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"The technology of this city -- this city that you now control -- is far more powerful than that of the Wraith, yet we brought the Lanteans to their knees. Why?"

"Far greater numbers."

"Numbers that will be diminished by your retrovirus. Balance will be restored. I believe that is as much as either of us can ask for, don't you?"

The Queen and Sheppard, Allies

Previously On Stargate Atlantis:

The commander snarled and pulled back, blade hilts unlocked and Todd stood for barely a moment, breathless with the ferocity of his anger, before moving in again. Dark steel flashed in the gathering gloom, as wordless now, the fight resumed. No tense circling, no tentative, testing strikes, blades clashed, spark spittle flying to light the dismal evening.

To the left, blades hissed through treachery and deceit, to the right through honour and tradition, but between them, Todd knew, the ringing of steel on companion steel was nothing but the voice of death, singing out her desire for the taste of freedom at the hands of the victor.

The sound was like a bell to him, ringing out the approach of the time when he would lay down the grasp he held on the strands of Wraith future; pass their care into more capable hands than his.

Approaching… but not yet now…

Slowly he raised the tip of his sword from the ground, and clasped it in a hand, sticky with his own blood. Like a lance he gripped the sword, flattening the other hand behind the pommel. He let out a terrible snarl and sprang at the Hive commander.

The sword struck, sure and true in the V made of the commander's arms as he cradled his injury close to his chest. Todd threw his weight behind it, along with the momentum of the charge, and snarled still more bitterly as the great sword slid deep into the other Wraith's chest.

Still he pushed, and as the spray of blood spread in the air behind the commander as he gasped a disbelieving breath, Todd stepped back, to allow the other Wraith's draining strength to bring him to his knees.

The Hive commander began to topple sideways, bloody rasping breath and spittle flying from his mouth as he tried to speak. He caught himself, pushing against the fall and with the other, plucked ineffectually, uselessly against the hilt of Todd's sword that slipped only slightly, as the point of the blade lodged against the ground behind the commander as he tipped backwards, pinning him in place.

Todd held his gaze, then slowly – stumbling – reached down to take the hilt of the commander's sword into his hands. He leaned against it, steadying himself, his own breath coming in short and painful gasps and allowed the soft rumble to gather in the back of his throat; words whispered behind the fury of the exploding star for which he was named.

"Die as Queenless as you lived."

**

Footsteps halted behind him, and Malcolm took in a deep breath, preparing to turn to face the visiting commander.

The sonorous ringing of metal falling to the chitinous deck of the observation room, punctuated by the rattle of Wraith weapons being readied in the hands of the guards, sent a terrible chill racing through his blood. When he finally turned it was far more slowly and carefully than he had intended.

There, in the middle of the space between him and where the Wraith scientist stood barely inside the door with, Malcolm noted, his own flank of drones and cloned-Wraith at his back, the Hive commander's sword rocked from side to side, not yet having come to rest after being thrown to the floor. The reason for that was immediately apparent and Malcolm stared in disbelief into the open, staring eyes of the commander's severed head.

The second in command took a deep breath. "Commander, I—" he began.

"Wait," Todd interrupted, and raised a hand to forestall any further utterance from the Hive Second. Then slowly, and deliberately he walked forward and with great distaste picked up the former commander's sword, and continued on toward the second in command. Once within reach he shifted the sword so that he held it by the cross and offered the hilt to the other Wraith. "I have no intention of commanding this Hive, and even less desire to do so."

"So what do you want?" the other Wraith asked, suspicion colouring his voice. Todd couldn't help but chuckle as he turned and, confident of his safety, stepped away, spreading his arms.

"It occurs to me that we are in a… unique position," the scientist turned to face him then, "you and I… to drive forward into a beneficial future for our two Hives… an… alliance, if you will."

"An alliance?" Malcolm tilted his head.

The scientist nodded. "Between your Hive and mine," he said. "You know full well that, sooner or later, there will be a Conclave. Factions will meet to appoint their Primaries, and the matter of Wraith future will be… very much on the agenda."

**

"Leave us," Malcolm said softly as he entered the Queen's Private Chamber behind the Throne Room. He remained immobile while the Handmaidens, still present at the Queen's side, scurried from the room as if they could sense his intent. All but Jethera, who walked with a solemn, almost sad dignity and passing him, looked up to catch his eye. My Lord Commander… He fancied he could hear her thought.

"I did not summon you to my presence," the Queen said sharply, rising from her chaise long. The beads in her hair rattled together as she moved, like the warning song of some great snake.

"No, you did not," Malcolm answered. "But you need my presence all the same."

"You presume too much," the Queen snarled.

"And you presume not enough," he answered, matching her tone. He caught her wrist as she lashed out at him, and on her own momentum spun her in his arms, pinning her to his chest as he growled in her ear. "I am here to inform you that command of your Hive has passed to me… my Queen."

{surrender} {surrender} {surrender} {surrender} {surrender}

=never= =never= =never= =never= =never=

{you are mine} {mine} {mine}

=I belong to no male= =no male= =no male=

Growling he wrapped her hair around his fist, spilling beads to roll unheeded over the floor of her chamber, as he drew her to him, turned them again, writhing in the struggle for supremacy in this mating fight until he had her pinned, and snarling in chorus with the Queen surged within her, deep and strong.

She stilled, head falling back then as he pulled away to claim her again, arched her back, and cried out as she met him, hip to hip and he began to move with strong deep strokes; showing no mercy, claiming her completely as their snarling cries punctuated the hissing of skin on skin.

**

"I'm not that man, Ayatesha," he lifted his head from her shoulder then, but didn't pull away from her. He needed the familiarity, the comfort, but even then, tried to deny himself his needs. "Not who you think I am."

"You carry with you all the memories and life experiences of your former self. The joys, the sorrows, the successes and the mistakes that you have always carried, they are still with you. You are as much Carson Beckett as you have ever been, you cannot deny yourself." She met his eyes then, "but you have a uniqueness, a gift that few of the rest of us have. You have stood within the howling wilderness, looked into the bleakness of the dark at the heart of all of us and you. Have. Survived."

