gagged when it finally reached the mound of stones, its fetid breath and the sour stench of animal musk overwhelming his senses. The thing came down on all fours next to him, and McKay thought his heart would burst as it pounded wildly in his chest, like a trapped bird beating its wings against the bars of a cage.
Once again acting very feline, it stretched out its neck to carefully sniff at him. A glop of saliva landed on Rodney's cheek, and he decided that he must smell delicious. It took all his self-control not to reach up and dash the viscous fluid away with an exclamation of disgust, although McKay wasn't quite sure why he was bothering with being cautious. He was going to die anyway. There weren't going to be any last-minute rescues this time.
Apparently satisfied that he was edible, the predator reached for its prey, pinning him down with a heavy front paw, claws digging into his already-injured shoulder. Paralyzed with fear and resigned to his fate, Rodney turned his face away and squeezed his eyes shut as the thing prepared to strike, a small, terrified squeak escaping from his throat.
With a sudden roar, the beast was gone, talons ripping chunks of meat out of McKay's shoulder as it pulled away. Gasping in pain and surprise, Rodney's eyes flew open in time to see the Wraith fling the creature halfway across the open space. The cat-thing landed, predictably, on its feet, snarling at its opponent as the Wraith stalked it.
For the briefest of moments, Rodney was touched that the alien had stepped in to save him, before it dawned on him that Wraith just wanted him alive so he could feed on him, himself.
Well, that's just wonderful.
McKay was literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. With any luck, the Wraith and the cat-beast would just kill each other and leave him to... what – die of thirst, trapped under a pile of rocks? Rodney was screwed any way he looked at it – and he was helpless. All he could do was wait to see which of three grisly fates awaited him – no, make that four. His shoulder was bleeding pretty badly as well, so maybe he'd just bleed out and get it over with.
The battle continued to rage while McKay was lost in thought. He was shaken from his reverie when the pair fell against his cairn, the Wraith trying to bash the creature's head against the stones. It rallied and twisted out of his grasp, and the fight resumed, moving out of Rodney's line-of-sight.
Rodney drifted off again – in fact, it was starting to become difficult to concentrate at all – while he contemplated his imminent demise. The dying-of-thirst option could be crossed off the list right away. Going that slowly would leave him too much time to brood, and McKay had already had enough of that. If he didn't die of blood-loss first, that left being eaten. Although the thought of being snacked on by either monster held zero appeal, at least if the Wraith won, he might be able to be reasoned with to at least... knock him out first before he fed, so it would be as painless as possible.
Having decided that death-by-wraith was probably the best of the lot, McKay craned his neck curiously as he listened to the sounds of fighting coming from just beyond where he could see. The thuds of blows landed and howls of pain and rage from both the animal and the Wraith, made it impossible for Rodney to tell who was winning. In the next moment, the combatants careened back into view, the big cat snarling and snapping at the Wraith's throat, and the warrior, hollow-eyed and weakening from multiple unhealed wounds, barely able to hold it off.
McKay gasped. This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. Without a second thought, he grabbed a nearby palm-sized rock, and propping himself on his elbows, he hurled it at the cat, as surprised as the beast when it actually connected with the back of its head in a glancing blow. It turned to glare at him, its snarl of anger ending in a death rattle, as the Wraith took advantage of its momentary distraction to snap its neck in one clean movement. The creature fell to the ground in a heap of pale boneless fur at the alien's feet, while the Wraith swayed unsteadily, the heaving of his bare chest showcasing the still-bleeding crosshatch furrows left by the feline's wicked claws.
With exaggerated care, the Wraith stepped over the body of his fallen foe, desperately trying to keep his feet. After a couple of steps in Rodney's direction, however, remaining upright proved to be too much for him, and the warrior went down, landing hard on his hands and knees on the cracked pavement. The creature hung his head, breathing laboriously, leaving McKay to wonder what the heck was the matter with it.
After several long minutes, the Wraith raised his head, green eyes boring directly into Rodney's with a hunger so deep, so all-encompassing, the creature didn't look entirely sane – and suddenly McKay understood. The Wraith was starving. The dart plowed nose-first into the hillside; the well-established camp; the desperate battle to save Rodney from the cat – the Wraith had been trapped on the planet for who-knew-how-long. He was probably rationing whatever humans he had stored in the dart's buffer, forcing himself to go without for as long as possible between feedings, and apparently a hungry Wraith didn't heal as quickly as a well-fed one.
If Rodney wasn't next up for dinner, he probably would have been able to actually drum up some pity for the creature. If he had guessed anywhere close to what was really going on, it sounded like a terrible ordeal for anyone to have to live through – even a Wraith. As it was, the alien was so lost in his desire to feed, McKay wasn't even sure if he was going to even be able to get through to ask for a merciful death, but when the Wraith started crawling slowly toward him on all fours, Rodney knew he'd better start talking – and fast.
The world spun in and out of focus as the Wraith struggled to remain conscious, delayed shock and blood-loss conspiring to pull him under. Every muscle, every joint and sinew ached, protesting his slightest movement, and hunger burned through his body like wildfire.
He'd defeated the beast, but at what cost? Battered, bruised and bleeding, and on his knees like a supplicant before a vicious Queen, he wondered if he was even going to be able to traverse the twenty paces that lay between him and salvation.
Another surge of hunger took him and he shuddered with the agony of it. Motivation enough to get moving. He looked up slowly, the scenery tilting dangerously before righting itself, and his gaze locked onto that of the human male. Trapped, injured, and helpless – unless the man started throwing rocks again, he'd at least be an easy meal.
The man frowned at him, like he was trying to figure something out, then pale blue eyes widened and softened with an expression of pity - even compassion. Angered that his prey had the temerity to show anything other than fear in the face of his own impending demise, the Wraith lurched toward him, dragging himself unsteadily on his hands and knees across cracked, uneven pavement. The human's eyes now reflected the appropriate terror, and if the ancient warrior wasn't working so hard to just keep himself upright, he would have surely appreciated it.
Starved beyond the point of regeneration and gravely injured on top of it, the trembling in the Wraith's limbs grew worse with each torturous inch of progress. He was so immersed in the effort to propel himself forward, it took him a few minutes to realize the man was speaking to him in urgent tones – had been – now that he recalled the drone of the human's voice buzzing annoyingly in his ears, as soon as he'd begun crawling in his direction. The Wraith had no idea what his prey could possibly be trying to convey – not that it mattered, he'd be dead soon, anyway... but, then what.
At the very real risk of sabotaging his ability to ever get going again, the warrior stopped his forward momentum. One of the last out of the Ring, he'd just begun his culling run when they'd been recalled. He'd only managed to take four humans, and three were already gone. This one was the last, and after him – starvation. True starvation. A long, slow, exquisitely-painful spiral down to death awaited him, unless, in desperation, he walked into one of the cat-beast's lairs and let it tear him apart.
Or he could give up now - just lie down where he was, and let go. He could tell he was close to that shimmering edge, anyway, and he was so tired. The Wraith's eyes drifted shut, and he swayed on his hands and knees as he tested the black waters that called to him, when the human's voice finally penetrated the fog of despair and pain surrounding him.
"...in the same boat, really – with no way to get back to our families and friends. It's too bad you're going to have to kill me, although I'm probably dying anyway, between the wound in my shoulder that's still bleeding, and the whole being crushed under a mountain of rocks thing. I guess you have to take what you get, and like it, but even after one night here, I can see this place must get pretty lonely after awhile – and I'm human. I mean, we're okay on our own, for a while, anyway. For a Wraith who's used to living in a Hive, it must be terrible to be cut off from your Brothers. You're all in each others' heads all the time, and here you're alone."
The Wraith's eyes flew open and he glared at the human, frowning. "What do you know of Brothers?" he rasped, clawing his way back from the edge of oblivion.
Rodney's head snapped up in surprise. He'd been babbling, like he usually did when he was stressed. After his initial appeal for mercy, he'd just kept talking. The Wraith was so far gone, he hadn't really expected him to be listening.
"My friend - my best friend," he stammered. McKay didn't want to be discussing John with this creature, whose brethren had probably killed him. "He... We... know a Wraith. I've worked with him."
The warrior, who for a couple of minutes had looked like he was going to keel over and die, had rallied, and was haltingly making his way closer again.
"And he spoke to you of Brothers?" The Wraith wheezed, as he struggled to maneuver up over the ancient curb.
McKay nodded, then answered 'yes' when he realized the creature was so inwardly-focused, literally forcing himself to put one foot – or knee – and hand, in front of the other, he'd never notice a non-verbal response.
"Well, that – and he and John are Brothers."
A peal of rusty laughter erupted from the Wraith's lips, causing him to almost lose his balance in the midst of painstakingly navigating around the last few boulders. "You do amuse me, human," he grated when he finally reached Rodney's side, finding himself regretting, suddenly, what need and instinct compelled him to do. The human glowered up at him, actually indignant in the last moments of his life, that he was being laughed at.
"It's true," Rodney insisted, even as he felt the Wraith settle closer, carefully curling up next to him like an old, arthritic cat. "He took most of John's life so he could heal and fight, and afterwards he gave it back."
The Wraith slipped a nail under the neckline of McKay's t-shirt and ripped it in one, practiced motion, exposing the human's chest, and the stench of fear suddenly permeated the air.
Heart pounding so hard it made the veins in his neck jump, wide blue eyes locked onto the warrior's face, nonetheless. "I'm ready," Rodney said, trying to sound determined and brave.
The ancient one brought his arm back, fingers splayed and maw wide-open and oozing. He gazed down at the man – a worthier adversary than he'd first given him credit for, with a sad smile. "I doubt it," he replied, and brought his hand down onto Rodney's chest - hard, digging his claws in as he started to feed.
"Hot," Rodney yelled, "Hot!"
White-hot pain lanced through McKay's body, radiating from the epicenter just above his sternum where the Wraith's hand clutched him, literally for dear life. He instinctively grabbed the alien's arm and frantically tried to dislodge him, but to no avail. The creature bore down on him, pressing him against the pavement and effectively pinning him in-place as he fed.
The human's cries of pain escalated to an inarticulate scream, mingling with the Wraith's groans of pleasure, which rose and fell as he drained his victim's life in long, steady pulls. Gone was his divided conscience, desperation hardening him to the task. His goal: to lose himself in this one last feast, to feed until there was nothing left to take. He could feel his body regenerating already, the searing pain of healing wounds counterbalanced with waves of energy rolling through him, one after another, left him shuddering with sensation.
Trapped by the rocks and now the creature feeding on him, McKay could do little more than writhe in agony, feeling like he was being immolated from the inside. After what seemed like an eternity of unendurable pain, shriek after shriek torn from his raw throat, Rodney could feel himself starting to weaken. He opened one streaming eye, his cry dying on his lips as he beheld the Wraith's stunning transformation. Healed, whole - the gauntness of his face was gone, as was the tightness around his eyes. Calm and self-assured, the creature smiled down on him almost fondly, basking in his stolen life force, while McKay could only mourn its loss.
Rodney laid his head back down on the ancient flagstones, enduring the tearing, burning sensation of the Wraith's continued feeding in silence, sensing he was probably getting close to the end. His vision kept blurring, and it was getting harder and harder to concentrate on anything other than how blue the sky was overhead, and even that was fading.
Suddenly John was kneeling beside him, stroking his cheek, and McKay smiled, turning his face into the gentle touch. "What are you doing here?"
Sheppard grinned. "I'm here because you needed me to be."
"That's nice," Rodney replied, vaguely, his eyes slipping shut.
"Rodney! Rodney, wake up," John hissed urgently.
After several attempts, McKay finally forced his eyes open again, the sight of Sheppard's concerned face making the struggle worthwhile. "Wha – but I'm so tired."
"I know, buddy, but remember what you said? You need to do that – now."
McKay frowned, confused. "What do I need to do?"
"Dedicate your last breath of air to getting more air. Do it. Please." John trailed his fingers down Rodney's face one last time, then stood and walked away.
"Come back!" Rodney cried, panic setting in. "Don't leave me here by myself!" He stirred and attempted to lift his arm - tried to stop John from retreating - but Sheppard was already far away, growing smaller and smaller in the distance.
Desperate to move, McKay struggled harder, his body sluggish and almost unresponsive. "Please stop!" he gasped as his eyes flew open, "No one wants to die alone!"
The human's anguished cry startled the Wraith, who had believed his victim too far gone to even process language anymore, never mind speak. He pulled his hand away from the man's chest and peered into the other's unseeing blue eyes, wondering from what reservoir he'd drawn the strength to challenge his fate so late in the game. Teetering on the brink of death, this unusual man had surprised him yet again, with words that pierced his very being as surely as the cat-beast had nearly eviscerated him with its claws.
Indeed, no one wanted to die alone. He certainly didn't, and yet that was what faced him after the human was drained dry; interminable isolation on this desolate planet, while he slowly starved and waited for death to claim him. The Wraith gazed down at the shriveled, wizened face, pondering if it might still be possible for him to challenge his fate, as well. He had nothing to lose at this point, and much to gain if he succeeded.
The give-and-take the human had mentioned which had bound his companion to a Wraith, was something Brothers shared, and the surest method of securing a slave. He desired neither brotherhood nor servitude from the human, but he did need him alive and well. With a nod, the Wraith made his decision, rising from his supine position with an ease he had not known in some time. He stood and stretched, taking a moment to revel in his healed, pain-free body, and the strength that surged through him, before crouching next to the frail husk half-buried under the collapsed wall. The warrior trailed a gentle finger down its papery cheek as its chest rose and fell like a bellows, struggling for breath. "Hold on for just a little longer, human. I will do my best to ensure neither one of us has to die alone."
With that, the Wraith rose and began the slow task of carefully shifting the mountain of rocks, one boulder at a time.
A wave of pleasure surged through Rodney's body. It overwhelmed his senses and brought him back to consciousness arching involuntarily with the intensity of it, an impassioned shout escaping his lips.
"Remain still," a gruff voice ordered, as the sensation of something pressing on his chest eased. "We only have one shot at this."
"Huh? What?" Spent, and still reeling from the aftershocks of pleasure rolling through him, McKay opened a bleary eye. He had barely a split second to register the fact that the Wraith was kneeling next to him and staring back, before excruciating pain suddenly lanced through his legs, and his shoulder to a lesser extent, making him twist and writhe as he tried unsuccessfully to escape the unanticipated torment.
He struggled harder when he felt a strong hand rest lightly on his knees and the other grip his uninjured shoulder, holding him still.
"No! Stop! What are you doing?" Rodney cried, well on his way to panic.
"Listen," the Wraith snarled, giving McKay's shoulder an impatient shake, "your legs are healing. I set them as well as I could, but if you thrash I cannot guarantee they will knit correctly."
Confused by the unexpected turn of events - namely the fact that he was still alive - Rodney couldn't even begin to process what was happening before another jolt of pain hit him full-force. Caught up in the agonizing throes of accelerated healing, squirming wasn't an option, it was a necessity; although enough of the alien's words had sunk in for him to feel oddly grateful that he was being held down while his mending legs burned so intensely.
It wasn't until the pain started to subside that it dawned on McKay he could actually feel his legs, and if the Wraith had set them, then that meant Rodney wasn't buried under rocks anymore. Curious, he turned his head slowly. He was still lying on his back where he'd fallen, based on his perspective of the overgrown park and their relative position to the dead cat-lump, but the mountain had been dismantled. Boulders littered the street, some of them pretty far away, and for a brief moment Rodney kind of wished he'd been able to watch the creature hurl rocks that big, that far.
He turned back when the hands pinning him down were lifted, and he heard and felt the Wraith shift into a more comfortable sitting position.
"Was I dead?"
The warrior started to nod, then hesitated. "Almost," he replied, his glittering green gaze traveling slowly over the human's face. The man didn't need to know that by the time the Wraith had managed to free him, he'd expired. The human didn't need to be made aware of the fear that had eaten through the Hunter like acid as he had feverishly set both badly-broken legs, before giving the man back as much of his life as he could, and then some, hoping against hope that he had enough life-force to jump start the other's silent heart.
"I don't understand. What happened?"
"What do you remember?" The Wraith countered, tilting his head in inquiry.
McKay's brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to recall something his mind instinctively shied away from. After pondering for a few minutes his eyes met the creature's, irritation stirring in their blue depths. "I remember bits and pieces of you feeding on me – which is painful beyond belief, thank you very much."
A smirk tugged at the corner of the warrior's mouth. "I did warn you. What else?"
"I remember... John. John was here. He came to me and told me to... do something. I don't know what." Rodney's eyes widened as he struggled to rise. Managing to get as far as propping himself up on his elbows, he looked around wildly before his gaze settled on the Wraith again. "Where is he? What did you do to him?"
The warrior sat up, concerned that human might push himself too far, too fast. Until he was completely healed, the man's life still hung in too-fine a balance. "I assure you, there was no one here but us," he replied as soothingly as he could, his voice low and gravelly. "It sometimes happens that a person on the brink of death will have a vision of one who is... special to them, to comfort them in their final moments. Perhaps this is what occurred."
Rodney frowned, trying to reconcile John's intensely-realistic visitation with the Wraith's assertion that it had just been the last, desperate hallucination of a dying mind. Although, come to think of it, it wouldn't be the first time something like that had happened to McKay under extreme duress. The spectre of Sam Carter had helped him once when he'd been trapped in a Puddle Jumper at the bottom of the Lantean ocean. "It was so real," he finally offered lamely.
"From what I have witnessed, it does appear so."
Uncanny pale blue eyes studied the alien, as though trying to figure something out. "So, if I was on the brink of death, why am I still alive?"
The Wraith met his gaze and exhaled a weary sigh. "To be honest, I am not ready to give up and die just yet, and apparently neither are you." He rose in a single fluid motion, scanning the square and the lengthening shadows in the park. "We cannot remain here much longer. It will be night soon, and there are other things that will come looking for that carcass once it is dark."
As Rodney gamely tried to struggle to his feet, a strong, steadying hand slid around his waist and pulled him upright. He felt heat rising in his face, torn between fear and another sensation he didn't want to acknowledge or examine - ever. He finally dismissed it as a reaction to the Wraith's sheer physicality, and its blatant disregard for social boundaries. "I can walk," McKay griped petulantly, although now that he was standing the city was starting to spin, and he was kind of glad for the support.
The Hunter watched the human squirm and blush, vaguely amused by his multitude of shifting reactions. "I doubt that, human" he remarked. "I will have to carry you if we want to be well away from here before nightfall." He stepped back from the man, preparing to crouch and lift him, when the human glanced down at himself and held out both hands in the universal sign for 'hold on a minute.' The Wraith paused.
Rodney considered the damp patch on the front of his BDU's, then looked away, his face reddening further. "Well, that's just... embarrassing."
"There is no need for shame. It is a pleasurable experience to receive the Gift, especially so for humans." The warrior chuckled. "If it is any consolation, you smell wonderful."
Still blushing furiously and unable to meet his eye, McKay allowed the Wraith to lean in and carefully lift him across his shoulders in a fireman's carry. The creature stooped to pick up the canteen as well, which had made it through the ordeal miraculously unscathed, then started back through the city the way Rodney had come, what seemed, now, like a million years ago.
A few minutes later, McKay's voice could be heard echoing off the canyon of buildings, fading as they moved away from the park. "Since we're such great buddies now, I suppose you should probably call me by my name instead of just addressing me as 'human.'"
"Very well. What is your name, human?" Came the patient reply.
"Rodney McKay. Doctor Rodney McKay."
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Rodney McKay."
The trip back to the Wraith's camp was much shorter than the trail Rodney had blazed that morning. Of course, this time there was no need for backtracking or subterfuge, and the alien knew where he was going. McKay decided there was a lot to be said for the direct route, especially when he'd had to ride across the creature's shoulders the whole way, being jounced and jostled by each step over the rough terrain.
For whatever reason, the warrior didn't seem like he wanted to be caught in the forest after dark, and since Rodney didn't even want to contemplate what might make a Wraith nervous enough to hurry, he rather uncharacteristically kept the complaining to a minimum. Instead, he stoically clamped his lips shut against the vague nausea the other's rapid gait aroused, reminding himself to be thankful he was even alive to feel it.
They cleared the trees just as the leading edge of the twin suns touched the horizon, bloated and blood-red, and foretelling of another hot, sunny day tomorrow, even as the night's chill started to creep across the land. The Wraith slowed his pace, and McKay thought he felt tension ease from the creature's shoulders as they crossed the field, like he was relieved. Although he was almost afraid to look, Rodney glanced back the way they'd come. All he could see was the gathering gloom as the forest darkened, and hear the evening song of something that sounded a lot like frogs, coming from the direction of one of the nearby streams that ran into the lake. It didn't stop a frisson of apprehension from running through him, though, and he wondered what had the Wraith so spooked.
He had just drawn breath to ask, when they reached the alien's camp. With a dip of his shoulder, the Wraith carefully deposited McKay by the firepit. He eased him down, helping him to sit, before he turned and proceeded to stir the banked embers in the pit to life, adding twists of dried grass, then small sticks as the smoking kindling quickly caught.
Rodney shifted a little, trying to make himself comfortable as he watched the creature move efficiently around the camp, wishing there was something he could do to help. The Wraith had carried him all the way from the city, and now here he was, dumped like a sack of potatoes next to the fire, and feeling about as useful.
The Wraith was crouched on the other side of the pit, his back to him as he rummaged through one of several packs stacked together under some sort of tarp. He suddenly paused and looked at Rodney over his shoulder. Without a word, the creature rose and strode to the pile of branches and sticks lying at the edge of the encampment. He selected an armful and brought them back to where McKay sat, placing them within his reach.
"Feed the fire," the warrior instructed, "It will be night soon, and you already know it will grow cold."
Rodney gazed up at him, his blue eyes solemn, wondering if the alien had read his thoughts. "Okay. I can do that."
The Wraith nodded. "Make sure that is all you do. You are still healing."
McKay frowned in consternation as the creature turned to go. "Wait. What do you mean I'm still healing?"
The alien stopped, his back to Rodney as he heaved a reluctant sigh. "I could not return all the life I drained from you, and had very little of my own to provide." He turned partway, his profile highlighted hellishly in the leaping flames. "Your body's healing is still accelerated, but the deficit means it will take you a few days to recover completely."
Rodney panicked, a surge of adrenaline making his heart pound. He dropped the stick he'd been holding and started running his fingers frantically over his face, tracing lines near his eyes and next to his mouth that he knew he hadn't had that morning. "What the hell!" he cried, his eyes darting back and forth in alarm before they settled on the Wraith's. "How many years?"
The warrior tilted his head as he considered him, his calm demeanor a dramatic counterpoint to McKay's terrified expression. "Five," he finally answered, "Perhaps ten. Unfortunately, they are already gone."
"What do you mean by that?" Rodney asked, his voice cracking. He knew already he probably wasn't going to like the answer.
"My body used your life force to heal itself. In fact, your own body is doing the same thing as we speak."
McKay dropped his head in his hands. Although what the creature said made perfect sense, hearing directly from a Wraith that they converted life-force that way made it seem even creepier and more unnatural than it already was. "I knew I shouldn't have asked," he groaned.
He felt the Wraith kneel beside him, and a hand descend gently on his shoulder. "Believe me, I would have given them back if I could have," he said quietly.
It was all Rodney could do to keep from pulling away in a resurgence of fear and disgust. The thing had stolen his life, after all. "Damn Wraith," he snarled. "Get the hell away from me."
The hand dropped from his shoulder and the creature moved away, leaving him curled in a miserable little ball of self-pity.
"Feed the fire, McKay," the Wraith growled, as he returned to his earlier task of searching through the leather packs on the other side of the firepit. "Now!" He ordered gruffly, when Rodney didn't respond.
McKay raised his face from where it rested on his crossed arms, glaring across the fire at the Wraith. The creature looked back from the shadows, dispassionate and self-possessed, and Rodney figured he was probably used to being hated.
While they'd been 'talking,' the fire had died down and looked like it was getting ready to go out again. A cold wind blew across the open field and Rodney shivered, remembering how he'd frozen when he'd slept by the lake. McKay really didn't want to be cold again tonight - and he certainly didn't want to sit in the dark with a Wraith, so with an aggrieved sigh, he turned away, pretending the alien didn't exist while he started tossing sticks into the firepit.
The Wraith found what he was looking for in the last pack – of course. Sitting back with a huff of frustration, he pulled out what he needed, shooting another surreptitious glance at the human as he did so. The man was still studiously ignoring him, staring straight ahead with a bitter, angry expression on his stubborn face.
At least the man – McKay – had made himself useful while he was brooding. The fire burned well now, high and hot, the circle of heat and light extending out to include the warrior where he sat at the very edge of the camp. He basked in its uncertain warmth, stilling and sinking into himself for a moment to revel in the sensation of wholeness and well-being he hadn't experienced in quite some time. Without the full measure of the human's life he was still hungry, but after months of being much worse off, it was at least manageable.
The Wraith slanted a look in McKay's direction. Starvation had always driven him to drink deep at the well when he had the opportunity to feed. It had never occurred to him to ration them out like this. It made so much more sense in terms of extending survival time. The downside, he was quickly discovering, was having to deal with them for more than the brief intimacy of the kill, and this one seemed particularly irascible – almost Wraith-like in his dismissive disdain. The warrior suppressed a self-deprecating chuckle. He had wished for company, and now he had it.
The human's eyelids started to slip closed, and the warrior decided it was time to get moving. There was still much to do before either of them slept, and he was sure McKay would be even worse if he had to wake him up again. Standing with a lot of unnecessary noise, the Wraith picked up two leather water bags and slung them over his shoulder. He grinned down at the human, who was now wide awake and glaring again, and headed for the stream at the edge of the clearing.
Crouching by the shallow waterway, he filled both bags and the canteen, listening to the night breathe around him. The rustling and scurrying of small, nocturnal hunters and prey continued in the underbrush, and the peepers kept up their frantic song. He had become such a normal part of their existence they no longer stopped when he approached – not they way they would – and did – for other predators.
Satisfied that for tonight, at least, everything seemed to be as it should, the warrior returned to camp. He hung the water bags on the end of one of his lean-to's cross braces, and brought the canteen to the human, barely acknowledging him as he dropped the small jug beside him. While the Wraith gathered the other things he needed, he could hear McKay thirstily gulping the cool water, and his deep sigh of satisfaction when he was done. He didn't expect the man to speak.
"Why are you doing all this?" Rodney barked accusingly. "Why bother?"
The Wraith returned to McKay's side, kneeling and placing what looked like a large, inverted turtle shell full of water next to him, along with some small, soft-looking pieces of suede and a pile of folded clothes. He glanced up at the human, his green eyes glittering strangely in the firelight. "You know why," he replied quietly. "I need you alive and healthy, so I can feed from you a little at a time. I thought that's what you were offering back in the city, when you spoke of the sharing between your friend and the Wraith he is bonded to."
"Yes. No. I don't know!" McKay sputtered, frowning. "I could have said just about anything back there. I was crushed, concussed, delirious with blood-loss, and about ready to die. I probably would have promised to marry you if you'd asked me!"
The warrior tilted his head. He opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it.
Rodney saw his hesitation. "No," he snapped, pointing his finger in emphasis. "I won't marry you. You missed your chance."
A smirk played at the corner of the Wraith's mouth. He was actually going to ask if McKay, and this John that filled his heart and thoughts, were mates, but decided against it. He'd picked up images of the man's face from this one's head, and knew it was not the other human male he'd released from stasis several months earlier, but he also knew McKay was concerned John had been culled, and mourned him as though he might be dead. For Dr. McKay, the events of eight months ago were as fresh and raw as if they'd occurred just a few days ago. It was neither the time nor place for such a question.
"Very well, I will not ask," the Wraith rumbled, amusement showing in his eyes.
McKay looked oddly-deflated for a moment before nodding. "Well - okay, then. Good."
He glanced away from the warrior, high color in his cheeks, and the Wraith detected a spike in the other's stress reaction. It was almost as if he was disappointed. Such a strange one, this human.
The man's eyes lit on the things that rested by his knee. "What's all this for," he asked brusquely, trying to change the subject.
"You are filthy and in need of cleaning," the warrior reminded him, watching as McKay looked down at his torn, dusty, blood-stained clothes like he'd forgotten he was wearing them.
"Yeah, I guess I am," he replied ruefully. He reached for the soft, homespun trousers, shirt, and vest, running a tentative hand over them, then looked up at the Wraith. "Where did these come from?"
"Do you really wish to know?"
Rodney paused for a moment. He was so tired, so weary, and he had nothing left to be outraged with tonight. Besides, It was difficult to remain on his high horse when his bladder was fit to burst, and he knew he could still barely stand, never mind walk. As much as he didn't want to, he was going to have to ask the creature to help him get someplace where he could relieve himself, and he'd rather keep the crow-eating to a minimum, at least for the moment. His mother had always told him he needed to choose his battles, and for probably the first time in his life, he took that advice.
"Nah. I really don't." McKay glanced up at the alien, his cheeks flaming in the rapidly cooling night air. "What I really need is to use the little boy's room," he whispered humbly. "You think you could give me a hand?"
The Wraith frowned questioningly at him.
"Um – relieve myself."
"Ah, of course." The warrior stood and slipped an arm around McKay's waist. As he gently started lifting, he felt the human hesitantly slide an arm across his shoulders, and together they pulled him to his feet.
After McKay watered a clump of scrub just outside the perimeter of camp, the Wraith helped him back to the firepit, then made a point of finding something else to do. It took Rodney a couple of minutes, but once he figured out that the creature was trying to give him some privacy, he slowly and carefully peeled off his stiff, crusty clothing. Considering how long and drawn-out the process was in his current state, McKay was ridiculously grateful for the roaring blaze in the pit, which kept the majority of the chill at bay while he made a passable attempt at washing himself with the velvety split-leather washrags and the tepid water in the shell.
Since there were no towels in the pile beside him, Rodney dried himself as best he could with the clean linen shirt before clumsily wrestling it on over his head, then began the slow, torturous process of pulling on the pants. Unbelievably exhausted after just cleaning himself and changing his clothes, he sat, dazed and staring into the fire for a few minutes to gather his strength, before reaching for the vest.
Almost as soon as he managed to tie the final lace on the dark brown jerkin, the soft heavy weight of a Wraith coat enveloped him, and two pieces of red fruit that looked suspiciously like apples were dropped by his knee. McKay glanced up as the Wraith passed, but the creature seemed intent on its own concerns, taking away the dirty rags and the shell of cloudy, rust-colored water - and his smelly, disgusting clothes.
Reaching tentatively for the offering, Rodney brought one of the... apples up to his lips, inhaling the mild sweetness it promised. He sank his teeth through the skin, surprised by the tartness that burst on his tongue. It was delicious. He made short work of it, every bite of the crisp white flesh sending juice running down his chin, but he didn't care. It reminded him of the Cortlands he and Jeannie had picked as kids on their grandparents' farm, and he wondered where the Wraith had gotten them.
It wasn't until Rodney was ravenously tearing into his second piece of fruit that the ancient one settled close by, eyes glittering in the firelight as he watched him eat. McKay shifted nervously – so much for personal space.
He glanced up from his feast from time-to-time, but his gaze always slid away after a few seconds, unnerved by the other's preternatural stillness offset by the uncanny, softly-glowing eyes that were fixed on his face. Taking a final bite, his teeth grazing the core, Rodney hesitated, unsure what to do with it and the remains of the first one he still held, forgotten, in his other hand.
"You can throw them in the fire," the warrior's deep, gravelly voice broke the stillness, his abrupt statement making McKay jump. He turned startled eyes on the Wraith, his cheeks coloring slightly as he tossed the cores in the pit.
"Uh – thanks," Rodney replied awkwardly, pulling the coat draped over his shoulders closer against a cold breeze that had started to pick up, whipping the flames into a frenzy. "And – um – for this, too." He slid his hand down the open edge of the leather-like garment.
The Wraith considered him, then nodded. "You require it more than I do at the moment."
"I guess so," Rodney agreed through clenched teeth, the wind suddenly chilling him to the bone in spite of the blaze and the coat.
The Wraith watched him a little longer. When the human's shivering continued unabated, he stood and poked at the already-roaring fire, adding a few more pieces of driftwood to the leaping flames before returning to Rodney's side.
"Is that better, McKay?"
The creature crouched next to him, the firelight reflecting hypnotically off the smooth skin and sculpted muscles of his bare chest which jumped when he reached out to slide cool fingers across Rodney's forehead. His touch broke the spell, and McKay tore his gaze away when he realized he was staring, a frown furrowed his brow as he met the ancient one's strange green eyes.
A small, knowing smirk played on the Wraith's lips, sensing the human's inner conflict over the possibility of finding one such as him even marginally attractive. He started to rise to his feet again, meaning to move farther off when McKay's sudden grip on his arm arrested his movement, and he found himself peering curiously into the human's unusual blue eyes.
"What should I call you?" Rodney asked intently, his frown deepening as his eyes flickered back and forth, taking in the Wraith's alien features. "You call me by my name, now that you know it. I'd like to be able to address you as something besides, 'Hey, you.'"
The Wraith snorted, torn between amusement and something akin to dismay. It had been a very long time since he had been called by a human name, and that had ended badly.
"Call me what you will," he rasped, noncommittally.
The warrior's response brought Rodney up short as a flutter of panic set in. John usually named all the Wraith they came in contact with. Although he'd always complained about Sheppard taking the lead in naming everything from Puddle Jumpers to aliens, left to his own devices, McKay wasn't sure what to do. It all suddenly smacked of a little too much pressure. After a moment of thought, Rodney pushed it back in the Wraith's court.
"Um – you're pretty old, right? At some point you must have dealt with humans who felt you needed a name. What did they call you?"
At first unwilling to reveal something he's held so close for so long, the Wraith considered and discarded a dozen human names he'd heard over the centuries, until, for a reason unknown even to himself, he chose the truth. "Ioannes," he finally whispered reluctantly.
Blindsided by the Wraith's unexpected answer, Rodney's body spasmed with a shock he couldn't conceal. Ioannes. That was Ancient – and Latin - for a name he knew as well as his own – maybe better. John. Of course - that's how his luck had been running. Of all the names in two galaxies, some Ancient had to name the alien John. McKay let out a shaky breath. He couldn't – he just couldn't call the Wraith by his best friend's name.
The creature tilted his head, considering his human companion as anxiety started rolling off him in waves. The Wraith touched McKay's mind to find out what was going on, and recoiled when he encountered firsthand the turmoil that was causing it. Unable to access the answer he sought, the warrior had no choice but to wait until McKay managed to bring himself back under control. He watched the human take a shuddering breath, and was suddenly the focus of the other's pain-filled eyes.
"How about I call you Ian," Rodney suggested, his voice rough with unshed tears. Close enough to Ioannes, and although it was the Scottish version of John's name, far enough away from it that McKay was pretty sure he'd be able to say it without breaking down.
The Wraith rolled it over in his head for a minute then nodded. "I can live with that," he replied.
The faint brush of something soft and feathery tickled Rodney's nose, rousing him from a vivid, rambling early-morning dream involving kittens trying to feed him orange slices. Barely regaining consciousness, he reached up and swiped an uncoordinated hand in the general vicinity of his face, fending off one of the furry little menaces before snuggling deeper under the covers, his REM's scarcely missing a beat.
He'd just evaded another citrus-wielding feline when the vaguely-irritating sensation returned. With a frustrated snort, McKay scrubbed his face again, the last remnants of sleep falling away as he opened his eyes. Wondering where he was, he peered through the semi-darkness that surrounded him at the oddly-slanted wall inches from his face, trying to make sense of his surroundings. Confused and disoriented, he stiffened with surprise a moment later when the arm he hadn't realized was draped across his torso flexed, pulling him back against a warm body in a sleepy embrace.
"What the hell?" Rodney exclaimed, his voice ringing painfully in his ears as it bounced off the walls of the small enclosure, and he could feel the Wraith – Ian - startle to wakefulness with a snarl. McKay could sense the tension thrumming through the other's body as if it were his own, and squirmed away – or tried to, deciding he was much too close to the damn alien. Unfortunately for Rodney, the Wraith's lean-to, cozy as it was, and lined with skins taken from several cats like the one they'd encountered the day before, was only built for a single occupant, and he was hard-pressed to put even a few inches between them.
"What is wrong, McKay?" The creature's gruff voice rasped near his ear.
Rodney flailed, pushing at the soft, white fur that engulfed them and flopping inelegantly a few times until he was on his back.
"What do you mean, 'What's wrong?'" McKay snapped, glaring at the perplexed warrior who was propped up on an elbow looking caught off-guard and dangerous. "I didn't think I was going to wake up in bed with a Wraith!"
Ian snorted, his consternation melting into relief. McKay wasn't hurt or in danger, just feeling better, apparently, after a good night's sleep.
Rodney's brow furrowed even further at the Wraith's amusement. "How did this happen?" He demanded, then a terrible thought struck him and he gasped in alarm. "What the hell happened?"
A smirk tugging at Ian's lips. "Have no fear, McKay. I didn't molest you in your sleep, if that is your concern." He stopped and considered his irate bedmate, watching the man's cheeks redden even as the unmistakable pheromones of lust permeated the air. The Wraith's focus sharpened, reluctantly drawn to the scent. He hadn't lain with anyone since before his ill-fated culling run, and the human had been sending some interesting signals since he'd revived him. "Although if you would like me to," he continued, watching his companion carefully, "I'm sure something can be arranged."
Rodney's eyes widened as his cock twitched. Too close. Too damn close.
Denying his body's instinctive response, McKay scrabbled at the furs as he bolted upright, banging his head on the low roof. "Damn it!" He growled as he hunched and tenderly touched the back of his head, letting his anger wash away the vestiges of any... other emotions. "Now I'm probably concussed again. Good job, Ian," he growled caustically.
The Wraith in-question decided to let things slide for now and grinned openly at Rodney's glare, unable to keep his mirth at bay as he fumbled for the latch behind him.
"I wondered when you would start to regain your temper," Ian quipped, pushing the solid wooden hatch up and over like it weighed nothing, letting in early-morning light and a chill breeze the binary sun wasn't high enough in the sky to heat yet. "It apparently doesn't take very long to resurface."
The warrior rolled out of the nest of furs effortlessly, rising and stepping away to allow the grumbling human to crawl out after him.
Rodney grunted as he slowly and painfully climbed to his feet, his body still stiff and sore from the events of the previous day. It finally dawned on him about halfway up that he was standing on his own, unaided, and a wave of blessed relief washed over him. He wasn't going to be an invalid for the rest of his life, after all. Once he managed to straighten up, however, he caught Ian's watchful eye and openly-concerned expression, and remembered why he was outraged.
"Listen. My temper is completely justified!" McKay's pale blue eyes became steely and cold, and he held up a finger for emphasis as he rounded on the Wraith. "One. For your information, I'm hypoglycemic. I am out-of-sorts because I'm hungry. My body is a very finely-tuned instrument and I require breakfast as soon as I get up."
Rodney held up two fingers and took a step toward the alien, whose expression had faded from pleasant to mildly irritated at McKay's imperious tone, not that Rodney even noticed as he forged ahead, oblivious to everything but his own rightness. "Two: my head hurts quite a bit from whacking it on that beam, and if I end up with brain damage from an untreated concussion, I'm holding you responsible."
He took another step, then stopped, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring challengingly up at the Wraith, who stared back with guarded detachment, his impassive mask back in place. "And three - I woke up this morning wrapped in a fluffy cocoon of fur with you, and I have no recollection of how I got there, or what might have gone on. And since I'm not in the habit of jumping into bed with every Wraith I meet, I believe you owe me an explanation of how we ended up... snuggling!"
Ian stretched and clenched the fingers of his feeding hand slowly, his own ire rising as he considered the ungrateful, demanding man before him, the Wraith's frigid green gaze taking in McKay's face and form with a disdain he let the human see. It was bad enough he was treated like something McKay wanted to scrape from his boot every time they came into close proximity, although Ian could understand that and even forgive it. The enmity between their two species was eons old and not likely to fade anytime soon.
Worse than that was the ignorance and ingratitude the human displayed. McKay was more Wraithlike than Ian had imagined, mistaking his careful attention for weakness to be exploited. It was a game he was not about to play. He didn't like playing it with other Wraith, he certainly wasn't going to entertain a human's bid to dominate him.
"I owe you nothing," Ian snarled, baring sharp teeth. "I let you live – gave you back your life when I could have left you a dried-up husk back in the city."
Rodney uncrossed his arms and took a step back, alarm bells sounding in his head that maybe he'd pushed things a little too far.
The Wraith followed the retreating human, invading his personal space and looming menacingly until fear swam to the surface of McKay's eyes. "I brought you back here and took care of you, and when you fell asleep by the fire I carried you to my bed to keep you warm because you would not stop shivering." His eyes narrowed, taking a measure of satisfaction in the fear he'd aroused in Rodney's frightened blue gaze. "I did these things because I thought we had an agreement – or were at least negotiating one, but your lack of appreciation for simple kindness is forcing me to reconsider."
"But... But..," Rodney sputtered. For all his complaining and posturing, the last thing he wanted was to be turned out of the Wraith's camp. The creature not only had a nice little place set up here, but he also knew his way around, and offered invaluable protection against the voracious predators – well, the other voracious predators - that roamed the forest, not to mention the fact that he was company, and without him, McKay would be alone.
Ian shook his head, resolute. "Go," he pointed in the general direction of Rodney's abandoned lakeside camp. "Fend for yourself for a while, and see how you do on your own." The Wraith paused for a moment then turned and stalked to the other side of the firepit, grabbing up what looked like McKay's other set of clothes lying in the tall grass. With spare, efficient movements, the warrior tossed the small items he'd found in Rodney's various pockets into the middle of the shirt and pants and wrapped everything up in a small bundle. He grabbed the canteen off the end of the lean-to on the way back and returned to McKay's side.
"Steer clear of the city, and avoid the forest after dark," Ian said as he thrust the slightly-damp clothes and the bottle into the human's hands.
Rodney looked down at the items he was holding like he'd never seen them before, then up at the Wraith, his eyes pleading with a mute appeal he couldn't bring himself to voice.
Ian snorted, grimly amused. McKay looked like he might have found that place from which gratitude springs – or at least motivated self-interest - but too late to appease the Wraith's temper today.
"I will come and find you when I need you," he growled as he turned away from the pathetic human standing, unwelcome, on the edge of his camp. "Perhaps the next time we meet you will have learned some humility."
The hot mid-afternoon sun beat down on the overgrown city center as a lone white-haired figure bent assiduously to his grisly task, doing his best to silence the maelstrom of emotions that had assailed him all morning – and failing, as he had all morning. Much to his consternation, as angry as he had been with the human, the Wraith had been tempted to recall McKay as he made his way across the field, the set of the man's slumped shoulders clearly conveying how keenly he'd felt Ian's rejection – or at least his expulsion from a warm bed and relative safety. With all the dangers – large and small – this planet had lying in wait for someone as unprepared to face them as McKay, Ian was concerned that he might be sending the man to his own demise.
On the other hand, for all that the warrior was generally easy-going, he had very little tolerance for McKay's attitude, and if they were going to try and survive this ordeal in tandem, the human needed to learn that lesson right away. Thus torn and indecisive, in the end he'd let him go, standing motionless while the other stumbled his way across the clearing. Once McKay disappeared into the forest, Ian moved as though released from a spell, and he'd immediately gathered what he'd needed and set out for the Ancient city, determined to distract himself to keep from tracking the human down and dragging him back to camp.
Bright sunlight glinted off the blade he held with practiced ease, inconveniently blinding him as he carefully inched his way through connective tissue. Working as much by instinct and touch, as by sight, Ian finally managed to divest the dead feline of its fur coat with one last slice. Huffing a sigh of relief, the warrior sat back and meticulously wiped the bloody blade clean on a clump of grass. Skinning was always the most nerve-wracking part, as it was, and he had been distracted by more than just random flashes of reflected sunlight and the interchange between himself and McKay, playing in an annoyingly-repetitive loop in his head. He hadn't counted on the long-suppressed memories of another human that had risen, unbidden – unwelcome – to the surface, in the wake of McKay's departure.
Re-sheathing his knife, the Wraith stood and dragged the heavy, wet pelt back, laying it skin-side up on the cracked pavement as he took a moment to survey his handiwork. After a night of feasting, the cat's brethren had left the carcass torn up at the belly and throat, but with some judicious trimming, the majority of the skin would still be serviceable once it was scraped and tanned.
Ian wondered if comparing his current companion with a man dead for thousands of years – and finding McKay wanting – was entirely fair. He was well-aware how recollections faded with the passage of time, knocking off the rough edges until they were worn smooth like pebbles caught in the tide. Still – McKay was a singularly maddening individual whose ego far outstripped his charm, and he was a poor substitute for the Wraith's preferred choice for human companionship – his first one, Merinus. He'd forbidden himself to even think about the man eons ago to maintain his sanity, but being thrown together with McKay had ripped open the wound he'd thought long-healed.
What surprised the Wraith the most was the depth of emotion he still felt for the human who had named him – even after all the countless centuries that had passed since the man had breathed his last. Merinus. Just the name made Ian's breath clog in his throat and he bowed his pale head against the onslaught of memories that threatened to overwhelm him. Such a fragile human – so short-lived, as they all were. It was one of the reasons Wraith generally avoided getting involved with them in the first place. But Ian been young at the time – on his first Hive and just beginning his warrior's journey – and the man, one who had served willingly, had been youthful and beautiful and so responsive, Ian had been in over his head before he knew it.
He could still almost hear Merinus groaning the secret name he'd given him passionately in his ear when the Wraith had taken him – whisper it, exhausted, as they lay spent and panting in the relative privacy of Ian's tiny, cell-like quarters, and cry it out – reaching for him mind-to-mind – one last, desperate time before his life was drained away by several of Ian's 'Brothers' who had decided that the youngling in their midst was getting far too serious about a mere Worshipper.
The Wraith looked over his shoulder at the suns' relative position to the park's treeline. It was about this same time yesterday that he had been dragging himself, more dead than alive, to McKay's side. He spared a glance down at his bare chest, once again flawless and smooth, remembering all-too-well the sensation of the beast's claws raking him - shredding him - as they'd battled for supremacy. Ian growled low in his throat at the memory. Even as weak and starved as he'd been, he'd still won – although it had been unclear who would be the victor until the very last. Whatever had startled the cat at the end had given the warrior an opening he never would have had otherwise, and he'd taken advantage of it without hesitation.
He'd learned many lessons that day so long ago, about the frailty of humans and the emotions they could inspire – about loss and pain, and the importance of burying everything behind an impenetrable mask. The band of warriors he'd nested with never knew how badly they'd broken him – he made sure of that – but they'd reaped the whirlwind soon afterwards, when, during a territory skirmish with another Hive, their Fighters were all destroyed, to a Wraith, in the chaos of battle. Ian's Dart, alone of their group, returned unscathed to its bay in the hangar, and when he emerged from his ship, cold, dark, and hollow inside, he vowed he would never let himself feel that way about a human again.