Her eyes filled to overflowing as she spoke, and frowning he lifted a hand to brush away her tears, turned his head to kiss the scars at her wrist as her thumb shifted over his cheek.

"What did they do to you, Ayatesha?" he whispered.

"There's been an accident," the leader snapped angrily. "Yung's been killed; I lost two of my men; the subject's dead. She's all we've got and we're running out of time. Now get her out of that chair!"

"Wait," she gasped, "please."

Her needs seemed to anger the leader, and he snatched her from the arms of the others, grasping the back of her neck to half drag, half carry her stumbling form to the wide trough at the side of the room, and push her head deep into the icy water which filled it. She struggled, completely ineffectually, and clawed weakly at his wrist, and gasped for air, coughing as he pulled her up, and turned her to face him.

"You better make the smart choice, Doctor, and start cooperating, or so help me, I'll make this," he gestured toward the chair in the middle of the room, "and what your daddy did to you when you were young, seem like a holiday picnic."

"I cannot… give," she wheezed, terrified but refusing to back down, "what is not possible even for God."

**

"Please, I want to know. What treatment regime?"

"All right," she said, and pulled up a stool to sit down and speak with her. "Right now, we are treating you with a modified version of the serum that Carson created to prevent reversion after the administration of the humanising retrovirus. In addition to that you are receiving a low dose of the cell stabilising compound you created for him, and a broad spectrum antibiotic to stave off infection from the degrading cells."

"Is it working?" Keller asked.

"You tell me?" she countered. "How do you feel?"

"Like hell," Jennifer confessed, with a weak, apologetic smile.

"Then I would say that… for the time being, we have achieved some success in keeping you stable," she said, not without irony, and brushed her fingertips against Keller's cheek. "I cannot promise you how long this will last."

Keller sighed. "It's all right," she said. "It's not your fault."

"It is not yours either, Jennifer. No matter what you might think," she leaned closer to the woman as she spoke. "Your genetic predisposition—"

"This wouldn't have happened if I'd not slept with Todd," Keller interrupted. "I was… Ayatesha, was I insane or what? I saw – I knew there was genetic variance in my DNA."

"Broken eggs, Jennifer," Ayatesha ran her fingers through Keller's hair, trying to soothe the other woman's agitation. At the same time she fought to keep her own expression neutral as she added, "There is nothing we can do about the past… only find a way to live in the present."

"You don't believe that," Keller accused softly.

Haddad sighed, and eventually shook her head. She swallowed and then looked up to meet Keller's eyes.

"Jennifer, you are young and strong. You will survive." Though you may wish that you did not.

**

Suddenly Lorne grasped Ayatesha's wrist, spun her round to face him and in the same moment grabbed the sleeve of the arm he held and pulled up the fabric to expose the scars on her skin. She tried to pull away, but he held her too strongly and in a single motion ripped the sleeve from wrist to shoulder, then turned her arm to expose the surgical scar on her inner bicep. Already the skin around the scar was discoloured – mottled, the spreading capillaries dark.

**

"Oh, and I almost forgot to ask," Varnerin came to a halt in front of her. "How are you feeling, lately?"

She frowned at him, her eyes narrowing, uncertain whether she should answer or simply challenge him again. The hairs on the back of her neck stood as though to the touch of a hand as warning pressed through her.

"I—" she said, faltering, confused.

"Well, since the end of your treatment," he said faux-kindly. "Your… cancer?"

"In remission," she said quickly, tightening her right hand into a fist and added quickly, "Insha'Allah."

**

"Does helping Doctor Keller make you feel… vindicated?" Lorne asked, shaking her arm as if to hold it out to her attention - shaking her. "Restore your faith in humanity?"

"Evan, stop it!" she said, her voice ardent; afraid. She pushed at him, and he let her go so suddenly that she stumbled backwards. "You don't know what you're—"

"Don't I?" he asked, holding up the slim silver cylinder he had taken from her pocket. "How long has it been, Ayatesha?" he tilted his head, regarding her as he moved closer. This time she backed away, turning to keep him in front of her. "Twelve hours? Twenty-four?"

She shook her head, grasping the bars with both hands as she backed up against them.

"Seventy-two hours," she turned her head away and looked up. "I had to be sure, and you wouldn't answer my questions."

"You never gave me the chance," he hissed, and surprisingly gently, took her arm from the bars, and uncapping the cylinder, pressed it to her skin, against one of her engorged veins. She pulled against his hold as he administered the medicine, his voice heavy as he uttered the single word order, "Don't."

"I just want to know where to find…" her throat constricted and it became difficult for her to speak, before the burning began to spread, and she forced herself to finish, "…Carson…"

Lorne drew her head against his chest, cradled the back of it in the warmth of his hand, and wrapped his other arm around her waist supportively, holding her close as the trembling in her limbs increased.

"He's. Safe," he told her, each word deliberate, and he lowered himself down with her as her legs refused to support her any more, even as she fought. Lorne's voice came from far away. "Easy… easy… don't fight it."

**

"You are lying," she accused. "This is not about Doctor Keller. Ever since you came to Atlantis you have had your own agenda. Everyone knows it. You have a purpose here beyond… anything that might be your remit from the IOA, and I am telling you now – you will not use me to further it."

"Be careful, Doctor," he said, the calm in his voice belying the shocked expression still present on his face. "Your claws are showing."

"I know you – men of your kind," she twisted her face into an ugly visage of disgust and contempt. "The destination all important, little care for those you must tread upon along the way. Perhaps I should go to Richard Woolsey, tell him of this little meeting… see what happens. I do not think he would be pleased to hear of it, no matter what he might think of me personally."

His hand flashed forward and grasped the knot of her hair, shrouded by the head covering she wore, and pulled back her head as he leaned toward her, not stopping until his face was inches from her own.

"Don't be a fool, Ayatesha," he growled, his breath rank. "I could break you."

"I. Do. Not. Think so," she whispered into his face. "Real men… have tried, and with greater leverage." She forced herself to keep her head upright, her eyes locked with his, against the instinct to tilt it even slightly to the side. "And I did not bow to them either."

**

"This is hybrid DNA," he said when he could finally catch his breath. "Natural hybrid DNA."

Michael merely nodded in confirmation, only speaking after several minutes; several long minutes in which Carson had moved closer to the workstation and without invitation, or hesitation, began manipulating the view – programming and running a number of short simulations.

"Several generations along from the point of successful hybridisation, with reproduction only along the human chromosomal pathway," Michael confirmed. "Yet maintaining the functional Chimera Radical, the same radical that you and I have both identified in the genetic sample you provided from Doctor Keller."

"Michael..." Beckett whispered, his blood chilling to match the ambient cold of the laboratory.

"Evolution," Michael answered. "The one thing the Alterans did not count upon."

"Alte—you mean the Ancients?"

"I mean, Doctor, that even the most hidden and insidious failsafe mechanisms possess an inbuilt work-around and with the correct knowledge and application of carefully nurtured science—"

"My God, Michael," Beckett gasped as the realisation occurred that Michael was not only talking about the past. "What have you done?"

**

She barely touched the control station, but the overhead light illuminated the platform and the viewing screen began to display a series of scrolling characters. She pulled back her hand, afraid, a creeping unease rising up her spine, and turning, stepped away.

She stepped almost directly into Michael, and gasped softly; startled.

"What is it that you wish to know?" he asked quietly, reaching to steady her, the strength of his hand a comfort to her, calming as he cupped her forearm.

"I wanted to find you," she told him, swallowing down her unsteady breathing, and glancing uncomfortably at the control station as though it had somehow offended her.

"You do not need the control station for that," he said.

-you have only to reach out- -reach out- -reach out- -reach out- -reach out-

…Michael…

"I am here, Teyla," he answered. "What is it that you need?"

"I have been experiencing some… difficulties," she confessed.

…I am afraid…

-Teyla- -Teyla- -Teyla- -Teyla- -Teyla-

"This is why you have been so concerned," she as much stated as asked.

"Yes," he answered.

She watched him for a moment, pieces falling into place like the tumbling characters from the control station's monitor reflected in the gold of his eyes; tumbling like snowflakes into the rekindled memory of the place, the sensation they had shared – soft white crystals upon the fluid darkness that burst into flames around them.

Michael smiled softly, and gently, almost tenderly cupped her cheek in his hand. She leaned into the touch, her eyes filling with tears as she closed them and turned her lips to kiss his palm.

"It will, of necessity, mean that there will be some small… change in plan, but," Michael swallowed, and she opened her eyes again to find him looking at her in deep, but concerned devotion. "Nothing we can't handle," he finished softly.

**

"Hear me, Commander, for there is not time to speak of what you must hear. You are in grave danger here – you and all Wraith. Save us. Keep us from the blasphemy wrought on us in this act. Those which develop here can bring only pain and death. Theirs is the way of war that will come after. Nothing good can come of this."

"She told you this?" the Red Queen said at last.

"Showed me… My Matron," he answered, his voice almost breaking with the effort of it. "Would you have me act? The Ancient One's suggestion was clear. That one's offspring cannot be allowed to—"

"I will decide what is to be done!" she hissed, her feeding hand coming to a trembling halt mere inches from his already aching chest. His downturned, obedient gaze noted that her fingers trembled. She hissed softly, and that trembling eased as the Red Queen relaxed. "If I had wished for you to destroy that Queen's young, I would have sent you with an army to take the facility for our Hive."

"Of course, my Queen," he answered. "Forgive me, I—"

His words became a cry as the Queen's feeding hand descended faster than a whip and latched on just as swiftly. Molten fire flowed into him, his head spun faster and then settled into an almost peaceful bliss as his Matron Queen strengthened him – gave him life… then lowered her head until they touched brow to brow.

"Now, my son," she whispered as she withdrew the Gift, "We will allow these little creatures to mature. There are far more important matters for us to attend to than the errant actions of a single, lesser Queen."

**

"Why do you serve? The One asked the others, for She had seen in the fullness of the time, of which the Eleven had been completely unaware," the Sentinel began to speak, her melodic voice punctuated by the soft clicks of her tongue against the inside of her mouth. "That for each new light that came, full half of the Parmhunii had faded into darkness to be replaced by their progeny while the mirrors of their yearning slept…"

"But the One had no mirror save herself and so had seen," the commander quoted, losing patience, "Why do you tell me infants' tales?"

"Have you stopped to consider what it means, Commander," she asked, breaking off from her telling. "To consider the question and what it means?"

"It means nothing," he snapped. "Myth… that is all."

"For one of such a line," she spat, "you understand so little of your heritage."

**

"We cannot hide behind a lie," Todd hissed into the morning air, speaking as much to strengthen his own resolve as for any other reason. Such was the true abomination of the construct that his oldest rival had made of himself in the wake of what the humans of Atlantis had done to him: that he knew the Wraith Queens better than they knew themselves, and manipulated them just as freely as his contempt ran deep. Thus had the war begun, and what the one the humans called Michael had started, he would end… in blood and death, yes, but ultimately in the genesis of a new Wraith era.

The Pegasus Galaxy would be Wraith once more.

***

"Operation 'This Will Most Likely End Badly' is a go."

Sheppard, No Man's Land

Act 1

The clouds that drifted overhead smudged only lightly across the cobalt sky, like the tufts at the edges of a rabbit's tail. They filled Ronon with an almost forgotten sense of peace; a tranquillity that soothed the hurt of the past few months, at least a little.

Today, a little was enough.

"It is rare we have days like this so early in springtime."

He glanced at Raisa as she spoke. There was a smile in her voice and it was matched by the one on her face. It warmed him.

"Perhaps it means you'll be in for a good growing season," he answered.

"It would be nice," Raisa said, shifting the empty basket from the crook of one elbow to the other. "With a good growing season perhaps I'll be able to afford to keep the kid that's coming."

"That reminds me," he said lightly, "if we find some nails at market, I can fix the pen for you. It won't be perfect, but at least it'll hold—"

"I can't ask you to do that," she interrupted him lightly as they reached the first of the houses at the edge of the market town. She stopped walking and he stopped with her. She put a hand onto his arm.

"You didn't," he said shrugging slightly, "and it's no big deal anyways."

It was the least he could do for her, though he didn't want to phrase it that way. Putting it that way made it seem like he owed her something, and he didn't feel that. He—

"Mamma! Ronon! Look, flowers."