A grim smile stretched the Wraith's lips when he spied the dried, flaking remnants of his own dark blood on the creature's claws, reminding him how close this one had come to defeating him. Ian was not in the habit of taking trophies other than the pelts he'd methodically stripped from the felines he'd taken down, but yesterday's opponent had quite literally cut too close to the bone for him not to feel justified in claiming a prize. Crouching again, he drew his knife and reached for the blood-tipped claws.
Ian absently brushed strands of pale hair back from his face and stepped back from the frame he'd lashed the skin to, only then realizing that the sun was on the verge of setting. After struggling with his demons all day, he'd actually managed to lose himself in his work for a few hours, and felt oddly refreshed. Carefully laying aside his tools, the Wraith quickly busied himself around the camp, stirring the fire to life and stowing random items for the night.
He paused for a moment in the middle of shaking out the bedding when he caught McKay's scent in the fur. It had been comforting in a way he hadn't expected to have the human close by, and even after just one night, the desire to have another warm body to curl up with under the covers had been reawakened full-force. He may have kicked Rodney out for his own edification, but Ian was going to have to suffer through the lesson as well, it seemed.
In the hundred centuries or so since the loss of Merinus, the Wraith had packed memories of him away – both painful and pleasurable - and moved on. He eventually allowed himself the company of humans again – how could he not, they were nigh unto irresistible sometimes – but he kept his distance, carefully avoiding anything other than casual contact or a few brief encounters. Now here he was, stuck with Dr. Rodney McKay for who knew how long, and in just a couple of days the man had managed to strip all Ian's defenses away without even trying. His humorous antics and penetrating blue gaze had effortlessly drawn the Wraith in, while McKay's acerbic tongue and quick temper made him want to drain the human to within an inch of his life – again.
It wasn't until he kicked the human's pocketknife which had been lying half-hidden in the grass by the edge of the camp, that the Wraith's carefully-crafted calm crumbled. With a snarl of frustration he stooped to retrieve the blade, wondering how McKay could have been so careless as to lose something so vital to his survival. The warrior stood and scented the air, catching the faint odor of woodsmoke and fish, which meant the human had most-likely returned to his previous night's camp. The Wraith snorted, amusement warring with irritation. The man was nothing if not consistent.
He hefted the knife in his hand, considering it for a moment, then set out across the veld, sure-footed and silent in the growing darkness. He was just going to check on the human, he promised himself, and return McKay's blade while he was asleep. They did have an agreement, after all, and Ian needed the human alive and well. It had nothing to do with being personally concerned about the man's well-being – nothing at all.
Rodney hunkered down under the makeshift shelter he'd cobbled together out of branches and vines, at the edge of the sand where it met the woods, a miserable, sodden mess. He poked desultorily at the meager, smoky fire he'd built between the roots of a tree, and managed to keep burning with sticks he kept close by to dry out before tossing them on the sullen flames, wishing for the millionth time that he'd kept his fool trap shut instead of losing his temper and mouthing off to the Wraith. Although he doubted Ian's camp was any drier, McKay was positive that someone as old as the alien probably could be counted on to know how to survive weather like this in relative comfort, instead of the Neolithic-level of subsistence Rodney had been reduced to.
He'd done his best to comply with Ian's warning to avoid the forest once it was dark, but after three nights spent on the beach, curled up in a tiny, shivering ball by a fire that inevitably died at some point in the wee hours of the morning, leaving him with nothing but glowing embers to try and warm his chilled fingers over, the weather had broken. McKay had been awakened from his fitful slumber by a sudden, icy blast of cold air driving stinging sand into his skin, and the ominous roar and hiss of something huge rushing at him through the trees. For a brief, terrifying moment Rodney's sleep-addled brain had been unable to interpret what the hell was going on and had braced himself for impact, until the first, fat raindrop had landed on his nose. In the next instant, the heavens opened as the storm that had been rolling across the plains and through the forest, broke full-force onto the beach.
What little fire that had remained burning had been immediately doused, sending plumes of steam and smoke rising into the downpour, only to be whipped away by the gale-force winds. At that point, McKay had little choice but to hightail it into the forest, seeking shelter under the dense foliage of the trees.
It didn't work very well. The open, airy canopy could only do so much to protect him from the deluge. Cold and wet through to the skin, Rodney had crouched in the underbrush for hours, waiting for the rain to let up – in vain. When the sky had brightened marginally with the coming of day, the sun's heat beating down on the dense cloud-cover brought new meaning to the term hot and humid, and for a change-of-pace he'd sweltered instead of freezing, precipitation and sweat dripping freely from his body.
Since then, although the humidity remained high, the rain itself had tapered off from constant to intermittent, and Rodney could bank on at least two or three hours of clear sky between the two or three hour thunderstorms that followed. By the end of the first week it had finally reached the point where he didn't even care anymore, and ventured out to forage regardless of the inclement weather – the state of being comfortable and dry fading to a dim memory.
With a sigh of resignation Rodney picked up a stick and used it to push aside dirt and glowing charcoal at the edge of his tiny blaze, digging out the tubers he'd buried there earlier to bake. Driven to insane levels of risk by hunger, and the desire to ingest something other than what he caught in the lake, McKay had started randomly testing anything he stumbled across that looked even remotely edible. After some trial and error – and a two-day bout of vomiting and dysentery he hadn't been sure he would recover from when one of his experiments had gone horribly wrong - he'd managed to find a type of berry that reminded him, in both look and taste, of raspberries, and some tuberous roots that cooked up soft and sweet like yams. Between those and the ubiquitous fish – and the increased physical activity living rough seemed to require, he'd easily lost ten pounds in the past two weeks.
It wasn't a diet he'd recommend to anyone.
Rodney jabbed at the steaming potatoes with his finger, impatiently waiting for them to cool. He'd never liked yams and sweet potatoes. In fact, he'd always really hated them - so it was especially humiliating after a life spent avoiding them, that he should be so eager to tear into their blackened jackets and devour them. He supposed he should be used to the indignation by now. The fact that one of his least favorite foods was about all he currently had available to him just felt like another cosmic joke, one of the many he'd had played on him lately.
A sudden tickle at the back of McKay's sinuses devolved into a violent sneeze, leaving his head clogged and his throat raw. Great, he mused grimly, On top of everything else, I'm getting sick, too.
He sniffled pathetically, and gazed longingly in the direction of Ian's homestead. Even though he couldn't see it, the cozy, dry warmth of the Wraith's lean-to, and all those soft, dense furs beckoned to McKay through the stand of trees. Although he didn't want to admit it, the memory of the Wraith himself, and the way he'd treated Rodney like he was made of glass had been kind of nice, too. Quickly pushing that thought aside, McKay wondered if he should make the journey again, over the river and through the woods, to the other's camp, and see if he was around.
He'd already gone twice since Ian had kicked him out, hoping to wheedle his way into the Wraith's good graces enough to be welcomed back, but the creature hadn't been there either time. McKay was starting to think he might have screwed things up beyond repair, and wondered if Ian had heard him coming both times, and had made himself scarce. Rodney had been so sure, in the beginning, that the Wraith just needed a little time to cool down, and that Ian was going to come and drag him back to camp in a few hours. When the sun had started to set on that first day with no sign of the warrior, he finally realized that maybe Ian had meant what he'd said, after all. It had been a rude awakening.
Rodney pressed his lips into a thin, tight line and shook his head emphatically. No – he wasn't up for another trek through the muddy quagmire the forest floor had become, especially if it meant being met, yet again, by an empty camp and no resolution.
He reached for the nearest yam, testing it cautiously with his fingers, then his palm, and finally wrapping his hand around the warm, dry skin. A crooked smile lit up his pinched features as he grabbed the second potato in his other hand, letting the heat seep into his cold, stiff fingers. For several minutes McKay sat completely still, head bowed and eyes closed as he clutched the tubers to his chest, shutting out the cold dampness of his surroundings and his growling stomach. A little whimper of pleasure escaped his lips at the exquisite sensation of spreading warmth, and he vowed never to take such a simple-yet-wonderful experience for granted again.
Several meters above Rodney, hidden by dense, wet foliage, Ian shifted carefully on his perch. Wrapped in his Wraithskins, he pulled his hood, usually kept rolled and tucked inside the high collar of his coat, forward against the rain that was picking up again, grateful for the waterproof quality of the leather-like material.
The soft patter of raindrops on leaves was almost hypnotic, and if the Wraith had had the opportunity, he would have liked to have spent some time in quiet meditation. As it was, he'd divided the majority of his time since the precipitous weather change between scouting the immediate area, looking for more suitable quarters, and keeping an eye on Dr. Rodney McKay.
It had been difficult keeping the promise he'd made to leave McKay to flounder on his own for a time, so Ian had compromised with himself by observing from the sidelines – close enough that he could step in if the human was in actual danger, without interfering with the object lesson in gratitude.
So far, things had gone well.
Both of McKay's ill-timed visits, the knowledge of which Ian had picked up easily from the man's mind, had both occurred when the Wraith had been traveling the foothills, but the human's subsequent insecurity over not finding him at home had gone a long way toward bringing the situation to a speedy resolution. Even the weather, itself, seemed to want to assist, adding insult to injury and redoubling McKay's misery tenfold.
Ian grinned as he watched McKay tear hungrily into the tubers he'd baked for himself. The man's resourcefulness in finding food had, quite frankly, surprised him, and it gave the warrior hope that McKay might be less of a burden and more of an active partner in their survival pact than he'd originally thought. He waited until the human finished his simple meal and laid down to try and get some sleep, then Ian rose silently, preparing to follow the path of tree limbs he'd used to get here undetected.
It was good that he'd checked on McKay tonight. The man was finally wretched enough that he was probably ready to be reasonable for a change, instead of argumentative. It almost made Ian reconsider his plans for the next few days, but with the abrupt change in the weather, it was imperative that he complete preparations for the inevitable winter to come as soon as possible. Since it only stood to reason that a couple more days of this would most likely make the man even more amenable, the Wraith decided to wait before bringing the man back into the fold, but when he returned - he and McKay were going to have a talk.
Ian set down the manual clippers next to him where he sat at the edge of the furs lining the lean-to and peered into a small mirror, checking the evenness of his beard. It had been a while since he'd trimmed it. Wraith hair grew slowly - but it did grow – and although he kept his facial hair much shorter than most Wraith, it had gotten scruffy.
Satisfied with its shape and length, he took an uncharacteristic second look at himself, reaching up to tentatively trace his fingers over the tattoo beneath his left eye. The four vertical lines started just underneath his lower lid and stopped along the slant of his cheekbone, highlighting both attractively - although that barely registered with the Wraith. For Ian, the mark was a constant reminder of the vermin who had callously slaughtered someone he'd cared about deeply – someone he'd been too young and inexperienced to protect. He carried it like a penance for something he could neither truly forgive nor forget, its presence the reason he rarely took the time to give himself more than a cursory glance.
His erstwhile Brothers had marked him as one of their own shortly before their final battle, and Ian had allowed it, going along so as not to arouse their suspicions that he harbored any ill-feelings toward them. After their deaths, others had expected him to rebuild the nest in their honor. As the last surviving member of the band of warriors that had claimed him, it was his right to do so, youthful as he'd been, but with no love lost for his fallen comrades' memories, he'd instead chosen to integrate into another band as opposed to creating his own. If there was one thing he could be certain of, it was that he would never mark another Wraith with the symbol of a nest he'd exterminated without remorse. He'd kept the tattoo, though, even when he'd had the opportunity to change it, as an admonition to keep his guard up, especially with those closest to him.
It was a difficult thing to do on a Hive. Surrounded by Wraith of all ranks and specialties, their very existence part of the soothing subliminal hum that suffused his body and mind with a sense of strength and well-being, he'd nonetheless diligently walled himself off from their camaraderie. It had made for a rather singular existence in the midst of the abundance that characterized life aboard a Hive ship, but it had become second nature after so many centuries, he had grown used to it.
Ian snorted, grimly amused. Ironically, his self-imposed isolation probably went a long way toward explaining his ability to survive an extended separation from the Hive as well as he had.
One last look and he put everything back in his kit. It had been a relief to return from his three-day journey, secure in the knowledge that he'd achieved what he'd set out to do. Ian had considered heading right over to McKay's camp, but, mud-spattered, travel-weary, and anxious, he'd forced himself to detour home in order to clean up first before seeing the human. Striving for equilibrium he'd focused on washing, paring his claws, trimming his beard, and he'd even taken a swipe at his coat with a damp rag, trying to remove the worst of the mud, but the familiar processes had not soothed him as they so often did.
Ian did his best to avoid thinking about why he'd suddenly gone to such great lengths to groom himself, but the fact that he'd kept glancing toward the treeline, half-expecting company at any moment, and vaguely disappointed when it had not appeared, made his motives transparent even to himself, as much as he tried to deny them. It wasn't until he stowed his bag with trembling fingers that Ian allowed himself to identify the sensation he'd been experiencing ever since he'd set foot on the veld. The fluttering in his midsection, the tingling in his toes, the shakiness of his hands – it was the adrenaline rush of excitement. And indeed he was – brimming with satisfaction and eager to share his good news with McKay.
The human had been on his mind almost incessantly since he'd sent him away. The scent of the man, and the feel of him in Ian's arms haunted the Wraith every night when he laid his head down alone, wishing he'd had McKay there to curl up around. It had taken all his willpower to keep to the shadows while the human had shivered and dripped, propped against a tree trunk and slumbering fitfully under inadequate shelter, but Ian had withstood the temptation, hoping against hope that the harsh lesson they were both enduring would make its way through McKay's stubborn pride. Fortunately, as of three days ago, it looked like it finally had.
The Wraith stood and tossed his hair, brushed into silky waves, back over his shoulders as he gazed out from under the tarp he'd rigged over the lean-to and firepit. Other than the occasional spray of droplets blown through by errant gusts of wind, it was a snug, dry sanctuary in the middle of the rain-drenched field.
For the moment, the perpetual storm had abated to a fine drizzle, and the crepuscular gloom of the late afternoon sky brightened to an almost-cheerful murky grey. The ancient one studied the clouds for a moment and determined it would be at least a few hours before the next downpour. This was the perfect time for a stroll.
Without further ado, Ian strode across the field, black boots sinking ankle-deep in mud as he made his toward the forest, and Rodney's camp beyond.
Ian emerged from the trees near McKay's original camp, glancing down at the remains of the last fire the human had lit before the heavens opened, the firepit now just a faint depression in the sand filled with charred, drenched wood and soaked ash. Turning in a slow circle, the warrior looked around - up and down the desolate beach, and at the water, its dark purple-black hue of a slow-healing bruise reflecting the low-hanging, threatening clouds. It was good that he had come to bring the man home. This was no place to pass the time alone for too long.
The Wraith moved carefully over the wet sand, instinctively approaching McKay's new accommodations silently. It wasn't until he had almost reached them that Ian remembered he actually wanted the human to know he was there for a change, and made sure to rattle the bushes as he pushed them aside, stepping once again from the beach into the forest. He snorted with frustration when he entered McKay's camp, only to find it empty as well.
Ian had hoped that maybe McKay would cooperate for once and make this easy. Apparently, that just wasn't his way. A frown creased the Wraith's brow when he knelt by the human's tiny campfire. It had been allowed to go out. He held his hand over the embers. They were still slightly warm, but not hot enough to indicate a fire had burned there at all that day, which was unusual. Ian knew from observing the man over the past couple of weeks, that McKay had made sure to keep the little blaze going day-and-night for whatever warmth and dryness he could glean from it.
He paused, lifting his head and sniffing at the humid air, spiracles flaring as he tried to locate McKay, but all he could detect was burnt wood, ozone, and the wet, green stench of rotting vegetation. With all the rain, any of the human's identifying scents had long since been washed away. He was going to have to rely on his other senses to track down the truant.
The first faint tendrils of concern twining their way up his spine, the Wraith stood and pulled back the flimsy roof of leafy branches McKay had inexpertly lashed together, revealing an empty bed – although one of his shirts was balled up on one end, possibly being used as a pillow, and the small white box marked 'first aid kit' that had been in one of his vest pockets was tucked carefully next to it – so the man hadn't packed up and left. The question was – where had Rodney gone that he would allow his fire to go out, yet leave behind his few possessions?
Pushing aside his rising anxiety, Ian closed his eyes and centered himself, then cast his mind outward, seeking McKay's. After several minutes of searching he came back to himself, a rush of adrenaline coursing through his system inspired by fear this time rather than excitement. The human was nowhere to be found.
Blowing out a long, slow breath, the Wraith sought to calm himself. There were many reasons his attempt to locate the human telepathically could have failed. It might be as simple as McKay being asleep. Human minds were not easily detected or accessed while they slept. Or maybe he'd found a cave somewhere, or traveled to the city against Ian's advice. If the human was deep inside a hillside or exploring a building, the stones themselves, depending on their crystalline structure, could have impaired his ability to reach him, especially now, since the warrior's range and strength was significantly reduced by the meager meal he'd had, already almost three weeks gone.
The Wraith swallowed. He didn't even want to entertain the other, more unpleasant possibilities for McKay's radio silence. Not yet, anyway.
Undaunted by his own apprehension, Ian raised a hand and cupped it next to his mouth, reduced by circumstances to calling for the human in a decidedly human way before listening again. Still nothing.
He considered the sky. If he was lucky he still had a few more hours of daylight, such as it was. Although with his superior night vision the Wraith could hunt after dark, scent played a significant role in nocturnal tracking, and that advantage had been lost with the rain. If he was going to find McKay, it had better be soon. Slipping into hunting mode, Ian moved deliberately around the camp with new eyes, trying to pick up clues as to where the human had gone. Although McKay had apparently trampled all over the small clearing with impunity, the warrior eventually found some branches that looked newly-broken, leading deeper into the woods, in the general direction of the Wraith's camp.
Like any good hunter, Ian followed the trail he hoped would lead him to his prey.
The Wraith pulled his hood up as the rain started up again, painfully aware that he was no closer to finding Rodney than he had been three hours earlier when he'd left the human's encampment. Following in McKay's wake hours, perhaps days, later through a rain-soaked forest wasn't the easiest of tasks, even for a Wraith, and he'd had to tread with care as he traveled haltingly through the woods, being forced to backtrack several times when he'd lost the trail.
He'd called out to McKay on numerous occasions with no answer, and searched for him telepathically so often his head was starting to hurt, but it wasn't until he picked the first patch of soft white fur off a bent twig that Ian began to lose hope. While the human might have started out alone, it appeared that he'd picked up company along the way.
The Wraith stopped for a moment, pressing the palm of his hand against his abdomen. He felt as if he'd been punched there - and hard - as the very real possibility that the human could be dead and beyond his powers to resuscitate settled like a cold weight in his chest.
Reluctantly resigning himself to the escalating odds that the worst-case scenario might, in fact, have occurred, Ian moved much more slowly through the trees now, the faint phosphorescent glow of his eyes evident in the forest's gloom as he scanned the ground ahead of him for signs of a struggle, or... remains. He passed another few freshly-broken branches, indicating something large had passed this way relatively recently. Considering the erratic nature of the trail he'd been following and the tufts of undercoat he'd been plucking from underbrush with increasing regularity, it seemed likely that McKay had, indeed, been running from one of the large felines.
Ian automatically scented the air again to see if he could pick up a trace of either McKay or the cat – to no avail. The overwhelming odor of decomposing leaves was even stronger deep within the stand of trees than it had been at the edge, and it masked all else. They could be just ahead or miles away - at this point it was impossible to tell. He was going to have to be right on top of them to smell anything.
Even though he accepted that it was most likely a futile gesture, the Wraith shouted for the human again from where he stood, rooted to the spot, the normally-gruff voice echoing off the trees even rougher from overuse and viciously-suppressed emotion. After several minutes of calling McKay's name, Ian fell quiet and still, and listened with every fiber of his being – every means at his disposal. Opening himself up mentally, as well, in spite of the dull ache throbbing in his temples, the warrior scanned the woods, although he expected nothing.
Greeted by silence as he had been all along, the Wraith heaved a weary sigh and started following the trail of snapped twigs again, although his heart was no longer in it. He was just beginning to consider breaking off his search altogether when something distracted him.
He halted in his tracks, looking around cautiously, although he wasn't even sure if it had been something visual that had caught his attention. Scarcely breathing, he listened to the sounds around him. Rain on leaves – the chattering of forlorn forest-dwellers complaining about the weather – nothing unusual.
Suddenly, there it was again – something tugging at the edge of his mind, faint and indistinct, like a transmission coming over a badly-tuned transceiver. Ian's breath clogged in his throat. Could it be?
He narrowed his focus, reaching for whatever it was that seemed to be searching for him.
'McKay?' Ian whispered along that fragile bond, scarcely daring to hope. There was a pause, and the Wraith started to wonder if in his desperation he'd imagined things, when he received a reply; a single, quiet word that left him trembling.
Gratitude so fierce it almost choked him, welled up inside. McKay was alive – weak, confused, but very definitely alive.
The Wraith took off through the woods, allowing Rodney's flickering consciousness to guide him. Heedless of the rain that had started to come down in driving sheets, ignoring the branches he barely cleared or snapped off altogether in his haste, the warrior's only thought was to reach McKay before he faded out again.
He was so intent on his quest that the soft, sodden ground suddenly giving way beneath his boots almost sent him into a gully.
Twisting with catlike reflexes, the Wraith caught hold of a sapling and managed to pull himself back from the edge, then crouched next to the drop to take stock of his surroundings. The hillside was steep, almost vertical, but not very deep – only a few meters at most. The tangled roots of trees exposed by rapid erosion adorned its narrow walls, and from the deepening shadows the sound of a small, rocky, rain-swollen stream rushing along at the bottom reached his sensitive ears. He glanced up and down the ravine, trying to see if McKay was anywhere close by, but the rapidly-approaching nightfall and rain that was falling hard and fast, conspired to reduce even Ian's abilities to almost nil.
He gently tugged on the tenuous link between himself and Rodney to try and get a better fix on the man's location, but only the directionless static of a barely-functioning mind echoed back. Realizing that in the few brief seconds he'd been distracted, the connection had dropped out, the warrior searched frantically until he picked up the fragile thread again and reached for the human. 'Are you still with me, McKay?'
"No," the Wraith snarled under his breath. "I'm not losing you now."
Ian pressed cold, muddy fingers to his throbbing temple, narrowed his focus, and began forcing his way into McKay's head. While he had a link to Rodney's mind, he needed the human conscious if he was going to locate him, and if it took mind rape to find him in the trackless forest, then so be it. In the same instant he felt the human's barrier give, sudden, blinding pain, and what sounded like a faint groan from somewhere downstream slammed Ian back into his own skull with a surprised gasp.
Doing his best to shake off the unexpected backlash, the Wraith catapulted himself off the edge of the ravine, barely touching down in the shallow stream before sprinting in the direction of the human's pained noise. He rounded the bend at full tilt, only to have to scramble in order to avoid a cat beast lying on the rocky bank. The Wraith's knife was in his hand before he'd realized he'd drawn it, but the stench that hit him full-force as he ground to a halt beside the white-furred predator informed him that it was very, very dead. Already bloating in the subtropical conditions, the warrior estimated it had to have been lying there for at least a day and a half.
Of Rodney there was no sign.
"McKay?" Ian called out. "Where are you?"
Another muffled groan emanated from somewhere on the other side of the feline's considerable bulk. The Wraith sheathed his blade and stepped around the beast to find McKay lying half-buried beneath it, soaked and shivering and squinting up at him like he wasn't sure Ian was real.
The Wraith, likewise, took a moment to try and process what he was seeing, relief and confusion warring for dominance. He recovered quickly and knelt next to the trapped human, concealing his immense gratitude for having found him alive behind a wry smile.
"McKay, why is it that whenever I locate you, I only ever find your top half?"
Rodney managed a wan, crooked grin, his eyes slipping shut as Ian reached out and ran gentle fingers down his cheek. "Cool," he muttered. "So cool."
The smile faded from the warrior's face. The man was burning up.
The Wraith leapt to his feet and leaned into the feline's carcass, intent on rolling the thing off McKay. Considering how bad the cat smelled this close up, it was fortunate, indeed, that the almost-continuous downpours and the overpowering stench of rotting woodlands had masked it from its brethren. If they had descended upon it the night before, as was their habit, Ian doubted he would have found Rodney alive.
As Ian struggled to move the dead weight, he noticed the beast's head was twisted to a strange, unnatural angle. Glancing up at the ridge of the ravine, the Wraith could just make out the hole in the treeline where the cat and McKay must have crashed through with enough force to tumble them both into the gully and break the feline's neck upon impact.
Amazed that Rodney had survived the fall, Ian returned and knelt again by his side, where the glassy-eyed human was lying on his back and twitching as circulation started returning to his lower extremities.
"I-I-an," McKay stammered as he groped for the Wraith, his teeth chattering. "I'm so-sorry."
The warrior sighed. It didn't matter anymore – whatever had separated them. The point he'd been trying to make wasn't worth the human's life. He allowed Rodney to clumsily grasp his hand while he assessed the man for damages. Miraculously, nothing seemed broken, but McKay's fingers were so hot they felt as if they were scorching him.
"All is forgiven, Rodney," Ian murmured softly as he gathered the feverish human into his arms. He stood carefully, his precious cargo's head resting against a Wraithskin-clad shoulder.
"Can we go home now?" Rodney asked in a small, uncertain voice, even as he lost the battle he'd been waging with his eyelids, and they slid firmly shut.
"Of course," the Wraith replied as he clutched the unconscious human more securely to him and started back to camp.
Groggy and feverish and shivering so hard he thought he'd rattle himself to pieces, Rodney reluctantly opened his eyes the first time to someone quietly-but-insistently called his name. It took him a moment to focus his bleary vision, the bright firelight silhouetting the figure leaning over him hurting his light-sensitive eyes. Every muscle and bone ached from the chills that racked his body, and even the act of thinking – never mind thinking clearly – was beyond him. Frowning and confused, he felt a blessedly-cool hand slip behind his neck, carefully lifting him up off the soft furs he was nestled in just far enough to keep the canteen being held to his cracked lips from spilling.
"Drink, McKay," a gruff, familiar voice murmured. "It is an herbal remedy I have seen used with some success."
Rodney hesitated for a moment as the words penetrated his fever-addled brain. Herbal remedies equaled bad news in his book. He was well-acquainted with all manner of tonics and teas Teyla was always foisting on him – Athosian herbal medicine at its finest - and every one of those were absolutely horrible. He turned his head away, trying to resist, but the hand on his neck tightened slightly, holding him still as the canteen was pressed to his lower lip. Since refusal was apparently not an option, and he was as in no condition to really put up a fight anyway, McKay gave in and drank the tepid liquid. He glared up at his captor as he did so, his face settling into lines of vague disgust at the unpalatable concoction being forced upon him.
A low chuckle reached his ears as he grimaced and swallowed.
"My apologies, Rodney," Ian replied to the unspoken accusation, as he laid McKay back down and recapped the canteen. "I know it tastes terrible, but it will help reduce your fever."
Exhausted from the effort of blinking and swallowing, Rodney's heavy lids slid shut again. He barely registered the soothing fingers that rested tenderly against his brow then his cheek, but as he slipped back into a fitful slumber, he felt oddly comforted.
The next time McKay regained some semblance of consciousness, it was a sudden lurch that had him opening his crusty eyes to a threatening, leaden sky and a chilly breeze nipping at his cheek. He instinctively tried to reach up to touch his cold face, even as he realized he was tied down and unable to move. His fever still raged, ravaging his body and scattering his thoughts, and unable to process what was happening, he spasmed as panic set in.
The movement of whatever he was tied to ceased - it was only then that Rodney realized he'd been moving at all – and he felt his angle shift as it was settled to the ground. In the next instant the Wraith was kneeling next to him, his coat fastened against the brisk air and his long, white hair pulled back into a loose braid. Shifting the large pack strapped to his back, Ian laid a reassuring hand on Rodney's chest, although McKay could barely feel it through the layers of fur he was wrapped in. Suddenly it dawned on him that as opposed to being trapped, he was securely-strapped to a travois of some kind, cocooned in furs and as safe as a papoose on a cradle board. Breathing a sigh of relief, Rodney's panic dissipated almost immediately while Ian grinned down at him.
"Ah, you felt that. Good."
It took a moment, but Rodney frowned up at him when he realized what the warrior meant. "Get out of my head, Wraith," he croaked weakly.
Ian threw his head back and laughed out loud. "You must be on the mend, McKay. Your temper is resurfacing."
Rodney replied with a petulant scowl.
The Wraith gently pulled the edges of the pelt closer to McKay's face to shield him from the wind, then stood and considered his handiwork with a critical eye. Apparently satisfied that everything was still securely-fastened and the human wasn't about to escape anytime soon, he met Rodney's rheumy, blue gaze, his expression visibly-softening as he did so. "You should rest," Ian advised. "We are almost there."
With that, he left Rodney's field of vision, and in the next moment McKay was treated to a dizzying change of perspective when the ends of the sledge were picked up again. With a tug, Ian started dragging it forward over the rough terrain, to where - Rodney had no idea. Wherever it was, the Wraith had assured him they were almost there, so McKay closed his eyes and let the gentle rocking of the travois lull him back to sleep.
The third time Rodney awoke from his stupor, he was nose-to-nose with a sleeping Wraith in the confined semi-darkness of the lean-to, tangled in furs and limbs, and burning up from the inside as his fever spiked yet again. He wondered briefly if he'd dreamed the disgusting tea and the strange, uncanny journey tied to a board, when another wave of heat swept through him. Feeling vaguely claustrophobic, McKay's head pounded as he shifted uncomfortably in the confines of the overheated sleeping chamber.
Suddenly he was aware that Ian was awake and looking at him, the soft-phosphorescent afterimage of his eyes wreaking havoc with Rodney's already-compromised vision.
"So hot," McKay groaned as he pushed ineffectually at his bunkmate. Chest-to-chest, skin-on-skin, Rodney didn't even care at this point. Exhausted and aching from heat-to-toe, he just wanted this debilitating illness to be over, one way or another.
"You are sweating, McKay," Ian whispered back, concern coloring his voice as he reached behind him and pushed the hatch up and over, letting light from the dying fire and the cool exterior air rush into their nest.
"No!" Rodney wailed, out-of-his-head, out-of-control. He flailed weakly when the fur was pushed back as well, exposing him to the coolness of the night, his body radiating heat even as he started shivering.
"You are burning up," the Wraith growled. "We need to bring your temperature down or you could have a seizure."
Clamping his aching jaws shut to try and keep his teeth from chattering, Rodney couldn't keep his body from shuddering. "Dammit," he ground out through clenched teeth, vacillating wildly between waves of fever and chills, and feeling like he wanted to cry. "Blanket!"
"At least take some water first," came the answer, and the canteen was held to his lips for what felt like the hundredth time while he sipped from it.
Wraith and thirst appeased, Rodney relaxed into a boneless heap and stretched out on his stomach as he felt the fur gliding up his body and its warm weight settling over his shoulders. Feverish and glassy-eyed, he watched as the warrior seated himself on the ground next to the sleeping alcove with a resigned sigh.
With slowly-dawning realization, which was about as close to surprise as he could muster at the moment, McKay noticed for the first time something that should have been apparent from the moment he'd regained consciousness: that Ian wore not a stitch of clothing - and that he wasn't wearing anything either. Strangely, Rodney felt no shame – no anger. He really didn't have the energy for either. He was just a little confused.
"You're naked," Rodney blurted out, squirming a little in the warm pelt as a frown of consternation creased his brow. The feel of the soft fur tickling his skin raised goosebumps that had nothing to do with the cold as his gaze traveled idly and openly over every visible inch of the muscled, tattooed warrior sitting next to him in all his green-skinned glory. Although he could barely lift a finger - and he certainly couldn't get it up - McKay could see that the Wraith was seriously hot.
It was like a present that up until now he hadn't been able to acknowledge he'd wanted.
Ian smiled, showing serrated teeth. "You have been a furnace for the last several days, McKay."
Rodney's eyes had begun to grow heavy, but a crooked smile stretched his lips. "Yeah, I guess I have."
Poised on the edge of sleep, a sudden surge of fear coursed through him and his eyes snapped open again. Curiously-attentive green ones gazed back.
"Am I going to die, Ian?" Rodney asked in a small voice, his heart pounding hard against the bedding.
The ghost of fleeting pain crossed the Wraith's features. "I am doing all I can to prevent it, Rodney," he murmured.
McKay nodded, which, lying face-down, meant rubbing his cheek against the fur. "I know," he replied, stretching a tentative hand out from under the covers. "Thank you."
As Rodney lost his battle with sleep again, cool fingers encircled his and squeezed gently.
Rodney frowned and stirred as sleep deserted him, the faint aroma of cooking food making his stomach twist with hunger for the first time in what suddenly felt like forever. The appetizing aroma dragged him the rest of the way to consciousness, and as McKay blinked the sleep out of his eyes he realized that he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. He stared into the lean-to's slanted concave angle although it was nearly invisible in the shadows, wondering if he had the strength necessary to actually push the hatch back and find out what was on the menu. It took him three tries before he even managed to turn over, and another few minutes of exhausted panting before he recovered enough to reach for the handle. His fingers had just grazed it when he heard a click as it was opened from the outside.
A moment later the door was lifted and flipped back to reveal a curious, concerned Wraith. "You look like you actually might live, for a change," Ian rumbled softly by way of greeting. "Your fever finally broke during the night."
A pleased smile tugged at the corner of the Wraith's mouth as he reached over and pressed the back of his hand against Rodney's forehead. The unexpected contact sent an odd tingle through McKay, and he found himself instinctively leaning into the creature's touch. Gentle fingers trailed down his cheek before the warrior sat back on his heels to assess his patient, his gaze traveling slowly over Rodney's face and form in that creepy, covetous way that set his heart racing. Shivering under Ian's scrutiny, McKay pulled the fur blanket closer, telling himself it was the cool air circulating through the cave and not the Wraith's heated glance roaming over his body like a lover's caress that had sent a frisson down his spine. He felt his face flush at the thought, and looked away when he realized that Ian could probably sense his inner turmoil, and its reason. The Wraith's grin confirmed he was probably correct. Damn Wraith.
With a grunt of satisfaction the warrior pushed himself up from this crouch and returned to the fire, and for the first time since he'd awakened, McKay got a good look at his surroundings – well, at Ian, anyway. For a moment the Wraith was all he could see, although the alien was dressed this time, Rodney noted with a pang of disappointment. He quickly squelched that emotion, although he couldn't erase the memory of the other's smooth, sculpted body, muscles gleaming softly in the firelight, even if he tried – and in all honesty, he wasn't trying very hard.
Finally tearing his gaze away from the alien, he looked around, confused, trying to slot the familiar with the unfamiliar in a way that made sense. After a moment of disorientation he realized that while he was lying in the same lean-to, and that the same tanning frame was set up across the fire, they were no longer located in the middle of a field, but in a spacious cavern. Soft, diffused daylight filtered in from a small crevice high in the curved ceiling, obscured by smoke drawn from the low-burning fire in an updraft, and from the mouth of the cave, which was partially-covered with one of the furs. Vague memories of a fever dream he'd had where he was tied to a sled being dragged somewhere by the Wraith rose to the surface of his mind. It only now that Rodney understood it hadn't been a dream at all. At some point during his illness, Ian had packed everything up – including him - and moved them to a new location, lock, stock, and barrel.
Rodney slowly pushed himself into a sitting position, his arms shaking with the effort of supporting his own weight before he was even halfway up. Determined to succeed even though he could feel what little strength he possessed deserting him, he instead drew on his stubbornness, and with one last surge of forward momentum, he made it. Finally upright and gasping for breath, he scrubbed his hand wearily over his face, surprised to find that the bushy, mountain man beard that had come in over the past few weeks was gone. In fact, the length of the stubble on his cheeks indicated he'd just been shaved the day before.
McKay slanted a glance at the Wraith, who was busy by the fire with his broad, bare back to him, and the magnitude of what the creature had done for him while he'd been out-of-his-head crowded Rodney's memory in a vignette of disjointed images and sensations that left him shaken and humbled. From what he could recollect, Ian had kept him alive by sheer force-of-will, battling the fever like it had been a foe to be vanquished.
While the majority of the details were fuzzy and indistinct, what McKay did recall was a tenderness which had surprised him when he'd been lifted for sips of water and tea; cool, soothing hands gently caressing his feverish face and his neck, and the sensation of Ian's bare skin touching his while a strong, sinewy arm rested protectively across his abdomen. It was something McKay had barely registered at the time, but the memory burned sharp and clear now, leaving him breathless.
What bothered Rodney was that he wasn't like that. He usually didn't notice men that way. Well, he amended, maybe he did – a little – when it came to John.
But Ian was a Wraith – a life-sucking energy vampire. The enemy. He shouldn't be feeling this way about someone – something – that had already stolen years of his life from him, and was planning on doing it again. In fact, McKay fumed, he wouldn't even be in this predicament at all if the damn thing hadn't culled him in the first place, for the express purpose of taking him back to its Hive for dinner.
Ian moved into his field of vision as he knelt and stirred something that was simmering in a large shell nestled in the glowing embers of the firepit, and Rodney stopped mid-rant, his train of thought derailed by the other's eerie, exotic beauty. McKay snorted with grim amusement when he realized he'd been so thoroughly distracted. He knew himself too well. While he might be thinking all the right thoughts about resisting the enemy – death before dishonor, blah, blah, blah - and he was pretty sure if he kept going he'd be able to work up a good head of steam, in reality his arguments meant nothing. He was already hooked.
Even though he'd never been with a guy before, and definitely not a Wraith, it was only the two of them on this planet for who knew how long. If, at some point, Ian decided he wanted him for... recreational purposes, McKay already knew he would probably give in without too much of a fight.
Rodney's sunken cheeks were still flushed cherry-red with the embarrassment of his realization when Ian returned to his side, carrying an inverted, hand-sized turtle shell. The warrior settled next to him holding the shell carefully, and once seated, McKay understood why. It contained liquid – soup or broth of some kind from the smell of it, and his stomach growled appreciatively when the scent wafted his way. The Wraith chuckled softly as he handed over the bowl, helping Rodney to steady it as he raised it to his lips.
Hunger replaced chagrin in a heartbeat, and he offered Ian a smile of thanks before blowing across the surface of the soup, rippling it with his breath. It smelled even better up close, and Rodney was eager to break his extended fast, but the ingrained habit of years made him pause on the verge of his first taste, suddenly unsure. His life depended on the ingredients under the best of circumstances, and their current conditions were far from ideal. While the broth was hot and steamy, and its meaty, onion-y aroma made his mouth water, reminding him vaguely of French Onion soup, it was still a concoction which had been put together by something that didn't eat food. Who knew what it contained.
Looking up over the edge of the turtle shell, McKay met the other's reptilian eyes. Slitted pupils widened when their gazes locked and the Wraith tilted his head questioningly.
"Um – what's in it?" Rodney asked. "How do you know it's edible?" A concerned frown creased his brow as he thought of something else. "There's no citrus in this, is there? I'm deathly allergic."
The Wraith considered him for a long moment, looking slightly offended at having his skills called into question. "Allium," he finally replied, "Some herbs, and a small woodland creature. One you had mentioned reminded you of something called a rabbit."
McKay gasped, stricken. They'd spied several of the furry, adorable little critters hopping through the underbrush the evening Ian had carried him back from the City.
"Skinned and dressed, of course. There is no fur in the soup, if that's what you're concerned about," the alien continued, green eyes twinkling as he watched Rodney carefully, and McKay got the distinct impression that the Wraith was pushing buttons for the sake of seeing him react.
"Of course," McKay echoed sarcastically, trying not to think about the fact that he was about to have the Pegasus Galaxy's version of Thumper for breakfast. He scowled up at the Wraith, who was doing his best to suppress a smirk, when suddenly Rodney's stomach gurgled again – loudly – reminding them both that he was famished. He quickly ran down the rest of the list in his head. Allium. That was Latin for garlic, technically, although Ian probably meant onions in this case, herbs, and meat – it was French Onion soup, well, minus the wine, and the toasted bread and cheese. Satisfied that Ian actually might have some idea of what he was doing, after all, Rodney raised the bowl to his lips, disregarding Ian's warning to be careful, it was hot. He immediately scalded his tongue, but McKay didn't care, even when he swallowed and felt it burn all the way down. The broth was delicious.
"You made this?" Rodney croaked, incredulous. "It's wonderful!"
Ian's lips twitched, and he nodded. "I may not eat as you do, but that doesn't mean I don't know how to cook."
McKay blew across the surface of the liquid a second time to cool it, then took another, more cautious sip. "Mmmm – why would you bother to learn?"
The Wraith shrugged, an amazing display of shifting musculature under smooth skin that just begged to be touched. Rodney dragged his gaze away and concentrated on his soup.
"It was something to do - a skill I picked up along the way which seemed like it might be useful. You must remember, McKay, I have been interacting with humans for a very long time. You are not the first person I have cooked a meal for."
Rodney paused for a moment, intrigued in spite of himself. He would have liked to have asked for more details, but between one moment and the next he suddenly ran out of steam, and his eyelids started to droop. Draining the last of the cooling broth from the shell, he held it out to the creature sitting next to him.
"Thank you. That was really good."
Ian took it with a nod. "You are welcome to it. There is more when you want it."
Rodney struggled to keep his eyes open, but it was a losing battle, like so many he'd fought today. Ian smiled and set the empty shell aside, then leaned over to help McKay lie down again. Rodney would have liked to have protested, insisting he could do it himself, but the truth was that he really couldn't - and was inordinately grateful for the assistance. Settling into the furs, he watched drowsily as the Wraith stood and took the bowl with him back to the fire, allowing the universally-familiar sounds of cleaning up after a meal lull him to sleep.
He hadn't even realized he'd almost reached that blessed state of oblivion, until Ian's gravelly voice penetrated the comforting darkness he'd been sinking into. Reluctantly, McKay dragged himself back from the edge of slumber, trying to focus on what was being said.
"...and later I will help you outside so you may relieve yourself." The Wraith turned back to what he was doing, leaving Rodney to ponder how that particular issue had been addressed while he'd too sick to function, and decided he didn't want to know. Suffice it to say, he readily-acknowledged that Ian had cared for him with a devotion that would have put McKay's own mother to shame – and he wondered again at the Wraith's motives.
On the surface it was obvious that Ian needed him alive to feed on, so it only made sense that he'd do whatever was required to see Rodney through the illness. On the other hand, McKay had been injured and ill and at the tender mercy of the medical profession more times than he cared to count since he'd joined the Atlantis expedition, and even when Jennifer had attended him, he'd never received the level of care the Wraith had lavished upon him. That, coupled with the nightly snuggling and the tender, unguarded glances he'd caught Ian casting his way when the warrior had thought he wasn't paying attention, and Rodney wondered if there was more on the alien's mind than his next meal.
As disturbing as it was to admit it, McKay was kind of, sort of starting to hope so.
Stomach full of tasty soup, and exhausted from the effort of sitting up to eat it, Rodney's eyes started slipping shut of their own volition before he had a chance to pull the furs up to his chin. As he drifted off, he felt the covers being settled higher on his chest, and a crooked smile stretched his lips.
He was pretty sure that was a yes.
Ian sat cross-legged and still on an outcropping of rock just above the entrance to the cave, his eyes closed and his breathing slow and even. The interminable storms had finally abated to occasional rather than constant, and their passing had left the weather much cooler during the day and almost frosty at night. The Wraith pulled his coat closed as he lifted his face to the bright afternoon sunshine, the light dancing purple and white behind his closed eyelids. Although he wasn't looking forward to the colder days ahead that this precipitous drop in temperature promised, Ian did enjoy the faint nip in the air, and the bracing breeze blowing his long, pale hair this way and that across his shoulders.
After six days of constant care and concern that had bordered on worry, wondering whether McKay was going to make it or not, the Wraith felt he'd earned a little time to himself for some quiet meditation. Unfortunately, even with the fresh autumnal air, a comfortable, sunny spot, and no duties to attend to, the Wraith couldn't concentrate no matter how hard he tried. Sonorous snores issued from the cavern, and although they brought an amused smile to the corner of the ancient warrior's mouth, they were also random enough that they kept him from sinking into that state of perfect stillness which would allow his mind to soar.
Frustrating as it was, he had no one but himself to blame. The herbs he'd seasoned Rodney's meal with had included a powerful soporific, intended to keep the human drowsy and compliant while he recovered from his debilitating illness. Ian had been pleasantly surprised to find the plant growing in abundance in a nearby field, and although he'd only had the opportunity to work with the dried leaves in the past, he'd recognized it for what it was, and knew its purpose. Apparently he'd used a little too much in the stew, though. The human had almost passed out before he'd finished his meal.
Ian smirked. Although he was going to have to adjust the dose next time so McKay actually remained conscious, the Wraith did not regret resorting to such devious tactics. The man's fever had barely broken before he had already overtaxed himself by sitting up, even though he had trouble staying upright once he'd gotten himself there. Somehow, Ian had had a feeling McKay was going to be a terrible patient while he convalesced, and unfortunately, he'd been correct.
Another snore broke the stillness, and the Wraith officially gave up. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he unfolded his long legs and let them dangle over the ledge. Apparently there was to be no inner peace for him today. With a low growl, the warrior pushed himself off the outcropping and landed in a crouch by the entrance, a frown creasing his brow. As much as Ian wanted Rodney to rest, he found himself hoping that the man's drug-induced stupor would wear off soon. Thankfully, the human was normally a much quieter sleeping companion - which was fortunate for McKay. The Wraith doubted he would have been able to put up with those kinds of noises on a regular basis.
Ian rose slowly and approached the mouth of the cave. He pushed aside the heavy leather to allow light into the shadowy interior, his night-sensitive cat's eyes easily finding the human-shaped lump curled up under the furs on the partially-covered pallet by the fire. The Wraith paused in the doorway, an affectionate smile spreading across his face as he watched the pile rise and fall in time to McKay's stentorian respiration. Highly amused, he observed for a few moments, then decided that it was time to try and rouse the human from his slumber if only to bring an end to the terrible sounds he was making.
He had just ducked his head to enter the cavern when a surge of hunger – hot and intense – suddenly roared through his veins like wildfire. Ian drew back with a startled snarl, letting the skin fall back across the entrance while he leaned against the rock wall and waited for the unexpected jolt of pain to pass. In all honesty, he shouldn't have been surprised. He'd been ignoring the signs that this was coming for at least a week, burying his growing agitation in a whirlwind of activity, moving himself and the human from the rain-drenched field to the cave, and keeping Rodney alive through his illness.