Chaya's young squeal of excitement interrupted his struggling thoughts and in the next moment, as the girl ran to them both and leaped into the air, he caught her and swung her up onto his hip.

Chaya wrapped her arms as far around his shoulders as she could reach and her legs around his waist, and for a moment pressed her cheek to his as she said in the same excited tone:

"Flowers for spring!"

Raisa caught his eye. Her expression was one of worry and she twitched toward him as if to take Chaya from his arms.

"Chaya—" she started.

"She's all right," he said. I'm all right his expression added, and it was the truth. Though not yet at full strength, his wound was well enough healed that the weight of the sparrow-like girl in his arms was barely noticeable. He smiled at Chaya and pressing his forehead to hers, added confidentially, "maybe we should find some at market for your mamma, right?"

"Right," Chaya grinned and snuggled him again.

It was a painful warmth that flooded Ronon for a moment and he closed his eyes. When Raisa said his name softly, he opened them again into her blushing face, but he noted she was smiling, and when he offered, she slipped her arm through his without hesitation.

**

Sheppard breathed a heavy sigh as he stepped from the event horizon into the organised chaos of the Gate Room. For days now they had been gating back and forth between Atlantis and the planet where the Daedalus went down. In the weeks since that had happened he had defied medical orders in order to join the teams bringing back vital and sensitive equipment and supplies. He felt it was his responsibility. If he'd been able to set Daedalus down more safely they wouldn't be in this position.

With another sigh he made his way toward the Gate Room steps, weaving in and out of boxes that they still hadn't processed. He couldn't help but compare the city's Gate Room to a Good Will store in tax season.

He frowned as he spotted Zelenka. The scientist had reached the bottom of the steps leading up to the Control Room, which was where Sheppard thought he would have been by now, helping McKay to sort through the telemetry they'd managed to download from the Daedalus' systems before they fried in the crash. Instead he was speaking rapidly, and clearly irritated, to a man with a clipboard that was directing a small group of orderlies who were engaged in moving some of the boxes onto carts.

"Hey Radek," he called as he neared the man. "Is there a problem? I would have thought you would have gotten all this sorted by now."

Breaking off his conversation with the quartermaster, Zelenka turned his way and Sheppard saw he was even more irritated than he'd first believed.

"Well, colonel," Zelenka began, and quickly pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose, "Ordinarily, yes, I would have if it were just a matter of finding storage space to accommodate the equipment, but," he paused, breaking off to berate a group of porters who were carelessly hauling boxes without the aid of a dolly truck, before turning back to Sheppard to continue, "but as you know, some of the equipment is extremely sensitive, and having to split my time between organising this, and working to decode the sensor data from the Daedalus—"

"I thought McKay was on that," Sheppard said with a frown.

"Yes, well…" Zelenka matched his frown, and cleared his throat.

"Where is McKay," Sheppard said as he realised the absence of McKay's dulcet tones, which ordinarily would have been drifting down in a steady trickle of complaints from the Control Room.

"In the infirmary."

"What?" Sheppard's frown deepened, then his brows shot up in incredulity as the calculation of the number of days that had passed since they arrived back in the city finished computing in his own less than up to par brain. "Still?"

"Still," Zelenka confirmed and his tone bordered strongly on the disparaging side of mild. "I rather think he's enjoying the attention and the blue jello just a little too much. I realise a broken wrist is painful but—"

"Leave it with me, Radek," Sheppard said darkly, and dropped a hand on Zelenka's shoulder for a moment before he started to walk away. Then raising his voice for the benefit of the quartermaster and his orderlies, added, "And get the Gate Room cleared! There's no telling when we may need to bring a Jumper down here!"

**

Chaya tugged at Ronon's hand and he glanced at her. Her attention was obviously captured by something across the market square. Ronon peered that way, maintaining the light hold he had on her hand, not wanting to lose the child in the busy crowd while her mother bartered for the goods she needed.

In a tall basket several small, furry creatures – some kind of feline by his guess – squirmed and mewled hungrily. It was to these that Chaya was so drawn.

"It's all right, Ronon," Raisa's voice made him jump, coming unexpectedly as it did. "So long as you stay near the kitlings, Chaya. Then we'll know where to find you when we're done."

"I will, Mamma," Chaya laughed happily, and freeing herself from Ronon's grasp, skipped over to kneel by the basket, dipping her hand inside to play with the animals.

For a while he watched, captured suddenly by the notion that a girl like that should have a pet of her own, before he caught Raisa struggling with the basket out of the corner of his eye.

"Let me," he said, and took it from her hands before she could protest.

"She is quite taken with you," Raisa said, beginning to walk at his side toward another market stall. "It will be a wrench for her when—"

"About that," Ronon said, the words tumbling from his lips before he could silence himself. "I was thinking—"

The sound and the cry reached him at the same time. The nasal whine resonated within the vowel sound of the single word that was cried in warning across the crowded market place and was somehow amplified by the accompanying angry buzz.

"WRAITH!"

The Darts screamed almost vertically out of a sky that had begun darkening with the boil of unnatural clouds – swarming and heading toward the crowded space; levelling into wing formations that loomed ever nearer as the panic began below.

As the lead Dart turned and opened fire, Ronon realised with mounting horror that its trajectory would bring it in directly over the stall in front of which Chaya's innocent play with the kitlings was, as yet, undisturbed. Even as he thought it, the reality of the moment reached the girl. The noise and heat and chaos thrust upon her, Chaya jerked her head up, and cried out in fear.

The Darts followed standard Wraith protocol for a cull, the lead Dart in each triplet formation fired its blasters, taking down buildings and other structures that could provide shelter from the culling beams that the others would deploy.

Great smoking divots appeared in the open ground. Old, dry grasses flared like tinder to brief fires. Clods of earth flew and the outlying stalls of the market shattered into a burning mass of deadly splinters to litter the air with peril… all in a single second.

"Chaya, run!" Ronon yelled above the impossible din, and pointed urgently the direction she should take even as he started her way. Caught in the grip of her fear, however, the girl stood looking first one way, and then the other as if confused, as if unable to comprehend his simple instruction. He drew his blaster and took another step as he called out again, "Run!"

A second wing of Darts began its decent, its path intersecting that of the first, and then a third, all flying criss-cross patterns over the frenzied market place, a sickening whine that was accompanied by the almost melodic buzz of the culling beams.

"Chaya!"

Beside Ronon, Raisa screamed her daughter's name. The first of the Darts was almost on top of the child, destroying everything in its path and heedless of the other Darts, Raisa began, first with hesitant, dodging steps to gather herself, ready to sprint to her daughter's aid.

For Ronon, time slowed as the terrible realisations hit home, one after the other. The fire and smoke – the shimmering in the air that had nothing to do with the heat, almost directly in front of Raisa as she moved.

"Chaya, run!" he yelled one last time as he lunged, arm outstretched, trying to reach Raisa and draw her back from the edge of the wavering threshold in the air. "Raisa, no!"

His fingertips brushed against the cloth at the back of her sleeve, and then she was gone, swept up into the belly of the Dart that powered away from the ineffectual shots he fired its way, gasping, "Raisa…"

Then Chaya screamed, and all the world erupted in heat and light and the percussive kiss of wood and earth and stone.

**

Ayatesha closed the door to the office – Carson's office – she reminded herself, and leaned against it, allowing her a moment to breathe. Her head ached and everything felt stale and sullied. She longed for the end of her duty shift; to return to her quarters and take a long, hot shower.

Run ragged as she was, as they all were since the survivors from the Daedalus had been brought back to Atlantis, she'd barely had a moment to herself in more days than she could remember.

She glanced around, then took a moment to pull the covering from her head, digging her fingers through her still-tight braids to try and ease her scalp. She readjusted the bobby pins to fasten back the escaped, unruly wisps of fine hair away from her forehead.

"Doctor Haddad?" Marie's voice sounded through the door.

"Just a minute," she swallowed down her frantic heartbeat and pulled the covering over her head again hurriedly, trying to sound normal as she asked, "Is there a problem?"

"Not a problem, no," Marie answered as Ayatesha opened the door and stepped back into the infirmary. "Just time for rounds – and Doctor McKay is complaining again."

Ayatesha frowned.

"He is still here?" she asked. "I thought we had discharged him once."

"We had," Marie said with a nod, as she handed her a stack of patient files. McKay's notes were uppermost. "Then two nights ago he managed to convince Doctor Murrow to readmit him."

"On what grounds?" Ayatesha flipped open the file folder and skimmed Murrow's clinical report, and after reading she let out a colourful string of mixed Arabic and English invectives.

"The little weasel," she snapped afterwards, and changed her course to bring her across the infirmary toward McKay's bed. "I will show him."

"About time," McKay said by way of greeting as she stepped up beside his bed. "What does it take to get—hey!"

She reached out and without a word plucked the dish of jello from McKay's hand, turning to pass it to Marie, and still with his notes open, instructed, "Nil by mouth from now on. If he is still having so much trouble with the fracture it's likely we'll have to go in and see what the trouble is."

"Go in?" McKay aped, looking between her and Marie, "as in… operate?"

"As in operate, Doctor," Ayatesha confirmed, "and for that we need to be sure that—"

"McKay!"

A sharp retort from the infirmary doorway interrupted, and lifting her head from where she had fixed the scientist with as fierce a stare as she could muster, she saw an equally unhappy looking Colonel Sheppard crossing the room toward the two of them.

"McKay, what the hell are you doing here?" Sheppard asked.

"Ask Doctor Huddid, or Hubab or… whatever her name is," McKay answered, gesturing with the wrist that was cradled in the hard cast toward Ayatesha.

"Doc?" Sheppard came to a halt on the other side of the bed.

"I am sorry, Colonel," she answered, "but I cannot discuss the treatment of other patients with non-family members, I—"

"She's talking about operating, Sheppard," McKay interrupted, and Ayatesha noted that he was scooting slightly toward the other man. "I only came in here to get some pain relief and—"

"And Doctor Murrow's clinical opinion is that there may be some deep underlying problem as to why the pain has increased rather than being managed by your current medication," Ayatesha interrupted, flicking her eyes meaningfully Sheppard's way. "I would not want you to lose the use of your fingers because we did not—"

"Lose the use of my—" McKay stuttered, "Sheppard, what is she talking about?"

Ayatesha looked over at Colonel Sheppard and was relieved to see a spark of understanding dawning in his eyes. The Air Force officer reached out and put a gentle but restraining hand onto McKay's shoulder as he tried to scoot even further away from her.

"You know what, McKay," Sheppard said. "Maybe the Doc is right. Maybe she ought to go in there, take a look; see what's going on."

"I can schedule the surgery for later this evening," Ayatesha looked at the watch pinned to the front of her clinical coat. "That should be enough time to—"

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," McKay fired the words like rapid bullets in her direction. "I'm sure that won't be necessary. Really, it feels a lot better already, see?" he moved his fingers quickly to demonstrate his wellness. "I'm sure it's just bruising. Ibuprofen… that's what I need, I—"

"Doctor McKay, it would be neglectful of me if I allowed you to leave without even any kind of examination, I—" Ayatesha protested smoothly.

"No, really," he said, "I'm fine. I'll sign anything you need, just—"

"McKay," Sheppard's lazy drawl, with just enough hint of a bite to cut in on the edge of her sarcasm-tinted battlefield, interrupted McKay's nervous tirade. "You're wasting time. Zelenka needs you in the Control Room. There's a ton of data to examine and these people are up to their eyeballs with folk who are really sick. So either shape up and ship out, or let the doctor do her job and find out what the hell is wrong with you."

"I'll… be…" McKay gave Ayatesha a weak smile, "…going to the Control Room now."

She tipped her head slightly and raised an eyebrow, watching as he scrambled from the bed and put Sheppard between the two of them as though she were threatening him with some kind of loaded weapon.

"If you wish, Doctor," she said lightly. "But do come back if it gives you any more trouble. I will keep a spot open for you in the OR."

Had she not been so annoyed, Ayatesha would have smiled as McKay nodded and hurried out of the door behind the colonel without so much as looking back. Instead she nodded to Sheppard as he offered a quiet apology for the scientist wasting their time.