To distract himself, the Wraith counted the days since he'd last fed, and realized it had already been more than a full lunar cycle since he'd first laid his hand on the human – his salvation, trapped under a pile of boulders. They'd made a fine pair right from the start, the two of them delirious with pain and blood-loss - their lives leaking out of wounds inflicted by the feline that Ian had left lying dead in the square. He'd been intent on killing the human in one, last glorious feast before succumbing to starvation, himself, until McKay had ended up saving them both with his strangely compelling proposition.
It had seemed like a simple enough agreement at the outset, but in the past month he and Rodney had gone through so much and grown so close, that their original arrangement now felt more like a problem than a solution. While, in truth, he'd always been McKay's deadliest enemy, in the span of just a few short weeks, Ian had also become his fiercest protector, and he was at a loss as to how to reconcile the two. He had no desire to visit upon the human the inescapable agony feeding brought, and yet Ian's very survival depended on him doing just that. It was a quandary he had mulled over quite often of late, and still hadn't been able to find a resolution. Unfortunately, he was fast-running out of time to find an alternative, and he wondered, when push inevitably came to shove, how he was going to justify inflicting that kind of pain on a man that all of Ian's instincts urged him to protect.
Another wave of need burned him to the core of his being, and it was all he could do not to cry out with the intensity of it. After he'd fed on McKay the first time he'd ended up giving most of the human's life back. The Gift had left the Wraith healed and whole again, but teetering on the brink of starvation, although at a level he could live with for the sake of keeping his only source of nourishment alive. Now, in the blink of an eye, his hunger had suddenly gone from bearable to excruciating, and it overwhelmed him with a vengeance that could not be denied. Ian clenched his fists against it, digging claws into his palms in an effort to bring himself back under control. He could sense the human's life-force close by, and it called to him on a level so primal, it took every ounce of restraint Ian possessed not to charge into the cave and take McKay right then and there.
The Wraith's predilection for human companionship aside, there had been something about McKay which had piqued his interest almost from the moment the man had regained consciousness after he'd been freed from the buffer. The human's combination of bravery and cowardice, his intelligence and ignorance – the way he could amuse and infuriate the Wraith – sometimes within moments of each other, had intrigued him. A strong man of many contradictions who nonetheless possessed all the frailties of humanity, Rodney had seduced him so completely with his striking blue eyes, quick wit, and sharp tongue, that Ian willingly grappled with his own nature to try and keep McKay safe.
After several minutes of silent struggle, the craving finally subsided, leaving the Wraith with the back of his head pressed against the rock face, exhausted and panting. He cradled his feeding hand to his chest, stretching and clenching his fingers as he willed the gaping maw to close, while the undischarged enzyme sacks in his wrist made his forearm ache. As much as Ian hated to admit it, he was going to need to feed sooner rather than later, while he still had some control. If he let himself go too long, there was no telling what kind of damage he could do without even realizing it, and he certainly didn't want to hurt Rodney anymore than necessary.
Still somewhat shaky from his ordeal, the Wraith pushed himself away from the hillside and took a moment to pull himself together. McKay didn't need to know he hungered – not yet. There was plenty of time yet before Ian reached the point where he became truly dangerous, and he wanted Rodney to be able to recuperate from his illness and regain his strength in peace, without the spectre of facing a Wraith's feeding hand hanging over his head.
Heaving a resigned sigh, Ian resumed the mantle of care-giver, his earlier joy subsumed by the voracious yearning that roiled just below the surface, subdued for the moment but far from defeated. When he felt he'd successfully hidden his ravenous expression behind one of bland pleasantness, he pushed aside the leather curtain and ducked into the cave.
It was almost dark. Time build up the fire and wake the human for his evening meal.
Rodney groaned in feeble protest when his shoulder was roughly shaken a third time. Jostled out of his dreamless slumber, he finally – reluctantly – dragged himself back to consciousness, automatically reaching for the Wraith he'd half-expected to find beside him. In fact, he mused as he stretched and turned over, he kind of hoped so - but by the time McKay had rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and focused, Ian was already crouched on the other side of the fire. A crooked grin split Rodney's face when his gaze met the green cat's eyes studying him from across the blaze, but the creature remained still, his expression wary and distant.
A frown replaced McKay's uncertain smile, and he struggled to rise, confused by the Wraith's cold reception. In the next instant Ian was next to him, pressing him back against the furs with a hand on each shoulder.
"You need to stay put for a while until you're feeling stronger," Ian growled, his strong fingers flexing as he loomed over Rodney's supine form.
"Is that all it took to get you over here?" McKay's smile returned as he relaxed against the bedding. He was definitely awake now, and basking in the nebulous sense of well-being that having Ian close by gave him.
"Do not press your luck, human," the Wraith ground out as his eyes narrowed. "I am not in the mood to have you try my patience tonight."
"Okay. Okay. I'll try to control myself." Rodney raised placating hands, a tendril of alarm unfurling in his belly. He wasn't sure just how frightened he should be at that moment. He'd only seen Ian like this twice, and both times it had been because McKay had brought it on himself. All he'd done this time was wake up.
Rodney studied the Wraith's face, trying to figure out what he could have possibly done wrong. Ian had been so patient with him the entire time he'd been sick, but now, all of a sudden, he was on-edge and short-tempered – and hurting him.
"Ouch! Hey!" Rodney exclaimed as he tried to twist out the warrior's grip. "By the way, could you let go of my shoulders? You're cutting off the circulation to my arms."
Ian snarled, sounding dismayed, and released him. The Wraith sat back on his heels and gazed at Rodney with a stricken look in his eye, his stern features softening for the first time since McKay had awakened.
"My apologies," he murmured, a frown marring his smooth brow. "I had not realized I was gripping you so tightly."
With hands that betrayed only the slightest tremor, the Wraith reached out and, more gently this time, grasped Rodney by the shoulders and helped him sit up. Once McKay was upright and settled to both their satisfaction, Ian returned to the firepit, adding more wood and stirring up the flames until they burned brightly enough to lift the shadowy gloom of the cave's interior.
Rodney watched, fascinated, while the warrior puttered, moving from the simmering soup to the woodpile, to the waterskins with an ease that spoke of more than a passing familiarity with human domestic chores. Sensing that whatever it was that had gotten the Wraith all worked up and snappish had passed, at least for the moment, McKay let his curiosity get the better of him.
"How do you know so much about cooking?"
Ian looked up from crumbling herbs of some kind into the small turtle shell of soup he'd drawn from the larger, looking mildly surprised.
"You startled me," the Wraith admitted with a chuckle, the sound little more than a dry wheeze. "I think I grew too accustomed to your quiet, unconscious presence. I had forgotten you can speak now."
He rose and brought McKay his dinner and a full canteen of fresh water, setting both beside the pallet before retreating once again to the fireside rather than sitting next to him as he'd been doing all along.
Rodney frowned slightly as he tried to piece together the reason for Ian's erratic temper and oddly-standoffish behavior. Unable to postulate a likely theory with so little data and distracted by the appetizing aroma of hot soup, he lifted the bowl to his lips, letting the rich, meaty flavor effectively drown out all other considerations. Over the rim of the shell, he became aware of the warrior's covetous gaze crawling over his face and form with a feverish, frightening intensity, but rather than exciting him as it usually did, it only added to McKay's confusion. He shrugged it off as best he could, although he mentally added it to the growing list of 'strange, even for Ian.'
The Wraith seemed to sense his unease. He deliberately looked away and concentrated on settling himself more comfortably on the floor of the cavern. Once he was seated, he reached for the charred stick they used for the fire so he could poke at the logs in the pit, and before long the blaze roared high and bright.
The flames reflected in the warrior's fathomless green eyes, his pupils tiny slits against the light as he watched sparks rise with the smoke, and McKay's cheeks burned when he realized he was studying Ian as avidly as the Wraith had ever done to him. Embarrassed, Rodney lowered his gaze to concentrate on his meal again, when Ian suddenly spoke, breaking the awkward silence and causing McKay to jump.
"I was taught to cook by the old woman in charge of the Worshippers' kitchen on my first planetside detail."
Rodney's eyebrows shot up in surprise. The Wraith was actually volunteering information? That was a first. He put down his bowl, then reached for the canteen and took a long drink. Even after Ian's herculean efforts to nurse him through his fever, he was still dehydrated.
"Oh yeah?" McKay remarked off-handedly after he'd swallowed and wiped his hand across his mouth, trying to remain casual although his pulse raced at the thought of learning something – anything - about his usually-reticent companion. Up until now they'd never just sat and talked before, and even as antisocial as Rodney tended to be, he had found he missed the interaction. He hoped his show of interest didn't put the Wraith off. The last thing he wanted to do was shut down the warrior's nascent efforts at conversation. "How did that come about?"
Ian paused and considered him, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and Rodney wondered how transparent he was to the telepathic, pheromone-sensitive Wraith at that very moment. From the vaguely-amused expression on the warrior's face, probably very.
"It was during the war with the Alterans," Ian began, still absently prodding a burning branch with the poker. "Things had been going... badly for us, for quite a while. In a desperate bid to turn the tide in our favor, several cloning facilities were constructed, and with energy cells liberated from Lantean war ships we lured deep into our territory..."
"Yes!" McKay interjected excitedly, eager – as he'd been all his life – to show off his superior knowledge. "I've heard this story before!"
As soon as the words spilled from his lips, Rodney winced and clapped his hand over his mouth to shut himself up. He'd only been fever-free and back in the land of the living for about twelve hours, and his practically non-existent filters apparently weren't back in place yet. After stewing his poor brain in his own juices while his body had burned for six days, it was a wonder he could remember his own name, never mind the social niceties of polite conversation – not that he'd ever put much effort into that. Nevertheless, McKay hoped he brought things to a screeching halt. They'd only just started.
The warrior fell silent, looking taken aback by Rodney's outburst, and for a moment McKay wondered if he'd angered Ian by cutting him off like that. It wouldn't be the first time he'd overstepped his bounds with the Wraith. In fact, he seemed to do so with very little effort. Instead, the warrior simply tilted his head and gave McKay an inquisitive once-over. "Indeed? Was this from the Wraith your friend is bound to?"
Rodney nodded enthusiastically, relieved that Ian was letting his gaffe go without comment. "Yeah. It was during a combination rescue/sabotage mission. We were actually in one of them when he told me what had happened. "
Ian leaned forward, intrigued. "Truly? And what did this other one tell you?"
It was Rodney's turn to hesitate, distracted as he was by the warrior's open, unguarded expression, his dancing, curious eyes, and the softness of full, sensual lips accentuated by a short, white beard. When he wasn't hiding everything behind a stoic mask, or snarling and angry, Ian was... beautiful. McKay reeled himself back in with effort, mentally scrabbled for his derailed train of thought. What had they been talking about?
"Um... He said that the plan was a success. Thousands upon thousands of Wraith soldiers were cloned and the sheer number of them finally overwhelmed the Ancients' defenses."
Ian sat back, looking smug. "Yes. It was a rout. The Lanteans turned tail and ran."
Rodney heaved a distressed sigh, torn between the desire to share in the warrior's pleasure, and his consternation over who the Wraith had defeated. In some small way, McKay and all the members of the Atlantis Expedition – and by extension, the people of Earth – had a connection to the very people Ian reviled. Unsure how to react, McKay defaulted to curmudgeon – his usual response in uncertain social situations.
"So what does this have to do with you learning to cook?" He challenged gruffly.
The Wraith glanced his way and snorted knowingly. In their short acquaintance, he had already learned not to rise to the bait when Rodney was feeling belligerent. Instead, he focused on the question, itself.
"I had barely seen a century of active duty when construction began on the cloning facilities. I was part of a detachment of younglings who had been assigned to keep track of the Worshippers chosen to assist with the project."
McKay looked thoughtful, holding the bowl of soup, forgotten, halfway to his mouth. "Huh. We were so busy trying to figure out how to destroy the place, I'd never stopped to consider how they might have been built. I guess I just assumed they were grown. So much of Wraith tech is organic in nature."
A glimmer of what Rodney could have sworn was affection – or maybe pride – twinkled in the depths of the Wraith's green eyes. "I did not realize you were so familiar with our technology," Ian murmured. "What you say is true. Much of our tech is organic, however there are components that still need to be manufactured – constructed – by the hand of a craftsperson or technician.
"Some of the most talented in these areas were human, and considering the size of the task at-hand, we required a small army of them. However, as Worshippers, they were especially vulnerable. They needed watching. Protection. You must realize, this was an unprecedented coming together of unrelated Hives, working for a common purpose. Normally, a gathering of this magnitude would have only occurred for the settling of territory disputes, and between their use as bargaining chips and hostages, and the bad blood and ill feelings these civil conflicts inevitably stirred up, it could go very badly for the ones who served us, very quickly."
Ian fell silent all of a sudden, his cat's eyes canting away from Rodney's and toward the firepit. McKay watched the muscles jump in the Wraith's jaw as he clenched his teeth, an expression of... sadness, flickering across his features before he buried it again. It was all so subtle, and happened so quickly, Rodney couldn't help but wonder if he'd imagined it.
The warrior finally turned to face him again, and McKay detected the shadow of grief still lurking in his eyes. He hadn't imagined it - but before he could open his mouth to ask what was wrong, the Wraith continued where he'd left off like he hadn't almost lost it a moment before.
"Some of us were assigned to guard the sleeping quarters, some – the baths. I was one of several who were to watch over the cooking and dining areas." Ian smiled at the memory. "Avia, the Overseer of the kitchen, was a tyrant. She ruled her domain with as much pride and ferocity as any Wraith Queen, and with good cause. She was old for a human. Having served her Master well, she had been Gifted with many years beyond her normal lifespan." The Wraith's smile became a chuckle. "I think she was older than most of us, and of course as the nearest thing to a dominant female any of us had ever encountered, we were all secretly terrified of her."
Rodney grinned, caught up in Ian's story as he animatedly recalled Avia, and the friendship that had grown between them, relieved to see the warrior's features settle into more relaxed lines as he told his story. McKay laughed along with the Wraith when he related how the old woman had pressed him into service, first chopping vegetables, then stirring soup, then turning meat on spits, all the while teaching him the skill - the art, of the culinary craft. She had eventually requested his services as her personal bodyguard, elevating him from glorified kitchen drudge, and he'd been proud to protect her over the months and years of their association until the cloning facility was completed, never once feeling demeaned because his charge had been human. What amazed McKay the most as he listened with rapt attention to tales of things that had transpired ten thousand years ago, was the genuine affection and respect the warrior seemed to feel for the woman, even now, millennia later.
Rodney had had ample opportunity to watch John and Todd together, and witnessed firsthand the strong, quietly-expressed regard the wraith had for Sheppard, but sometimes it was still hard for Rodney to get his head around the idea that Wraith had feelings similar to humans'. Atlantis had only been back in Pegasus for a few months since its visit to Earth, and although Todd had placed two Hives in orbit above New Lantea as a show of good faith, to protect the City from possible attack while he rebuilt his power base and negotiated a viable alliance with Woolsey, there was still very little interaction between the inhabitants of Atlantis and the Wraith of Todd's fleet.
In fact, Ian was really only the second Wraith that Rodney ever spent an extended period of time with - willingly, and now that McKay had one to compare with the other, he finally understood that Todd had not been, as he'd always thought, the exception – with his sense of humor, his feelings for John, and the grief he'd struggled to contain when he'd lost his Hive. He was the rule, and like any being capable of experiencing a full range of emotions, trust was the key. Not only did Wraith feel – they felt deeply, and once they considered a human a friend, apparently they let it show.
Ian obviously felt comfortable enough with McKay to open up to him, and that meant that whatever was suddenly plaguing the Wraith, Rodney needed to figure it out fast. He didn't like seeing his friends suffering, and although he didn't know when it had started or what had been the catalyst, without a doubt the creature sitting across from him was both.
Rodney's recovery proceeded at a steady pace over the next few days. From bed-ridden invalid who needed to be helped into a sitting position, he was soon up and moving about, hanging onto the rock wall as he made his way around the perimeter of the cave with unsteady steps. Before long he was able to join the Wraith by the firepit for meals instead of having them brought to him, although the agonizingly-slow trip was made with multiple rest stops when he outstripped the limits of his gradually-returning strength.
The Wraith lurked in the background, an unobtrusive presence who materializing by Rodney's side as if by magic to catch him when he stumbled, ready to set him on his feet again. The awkward embraces were brief, and each time McKay clung to the strong, supportive arm wrapped around him, wishing the Wraith would not let go, but once Rodney was steady, Ian deliberately stepped back with an odd, indecipherable expression and abandoned him to his own devices again, busying himself elsewhere in the cave. Even when they ventured outside – either for Rodney to relieve himself, or just to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine for a change, the Warrior hung back, disinterested and quiet.
The evenings hadn't been much better. After their initial chat, Ian had lapsed back into morose silence, punctuated with short answers and even a snarl on one occasion when McKay had tried to engage him in conversation again. The Wraith had also removed his warm, vaguely-arousing presence from the lean-to at night, seeming to prefer sleeping on the packed earth by the fire rather than sharing the soft pile of furs with Rodney.
Frankly, it was as confusing as hell. Ian had shown him kindness and tender consideration, and gentle nursing the likes of which McKay had never experienced. The creature had let his guard down and shown Rodney emotions he hadn't even known Wraith possessed, and had led him to believe with a thousand tiny gestures and looks, that he had actually come to care for McKay... and Rodney had kind of started feeling the same.
Now Ian was so standoffish that Rodney couldn't help but wonder if he'd imagined all the rest. In truth, for the majority of the time he'd actually spent with the creature, McKay been either injured, or ill and feverish. It was a possibility that he'd completely misconstrued Ian's intentions. In fact, it was entirely possible that McKay's scent, which was starting to reek of lust more often now that he was on the mend, might actually be offending the Wraith. Unfortunately for Rodney, it was a little too late to stop those kinds of thoughts now that he'd accepted their existence. Spending a week with a pair of well-muscled arms around him all night, holding him against a sleek, powerful, definitely-male body, had brought McKay to some realizations he hadn't expected, and certainly hadn't been able to act on at the time, but he'd looked forward to exploring them more fully once he was well. Up until three days ago, he'd just assumed the Wraith would be amenable.
Even now he couldn't be sure which way the wind was blowing. For all that Ian had chosen to sit as far away from McKay as he could on the opposite side of the fire, he'd been staring at him over the flames for the past half-hour with a strange, mournful expression, ever since Rodney had made himself comfortable by the firepit. The look was so eloquent of longing and sadness that McKay would have been tempted to approach the silently-suffering alien and give him a hug – or at least sit close by in a show of support - if he hadn't been afraid of being thrown across the room.
Or maybe the source of the Wraith's problem was something else, entirely. If, as Rodney had just figured out, Wraith felt emotions like humans, perhaps Ian – like McKay - was simply homesick.
The night before, without Ian's comforting presence to keep the nightmares at bay, Rodney had dreamed of the events that had led up to his capture. His recollection was still full of holes, but right before he'd woken up this morning, a clear memory of his last mission had popped into his head, and the images of Atlantis and the rest of his team that had unreeled across his mind's eye had awakened a keen sadness in Rodney that he couldn't shake.
Sibilia was one of the smaller settlements Atlantis had regularly traded with before their unexpected hiatus, and had picked up with again when they'd returned to Pegasus. It was the usual deal: medical help and supplies for fresh fruits and grains, and a pale ale that Sheppard couldn't get enough of. One night the City received a distress signal from their contact on the planet. They'd been victims of a Wraith attack – a culling, which had shocked everyone, since it would have meant a Hive sending its Darts deep into territory the Wraith were aware Atlantis protected. Although, considering the devastation on Pegasus' population Michael's random dispersal of the Hoffan drug had wrought, it shouldn't have been surprising to find Wraith who were willing to risk a move that bold.
The survivors requested aid, and as trade partners, what could Woolsey do but agree to help.
No one had counted on there being a second attack.
McKay looked up from his breakfast of fresh berries and nutmeats, and a cup of hot herbal tea to study the Wraith. Ian had participated in the culling on Sibilia – probably both of them. Until he'd ended up on the planet's surface with a damaged Dart, the warrior had been a member of a hungry Hive that had been looking for sustenance. The man Rodney had been hiding with – the little girl he'd carried in his arms, and the woman, her mother, terrified for her child's safety – all of them had been trapped in the sweep of the Wraith's transport beam and stored in the buffer of his Dart. Innocent lives caught and held in stasis until they could be delivered to Ian's Hive – where they'd been destined to be sucked dry so some Wraith could live.
McKay had an inkling that that when he'd been released, he'd been the only one left in the buffer – that the rest of them were already long gone. It gave him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach to think that he, alone, had survived, and the reality of the situation suddenly overwhelmed him. Unable to look at the creature who watched him, he stared into the fire, caught in a swell of emotion that made it difficult to breathe. After a moment he finally identified it as anger. He'd spent the past month with a killer – with the enemy of all humans – and the worst part was that he wasn't sure who he was angrier with, himself or the Wraith.
In spite of what Ian was, in spite of what he did – and had done for the past ten thousand years – to survive, McKay couldn't find it in his heart to hate him, and for that, Rodney felt like a traitor to his own species. He supposed he should be angry with John for the same reason. Sheppard was with Todd, after all, who was even older than Ian and had been draining people of their life force for a hell of a lot longer... but all Rodney felt was a weary numbness. Ian was all he had right now. McKay couldn't afford high-handed principles like righteous indignation, when their very survival depended on putting aside their differences and relying on each other.
Besides, were they really so very different? Regardless of what Ian had done, or why, the Hive he had come from had been the warrior's home, and the Wraith on-board had been his family - and like McKay, he probably had people – Wraith – he missed.
Whatever weighed so heavily on Ian's mind, Rodney wished it would make itself apparent sometime soon, so they could take measures to fix it. He wanted so much to just ask, and with anyone else – even Sheppard - he would have. Actually, he'd not only ask, but cajole, harangue, and bully until he shook loose the information he sought, but the pained expression Ian had been so quick to hide that night they'd talked, and the warrior's unusually-subdued demeanor made Rodney hesitate to pry. And that, in itself, made him realize just how much the Wraith had come to mean to him.
The Wraith added more wood to the fire and took a few minutes to poke at the logs. Soon the blaze roared above the rim of rocks that made up the firepit, and both he and the human instinctively leaned closer to the heat that held the cold autumn night at bay. The firelight reflected off the sad, introspective face of the man sitting across from him, and Ian felt a pang of regret, knowing that he had been the cause of it. Due to his actions of the past few days – his distance and silence - McKay had spent the day second-guessing himself and the tiny spark of emotions that had lately kindled between them.
Sadly, the Wraith's sometimes-savage responses had been necessary to keep Rodney away from him and safe. It was difficult enough maintaining his hard-won control, without contending with the heady musk of desire that had been rolling off the human ever since his fever had broken. Every time they touched, each time he'd caught McKay in his arms before he'd hit the ground, the man had used it as an opportunity to hang onto him, and it had taken every ounce of Ian's iron will to set him on his feet and step away. All he'd wanted to do was crush the human to him, feel him moving beneath him – and then his hunger would start to rise and threaten to break its bonds, and he would have to pull away. It was the same reason he'd moved from the comfort of the bed, and the human's abundant body heat, to the cold hardness of the floor by the fire.
Ian didn't trust himself.
Unfortunately, after all the care and attention that he'd been lavishing on the man, and the affection Rodney had rightly picked up on, the warrior could see that suddenly holding himself aloof had confused McKay unfairly. While the Wraith still felt it wiser to keep his rapidly-escalating need a secret for at least another week or so until the human was fully-recovered from his illness, he realized that McKay might require some sort of reassurance that they remained friends. To that end, he'd gone out of his way to make a nice evening meal of herb-roasted rabbit, as the human had insisted on calling the small long-eared prey animals that scampered through the underbrush, boiled greens, and some of the tubers he'd watched McKay cooking in the embers of his small fire during their separation. For later on, he'd found some end-of-summer fruits growing in purple-red clusters that had ripened to sweetness on the vine. They had pleased Ian when he'd tried them, and he hoped they would make the human smile, as well.
With another quick glance in the direction of the brooding human, Ian rose and readied the food, pulling the meat off the makeshift spit so it could rest for a few minutes before he tore it apart, and digging the black-jacketed tubers out of the glowing charcoal. If he was lucky, his own hunger, which had lain quiescent for the past few hours, would remain so for the duration of the evening. He had enjoyed the conversation he and Rodney had shared a few days earlier, and hoped for another tonight.
"So, how did you end up here, anyway?" Rodney asked with a contented sigh, after they'd both settled down with shells of hot tea to wrap their hands around. Stomach full to bursting with the delicious dinner Ian had made for him, and seduced yet again by the pleasant, familiar personality of the Wraith he'd come to know over the past several weeks, Rodney cautiously set aside his concerns. For the moment, anyway, Ian was back to his old self again, and McKay was grateful enough for the reprieve not to question it. What he did need, though, while the alien was speaking to him, was answers to some questions that had bothered him since he'd awakened on a hot, sunny hillside with a strange Wraith bending over him and his mind a blank.
Ian regarded his companion quietly for a moment. "Are you sure you want to know?" The warrior finally asked. This was not the kind of conversation he'd had in mind. "You will not like what you hear."
Rodney glanced over at the Wraith and snorted. "Oh, I'm sure I won't, but I can only remember bits and pieces of what happened. Most of it is just... gone." His lips tightened for a moment and Ian could sense the human's anxiety.
"I was kind of hoping you might be able to fill in some of the blanks. I don't like feeling like there might be something wrong with my cognitive abilities or my memory." McKay looked away trying to bring some strong emotion under control before catching the Wraith's eye again, a rueful grimace twisting his mouth. "I'm not good for much of anything if I lose my brilliant mind."
The warrior nodded his understanding. He could relate to the feeling Rodney was wrestling with. Since he'd been trapped here and unable to feed properly, Ian had watched his own skills – mental and physical – slip, and there was nothing he could do to stop their deterioration. He'd had his own moments of concern, wondering if months of starvation might be permanently damaging him in a way that would make him unfit to return to a Hive. For all that he'd always kept himself as separate as he could from the others on whatever ship he'd served on, he was still a Wraith, and he belonged with his brethren. It left him cold inside to even entertain the notion that he might be shunned.
"Very well," Ian acquiesced. If he could ease the human's mind, at least one of them might rest easier on that count.
"We came through the Ring and initially culled Sibilia about a week before I returned and picked you up. When the first catch proved to be entirely free of the traitor's poison which has tainted so many worlds recently, our Queen ordered a second culling to clear the planet of its occupants."
McKay looked genuinely surprised. "That's unheard of – at least in our limited experience with Wraith."
The Wraith paused and took a sip of the hot tea, then nodded. "You are correct. I cannot remember a time I have ever been ordered back to a world so soon after thinning a herd, to do it again. Either all are taken at once, if we are destroying a potential threat, or we take just what is needed and leave the rest so they can breed and increase their numbers again.
Rodney shifted uneasily, trying to keep his face neutral while he listened to Ian casually discussing humans like they were cattle – or vermin. The warrior had been right: McKay was finding the turn the conversation had taken distasteful to say the least, but he was desperate enough for the missing pieces that he forced his dislike of the subject matter down below the surface, hoping his instinctive revulsion wasn't too apparent.
Ian signed deeply and fell silent, his green eyes glittered in the firelight as he considered the human, wondering if he should continue. It was obvious from Rodney's expression and the scent of distress he was giving off, that McKay didn't have the fortitude to handle what he was being told, and Ian had barely scratched the surface. Honestly, it made him a little sad. He'd thought the human was made of sterner stuff.
A frown wrinkled Rodney's brow when Ian's pause lengthened, and he realized that the warrior intended to bring the story to an abrupt end. McKay wasn't having any of that, so he leaned forward and cleared his throat loudly. "Um – continue."
The Wraith tilted his head questioningly. "You are certain? I can tell this makes you... uncomfortable."
So tantalizingly close, and yet so very far. If the Wraith didn't spit it out soon, Rodney was going to start screaming. "Yes. Yes," he replied tartly, skirting the edge of his temper by scant millimeters. "I need to know what happened. You warned me I wouldn't like it, Mr. Smarty-Wraith, and you were right. Okay? Satisfied?" McKay ended his little diatribe with some impatient shooing motions in the warrior's general direction. "Now, go on. Finish."
Ian gaped at the human's audacity, clearly torn between amusement and indignation. After a moment, amusement won out and the first grin Rodney had seen in three days split his companion's face. It was beautiful thing.
"You never cease to amaze me, human," Ian rumbled, pleased to have caught a fleeting glimpse of McKay's returning inner strength, and the man's acerbic sense of humor – or was that a flash of temper? No matter. McKay was often his most amusing when he was riled. Now that Ian had a better understanding of how to handle the human when he was being irascible and prickly, the Wraith could admit that they were qualities he'd missed when Rodney had been feverish and ill, and it was gratifying to see them resurface again.
His faith restored in McKay's inherently-difficult nature, Ian gathered his scattered thoughts and continued.
"What we had not counted on the second time, was your warship in orbit above the planet. We had heard tell of the Daedalus, but of course had never encountered it before."
Rodney's eyes widened. "Wait a minute – how did you know I wasn't a native of Sibilia?"
Ian snorted and stroked his beard. "I don't know," he murmured after a moment of mock contemplation. "Perhaps it is the thoughts of the Ancient City I keep picking up from your mind – or maybe it is the patches on your jacket stating your affiliation with the Atlantis Expedition."
The Wraith dropped his hand and chuckled at Rodney's almost-comical dismay. "Have no fear, McKay. It's not like I can take advantage of the information, after all. I am as trapped here as you are."
"How did that happen?"
Ian sobered, his gaze lingering on Rodney's tense face. "Unbeknownst to us, the Daedalus was orbiting the planet the day of the second culling, and had been alerted to our presence as soon as we came through the Gate. I was one of the last ones through that day, and I'd just begun my first run when your ship started firing on us from orbit. I only had the opportunity to take you, and the others you were with, before we were ordered to retreat."
Rodney's fingers tightened convulsively on the turtle shell. "So how did we end up here, instead of back on your Hive?"
"Just as myself and another Fighter reached the Gate, the Daedalus locked onto us and laid down a line of fire. The craft ahead of me was destroyed just as it entered the event horizon and the aft section of my ship was hit, as well. If I had not been following the other Fighter so closely, I might have had enough time to veer away. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to abort, and I shot through the explosion and into the wormhole with my tail on fire."
McKay gasped, bringing the Wraith out of his reverie. Green eyes met blue over the flames, and a look of understanding passed between them.
"The explosion destabilized the entire wormhole," Rodney murmured breathlessly, his heart hammering in his chest from the jolt of adrenaline that rushed through him at the thought of how close to death he'd come without even knowing it.
"Yes. It caused the terminus point to jump randomly from the address that had been originally dialed... to this one."
McKay swallowed with a click, his mouth suddenly dry. He took a quick sip of lukewarm tea, scarcely tasting it before he set it aside. "You're lucky the whole thing didn't just collapse and kill us both."
Ian gave him a long, searching look. "I suppose you could say that," he replied dubiously, "if you consider nine lunar cycles of near-starvation 'lucky.'"
"Yeah, but you're still alive... What? Did you say nine months?" Rodney's voice cracked.
The Wraith nodded silently, his gaze never wavering from McKay's face as he watched the truth seep in until it swamped the human's ability to process. Shocked and still, Rodney stared unseeing into the flames for several minutes before he lifted eyes shining with unshed tears to focus on the unmoving warrior.
"So you have no idea where we are, do you? No one knows where we are – or even that we're alive to be looked for."
Ian swallowed hard and shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. He clenched his hands into fists in his lap as the human's tender vulnerability awakened all his instincts at once. While part of him desired nothing more than to gather Rodney into his arms and hold him close while the human came to terms with the reality of their situation, another, darker part of him desired nothing less than to pounce on the weak, distracted prey sitting across from him and slam his feeding hand against McKay's chest.
"We are so screwed," Rodney whispered brokenly.
And Ian - wretched, starved, and desperately trying to keep it hidden – could only nod in agreement.
After Ian's disturbing revelation, McKay officially gave up. Without another word, he crawled into his fur-lined pallet. Heedless of the Wraith's soft inquiries of concern and beyond caring, he curled himself into a tear-stained ball of grief, until finally, exhausted and wrung out, he eventually succumbed to a fitful night's sleep.
Silence reigned in the camp over the next three days while Rodney did his best to wrap his head around the hopelessness of their plight, damning himself for an idiot. It had been so easy toss out the glib statement about how Ian should have considered himself lucky to be alive, before McKay had understood the strange look the creature had given him when Rodney had said it. Now he wondered how the Wraith had been able to carry on for as long as he had, knowing there was no escape and no hope of rescue, when all McKay wanted to do was lay down and die.
What made Rodney feel even more foolish was all the time and effort he'd wasted, so carefully negotiating with Ian for his life, and doing everything he possibly could to stay alive until someone came for them, only to find out that no rescue was forthcoming. Ever. As far as Atlantis was concerned, McKay had been probably been presumed dead for nine months already. No one was going to come looking for him when they assumed he'd either gone up in the fireball of an exploding Dart, or had been pulverized into his component molecules by a collapsing wormhole. He could almost guarantee that Ian's people had probably made the same assumption about the warrior, as well.
Wallowing in his own misery, Rodney never noticed when the Wraith stopped sitting by the fire with him other than to hand him food – never registered the fact that the only time he'd seen the warrior in the past couple of days was first thing in the morning, when he awakened to the sight of the creature lying by the firepit. It didn't dawn on him until McKay was stumbling down the hill early on the fourth day since he'd learned the truth, berating himself under his breath about having forgotten to grab the bottle of liquid cleanser out of Ian's kit before he'd headed off to bathe in the pool the Wraith had shown him earlier in the week.
After weeks of sponge baths – and this past week without even that, Rodney had finally decided that, doomed or not, he couldn't stand the smell of himself any longer. Surprised to find that he was actually looking forward to – anything, actually – he'd run off half-cocked, and now his first real submersion in what felt like forever was on-hold again because he had to go back for the soap.
Rodney had left Ian drowsing by the firepit not a half-hour earlier, after letting him know he was going to take a bath. The Wraith had roused himself enough to snort, informing him it was about damn time, before showing McKay his back as he turned over on the cold, hard ground. A small frown had creased Rodney's brow, like it had so many times over the past several days. Something was off about the Wraith, for sure – and getting worse, but now that McKay had a better grasp of their situation, and some inkling of the depression the creature might be experiencing, he'd simply filed it away for later consideration and gone to wash.
As he neared the cave, wondering idly if the Wraith had finally decided to get up, a sudden roar emanating from its interior shattered the morning stillness. Rodney broke into a run, wishing he'd listened to his gut this morning instead of dismissing it. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
He burst in, panting and looking around wildly while he waited for his eyes to adjust. "Ian! What the hell is going on? Are you okay?"
The Wraith rose slowly from a crouch on the other side of the firepit, his eyes feral and strange, and McKay had the distinct impression that the alien didn't recognize him. Testing his theory, Rodney moved closer and Ian stumbled the same number of steps back like a cornered animal, almost falling over his own feet as he hastened to keep his distance.
"Stay back, human," the warrior growled once he'd regained his balance, eyeing McKay warily.
From where he stood, Rodney could see that the Wraith's bare torso was covered in a sheen of sweat, darkening the tattoos that ran down the center of his chest and abdomen from the hollow of his throat, so that they stood out in sharp contrast against his pale green skin. For the briefest of instants, McKay found himself distracted by the way the firelight played over the warrior's slick skin, when it suddenly struck him that Ian was sweating.
From what little he knew of Wraith physiology, that was definitely not a good sign.
Feeling completely out of his depth as he watched Ian come unglued, and on the verge of freaking out, himself, because he didn't know how to fix it, Rodney started desperately grasping at straws.
"Ian, it's me, McKay," he said as soothingly as he could manage. "You know me, right?" The warrior considered him with glassy eyes for a long moment that stretched to the point where Rodney started to worry that Ian didn't know him, after all. Finally the Wraith frowned and blinked, then slowly nodded as recognition flared to life in his cold, green gaze.
"Everything's going to be okay," Rodney promised, although he had no idea if it was or not. All he wanted to do right now was calm everybody down, and as far as he was concerned, white lies were definitely allowed.
Responding to either McKay's tone or his words, Ian stood taller and tilted his head questioningly. "Rodney?" he croaked uncertainly, a frown furrowing his feverish brow as his vision cleared. Like someone waking from a bad dream, the Wraith stretched out his hand to McKay like he wanted to make sure he was real and Rodney, breathing a sigh of relief, reached out to meet him halfway.
Within a fingers-breadth of touching, Ian's eyes suddenly widened and an anguished cry escaped his lips. Scrabbling back, he wrapped his arms around himself and turned away, struggling to remain on his feet as shudder after shudder shook his tall, muscular frame.
Rodney took a step closer, confused and concerned, wondering why he hadn't seen it sooner. Ian's problem wasn't mental, like he'd first thought. It was physical - and the Wraith looked like he was in pain.
"Ian - what's the matter?"
"You should go," the warrior snarled over his shoulder.
"Why?" Rodney challenged, inching his way nearer. "I don't understand."
Ian spun around, his lips pulled back from his serrated teeth in a pained grimace and his eyes dark and wild. He clutched his feeding hand to his chest, the fingers curled into a tight fist. "I said, 'you should go,'" he growled, his voice low and menacing. "I am not... safe to be around right now."
McKay stopped in his tracks, his heart pounding erratically in his chest from the surge of adrenaline that roared through him. Ian was hungry. Shit. That's what had been wrong with the Wraith. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place. "You haven't been safe to be around for the past week, have you," Rodney murmured, torn between pity and the terror which came from the realization that Ian had hidden his rapidly-deteriorating condition for so long.
"No," the warrior gasped, doubling over as another wave of agony crashed over him.
"What should I do?" McKay asked, doing his best not to panic.
"Back away slowly," Ian ground out, panting from the effort of just holding himself still when his body burned with need, and every instinct screamed at him to take the human – his rightful prey. Now. "Do not run," he warned, his voice broken and raw. "If you run, you will trigger instinct, and I will come after you."
Rodney swallowed hard and nodded, gingerly placing one foot behind the other as the Wraith watched his every move, green eyes glittering dangerously in the firelight. Afraid to blink, afraid to move – even more afraid to stay, McKay stared back as he did what Ian had instructed him to do, putting distance between them one torturous step at a time, while the warrior trembled from head to toe, fighting to stay in control of himself.
After what seemed like an eternity, Rodney felt the weight of the the leather hanging in the doorway brush his back. Reaching behind him, he carefully pulled the skin aside enough to admit the cool morning air into the cavern, the breeze working to dry rivulets of sweat on his face and neck he hadn't felt until that very moment. Still moving in what felt like slow-motion, he slipped out into the sunlight, holding the curtain back to take one last look at the creature he'd left inside.
"I-I'm sorry," Rodney said, not knowing what else to offer.
Ian's gaze sharpened and McKay was subjected to a covetous, openly-hungry appraisal, before the Wraith looked away and stared into the fire.
"So am I."
The heavy fur fell closed behind Rodney with a sense of finality as he stumbled away from the cave with his heart in his throat. He hadn't gone more than a few steps when his legs suddenly buckled as reaction set in, and he found himself clinging to the rock face not far from the cave's entrance while while he caught his breath, unknowingly resting in the same spot Ian had occupied a week earlier when he'd first grappled with his hunger, McKay's oblivious snores an ironic counterpoint to his struggles.
While he tried to pull himself together, Rodney strained his ears, listening for any sounds or movement coming from within the cavern that might indicate Ian had decided to come after him, but the morning had reverted to its usual bucolic peace and quiet, broken only by birdsong and the whisper of the wind as it rustled the leaves on the trees. McKay leaned against the boulders as a wave of relief washed over him, although his sense of well-being was short-lived. He was well-aware that whether the Wraith emerged from the cave or not, his reprieve was only temporary.
Ian's hunger had reawakened, and at some point McKay was going to have to let him feed on him – like it or not. It was a fact of life he'd done his best to avoid thinking about up until now, and with good reason. Rodney shuddered at what little he could remember of the first time, recalling vague sensations of Ian gravely-injured and desperate, draining McKay's life from him in great, shimmering waves, the pain so exquisitely intense it defied description. Thankfully, his conscious mind had pushed the worst of it deep into his subconscious, where memories only surfaced once in a while, in bad dreams which left him gasping and covered in sweat when he finally thrashed his way to wakefulness.
At least this time around, the Wraith still seemed to be clinging to his self-control by the tips of his claws, or else Rodney doubted he would have made it out of the cave just now - and for that the Canadian was truly grateful. If Ian had latched onto him in his current state-of-mind, there was no telling how excruciating it might have been. Although, if the agony clearly etched on Ian's features was any indicator, McKay sincerely doubted this time was going to be much better, regardless of when the Wraith finally fed.
Rodney swallowed hard, his panic on the rise and his mind racing with possibilities. It wasn't like he was trapped under a pile of rocks this time, helpless in the face of the Wraith's assault. He could run. He could hide. He could make Ian come after him...
Realizing how familiar this line of reasoning sounded, McKay reined himself in, snorting derisively at his own stupidity. That plan certainly hadn't worked out the last time he'd implemented it, and he'd almost gotten them both killed in the process. He doubted it would be successful this time, either.
Rodney sagged against the rocks, despondent and at a loss as to how they were supposed to accomplish this. For all his boasting to the contrary, he had never considered himself a hero. He was certainly no John Sheppard, altruistic and self-sacrificing to the end, and willing to face down danger with the light of challenge in his eye. McKay had long ago accepted the fact that he wasn't a brave man, and he'd always had a low tolerance for pain – and yet Ian was going to expect him to just sit there and let him... do that to him. McKay shook his head in denial. No matter how much the Wraith had come to mean to him, he didn't think he'd make it through another feeding. He wasn't that strong.
McKay found it ironic how easily he'd actually offered to do the very same thing for Todd once, when the wraith had desperately needed it. At the time, McKay had only had John's description of how it had felt to be fed upon to go by, and in his ignorance, he had just assumed it couldn't possibly be as bad as Sheppard had made it out to be. Unfortunately, now he knew better, and it shamed him that he sometimes wondered if he'd had the knowledge back when Todd had collapsed, he would have been so quick to volunteer.
Just then a groan of pain - quiet, heartfelt – the sort of sound uttered when no one is listening, made its way past the barrier the Wraith had hung so carefully across the mouth of the cave. Rodney looked away, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth twisted into a sympathetic grimace. Torn between his desire to help and the primal fear that paralyzed him at just the thought of facing the Wraith's hunger, McKay bowed his head while Ian's need sliced his conscience to ribbons as easily as the feline's claws had gone through his shoulder.
Ian had done so much for him. The Wraith had brought him across the veld when Rodney had been sick and out of his head, he'd held him and kept him warm when he'd shivered, soothed him when his fever had raged, and had literally fought tooth and claw to keep him alive. While it could be argued that the creature had done it merely to protect his investment, the tenderness with which he'd carried out his duties spoke eloquently of different motives – and deeper feelings. Even if it was possible to take the emotions they'd been so nearly expressing for each other out of the mix, the warrior's actions, alone, were enough to make McKay squirm with shame at his own cowardice. Regardless of the reasons, the fact remained that the Wraith had cared for him, fed him, and protected him, and McKay had accepted all of it like it had been his due. Now it was Rodney's turn to hold up his end of the bargain. The only problem was that now that push had come to shove, McKay doubted his ability to go through with it.
A sharp cry and a muffled thud coming from cave brought Rodney back to reality with a start of surprise. It sounded like Ian had gone down – and hard.
Reacting instinctively, Rodney made for the cavern's opening, his indecision galvanized into action by his overwhelming concern for the Wraith. Pushing back the fur, he stepped inside, plunging headlong into the impenetrable darkness of the cave's interior without a second thought. Momentarily blinded after the bright, sunny morning happening on the other side of the leather drape, McKay didn't bother to wait until his eyes adjusted, but groped his way toward the beacon of light the firepit offered in the cavern's gloom, hoping he didn't fall over Ian before he could see again. Luckily, he was where Rodney had left him, sort of. The Wraith had fallen to his knees on the other side of the fire, his head bent and his left hand clutching his right arm like his forearm was hurting him, concentrating so intensely on subduing his appetite he didn't hear McKay's approach.
In spite of his fear almost choking him, Rodney pulled off his shirt and tossed it aside as he rounded the firepit, pushing aside all other considerations as he focused on the downed warrior for a change, instead of himself. Ian needed him, and McKay needed to be there. More importantly, he realized with some surprise, underneath his trepidation and fear - he wanted to be. Their association might have started off as an agreement he hadn't wanted any part of, but it had grown into something vital to both of them. Ian relied on him just like he leaned on the Wraith – for his very survival. There was no one else.
McKay lowered himself down to the ground before he could change his mind, facing the Wraith with their knees almost touching; so close he could feel the warrior stiffen when he sensed McKay's presence. Ian lifted his head slowly, his incredulous gaze lingering on Rodney's sparsely-furred chest through a curtain of tangled white hair before he met McKay's pale blue eyes.
"What are you doing here?" He rasped, spiracles flaring as he took in the stench of McKay's fear. "You are in danger."
"You need to feed," Rodney replied, wetting his lips nervously.
"You are not strong enough," the warrior ground out as a tremor shook him.
McKay frowned. He had thought the same thing, but here he was anyway. "I can take it."
The Wraith tilted his head, narrowing his eyes like he hadn't heard him correctly – couldn't have heard him correctly, his hungry gaze riveted on McKay's face. "Are you... offering yourself?"
"I – I guess so," Rodney stammered, then he nodded, the movement jerky and spasmodic from the adrenaline that already coursed through him. "Yes."
Before he could say more, the warrior surged forward, his hands coming up to cradle McKay's head, and the next thing Rodney knew Ian's lips were pressed to his, full and soft and demanding. An unexpected jolt of desire shot through him and with a groan McKay yielded, parting his lips to let the Wraith in; let him take over. Rodney ran his hands up Ian's muscular arms, clinging to the warrior's broad shoulders as his mouth was plundered, tongues sliding over each other in a sensuous dance that left him tingling all over and aching for more.
Just before the kiss grew too savage, the Wraith pulled away, panting, his breath ghosting across Rodney's cheek. Ian's gaze traveled intently over his face, hunger and desire warring in the depths of his green cat's eyes. "I will be as gentle as possible," he murmured, his fingers stroking McKay's chest provocatively.
Rodney swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat, but his eyes never wavered from the Wraith's. "I believe you."