**

It took a moment for Ronon to realise that the ringing in his ears had cleared as he straightened up, ignoring his pain, because a high pitched wail continued unabated.

Throwing the debris from his back, he rolled, and then climbed to his feet, gripping tightly to his blaster as he peered through the smoke to look in horror at the devastation that was all that was left of the market place.

Figures moved through the smoke. Their motion was too slow and methodical to be the panicked villagers. A fearful cry from his left was cut off by a chillingly familiar snarl, and as the drifting smoke cleared in the bitter breeze that now blew through the town square, he caught sight of the ashen-green skin of an outstretched hand, clasped deeply on the chest of a dying Laquoian native. He raised his blaster, too late to save the man, but neither would that Wraith live to take his fill. The red line of his blaster's energy burrowed through the smoke – his aim true – and the Wraith fell.

The smoke-obscured figures turned his way almost in unison, snarls carrying in the eerie atmosphere, a silence disturbed only by the now weakening wail. His eyes stung and the tainted air bit at the back of his throat, but still he turned one way and another, guided by sound when he could not see; his blaster singing out death into the ruined morning.

"Mam-ma!" the wail strengthened again, fear running through the note of pain in it and debris rattled as though being thrown aside.

"Chaya?" he called out, coughing on the end of the word, until he was hoarse with it, but she didn't answer him. "Chaya, talk to me!"

"Ronon!" the cry came at last, weakly out of the centre of the rattling debris, and rather than calm his frantic heart, it began to beat so quickly in his chest that he thought it might burst.

He shook his head to try and think clearly, shake away the instinct to run, and peered through the dust that had gathered in the pockets of fresher air to where he had last seen her; to where there were splashes of blood on the stones and the smouldering ruins of a basket over which a bulky, dark figure stooped.

Chaya screamed again, panicked this time. "No… let me go!"

"Take your stinking hand offa her!" Ronon snarled, raising his blaster in menace as the faced Wraith turned his way, almost cradling the struggling child against his body and teasing at her chest with the brush of his feeding hand. The movement drew a throaty growl from the scorched and bloodied kitling that Chaya held tightly in her fisted hands.

"I do not think so," the Wraith hissed, tilting his head and repeating the gesture over the stricken child's form. "She belongs to my Hive now."

"No," Ronon said, and blew a sharp breath down his nose to punctuate his word. He shifted his thumb over the side of his blaster as he resettled his grip on the weapon.

"No?" the Wraith mocked, "What are you going to do, Human… without hurting the child?"

"It's not about what I'm gonna do," Ronon growled.

"No?" the Wraith echoed, passing another touch over Chaya, that made her whimper in fear.

"No," Ronon confirmed. "It's about what you're gonna do."

"And what might that be?" the Wraith asked.

Ronon pulled the trigger, praying as he never had before that Chaya's obvious injuries hadn't weakened her too much for her to withstand the stun blast that took both her and the Wraith.

He didn't wait. He closed in and snatched Chaya's limp form from the falling Wraith to toss her over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.

His thumb worked once more against the switch on the side of his blaster as the Wraith, on his knees, began to recover himself. He didn't give him the time.

"Die, motherfucker!" he said, and pulled the trigger again.

**

He leaned over and flicked deliberately between one camera and the next, trying to get a better angle on the laptop screen at which the doctor worked. Frustrated, he tried again, managing only to get the right hand edge of the screen into shot, and then it was out of focus because of the angle.

"Professor," the security officer at the surveillance station looked round at him, "perhaps if you told us exactly what you were looking for…?"

He shook his head.

"It isn't a case of looking for anything, specifically," he answered, irritated both at being questioned as well as not being able to see anything of the doctor's work. "Though you might tell me if she's been anywhere near the brig since the last time."

"No, Sir," the SO answered. "With all of the injured being ferried back from the Daedalus, and Doctor Beckett still offworld, she's been kept busy in the infirmary."

"I see," Varnerin growled, then added, "And the prisoner? Have you been able to get anything out of him in respect of what passed between them?"

"No, Sir," the SO shook his head again. "Major Lorne—"

"Major Lorne is dead, lieutenant. That creature in the brig is not the major and you'd do well to remember that," Varnerin snapped.

"Yes, Sir," the SO answered, "Sorry, Sir."

"So it said nothing then?" Varnerin asked, turning his eyes back to the screens showing all angles of Doctor Haddad's quarters. She remained unmoving before the computer screen, though Varnerin could easily see the fatigue in her posture, and in the way she leaned her head against her hands as she read the contents of the screen. Contents he couldn't see, which irritated him greatly.

"Major Lo—the prisoner didn't say anything useful, Sir," the SO answered, "at least not to us, but then he rarely does. He was questioned several times about his involvement with Doctor Haddad, and all he would say is one word… just one word."

"And that was?"

"Compassion, Sir."

"Compassion?"

"Yes, Sir," the SO confirmed, as Varnerin peered closer to the screen at the very same moment that Haddad turned her head and looked up, as if she knew she were being watched. With a frown, Varnerin repeated the word as if it were an unfamiliar, alien concept.

"Compassion."

**

Michael let out a long, slow breath, almost a hiss and slowly curled the fingers of both hands into fists against the top of the workbench. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Beckett edge away as much as the equipment would allow.

He knew it was fatigue that drove his mood towards anger. He recognised, too, that there was no need for it. They had made much progress in the last several days. Already they had been able to develop a gene therapy that when programmed into a sympathetic retrovirus had enabled stabilisation of the hybridising cells. Once the process was complete it would allow for the continued development of the necessary systemic compromises. The cross transcription would still prove problematical, but symptoms could far easier be treated than the total breakdown of all of the host's bodily functions.

He sighed again, pushing away an answering visceral response to his own dispassionate assessment of the situation. He had walked this path in his research countless times, but had never imagined he could approach such a fundamental alteration of natural law so quickly, or with such high stakes… such risk… such cost.

He growled audibly as the thoughts cascade like Wraith text across a view screen through his mind and Beckett look up sharply from the microscope.

"Michael?"

"Does it work?" he demanded, refusing to be drawn into the unwanted conversation.

"Aye, it does," Beckett answered, stepping back from the microscope and gesturing toward it. "Take a look for yourself. The degradation in the accelerated sample is far less pronounced, allowing for almost normal cell division. I think if you go ahead and introduce the modified RNA into the nucleus of the key cells, there should be little to no risk of rejection and since immunology will no longer be a factor…"

Michael waved him to silence, watching between the two samples, the cells warring in the first, but in the second, the gradual settlement of conflicting genomes into a reluctantly peaceful genetic organism. He nodded, satisfied.

"Good," he said, his voice clipped.

"So now what happens?" Beckett asked softly.

Michael tilted his head, frowning in query.

"Well I don't imagine for one minute you're just gonnae let me walk out of here." Beckett answered softly.

"I believe I once told you, Doctor, that you underestimate your value," Michael said, still fighting to keep a lid on his mounting anger. He had been angry then too. Rejected, abused and abandoned by the Lanteans – swept aside by their intentions to destroy him, in spite of all of his assistance – in spite of all that could have been.

He glanced at the synthesised serum that sat in the vial in the centre of the workbench. It was there... another step toward retribution decanted into a single complex organism. His breathing quickened as momentary indecision settled over him; doubt clawing at him so strongly that for a moment his hand shook where it rested against the side of the microscope.

One small adjustment; one minor detail that he had kept from Beckett – a single, simple physiological factor, meaningless to the humans, but of profound consequence to him – he had discovered it purely by accident while attempting to perfect the cloning process for his hybrids and realised the full extent of it when he first noticed the changes in Teyla's hybrid DNA. If he did nothing – if he said nothing…

Fisting his still shaking hand he snatched it back to his side, and turning his back on Beckett walked away for several long, slow steps.

"Be very certain, Doctor Beckett," he said slowly without turning around, "that you are prepared to accept the consequences of your decisions this time."

"Michael, I—" Beckett said, soft regret in the sound of each syllable he spoke.

Snarling, he spun around and crossing the distance he had put between himself and the clone of his creator in the time it took for his heart to beat once. He grasped man by throat, continuing to move until they both met the bulkhead with a force strong enough to knock the wind from them both.

"Do not," he snarled, millimetres from Beckett's face, "Do. Not dangle empty platitudes before my face. You knew what you were doing, knew what it would mean for me. You were warned and still you pressed ahead with your vicious agenda. Well look around you, Doctor. See what you have done and know that I will not be diverted from mine."

Abruptly he released Beckett, remained unmoving, leaning against the bulkhead as the man slid to the ground and stumbled away sideways.

"Remember that," he said more quietly, taking deep breaths to calm his agitation. "And remember our agreement."

"Aye, Michael," Beckett said breathlessly, and he heard the man straighten up. "I'll not forget."

Michael also straightened up, standing away from the bulkhead, though he didn't turn and face the other man.

"See that you don't," he said. "Take it, and leave… now."

**

The quiet bleep of the computer signalled the simulation's end. Her head ached and she sat up from the computer to try and ease the pounding, and to banish the uncomfortable feeling that had been assaulting her for some time, that she was being watched.

Sighing, she slipped her hand under the soft cloth covering her head to massage the knot at the back of her neck. She hardly dare turn her attention back to her computer. She hardly needed to. She knew what it would say.

The fingers pinched the back of her neck as he pushed her into the laboratory. She shivered, but not because of the cold. The smell of blood, of other bodily fluids, greeted her as a timely reminder of her own narrow miss with the humiliation of soiling herself when her interrogation had begun. The same fear threatened again now – and she summoned every atom of control she possessed as she looked on the aftermath of the accident that had taken place in the room. It wasn't hard to piece together what must have happened.

Corpses lay scattered about the laboratory. Two were soldiers, one lying, with his neck obviously broken, at the base of a sparking mainframe computer. The other lay in a pool of his own blood and entrails. He had an expression of terrified astonishment still fixed on his face.

The third corpse remained propped where the man had met his terrible final moments. Withered and skeletal, his puckered face was locked in a grimace of agony.

"Wraith," Ayatesha breathed in matching horror. "A Wraith did this."

Abruptly the man holding her let go and moved past her, further into the laboratory.

"Glad to see your brains weren't completely fried while we were having our little chat," he said.

She swallowed hard and shook her head.

"How did you get a Wraith to Earth?" she asked. Horror upon horror was mounting in her slowly clearing mind, verifying her suspicions – vindicating her decision, (however fruitless), to run from the SGC. She did not want the answer to the questions she asked, but was compelled to ask them anyway. "What were you doing with it?"

"You'd be surprised what you can do when the military wants something," the leader of this, obviously covert, unsanctioned unit, answered.

Ayatesha wrapped her arms around herself, watching him warily, almost backing away as he crouched beside one of the workbenches.

"What do you want from me?" she demanded, but there was no strength in her voice.

"Here," he instructed, and when she didn't move he nodded to a soldier that was standing behind her, who prodded her forwards. Her steps faltered when she first caught sight of the Wraith.

"It's all right. It's dead," the man said, matter of fact, and poked at the limp, upturned feeding hand with his foot.

Nothing she'd read in Carson's research notes had prepared her for the sight of the Wraith. Nothing could have averted the very visceral fear the sight kindled in her. The long, bone white hair, the pale grey-green skin and discoloured, shark-like teeth conjured images of deadly Djinn from her childhood nightmares. She sidestepped the Wraith's body to come to the side of the room's final corpse.

The man's hair was bleached of all pigment, and his skin was waxy, pale and marred with engorged, threadlike veins that gave him a mottled appearance. Ayatesha swallowed hard.

"Please tell me this is not what I think it is," she dared to breathe at last.

"When they attacked Midway station," the man said, "if it hadn't been for Ronon, Teal'c and the team from Atlantis they would already be here. They're stronger than us, faster…"

"They are a deadly Chimera organism with a dominant gene that allowed them to become a species all of their own – an apex predator in their own galaxy, and you want to bring them here?" she said, shrilly.

"Whatever that means, Doctor, doesn't really matter." He shook his head and stood up from where he crouched beside the final body. "They're our key to creating super soldiers – but you already knew that. It's why you ran."