In the next instant, Ian's feeding hand was splayed across his sternum in a position Rodney had thought he'd successfully relegated to his nightmares, and it was all he could do not to struggle when the Wraith slid his other arm around him and pulled him into an intimate embrace. Terror and adrenaline raced through him as the warrior pushed the oozing, open maw in his palm against Rodney's skin just above his rapidly-beating heart, and McKay shivered at the Wraith's touch. The tactile connection opened a floodgate of memories Rodney had suppressed from the first time Ian had done this, and his mind was swamped with forgotten details of burning, agonizing pain McKay wished had stayed buried. Other than adding to his already-burgeoning fear, they weren't doing his nerves any good, and they didn't change anything. Regardless of his previous experience - regardless of what was about to happen – he had chosen to accept his fate, and it was too late to back out now.
Rodney gulped desperately for air, trying to calm down, but primitive survival instincts took over, and in a paroxysm of panic he writhed in a last-ditch effort to escape the inevitable – or he attempted to, anyway. Even diminished by starvation, Ian's strength was far greater than his, and he knew the Wraith was not about to let him go, not after McKay had already capitulated.
Surprisingly, the warrior's hand stilled. Trembling with the effort of holding himself back, Ian caught Rodney's eye, the question in the Wraith's expression demanding an answer.
Steeling himself for what was to come, McKay nodded. Before he'd even completed the gesture, Ian had pulled him closer and pressed his hand to Rodney's chest with a snarl of satisfaction. Held tightly in the Wraith's iron grip, Rodney could only grit his teeth against the scream that welled up inside when the lampry-like teeth that lined the edge of the feeding organ broke through his skin, and the ice-cold sensation of enzyme flooded his system just before Ian began to feed in earnest.
Trapped in Ian's fatal embrace, all the ennui and self-pity Rodney had accumulated over the past week disintegrated as his life force was ripped from him in long, desperate pulls by the starving Wraith. Suddenly face-to-face once again with the very real possibility of his own demise, McKay realized with brutal clarity how petulant he'd been over something that couldn't be helped - and how badly he wanted to live, regardless of the circumstances. Unfortunately, all he could do was dig his fingers into Ian's shoulders and writhe helplessly in the ancient warrior's powerful arms as Rodney tried to endure the feeding with a modicum of dignity. He'd signed up for this voluntarily, after all.
McKay's resolve didn't last long. When sharp claws sliced through Rodney's chest on the tail-end of the Wraith's exultant groan, and the searing pain that ran like hot wires under McKay's skin from his sternum to his extremities escalated from agonizing to unendurable, the screams he had tried to swallow finally broke free. Unfortunately, so did the gibbering voice of panic in the back of his head. What if Ian didn't have enough control to stop himself this time? What if Rodney ended up a dessicated corpse on the cave floor?
His hands tightened spasmodically on the creature's upper arms when a surge of terror pumped even more adrenaline into McKay's overwrought system. Ian literally held Rodney's life in the palm of his pale-green feeding hand, but starved to the point of delirium, it was anyone's guess what the Wraith would do with it. Rodney managed to tilt his head at an angle where he could see the warrior's face, hoping a glimpse of Ian might offer some reassurance, but what he saw did nothing to ease his anxiety in the slightest. In fact, it made it worse. With Ian's eyes squeezed shut and his head thrown back in ecstasy as he fed, the Wraith looked like he was too far gone to remember his own identity at the moment, never mind a promise he might have made to his dinner.
Voicing another anguished cry as Ian drew hard on the energy that was vital to both their survival, Rodney's vision began to blur, and he felt himself weakening under the warrior's assault. Swooning and dizzy, McKay's world began to char at the edges, falling away until all that remained was the shimmering connection between himself and the Wraith - and the exquisite intensity of the pain, and even that faded as Rodney started to black out.
Just as the human slumped, Ian pulled him closer, stroking the silken skin in the small of Rodney's bare back where the Wraith had rested a steadying hand earlier, when he'd sensed McKay's imminent loss of consciousness. With the leading edge of Ian's appetite finally blunted, his hunger for the human in his arms rapidly transmuted into another kind of desire, and ratcheted higher with each passing moment as his strength returned in warm, sensuous waves of bliss. He buried his face in Rodney's neck and inhaled the other's familiar scent deeply, finding it beneath the acrid stench of fear and letting it overwhelm his scent receptors.
The human had offered himself freely, and although the Wraith knew that Rodney couldn't have understood all the ramifications of his declaration, Ian did. It meant McKay was now the warrior's, to do with whatever he wished - and Ian wanted it all. He craved the human's life force and his physical presence with the same ravenous yearning, and even as he greedily robbed Rodney of his years, the Wraith ached to quench the fire that burned in his loins deep inside the man. McKay had tempted him almost beyond his endurance from the moment Rodney had been released from the Dart's buffer, and as soon as McKay was back on his feet, Ian was going to see to it that the human made good on his promise.
However, the first order of business was making sure he kept McKay alive.
Roused from his stupor by Ian's pained moan in his ear, Rodney regained additional footing on his uphill climb toward consciousness when his agony suddenly diminished. Not by much, but enough that the sensation of a white-hot steel band tightening inexorably around his chest eased somewhat, and he could draw a shaky breath without shrieking. While he was grateful for the reprieve, he was also confused. From what he remembered of last time, Ian was far from done.
"Wh-What did you do?" Rodney managed to gasp into the Wraith's hair when he'd recovered enough to speak again.
In reply, Ian nuzzled McKay's cheek possessively, reminding McKay of a cat with its favorite catnip mouse. "I slowed down," the warrior growled, his respiration labored and unsteady. "Hard to do... So hungry... "
"Thank you," Rodney breathed, oddly-touched by the Wraith's herculean efforts to rein himself in. Ian needed this so desperately, and yet he continued to struggle against his very nature even in the midst of feeding, in order to spare Rodney from as much of its inescapable torment as he could. McKay forcibly relaxing his death-grip on the Wraith's shoulder in spite of the paroxysms of pain that shook him, to run a gentle hand through tangled white hair. "Take what you need."
A surprised chuckle rumbled softly through Ian's chest at the sensation of Rodney's caress and the acceptance that flowed from him like the Gift of Life, itself.
"My brave one," Ian murmured approvingly, as he tightened his grip on the rapidly-deteriorating human and carefully lowered him down next to the firepit. By the time the Wraith followed, propped up on one elbow and stretched out next to McKay with his muscular thigh pressed between Rodney's slightly-parted legs and the human's hip bone tantalizingly close to Ian's growing arousal, his victim's hair had already faded to silver, and the man he'd tried to forego feeding for as long as possible peered back at him from the lined and wrinkled visage of a human many decades older.
The Wraith's expression softened when he met Rodney's watery blue gaze, so full of fear and trust as he allowed Ian to feed, and it was all the warrior could do to keep from leaning down and kissing the man a second time. He unconsciously licked his lips as he glanced at McKay's, reminding himself that there would be plenty of time for that later. While Ian's body tingled with the ebullience of the human's life force roaring through him and the heat of his own lust, he was well-aware that Rodney was barely tolerating the pain of being fed upon. Unfortunately, that knowledge didn't keep him from hardening against McKay's lower abdomen, or the instinctive roll of his hips that followed, the friction making the Wraith's breath hitch.
Rodney's eyes widened in surprise, but otherwise he offered no resistance to Ian's advances, too weak to by now to speak, let alone object. Instead, McKay reached up and touched the warrior's face with fingers growing more skeletal and feeble by the moment. Concentrating intently, Rodney carefully traced the lines that trailed down Ian's cheek one at a time as if it was the most important thing he'd ever done, before his failing strength deserted him and his arm fell limply to the ground.
Ian stilled and pulled his hand away from Rodney's chest, his breath clogging in his throat as he clamped down hard on emotions that welled up unexpectedly and threatened to overwhelm him. While his initial reaction had been outrage that the human had dared to caress the symbol he'd carried for so long like a punishment and hated with every fiber of his being, as he returned Rodney's glittering gaze it suddenly became clear to Ian that as far as McKay was concerned, the facial tattoo was just a mark like any of his others, and Rodney had accepted it along with the rest of him. In fact, from the unguarded, tender expression on McKay's ravaged face even now, so heartbreakingly eloquent of feelings the Wraith had long-suspected the human had harbored for him, he could well imagine that Rodney had surpassed simple acceptance a long time ago.
Awed by the depth of emotion he saw shining in McKay's dying eyes, Ian barely registered the glorious sense of well-being and wholeness the human's life provided him. Instead of rising and stretching and basking in the borrowed vitality as he had originally planned, the Wraith fitted his hand over the sluggishly-bleeding wounds he'd left on Rodney's withered chest, and with the gentle press of maw against flesh he began returning the human's life.
Even so close to the edge of oblivion, McKay responded immediately to the influx of energy, although he could do little more than pant as his body was flooded with warm, overlapping waves of sensation that left him tingling. His eyelids, which had started to droop, fluttered open to the curious, concerned gaze of a Wraith he recognized. "Ian," he breathed, his voice barely discernible from the movement of air across his lips.
Ian smiled down at him affectionately and nodded. "I am here, McKay. You have done well."
Rodney's eyes slipped shut and a crooked grin of relief tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Good," he whispered.
Ian's fingers flexed against Rodney's skin and a surge of pleasure rolled through McKay, causing him to arch and gasp. "Very good..."
The Wraith laughed, low and breathless, and Rodney opened his eyes again just as Ian leaned down to kiss him. It started as the gentle press of mouth-on-mouth – tentative exploration - until McKay flicked his tongue out to run its wet tip over the warrior's lower lip. With a heartfelt groan Ian responded to the invitation and deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue skillfully into Rodney's mouth to twine with the human's. Finding his strength starting to return on the incoming tide, McKay reached up to bury his fingers in the Wraith's hair, unconsciously scratching at Ian's scalp in time to the rhythmic dance of their dueling tongues.
Ian was the first to pull away, his breathing ragged and his body on fire again as it had been earlier, spurred on by the heady aroma of Rodney's awakening lust. With his feeding hand still pressed to McKay's chest and life force flowing into the human beneath him in a slow, focused trickle, the Wraith shifted carefully, grinding himself against Rodney while he watched every nuance of shifting emotion on the man's face with passion-blown pupils.
McKay shuddered with perverse delight as Ian rubbed his arousal so close to Rodney's own hardening cock that they almost collided – not that it would have been a problem if they had. Regardless of the influence the Gift might be having on his libido, McKay wasn't even going to pretend he didn't want this. Although he hadn't acknowledged his feelings until later, he'd been eyeballing the Wraith since the night Ian had carried him back from the Ancient city, and it was obvious from the warrior's wanton behavior that he'd been holding himself back, too. It was well beyond time to rectify that.
Rodney could feel the impressive length and girth Ian offered as it strained against its bonds even through layers of Wraith leather and cotton twill, and McKay wondered what it would be like to touch it. The moan of desire the very thought of it tore from his throat surprised him with its intensity, and before he even realized consciously that he'd moved, Rodney reached between them and began fumbling with the front of the warrior's pants.
It was Ian's turn to moan when his cock, heavy and hard, sprang free from the confines of his clothing, and the coolness of the cave's air was replaced with the warmth of the human's hand as he ran tentative fingers down its silky, ridged length.
"You don't waste any time," the Wraith murmured brokenly against McKay's cheek, his eyes slipping shut when the man's thumb brushed the tip, smearing the pearls of liquid leaking from the slit over its sensitive head.
Rodney shivered as Ian's control slipped and a pulse of raw energy poured through him, almost drowning McKay with the force of its voluptuous impact. Panting hard as he tried to keep himself from coming, Rodney released the Wraith for a moment so he could unzip his khakis and relieve some of the pressure on his own aching member, before wrapping his hand around them both. He pressed the Wraith's ridges against his turgid length, then gave an experimental squeeze and tug. The friction of his hand, and the moisture of their weeping cocks adding slickness to the slide of skin-on-skin overwhelmed them both, and their mutual groans echoed off the cave walls.
Rodney paused and turned his head slightly to rest his cheekbone against the Wraith's. "Don't you think we've wasted enough time?"
McKay grinned when he felt Ian's eager nod, and he began moving his hand again, hesitantly at first as he figured out the best way to man-handle the double load of cock in his blunt-fingered grip, then with strong, sure strokes when he did. The sensation of the Wraith's alien shaft sliding against his own; feeling the pre-come he milked from it dripping down his hand as Ian began rocking into his fist, was almost too much for him, and Rodney tightened his fingers and started moving faster as he rapidly approached orgasm.
Ian grunted against Rodney's neck in time to his strokes, trying desperately to find the balance between losing himself in the human's pheromones and the pleasure McKay wrung from him almost effortlessly, with maintaining enough presence-of-mind not to just push the rest of the human's life back into him in a single thrust. He had been waiting for this eventuality – this intimacy - for far too long. He didn't want McKay to reach his peak prematurely.
Almost as though Ian had summoned it, McKay's breath suddenly sped up and his hips jerked against the Wraith's erratically. Seeing his opportunity, Ian shoved what was left of Rodney's life back where it belonged, then pulled back just in time to watch the man come undone. Teetering on the brink anyway, the force of the Gift finally sent McKay over the edge, and the human's face went slack with ecstasy as hot spurts of semen painted both of their abdomens with stripes of creamy white.
Powerless against the sublime beauty of McKay's surrender, the feel of the human's release running down his torso, and the musky tang of sex hanging heavy in the air, the Wraith was swept along in the tidal wave of sensation, following Rodney to completion with the next stroke of his hand. Pushing up into the human's fist one last time, Ian's body spasmed with the intensity of his orgasm, and he ejaculated over the human's fingers, adding to the mess on McKay's stomach with a pleasured growl.
Without his feeding hand between them, the Wraith lowered himself down to rest against the human pinned beneath him, and they came down together, warm breath ghosting in soft puffs against each other's necks. After a couple of minutes of relative silence while they floated in the afterglow and listened to the quiet pop and crackle of the fire, Rodney reached up to run a gentle hand along Ian's side until it rested on his hip. "I think you need a bath."
The Wraith chuckled and propped himself up on his elbows so he could gaze down at McKay, sniffing dramatically and wrinkling his nose. "I know you need a bath."
"I just meant... Hey!" Rodney exclaimed with mock indignation, as a crooked grin split his face.
The warrior grinned back. "You need a shave, too. You're a mess."
"Wow. I don't know how I resisted you for so long. You're a silver-tongued devil, aren't you," McKay replied acerbically as he pushed on the Wraith's shoulders, indicating he should move. With a reluctant snarl, Ian pushed himself up and off the human, sitting back on his heels while Rodney rolled to the side and slowly clambered to his feet, looking down at his stomach with mild disgust.
"Was that supposed to be a joke?" the warrior quipped, a twinkle of amusement lingering in his green cat's eye as he scooped up the human's shirt and stood to swipe it across McKay's stomach. "Technically, it was simply a physiologically-correct observation."
"Ha ha." Rodney eyed his companion as he grabbed the balled-up shirt from Ian's hand and daubed hopelessly at the quickly-forming crust on the Wraith's skin, both entertained and irritated. "Is this the way it's going to be, then?"
Ian considered McKay for a moment, amazed at the strength and resiliency of the man he'd been forced to bond with, thanking Fate that they'd been thrown together - even it had to be under these dire circumstances. After being fed upon and molested not moments before, Rodney was already showing signs of humor – and temper - of being his usual, irascible self. It was the first time ever - since Merinus - that Ian had found a human as worthy as this one. McKay surprised him at every turn and defied labels with a vengeance, and with him, Ian was discovering that they were not master and worshipper, not even human and wraith, but two equal beings facing the dangers of this world together. It was the kind of relationship he'd been searching for all his life without knowing it.
A slow smile lit up the Wraith's face and he nodded.
"Hrumph," Rodney replied with a speculative frown. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing," Ian admitted. "Just happy."
Ian reached up and grabbed Rodney's forearm, pulling the reluctant human back down between his legs in the shallow water. "If you just sit still, I will be able to shave you without difficulty."
McKay eyed the Wraith's knife, lying on the bank of the pool with its keen edge winking in the morning sunlight, and he shook his head as he tried unsuccessfully to extricate himself from Ian's embrace. "I'll just let the beard grow in," he asserted nervously. "Thanks, anyway."
"I doubt you mean that, McKay," the warrior growled with mild irritation as he tightened his arms around his prey, pulling Rodney against his chest. "Besides, I prefer you clean-shaven."
Rodney stilled, and Ian watched the back of McKay's neck flush with heat as a faint scent of lust rose from the human's clean, damp skin.
"You... prefer...?" Rodney murmured softly, surprised and oddly-aroused by the Wraith's proprietary remark on his appearance. He heaved a defeated sigh, suddenly very aware of the slick green chest he rested against. If Ian liked him that way enough to argue with him about it, then maybe he should reconsider.
That knife, though...
"I understand that you're nervous about the blade," Ian rumbled reassuringly while McKay stiffened.
"Did you grab that out of my head?"
The Wraith laughed. "It was not necessary. Your trepidation has been quite evident since I unsheathed it." He loosened his grip on the human and reached for McKay's scruffy chin, gently turning the man's head so Ian could catch his eye.
"Do you not trust me?" He asked softly, searching Rodney's troubled features.
McKay paused for a moment, actually considering the question before he nodded slowly. "I do, but that's a big, sharp knife you're planning on scraping across my face, near my eyes, and over my carotid artery."
A smile stretched Ian's lips.
"I managed to keep you alive through all your other shaves, McKay. What makes this time different?"
"I'm awake for it?"
The Wraith's smile broadened. "If you will allow me to soothe you, it will go much easier for both of us."
Rodney gave him a curious scowl. "How do you plan on doing that?"
"A light connection, mind-to-mind," the warrior began, compressing his lips into a thin line when the human started to pull away. He should have expected as much. "I would only be skimming the surface of your mind, as I have done before with no ill effects."
"What?" Rodney jerked in his arms. "When?"
"Perhaps you do not remember the journey from our previous camp. At one point you awakened from your fevered stupor, and became agitated because I had strapped you down. I calmed your fears so you did not injure yourself trying to escape."
McKay wracked his spotty memory of the fever he'd barely survived, trying to recall the incident, when it rose, vague and dream-like, in his mind's eye. "I do remember!" he exclaimed after a moment. "I told you to get out of my head."
Ian chuckled. "Yes. It gave me hope that you would recover when you found the strength to snarl at me, even feverish and ill. You are very Wraithlike in that regard, you know," he finished affectionately.
Rodney grinned and some of the tension in his body eased as he leaned back against the Wraith. Up until a month ago, he would have been insulted if someone had said something like that to him. Now, it just... pleased him. He understood now that Ian meant Rodney was strong in the face of adversity.
The Wraith sighed contentedly as he ran his fingertips lazily up and down McKay's chest, brushing his damp fur this way and that. Amused, Rodney glanced down and watched, marveling at the ease with which they had fallen into this new pattern of heightened intimacy. It was almost as if both of them had been waiting for it to happen, so they could just add another dimension to their already-intense relationship. In truth, things didn't feel very different from the way they'd been before McKay had stuck his hand down the warrior's pants. Ian was still trying to impose his will on Rodney - and Rodney, with his superior intellect, was pointing out the flaws in the Wraith's plan.
Of course, the hand that had left off playing with his chest hair and moved lower, trailing over his abdomen on its way toward his navel – that was different.
"If you're not ready for mind-to-mind, there are other ways to soothe you," the ancient one murmured in his ear, as he slipped his hand between McKay's legs and cupped him.
"Ian," McKay gasped, his hands tightening where they rested on the other's thighs. The sight of his genitals possessively covered with the Wraith's strong, green hand excited Rodney in a way he couldn't account for, and he hardened almost instantly against Ian's palm while clawed fingers caressed his balls. Finally succumbing to Ian's skillful touch, McKay's breath hitched and he sagged bonelessly in Ian's arms, allowing his legs to flop open so the alien could pleasure him.
The Wraith rubbed the heel of his hand up and down Rodney's shaft as he gently squeezed and released his scrotum, wrenching impassioned moans from the man that excited his own desire. Aroused by the lust rising thick and fast off Rodney's bare skin, and the sight of him giving himself over so completely to Ian's caresses, the Wraith's other arm snaked around him, hand open and splayed flat on his stomach as he pulled Rodney to him. Holding him steady, the warrior rocked his hips forward and rubbed his ridged length against McKay's lower back, growling with pleasure at the sensations the movement caused. Before long he was grinding against Rodney at a steadily-escalating pace, his hand on the human's cock matching the rhythm stroke-for-stroke as he drove them both closer to completion while McKay writhed and bucked into the warrior's hand, Ian's name a passionate plea for mercy on his lips as he trembled on the brink of climax.
Almost there, himself, Ian moaned and pressed his mouth to the nape of McKay's neck, sucking skin between his sharp teeth. His jaw worked as he struggled to contain the instinct which screamed for him to mark the man as his, when an urgently-whispered 'Do it,' from Rodney, caught him off-guard. If he'd been in his right mind the Wraith might have hesitated, if only to make sure McKay understood exactly what he was encouraging, but drowning in pheromones and imminent orgasm, Ian took the man at his word. As Rodney cried out, his release coating his abdomen while his body jerked in the throes of passion, Ian bit down hard, breaking the skin in a perfect circle of serrated teethmarks, and stinging McKay with the barb under his tongue.
The stinger had barely retracted before the Wraith was coming, as well, flooding Rodney's back – and his own stomach – with jet after jet of hot, creamy wetness. With a shudder and a groan of satisfaction, Ian lapped desultorily at the wound on Rodney's sweaty neck before resting his forehead on the human's shoulder, panting along with McKay as they caught their breath.
"You stung me."
The warrior tensed, the taste of the human's blood and life force still dancing on his tongue. He knew he should have double-checked first. "You told me to."
McKay only grunted.
"We're going to need to wash again," Rodney murmured a couple of minutes later, his tone subdued, and the Wraith allowed himself to relax. Apparently McKay was letting it go – for now, anyway. Ian nodded against Rodney's skin, then unwrapped himself from around the human so they could clean themselves off a second time.
The next time they resumed their places in the shallows, McKay scooted back into the Wraith's embrace without coaxing, but also without any apparent hint of emotion, at all. The human had been unusually quiet while they'd washed, his thoughtful expression unsettling Ian more than he cared to admit. The warrior would have liked to have skimmed Rodney's mind and see what was going on in his head, but after the human's less-than-enthusiastic response to his earlier suggestion, Ian thought it wise to keep his intrusions to a minimum for a while.
Seemingly resigned to his fate – any fate, McKay rested his head back against the Wraith's shoulder and closed his eyes. His silence and submission alarmed Ian. Something was not right.
With gentle hands he reached for the human, encouraging him to sit upright and shifting so they could see each other eye-to-eye.
"McKay, what is wrong?"
Rodney, reluctant to meet his eyes in the first place, glanced away. "Why bother asking when you can just go in and get the answer?"
A frown of consternation marred Ian's handsome features as he considered the human. McKay had this all wrong. "I would not do that to you."
Now McKay's pale blue eyes canted up to catch his concerned green ones. "I belong to you now, right? That's what that was. I thought you were just going to bite me, or give me a hickey... I don't know – something playful. I didn't expect you to sting me. That means you've 'claimed' me, or some kind of Wraith bullshit like that. Right?"
Ian sighed as he slid his hands up Rodney's arms to his shoulders and squeezed tenderly. "Yes. I have claimed you," he replied slowly, scrutinizing the human's face for signs of trouble. "But not in the way you think. I do not claim mastery over you, nor do I require your submission. Quite honestly, even if I tried, I doubt I would ever get either.
"I've marked you as a companion I am not willing to share. It was an instinctive impulse motivated by the intimacy between us, but it was not my intention to compromise you against your will. My apologies for misconstruing your approval."
McKay shook his head dismissively, as if that was the least of his concerns. His eyes narrowed. "So... no strange compulsions, no mind control, no Worshipper tendencies? Nothing like that?"
The warrior had to quickly school his features to keep from grinning. "No," he replied, mildly surprised at the amount of misinformation the human had just regurgitated. "We are territorial beings. The venom I injected will change your scent, somewhat, so that other Wraith will know you are off limits. It is for your protection and my peace of mind. That's all. Truly. What makes you ask these things?"
"John turned up with a mark like this on the back of his neck when he got involved with that wraith I told you about, and there were some who contended he'd been turned into a Worshipper with no will of his own."
"Do you believe that?"
"No," Rodney drawled, sounding uncertain, "but John's priorities did shift an awful lot after that, always thinking about what was best for the wraith, and making decisions based on that."
A small smile curled the corner of Ian's mouth. "Perhaps he simply has feelings for him."
McKay snorted. "That much has been obvious for quite a while." He studied the Wraith's face for a long moment, as if trying to discern the truth from what he read there. "I just wondered sometimes where those emotions sprang from; whether they were genuine or..."
"Those who are deliberately-broken to serve the Wraith as Worshippers often appear to hold their Masters in great esteem, when, in truth, it is simply their shattered identity and addiction to the enzyme which motivates their actions." Ian paused and gazed at the human he held so carefully, hoping he was getting through. "Others become involved with us willingly, one way or another – and unbroken, they are able to love or withhold their affection as freely as any Wraith."
"So, chances are, John's feelings..."
"... are his own - and real; and motivated only by his affection for the wraith he is bonded to." Ian finished.
Rodney looked away, but not before the Wraith caught the expression of relief that relaxed his tense features. He waited patiently, sensing that McKay wasn't done yet. A moment later the human turned back to him, curiosity lighting his eyes. "Are we bonded?"
It was the warrior's turn to look away, hiding the quick flash of pain which broke the surface before he could avoid it. Ian had not wanted this connection in the beginning, seeking only to feed one last time, and now he was as emotionally-invested as he'd ever been with Merinus. Maybe more so. Although he had avoided emotional entanglements of this depth and scope with humans for most of his life, and had, by-and-large, succeeded; he found it grimly ironic that having quite possibly reached the other end of the warrior's journey he'd begun over ten thousand years earlier, he should find someone who made his heart beat again with the same joyful vigor as it had so long ago. Tragically, this one, too, was destined to die by a Wraith's hand, but unlike the last time, it would be Ian's own which would take Rodney down in the end, and there was nothing the Wraith could do to stop it.
After only a month, Ian literally could not imagine life without the maddening Dr. McKay by his side, and it hurt on so many levels to admit it. If only the human hadn't asked him point-blank, the warrior might have been able to pretend that the growing connection was not taking place – or that it held less value than it actually did, but apparently he was not to be afforded the luxury of self-delusion.
Savagely suppressing thoughts which only served to torment him, the Wraith paused until he was certain he could speak, then glanced back to the waiting human.
"I have fed from you and returned your life twice," he responded, his throat tight and his voice gruff with unexpressed emotions. "We reached for each other telepathically, and I was able to track you when you were ill and barely-conscious; and I have marked you indelibly as mine. Of course we are bonded."
Unaware of the Wraith's inner turmoil, Rodney smiled warmly. "I thought so. I just wasn't sure what that meant. The exact parameters are still a bit fuzzy, but I understand you haven't made me into a slave."
Issue resolved as far as McKay was concerned, he turned and leaned back onto Ian's chest with a contented sigh, resuming his previous position with his head resting on the other's powerful shoulder.
"Shave me, Wraith, before I change my mind."
The ancient one stopped still for a moment as he relished the sensation of Rodney lying so trustingly against him, and with a sinking sensation he realized that even without a scar on his neck or a change in scent to prove it, he was the human's as surely as McKay belonged to him. He only had two choices at this point. He could mourn the fact that their time together would come to an end all too soon, or he could treasure every moment of the human's existence while Rodney still lived and breathed.
Trying not to think about what was in store for him after the human's demise, the Wraith reached up and tenderly combed his fingers through Rodney's still-damp hair, focusing on the here-and-now before picking up the knife.
"Just relax," Ian breathed, not sure if he was admonishing Rodney or himself as he held the edge poised above the human's skin. "We will get through this together."
Since leaving the cave was out of the question until the Wraith's pants dried, Ian and Rodney spent the rest of the morning pulling out the various pieces of tanned leather and pelts that had been piling up at the back of the cave and debating their merits. However, true to form whenever the pair tried to come to an agreement about something, the conference didn't pan out as planned. What should have been a pleasant, enjoyable pastime quickly devolved into a heated confrontation. The warrior hadn't realized how much pride he took in his handiwork until McKay, with his usual snide comments and cutting remarks, rejected the lot piece-by-piece, reducing the entire pile of potential material to a single pelt.
It wasn't until Ian threw his hands up in disgust and stalked off with a furious growl, threatening to leave him to freeze, that Rodney became aware of what he'd been doing.
"Meredith Rodney McKay, you're an idiot," McKay muttered under his breath as he watched the bristling Wraith crouch by the fire with his back to him. Rodney hadn't meant to be nasty or judgmental. Really. It just happened... whenever he opened his mouth.
It was just that he became so absorbed in the task at-hand, whatever it was, that he had a tendency to forget the people he was working with were, in fact, other people with feelings and... stuff. As his mind churned in a feverish frenzy of problem-solving, his co-workers were reduced to mere annoyances – sluggish roadblocks who stood between him and the solution, and he rapidly ran out of patience with their feeble, bumbling suggestions. He couldn't help that his cognitive processes were so much faster than everyone else's, or that his standards were so much higher. That was how issues got resolved.
Unfortunately, others tended to take it personally. Zelenka had railed against Rodney's verbally-abusive behavior for years, although he'd stuck around, regardless. Of course, he and Radek had never been romantically involved, despite the rumors he caught wind of once in a while. The same could not be said for Katie Brown or Jennifer Keller, both of whom he actually had dated, and neither of whom had taken kindly to McKay's brand of constructive criticism. And while he'd barely noticed his break-up with Katie, the eventual dissolution of his and Jennifer's relationship had hurt. He'd actually loved the blonde doctor – or at least he'd thought he had – and he'd been unpleasantly surprised when she'd abruptly ended things.
One of her reasons – and there were many – had been his sudden loss of patience with her, and the escalating temper and acerbic tongue that had gone with it. Rodney remembered it happening, his slow, insidious disenchantment with the stunningly-gorgeous and undeniably-brilliant Chief Medical Officer during the months they'd been stuck on Earth, but not why – and in the big scheme of things it ultimately didn't matter. All he knew was that she had 'cut her losses' – her words – and made her self unavailable, largely due to his rotten temper.
Lost in self-recrimination, Rodney absently wrapped his hand around the claw hanging around his neck and tugged on it gently as he heaved an irritated sigh. Now his waspish outbursts and stunted social skills had shown up again, right on schedule, to ruin yet another relationship. The difference was that this time, it was the only game in town, and if he didn't want to risk losing the one good thing to have come out of this royal clusterfuck of a situation, he knew he'd better eat some crow – and fast.
Swallowing hard, McKay approached the firepit, making sure to come around in an arc so Ian didn't feel like Rodney was creeping up behind him. The Wraith studiously ignored him, tossing a few pieces of kindling on the fire and poking at them desultorily with a stick until they started smoking.
McKay sat cross-legged on the floor near the warrior, his mind racing as he watched Ian stare into the flames, letting the rage he could almost feel radiating from the Wraith slide off him like water running off a duck's back. He'd been snubbed by far too many people over the course of his life for it to affect him unduly, although he was also painfully aware of what Ian was capable of, and he didn't want to say or do anything to set him off.
After a few minutes of silence, broken only by the crackle of the fire, Rodney couldn't stand it anymore and cleared his throat. The Wraith turned and gazed at him expectantly from behind a mask of studied indifference, but Rodney wasn't falling it. He knew that Ian was pissed - he could see it glinting in the depths of the alien's olive-green eyes. The only problem was, now that he had the Wraith's attention, he had no idea what to say.
Realizing suddenly how out of his depth he was, McKay felt compelled to say something, regardless of Ian's cold, withering stare, or this was never going to be resolved.
"Listen...," he began nervously, unaccustomed, after all this time, to the Wraith pulling out his 'stoic ancient warrior' face, and using it on him. The last time he'd been on the receiving end of that look, McKay had gotten kicked out. "I'm sorry."
Ian looked unimpressed, his inscrutable gaze traveling over Rodney's face and form almost dismissively before their eyes met again, but McKay could see a flash of the anger – and something else - behind the facade a split second before the Wraith lunged at him, knocking him back and effortlessly pinning him to the floor by his shoulders.
"Do you have any idea how singularly irritating you must be, to try the patience of a Wraith?" Ian snarled down at him, the warrior's claw pendant, the symbol of what was between them, swinging almost-mockingly mere inches from McKay's nose.
"I.. I'm sorry," Rodney tried again, his hands coming up automatically to wrap around the warrior's wrists, although he knew better than to struggle. "That's how I am. You know that!" he exclaimed, a desperate edge creeping into his voice. "I get focused on a project, and it suddenly needs to be perfect, and I have no tolerance for anything that isn't."
"You are rude and ungrateful, and very difficult to work with," the Wraith rasped as he pressed harder on McKay's shoulders, his voice rough with emotion.
"Ouch! You wouldn't be the first person to tell me that," Rodney whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut and letting his head fall back against the packed earth, defeated. He couldn't change, and now Ian hated him, and he probably deserved whatever happened next.
McKay heard something that sounded suspiciously like a quiet snort just before the pressure on his shoulders eased somewhat, and he risked opening his eyes. Ian was still straddling his hips, but now the expression on his face was thoughtful as opposed to angry, and he was slowly shaking his head as he considered the man beneath him.
"I am not surprised," the Wraith murmured quietly when Rodney hesitantly met his gaze. McKay was maddening, and apparently not even throwing him out of camp to suffer ten days and nights of monsoon-like rain and cat attacks and deadly fevers was enough to make him change his ways, at least not for very long. It was a good thing for the human that Ian usually found his stubborn, opinionated, grating personality appealing – even amusing – when McKay wasn't turning his biting sarcasm and harsh criticisms on him.
Encouraged by the softening of Ian's expression and the gentleness in his tone of voice, which had modulated it from a guttural snarl to a mildly-irritated rumble, Rodney started talking – fast, his eyes pleading - literally begging the Wraith's indulgence. "Look, I am sorry that I seemed ungrateful. You did a great job on those skins, considering you were making do with whatever you had on-hand. I didn't mean to disparage your abilities."
The warrior released McKay's shoulders and sat back on his heels with a long-suffering sigh, clawed hands resting lightly on his thighs. Regardless of the man's apology, Ian doubted very much that he'd seen the last of Rodney behaving badly. The only thing that gave him hope was that behind McKay's panic and self-serving survival instinct, Ian could sense the human's sincere desire to make things right, and against his better judgment, the warrior found himself almost willing to forgive and forget – with conditions.
Catching a flicker of indecision in the Wraith's eye, McKay pushed himself up on his elbows, gazing hopefully up at his captor. "Can we please try this again?"
Ian grunted noncommittally. "You will you need to curb your tongue – at least a little bit," he commanded gruffly, to Rodney's eager nod. "I am not without pride – or feelings, and you slashed both to ribbons with your harsh words. That is not how one treats their consort, not if they wish them to remain by their side."
McKay looked away, his cheeks coloring with remorse as the Wraith's admission sank in, and Rodney realized that the other emotion he'd seen in Ian's eye right before he'd jumped him had been distress. He had hurt Ian's feelings.
No one knew better than Rodney did how quickly acrimonious, dismissive words could drive someone away; he was well on his way to making it a lifestyle choice. He just never would have believed that he'd be able to do it to a Wraith.
Of course Ian wasn't just any Wraith, and their connection was anything but typical. McKay was well aware that the warrior had let down his guard and let him in – let him see past the impassive mask to the living, breathing creature underneath, which apparently meant Rodney had the power to wound him with just his words. McKay sighed as the weight of that responsibility settled on his shoulders – a ponderous, terrifying, yet welcome burden – like it never had with any of his other relationships, and he knew then that Ian deserved more than glib assurances and half-assed promises to change that McKay didn't intend to keep. He deserved the truth.
He turned back to the warrior, contrite and resolute, and as pragmatic as always. "I promise I'll try, although it's a sure bet I won't succeed."
Caught off-guard, Ian laughed. At least the man was honest. "Very well," he replied as he rose gracefully from his crouch and reached down to help Rodney to his feet. "I suppose it's better than not trying at all."
"There, that's the last of them," Rodney stated with obvious satisfaction, as he carefully placed the last apple that would fit into the sturdy, woven basket he and Ian had been filling all afternoon. He rose from his crouch with a groan, his new leather pants creaking in mild protest as he stood and stretched, and tried to unkink his sore, tired muscles.
He'd never known there was a method for storing apples long-term, but the Wraith had, and with an attention to detail which left McKay's obsessive-compulsive tendencies in the dust, Ian had made sure that each rosy piece of fruit they packed was perfect and unblemished, and completely wrapped in dry grass to keep it from coming in contact with its neighbor. Rodney had initially bristled at the ancient warrior's watchful – and in McKay's mind, oppressive – oversight. It had taken a growl and a brusque reminder that it was all to ensure the human had enough food to last the winter before Rodney had realized he'd been letting his temper get the better of him again and backed down. Truth be told, as much as McKay grumbled, he was in awe of the wealth of knowledge Ian possessed when it came to preserving food.
Racing against the rapidly-advancing Autumn, in just a few weeks' time, they'd already gathered tubers and onions by the dozens, which were spread out in the dark recesses of the cave to dry and cure before storage, and a rough crate made of twigs they'd lashed together with rawhide strips, full of damp sand and carrots. They'd scoured the woods and fields for herbs, both culinary and medicinal, to bundle and hang from a new, wooden frame purpose-built to hold them, and gleaned as many late-ripening berries and grapes as they could find, which they had then laid out in the sun to dry.
It had astounded Rodney, not only how simple the process had been, but also how delicious the fruits of his labors had tasted. He could say with certainty that he'd never in his life had anything as sweet and delicious as his first homemade raisin.
The only downside to this bountiful harvest was all the work that went into it. It had taken many back-breaking days stooping and digging up the tubers, onions, and carrots, then hauling them back to camp, and hours of trudging through tall grass and sylvan glade looking for the plants the Wraith was determined to locate. Never mind the scratches still healing on McKay's face and arms from going after the last of the berries hiding in their brambly bushes, and the twisted ankle he was still favoring after falling out of one of the apple trees.
After ascertaining that it wasn't broken, Ian had scolded him like he'd been a small child for not being more careful, and while Rodney had scowled darkly through the Wraith's lecture on tree-climbing safety, which had sounded surprisingly similar to the ones he'd gotten from his grandfather as a kid, he'd secretly been kind of tickled that the warrior had been so concerned about him, he'd gotten worked up enough to snarl on his account. Of course, once he'd calmed down, Ian had turned it around and jokingly teased McKay that he must have injured himself on purpose, since it was then left to the Wraith to climb and pick, and toss them down to the human below.
The most amazing part of the whole experience, as far as Rodney was concerned, had been how well they'd worked together once McKay made the decision to try and stop being a dick. Other than a few minor flare-ups, they'd functioned like a well-oiled machine, picking, packing, building, cleaning, and falling into bed sore and exhausted at the end of the day, only to wake up and do it again the next. Ever since Ian's last feeding, he'd been like a Wraith, possessed, trying to gather what McKay was going to need to make it through a winter of unknown duration or ferocity, and all Rodney could do was try to keep up. It had been a crash course in wildcrafting and basic food preservation, and for someone whose only experience in these areas up until now had been buying veggies from a farmer's market and tossing them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, the past few weeks had been a real eye-opener.
McKay pulled a scrap of soft suede from his jacket pocket to mop the cooling sweat off his brow and the back of his neck as he squinted toward the westering sun. With his sprained ankle, they were going to have to pack up soon if they wanted to get the apples – and themselves - back to camp before sundown. He had just drawn breath to say as much to Ian, when a pair of strong Wraithskin-clad arms wrapped around him from behind as a familiar body pressed against his back.
"You were thinking of me," the Wraith whispered softly in his ear, his exhalation warm against Rodney's neck.
McKay's hands covered the green ones possessively splayed across his abdomen, and he nodded as he relaxed against Ian's broad chest, obliquely cocking his head just enough to offer his neck, should the Wraith be so inclined. In the next instant, cool lips were pressed just below Rodney's ear, and the tip of a wet tongue traced indecipherable patterns against his skin. With a pleasured sigh McKay succumbed to the warrior's attentions even as he kept reminding himself that they needed to get going, but the Wraith's wicked tongue was too talented to resist. It wasn't until there was a noticeable bulge in his tan leather pants that Rodney finally managed to regain control of himself, and he pulled away from Ian with a moan.
The Wraith loosened his grip enough for McKay to turn in the circle of his arms, Ian's own pants uncomfortably tight from the feel and smell of his aroused consort, and before the human could get away he pulled him close again. One of the hands which had pressed against Rodney's stomach now cupped his behind, and Ian groaned as he rocked himself against the human's hardness, tearing an answering gasp from McKay's lips at the exquisite sensation.
The pleasures they'd shared so far had been limited to questing hands and mouths, and the friction a flank or lower back could offer, but the warrior didn't mind. While he couldn't deny that he ached to sheathe himself inside the human, this interlude – this lull in which they found themselves between denial and surrender, so full of innocent passion and unfulfilled yearning - had a sweetness all its own, and he savored it to the fullest, especially when it was so clear how deeply the human cared about him. Every night they slept curled in each others' arms, and every day they worked side-by-side, touching each other with a casual familiarity it was obvious they both craved. With each passionate encounter Ian could sense his partner's desire for him increasing, and the Wraith knew that eventually McKay would let him in, but until Rodney was ready for him to take it further, the fact that the man accepted his advances and returned his affection was far more important than what they did.
"Ian," McKay murmured as he pushed gently on the Wraith's chest, his voice rough with unexpected lust. "We can't do this now. With my sprained ankle, we're going to need extra time to get that basket of apples back before dark."
The warrior sighed as he met Rodney's exotic blue eyes, bright and pale in the late afternoon light. With the weather changes, the big felines had been growing bolder of late, as they sought to fatten themselves up before the temperatures dropped and game grew scarce. Like it or not, the human was right. With a tenderness that spoke volumes, the Wraith leaned down to steal a kiss then reluctantly released McKay.
"You are correct," Ian replied, as he moved to grasp one of the basket's leather handles. When Rodney joined him they hoisted it together, and with slow, careful steps, began making their way home.
Ian and Rodney anxiously chased their ever-lengthening shadows all the way home. They finally reached the outcropping of rocks that hid the entrance to the cave just as the bottom edge of the binary sun touched the horizon, only to find that the dusky darkness had beaten them there. Deep shadows were already creeping across the rough path that led to their door, and pooling, cold and dark in the small, naturally-occurring courtyard that graced the front of their camp.
Rodney shivered as they made their way through the narrow fissure, grateful to get out of the incessant wind, which had picked up shortly after they'd left the stand of apple trees to cross the open grassland, growing sharper and more biting with each step as the day started its rapid descent into night. As soon as he rounded the windbreak, McKay's limping steps faltered and he ground to a halt, bringing the Wraith up short.
"My arm is going to come out of its socket if I don't put this down for a minute," Rodney complained as he carefully lowered his side of the basket to the ground.
With an aggrieved sigh, Ian reluctantly followed suit. "McKay, we are literally five meters from the cave. You couldn't make it a few more steps?"
"No, I couldn't," Rodney replied petulantly, as he alternated between rubbing his shoulder and swinging his arm loosely in a wide arc in a futile attempt to ease his pain. "I barely made it this far. Remember, I don't have Wraith-like strength and stamina. The only thing that kept me going was the fear that we were going to run into one of our feline friends."
The warrior nodded grimly in agreement as he moved to McKay's side. He had been concerned about the large predators as well, and he knew he had pushed the human beyond the limits of his endurance in order to reach the relative safety of their abode before darkness descended.
"You did well," Ian whispered softly in McKay's ear as he came up behind him, gently catching McKay's arm mid-swing and arresting it's movement. Stepping closer, the Wraith slid his hands slowly up over Rodney's sleeves until they rested on his shoulders, and with strong fingers he began massaging the man through his tattered, much-repaired windbreaker.
McKay groaned with pleasure at the first squeeze, his eyes slipping shut as Ian's fingertips danced their way back and forth across his trapezius muscles and up and down his arms like he knew where every knot and sore spot was hiding. With a gasp and a moan, Rodney succumbed to the warrior's expert technique, dropping his chin to his chest in total surrender as the Wraith sought out each trigger point and pummeled it into submission effortlessly with the pads of his thumbs and the heels of his hands. In a matter of minutes McKay was reduced to a loose, relaxed, gelatinous shadow of his usual, high-strung self, Ian's grip the only thing keeping him upright as they swayed together in the fading light.
"Mmmmm – Ian. So good," Rodney murmured provocatively, when the warrior's hands stilled on his shoulders. By now McKay was hard again and even as tired as he was, his body tingled with desire. The last thing he wanted was for Ian to stop when they were just getting to the good part.
The Wraith's fingers tightened in response, but didn't move.
Wondering at Ian's odd behavior, a frown creased Rodney's brow as he twisted slightly so he could look over his shoulder. The warrior's green eyes shone with faint luminescence in the gathering dusk while he listened intently, head cocked, to something McKay couldn't hear. As Rodney drew breath to voice his query, Ian pressed a warning finger to McKay's lips, the Wraith's concerned gaze flicking up to meet his then shifting deliberately toward the cavern.
Ian's cool touch dispersed Rodney's passion as a wave of unease replaced it, sweeping through him with such force it left him shaking. Something had invaded their home, and it was still there. Even as Rodney stiffened in fear at the realization, the warrior had stepped away and drawn his knife, the transition from lover to hunter seamless and instantaneous as Ian crept closer to the cave in wary silence. He paused once and glanced back in McKay's direction, indicating that the human should climb to the top of the outcropping and out of harm's way with the imperious stab of a green finger, before resuming his noiseless progress toward the leather flap.
Before Rodney even had a chance to move a muscle, one of the large cat-bears suddenly bolted out of the cave, the heavy drape billowing explosively outward in its wake. Massive and already heavily-furred with its thick, dark winter coat, the thing snarled ferociously at the lone hunter who dared to oppose it, launching itself at Ian and bringing him down onto his back in a single bound.
Taken by surprise, the Wraith instinctively pushed at the beast's chest, his hand buried deep in the creature's ruff and his arm locked and trembling with effort as he desperately tried to fend it off. He slashed viciously at its face and neck with his knife as he looked for an opening, while mere inches separated its snapping jaws from his vulnerable throat. Infuriated by the sting of the wounds the Wraith was inflicting, the beast paid him back in kind, laying Ian's cheek open to the bone with a swipe of its claws and wrenching a pained grunt from the warrior. Black ichor spattered across the pale ground in a spray pattern even as the Wraith's skin knit back together, and he redoubled his efforts to escape the creature that pinned him, helpless, to the ground.
Stunned and horrified by the swift and unexpected violence unfolding right in front of him, McKay froze, torn between the equally-strong instinctive responses of flight and fight. He had no weapon, he had no skills, and he knew first-hand how those claws felt sinking into his flesh. Everything within him screamed at him to run, to save himself, but he couldn't do it. Not with Ian fighting for his life – for both of their lives, just like he'd had to the first time they'd faced down one of these things together.
Suddenly recalling his small part in their earlier success, Rodney scanned the ground by his feet and scooped up a rock about the size of his fist, and before he could talk himself out of this unwise and ill-advised action, hurled it at the feline's head. It connected with a hollow 'thunk' and bounced off, startling both the Wraith and the cat, and turning the feline's baleful glare in his direction. As the beast snarled at a terrified McKay, its lips pulling back to reveal a full array of impressively long, sharp teeth, Ian used its momentary distraction to sink his knife into the creature's throat and twist the blade, only to have the weapon knocked from his hand by the beast's thrashing as he pulled it free.
While the blow he'd struck would eventually prove fatal, the angle of the warrior's thrust unfortunately had not been enough to kill the cat outright, and it screamed as blood poured from the wound, soaking its fur and running in rivulets down Ian's arm. Enraged by the pain, it shredded the Wraith's coat with renewed fury, tearing through the Wraithskin and Ian's chest like paper, while the warrior struggled desperately beneath it.
"No!" Rodney cried out as he ran toward the battling titans, all thoughts of self-preservation gone in a crashing wave of primitive, visceral rage. After all he and Ian had been through already, he wasn't about to let some damn cat kill him – not if he could help it. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as McKay came at the pair from an angle and slammed his shoulder, full-tilt, into the feline's, doing his best to push it back from Ian long enough for the Wraith to escape, or strike back – something – anything. As Rodney tried not to step on the fallen warrior by his feet, he managed to catch Ian's eye just long enough to ascertain that the Wraith was still functioning well enough to understand what he was trying to do, before McKay felt himself flying through the air.
He hit the rock wall by the cave entrance and landed face-down in the dirt, his arm on fire from where the creature had slashed it open as it had reared and swatted him away, rending the sleeve of his jacket to ribbons along with his skin. Dizzy and struggling to catch his breath, McKay could only lay there and watch as Ian rose up into a sitting position and grabbed the distracted beast by the head in a grip Rodney had seen before. With a triumphant roar the Wraith whipped the cat's head around, cleanly snapping its neck before they both fell back to the ground, the dead weight of the feline dropping heavily down on top of him.
Silence reigned on the battlefield, broken only by the whistle of wind outside the embracing arms of the rock formation that enclosed them, and McKay's labored respiration, which sounded loud and harsh in his ears. Cradling his injured arm to his chest, he slowly pushed himself into upright, anxious to see if Ian was alright. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts Rodney finally made it into a seated position, then wished he hadn't. All the aches and pains he'd accumulated over the past two weeks suddenly reminded him of their presence as his body reabsorbed the adrenaline - even the newest addition, which at the moment was throbbing and hot, and slowly turning his sleeve dark with blood.
With an agonized grunt, he clumsily struggled to his feet and limped toward the dead feline which had begun to shiver and move, seemingly of its own accord. For a split second McKay froze, wondering if the thing was still alive before he realized what the warrior was trying to do, and with a self-deprecating snort he increased his shambling pace, disregarding the twinge in his ankle as he hurried toward the shifting carcass. He reached the scene just in time to put his shoulder to use again, adding his strength to Ian's as the Wraith rose into a half-reclining position long enough for them to roll the cat off him and to the side.
A faint groan escaped Ian's lips as what little energy he had left deserted him, and he measured his length in the dirt again. Panting with exhaustion, he turned pain-filled eyes toward his human companion, the act of moving his head beyond his capabilities.
"You should have let me help you with that," Rodney murmured tenderly as he knelt next to the injured Wraith and gently brushed blood-stained white hair back from Ian's face. He had no idea how badly the warrior was hurt, but the fact that Ian was flat on his back and barely able to stir certainly couldn't be a good sign. It probably meant his injuries had outstripped whatever life force had been keeping him going since his last feeding, and he was no longer healing.
McKay's lips thinned to a worried line, almost glad for the growing darkness. He was afraid to see what the warrior's chest looked like.
"Trapped under that thing, I couldn't see or hear you," the ancient one rasped, interrupting Rodney's thoughts. "All I knew was that it had thrown you against the wall, and I didn't know what condition you were in. I was trying to get to you."
Rodney didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The warrior sounded so weak it frightened him, and yet even in this condition, Ian had still been trying to protect him.
"What do you need, Ian?" Rodney asked, a frantic edge creeping into his voice. "Do you need to feed?"
The warrior fumbled for McKay's hand in the dark and clutched it in his own. "I will need to feed eventually. However, first I need you to remain calm," he whispered, trying to touch the human's mind so he could soothe him mentally, but in the Wraith's weakened state, even that was beyond him.
"What should I do?"
"You must build a fire out here to keep the cat's brethren at bay. There are probably others in the vicinity and they will be attracted to the scent of death." Ian paused as a coughing fit wracked his body. "Once you have done that," he continued a moment later when the deep, rattling hacking had passed, leaving him slightly out of breath and his lips black with blood, "gather water and rags and that first aid kit of yours with the sutures in it, so we can stitch up whatever part of you is bleeding so profusely I can smell it even over the stench of the cat."
"And what about you?" McKay replied, his voice shaking as he absently chafed the warrior's frigid hand between his own. "Are you going to be alright while I do all this?"
"I need to rest and allow my body time to finish whatever healing it can do on its own before I feed. I do not wish to drain you of more years than is absolutely necessary."
"You'd better not die on me, Wraith."
Ian wheezed dryly, and it took a moment for Rodney to realize he was trying to chuckle. "I am doing my best, McKay."
Unduly taxed, and panting from their brief conversation, the warrior's eyes slipped shut as he fell into a fitful doze, leaving McKay to anxiously watch the shallow rise and fall of his chest.
Up until now, Ian had always been the one who had taken care of them both. The Wraith had fed and housed and clothed Rodney without complaint. He'd nursed him through injury and illness, and made sure he was warm and safe and dry. Now it was McKay's turn to be the strong one, and in all honesty, he felt unequal to the task with his lacerated arm and his gimpy leg. But as he gazed down at his sleeping lover, the Wraith's features hollow and preternaturally still in the near-darkness, a fierce protectiveness filled him, and it gave Rodney the fortitude he needed to clamber awkwardly to his feet so he could do what Ian had asked of him.
The Wraith groaned and stirred as he was dragged, unwilling, from the warm cocoon of oblivion he'd allowed himself to tumble into. Slowly regaining consciousness, the sensation of soft fingers trailing over his cheek and the agony that defined every square inch of his body suddenly assaulted his senses at the same time, and he hissed in pain. As his eyelids fluttered open, his concerned paramour leaned over him, the radiance of a fire burning close by bathing the rock walls and Rodney's face, alike, in a warm, yellow glow.
"McKay," Ian croaked feebly, to be rewarded with the other's relieved sigh as Rodney's features rearranged themselves into a more relaxed expression.
"Good. You're awake," McKay murmured as he settled, cross-legged, next to the Wraith on the ground, the outside of his thigh resting against Ian's hip. "I was starting to wonder whether you were ever going to come around."
Ian managed a faint smile, little more than a slight stretching of his generous lips. "I understand," he breathed. He'd experienced similar anxiety every time he'd had to waken Rodney as he'd nursed him through his fever. Before the Wraith could open his mouth again to say as much, a surge of hunger shook him as his body's attempt to heal the mutilation his chest and shoulders had suffered at the cat's claws was thwarted. His body spasmed and arched, muscles taut and quivering as he was engulfed in excruciating pain, the urgency of his appetite burning through him like wildfire.
"Ian, you've waited long enough," McKay growled urgently, when the Wraith collapsed after his agonized convulsion like a puppet with its strings cut. "You need to feed. Now."
Rodney undid his jacket with quivering fingers and started to slip out of it, only to let out a surprised gasp when he began working his sleeve down his injured forearm. In the time it had taken to build a fire and gather the supplies Ian had called for, the already-congealing blood had stuck the lining to his wounds in several places, and regardless of how careful he tried to be, he reopened them as he pulled the fabric away.
The scent of fresh blood hit the Wraith's scent receptors, dark and metallic – and oddly-enticing, and it resurrected memories dismissed and long-forgotten, of tales told to younglings of dire circumstances and survival against all odds, and rumors which surfaced from time-to-time on Hives, repeated with disgusted relish and denigrated as outlandish exaggerations. Suddenly faced with the stirrings of a strange and unnatural craving and a reality as terrible as any of the stories he'd ever heard, the warrior wondered if there might be truth behind the legends, after all. Green cat's eyes speculatively rolled in Rodney's direction as the man turned his arm toward the light so he could examine the sluggishly-bleeding gashes, the silver streaks at McKay's temples from the years Ian had already stolen, glittering in the firelight. It was too late to give them back again, but if the stories actually had merit, then at least he might not have to take any more.
Grunting with the effort, Ian reached for the arm Rodney had stretched out mere inches from his face, grasping the man's wrist with the desperate strength of a drowning man. As the Wraith pulled him closer, McKay turned startled blue eyes on him, unaware that he'd awakened a monstrous, undeniable, primitive urge.
"You can look at my arm all you want once you've fed," Rodney quipped, trying and failing to twist out of Ian's iron grip. "This is not the time for first aid."
"Listen to me, McKay," the Wraith growled, his voice thick with need. "I need to try something that may or may not work."
Rodney's efforts to escape stalled at the edge in the warrior's voice. "Okay," he drawled, sounding uncertain. "What?"
In response, Ian tugged the human's arm to his mouth and sealed his lips over the worst of the lacerations, the taste of what was drying on Rodney's skin sending a shiver of anticipation through the Wraith he didn't even try to suppress. With the same clever tongue he used to torment and delight the human, Ian now carefully probed the wound, and a heartbeat later he was rewarded with his first mouthful of fresh blood. It was thick and hot, and effervescent with the dilute essence of McKay's life force, and for a moment all the warrior could do was hold it in his mouth and savor his consort's precious gift like a fine wine.
He had tasted Rodney already and felt the tingle of his life force on his tongue, but it had only been a few drops the day he'd marked him. It was a whole different experience taking a draught for the purpose of feeding. From what he could discern, it seemed to contain only a tiny fraction of the energy he could have drawn from the human if he'd laid his hand on his chest. But it was there, nonetheless – and it was palpable – and if his body was able to metabolize any at all from the blood alone, it meant Rodney's life was no longer forfeit, and that, in and of itself, would make the diminished returns worthwhile. Cautiously optimistic, he swallowed, and almost immediately felt the tiny spark of energy spread its healing warmth throughout his body.
Awestruck by the magnitude of his discovery and lost in the heady sensation of life force seeping slowly into his system, he tightened his grip on Rodney's wrist and began to feed.
"Hey! What the hell?" McKay exclaimed, a rush of fear-laced adrenaline making his heart hammer painfully in his chest as he tried to pull his captive arm away from the Wraith's heated, questing mouth. Instead of letting him go as Rodney had half-expected, along with a sheepish grin and an admission that it had just been a little Wraith humor taken too far, Ian tightened his grip and sank sharp teeth into Rodney's already-wounded arm, an earnest, possessive growl resonating deep in the warrior's chest with each swallow of blood.
Living in close quarters with Ian for just a couple of months had reinforced McKay's conviction that there was a lot he didn't know about Wraith, and probably never would. However, even with that disclaimer firmly in place, Ian suddenly worrying his bleeding arm like a wild animal was an aberration Rodney never would have expected in a million years. Almost from the moment the Atlantis Expedition had stepped through this end of the wormhole, they had learned that Wraith fed on the pure energy of life. It was later discovered that the creatures could enjoy food and drink for its aesthetic appeal, but life force – specifically human, or in dire cases, Wraith - was the only thing that could sustain them. As crazy and terrifying as that concept had been to wrap his head around in the beginning, it was a simple fact of life in the Pegasus Galaxy that Rodney had eventually come to accept.
And while it was one thing to joke about Wraith being nothing more than life-sucking space vampires, it was quite another having Ian actually clinging to Rodney's arm for dear life and drinking from him like one of the honest-to-god, blood-sucking undead. It was something the man hadn't even considered as a possibility, and quite honestly, it freaked him out a hell of a lot more than the warrior aging him prematurely then giving it all back in a rush, through a maw in the center of his palm.
Concerned that serious injury after months of unrelenting starvation had finally caused Ian to snap, and desperately trying not to panic, McKay tried a different tack. He reached out and began carefully brushing the Wraith's hair back from his face with cold, shaking fingers. "Hey, there," he murmured softly, Rodney's breath clogging in his throat as he gazed down at the warrior's blissful features, closed eyes, and powerfully-working jaw. Even broken and gore-spattered, Ian was so beautiful that McKay hesitated. For a moment he wished he could just let the Wraith feed, undisturbed, if only to give him a moment's peace – a brief respite from the constant, gnawing ache of hunger he'd undoubtedly been experiencing for the past ten months, but with every powerful pull on the open wounds, Rodney could feel the faint stirrings of lightheadedness growing more pronounced, and he knew that was a bad sign.
"Ian, please stop," he tried again, still doing his best to keep his voice low and soothing, "I'm getting dizzy."
A crease marred Ian's smooth brow, and with a reluctant groan his jaw stilled and his eyes slowly opened, meeting Rodney's worried gaze with a bewildered expression that tore at the scientist's heart. It was bad enough McKay had no idea what was going on, but it was obvious that the Wraith was out of his depth, too, and in that moment Rodney didn't know whether to run for his life or gather Ian in his arms and tell him everything was going to be alright.
As he was still wondering which would be the wisest course of action, McKay saw reason slowly return to the Wraith's olive-green cat's eyes and felt his tongue lapping at the wounds, more gently than before. After a moment the warrior lifted Rodney's arm from his mouth to inspect it, and a grunt of surprised satisfaction escaped his bloodstained lips as he twisted McKay's wrist so he could look, as well. The laceration and the wraith bite were both still very much in evidence, their edges faintly reddened and irritated, but they were clotted.
"How can that be?" he asked, glancing wonderingly from the half-healed gashes to Ian's watchful gaze and back again.
"It is the enzyme in our saliva," the Wraith replied huskily. "I did the same thing when I marked you."
"I remember. You licked it a few times after you bit me."
The warrior nodded thoughtfully as he brought Rodney's arm down to rest across his Wraithskin-clad abdomen, then laid his pale green hand across it to keep it there, fingers absently stroking the fur on McKay's forearm first with, then against, the direction of the hair's growth.
A moment of tense silence passed, while the Wraith ruminated, and Rodney waited for some sort of explanation until he finally couldn't stand the suspense any longer. "Do you mind telling me what the hell just happened here?" he burst out, his tone an exasperated mix of confusion, irritation, and affection.
Ian fixed his contemplative stare on Rodney's anxious face as his hand stilled on the human's arm. "I'm not entirely sure," he replied, his voice carefully neutral.
After dealing with a week of the Wraith acting cagey when his hunger had kicked into high gear, McKay picked up on Ian's unease right away. "Bullshit. Tell me what this is about. You don't routinely make a habit of drinking blood, do you?" He was almost afraid to ask, and was even less sure he wanted to hear the answer.
"No," Ian stated flatly with a shake of his head. "I've never done anything like that in my life. All I know is that all of a sudden it smelled so irresistible I had to taste it – and then I couldn't stop myself."
The Wraith sighed and pushed himself up onto his elbows with an alacrity that belied his grisly appearance. "And it's something I am not proud to have done. There are old, old stories – handed down from long before the war with the Ancients and told to younglings, about Wraith warriors in terrible, extreme, life-or-death situations, who were forced by circumstance to partake in this type of feeding. Other than the fact that the legends have assumed near-mythic proportions whose details are suspect, they are, at their heart, cautionary tales. Warnings. Blood-drinking is not, nor has it ever been... acceptable behavior."
Ian looked away, suddenly unable to meet Rodney's eye. "It is considered an abomination, and is looked upon with abhorrence and disgust, as are the Wraith who indulge in it," he continued, his face growing strangely ashen. "It's a good thing we'll be stuck here for the duration, McKay, because I have crossed a line I would probably never be able to recover from were we to be found."
It was Rodney's turn to study Ian's features in the firelight. He was just thinking that other than the strange grey mottling of the warrior's skin, he could swear that Ian looked a little better, when suddenly it dawned on him what was happening. "Ian, are you... blushing?"
The muscles in the warrior's jaw jumped. "Wraith society has many laws, but only a few taboos. I have broken a taboo, McKay. Although it is one I already know I will break again and again, for your sake, that does not mean I am comfortable with it."
"So you got something out of it, then?"
The warrior hesitated before responding. "I did," he confirmed softly. "I was able to draw life force from it."
"What!" Rodney exclaimed, an elated grin splitting his face. "That's huge! Do you have any idea how fantastic that it? If Wraith could feed like that, the hostilities would be over. There could be peace in Pegasus. We could..."
"Wait, McKay. Stop," Ian snarled, bring the man's excited ramblings to a halt mid-sentence. "The amount of life force which can be extracted from human blood is minimal, at best. I was able to gain very little nourishment from what I took. Although I must admit that after living on the edge of starvation for so long it was actually an improvement for me, I wouldn't call it a solution for the masses. Besides the fact that no Wraith would even entertain the idea, it would probably require the complete exsanguination of eight or nine victims to equal what could be taken from a single human in the usual way."
"Oh," Rodney slouched, deflated. "Well, that wouldn't work."
"Unfortunately not," Ian agreed, vaguely horrified to be discussing something so forbidden and disturbing with the human, who, for all his usual squeamishness, seemed quite unruffled. "Putting aside the physical inability – or desire - to ingest that much blood at one time, it would be a terrible waste of resources which are already at a premium. In fact, I would imagine that is probably where the taboo sprang from in the first place."
"That makes sense," McKay responded, before brightening. "Wait a minute. What about blood banks?"
The Wraith tilted his head, confused by the terminology.
"Um... donated blood. It's drawn and stored in case it's needed to replace blood-loss during an operation, or due to an accident."
Ian paused to consider the unthinkable seriously for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't think that would work either. The blood that was already on your arm tasted wonderful, but there was no spark of life there. I didn't encounter that until I drew it directly from the wound."
"Indeed," the warrior replied as he slowly sat up the rest of the way, wincing with shame when he finally had to grasp a fistful of the feline's thick fur to help pull himself upright. If there had been anyone else but his consort with him, he would have hidden his weakness as best he could, but McKay was an active participant in his descent to rock bottom. There was nothing left to hide from the man. "Not that we would have access to such a facility even if it were a viable option."
"That's true," Rodney murmured as he clambered to his feet, staggering when the sudden demand on his heart to pump insufficient quantities of blood to his brain brought on an unexpected episode of vertigo.
"Are you alright, McKay?" Ian asked when the human just as quickly resumed his seat.
"Yeah. Low blood volume, I guess," Rodney quipped, offering a wan smile through tingling lips. "I used to get this way whenever I donated blood."
"Hey, it's okay," McKay replied, rubbing clammy palms against his pants. "If this is going to give you what you need, we'll work around the dizzy spells."
"I don't think you understand," the Wraith began, pausing to clutch at his stomach when a cramp suddenly hit him in the midsection, so sharp and breathtakingly painful it made him want to double over.
It was Rodney's turn to ask if Ian was alright, as a concerned hand reached to grip his shoulder.
The warrior nodded, not trusting himself to speak until the agonizing spasm subsided. "It will never replace true feeding," he resumed where he'd left off once the pain had passed. " The real benefit for us is that what I have taken appears not to have aged you."
"Really?" Rodney squeaked, more relieved than he wanted to admit. Without a mirror larger than the small one in the Wraith's grooming kit, he hadn't been able to examine just what Ian's two feedings had done to him. Not that he really wanted to. In fact, he'd been doing his best to pretend nothing had changed. If this new and impossibly strange wrinkle in their relationship kept the warrior alive and left him only slightly worse for wear, he was all for it.
"Let's try this again, shall we? We both need to get washed up and into clean clothes," McKay said as he stood again, slower this time. Vertigo-free, he breathed a sigh of relief and was just about to hook his hand under the warrior's armpit to help him up, when Ian doubled over and vomited the blood he'd drunk onto the real estate Rodney had just vacated. McKay stepped back, surprised, then instinctively bent to pull Ian's hair back from his face in a haphazard ponytail while the Wraith shivered and retched for the next few minutes, as his body violently rejected that which it could not process. The dry heaving finally subsided once he'd regurgitated every last drop of blood, leaving him shaking and panting. After a moment Ian sat up again, drawing the back of a trembling hand across his mouth, and unable to meet the human's gaze as a wave of humiliation swept over him.
Carefully straddling the blood, Rodney gingerly crouched beside him and cupped Ian's face in his hands, gently lifting it until their eyes met. "Good God, man, you're a mess," he murmured affectionately as he brushed his thumbs tenderly over prominent cheekbones.
The Wraith leaned into his lover's touch, so relieved and grateful that McKay still seemed to want to associate with him, he didn't care that nuzzling against the man's hands might make him appear weak. From this day forward he was beyond the pale, anyway. Openly appreciating the affection of his consort was the least of his worries.
"Let's get you cleaned up. Okay?" Rodney continued, searching Ian's face. When the warrior nodded, McKay stood and slipped his hand under the Wraith's arm, and helped his companion struggle to his feet.
Standing was more of a challenge than Ian had anticipated. He knew a brief moment of panic as he swayed unsteadily on his feet, wondering if he was going to fall, when his wrist was gripped in strong, blunt fingers and his arm laid across broad, human shoulders. He instinctively gripped the support offered, drawing a gasp of pain from his companion, but other than that McKay tendered no complaint as the same hand which had caught him then stole around his waist, and he was assisted to the fire still burning brightly in the middle of the rock-walled enclosure. It was only a half-dozen steps from the carcass, but nonetheless both were winded by the time Rodney helped him settle to the ground and dropped down beside him.
The larger of their two big tortoiseshells was nestled nearby in a hollow by the glowing embers, wisps of steam rising from the water it contained mingling with the sparks and smoke that drifted into the night sky. Still dazed from the violent upheaval of both his mind and his body, Ian watched the eternal elemental conflict dispassionately while McKay poured water from the canteen into one of the smaller tortoiseshells and fussed with a pile of soft, suede rags. It wasn't until the human turned toward him with a quizzical, concerned expression that the Wraith realized he'd been staring, unseeing, for several minutes.
Recalling himself to the present moment, Ian blinked and focused on McKay, looking pale and drawn beside him, and the ache of remorse the wraith had been able to stave off crashed down on him full-force. In a moment of weakness his unforgivable actions had sullied his relationship with the human in a way that could never be repaired. He started to turn away, certain that McKay would never want to look at him again, when a palm gently pressed against his cheek kept him from doing so, and he was forced to meet the human's critically assessing gaze.
"Here," Rodney said briskly, offering the small tortoiseshell of cool water. "Rinse and spit. That way."
Mildly surprised by the order, and even more so that McKay deigned to speak to him at all, the Wraith took the shell and did as he was told. It was unusual for the human to take the lead in this way. To be fair, though, except for a few very specific situations, he'd never had the opportunity to do so, and Ian found his interest piqued in spite of himself, wondering what McKay would ask of him next.
He handed the shell back to the human, nodding mutely when Rodney asked him if that made things a bit better. In truth, it had. Washing the rusty, metallic aftertaste from his palate brought him a step closer to feeling like himself again. With a sigh that sounded suspiciously like relief, McKay took the proffered tortoiseshell and refilled it from the canteen, knocking the liquid back with thirsty gulps before pouring some more and doing so a second time.
Setting the shell and canteen aside, Rodney shifted onto his knees, took up one of the absorbent suede scraps and dipped it into the steaming water. He pulled it out gingerly between thumb and forefinger to let it cool just a little, then wrung it out and lifted the warm, damp rag to Ian's face.
The Wraith instinctively drew back. "McKay. What are you doing?" he asked brusquely, torn between a rush of humiliating gratitude at Rodney's unwarranted kindness and vague embarrassment that the human should presume to care for him like he was helpless. Ten thousand year-old habits died hard.
Rodney sat back on his heels and paused, the suede inches from the warrior's cheek. "Please let me do this for you," he replied softly. "There's no shame in letting someone help you. You've done it for me often enough."
"No 'buts,'" McKay stated firmly, overriding him. "I might not be the most perceptive person in the universe, but I do recognize shock when I see it. You're barely functioning at the moment, even if your stubborn Wraith pride forces you to deny it. So sit still and let me take care of you for a change."
Bowing his head slightly in acquiescence of his consort's wishes, Ian allowed Rodney to wash his face. He was surprised when even the first kiss of the warm, wet suede against his skin had him relaxing into the human's tender touch, the rag wielded by his lover's hand oddly soothing and sensual all at the same time. With avid eyes he watched Rodney's intense concentration as McKay focused on wiping blood, both human and feline, from his face and neck, and he wondered if it was possible that the man might still want him after all.
A small, affectionate smile played on Rodney's lips as his gaze met Ian's, and the Wraith found himself smiling back. "Good," McKay murmured approvingly as he dropped the soiled washcloth on the ground next to them. He grabbed another from the stack and laid it in the simmering water to soak then reached to undo the warrior's coat, the satisfaction that had been flowing from him cascading into alarm.
"What is it, McKay?" the Wraith asked, as the modicum of peace he'd been drawing from the human's caring presence suddenly shattered with concern.
"Your coat...," Rodney began, his voice trailing off uncertainly.
"What?" Ian queried again, glancing down. He saw nothing amiss.
"It's... You... I don't understand," McKay finally stammered. "I watched the cat claw its way through your coat, but the marks in the leather are almost gone."
The warrior's brow ridges rose as comprehension dawned. "Ah. Yes. Wraithskin is much like our ships – and ourselves. Given something to draw from, it will regenerate."
"What did it use?" The human's question came out thick with a revulsion he couldn't quite suppress.
"It was most likely my blood," Ian replied, almost apologetically. They had already had a long, trying day, and a worse evening, due largely to his ineptitude at dispatching the beast. There had been far too much blood spilled, and far too much revealed in too little time, and he could tell from McKay's expression that the man had reached his limit.
Rodney sighed and shook his head, meeting the Wraith's searching gaze for a moment before his slid down to focus on the former gouges and holes that were now mere scratches in the leather-like material. "Of course," he said as he reached for the fastenings once again, his voice shaking slightly. "There's life force in your blood, too. How could I forget that the impossible dream of energy transformed into matter is an everyday occurrence for Wraith?"
"McKay," Ian whispered urgently as he enfolded the human's hands between his own where they fumbled against his chest, desperate to soothe his consort's escalating anxiety. "I am sorry to put you through this. If there was any way to spare you from my hunger – from all of this - I would."
"I know," Rodney murmured quietly as he tried to calm himself down, his eyes fixed on the pale green hands that covered his. "Each thing is manageable on its own. It's just... a lot to take in all at once."
"I understand. That is why I'm beginning to wonder if my desire to save you will end up destroying you in the end, anyway - or at least the Rodney McKay I have come to care about so deeply, I have done something unconscionable to spare your life. Perhaps the best way to keep you safe is to simply go our separate ways."
The human's startled blue eyes met his hopeless green ones, a fire kindling in their azure depths he had not expected to see.
"So you're going to go off and starve yourself to death out of some misguided sense of chivalry and honor?" Rodney snarled, as fierce as any Wraith. "I'm surprised after all we've been through – after all you've been through, and how hard you've obviously fought to survive for as long as you have – you're so ready to give up because of a societal convention that has no meaning here." Ian felt the human's fingers clench into fists beneath his. "How could you even begin to think I'd be better off without you? I'd already be dead a thousand times over if it hadn't been for you; I'm certainly not going to turn my back on you now, just because things have gone a little sideways."
"But... what about what I did to you? It seemed to disgust you as much as it disturbed me. What could you possibly feel for me now besides loathing?"
"Try this." Without even a second thought, McKay leaned in and pressed a quick, hard kiss to the Wraith's lips, before pulling back to admire his partner's astonished expression. "I don't judge you for what you did, Ian," Rodney continued, "even though you condemn yourself. At heart, I'm a pragmatist, and although I don't like the blood-letting and the way it makes me feel, I understand its necessity. Survival is the name of the game here, and if drinking my blood will keep you alive and preserve whatever years I have left, I'm totally on-board with it. Just give me enough time to recover and you can do it as often as you can get away with it. As for the messy after-effects, now that we know it's a problem, we can take that into account when you feed."
"Truly?" Ian ventured cautiously as he tightened his grip on the human's hands, not daring to believe his good fortune. Not only did McKay seem to grasp the reasoning behind his inexcusable actions, the man approved of them, and offered forgiveness and absolution with a generosity of spirit the warrior was aware he would receive from no other being on this, or any other, world. It didn't mitigate the severity of what he'd done, but it eased his conscience, nonetheless, knowing that McKay still accepted him, regardless.
Daring to test the theory, the Wraith leaned down and captured Rodney's lips with his. The human made a small noise of surprise in the back of his throat but he didn't pull away. Instead he pressed closer and let Ian plunder his mouth with lips and tongue, surrendering completely to the Wraith's tender invasion. Responding to McKay's wordless invitation, a faint tingle of desire coursed through the warrior even as he pulled back from the kiss with a reluctant growl. Neither of them were in any shape to pursue pleasure at the moment, but the fact that Rodney's pupils were dark and large and the scent of lust rose from his skin confirmed to Ian that McKay's feelings hadn't changed in the slightest.
Rodney's unwavering affection flowed across the bond Ian was just regaining the strength to sense again, and he clung to it like a lifeline, allowing the man's acceptance to calm and center him. Feeling like he'd been pulled back from the edge of some terrible precipice, the warrior breathed a shaky sigh of relief a moment later, as he released McKay's hands and reached to unfasten his Wraithskin coat with nimble fingers. "You'll get the trick of it eventually," he remarked reassuringly, when he noticed Rodney's narrowed eyes tracking his movements so intently.
Dried blood flaked off the almost-pristine, textured hide as the warrior pulled the halves open to reveal a chest of puckered, barely-healed wounds which showed through large rents in his thin, black shirt.
McKay hissed in sympathy. "That doesn't look good," he murmured, bending closer to get a better look at the shiny new flesh stretched taut across the deep, ragged gashes that criss-crossed Ian's sternum and wound their way over his right collarbone. "And those are bruises, aren't they?" he asked, as he instinctively reached toward a swath of irregular grey-and-purplish marks that surrounded the worst of the lacerations, his fingers hovering uncertainly mere inches from the discoloration.
"They are, indeed," Ian confirmed thoughtfully as he took stock of his injuries. Unlike the regeneration that occurred after feeding normally, which was always agonizingly-swift and complete, the small dose of life force he'd been able to glean from Rodney's blood had only managed to accelerate the healing process just so much before it had stalled. Thankfully, he'd taken no internal damage or he would have been forced to have laid his hand on the human's chest in order to save himself, like it or not. As it was, the wounds had knit sufficiently to be able to heal at a more... human pace until McKay was recovered enough to let him feed again.
"Do they hurt?"
The Wraith glanced up and met Rodney's furrowed brow and concerned gaze with a gleam in his eye. He'd had countless injuries in his lifetime, but he'd never had to contend with the possibility of an extended convalescence before. It was almost exciting.
"Let's find out," he murmured decisively as he shrugged his way out of the heavy leather, leaving it lying on the ground around him in a dusty, black heap. As usual when he disrobed, the human's attraction spiked, and Ian couldn't resist the temptation to subtly flex his muscular arms and shoulders for his lover's benefit, gasping when the tightening of his pectorals sent an unexpected jolt of pain through him. So much for showing off.
With a low growl of consternation, he settled down so McKay could attend him, but not before divesting himself of the ripped shirt, as well. It joined the coat without ceremony, leaving his sculpted body bare and on display from the waist up, in a sensual interplay of bulging muscle shifting under smooth skin that had the human's pheromones skyrocketing once again.
After a hushed moment of quiet appreciation, Rodney unconsciously licked his lips then reached for the heated washcloth, wringing it out before running it reverently over Ian's blood-spattered skin. Working his way slowly up the warrior's pale green abdomen, McKay couldn't help but wonder how his life had gotten so strange, so fast. If anyone had told him – ever – that someday he'd be tenderly taking care of a life-sucking space vampire, and that the same creature would be not only a friend, but on the fast track to becoming his lover as well, Rodney would have laughed in their face right before calling Security. Yet here he was, oddly okay with being fed upon on a semi-regular basis by one of the aforementioned aliens, and even trying to wrap his head around Ian's sudden, inexplicable divergence into blood-drinking, all for the sake of keeping this very special – his very special - Wraith alive.
Rodney glanced up and met Ian's contemplative green gaze, and a slow smile quirked the corner of the warrior's mouth as he leaned back on his hands to allow the human better access to his torso. "Even without touching your mind, I can see a multitude of questions in your eyes," the Wraith murmured softly. "Ask. I will do my best to answer."
Rodney discarded the soiled, rapidly-cooling suede and turned to pluck a fresh cloth from the simmering water. He sighed heavily as he daubed it carefully over Ian's injured chest, washing away the dried rivulets of blood that radiated out from the epicenter of the mess with gentle strokes.
"Well, I only have one, really," he finally replied, as he sat back on his heels and matched the warrior's openly curious expression with one of his own. "Why is resorting to drinking blood something so terrible you're tearing yourself apart over it? Why do you keep insisting that you've crossed a line you can never come back from?"
It was Ian's turn to sigh. Leave it to McKay to cut through millennia-old cultural and societal conventions without a second thought, and come right to the sensitive heart of the matter with his usual, stunning bluntness. Although the last thing the warrior wanted to do was reveal closely-held Wraith secrets to a human, he had promised to answer Rodney's questions, whatever they were – and considering how things stood between them, McKay deserved to know.
"As I mentioned before, there are many tales and legends which have come down to us from our earliest days," the Wraith began cautiously, pausing to gauge Rodney's reaction as the man bent once again to his task.
McKay's hand slowed, then stopped as Ian's words sank in, the suede forgotten in his hand as he turned wide, wondering eyes toward the warrior. Ever since Jennifer had first told him the story Todd had related aboard the diseased Hive, about a time long ago when Wraith were still susceptible to illness, Rodney had become utterly obsessed with learning more about them, and their past. Extensive searches through the Ancient database on Atlantis, however, had turned up surprisingly little. In fact, considering the wealth of knowledge the Alterans had collected and catalogued on countless other topics, the consistent dearth of information on their greatest enemy felt almost deliberate – as if large chunks of data had been erased.
Unfortunately, things didn't improve even once they'd returned to Pegasus after the City's hiatus on Earth. In spite of John and Todd's relationship and the alliance they were trying to forge between their two peoples, there was still very little information forthcoming from the Wraith on themselves or their history. That Ian was willing to talk about it at all was a rare opportunity indeed, and Rodney was certain that whatever the warrior was about to tell him was something very few humans had ever been privy to.
Ian nodded when he sensed McKay's rising interest, inwardly pleased that the human had grasped so quickly the import of what he was about to hear.
"They are held by the Keepers, and passed on to our young as part of their compulsory education until they begin to mature to the point where food no longer sustains them, and they feel the first stirrings of adult... appetites."
"What are the stories about?" Rodney inquired softly, posing his question as mildly and unobtrusively as he could although excitement rose like a bubble in his chest. Outwardly calm, he leaned in and resumed wiping down Ian's chest, hard-pressed to keep his elation in his sneaker. The possibility of gleaning a few more tantalizing tidbits of information from whatever Ian deigned to share was almost too good to be true, and he certainly didn't want to do anything to bring the warrior's rare show of expansiveness to a halt.
Ian gave himself over to the attention McKay lavished on him with a contented sigh, gratified by the human's genuine interest - not only in him - but in Wraith, in general. Mired in the fugue of starvation which had gripped him the week before Rodney had offered himself by the fire, Ian had forgotten until now how keen the man's enthusiasm had been when the Wraith told him about the construction of the cloning facility, and learning to cook under Avia's watchful tutelage. The warrior had always been a natural storyteller and loved nothing more than an appreciative audience, and it pleased him greatly that McKay practically exuded excitement at the prospect of hearing more.
"Some are tales of how we came into being," Ian replied, warming to the subject, "and how we developed into a force – a race - to be reckoned with, formidable enough to chase the Alterans from our galaxy and reign supreme for over ten thousand years. Others detail our struggles during the war. These focus on the the bravery of individuals who risked everything to ensure the continuation of all Wraith, and the quick thinking and superior strategies that helped turned the tide in our battle against those who sought to eradicate us.
"Then there are the stories which deal with our laws and customs. As a body of work, they are as ancient as the legends concerning our origins, making it difficult to discern where allegory ends and fact begins, and debates have raged for millennia over interpretation of the finer points. But regardless of their flaws, their lessons have circumscribed our behavior for eons."
"And that's where you run into trouble, right?" Rodney ventured in a rush, unable to keep his fascination – or his tongue – under control any longer. He tossed aside the cold cloth and surveyed his handiwork with a critical eye. Satisfied that the Wraith was as clean as he was going to get without a liberal application of soap and a dunk in the pool – neither action likely to take place before daylight - McKay made himself more comfortable, shifting from his knees to a seated position facing the alien. Resting a thigh casually against Ian's hip, he draped his arm across the Wraith's abdomen in a gesture both caring and proprietary, and met the warrior's gaze with eager expectancy.
Ian tilted his head slightly as he considered his intrigued consort, captivated by Rodney's open, guileless expression and and his startling blue eyes, now dark and stormy in the uncertain flickering of the flames burning behind the man's right shoulder. In spite of the warrior's lingering fatigue, the smile that stretched his mouth widened as he reached up and ran the back of his hand gently down the scratchy roughness of Rodney's stubbled cheek. Although fine wrinkles had etched themselves deeply into the skin at the outer edges of the man's mouth and eyes, and there was almost as much white as brown peppering his hair and the whiskers that sanded the Wraith's knuckles, even after being fed upon twice, McKay was still a damn attractive male.
Ian's gaze trailed tenderly down the strong column of the human's neck to catch a glimpse of his powerful, furred chest, a few silver threads glinting among the gold to be seen there as well - and a small, needy sound escaped the Wraith's throat. His hunger might have aged the man's face by about ten years, but after almost two months of modest meals and arduous physical activity, McKay's form was an entirely different matter. Living on the razor's edge of survival had melted all the extra fat off the human and hardened his muscles, and as of late, Rodney had more than once reminded Ian of a Wraith warrior, so muscular and firm and delightfully-enticing was the man's body.
"You are correct," Ian murmured as he picked up the thread of conversation again, his gravelly voice rough with affection and deeper, unexpressed emotions which tightened his throat and made it difficult to speak. "Once the scent of your blood and the desire it sparked roused memories of the old stories, I realized how thoroughly condemned I would be if we were to ever be rescued, even as I knew I was powerless to stop myself."
"But why?" McKay asked, frustration evident in his tone. "Since you were actually able to gain some nourishment from it, drinking blood seems like a perfectly reasonable fallback measure in an emergency situation like the one we find ourselves in."
The Wraith's expression grew somber. "I can understand why it might appear that way to you, but according to the Keeper's tale, there is a very limited set of circumstances under which such an aberration might be deemed marginally acceptable. Unfortunately, our situation would not fall within those parameters – on any Hive."
"What does that mean?"
"Individual legends sometimes vary from Hive to Hive and Keeper to Keeper, but regardless of who tells the tale, their lessons remain the same.
"For example, the story that pertains to our dilemma, as I first heard it, involves a Wraith who crash-landed his Fighter near a human settlement after his ship was damaged during a territory dispute with a rival Hive. A different version denotes him as a guard who was part of a convoy which was attacked, and in another, a foot soldier set upon by human resistance fighters during a culling and left for dead. After that, the details differ but the salient points blend into a single tale.
"Tenacious of life, regardless of the severe internal injuries he sustained, including the loss of his feeding hand from the elbow down, the warrior dragged himself into the underbrush to hide. Damaged beyond regeneration, he lingered near death in the forest until a young, human male passing through the woods alone accidentally stumbled upon him. As the warrior was Wraith, even handicapped as he was, he was much stronger and overpowered the youth without difficulty.
"Desperate to feed but unable to do so without his feeding hand, the warrior recollected that the sweet tingle of life force could be felt on the tongue when marking a lover or a slave. Without hesitation he tore out the human's throat and feasted on his blood, drawing strength from what little life force he could pull from it. Then he withdrew to a nearby cave to rest and recuperate, and allow the stolen energy to heal him as much as it was able.
"Over the next year or so, as reckoned by the planet's revolution around its sun, he continued this practice – lurking in the woods like some wild animal, biding his time as he watched and waited for victims to leave the relative safety of the settlement and enter the forest unaccompanied. Of course the villagers hunted for him after every feeding, believing the exsanguinated bodies had been left behind by some kind of beast, so viciously were their throats mutilated. They never suspected it was actually a Wraith who haunted them, since there were no telltale feeding marks on the corpses' chests to give him away.
"Eventually the Hive he had once called home returned in the fullness of time to cull the planet. Rejoicing that he had survived long enough to be rescued, the Warrior ran into a culling beam and back to the caring hands of his Brothers who restored him to perfect health. But rather than being lauded for surviving such a harrowing experience, his indomitable will in the face of overwhelming odds became his downfall, and the taint of what he had done in those intervening months condemned him to a half-life in the midst of plenty. Ostracized by all but the closest of his Brothers, he lost all rank and status within the Hive, becoming among the last to feed.
"For the rest of his days he existed on the periphery of Wraith society like the barely-tolerated parasite he had become, allowed to live, but at a cost that was almost too great to be borne," Ian concluded, before falling into pensive silence. He sensed the man's disappointment and confusion as Rodney struggled to digest the tale, but there was nothing the warrior could do. There were rarely happy endings to Wraith parables.
"Whoa!" Rodney murmured a moment later into the protracted stillness, his brow furrowed with consternation. "What do you mean 'he was allowed to live'?"
"Oftentimes a Wraith is simply killed outright, once it is discovered that he has indulged in a perversion of this magnitude," Ian replied as he reluctantly met the human's fierce midnight-blue gaze. He had hoped the man would have just settled for listening to the story, but he should have known better. McKay wasn't going to be satisfied until he drilled down to the very core of the matter and analyzed it on a subatomic level. "He was given a lenient sentence due to extraordinary circumstances."
Rodney's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Are you telling me that this was the scenario where it was considered acceptable?" he asked, incredulous.
The Wraith nodded mutely, waiting for the explosion he could feel brewing.
"But that makes no sense!" McKay exclaimed, right on cue. "That Wraith was just trying to survive. It's not like he was drinking blood for fun. He had no other choice! Why would he – or you - be penalized like that when the only alternative is starvation?"
A surge of gratitude burned through the Wraith, so intense it made Ian's cheeks flush. That Rodney would be this outraged on his behalf touched him deeply, although he suspected that once he satisfied the human's curiosity McKay might not be quite so sympathetic.
"Because to cross that line is to become something... less than Wraith – something worthy of only revulsion," Ian replied, a trace of sadness in his voice. This was heading in a direction he did not wish it to, but unfortunately it was necessary if Rodney was to understand. "Feasting with the mouth in that way – ingesting gobbets of flesh and sucking living blood from an open wound – these bring no honor to either Wraith or Hive. They are abhorrent acts which only serve to remind us that no matter how far we've advanced, or how strong we've become, we were once..."
"Human," McKay supplied as he looked away. His tone was as bitter as the scent of anger Ian could smell rising from the man's skin, and the Wraith had a feeling that this time the emotion was aimed in his direction.
"Or Iratus," the warrior countered softly. He reached to touch the human's cheek to reassure him but Rodney pulled back ever so slightly. With a defeated sigh, the Wraith dropped his hand. Maybe later.
Gathering his thoughts, Ian forged on in spite of the human's growing agitation. Now that they'd begun, the only way out – was through. "Take your pick. Either way, it cuts closer to the truth of our evolutionary past than most of us are comfortable with; and the Wraith who reaches that breaking point and gives in, unable to control the ravening, primal monster within when it surfaces, becomes a pariah to be shunned."
Rodney focused on the play of firelight as it danced on the smooth skin of Ian's bulging bicep, doing his best to contain the surge of anger that had blindsided him when he'd realized where the Wraith was going with his remarks. To be fair, the warrior had been through the ringer tonight and he probably wasn't on top of his game, but the words still rankled. Thankfully, McKay hadn't blurted out something awful in retaliation - for a change, even as frayed and worn out as he was, so this was still salvageable. Chalk one up for restraint.
"Is it such a terrible thing then, to be human?" he murmured instead, trying not to sound as hurt as he felt.
Gentle fingertips did graze his cheek then. "I would hope you'd know by now that I feel nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for you," came the gruff, whispered response. "The opinions I am sharing are not necessarily my own, I am merely explaining the Wraith mindset more fully so you will truly comprehend the issue."
Heaving a sigh, Rodney finally glanced up and into Ian's green eyes, their pupils reduced to fine slits in the brightness of the fire and uncertainty reflected in their olive depths, and all of McKay's irritation fell by the wayside in a rush of tenderness. This was obviously difficult for the Wraith, too.
A small smile tugged at the corner of Rodney's mouth. "I'm glad to hear that."
The warrior released the breath he'd been holding, his relief almost palpable although he knew they had not yet reached the conclusion of tonight's lesson. He reached out with tentative fingers and clasped McKay's shoulder, hoping the contact might make this easier – although for which one of them, he wasn't sure. When the human allowed it, he gave a gentle squeeze then slowly ran his hand up and down Rodney's arm.
"What you will not be glad to hear is that the training we receive while we are still dark-haired juveniles teaches us we are inherently superior to humanity in all ways, and that upholding our racial identity and purity is the highest ideal a Wraith can aspire to."
"That isn't really a surprise," McKay replied with a bark of mirthless laughter. "It's apparent in the attitude and bearing of just about every Wraith I've ever encountered."
"Just so," Ian agreed with a nod. "Then you understand how deeply ingrained it is. We operate under those two guiding principles our entire lives. Everything we do – everything we stand for – it all starts and ends with the pride we feel for who and what we are. So when one of our number reverts to blood drinking, and by his actions we are compelled to once again acknowledge that our ignominious roots are grounded in the human and iratus DNA from which we sprang, we instinctively recoil from both the revelation and the messenger.
"The unfortunate being, reviled as little more than an animal – and a traitor to the race – is stripped of all the comfort and protection Hive and Brethren offer, and he finds himself standing alone. Nameless, homeless, and deemed unworthy of being called 'Wraith' any longer, he is... an abomination, and the object of either swift, remorseless retaliation, or slow, unremitting degradation."
Ian paused and turned his monstrous gaze toward the fire, a faraway look in his glittering cat's eyes. "Death or disdain," he mused. "It's hard to say which sentence is worse, but the traitor's utter destruction is a brutal necessity if we are to cleanse our palates of the distasteful reminder that each of us harbors the same primitive, bestial nature our combined genetic legacy forced upon us."
A frown creased Rodney's brow. "So you're saying that any Wraith who manages to survive some terrible ordeal by drinking blood to stay alive, and then makes it back to his Hive, is either executed out-of-hand, or marginalized to the point where he wants to off himself anyway. All that strength and determination wasted, just to preserve the Wraith ideals of racial purity and superiority.
"This doesn't sound like what you told me earlier, when you talked about squandering resources."
"Never fear, McKay," the Wraith rumbled, focusing his attention on the human once more. "I did not mislead you. At the time, I did not realize we would be delving quite so deeply into the underpinnings of Wraith society, so I provided the most easily-understood explanation. It is the complaint most often voiced by other Wraith when this sort of thing crops up, and with good reason. Who else but an animal – a ravening beast devoid of intelligence and reason - would do something as selfish and wasteful as willfully draining a human of blood when there are more efficient – and elegant – methods of feeding?"
Righteous indignation glowed like banked embers in Rodney's eyes. "All I know is that the punishment sounds more bestial and primitive than the crime," he ground out. "How is it any better than the original infraction?"
Ian shrugged a powerful, green shoulder, defeat evident in every eloquent motion. "What is the life of an individual compared to the well-being of an entire Hive? We exist only to keep it safe and help it prosper. Our lives are forfeit the moment we no longer serve these functions, and ingesting blood is an aberration – a failing that threatens every Wraith on the ship."
Rodney leaned closer, scrutinizing the warrior like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "And you would submit to this kind of judgment?"
"Unfortunately, McKay," came the Wraith's despondent reply, "I... would have no choice."
Ian heaved a despondent sigh as he laid his feeding hand on Rodney's forearm where it rested on his abdomen. "It is the same reason that pair-bonding between a Wraith and a human is looked at askance. The desire for a human partner instead of another Wraith is seen as a flaw in character – a weakness; although the age-old and widespread practice of using Worshippers and human slaves for sexual gratification makes it a boundary so-often crossed it is generally overlooked, unless it is advantageous to do otherwise." He bowed his head, seemingly fascinated by the arm hair he brushed back and forth with his thumb. "In my case, it would probably be held against me, since it could be argued that our unnatural connection precipitated my descent into blood drinking to keep you alive at any cost."
Rodney stared in disbelief at the Wraith's bent head, and the long, knotted strands of white hair encrusted with dried blood hiding Ian's profile, appalled that the amazing creature he had the rare good fortune to be sharing his life with, literally and figuratively, considered himself an unclean degenerate for daring to go out on a limb in the name of survival. Worse yet, to another Wraith, Ian would be that and more. He'd be a criminal to be punished or an abomination to be exterminated, all for succumbing to irresistible, primitive urges that by the warrior's own account he hadn't called, and had little-to-no control over.
A surge of fierce protectiveness rose in McKay's breast at the despair the Wraith didn't seem to have the strength to hide, and before it was even a conscious thought Rodney's calloused hand was gently cupping Ian's chin, lifting his face until their eyes met.
"Then I'm glad we're stuck in the middle of nowhere with no hope of escape," McKay blurted, wincing as soon as the words passed his lips. After everything the planet had thrown at them over the past two months, and no way to predict what was in store, that was probably the worst possible thing he could have said. His cheeks colored at the idiocy of his declaration, certain he'd just made things ten times worse, when a faint hint of incredulous amusement – and gratitude - crept into the warrior's melancholy eyes as a smirk twisted the edge of his mouth.
"Now who's a silver-tongued devil?" the Wraith asked, his voice a soft, intimate growl.
Rodney offered a self-deprecating snort as he reached to push the unruly mess the warrior had made of his hair back over his shoulder. "It couldn't be me; because clearly, I'm an idiot."
"Don't underestimate yourself, McKay," Ian replied fondly, leaning in and brushing his lips against the human's. "Although your delivery left something to be desired, I understand what you were trying to convey and I appreciate the sentiment. If I am to be an outcast, then it is good to know I have at least one Brother who'll stand by me."
"Always," Rodney murmured, for a long moment searching the ancient warrior's features, so familiar and yet so alien at the same time. He was all too aware that he'd almost lost Ian tonight. Even if the warrior never admitted how close he'd actually come to death, McKay had felt it in his gut and it had scared the crap out of him. Not because he didn't want to be alone – which, of course, he didn't – but because he'd realized something as he'd sat by the unconscious, gravely-injured Wraith, clinging to his cold, still hand and desperately willing him to live.
He'd realized that his feelings for Ian were stronger, by far, than anything he'd ever felt for either Katie or Jennifer, and now, as he gazed into the fathomless depths of the alien's olive-green eyes, he knew it for certain. He loved Ian unreservedly, unabashedly, and with every molecule of his being, and he couldn't imagine going on without the damn Wraith by his side.
His cheeks burned bright red as he swallowed against the lump forming in his throat. Never in a million years could Rodney have imagined that a routine mission gone horribly awry and a botched culling would have brought him face-to-face with his destiny, and although he knew there was nothing he could say that would ever come close to expressing his gratitude, he did his best. "You know I'll always be there for you, right?"
Ian nodded, overwhelmed by the raw tenderness on the human's face and in the unexpected wave of sweet emotions that flowed like honey across their bond. He didn't trust himself to answer for the sudden racing of his heart, but his cat's eyes spoke volumes as they traveled tenderly over his lover's face.
Of course he knew McKay would be there for him. The man had tackled one of the hungry felines with his bare hands trying to save his life, and turned the tide of that desperate struggle just inches from defeat. He'd offered Ian his life force without a second thought – had let him taste his blood regardless of the consequences. He gave him the warmth of his human body to curl around during the long, cold nights, and his companionship as they made their way through their daily routines, the man's quick wit and keen mind as welcome a diversion as the Wraith had hoped from the loneliness that had been on the verge of consuming him on the day they'd met.
As far as Ian was concerned, they'd been a Hive of two for quite a while now, and if the breathtakingly-intense emotions the human had just shared with him meant what the warrior hoped they did - then Rodney finally understood that and was offering something else, as well. Himself.
A look of understanding passed between them as their eyes met, and they acknowledged for the first time what they meant to each other. Ian's breath hitched as the sudden shock of recognition hit them both like a jolt of electrical current beneath their skin, while a hopeful, crooked smile lit up McKay's face from within.
Like a moth to a flame, the Wraith instinctively drew closer to its irresistible, welcoming warmth, pressing a lingering kiss to the corner of the human's mouth. He felt it flex beneath the sensitive, silky skin of his greyish-green lips, and in the next instant Rodney turned his head and captured Ian's mouth with his. With a subdued moan, the warrior surrendered to the crush of the human's lips against his own and the slick tongue that boldly demanded entrance. Surprised and delighted by the ferocity of McKay's passion, the Wraith's lips parted to let the man in while his feeding hand roamed feverishly over Rodney's chest, his claws catching and tugging suggestively at the neckline of the human's shirt.
While their tongues entwined and dueled for dominance, sliding sinuously over each other in a sensual struggle, the Wraith's whole body tingled with a desire he knew neither of them had the energy to consummate. That didn't stop him from grabbing the human by the front of his shirt and pulling him closer, dimly aware that Rodney's hands had tangled in his hair as their kiss grew fiercer and more urgent. It wasn't until Ian went to take the man down onto his back, and every injured muscle fiber which stretched across his thorax screamed in protest that he broke the kiss with a sharp cry. They pulled apart abruptly, both of them gasping for air and Ian shuddering in pain.
"Omigod," McKay exclaimed as he reached to grasp the warrior's shoulder, his heart still hammering out an exhilarated staccato in his chest even as his ardor was quenched in a wash of concern for his partner. Of all the stupid things Rodney had ever done, he berated himself, this had to be right up near the top. It was all well and good that they'd stopped dancing around their feelings for each other, but even if the Wraith was giving as good as he got, making out like a couple of teenagers when Ian was injured wasn't the smartest thing Genius McKay had ever done. "Are you alright?"
Slightly dazed from the outpouring of emotions so long held in check, and the unexpected, searing agony of his half-healed wounds, Ian could do little more than nod.
"Sorry about that," Rodney murmured sheepishly. "I got kinda carried away."
The Wraith offered a careful, paper-dry chuckle. "No need to apologize," he wheezed. "We both got... carried away."
"As long as you're okay," McKay said, slowly climbing to his feet and shaking the pins and needles out of his lower extremities. It was time to stop being useless, and start earning this amazing, terrifying opportunity.
"I will be fine."
"Good," Rodney murmured, crouching next to Ian and trailing his fingertips down his lover's smooth, green cheek. "Then I'm going to get us settled for the night. I figure we're going to have to stay out here make sure the fire doesn't go out, to keep the cats away from the carcass – and us, right?"
Ian nodded again, and the human's smile returned, softening into one of tenderness before he rose and limped over to the woodpile, leaving the warrior to regain what he could of his barely-functioning composure by the firepit. As he watched McKay move around their temporary open-air camp with efficiency and a sense of purpose, the Wraith recognized it as a reflection of his own. He's been paying attention after all, Ian noted with approval. And sure enough, in about the same amount of time as it would have taken him to do it, the man had built up the fire, set the smaller of their two tortoiseshell 'pots' in the coals to heat water for tea, and shaken out one of the fur blankets he had brought out while the warrior had been comatose.
Rodney's last act was to ball up the Wraith's coat and drop it at the base of a nearby boulder then drape the pelt over it before returning to Ian's side. "I'm going to help you slide back a bit so we can prop you up against that rock."
With several curses in both Wraith and English, and a few hisses of pain, they managed to get Ian situated on the center of the thick, soft fur.
Left to his own devices while Rodney stepped away to prepare the tea, the warrior leaned back against the makeshift pillow with a sigh, surprised by how exhausted he was after so little activity. Panting, he let his head fall back against the fur-covered leather and closed his eyes for just a moment. The next thing he knew, McKay was settling down next to him with two shells of hot, herbal tea, and the Wraith realized with chagrin that he must have dozed off.
"I do not like this lassitude." he grumped, accepting one of the cups from the human with a scowl.
"Welcome to my world," Rodney replied off-handedly, as he took a tentative sip from the shell he cupped in both hands. "It's a bitch coming back from illness or injury, but that's how it goes. You're going to be sleeping – a lot."
Ian raised the cup to his face and inhaled the fragrant steam before turning frustrated green eyes on his companion. "We cannot afford this delay, McKay. You know that."
"I know," Rodney replied, shivering as one of the first cold breezes of the night found its way into the enclosure. He set the shell aside and scooted closer to the warrior, reaching across and pulling the edge of the large pelt over both of them. "But worrying about it at this moment isn't going to help, and it isn't going to change anything. It takes time to heal."
He reached for his tea cup again and the pair sat in companionable silence for a few minutes as they enjoyed the herbal blend, until Rodney glanced up at Ian with a twinkle in his eye.
"Tell you what," he began, placing his hand on the warrior's thigh and squeezing it gently through the fur. He felt the Wraith stiffen imperceptibly in surprise, then relax, and McKay couldn't help but smile. Except for a couple of notable exceptions, he wasn't usually this forward with Ian, preferring to let the Wraith take the lead; but they really were partners now, consorts – and whatever else Ian had in mind - and it gave Rodney a little thrill to realize that the warrior was as much his as he'd accepted he belonged to the Wraith. "Until you're completely recovered, I'll do what I can and you can supervise. I'm sure that will really stroke your Wraith ego."
Ian paused mid-sip to glare daggers in Rodney's direction, but there was no heat in his narrowed gaze, only veiled amusement. After a moment of consideration, a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and he nodded. "Agreed. Although I believe you will find me a harsh taskmaster."
"You're already a slave driver. How could you possibly be any worse?"
The Wraith cocked a brow ridge at him. "You'd be surprised. There is much yet to do before the weather turns."
McKay grinned up at Ian, unabashed. "Just remember, Harsh One, who's going to be taking care of you."
The warrior snorted, then shifted so he could carefully slide his arm around the human, holding his breath while Rodney cautiously leaned his weight on him. The pair relaxed by degrees as they settled back against the mound of Wraithskin and fur until Rodney's head was resting comfortably on his uninjured shoulder.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Ian reached for the other side of the fur blanket and pulled it across them as well.
"Is this okay?" Rodney whispered against the Wraith's collarbone.
"Mmmm," The warrior replied, and pulled him closer.
They stared into the crackling fire as they lay curled together in a tangle of limbs, enjoying their newfound closeness and stealing each other's body heat until their combined warmth heated the cocoon.
"It's going to be a long night," McKay ventured after a while. "Would you mind telling me some more stories?"
He felt as well as heard the low rumble of pleasure that vibrated in the Wraith's chest.
"It would be an honor; but before we begin, there's something I need to say."
He felt the warrior's hand tighten on his hip. "You're not useless."
The first rays of morning sunlight peeked over the rim of the camp's enclosure and fell directly on Rodney's closed eyelids. Involuntarily roused from his fitful slumber, he objected with a groan and instinctively pulled the edge of the pelt up, hiding his face from the growing light. Unfortunately, a day of apple-picking, an evening brawl with a large, predatory cat and some unexpected blood-letting by his actually-vampiric boyfriend, followed by a night of sleeping in a semi-upright position on the cold, hard ground had left him aching and sore all over. In retribution for the previous day's abuse, his joints protested the sudden movement with a jolt of pain that left him breathless – and wide awake.
Wincing as he raised his head from where it rested at an odd angle against Ian's chest, McKay rubbed the back of his stiff neck and glanced blearily at the glowing coals of the fire. Thin tongues of blue and orange flame still licked at the charred logs at random intervals as he watched, so technically he hadn't let it go out, but he silently berated himself, nonetheless. With the Wraith gravely injured and unable to protect them should another of the big felines have decided to attack during the night, it had been Rodney's responsibility to make sure their fire burned brightly through the dark hours to keep them away, and he'd literally fallen asleep on the job.
With slow, careful movements, so as not to disturb his sleeping companion, McKay extricated himself from the warrior's embrace and pushed the furs apart just enough to crawl out of their warm nest without letting in too much of a draft. Shivering in the chill Autumn air, he crouched to resettle the covers. As he did so, Ian stirred and murmured something unintelligible in Wraith before dozing off again, and a frown creased Rodney's brow. The only other time he'd ever seen the warrior like this was the last time Ian had faced down one of the cats, defending him when he'd been trapped under the rockslide, and the Wraith been injured so severely he almost hadn't made it to McKay's side to feed for the first time.
He heaved a sigh as he rose stiffly to his feet, his sprained ankle reluctantly taking his weight with a twinge of warning. His knees and lower back added to the chorus a moment later, practically screaming as he stood upright and began stretching experimentally to loosen kinked muscles.
He almost wished that Ian would just feed properly and get it over with; take the life force and the years he needed to heal quickly and completely, and be done with it. It would almost be worth the agony of the feeding just to have him back on his feet and healthy again.
At this point, though, even Rodney knew better than to bring it up. Ian had crossed so many lines for him – had placed himself in the untenable position of outcast among his own kind trying to preserve McKay's life – that to even suggest it would be to negate the burden the Wraith had shouldered willingly for his sake. Although it was unnerving to watch Ian, usually so strong and confident, reduced to the role of convalescent, Rodney appreciated his gesture, and the reason behind it, far too much to slap the warrior in the face like that.
He pondered the Wraith's handsome features - so animated when awake, so peaceful in repose - and a surge of tenderness welled up in his chest. If Ian could stand the long, slow journey to recovery, McKay resolved, then he was just going to have to suck it up and help him get there.
He would have happily continued to watch the warrior sleep if his full bladder hadn't chosen that moment to make its presence known. With a small grunt of discomfort, he limped past the bulk of the dead feline's carcass to the far corner of the rock-walled enclosure and took care of business in the large tortoiseshell 'piss pot' Ian had placed there, wedged into place with a couple of rocks. It was Chemistry 101 that if left to sit, the urea in urine eventually degraded into ammonia, but what Rodney hadn't known was that once it reached that stage it was incredibly useful in the tanning of hides. Since the Wraith had practically set up his own tannery to handle the skins of the animals he'd slaughtered, and since McKay benefited greatly from the endeavor, it only made sense to help out in any way he could – even if it was kind of smelly and gross.
He'd just shaken off and tucked himself back into his leather pants when he heard his name being called softly from across the rock-strewn courtyard. He turned and met his lover's sleepy golden eyes, so full of warmth and affection it made him blush, and a lop-sided grin of unabashed joy erupted on Rodney's face. He'd really gone out on a limb the night before when he'd finally admitted to both himself and Ian how he felt, and the emotion clearly visible in the Wraith's gaze made the risk so worthwhile. In a heartbeat everything had changed between them. They were mates now – or would be soon – and he regretted it not one little bit.
"How are you feeling this morning?" McKay inquired as he closed the gap between them, going down on one knee when he reached the Wraith's side to press a solicitous palm to Ian's cool cheek.
So far so good, he thought, no fever.
"As well as can be expected." Ian's reply was gruff, although the hand which came up to cover his where it rested against the Wraith's cheekbone was gentle.
Rodney nodded in complete understanding. He'd been there a few too many times in the past couple of months not to empathize with both the warrior's pain and frustration.
Ian glanced up at him, then away. "I need your... assistance. The tea we enjoyed last night..." A note of pleading crept into his tone right before his voice trailed off.
McKay frowned for a second before he made the obvious connection. "Oh – right," he replied. He knew all about the helplessness, too, and the shame of having to ask for help to do the simplest of tasks. That the warrior had only hesitated in the slightest before requesting Rodney's aid spoke volumes on the depth of his feelings for him. From everything Ian had told him, only with his chosen partner would a Wraith allow himself to show that kind of weakness.
Torn between concern for Ian's well-being and awe that the ancient warrior held him in such high esteem, he took extra care as he reached to help the Wraith struggle first into a sitting position, then to his feet.
"Hold on," Rodney murmured, leaving Ian to sway unsteadily for just a moment while he retrieved the rolled-up coat from behind the furs. Although his lacerated arm made it difficult, he shook out the Wraithskin as best he could, sending flakes of dried blood flying, then he turned and held it out for the warrior to slip his arms into.
Opting to leave it open once they'd managed to get him into it, McKay carefully pulled Ian close as a strong, sinewy arm descended on his shoulders. He glanced up and met golden cat's eyes dark with pain. "Ready?"
The warrior nodded, a determined set to his jaw, and they started off, slowly making their way across the compound in much the same way Ian had supported him after he'd set and healed Rodney's legs. They stumbled once, and almost went down in a heap, but McKay somehow kept them upright through sheer stubbornness, crying out as his sprained ankle trembled with the sudden strain of taking the Wraith's weight.
"McKay," Ian growled softly as he regained his balance. "I fear this was not the wisest of ideas."
"It's not a problem, Ian. Really," Rodney murmured encouragingly as he pressed the flat of his hand gently against the Wraith's back to get him moving again. He'd be damned if they were going to turn back now after they'd come so far. "We'll get you taken care of in no time."
The trip there and back took longer than either of them anticipated, and by the time they returned to the outdoor firepit, whatever embers had still been burning were well-and-truly out. By now the Wraith could hardly stand and was shivering in spite of his coat, and the decision was made to move the party indoors.
"The place is a mess," Rodney apologized as he held the fur drape out of the way so they could enter the cave.
"It's alright," Ian replied breathlessly, the very act of speaking almost more than he could handle. "What else do we have to do besides regroup and clean up?"
"Wait here," McKay murmured, leaving the Wraith by the entrance to hold back the heavy pelt so the interior wasn't plunged into darkness, then he made his way to the cold hearth. Quickly gathering what he needed from the pile of wood and kindling they kept neatly stacked by the wall, he laid and lit a new fire. Once he'd breathed life into the sparks struck onto the smoldering twists of straw and they'd burst into flame, promising the light and heat they so desperately needed, he added some kindling and a couple of smallish logs, then climbed painfully to his feet to collect Ian. He reached the warrior just in time to catch hold of Ian as his grip on the fur slipped, easing them both to the ground rather than let the Wraith fall.
"You are not the useless one," Ian remarked with a bitter edge to his voice, remaining in a sitting position by force-of-will and braced arms, alone. "I am."
"Listen to me," Rodney asserted forcefully as he reached to cradle the warrior's cheek in his hand. "You are dealing with a serious injury right now. The fact that you're still conscious is a miracle, never mind being mobile. Rather than castigating yourself for your temporary weakness, you should just focus on resting and getting better." He felt the muscles under his hand flex, and knew the Wraith was smiling an instant before Ian glanced up and met his gaze with amused, olive-green eyes. "What's so funny?"
"You are very much like a Wraith," the warrior mused. "Stubborn and full of pride, and always so certain you are right."
Rodney snorted, unrepentant. "Yeah, well I had good teacher – and in this case, I am right. Focusing on your shortcomings is a waste of energy you could be putting to better use."
Ian's grin widened. "At the risk of swelling your head even more than it already is, I will concede to your point and admit that you are correct in this instance. Now get me to bed and make me some tea."
McKay uttered a noncommittal harumph, but nonetheless assisted the Wraith to his feet once again and guided him the last few steps to the bed. Thankfully the frame had been closed when the felines had invaded, so they hadn't had the opportunity to do more than scratch at the exterior's wooden surface. He ran his fingers over the gouges left in the roughly-planed logs, shuddering when he considered the size of the claws that had done it, before he lifted the heavy panel up and over, revealing the soft nest of fur, as pristine and inviting as always. It was about the only thing in the cave that was.
Rodney straightened and turned to Ian, who regarded him with impassive green eyes for a moment before lifting his arms out to the sides: the universal gesture for 'dress me,' or in this case – 'undress me.' McKay nodded and moved to help the warrior disrobe, tossing the heavy coat aside before reaching for the Wraith's pants. Many were the nights he'd pushed them over Ian's hipbones and peeled them down green, muscular thighs with bad intent, both he and the Wraith quivering with desire. Now he was just grateful the warrior was able to stand while he did it.
Then he helped Ian down onto his back on the furs to complete the job, pulling off his boots and bunched-up trousers all in one piece. Bare – and barely conscious, the Wraith mumbled something as his eyelids started to droop almost immediately.
"What was that?" Rodney leaned in closer as he settled a soft, pale pelt over his dozing lover.
The warrior struggled to open his eyes again and finally managed to lift one lid about halfway. "Thank you, love," he murmured distinctly, right before his eye slipped shut again and sleep claimed him.
"So much for tea," McKay announced to the cave at-large as he plopped down next to the bed, heaving a weary sigh.
Ian awakened to the soft susurration of something being dragged across the floor of the cave and the melodious tones of his lover's voice murmuring curses under his breath. Eyes still closed, the Wraith lay quietly and listened to Rodney's unsuccessful attempt to creep stealthily around the cavern, the man's occasional muttered oaths bringing a smirk of amusement to his lips. Curious to know what was going on, the warrior carefully turned on his side to face outward and surreptitiously cracked one eye open so he could put movement to the intriguing sounds he was hearing, only to be thwarted by a wall of woven reeds. It took him a moment, but he finally identified it as the side of one of the containers he'd constructed to store food in for the coming winter months.
He blinked a few times, confusion creasing his brow as he tried to figure out what McKay could possibly be doing, when the human in-question hove into sight, moving backwards in fits and starts, and pulling something along with him Ian couldn't see over the top of the basket. Behind the man, grey, late-afternoon light seeped in around the edges of the heavy, fur pelt stretched across the entrance to the cave, and the Wraith instantly recognized it as the same quality of light which had lit their run-in with the feline the previous evening.
Had it really only been a day?
As Ian marveled at the number of existence-altering events which had occurred in such a short period of time, Rodney ground to a halt by the firepit with a pained groan.
"Fuck," McKay whispered sharply, twisting slightly at the waist like he was trying to loosen tight muscles, his hand in the small of his back.
"Are you alright?" the warrior asked, and Rodney jumped, the sharp tang of adrenaline hitting Ian's scent receptors at the same instant the human turned startled blue eyes in his direction.
"Oh my God, you scared me," McKay gasped, fingertips tapping his sternum to indicate his racing heart. "It's a good thing I'm in relatively decent physical condition or I'd be dead on the floor."
Ian offered a rusty chuckle as he struggled into a sitting position. "I didn't mean to frighten you." Finally upright, he peered over the basket of apples. Stretched out beyond it were piles of food sorted by type, lying next to their respective storage bins. Cocking his head, the Wraith's lips had scarcely parted to inquire on the odd display when he realized that the containers were damaged. Some had been slashed, others crushed – a few looked like they'd been chewed on, but all displayed evidence of wanton vandalism.
"The feline did this," he growled.
"Felines, plural," Rodney corrected, his lips compressing into a thin, irritated line. "From what I can ascertain, the one that finally attacked us wasn't the only one that had explored the cave yesterday. They were doing some serious territory marking, if the amount of gigantic cat shit I scooped up was anything to go by."
Pausing to heave a frustrated sigh, McKay unslung the canteen from across his chest and took a long drink of water, his throat moving rhythmically as he gulped it down. Riveted by the enticing view of his lover's neck stretched taut and vulnerable as he tipped his head to drink, Ian swallowed hard against the overwhelming urge to bite into that tender flesh, the twin appetites of desire and hunger warring for dominance. If only he had the strength, Rodney would definitely be in imminent danger of being jumped.
Recapping the bottle when he was done, McKay wiped the moisture from his mouth almost guiltily when he noticed Ian's enigmatic regard. "I'm so thirsty," he remarked, his tone apologetic. "Can't seem to get enough."
The Wraith nodded, reining in his futile passion. "That is understandable. You lost a good deal of blood last night. Your body is trying to replace its volume as quickly as possible. It should taper off in a week or so."
"What about you? You bled pretty freely, yourself, before your wounds closed. I mean- I know you drink tea with me, but that's more of a social nicety than a necessity. Do Wraith get thirsty?"
"I will admit to some thirst; yes."
"Here." Rodney passed the canteen to the warrior, then returned to his self-appointed task. "We were lucky last night," he advised over his shoulder, picking up the thread of their original conversation as he limped back to the food stores and crouched to gather up some of the scattered tubers and onions they'd left to dry on the cavern floor. The felines had apparently had a field day chasing them around the cave like cat toys. "If there had actually been more than one of those things in here when we arrived, I doubt either of us would have survived."
"I agree," Ian replied, lifting the leather bottle to his lips. He swallowed the contents gratefully, the water cool and soothing on his cracked lips and parched tongue. "We're going to have to rethink our defenses."
"Weapons would be a good place to start." McKay paused to re-stack the vegetables he held cradled in the crook of his arm. "I was thinking we could go total 'Clan of the Cave Bear,' and make spears or something." His gaze flicked up to meet Ian's before drifting to the deep gouges in the Wraith's chest and shoulder. "It might not be much, but they'd give us a fighting chance against those cats without having to get up close and personal."
Rodney finally finished rearranging his burden to his satisfaction then reached for another potato. "When I was about six or seven, my mother thought it would be a good idea to sign me up for the Fort McMurray Eager Beavers. You know - help me learn how to conform to religious and social ideals I had no use for, brainwash me into being content as a cog in the machine, teach me how to play nice with the other kids, morons though they were." He shook his head in disgust, bitterness evident in his tone. "Like I had anything in common with any of them...
"Anyway," he continued a moment later, recalling himself to the present with a weary sigh, "during my two-month stint as an Eager Beaver, they happened to be working their way through a unit on First Nations crafts. I was kind of disappointed I'd missed the drum-making, but I got there just in time to learn about flint knapping. Someone's uncle - or grandfather - came in and showed us how to do it. He spent the next six weeks teaching us how to choose nodules and fracture the stone with antlers and other rocks. Once I got past all the 'God and country' crap they made us endure at the beginning of the meetings, I actually... enjoyed it. There's a beautiful mathematical precision to the process, and the finished product, that really spoke to me.
"We wasted a hell of a lot of material and nicked ourselves repeatedly on sharp flakes of silica, but we finally managed to knock out a couple of decent arrowheads apiece, then he helped us make arrows with dowels and goose feathers." Rodney snorted. "That was a huge mistake. Can you imagine a roomful of first-graders running around a high school gymnasium trying to stab each other with flint weapons? It was like something out of 'Lord of the Flies.'"
The Wraith listened, spellbound and eager for whatever narrative his lover cared to share with him. For a being who had so few years to talk about, McKay had imparted very little of the events which had occurred in their passage up until now. Although Ian had no reference point for the Cave-Bear Clan or the Fly Lord that Rodney had spoken of, he readily understood the gist of the man's story, and it excited him not only to find out more about his consort's life, but that McKay possessed a survival skill which could benefit them both.
Once again Rodney confounded his expectations with hidden depths and surprising strength. A smile of pride and admiration curled the corners of Ian's mouth. The man was truly a worthy choice for a mate. "Ah - I should have suspected that the humans from your galaxy would begin training their young in military exercises at such a tender age. As a whole, you are exceedingly warlike. What surprises me is that you took part in such conditioning."
"I'm not sure whether to take that as an insult or a compliment." A frown of consternation marred Rodney's brow.
The Wraith chuckled. "I meant no disrespect, McKay. You are clearly a Thinker - not a Warrior."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't voluntary, that's for sure, and come to find out that particular craft was 'unusual.' After a brief uprising, our arrows were confiscated and at the next meeting we had a new leader who decided we needed to pursue more 'age-appropriate' activities. That was the end of the Eager Beavers for me. They asked me to leave just a week later when they'd moved on from flint-knapping to making construction paper headdresses and I voiced my opinion on the abysmal stupidity of the project."
Ian nodded in understanding. "Fortunately you picked up a valuable skill beforehand. One that will help us immeasurably." Feeling the need to stand and stretch, he suddenly realized his clothes were nowhere to be seen.
"Keep in mind, though," Rodney hedged, feeling the first butterflies of performance anxiety fluttering in the pit of his stomach. "I haven't done this in years. It's not going to be pretty at first."
"That is to be expected, although I am certain our genuine need for these blades will fuel the impetus to 'chip off the rust' as quickly as possible."
"I'll do my best."
"I know you will," Ian replied as he looked around in search of his pants. "In the meantime, we need to also think about putting up some sort of door or barricade across the entrance to the cave."
"Definitely. Especially with the weather due to go downhill sometime in the not-too-distant future." McKay returned and deposited his gleanings next to the piles of fruit lying beside the tall baskets. "Do you think you'll be able to manage a project that big with your chest half-healed?"
Rodney glanced up when the warrior didn't respond, and noticed his distraction. Guessing the source of Ian's confusion, he pointed to one of the empty tanning racks, now draped with assorted articles of familiar clothing. "They're over there, with your coat. Everything was covered in blood. I rinsed it all as best I could and hung it up to dry."
A tender, disbelieving smile split the Wraith's features as he met the human's gaze. "You are determined to take care of me, then – even in this," his gruff statement in actuality a question he didn't dare ask.
Rodney grinned back, letting his feelings for the Wraith show in his azure eyes. "You mean like you've been taking care of me since the beginning? Of course." His pale cheeks flushed with color. "I mean, we're a thing now, right? It's official?"
"Technically – no; but for all intents and purposes I would not hesitate to call you Mate now, since neither of us is in any condition to consummate it at the moment. Once we are able to join on the physical and psychic planes as we have already done on an emotional level, our mating bond will be complete, and 'official' in a way no Wraith could gainsay."
"I look forward to it," McKay whispered, his face flushing even darker as he leaned in to steal a kiss from his more-than-willing partner, a soft press of lips that promised the Wraith everything he'd ever wanted. "But first, let's get you cleaned up; you're a hot mess."
Ian bristled as Rodney pulled away and adjourned to the firepit to nudge one of the large tortoiseshells out of the coals with the end of a fire-hardened stick. Surreptitiously sniffing at himself while the human set up the water, liquid cleanser, and sueded cloths by the fire, he grudgingly had to admit that McKay was right. Between the cloying odor of his blood and the cat's, and the bile he'd regurgitated when he'd vomited whose essence still lingered on his skin and in his hair, he smelled like a charnel house.
Ian carefully eased himself to his feet, surprised by the swoon of lightheadedness that greyed his vision at the edges when he finally drew himself upright. Unused to dealing with such an unnaturally-extended bout of weakness, he clung to the bedframe until the worst of the dizziness passed, then made his way to the end of the pallet using the ridge beam for support. Once there, he gathered what little strength was left to him after such an arduous journey and let go, tottering the last few steps to his destination before sinking down gratefully by the stone hearth just ahead of his legs giving out.
Convalescence at a human pace was not something he looked forward to.
He glanced up and met Rodney's eyes, the human's gaze full of unspoken concern. "I will be fine," Ian assured him, forcing certainty he didn't feel into his gravelly voice. McKay only nodded and returned to collecting their scattered harvest as the Wraith began working his way through his sponge bath, inordinately grateful for the opportunity to scour the last traces of gore and filth from his aching body.
By the time Ian had managed to wash everything but his hair, he was out-of-breath and exhausted. Chest heaving, he sat back on his heels, wondering from what hidden wellspring he was supposed to draw the strength to go on when he could barely lift his drooping head. He was about to give up, when Rodney crouched next to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Let me wash your hair for you," McKay offered. Without waiting for a response, he knelt and reached to pick the knot out of the leather thong that held back pieces of the Wraith's disheveled mane with fingers as gentle as his voice.
The warrior sat very still as Rodney tended to his blood-encrusted mane, only his eyes moving to cast a sidelong glance at the man's bent head. His gaze lingered on his fine, medium-brown, silver-frosted hair, already grown shaggy in the short time he'd known him. It covered the top half of McKay's ears now, and laid down flat in a wispy fringe across his forehead, and a faint smile stretched the warrior's mouth. He looked forward to the day when the human's hair was long enough to pull back from his face in the fashion of a Wraith warrior. It was a style Ian was certain would suit McKay's imperious temperament very well.
A smirk stretched Ian's lips as he submitted willingly to his lover's tender ministrations, his olive-green cat's eyes slitted with pleasure while Rodney massaged the foaming cleanser through his tangled, dirty tresses. Glad for the respite and revived somewhat by McKay's attentive care, the Wraith was actually able to hold up his end of the conversation as the pair discussed the logistics of building and installing a door. It was a simple enough endeavor, in theory, although in practice it took on herculean proportions in light of Ian's impaired condition and Rodney's inexperience. By the time McKay asked him to lean over the tortoiseshell so the soap could be rinsed out of his hair, they'd come to the logical conclusion that Rodney would do the majority of the work under the warrior's supervision.
Wringing out Ian's hair, McKay pushed the long, matted ropes over the Wraith's shoulders then left him to dry himself while Rodney moved on to his next housekeeping task: pulling the sullied bedding off the sleeping pallet.
"Good thing we have an extra pelt," McKay remarked, as he dragged the furs to the other stretcher and clumsily draped them over its frame, his injured arm and ankle making it difficult to lift the heavy rugs into place. "Those are going to have be aired out now, and cleaned." Retrieving the fresh bedding, he unrolled it and shook out the sprigs of dried lavender they'd strewn in its folds when they'd stored it, then spread it out on the pallet and encouraged Ian to return to the fur-lined lean-to. The Wraith didn't need much coaxing; he was almost ready to pass out as it was.
Buck-naked, Ian settled on the edge of the pallet with a voluptuous groan of pleasure. The lure of having a clean body, clean hair, and clean bedding all at the same time was almost too tempting to resist, and he had to fight the urge to just curl up in a little ball and go to sleep. If it wasn't for the fact that he knew, from long experience, what kind of mess he'd have to face when he awakened if he didn't tend to his mane now, he would have. Instead, he reached for his kit with a weary sigh. He pulled a sturdy, carved bone comb from its depths, but the thought of having to contend with his tangled hair was suddenly too much for him. He was still staring numbly at it when McKay plopped down next to him with a grin, plucked it from his idle fingers, and indicated he should turn around.
After a moment's consideration the warrior shifted, turning his athletically-muscled, broad back to an appreciative audience. Flowing tattoos ran down either side of the Wraith's spinal ridge, ending in a flourish where the last nodule broke the skin at the base of his spine. Rodney smiled as he reached toward the swirls and lines that meandered across Ian's lower back, his fingertips stopping mere inches from the warrior's marked flesh. Although he ached to touch, he didn't dare – not now, anyway. He was well-enough versed in Wraith anatomy by this point to know the area was an erogenous zone, and Ian was trusting him not to take advantage.
Reluctantly reeling himself back in, Rodney glanced from the implement in his hand to the hopeless mess the Wraith had made of his hair, feeling unequal to the daunting task he'd volunteered to undertake. He did, however, understand now why so many Wraith they'd encountered over the years had opted for dreadlocks.
He was suddenly reminded of Madison – not the dreads part - the combing-out part. He'd earned a lot of brownie points with both Madison and Jeannie, by proving to have an unusually-deep reservoir of patience and a gentle hand when it came to detangling his niece's hair. So much so, that she'd taken to coming at him with her pink plastic brush-and-comb set as soon as he walked in the door of the Miller residence. Who could have guessed that a skill like that would come in handy now?
The thought of his sister and his niece sent a sharp stab of pain through him when he realized he was never going to see them again – either one of them. He'd never get to argue mathematical theorems with Jeannie at Thanksgiving over one of those terrible tofurky roasts Caleb insisted on cooking. He'd never see Madison grow up, or watch her features and her mind - both of which were a twin to Jeannie's when she was a child – blossom into amazing brilliance and beauty as she approached womanhood. Never would he get to encourage her to follow the path her mother had chosen not to take, or experience the pride he was certain to feel when she knocked the scientific community on its ear with some amazing discovery or other; a chip off the old block.
He swallowed hard against the lump rising in his throat, as wave-after-wave of nostalgia and melancholy washed over him. He and Ian had been running so hard for the past three months just trying to survive in this harsh, unforgiving wilderness, he hadn't really allowed himself to think about the broader ramifications of his situation beyond the immediate and terrible blow of losing John. Now he wished he'd remained oblivious for a while longer.
Desperate to regain his equilibrium, he slid closer to the warrior and gathered the mass of long white hair in one hand so he could begin teasing out the snarls at the ends, trying unsuccessfully to focus past the heartache that threatened to tear him apart. This was his life now: Ian and this planet, for as long as they managed to stay alive. And while he appreciated the unexpected happiness he'd found with the Wraith, it didn't diminish the grief that surged up inside him, thick and choking, and dark with regret.
Heaving a tremulous sigh, Rodney gingerly rested his knuckles against the warrior's shoulder blade and gently separated a section of hair from the rest. As he carefully avoided the little knobs of bone that protruded along Ian's spine and the skin in between, a wry smirk tugged at the corner of McKay's lips in spite of his sadness. This certainly brought a whole new meaning to the phrase 'I've got your back.'
He glanced up at the back of the Wraith's head before bending to his task again, his uncertain smile fading when he noticed the weary set of the warrior's shoulders. The fact that Ian had exposed such a sensitive, vulnerable part of himself so readily, spoke volumes on the trust they'd built up between them – and rather than being amused, Rodney suddenly felt oddly-protective of the creature sitting so still and silent in front of him.
"As soon as I get done, you can lie down and go back to sleep," he murmured. His voice sounded strange to his own ears: rough and barely recognizable with suppressed emotions. "You don't have anything you need to worry about."
The Wraith snorted. "I intend to. I doubt you could keep me awake if you tried."
Ian suddenly straightened when the human's despondent tone sank in and abruptly shook him from the hypnotic state of relaxation the man's soothing touch had lulled him into. Muscles jumped under smooth skin as he turned to glance at McKay over his shoulder, causing the line of tattoos to curve in a graceful arc with the twist of his torso. "Rodney, what is wrong?"
Pale-blue eyes, bright with unshed tears, quickly cut away. "Nothing."
"McKay, look at me," the Wraith ordered as he shifted enough to grasp the man's shoulder with a strong hand, his own fatigue forgotten in his concern for Rodney's well-being. As the human reluctantly lifted his gaze, Ian gathered his scattered senses and scanned the surface of his paramour's mind, finding the overwhelming sensations of anguish and loss almost immediately.
His first instinct was to pull away, to back off respectfully and leave McKay to deal with his grief privately, as he would with another Wraith. But Rodney wasn't a Wraith – he was human, and Ian knew from experience that rather than mourning alone, McKay's people banded together to support each other in their hours of weakness. For whatever reason, something had tripped a memory and Rodney needed him.
Ian's fingers tightened slightly on the man's arm, offering silent encouragement when McKay's eyes - their expression so lost and bereft it tore at his heart - finally met his.
"I miss..." Rodney began before abruptly clamping his trembling lips shut, desperately trying not to lose control.
"Your Hive; your kin," Ian finished for him, his voice resonant with empathy. As a Wraith who'd existed since the Lantean War, the Ancestors knew he'd felt that pain keenly enough in his lifetime.
McKay nodded mutely, not trusting himself to speak.
The warrior sighed. He wished he could wrap his arms around Rodney and pull him into an embrace, but he didn't dare with his chest in the condition it was, so he settled for stroking his fingers through his lover's hair. "Is there anything I can do to ease your suffering?"
Rodney shook his head, his gaze dropping to examine the comb he clutched so tightly in his hand the teeth had left a row of red marks in his palm. "I don't think so," he murmured, his voice so soft the Wraith had to lean closer to hear him. "I just wish I had my laptop. There were pictures on it."
"Ah, and you left that on Atlantis. I am sorry."
"No," McKay replied, sounding forlorn. "It was in my pack. I'd pulled it off to look for something and had just slung it over one shoulder to pick up the little girl when you culled me. I'm sure it's long-gone; lost somewhere on Sibilia's surface."
Ian drew back to blink owlishly at his partner, his pupils large and dark. "That is not how culling beams work. If you were carrying it when you were swept up, then it's probably still in the Dart's buffer."
"What?!" Rodney rounded on the Wraith, hope suddenly blazing fierce and hot in his azure eyes for a brief instant before it burned out, and he slumped again, defeated. "I'm an idiot. It's been months. Even if it is in the buffer, I'm sure the battery's completely discharged."
"You forget, McKay – the buffer acts as a stasis chamber of sorts. Your computer's power source will still be as charged as it was the moment I took you."
Hope renewed, an irrepressible smile played across Rodney's lips. "We have to go get it."
"We will," Ian assured him as he brushed his thumb tenderly along the human's cheekbone. He was relieved that he'd been able to provide his lover a measure of surcease from his pain. "However, we will have to wait until I am well enough to travel. Although I doubt you'd remember much of it, it was a full day-and-a-half journey for me to bring you here from the other camp on the travois. It is not a trip I would want you to make alone."
"A day and a half, huh?"
The Wraith nodded. "Yes, and although we will be able to travel lighter than I did coming here, if I am not entirely healed by the time we go, we won't make it there any faster. We should probably plan on an excursion of at least four or five days. We'll need to bring tarps so we can set up an enclosure to sleep in, and food – and weapons."
Rodney blew out a sigh of frustration. So close and yet so far. "Do you think it will be safe to leave the cave unattended for so long?" He asked, trying to subdue the giddy eagerness that had infected him at the prospect of getting his hands on his prized laptop again. He thought he'd lost it – and the irreplaceable pictures of those he cared about – forever. Of course, he was well-aware that once the battery finally died, it would be as useless to him as it was now, but at least he'd have it in his possession, and for a few days, at least, he'd get to peruse his files and gaze upon the faces of his loved ones one last time so he could burn them into his memory. It would have to be enough.
Ian smiled then, showing off his fierce, serrated teeth. He could sense the barely-contained excitement bubbling just below the surface of McKay's mind, and it energized him in spite of his lassitude. "With a door in place, there should be no problem leaving the cavern empty for a few days. Speaking of which, what about the carcass of the feline still lying outside? It will attract the others."
Rodney offered a lop-sided grin. "Already taken care of. I built a fire close enough to the entrance of the cave to keep them away from us, and far enough away from the carcass that if they want it, they can come and get it."
"But the fur – the pelt."
"Ian, we're just going to have to let this one go. I don't know how to skin animals – nor do I have the desire to learn," McKay was quick to add when he saw the beginnings of an idea stir in the depths of the warrior's eye. "And you don't have the strength or stamina to do it."
The Wraith sighed, dejection clear in every lineament of his body as he turned away. "I suppose you are right."
Presented with Ian's back once again, Rodney took hold of the hank of hair he'd sectioned off. "Besides, you're going to be too busy mending baskets and storage bins to worry about skinning a cat."
The warrior growled under his breath, but McKay was adamant. "You know as well as I do that the food we gathered isn't going to last without proper storage."
"As you command, my Leige," came the acerbic reply.
Rodney snorted as he resumed his futile efforts to work the comb through the Wraith's tangled locks.
With Ian already chafing under the restrictions his healing body had imposed on them, McKay knew the warrior needed something to take his mind off his temporary inability to help prepare for the coming winter. While the Wraith had slept, and he'd sorted through the scattered vegetables, Rodney had concocted what he'd hoped was a brilliant plan to gather more dried grass and twigs so Ian might find some peace-of-mind in cobbling together replacement containers. He was relieved the warrior had given in so readily. Between basket-weaving and getting to boss McKay around when they build the door, he hoped it would be enough to keep both of them from losing their collective minds while they waited for Ian to recover enough to make the eventual journey to the Dart.
All that, plus the frantic gathering of food that still needed to take place, and the flint-knapping skills Rodney had been asked to resurrect, as well...
There was a lot to get done over the next several weeks.
Morning sunlight flooded the sheltered enclosure that fronted the cave, heralding the start of another cold, autumn day. As the golden rays of light crept over the natural berm of stone and earth, melting the thin blanket of frost that coated every available surface, it also cast long shadows behind the lone figure who'd been keeping vigil since the first promise of dawn had stained the edge of the horizon nearly an hour earlier. Anticipating the suns' returning light and heat as devoutly as any Druid, the being greeted the day with a smile, then carefully set the turtle shell of long-cold tea he'd been cradling in chilled fingers on the ground and picked up a nodule of flint.
Seated on a low stool which had been knocked together with lumber and pegs left over from their recently-completed home-improvement projects, McKay huddled in his tattered jacket. The warmth of his breath was visible in the frosty air as he grunted with satisfaction then eagerly set to work. Knocking a spall off the core stone with a deft movement which bespoke an affinity with the craft that far outweighed his two weeks of experience, he began shaping the blade, pausing from time-to-time to cautiously test the emerging edge with his thumb.
Once he'd located the right kind of rocks – a project in itself – he'd spent the next several days applying an adult's understanding to skills learned as a child. It took much trial and error, and the waste of much good material – but he'd actually managed to resurrect what he'd been taught with less difficulty than he'd anticipated. From there it was just a matter of practice, although he'd had to fit the time to do so around all the other action items Ian had insisted they – or rather he, under the warrior's guidance and supervision - see to immediately.
And Ian had certainly kept him busy. Not only had they spent the majority of their days building and hanging a stout, wooden door - no mean feat for an inexperienced human and a wounded Wraith to accomplish with minimal tools and no building materials to speak of, but all the racks damaged by the cats had been repaired, and furniture – after a fashion – had been added to their living space. They now possessed stools and a table to sit at, as well as a couch: a low platform with a back and sides to drape one of the furs over so they could lounge comfortably by the firepit. And they weren't done yet. Ian had plans for them to gather more food in the form of root vegetables that were better if harvested after frost, and grains that grew in abundance on the plains beyond the foothills where the cavern was located.
Was it any wonder Rodney had taken to rising before dawn? The only chance he had of getting in a good hour or two of uninterrupted time to concentrate was first thing in the morning, while his demanding, green Taskmaster was still sleeping.
In the early morning solitude, McKay found peace and deep satisfaction in honing the primitive skill to as close to perfection as possible. Trying again and again as he slowly gained ground on a learning curve necessity demanded he climb as swiftly as he could, he fell into a creative trance of sorts, so profoundly focused that he often came back to himself with a finished piece in his hands he almost didn't remember crafting.
He'd started with arrowheads, of course, knowing that they'd probably go through them by the dozens while they learned how to hunt with a bow. Many were the evenings Ian had stripped and whittled sticks while they'd sat by the firepit, carefully splitting the wood in anticipation of the points and fletching the ends with bone-glue and feathers which had been left behind on the banks of the stream by migratory water fowl that resembled Canadian geese. In fact, it was the low-flying, V-shaped squadrons of birds passing overhead by the hundreds which had been the inspiration for bow-hunting in the first place, although their appearance in the clear, autumn sky had also made Rodney more than a little homesick.
Knife blades came next, and after a number of failed attempts that ended up having to be broken up and made into more arrowheads, he finally managed to knock out a decent piece, long and tapered, thin, balanced, and sharp. Once completed, he'd lashed it to a carefully-crafted and sanded wooden handle, and presented it to Ian to cheer him up. The Wraith had been delighted with the offering, and the genuine pride in his expression when their eyes had met over the gift had warmed Rodney to the core of his being. From there, he'd moved on to blunt-backed cleavers for cutting up vegetables and meat, and finally, spearheads.
It certainly helped that they'd installed such a solid barrier across the entrance of the cave. Made of roughly-hewn saplings pegged together and banded with leather, it blocked a lot more sound than a tanned-hide flap, so McKay could break rocks to his heart's content without worrying about disturbing his convalescing companion. Not that he had to worry about waking Ian, anyway. When he wasn't bossing Rodney around, the Wraith had spent most of the past fortnight asleep. Healing – even at a human pace, had taken all of the ancient warrior's reserves. It was all he could do to stay upright long enough to take a turn around the yard once a day; Rodney doubted a little thing like the clatter of flint-knapping was even a blip on his radar.
McKay paused, halfway expecting – as he did every morning – that this might be the day the Wraith took a turn for the better and the racket brought him to the door. He cast a rueful glance toward the cave, waiting for an appearance he held out less hope for with each passing day. Turning a willfully-blind eye toward he sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Rodney eventually heaved a wistful sigh and bent to his task again. Soon the dull click of rock-on-rock rang out in the stillness once more, the slow rhythmic sound a counterpoint to the quiet rustle of dead leaves, spurred on by the morning breeze as they danced across the yard in swirling drifts, and the thin, reedy piping of birdsong.
"Ouch!" He dropped the smooth, lozenge-shaped river rock he'd been using as a hammerstone on his suede-covered lap, sending the spearhead he'd been working on flying and scattering flakes of silica in every direction. Hissing in pain, he brought his hand close to his face, tilting it this way and that until the sunlight glinted off the shard of flint he'd just struck from the blade he'd been shaping. With an unerring accuracy he probably couldn't have replicated if he'd tried, it had promptly embedded itself deep in the heel of his hand, close to the blue tracery of veins in his wrist.
"Dammit." Brows furrowed in concentration, he carefully pulled the stone splinter out with his nails and gently laid it on the tip of his finger, taking a moment to examine the almost-translucent, razor-sharp edge before flicking it to the ground. No sooner had it landed in the semi-circle of stone chips he'd been so assiduously cultivating for the past two weeks than he turned his attention back to the laceration.
He watched, fascinated, as a bead of blood welled up, surprisingly thick and dark for such a small wound, and a crease of worry marred his brow as his thoughts returned inexorably to Ian. In the past week or so, the Wraith's ability to heal seemed to have been grinding to a halt, along with the last of his waning strength, but in spite of his obvious need - and Rodney's repeated offers - he'd refused to feed. While McKay understood Ian's innate aversion to the act, itself, and the self-loathing he'd probably be wrestling with for some time to come, Rodney couldn't help but wonder when the Wraith's hunger would reach the point where it went from optional to imperative, and how much danger he'd be in if he allowed Ian to get there.
Unfortunately, that was a question he had no answer for. He'd just been getting a handle on how long the warrior could go between regular Wraith feedings, and now he was back to Square One. To be fair – so was Ian. Blood-drinking was as new to him as it was to McKay, which meant they were both reduced to kind of feeling their way along.
Considering the fact that the Wraith was struggling to come back from a serious injury, and that blood apparently only carried a small fraction of the life force which could be drained from a human in the usual way, Rodney wouldn't be surprised if it was sooner rather than later. Thankfully, Ian had been forcing fluids on him, making sure his canteen was always filled with either water, or a tea made from herbs which were supposed to help rebuild the iron in his blood more quickly. It might not be the miracle of modern medicine, but it only stood to reason that even without the dubious merits of the herbs, the passage of time alone meant he was probably recovered enough to handle assuaging the Wraith's hunger without it doing any lasting damage.
The ruby droplet's surface tension finally broke and a thin, red rivulet began to run across his palm, the sudden movement drawing his attention back to the present. He raised his bloodstained hand to his mouth to suck the wound clean – an automatic, instinctive gesture – when strong, green fingers wrapped around his wrist, arresting the motion.
"McKay, what have you done?" Ian rasped, his voice an agonized mixture of lust and despair.
Rodney glanced up, surprised. He met the Wraith's intense, olive-green stare, and realized with a lurch of gut-wrenching certainty that the moment he'd just been speculating about was upon him.
"I... I cut myself," McKay stammered when he'd recovered from the shock of finding the same half-dressed warrior who'd required assistance getting from the fireside to the bed the night before, suddenly kneeling by his side.
"Obviously." Ian reluctantly tore his gaze from the drop of blood preparing to fall from the tip of Rodney's finger to meet the human's startled blue eyes.
"I was awakened by the most tempting aroma," Ian's deep, gravelly voice took on the desperate edge of a drowning man as his hand tightened convulsively around McKay's wrist, drawing a gasp of pain from his partner. The Wraith loosened his vice-like grip, but did not – could not let go, instinct screaming for him to keep hold of his prize. "I was unable to resist its call – not even once I realized what it was."
"I... I didn't mean to wake you." Rodney's heart hammered wildly in his chest, torn between fear, relief, and the wash of excitement the Wraith's raw, passionate tone sent cascading through his body. This was the most alert and active he'd seen his lover since the feline's attack, and while he was glad to see him up and about, it frightened him a little that it had been the scent of his blood which had shaken Ian from his torpor.
The warrior turned his despondent visage back toward McKay's blood-covered hand and chuckled - a dry, rusty, humorless sound. "It wasn't just me you awakened, Rodney, but my appetite. I burn."
Ian bit back a groan as he watched the drop of blood fall and splatter on the shards of grey stone chips.
"So, go ahead and drink," McKay breathed, hoping against hope that the Wraith would finally give in and take what he so desperately required – what it was apparent he'd been denying himself for at least a week.
The warrior shook his head. "I can't... can't do that again."
A flash of anger ignited in Rodney's breast. Of all the idiotic... He appreciated the Wraith's reluctance, but enough was more than enough. Ian needed to feed now. Not later, not in another week. Now! Before it was even a conscious decision, McKay reached for the warrior's feeding and and brought it up to rest on the front of his jacket, then placed his own, uninjured one, against it, pressing it flat. "Then feed, you damn stubborn Wraith," he ground out through lips drawn tight with irritation.
Ian's hand tensed beneath his lover's palm as he frantically backpedaled from the urge to rip the man's shirt open and feed as he was meant to. The warrior's lips peeled back from his teeth in a defiant snarl as appetite scorched him from the inside out, surging wildly at the promise of the life force he could feel pulsating beneath the layers of fabric. He studied McKay's ravaged features, the lines and wrinkles – the silver strands liberally threaded through the human's hair that his hunger had put there; the years of Rodney's life that Ian could never replace.
"McKay, no," he whispered harshly, barely in control but determined not to give in to the instinct that compelled him. "I will not do that to you."
"Then take my blood." Rodney's voice broke. "Please."
The Wraith bowed his head, his eyes squeezed shut as he struggled to contain the treacherous hunger that rose within him at the human's impassioned plea. Weakness tugged at his limbs, weariness his mind, even as his wound throbbed and his body ached with the need for life force by any means. So close – so tantalizingly close he could literally reach out and grab it, and yet the shame and ignominy of his desire paralyzed him. How could he do something so repugnant to the human he professed to care about so deeply?
The man's blunt fingers stroked the skin on the back of his hand, across the tendons which stood out in sharp relief, and then then they were touching his cheek – trailing down the line of his clenched jaw. Ian turned his head slightly to lean into the caress, although he couldn't bring himself to face the pity and disgust he was sure to find in his lover's gaze.
He felt Rodney's chest heave as the man sighed, and tasted the disappointment which rose to the surface of his mind, and he felt every inch the failure he had become.
"Ian, I can't stand by and watch you starve yourself any longer," McKay began, his words kinder and his tone gentler than the Wraith had expected. "You need to feed, and you only have two options. If you refuse to drink my blood then you're going to have to lay your hand on my chest and feed that way. Is the idea of ingesting blood so abhorrent to you that you're willing to take more of my life? Do you really want that? Do you really want the taboo you broke for my sake to have been for nothing? You've already crossed the line, and I don't want to see your sacrifice negated – not when you've already proven that you can draw life force from my blood without aging me. I know you don't want to do it, but it's a necessary evil, and at this point it's the only choice we have if you want to keep me alive and healthy – and that's something I certainly want. I want to be with you for as long as humanly possible."
Ian risked raising his eyes to meet Rodney's, and what he saw astonished him. There was no pity, only concern - and tenderness he surely didn't merit. The Wraith's breath hitched as emotion clogged his throat. This man deserved so much better than he was getting.
A crooked smirk stretched McKay's lips. Even without a telepathic bond between them, the warrior's grateful, disbelieving expression spoke volumes on the depth of his feelings.
Rodney felt his face flush with an embarrassed pleasure that made him want to squirm. Right back atchya, big guy. ,/i>
"I love you," he reminded the incredulous Wraith, his cheeks pinkening further as he reached up to gently tuck a stray strand of long white hair behind Ian's ear. It was one of several which had worked its way loose from the braid that hung down his back. "Please don't torture yourself over this – not on my account. I don't mind the blood-letting. Really. And I don't judge you as being less of a Wraith for doing it. In fact, I'm awed and amazed that your physiology allows for survival in such dire circumstances."
"But the laws against it..."
"Have no bearing on us, and never will."
Ian hesitated, his handsome features reflecting a kaleidoscope of shifting emotions as his glittering eyes turned from McKay's face to focus hungrily on his willing captive's bleeding hand.
"You are sure you have no reservations?"
Rodney nodded, relief sweeping through him at the Wraith's wavering resolve. A smile playing on his lips as he allowed himself to relax by degrees. "I'm sure. We have way too much to do yet for you to be languishing in bed all day, you lazy bum," he teased gently before sobering. "Besides, you need to heal up so we can make the trip to the Dart before the good weather breaks."
"In that case..." Ian murmured as he gave in, his voice rough with rising need. "Please, allow me."
The Wraith lowered his mouth until it hovered close to McKay's palm, the tip of his grey tongue flicking out to lap at the blood as delicately as a cat licking cream from a saucer. The wet heat of Ian's undulating tongue and the whisper of his breath against the sensitive skin of Rodney's palm raised all the hair on his body as desire, sharp and unexpected, coursed through him, and a shudder ran though his frame as a groan, quickly stifled, fell from the warrior's lips right before he pressed them to the open wound.
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." ~ Heraclitus
Ian and Rodney retrace the Wraith's steps, on a path neither have trodden before.
It was two more weeks and another feeding before Ian's wounds had healed sufficiently and he'd regained enough strength for them to even consider making a trip to the Dart. From there it took a few more days for Rodney to recover from the Wraith's hunger, and another week of bickering over what to pack for the journey, before they actually set out.
Eventually – inevitably – they did, early one cold, sunny morning, the warrior wearing a pack filled with cooking gear, food, and extra clothes, and McKay dragging the travois laden with sleeping furs, a few empty baskets and some tools, Wraithskin tarps, and coils of surprisingly strong rope made from the fibrous stalks of dead weeds. Both carried weapons. Rodney had a bow slung across his back and quiver of arrows tipped with the points he'd so painstakingly crafted, while Ian clutched a spear stout enough and long enough to double as a staff.
Taking one last look at the encampment they'd both come to look upon as home, they headed out of the enclosure and across the small clearing that eventually became a gentle slope. From their vantage point
high above the prairie, they could see for miles in all directions. A hazy purple vision of larger mountains loomed on the edge of the horizon, marching away to the north, their snowy peaks glazed white in the morning light, while glimpses of the lake by the abandoned city could be seen shimmering like a mirage beyond the forest to the southeast, far across the plains.
"It looks as if we could just reach out and touch it," Rodney remarked, barely able to keep his excitement at the prospect of their imminent departure out of his voice. He pointed toward the water as he joined the Wraith at the crest of the hill.
Ian nodded and sighed, already sounding weary. "If only we could."
McKay cast him a sidelong glance, his eagerness tempered by the exhaustion he detected in the warrior's tone. "Are you sure you're up for this?"
"I will do well enough if we maintain an easy pace. I wouldn't dream of keeping you from your laptop a day longer than necessary."
With that, the warrior started down the hill, leaving Rodney to follow. A concerned frown creased his brow as he trotted after the tall alien. He caught up with him just as Ian reached the sparse treeline at the edge of the clearing and they made their way together into the woods, following a path which had been cut into the hillside by millennia of springtime thaws and melting snow, the Wraith leading the way with McKay trailing after him. It was a familiar route, one they'd taken several times to the valley floor to harvest wild, late-season wheat. They walked in companionable silence, the crunch of their boots on gravel and the scrape-and-clatter of the sled's wooden rails the only sounds to disturb the forest's peace.
As the sun rose, the day grew warmer, even under the canopy of the trees, and with the added exertion of dragging a load behind him Rodney soon felt the first bead of sweat roll down the side of his face.
"Hey, can we stop for a minute?" he called to the Wraith, who paused and looked over his shoulder. With a nod, Ian returned and assisted his companion in laying the traces down on the ground.
"Ugh," McKay complained, reaching for the zipper pull of his jacket, "I thought we were traveling light."
"We are," the warrior replied dryly, taking the opportunity to open the fastenings on his Wraithskin coat. A twinkle of humor shone in his green cat's eye as he slid the canteen off his shoulder placed it into Rodney's outstretched hand. "Are you really going to complain the whole way there and back again?"
The human scowled up at him as he lowered the flask and wiped the sleeve of his jacket across his mouth. "Maybe," he drawled, a challenge in his pale blue gaze. "What are you going to do about it, if I do?"
"I could drug you, tie you to the sled, and drag you there myself. You were such a pleasant traveling companion the first time we made this trip together. If given proper incentive, I might be tempted to recreate the conditions of that journey as closely as possible."
"Whoa!" McKay laughed. "That escalated quickly." He handed the canteen back to the grinning Wraith, who also took a sip before capping it and hanging it over his shoulder again. "I'll try to keep the grumbling to a minimum," he relented.
"Don't make promises you can't keep, McKay," Ian rumbled affectionately. He bunched the front of Rodney's jacket in his fist and dragged the man closer so he could place a kiss on soft human lips, when he noticed that McKay was wearing the claw pendant he'd made for him. A delighted smile split the Wraith's face as his gaze canted up to meet his lover's. "It pleases me to see you wearing it."
"It pleases me to wear it," Rodney replied, leaning in to plant a kiss on the warrior's cheek. "Now let's get going," he murmured quietly when he pulled back. "We have a long way to go."
"You'll behave yourself?"
"I'll do my best."
To his credit, Rodney did try to suck it up and soldier on stoically, although he met with mixed results as the morning wore on. Between the almost-oppressive warmth they encountered as they came down from the higher elevations and the ache in his shoulders, neck, and back which had set in from the constant drag of the travois as it bumped its way over the uneven ground, he couldn't help but voice his discomfort once or twice – or several - times.
They followed the meandering trail ever downward, over terrain rutted by the periodic deluge of rushing water, and past boulders worn smooth by time and weather, until they reached the edge of the woods at the same time the ground leveled out. Grassland spread out before them as far as the eye could see, all the way to where the treeline barely intruded on their line of sight. A chilly wind picked up immediately when they abruptly emerged from both gully and trees, and McKay was suddenly grateful for the jacket he'd been silently – and sometimes vocally - cursing all morning.
The Wraith came to a halt and held up a warning hand. It was the same gesture John had used a thousand times and Rodney found its unexpected familiarity startling, and although it hurt to see it – a sharp pain, like a knife in the gut – he also found it strangely amusing. He'd had no idea it was so universal among military types that it spanned galaxies and crossed species lines. He knew it was his cue to stop, so he pulled up next to Ian and waited patiently while the other scanned the horizon.
"That way," the warrior murmured, indicating the direction with a tilt of his chin before starting off across the field.
Sweat dried quickly on McKay's brow, and he shivered as they made their way past the numerous shocks of wheat they'd left bundled to dry in the sun. They crossed the stubbled section they'd cleared, then waded into the sea of waving golden grain driven on by the incessant breeze that played over the prairie. It kind of gave him the creeps, the way it slithered and hissed at them as they passed, like something alive and watchful, but he did his best to ignore the sensation, focusing instead on Ian's broad, Wraithskin-clad back.
He soon forgot his unease as they marched mile after tedious mile across the seemingly never-ending steppe. Traveling in the general direction of the lake, they used a particularly tall tree that broke through the top of the forest's canopy as a landmark, stopping to take a break every hour or so. Ostensibly it was for Rodney's sake, so he could rest and have a drink of water or a bit of food, and once to marvel at a huge flock of geese flying overhead toward the same body of water they sought on foot, but he couldn't help but notice that Ian seemed as grateful for the brief respites as he was.
In spite of the unintentional endurance training McKay had been engaged in for the past five months, acting as a beast of burden was a new activity even for him, and by the time Ian finally called a halt for the night Rodney's muscles were screaming for a rest. With a groan of relief, he dropped the traces of travois and sank to the ground where he stood, convinced that he would never rise again.
Ian spared his exhausted lover a glance and offered a weary chuckle of his own. "We have a lot to do before you get to pass out. You're not tired, are you, McKay? "
Rodney tried to scowl up at him as he rolled over onto his back, but but couldn't muster more than a weak glare. "No," he gasped, his head falling back onto the grass. "Not at all."
Leaning heavily on his spear, the Wraith turned to watch the shadows of the mountains cast by the westering sun slowly engulf the flatlands. He'd hoped they would have at least reached the edge of the forest by the time they made camp, but with his body still working so hard to regenerate itself with so little fuel, the trip was proving to be more of a challenge than he'd anticipated. Thankfully, even with all the stops they'd made along the way, they'd come farther than he'd thought they would. He raised his hand to unconsciously rub at the puckered scars which marred his otherwise-perfect chest as he scanned the plain. After a day of unaccustomed exercise the almost-healed gouges felt tight and achy. With time and additional life force he knew they would eventually become less noticeable – less painful, but the prolonged healing time had guaranteed that the marks would now never fade completely.
Gathering what few reserves of strength he possessed, Ian drew himself up to his full height. Pandering to his weaknesses wasn't getting the camp set up. They needed shelter and a fire soon, before the sun set.
"McKay," he said, as he laid the spear on the ground and shrugged out of his pack. "Get up."
The human in-question grunted in response but didn't move.
"Rodney," he tried again, crouching next to his supine partner and giving his shoulder a gentle shake. "Help me set up camp and I will make you dinner."
McKay blinked drowsily. "Promise?" he asked, sounding very young.
A tender smile softened the Wraith's features. He would promise this man anything, and give his very life trying to fulfill it.
"In that case, what are we waiting for?" And with that, Rodney began to painfully make his way to his feet.
"Dinner was surprisingly good," McKay proclaimed sometime later, as he sat on the edge of the fur bedding and began pulling off his boots. "Before I ended up on this planet with you, I never thought I'd eat rabbit in a million years, never mind reconstituted rabbit jerky porridge."
"I am glad you enjoyed it," Ian replied from the open flap of the Wraithskin-tarp tent he'd put up earlier. He glanced around the makeshift campsite one last time, his night-sensitive eyes taking in the lay of the land under the starry sky. After ascertaining that they were indeed alone except for the rustle of small nocturnal creatures in the tall grass and the soft whoosh of feathered raptor wings as the night hunters preyed upon them, he made sure the fire they'd built was well-and-truly out. The last thing they needed was a stray spark to set the prairie alight while they slept. Satisfied that all was as it should be, he crawled into the tent and pulled the flap down to preserve body heat, then settled down next to his human companion who had already divested himself of his jacket and pants and lay, shivering, under the blanket.
"Come to bed," Rodney said through chattering teeth.
Ian quickly took off his boots, pants, and coat, and left them in a pile by the bed, then slipped under the covers quickly so as not to let in a draft of rapidly-cooling night air. No sooner had he lowered the heavy fur blanket back into place than he had an armful of trembling human curled up beside him. Delighted that he was healed enough to enjoy this kind of intimacy again, the Wraith pulled him closer still, holding his breath as McKay cautiously laid his head on Ian's chest. They both relaxed bit-by-bit until the full weight of Rodney's head rested against him, and the next thing he knew, his lover's hand had crept over his abdomen as a furry leg found its way across his thigh, stealing his warmth under the guise of affection.
Ian didn't mind at all. Something akin to a purr of contentment rumbled in his chest as his hand trailed over McKay's arm, stroking it. "I have missed this," he murmured.
"Me, too," Rodney replied softly, tightening then releasing the muscles of the arm and leg that encompassed the Wraith, in an allover body hug. "I just wish I had the energy to do more than this, though. I can barely keep my eyes open."
The warrior chuckled, a low, intimate sound. "I share your frustration, McKay. And your exhaustion. Today took more out of me than I'd anticipated."
"Are you alright? You didn't overdo it, did you?" Rodney pushed himself up on his elbow and turned toward his companion, his eyes wide in an instinctive effort to gather what little light was available to help him see. Although it was far too dark for the man to do more than gaze blindly in Ian's direction, the Wraith had no problem picking out his consort's genuinely-concerned expression. It was always astonishing to him how much emotion humans allowed to show on their faces when they thought no one could see, and it was gratifying to bear witness to the man's feelings for him, translated so clearly on his strong, stubborn features.
"Nothing a good night's sleep by your side won't fix." Ian reached up and gently cupped his lover's face in his hand. The prickle of Rodney's stubble rubbed against the raised seam of the closed maw that bisected his palm, the unexpected stimulation making the Wraith's breath hitch. More than anything, he wanted to lie with the man again – and not just to sleep.
Soon, he promised himself as he lifted his head enough to touch his lips to Rodney's. Their plan, when they arrived at the Dart's location, was to stay there for three, maybe four, days. Once they retrieved McKay's laptop, they intended to cannibalize the ship for whatever usable parts remained, and catch fish to smoke for the winter. Plenty of time for him to recover enough of his strength to take the human's defenses by storm. Not that he anticipated much of an objection from McKay. It had been far too long for both of them, if the hardness that suddenly pressed against his hip, the musky scent of desire rising in the air, and the soft moan that issued from Rodney's throat as he kissed him back was anything to go by.
For now, though, it would have to remain a tantalizing dream.
"Good night, love," Ian whispered when he reluctantly drew back from the human's lips and let his head fall back to the furs, suddenly done in by their long day of hiking across the open grassland. "It's time to rest now. We have a long way to go yet tomorrow."
"If I have to."
He barely heard Rodney's petulant grumble as the man shifted to lie back down in the curve of the Wraith's arms. By the time the weight of McKay's head came to rest on his shoulder, Ian was already asleep.
The sharp honking of geese winging their way overhead awakened Rodney the following morning. As he drifted toward consciousness, the faint buzz of insects joined the orchestra while the smell of sun-warmed grass assailed his nostrils. Disoriented by the unfamiliar scents and sounds, he slowly opened bleary, sleep-crusted eyes, a frown furrowing his brow as he blinked a few times in the semi-darkness, trying to figure out where he was. It took him a moment of staring blankly at the black wall that billowed and shivered slightly in the fragrant breeze before he identified it as a Wraithskin tarp, and with that revelation, memories of the previous day's journey came flooding back. A surge of excitement that called to mind Christmas mornings of long ago followed a heartbeat later, when he remembered this was the day he was finally going to get his hands on his laptop.
Eager to wake Ian so they could get an early start, he shifted under the furs, the simple act of moving at all stirring to life the aches and pains of sore, tired muscles. With a groan, McKay flopped inelegantly onto his back and stretched his hand out to touch the Wraith, only to encounter an empty expanse of fur where he'd expected to find a soundly-sleeping bed partner.
Rodney struggled into a sitting position, surprised to find the warrior up before him. Ever since the cat's attack, Ian had been next to impossible to awaken without repeated shaking, and sweet entreaties that invariably escalated into threats of dire consequences if Ian didn't open his eyes immediately. This was the first time in a very long time that the Wraith had roused so early, and on his own – and it was a very good sign, as far as McKay was concerned. It could only mean that Ian's long convalescence was almost over.
With a grin that devolved into a grimace of pain as he moved, Rodney ran stiff fingers through wild, sleep-ruffled hair, then pulled his pile of clothes closer and gamely struggled into his pants. When he was finally dressed except for his boots, McKay pushed them past the tent's flap then crawled out after them to greet the day.
As he scrabbled to his feet, he squinted against the sunlight that spilled across the plain. It fell upon the charred remains of their previous night's fire and the Wraith who sat next to it, bare-chested and as still as a statue, the early morning light burnishing both to ruddy gold.
Although he highly doubted his clumsy attempts at silence had gone unnoticed by the meditating predator, Rodney nonetheless crept around the other side of the makeshift shelter as quietly as he could to relieve himself before returning to Ian's side. As he sank down next to him, the Wraith inhaled deeply as though awakening from deep slumber and turned his calm, olive-green gaze toward his companion.
"Good morning, sleepy one," Ian rumbled as he offered the canteen, his tone soft and affectionate.
McKay smiled as he took the leather container from the Wraith's outstretched hand, barely noticing the feeding slit that bisected its palm. "Good morning yourself," he replied before drinking deeply. "I was surprised to find you gone when I woke up."
The Wraith nodded. "Yes, I was also surprised to have awoken so early. It seems I am finally regaining my strength – thanks to you." His eyes, so full of admiration and fondness, lingered on Rodney's long enough for the Canadian's cheeks to burn, and the man had to look away. His gaze slipped lower and settled on Ian's ruined chest. The gouges left by the feline's claws still featured prominently, the new scar-tissue shiny and grey against the surrounding pale-green skin.
A surge of pity and dismay welled up to tighten McKay's throat, and he instinctively reached to trail his fingertips over the hills and valleys of puckered flesh. "I didn't do a very good job of it, did I?"
The warrior gently laid his hand against the back of Rodney's, pressing it flat against the wound. If McKay had been a Wraith, it would have been an invitation to feed – or a silent plea for the Gift of Life. It was a request Rodney wished with all his heart he could grant.
He reluctantly raised his eyes to meet Ian's. "I should have insisted you feed right away."
The Wraith shook his head. "No, you should not have, and regret at this point is useless. Who knows how much of your life force I would have drained away if I'd fed right after the attack? My wounds were severe; I might have killed you. I rejoice in this scar. It exists because of the depth of our feelings for each other – that I refrained from feeding to save your life and that you gave me your very life's blood to save mine. It is as indelible a mark as any tattoo, with an even more profound meaning, and I will carry it forever with pride."
McKay's troubled expression softened as Ian leaned in and placed a tender kiss at the corner of his mouth. When the warrior drew back, Rodney offered a tentative smile. "You mean that," he breathed, a note of astonishment creeping into his voice.
"I do," the Wraith murmured. "You are stronger and braver than you give yourself credit for, and have nothing to feel badly about. You've done remarkably well." He gave McKay's hand a gentle squeeze before lifting it away from his chest and depositing a folded suede packet onto the man's palm. Rodney automatically closed his fingers around it then glanced up, his expression clearly conveying his confusion. He received a peck on the nose and a quiet chuckle. "Now eat your breakfast while I finish breaking camp. I want to reach the Dart before nightfall."
Ian rose to his feet in a single, graceful movement as McKay opened the bundle to reveal a generous portion of nutmeats and mixed berries. It was only then that he took a look around their campsite and realized that except for the tent, itself, and the bedding inside, the warrior had already packed the rest of their gear.
By the time Rodney finished eating, the Wraith had the furs airing, the tent dismantled, and the travois reassembled. McKay took one last pull from the canteen, then clambered to his feet to help load the sledge, and soon they were on their way again.
His body toughened from months of hard living, it didn't take long for Rodney's stiff muscles to loosen, and soon he was dragging the sled over the rough terrain with renewed vigor. Even Ian, who'd been done in by the time they'd stopped the previous evening, seemed to be having an easier time of it regardless of the heavy pack he carried. By unspoken agreement, they pushed themselves harder than they'd done the day before, and morning quickly gave way to afternoon as they traversed the steppe at a comfortable, ground-eating pace.
As they inched their way toward the treeline, and the deciduous monarch they'd chosen as a landmark, whose majestic autumnal crown of fiery orange overarched the surrounding canopy, Rodney mentally wandered over the past five months. Perhaps because it was the reason for their trip, he found himself fixating on the Dart, and the first moments after the Wraith had released him from its buffer. His mind's eye focused on the instant that Ian's alien features had initially swum into view, looming over him as he'd laid on the ground next to the Fighter. McKay shuddered as he remembered, with alarming clarity, the absolute terror it had inspired, and for the first time in months he wondered about the other three people he'd been caught in the culling beam with – the man, the woman, and the child. They'd all experienced that same moment of recognition in turn – that very same paralyzing fear – and yet he was the only one who'd lived to tell the tale. How, and... why? Why had he been the fortunate one?
There'd been a couple of times when Ian had skirted the issue of the humans' fates, and a couple where Rodney had declined when the Wraith had seemed willing to talk about it, but now that they were revisiting Ian's original hunting grounds, McKay felt an overwhelming compulsion to know the truth. It was only the luck of the draw that he'd been the last one released, that the sacrifice of each nameless villager had somehow given him the edge he'd needed to beat the odds. As difficult as it was going to be to hear, he felt he owed it to those who'd gone before him to learn - once and for all - how they'd died.
Even as Rodney came to that decision, Ian slowed, sensing the turmoil rolling off the human in waves. He glanced over his shoulder, trying to catch the man's eye, but McKay's gaze was downcast and inwardly-focused as though contending with some terrible inner conflict. Although the Wraith wasn't recovered enough yet to be able to do more than skim the surface of Rodney's mind, it didn't take powerful telepathy to ascertain that something was wrong.
A single frown line marred Ian's forehead as he came to a stop, taking a quick step to the side and grasping McKay's upper arm before he ran into him. Rodney gasped as his head snapped up, his eyes round and startled.
"Uh, sorry," he mumbled, staggering to a halt. He sagged in the traces, the Wraith's powerful grip the only thing keeping him upright.
"McKay, what is troubling you?"
Rodney glanced at him, then away. From the moment he'd awakened on this planet, his life had been one long string of unknowns. He didn't know where he was, or if anyone was still searching for him, or what had happened to his teammates in the chaos of the Wraith attack. He didn't know how long the coming winter was going to be – or how severe, or if he would survive to see the spring. Although a part of him feared asking Ian about the others, feared that he might be opening a Pandora's box he wasn't going to be able to close – feared it might cause a rift between them they wouldn't be able to recover from – in a world full of uncertainties, he needed what little closure he could get.
He took a deep breath and let it out. Pulling back slightly from the warrior, he stood on his own two feet as he lifted his chin and met Ian's concerned gaze. "What happened to the other humans you caught with me?"
"You do realize that the truth could be worse than your imagination? Are you prepared for that?"
McKay hesitated for just an instant before nodding decisively. "Anything is better than constantly wondering and conjecturing."
Although Ian doubted anything he had to say would ease his consort's mind, he gave a reluctant nod. "If you say so, McKay."
Even as the words fell from his lips, a sudden sense of foreboding sent a shiver down his spine. Acknowledging his part in the deaths of the people Rodney had met, and by extension, countless others for the past ten thousand years, was something the warrior would have rather not explored in detail with his human lover - ever. But one look at the man's imploring expression – his tormented eyes – and he knew it could no longer be avoided.
"Walk with me," Ian urged gruffly, extending his hand in the general direction of their destination. The last thing he wanted to do was dredge up the past, but if McKay was determined to rip scabs off long-healed wounds, then they were going to have to do it on the move if they were going to reach the Dart before nightfall.
"Um... okay," Rodney replied as his companion started off again, taken aback by the Wraith's brusque command and abrupt departure. Quickly pulling himself together, he took a swipe at his eyes then grasped the travois' poles and followed. Ian paused and waited for him, falling into step next to him when he caught up.
"Are you certain of this?" the warrior asked again as they made their way through the tall grass. In spite of McKay's brave words, it was easy to see that even now the human was on the verge of regretting his impetuous inquiry. "It is not a... pleasant tale, by human standards."
Rodney swallowed hard. "Honestly, I'm not certain, but it feels like the right thing to do."
"I suppose simply stating that they were fed upon will not be a sufficient response."
McKay looked genuinely apologetic as he shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I think they deserve more than that. The end of their stories need to be told – even if it's just to me, and their lives need to be honored."
The hint of a frown creased Ian's brow. While he could certainly appreciate Rodney's desire to commemorate the dead, in the Wraith's own way, he had honored the others. He'd lived on, extending his own existence with the gift of their precious life force. And he'd grieved as deeply for each passing as McKay did now, albeit from a different perspective. For one such as him, existence was a never-ending stretch of eternity for those brave enough and lucky enough to endure, and even after ten thousand years, he felt he'd barely tasted of its infinite richness. With each of the captives' deaths, he'd been brought one step closer to his own imminent demise, and after a run as long as his, he'd mourned that inevitability bitterly.
Sensing that McKay wasn't in the right frame of mind at the moment to be reminded of the warrior's stake in the situation, Ian hedged instead, one last time, still convinced this whole thing was a bad idea. "If at any point it becomes too painful, you have only to ask me to stop and I will."
A sad smile tugged at the corner of Rodney's mouth. "I appreciate your offering me a way out, but I doubt I'll take you up on it. I've been running from this for too long."
Ian gave the man a long, searching look. "Very well," he finally relented, even as the knot in the pit of his stomach tightened. "But before I begin, I must first ask you to put yourself in my place, and try to understand the severity of the crisis I found myself in all those months ago. My ship had crash-landed on a planet devoid of human life, with no accessible Ring, and no way to reach out to my brethren to effect an escape.
"You must also understand that under normal circumstances I am not one to feed indiscriminately. While many Wraith do not share my views, I rarely take down younglings or females of breeding age, for obvious reasons. They represent, quite literally, the future of our herds and our continued survival as a species. But from the moment I pulled myself out of the wreckage of my Fighter, I was living under a sentence of death by starvation, and with only four humans in the buffer and no hope of rescue, I was left with no other choice but to make use of whatever rations I had available."
The Wraith paused after his preamble, waiting until McKay acknowledged his statement. When the man finally gave him a begrudging nod, he continued.
"I resisted feeding until I was about two months into my exile. I had not grown as famished as I have since become accustomed to, and yet was more famished than I have ever been, surpassing even the hunger I have known upon awakening from hibernation after a century or two of slumber. Knowing the burning agony of my appetite would only grow worse as time wore on, I chose to release the child first while it was still somewhat manageable."
Ian suspended his narrative to cast a sidelong glance at the man when McKay gasped, but the human's face was an impassive mask. Only the tightness of his lips and the scent of distress suddenly rising thick and fast from Rodney's pores revealed the extent of his alarm.
Thankfully for the Wraith, at that moment they crested a small rise and stumbled upon an abrupt change in terrain that distracted McKay from their conversation. Stretched out before them lay a broad expanse of rocks, worn smooth and round by what Ian could only surmise was an ancient river, long dried up. Silence descended as they made their way down the slope of the crumbling bank and began picking their way across, two pairs of eyes turned to the ground in front of them while two minds focused on watching for ankle-turning pitfalls as they carefully navigated the shallow riverbed.
When the lull stretched to long minutes and the warrior didn't resume his tale, McKay turned to look at him, his eyes narrowed as if expecting a blow. "What did you do after you released her?" he whispered hoarsely.
Ian heaved the sigh he'd held back earlier and reluctantly went on. "I must admit, I was hesitant to proceed when she first materialized. I had never taken a child so young, and she so small."
Beside him, Rodney tensed. He was well aware how small the little girl was, he'd been carrying her when they'd been caught in the culling beam. Her blonde hair blowing back in his face, her slight body shivering in his arms – she'd forcibly reminded him of Madison even as they'd been running for their lives, and the thought of the Wraith feeding on her tore him up inside.
"She awakened quickly from her stupor, and as you predicted, her initial terror was great when she caught sight of me. But it only lasted for an instant, I assure you. As she opened her mouth and began screaming and crying for her mother in a most piteous way, I drew my sidearm. It still retained a charge at that point, weak though it was, and with it I was able to stun her back into unconsciousness. She felt neither fear nor pain as I fed."
McKay came to an abrupt halt, forcing Ian to stop as well. While he watched, Rodney pulled the suede rag his breakfast had been wrapped in from his jacket pocket. Shaking it out with slow, deliberate movements, the man used it to wipe away the tears that dampened his cheeks, before methodically folding it into quarters and stuffing it back in his pocket. A moment later, McKay drew a shaky breath and started off again, brushing past Ian with barely a glance. It was the warrior's turn to compress his lips into a thin line. This was already not going well, and they'd only just begun.
"Have you heard enough, then?" the Wraith asked when he'd caught up, hoping the man was ready to let the issue go. Although Ian had only acted as his nature dictated, and far more mercifully than many of his brethren would have in the same situation, it was clear that even this small disclosure was already more than Rodney's human sensibilities were readily able to accept. It would be far better, for both their sakes, if he wasn't compelled to continue.
Rodney shook his head, although he wouldn't meet Ian's gaze. "No. I need to hear it all. Who was next?"
The warrior clenched his teeth against a growl that rose unbidden to his lips. He should have known that McKay wouldn't be able to leave well enough alone. Against his better judgment, he picked up where he'd left off. "The child's life force sustained me for about a month before the hunger burned so badly that I couldn't endure it any longer.
"Still trying to manage my meager resources as best I could, I released the woman next. Unlike a Wraith Queen, who is more powerful than all but the oldest and strongest of Commanders, a human female typically yields less life force than a male unless she is gravid, and with the intensity of my appetite slowly but steadily climbing, I wanted to save the males for last.
"Once the woman came to and shook off her disorientation, her fear was quickly supplanted by anger and fierce maternal protectiveness. Enraged as only a female can be where her young are concerned, instead of running away, she threw herself at me. Pounding on my chest, she called me a monster and demanded that I return her child to her.
"My hunger had left me irritable, and I had little patience with her antics. I shook her off, knocking her to the ground, and told her that the child was no longer her concern; that she would be better served to look to her own well-being."
"Jesus, Ian," Rodney interjected, his voice ragged as he forced it past a throat tight with dread.
"Jesus, indeed," the Wraith agreed. Although he wasn't exactly sure of the definition or etymology of that particular Earth expletive, Ian knew it was one that McKay only trotted out when things were especially bad, and the situation with the female certainly seemed to have warranted it. In the extremity of her fury and grief, the woman's mind had finally shattered into a million jagged splinters. It had been unnerving to witness.
"She became crazed at that juncture, howling and keening and threatening to kill me. Her feeble attempts to do me injury with her fists had no effect, of course, but no matter how many times I pushed her away she came back at me again and again. Although I would have liked to have had the chance to hunt, and given her the opportunity to run, I could see that that she had no intention of doing so. In the end, I lost my temper and fed upon her right then and there."
"She wasn't unconscious, was she?" Rodney asked, although he suspected he already knew the answer.
"No," came the soft reply.
After that, McKay's focus turned inward, and other than the occasional terse warning from one of them to the other to avoid a potential hazard, they crossed the rest of the riverbed and climbed up the other bank without further discussion. Once they were back on solid footing, they took a short break so Rodney could empty his bladder before they resumed their earlier pace, trudging along for the next several kilometers in strained silence.
While Ian wasn't eager to take up the thread of the story again, the fact that the human refused to look at him or acknowledge him in any way was disconcerting. To his growing apprehension, McKay's gaze had remained downcast since they'd left the river's corpse behind, offering only his pinched pensive profile to the anxious warrior whenever Ian shot a surreptitious glance his way. He was used to McKay's bluff and bluster when the man felt out of his depth, to brutal lashings with the sharp edge of Rodney's tongue when his scathing temper got the better of him. While the human's wrath was decidedly unpleasant to endure, Ian realized with surprise that he preferred it to this taciturn response.
He was still trying unsuccessfully to interpret McKay's enigmatic expression when they'd drawn near enough to the forest's edge to be able to pick out individual trees. Recalling himself to the practical matter of getting them to the Dart before night closed in, Ian called the sullen scientist to a halt, taking stock of the woodlands that lay before them.
"This way," he ordered after a few moments of consideration, but rather than head into the shadowed grove of rustling leaves, the Wraith veered to the left and began following the treeline as it meandered north. His unexpected change in direction incited minor confusion in his companion that Ian could feel tickling at the edge of his consciousness, but when he turned to catch Rodney's eye so he could offer an explanation, the man had already lost himself once again in his troubled thoughts.
Hesitant to intrude where he was sure he not wanted, Ian left McKay to his ruminations. He moved ahead to take the lead, trusting the human to follow.
It wasn't until the relatively flat terrain abruptly turned into a sharp incline, and the Wraith began to climb, that the alien's unusual activity snapped Rodney out of his fugue. As he glanced up, an involuntary exclamation of surprise issued from his lips and he immediately ground to a halt. A two-meter high grass-covered mound of earth, too level and straight to be natural, blocked his path as it ran from east to west as far as the eye could see, dividing the plain and cutting a swath through the dense woods.
"It's like the railbed I followed to the city," Rodney murmured, unaware that in his astonishment he'd spoken aloud. Shaken from his somber mood by the wonder of finding more ancient earthworks set in place by whatever long-forgotten civilization had once called this planet home, he instinctively sought the warrior's gaze to share the experience. He glanced up – and higher still, finally meeting the Wraith's olive-green cat's eyes as Ian majestically looked down upon him from atop the berm.
Inordinately pleased that McKay had deigned to speak to him at all, the warrior pounced on the opportunity like the predator he was. He grinned, a fierce show of teeth. "Yes, I believe it joins up with that line somewhere in the woods on the other side of the next clearing."
The Wraith crouched and reached for the end of the nearest sled pole, tugging it upward almost effortlessly while Rodney clung to the other, dragging it with him as he scrabbled his way up the man-made hill.
"Not that we're going that far," Ian continued once the human stood beside him, hands braced on knees while he caught his breath. "The field on the other side of this stand of trees is where the Dart lies."
McKay straightened and turned to look in the direction the warrior indicated. Although the avenue of trees ran neatly down either side of the long-buried tracks, boughs reaching to intertwine with those of their brethren across the divide, the other end was lost in the distance. "How far is it?"
Ian paused to consider. "About seven or eight kilometers," he replied after a moment's hesitation, doing his best to keep his excitement at bay and his voice calm as his heart leapt hopefully in his chest. Perhaps things weren't as dire as he'd feared, after all.
Rodney glanced back across the grasslands, a glint of fire in his eyes for the first time all afternoon. "If they went to all the trouble of laying tracks across the plain like this, that must mean there are other cities elsewhere." He turned his excited gaze toward the Wraith. "Maybe we aren't alone, after all!"
Heartened by his companion's ebullience, Ian allowed some of the tension he'd been carrying to ease. "I wish that were the case, McKay," he replied as gently as he could, reluctant to be the bearer, yet again, of bad news. "Although I scanned for life signs as my ship approached the planet and found none, I was hopeful, as well, when I stumbled upon these. I followed the tracks once, for something to do. They bear to the north about halfway across the steppe and run parallel to the mountain range for many kilometers. There is another city about five days journey from here, but I found it as desolate and empty as the one on the other side of the lake."
"Oh." Rodney deflated like someone had let the wind out of his sails.
Without thinking, the warrior reached out and grasped his shoulder, giving it an encouraging squeeze. "It was a good thought, though."
McKay looked up, and for a brief moment Wraith and human smiled warmly at each other before the astrophysicist remembered that they were at odds, and the light died in his eyes as his grin faded. "We should go," he mumbled as he turned away and bent to pick up the traces.
Hiding his disappointment, the warrior made a show of resettling his pack on his shoulders before he followed, giving McKay the head-start and space he seemed to crave. Although the flattened top of the ridge was wide enough for five Wraith to walk abreast, he allowed the human to take point while he fell back to a respectful distance. It was ostensibly to 'watch their six' as his paramour so colorfully called it in Earth parlance, although in truth, Ian was far too preoccupied to do much more than trail along behind McKay's lead. The man's retreat had hit him like a punch in the gut, and it was all the Wraith could do to keep from doubling over in pain as his fragile hope gave way to a stab of despair.
Had they reached the sticking point, then? Was this finally the line that Rodney would not cross? After the man had found it in his heart to embrace not only Ian's regular appetite, but also his detour into the aberration of blood-drinking, the Wraith had just assumed they'd successfully cleared all the hurdles that stood in the way of their happiness. Their relationship had been moving forward with such great strides, he hadn't stopped to consider that in the end the human might reject him.
It was a possibility the warrior didn't even want to entertain, and he spent the better part of the next hour keeping his eyes glued to the ends of the travois poles as they plowed tracks in the rocky soil while he skirted the edges of a full-blown panic attack. He was still trying to talk himself down from the ledge when the wooden shafts slowed, then skewed to the right, gouging a rough semicircle in the earth before coming to a complete stop.
Ian halted, as well, glancing up to meet the human's guarded gaze with one of his own.
"Do you wish to rest?" the Wraith asked solicitously, although he could almost guarantee that he wasn't about to be let off the hook that easily.
Rodney regarded him for a long moment with an expression at once thoughtful and wretched. "How did the other man die?"
The warrior barely avoided snarling. From the violent perturbation of McKay's emotions, and the stink of the human's stress reaction, Ian could tell that Rodney was already in way over his head. That he insisted on more at this point seemed like madness – or pure obstinacy, but to what purpose? "Are you sure of this?"
"In for a penny, in for a pound," the man tried to quip, although his tone was drained and devoid of emotion.
"I will assume that is an Earth phrase which means 'yes,' although I don't know how burdening yourself with this information could even be remotely construed as helpful in any way."
McKay met his eye squarely, a stubborn set to his jaw. "There's a saying on my world, 'When you're going through hell, keep going.' If I'm ever going to make it past this and get on with my life, I need to know the details. As many of them as you can provide."
Ian heaved a resigned sigh. He cared too deeply for the human to leave him in torment. If he could bring McKay even a modicum of the peace-of-mind he sought, he'd risk everything, even if it meant destroying what they'd built together. The Wraith moved up from his posterior position to Rodney's side and with a nod to the man he loved more than life itself, the two of them resumed their journey.
Rodney risked a furtive glance in Ian's direction as they started off again, dismayed by the almost-imperceptible signs of misery he could see leaking out from behind the neutral facade of the warrior's tightly-controlled features. While Ian would probably appear cool and collected to a casual observer, McKay was anything but, and the compression of the Hunter's usually soft, full lips coupled with the tension at the corners of his exotic green cat's eyes told a very different story.
Although it could have been argued that Ian deserved the pain Rodney's instinctive withdrawal from his litany of unconscionable acts inflicted upon him, the last thing McKay wanted to do was hurt him. His heart went out to the suffering Wraith, and under almost any other set of circumstances he would have immediately reached out and offered whatever comfort and reassurance he could to his distressed companion. Unfortunately, his own desperate struggle with the emotional impact of the warrior's gruesome confessions to cold-blooded murder made it an additional burden he was having trouble shouldering.
Wishing he could take back his initial inquiry and return to a state of ignorant bliss, Rodney sniffled forlornly and turned his wretched attention to the road they traveled, seeking a distraction. Autumn foliage rustled overhead in brilliant shades of ocher, umber, and carmine, bold brush-strokes of color set against a cloudless cerulean sky. Sunlight filtered through the quivering leaves, throwing dappled shade on their path, while the afternoon breeze blew cool against the back of his neck with just a hint of a bite. All in all, it was a perfect day, but rather than cheer him up, it only made him feel worse.
They should have been enjoying this trip – the crisp, Fall weather, the beautiful scenery, and each others' company - and instead they were at odds in a way he didn't know how to fix. He couldn't even be sure now why it had suddenly become so important to him to know the awful truth. They'd been going along without a hitch ever since they'd declared their feelings for each other, on the fast-track to the closest thing to marriage McKay was ever going to get, and he'd had to go and spoil it with his insistence on total transparency.
Cursing himself for a fool, Rodney regretted his stubborn refusal to back down when Ian had tried to give him the chance. Intellectually, he'd always known that the Wraith had fed on the child and her mother – the man, as well, although he hadn't heard the particulars yet - and before them countless others; but hearing the details of their deaths spelled out so matter-of-factly by the one who'd committed the act, hit him on an emotional level he hadn't anticipated.
The horrific truth was that Ian... his Ian – his beautiful, dangerous Ian – was a mass murderer of such magnitude that his body count probably numbered in scores of thousands by now, while the alien, himself, lived on, casually disclosing his crimes against humanity as if they were of no import.
Crimes that not only Ian, but every one of his people, had been perpetrating for eons.
And Rodney loved him. God help him. Even now, with all illusions as to what he was involved with stripped away to reveal the deadly predatory monstrosity that lurked at the core of the Wraith's being, and the crushing weight of conviction bearing down on him so heavily he could scarcely breathe, McKay loved him still.
Was this what John had had to come to terms with, Rodney wondered, when Sheppard and Todd had been... courting?
McKay recalled the hollow, haunted expression on the Colonel's face when the door to Rodney's lab at the SGC had slid open to reveal corporate magnate, Henry Wallace, being zipped into a body bag. Todd had been back on his feet like he'd never collapsed, hale and hearty again after a good meal, and putting the finishing touches on the Nanite code that had saved Jeannie's life. Was it then that Sheppard had realized just what the wraith was, and how far he was willing to go for him? Looking back on the situation with newly-opened eyes, it dawned on McKay that John had looked an awful lot like he'd been sucker-punched in the gut.
It was a feeling Rodney could relate to. And like Sheppard, McKay realized what a bitter pill it was to swallow now that he was beginning to grasp the ramifications of what he was being asked to accept. It was not only the deaths of the three other people he'd been captured with; but also John and Teyla and Ronon. It was Athos and Sateda, and the systematic destruction of any civilization that might pose even the slightest threat to Wraith supremacy. It was every town and village – every planet the Atlantis Expedition had visited in Pegasus whose population had been decimated by cullings. Entire worlds torn apart without a second thought, to feed the voracious, murderous hordes that descended upon them like locusts. And until a solution could be found, human lives would continue to be sacrificed on a daily basis to feed the insatiable hunger of the Wraith.
It was suddenly all too much for McKay's foundering sensibilities, and without warning, the dam broke and the emotions he'd been struggling to contain overwhelmed him. All the helpless grief and impotent rage that had built up over the past six years – all the uncertainty and fear he'd endured in the past six months – it welled up from the depths of Rodney's being and crashed over him like a tidal wave. With an anguished cry he dropped the traces and fell to his knees, burying his face in his hands.
The Wraith rushed to Rodney's side, alarmed as much by McKay's sudden collapse as the raw intensity of the human's sorrow battering at the edge of his mind. He crouched next to the man, aching to give what comfort he could, although he dared not touch a single hair on his lover's head, or clasp his heaving shoulder, which shook with the sobs that wracked his body. As much as he wished to gather McKay in his arms, Ian doubted that Rodney would want the one who'd caused him such agony to try and soothe it. Millennia of experience had taught him that emotional responses triggered during such traumatic times tended to linger long after the crisis had passed, and he knew better than to court that kind of rejection when the man was in such an impassioned state. After growing so close, he didn't think he'd be able to stand it if Rodney were to start recoiling from his touch this late in the game.
Prevented from offering human-style support, Ian fell back on Wraith ways. Settling into the predatory watchfulness of his kind, he guarded his partner while McKay, distraught and grieving, could not watch out for himself. Green cat's eyes alert for any sign of danger, the warrior patiently scanned the forest and observed the shadows cast by the overhanging tree limbs as they made their slow trek along the ancient trackbed until Rodney's weeping subsided to snuffles and great, shuddering gasps.
When the man finally lifted a puffy, tear-stained face to the afternoon sun, Ian was ready for him. Rousing himself from his preternatural stillness, he cautiously offered the canteen, carefully avoiding Rodney's gaze in a show of respect for his bereavement.
After a moment's hesitation, McKay took the proffered jug and drank deeply. "Thanks," he croaked as he handed it back, surprising Ian into meeting his red-rimmed eyes.
The Wraith quickly glanced away. "My apologies. I did not intend to intrude."
A human hand stole hesitantly into his line of sight and clasped his knee. "Look at me," came the gentle command.
Ian slowly lifted his head until he caught Rodney's searching gaze, as the man studied him like he was seeing him for the first time. And in all likelihood, he was. This kind of disenchantment was something the Wraith had seen too many times in the past not to recognize the signs. In every interspecies pairing he'd ever witnessed, or been part of, there inevitably came a point when the scales fell from the human's eyes and they finally realized, on a visceral level, what manner of being they were involved with and their respective places in the food chain. For some, it was a breaking point, for others, merely a temporary setback to overcome.
For every human who faced it, it was a test of worthiness, like the winnowing of grain – an opportunity to separate the chaff from the wheat.
Even Worshippers, those who served the Wraith willingly as Merinus had done, reached that crossroad sooner or later. Unfortunately for his first human lover, it wasn't until he'd been beset by Ian's nest mates and found death at their hands that he'd truly comprehended the brutal truth, whereas Aria had met the challenge and taken it in her stride centuries before Ian had even existed, and her Master had cherished her all the more because of it.
Which path Rodney would take was anyone's guess, and all the warrior could do was wait – and hope for the best.
"You're not intruding," McKay murmured. His voice, broken and rough with emotion, drew Ian back to the present with a jolt of concern for the human's well-being.
"You caught me off-guard. I didn't think you'd deign to speak to me again so soon," the Wraith ventured.
"What would that accomplish? Of course I want to speak to you." For a moment, McKay paused to gather his thoughts, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger as if staving off a headache. "I'm just... hurting right now. I'm upset by the multitude of people who have died – and the way they died, and what that means in the big scheme of things. But even though I'm horrified by the sheer numbers, I can't really be angry with you for killing them."
He glanced at Ian and shrugged, an apathetic rise and fall of his shoulders. "I... finally understand. That's... that's what you do. That's what humans are to you. Food. You've been so careful with me – not to overtax me, not to take more than you absolutely need. It's easy to overlook the fact that you don't normally ask permission of your victims before you feed – that in reality, you're a remorseless killer."
Emboldened by Rodney's willingness to open up to him so soon after his first wave of grief, and eager to reconnect, if only for a moment, the warrior dared to reach out and cup his consort's chin.
"Remorse has nothing to do with it because none is required," Ian answered as tenderly as he could, as he brushed an errant tear off the human's cheekbone with his thumb. There was no sense in avoiding or sugar-coating the truth any longer. "I feed so I may live, the same as you; there is no other way. I do not apologize for what I am, nor regret what I have done. But I am not – nor have I ever been - one of those Wraith for whom humans are simply sustenance. Your kind has been many things to me over the centuries, besides dinner."
The warrior trailed his hand down Rodney's jawline, then let it fall, palm-up, on his muscular thigh. "You of all people should know that by now, McKay. My feelings for you are deep and genuine, and while I am grateful that you allow me to feed, my affection not contingent upon it. In fact, if there was any other way, I wouldn't feed on you at all – and I would still love you."
Rodney sighed wearily and looked away, his gaze drifting down to the Wraith's fingers curled loosely over the feeding slit in the center of his upturned hand. He could just make it out hidden among the creases that criss-crossed Ian's palm, tightly closed and seemingly harmless - could still feel the raised seam where it had stroked his stubbled jaw not a moment before, and the gentleness in his lover's touch in spite of the inhuman strength and bestial nature that waited, coiled and ready to strike, just below the surface.
McKay was painfully aware that that same hand had forcibly restrained and murdered thousands up on thousands of people over the course of the Wraith's lifetime, and he knew, especially now that he understood so clearly exactly what Ian was, that he should be repulsed by the attentions of such a heinous monster.
Strangely, he wasn't.
Instead Rodney found himself inexplicably yearning to take the warrior's hand in his, slot his fingers between its digits, bring the back of it to his lips, and feel the tendons shift beneath smooth green skin as he placed a kiss full of fondness and tender devotion upon it.
The force of his feelings took him by surprise, and he was shaken to the core of his being even as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Maybe this was why he'd needed to hear Ian's story in the first place – had insisted upon it with a vehemence that flew in the face of both self-preservation and good sense. Maybe some stronger, wiser part of his subconscious had known that he needed to acknowledge all aspects of the Wraith's being – even the darkest ones - before they could complete their bond, and seized the opportunity his unfortunate trip down memory lane had afforded, prompting him to finally ask the questions he'd been avoiding since the beginning.
As devastating on a deep, personal level, as it had been to rip the scab off this particular wound, Rodney realized now that it had probably been necessary, if he ever wanted to take those last few steps toward accepting Ian as his mate without any lingering reservations. And while he was as far from that exalted state as he was ever going to get, at least now he knew what he needed to work on to get there.
Uncertain whether he should be pleased or appalled that he was still entertaining notions of remaining the Wraith's consort in spite of Ian's unwelcome epiphany, Rodney raised his eyes to once again meet the warrior's and tendered a hesitant half-smile. "I know you love me. It doesn't make this any easier to hear."
"I am aware of that," Ian acknowledged with a pained grimace. "I would have spared you if I could. Now you understand why I did not wish to divulge the details."
McKay nodded. "You were afraid of something like this happening."
"Indeed." It was the Wraith's turn to nod. "It was a risk I would never have taken had you not pressed me so incessantly."
Immediately contrite, Rodney huffed a frustrated sigh through distended nostrils while his lips compressed into a thin line of self-recrimination. Without meaning to, his imperious nature, and the same uncompromising thirst for knowledge that made him a brilliant scientist but a terrible boyfriend, had almost strained his relationship with Ian to the breaking point – again. It wouldn't be the first time he'd pushed someone over the edge and carelessly shredded their emotional boundaries with his blunt, implacable questions until they couldn't take it anymore. Unfortunately for him, it would have been the last. Ian was the only game in town - quite literally - and if things went south with him, Rodney would be alone for the rest of his miserable life. Trapped on a remote planet with just the Wraith for company, it wasn't a lifestyle choice he'd make if given the option.
"I'm sorry," McKay forced out through tight lips. Apologies would never be his forte, even when he was in the wrong.
"For what?" Ian challenged. "For wanting answers that I was reluctant to provide? Another Wraith would have taken far more drastic steps than you to secure the information they desired. You have nothing to be sorry for."
"For pushing you beyond your comfort zone," Rodney replied. "I can never tell when I've gone too far until it's too late and someone reacts."
The warrior offered a wry grin. "Then I believe you'd be better served by seeking your own forgiveness. I was discomforted, yes. I was worried about whether our bond would survive once you learned the truth, and concerned for your emotional well-being. But it was you who reacted when I gave you what you asked for and it went too far – it was you who was hurt by it. Ultimately, all I could do was stand by and wait for the fallout."
"That!" Rodney poked an emphatic forefinger in Ian's direction, determined he be allowed to make amends now that he'd acknowledged his culpability. "I could see how much my reaction was affecting you. I'm sorry for that, and for making you worry and wonder."
The Wraith blinked once, then again, stunned by McKay's statement. It was a testament to not only how close they'd become, but also to the human's emotional development, if Rodney had been able to detect his unsettled feelings so easily and was seeking forgiveness for being the cause. Ian bowed his head in acquiescence, a graceful gesture. "I will accept your apology, then, on those grounds."
Absolved of his sins, if not his insight into Ian's nature that he would carry with him forever - penance for the unpardonable crime of having feelings for a Wraith, a melancholy Rodney uncurled from his hunched position and glanced around like he was awakening from a bad dream.
"Where did the afternoon go?" he remarked off-handedly, grasping desperately at the straws of normalcy when he noticed the length of the shadows he and Ian cast across the grass-covered mound. He wished, for the hundredth time, that he'd never pried opened the Pandora's Box of unresolved issues that gaped like a yawning chasm lined with treacherous, jagged rocks between them. What he needed was some way to bridge the gap, until he could come to terms with this disturbing awareness he couldn't shake now that it had been dragged, screaming, into the light.
"We will still have plenty of time to reach the Dart and set up camp if we leave soon." Ian's olive-green gaze glittered in the afternoon light as he scanned McKay's features for signs of the mournful regret he could feel bubbling to the surface of the human's mind. "Shall we resume our journey?"
No sooner had McKay expressed his readiness to move on, than the Wraith stood in a single, fluid motion and extended his off-hand to his kneeling companion.
Caught off-guard by the compelling sight of Ian's catlike reflexes and lithe, fully-restored body in action, Rodney's breath hitched appreciatively. The oppressive weight on his shoulders momentarily lifted as he marveled at the uncanny healing ability the Wraith possessed, which had allowed him to recover so quickly from his injuries with such meager rations. Gratified to see him finally able to maneuver with an ease of movement that had been denied him for the past month and a half, Rodney grasped Ian's wrist and let himself be pulled to his feet. The sudden shift in perspective knocked him off balance and he stumbled, but before he could fall, strong fingers closed on his upper arm, tightening slightly to keep him upright.
As Rodney regained his balance, it took everything Ian had not pull the man into his arms and never let go, and it was with reluctance that he released him and stepped back. Despite the fact that the human had been the one to initiate contact after he'd recovered from his initial shock, and that their nearness to each other had sparked an unexpected trace of lust, whose perfume still lingered in the air, the Wraith didn't dare presume that meant all was right between them.
Aware that McKay probably still needed time to himself to deal with the potent cocktail of mixed emotions Ian could sense coming from the man, he moved ahead to take the lead. As much as he might wish to draw his consort into an embrace so he could reassure himself that their bond remained strong, he knew it was better that he back off and bide his time, and allow Rodney to come to him when he was ready.
The warrior hadn't gone more than a couple of steps when he felt a tug on his Wraithskin coat. He paused, scarcely daring to breathe for the surge of hope that caught in his throat, his gaze riveted on the fingers plucking at his sleeve.
"Wait – you didn't let me thank you."
The warrior glanced up, and a pang of loneliness at the distance he could see in the human's haunted eyes stabbed at his heart. " There is no need to thank me for so simple a gesture," he murmured. "We are lovers, are we not? I was not about to let you fall. I have not changed. I am still the same Wraith I was before, with the same desire to care for you and protect you; it is only your perception of me which has been altered."
Rodney sighed. "You're right," he relented, making a concerted effort to bring his shoulders down from where they'd crept up to take a defensive position by his ears. "I'm being an idiot, but I don't know how to get beyond this."
Tethered to the man by virtue of the hand that still rested trustingly in the crook of his arm, Ian cautiously moved closer.
"You are being too hard on yourself. It will take time to adjust to your newfound understanding, but I have no doubt you will adapt admirably."
McKay glanced up sharply, a shrewd gleam igniting in his eye as an idea began to take form in his head. He wasn't the only adaptable one here. In fact, from what Ian had told him many times, any Wraith who'd managed to make it past their first thousand years would have to excel at it as a matter of course – and Ian was ten thousand if he was a day. If Rodney could get the warrior to agree to a few small changes in behavior, even if they were only theoretical, it might be the way back to Ian he'd been looking for. And if they ever actually made it off this isolated rock, the lives Rodney negotiated for now, that would never be sacrificed to feed the warrior's murderous appetite, would be enough to let McKay sleep at night.
At least he hoped so.
"Maybe both of us could adapt a little and meet in the middle somewhere."
"What do you mean?" the Wraith asked, suddenly wary of Rodney's keen scrutiny.
McKay took a deep breath and launched headlong into his proposal, heedless of his companion's unease. If Ian expected him to step outside his comfort zone for the sake of their relationship, then the Wraith could do the same for him. "I think I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable about all of this if you were to promise that in the future you won't be so quick to use your hand."
He held up both of his, palm out, to counsel patience when the warrior's lips curled back from his teeth in a silent snarl. "Now hear me out. I'm not talking about you and me. I'm your only food source and you're drinking my blood to survive, so that's a different story. But in the event that we're ever rescued, I need you to promise that you'll remember your time here, and draw on the knowledge that you can get by on less, and... show some restraint when you feed. And if you run into a confrontational situation where there is a chance that people might die, I need you to promise you'll try diplomacy first and see if you can solve your problems amicably. There are other ways to deal with issues and resolve conflicts besides draining someone dry."
Ian cocked his head quizzically as he considered the human's proposition, fully cognizant of the wellspring of devastation and pain from which McKay's strange request originated, and intrigued - in spite of his natural resistance to any infringement on his right to feed - by its terms. Although Queens and Commanders had the luxury of employing tools such as diplomacy in their negotiations, in his experience, warriors such as himself rarely resolved conflicts in any way other than draining their enemies dry, if they had the chance. His first instinct had always been to kill – and swiftly – before his adversary found an opportunity to slay him. On the front lines, in defense of his home, he rarely had any other choice.
As for feeding less often, he was already on a starvation diet and had grown, if not comfortable, at least tolerant of the low-grade fever of constant hunger. Although he hesitated to give his word on something that could potentially jeopardize his survival, considering their unique circumstances, and the highly-unlikely probability of ever seeing another human or Wraith besides each other for the rest of their lives, it was an easy promise to make – and even easier to keep.
For a second he was tempted to chuckle at the absurdity of the petition, but one look at the intense expression on McKay's face and the laughter died aborning. Rodney had taken the revelation of the other humans' deaths much harder than Ian – and certainly McKay, himself - had anticipated, and by the look if things, it was going to be a while before he made peace with the unvarnished truth. If a simple vow to pause and reflect before he resorted to killing alleviated some of the tension between them and hastened the man back into his arms again, Ian was more than willing to take it.
"I agree to your terms," the Wraith replied, his features solemn as he drew himself to his full height. He rested his feeding hand over his heart, then raised his off-hand as though swearing an oath.
"From this day forth, I promise to show restraint when feeding," Ian's gruff, multi-tonal voice rang with the force of ritual in the crisp, autumn air, "and to stop and consider my options before killing."
A sudden gust of wind broke the spellbound silence that followed the Wraith's declaration, bringing with it the faint whiff of ozone that presaged a coming storm. It whipped loose strands of Ian's hair across his face, and buffeted the leaves that still clung to the boughs overhead with such force that their wild rustling soon escalated into a roar which reminded Rodney of thunderous applause.
Glancing back the way they'd come, they could see thunderheads through the trees, looming ominously over the mountain range behind them.
"We'd better get going," Ian advised after a moment's consideration. "We should be able to reach the Dart and get the shelter set up before the storm hits, but it's going to be close."
"Okay," Rodney agreed, "but first..." He closed the distance between them and slid his arms around his companion's torso in a tentative embrace. Pulling the surprised warrior close, he rested his head on Ian's shoulder and pressed his cheek against the cold, leathery Wraithskin of his coat. "Thank you," he whispered, his breath warm as it ghosted across the Wraith's throat.
Before Ian could even bring up his hands to run them gently over the human's back, Rodney had released him. The man gave him a speculative once-over that would have done any Wraith proud, then quietly resumed his spot between the traces of the travois with a sigh that could almost be construed as satisfied. Puzzling over this unexpected turn of events, Ian cast a glance in the human's direction and found Rodney watching him. The man's blue eyes were full of fragile hope as he flashed one of his trademark crooked smiles – the kind that never failed to set Ian's heart racing, before McKay tightened his fingers around the wooden shafts of the sledge and started off again.
Encouraged by his consort's display of affection, the Wraith trailed after him, daring to let the anxiety and tension, which had thrummed through his system ever since Rodney had first brooked the subject of the other humans' deaths, fade to a dull roar. On nothing more than his word to McKay that he would keep his instincts in check, the rift between them was apparently already knitting itself back together, and Ian was humbled and awed, yet again, by the level of trust the man placed in him – and grateful for the surprisingly resilient core of strength his consort possessed. Although it was clear that he was going to have to handle McKay's frail emotional state with kid gloves for the foreseeable future, Ian could detect signs – in the tender hug, in the hesitant smile – that the trauma had a good chance of healing.
Settling his pack more comfortably on his shoulders, the warrior lengthened his stride until he caught up with his companion, and the pair traveled side-by-side in a silence more comfortable than they'd had the pleasure of experiencing since mid-morning. Bent on outpacing the storm creeping up behind them, they made good time
until they came upon a massive tree limb, lying across the long-buried tracks where it had fallen sometime between Ian's last journey and now.
"Damn it. So near and yet so far." Rodney grumbled as he peer through the impenetrable wall of branches and saw the other end of the tree-lined avenue, taunting them not more than half a kilometer farther down the track.
"Can we just go around it?" he asked urgently, glancing at the Wraith who was already pacing the width of the ridge, assessing the underbrush on either slope.
"Unfortunately not," Ian replied when he returned to the human's side. "Not with the sledge. The forest is too dense and too close. Besides," he glanced back at the gathering gloom, "it would take us too long, even if we could."
Unable to get past the splintered bough that effectively blocked their path, the warrior handed Rodney his spear, then stepped up to the heavy limb and laid his hands upon it, intending to toss it out of the way. The first tug sent a jolt of searing agony through his thorax, as recently-formed scar tissue threatened to tear itself apart, and it was all he could do to keep from crying out. Clenching his teeth against the pain, Ian settled for half-dragging, half-carrying the branch to the edge in fits and starts until it teetered on the edge of the berm. With a final grunt of effort he pushed it off, and as it crashed into the saplings in the gully he beckoned the human forward, quickly pulling himself together lest McKay notice anything was amiss.
Clouds began to roll in as they emerged from the woods, blotting out the twin suns and darkening the sky over a familiar landscape. Rodney gasped and ground to a halt, taking in sights he hadn't realized he'd missed until this very minute. He gazed at the copse of trees on the far side of the glade, remembering all too well the soggy nights he'd spent under their branches; and the sullen glimmer of the lake beyond, that he could just make out through their closely-clustered trunks, where he'd waded and fished. Next to him the Wraith scanned the meadow, finally pointing when he caught sight of the Dart's canopy, close to the forest about halfway across the clearing, all but hidden by the tall grass that had taken over the campsite in their absence.
Rodney nodded his understanding, and they spent the next couple of minutes maneuvering the travois down the side of the man-made hill. He'd just taken up the poles again when a distant flash of light and a far-off roll of thunder warned them of the imminent tempest. Rooted to the spot with the instinctive fear-induced paralysis of prey caught in the open, Rodney froze in place, staring at an equally-still Ian with wide eyes until the last echo died away.
The Wraith recovered first. Reaching out, he grabbed McKay by the arm, tugging the man after him as he took off across the field.
"Shit," Rodney swore under his breath, as he glanced over his shoulder at the angry clouds amassing above the plains.
"Indeed," the warrior replied, silently cursing the injuries which still sapped his strength and had slowed his removal of the branch from their path.
"Are we going to have time to get the tent set up?" McKay panted, trying to keep up with Ian as they hurried through the tall grass toward the Wraith's Fighter.
"All we can do is our best," came the growled reply.
Rodney stumbled over a hidden rock just as they reached the location of their old campsite, only the warrior's vice-like grip on his arm preventing him from falling into the overgrown firepit. He murmured his thanks, but Ian was already crouched next to the sledge, fingers flying as he untied the ropes that secured the tarps and guy lines for travel. McKay rushed to his side and took the folded Wraithskin Ian handed him, glancing up just in time to witness another fork of lightning as it lit up the sky, followed by the deep bass rumble of thunder, much closer than the last.
"It's almost here!" Rodney cried, keeping a nervous eye on the heavy, dark clouds slowly encroaching from the west as the wind did its best to hinder his efforts while he attempted to unroll the tarp on the grass.
"I am aware, McKay," the Wraith snarled. Another moment, and Ian had dismantled the travois down to its component parts. Grabbing a couple of lengths of rope, he handed one to Rodney, then began lashing the wooden poles together. While Rodney fumbled with his end, the warrior deserted him to pound sharpened stakes into the ground around the tarp with a granite hammerstone brought along for that purpose. With nimble fingers, Ian threaded a rope through the grommets that lined the edges and pulled them up to create a raised lip. He tied it off and secured it to the stakes, then returned to help McKay raise the wooden frame.
Once that was stabilized with more rope and additional stakes, they unrolled a second Wraithskin tarp and between the two of them, managed to wrestle it over the frame despite the gusts of wind that filled it like a sail and threatened to tear it from their grasp. They were in the process of lashing it down and anchoring it with guy lines when McKay felt the first icy drop of rain hit his nose.
"Damn it!" Rodney yelped. "Here it comes!" As if in response to his announcement, a clap of thunder shook the ground and the heavens opened. A light patter of raindrops began peppering the ground, the tarp and his scalp, sending rivulets of cold water down his face and the back of his neck, soaking his shirt. While the Wraith paused to tug his hood out from under the high collar of his coat, McKay shivered and hunched away from the invasive chill, pulling his less-than-waterproof jacket over his head in a poor imitation of a headless horseman.
He was about to bend to his assigned task once again, when Ian called his name. As he looked up, the warrior shoved the backpack into his hands. "Get inside."
"But... but wait," Rodney stammered. "We're not done yet."
The Wraith slipped an arm around his shoulders and propelled him toward the entrance. "I will finish tying the tent down. We have much that needs to be brought inside – and quickly. I, for one, do not wish to sleep in wet blankets tonight."
When they reached the opening he let McKay go and left to retrieve the bedding. Doing his best not to track too much water inside, Rodney lifted the edge of the flap just enough to push the pack inside and scramble in after it.
He pulled the flap closed behind him, plunging he interior into darkness. Narrow bands of overcast daylight showed along the bottom in several spots, where the overhanging tarp was stretched taut over the frame, and he squeezed his eyes shut a few times times as he slipped the jacket off his head, trying to help his vision adjust. He'd barely gotten used to the minimal illumination, when a pair of green hands thrust a mountain of slightly-damp fur through the Wraithskin curtains.
"Hey, warn a guy," he groused, shielding his now-sensitive eyes from the sullen, grey light that flooded the interior.
"Take them," the Wraith's disembodied voice snarled back, and the whole pile was dumped unceremoniously in his lap before the hands retreated.
Blindly catching what he could in his outstretched arms, Rodney turned and deposited the pile in the middle of the tent then ran his hand over the thick, luxurious fur pelts. Thankfully, they hadn't taken more than a smattering of rain, and although they smelled a little bit like wet dog, now that there were under cover, he figured they'd be dry in no time.
Glad of the extra tarp they'd laid out to keep them from sitting directly on the damp ground, Rodney spread the bedding out against the far wall where the edges of the Wraithskin floor curled up to create a waterproof barrier, then crawled back to the entrance to take the next load of camping gear the warrior passed to him. Before long the last of the supplies were piled in the tent, and while McKay sorted and stacked as best he could so they'd have at least a little room to maneuver in the unusually-tight quarters, he listened to the rain hit the tarp with increasing volume as the storm escalated.
Beneath that was a soft, subliminal susurration of sound he eventually identified as the Wraith – or rather the swish of his coat through the tall grass. Except for the occasional labored grunt, and the sharp percussion of stone hitting wood, Ian was silent as he toiled ceaselessly to finish securing their shelter to the ground.
A blush stained Rodney's cheeks as he wedged the last piece of gear into the corner and settled cross-legged on the floor to survey his handiwork, keenly aware that the other's gruff command to get inside had been motivated by the Wraith's feelings for him. It would made a lot more sense, in terms of getting the job done faster, if Ian had just tossed everything in the tent to be gone through later, and kept McKay outside with him to help. Instead, the warrior had put Rodney's needs first, and shown by his actions, as he did time and time again, just what McKay meant to him.
In light of the traumatic, eye-opening revelations Rodney was still reeling from, and his apprehension that everything he'd come to know and love about the Wraith he called Ian was a lie, it was a touch of constancy that warmed his heart.
It also made him feel badly that Ian was out there in the storm all by himself. With a wistful sigh, Rodney glanced around the snug, dry enclosure, and the pile of inviting furs just begging to be burrowed into for a well-deserved nap. After two days of travel and an unforeseen emotional blow, he was exhausted, and with a thunderstorm raging overhead, there was legitimately nothing to do but wait until it passed. But as much as he would have loved to remain in the cozy cocoon the Wraith had relegated him to, he knew in his heart of hearts that he should really be braving the elements by Ian's side.
So for the sake of his consort, and the bond between them that he couldn't deny, regardless of the upheaval and uncertainty that tormented his brain at the moment, McKay reached for his jacket. He grimaced in disgust as he picked up the wet garment, and with slow, reluctant movements pulled the cold, clammy fabric over his still-damp shirt. Suppressing a shiver, he steeled himself to face the downpour that rattled against the Wraithskin with enough force to shake the tent, when suddenly the leather curtains parted, admitting a drenched warrior who crawled inside amidst a fine spray of rain.
McKay fell back as Ian loomed over him like waterlogged Death, the Wraith's face hidden in the shadows as drops of rainwater dripped onto Rodney's cheek and chin. A low growl issued from somewhere within the darkness above him as slick, green hands came down on either side of his open jacket, pinning him to the floor. A jolt of unreasoning terror shot through his body, and for a split second McKay wondered if his worst fears were about to be realized, when the warrior pushed back his hood to reveal pinched features full of consternation and concern, not murderous intent. "You weren't thinking of coming outside, were you?"
"Um – maybe?" Rodney replied sheepishly. Belatedly realizing that the Wraith was only being playful in a way that before today he'd have taken for granted, McKay desperately tried to calm his frantically-beating heart and force his adrenaline-clenched muscles to relax.
Ian immediately backed off when he felt the man stiffen, dismayed by the scent of fear that suddenly filled the small, enclosed space, and cursing himself for an idiot. Relieved that they still seemed to have a relationship worth salvaging, he'd let the ache in his chest, which had grown steadily worse with every stake he'd pounded into the ground, cloud his judgment and outweigh his common sense, and he'd pushed things too far, too fast.
Doing his best to hide his crestfallen expression, he pretended not to notice the human's unsuccessful attempt at quelling his instinctive panic. Instead, the Wraith carefully schooled his features into the non-threatening lines his kind had offered humans since time immemorial when they didn't want to spook them, and topped it off with a faint smile that only revealed the tips of his sharp teeth. "I appreciate your desire to assist, McKay, but I really didn't have that much left to do." Still straddling his captive, Ian nonchalantly sat back on his heels, in spite of his sore muscles, and began to undo the fastenings on his coat. "Besides, there was no reason for both of us to get soaked."
Rodney swallowed hard against the adrenaline-induced anxiety that still constricted his throat and pushed himself into a sitting position. Ignoring the slight tremor in his hands, he took hold of the next clasp just as Ian reached for it and unhooked it with a practiced ease that startled a pleased rumble from the Wraith's chest. Chilled fingers brushed the back of Rodney's hand, a tentative caress, then slid away, coming to rest lightly on his shoulders.
"You must be cold," the warrior murmured softly, his lips brushing the hair on the top of McKay's head as the man worked on the complex fastenings. "Your jacket is wet."
McKay nodded without looking up. A shiver ran down his spine at the feel of the Wraith's breath ghosting across his scalp, not all of it caused by the temperature differential. "Any sign of it letting up?" he asked, desperate for a change in subject.
A sigh swelled Ian's broad chest like a wave cresting and receding, yanking the last closure out of Rodney's cold, stiff fingers just as he succeeded in unfastening it. The Wraithskin parted, and McKay's hands automatically came to rest against the thin fabric of the warrior's shirt to ride it out. He felt the Wraith's breath hitch at his touch, and for a second he could sense Ian's life beneath his palms, the slow, steady thump of his heart - and McKay's own chest was suddenly tight with the bittersweet ache of nostalgia. He wished all the things that divided them: Ian's lingering injury, the glaring truth of the ancient warrior's nature and appetite that had all suddenly become too real, would all just fade away so they could be together again, and happy.
Without conscious thought, he glanced up and met the Wraith's gaze, as thoughtful and sad as his own.
For a long moment they regarded each other, a mixture of hope and fear written clearly on both their features, before Ian sighed a second time and looked away. He wasn't about to risk scaring Rodney again by acting on his feelings prematurely. The next time someone made a move to bridge the gap between them, it was going to have to be the human.
"Unfortunately, no," Ian replied, picking up the thread of the conversation once more with a voice roughened by emotion. "In fact, I predict it will get much worse before it gets better."
"Maybe it won't be as bad as you think," Rodney asserted reassuringly, not sure if they were still talking about the weather, or them. He reached up and pushed the heavy coat off his companion's shoulders, hands lingering on cool, firm skin as he helped work it down the Wraith's arms until Ian could shrug the rest of the way out of it himself. More grateful for the assistance than he cared to admit, the warrior let gravity do the rest once it slipped down to his forearms, and with a leathery, slithering sound, the garment landed in a wet heap on the floor – and across McKay's outstretched legs.
"Yuck!" Rodney exclaimed, his melancholy derailed as he tried unsuccessfully to shake the cold, damp weight off his lower appendages, although that was an impossibility with them still trapped under the alien's haunches.
Ian twisted around to see what the problem was. Chuckling until a sharp spasm took his breath away, he focused on carefully picking up the coat and tossing it aside with a faint grunt of exertion. He needed to rest, and soon, before he burdened McKay with his weakness. When he turned back, olive green eyes which had only a second before been glassy with pain, now gleamed with fond amusement. "Looks like you got soaked anyway."
"Looks that way," Rodney agreed acerbically, although there was no heat in the accusation. His shrewd gaze had caught the warrior's wince, and the tense precision of his movements as he'd turned around. "Are you alright?"
His face a mask of neutrality, Ian rallied one more time for the sake of his consort's peace of mind.
The faint, phosphorescent glow of the Wraith's gaze flickered in the semi-darkness as he took in details of McKay's bedraggled appearance: damp, disheveled hair, soggy jacket, rain-spattered pants. Without the benefit of waterproof clothing, the human truly was soaked through to the skin. Although Ian's first impulse was to take hold of the man, peel him out of his garments immediately, and bundle him into bed, the warrior forcibly stayed his hand. Besides his concern that he might not have the strength, without a clear invitation from his skittish consort, he didn't dare take liberties with intimacies that, while expedient, might not be welcome at the moment.
"I am fine, but I'd better let you get out of your wet things," Ian remarked instead, and climbed out of the human's lap with a flexibility that belied the stretch and burn of his overworked scar tissue. Turning away to offer what privacy he could in such cramped accommodations, the Wraith made sure the tent flaps were secured, then began going through the pack, leaving a conflicted McKay to gape at the broad expanse of his back.
Torn between disappointment in Ian's sudden retreat, concern over his half-hearted denial of pain, and relief that he seemed to understand Rodney's need for space, McKay focused his attention on disrobing, which was easier said than done with almost no room to maneuver and stiff, cold fingers. He managed to wrestle his way out of his jacket and shirt without too much difficulty, leaving them in a tangled wad on the tent floor, but much to his chagrin, found the challenge of untying his bootlaces beyond his capabilities. After several minutes of picking ineffectually at the knotted, rain-swollen laces, he finally gave up.
With a frustrated sigh, he turned to his companion and tentatively reached out for help.
Caught off-guard by the feather-light touch, Ian glanced down at the fingers encircling his wrist before meeting McKay's gaze with a quizzical lift of his brow ridge.
"You can um... Could you give me a hand?" Rodney murmured meekly, reluctant to admit defeat. "The laces are swollen and are a bitch to untie."
The Wraith nodded, his expression carefully enigmatic to hide his barely-contained excitement at even this small sign of favor. "Gladly." He placed the items he'd pulled from the depths of the bag on the floor and approached slowly and deliberately, as he would a cornered animal. With the gentlest of touches, he assisted Rodney out of his footwear, and before long, the man was free not only of his sodden boots, but his socks and pants, as well.
Crouched in nothing more than a pair of underpants, McKay shivered in the damp chill that permeated the tent, his hyper-sensitivity to the cold a lasting legacy from the illness which had almost killed him.
"Get under the blankets," Ian ordered.
"G-g-gladly," Rodney stammered through chattering teeth. He crawled into bed and pulled the top cover up until only his eyes and the top of his head showed. Curling into a fetal position, he burrowed under the furs seeking warmth that was nowhere to be found, his trembling body visibly shaking the furs.
"Underwear too," the Wraith intoned, holding out his hand, palm up. Rodney's eyebrows shot up in surprise, although all it took was half a second to consider the sodden cotton between his legs that kept bunching in all the wrong places and chafing against sensitive skin to appreciate the wisdom of Ian's command. Forcing himself to stop quaking long enough to shuck his damp briefs, he handed them to the warrior, who then tossed them on top of the rest of Rodney's clothes.
While Ian busied himself with the laundry, McKay watched, fascinated, as always, by the Wraith's surprising domestic prowess. Uncoiling a length of rope, the warrior strung a makeshift clothesline from one end of the ridgepole to the other, then turned Rodney's jumbled clothes right-side out and draped them over the line above their heads.
"How d-do you intend to g-get the c-clothes dry in a hundred percent humidity?" Rodney asked from his fur-lined nest, his curiosity piqued.
"You will see," the warrior replied cryptically, as he focused on the odd assortment of items he'd been selecting from their gear. He set their largest tortoiseshell on the floor in the center of the tent, wedging their two hammerstones underneath it to stabilize it on the flat surface. Into that he placed one of the precious candles they'd recently made out of a mixture of rendered animal fat, and beeswax from a hive they'd located in the stump of a fallen tree near the apple orchard.
Ian had had a moment of conscience when it had come to harvesting the honey and comb, not wishing to disturb creatures he'd reluctantly admitted to Rodney he felt kinship with, but in the end, McKay's insistence on sweetening for his tea, and the promise of wax for food preservation and candles had outweighed his reticence.
Before proceeding, the Wraith had extended a telepathic greeting to the hive, and the Queen in particular, and respectfully petitioned for what he required. Although he hadn't received any kind of direct response he'd recognized as communication, he'd felt compelled to focus on one particular section of the hive to take honeycomb from as if he was being directed, and the bees, themselves, had been oddly quiescent during the entire operation.
Once they'd carefully drained about half of the honey they'd harvested into one of the smaller tortoiseshell containers, they'd taken the comb and spent a day by the waterhole, making candles. They'd lit a small fire, and once it had burned down to glowing coals, they'd placed one of their pots in the embers and melted the beeswax along with some of the rendered animal fat they'd set by for the winter. When it had all liquefied, and the air was redolent with a faint savory-sweet scent reminiscent of a honey-baked ham, they carefully poured it into holes dug in the sand which they'd strung with hemp wicks.
Now Ian adjusted one of the sand-encrusted columns until it was level, then opened his fire kit bag and took out his tinderbox and a twist of dried grass. Pulling out flint and steel, he struck sparks over the grass, and in a matter of seconds had the kindling burning. He applied it to the wick then dropped it in the shell to burn itself out while he and Rodney willed the candle to light. For an instant the flame flickered and almost went out, before it tasted the wax coating on the hemp and flared to life.
It reflected off the pale interior of the tortoiseshell and illuminated the interior of the tent with a warm glow, and lent a goblin-like cast to the Wraith's features when he glanced up and met his companion's bemused gaze with a satisfied grin.
"This is how we shall dry our garments," Ian proclaimed as he sat back and began to work his way out of his own clothes and boots.
Rodney frowned, the crease dark and exaggerated in the dancing candlelight. "I d-don't understand."
"Simple," the warrior replied. Reaching for his coat, he began to spread it out on the floor next to his discarded pants. "The candle will dry the air, and heat it. Minimally, granted, but combined with our body heat, it should be enough to do the job. In this small, enclosed space it shouldn't take more than a few hours to feel a difference, and by tomorrow morning, the state of our wardrobe will be much improved."
"S-seriously?" McKay spluttered with biting incredulity. "Are you sure we won't just d-die of asphyxiation when the flame sucks all the oxygen out of the air in this s-small, enclosed space?"
Secretly pleased the unexpected resurgence of his partner's irascible nature, which always seemed to signify the beginning of Rodney's returning equilibrium in any given situation, the Wraith's heart soared as he pretended to rise to the human's bait. Pointedly glancing at the seams of grey afternoon daylight seeping in under the edges of the tent, he glared disdainful daggers at McKay when he met the man's doubtful gaze.
"Yes, McKay. Seriously. There is plenty of ventilation to keep us from suffocating. Now move over."
Rodney begrudgingly scooted back, and the chattering of his teeth, which had begun to subside, once again kicked into high gear as he gave up the one warm spot in the bed. An instant later his alien companion joined him under the covers, and the Wraith's cool body next to his made it even worse. As Ian tucked the pelt in around them both and lowered himself down onto the furs with a relieved groan, a wave of goosebumps washed over Rodney, tightening his skin to the point of pain. Forgetting about everything but his own wretched condition, he shuddered and curled himself into a tiny, miserable ball, whimpering softly under his breath.
Undone by his human consort's distressed moans, the warrior's instincts screamed at him to protect what was his - to enfold McKay in a tender embrace until the man's shivering stopped, regardless of his own discomfort, as he had on their very first night spent together. Unfortunately for them both, although his emotions pushed him to action, his honor obligated him to hold back until Rodney expressly allowed him to proceed, leaving him to suffer along with the human, not daring to intervene as he watched and waited for a sign – anything – which might release him from the onus which bound him.
Meanwhile, as Ian's duty wrestled with his conscience, Rodney's mind and body fought their own duel. He could sense the Wraith carefully aligned behind him with a hairsbreadth of space between them, so careful not to touch him without his permission. While McKay's traitorous body couldn't help but respond to Ian's nearness, aching for the comfort of the warrior's touch, and the body heat the two of them generated effortlessly that he couldn't seem to manage on his own, his tumultuous emotions had him wishing for solitude until he had the chance to figure out his own mind.
A sudden, petulant restlessness seized him, rousing him from his misery. It was bad enough he was freezing and unable to get warm, he didn't need the added burden of having both the cause and solution to his problem lying right beside him, confusing things.
McKay glanced over his shoulder with the intention of demanding the Wraith vacate the furs – immediately, hurting or not, when he caught sight of the warrior's shadowed, stoic features and met his faintly-glowing gaze, so full of unexpressed yearning that Rodney's breath caught in his throat. His self-centered belligerence melted away in a heartbeat, replaced by a wave of familiar affection.
Tomorrow..., McKay promised himself. Tomorrow, they could deal with their issues again – argue and fight and discuss until they hammered out a resolution; but for now, they needed each other too much, on too many levels, for him to remain aloof any longer.
"Hold me," Rodney whispered through quaking, slightly bluish lips. "P-please. I'm so cold."
As if released from a spell, Ian sighed and leaned in to press the length of his body against the back of his consort's.
"I've got you," the Wraith whispered, sliding his arm across the human's abdomen and gently pulling him close.
Ian labored under no delusion that McKay's impassioned plea meant things had been patched up between them. He was well-aware that this interlude was little more than a temporary ceasefire in the midst of their skirmish, and that they would likely be resuming battle positions once the rain let up.
But that was alright.
No matter what tomorrow might bring, for now, he had his lover in his arms again, and he was content.