"I will not be a party to that," she said. "I already told you: if you try to introduce Wraith DNA into the human genome, the receiving organism will become non-viable. Wraith DNA is too dominant. Either the resulting chimera cells will destroy themselves or the Wraith characteristics will—"

"Exactly," he interrupted. "Enhanced speed, increased strength—"

"No," she said urgently. "You cannot stop it… it is too unstable."

"Then you better find a way to stabilise it, Doctor Haddad, and quickly," he said with pointed menace in his tone.

"What do you mean?" she asked, taking a step back, only to collide with the soldier he had summoned behind her. "I already told you that I cannot do what even God cannot."

The soldier took her arms – held her fast.

"I told you," she cried as the team leader stepped toward her, a small cylinder in his hand. "I TOLD YOU!"

Ayatesha wiped at her face, mopping up the tears she had never meant to cry. Self-loathing vied with self-pity – with a bitterness toward the arrogance and inhumanity of mankind – as she got up and hurried toward the bathroom.

She barely made it before the nausea set in and she sank down to exhaust herself in the violent physical and emotional response to the memories.

"If anyone should discover…" she whispered to herself.

Damned if you do…

Lorne's voice echoed in her mind, as did thoughts of Carson… gone now to face the very real danger that Michael would never allow him to return. She should have stopped him; should have worked harder to find a solution to Keller's problems.

"I should have gone myself." After all, she thought bitterly, What could Michael do to her worse than had already been done?

Angrily she snatched the cover from her head and began tearing the tight braids from her hair. Her emotions burned out quickly to despair as a flash of white in the mirror disarmed her anger as she prepared herself for bed.

**

McKay paused in his enforced hunt-and-peck style of typing to run a frustrated hand through his hair as he sought to undo the damage he perceived had already been done to the decoding on the telemetry. There was definitely something in the general background stream of Wraith intership communication, but so far it had defied every attempt he made to make sense of it.

He blamed Zelenka and the other technicians of course, and thinking aloud accused, "Of course we'd have got through this by now if only you and your little elves had followed through with the protocol we established, when was it now? Oh I remember – four years ago!"

What irritated him more was that Zelenka was refusing to bite.

"Yes, Rodney," he said simply.

"Yes, Rodney?" McKay echoed, his tone sharpening considerably in the absence of something to push against, he was damn well going to make an issue of Zelenka's contrition and that would be an end to it. Only it wasn't, because Radek didn't so much as twitch an eyelid, let alone look up at him, ready to defend himself again the accusation McKay had made and was about to strengthen. He tried again. "What do you mean, yes, Rodney?"

"I mean you are right, of course," Zelenka answered, still without looking up. "Atlantis would simply fall to parts without you and your protocols."

"Yes, well, I'm glad we—" Rodney felt no better in the face of Zelenka's continued surrender to his superiority, so when the other scientist continued in the same soft, unimposing tone, the accusation the words carried hit him like one of Ronon's sticks to his gut.

"So, of course, while you were stuck in the infirmary subsisting on jello, tea and sympathy we were bound to make a complete mess of everything and—"

"How dare you!" McKay spluttered, more angry with himself for so completely walking into that than he was with Zelenka for orchestrating the trap that had so completely blindsided him.

Zelenka did look up then, and McKay almost stepped back at the thinly controlled fury he saw burning in his fellow scientist's eyes beneath the mop of hair that was in greater disarray than usual.

"I dare, Rodney," Zelenka began, "because—"

"Hey, fellas, how's it going?"

Relief flooded, irritatingly unexplained, through McKay as Sheppard, Caldwell and Woolsey stepped into the Control Room and Sheppard interrupted the mounting argument. Rodney began to believe that perhaps Kebob, or whatever-her-name-was, had been right when she suggested that there was something seriously wrong with him. He didn't usually find himself crushed in fear by Zelenka's argument – piece of cake, the man was a push-over.

"Well," Zelenka began, but buoyed by Sheppard's presence, McKay interrupted.

"Just as soon as I've undone the mess they made of trying to decode whatever is in the sub-carrier wave of the Wraith comm. network, we'll know more," he said, "but so far we know there's definitely something they're all chattering excitedly over, and that's got to make it important, right?"

He had failed to notice that Zelenka had gone back to whatever task had been occupying the other scientist so urgently as to forestall the argument he'd been trying to have all morning until the other scientist punctuated the silence following his question with a quiet exclamation.

"Oh no," Zelenka said.

"What do you mean, no?" McKay asked, more than ready for round two, but his ego driven perception had been off again, he realised, as the creases formed on Woolsey's face.

"Doctor Zelenka?" the base commander asked softly.

"This is bad," Zelenka muttered to himself, then looking up at the others repeated, "this is very bad."

"All right, Genius," McKay loaded as much sarcasm into his tone as he could, "supposing you tell us what, exactly, is so bad, and let us decide what to actually do about the problem."

Zelenka ignored him, and McKay bristled still further, at least until the other man spoke, addressing his comments to Colonel Sheppard and the others.

"I've been… going over the long range sensor telemetry that we pulled from the Daedalus before she went down." He paused to give an apologetic look Caldwell's way, which was met with sad acceptance from the colonel, before he went on, "and if you look here… and here…"

Zelenka pointed to the reconstructed image on the screen of his laptop which showed a blurry representation of a portion of the Pegasus Galaxy. The stars and their orbiting planets little more than grey spots on the reconstructed data, but there – glowing in ruddy clarity – several sensor shadows stood out in shocking relief against the white on grey.

"Are those—?" Sheppard began.

"Wraith Hives," Caldwell confirmed, obvious recognition reflecting in his eyes.

"And cruisers," Zelenka confirmed. "You wouldn't have seen them at the time because your attention was focussed, quite rightly, on the battle you were caught in, but the remaining outward looking sensors picked, as you can see, what seems to be some kind of… of gathering among the Wraith. They—"

"Can you map that on our main display?" Woolsey asked.

"Yes, yes," Zelenka nodded and McKay watched, his heart sinking lower than his boots as he realised what his sojourn in the infirmary may have cost them. Zelenka overlaid McKay's self-recriminations with rapid keystrokes. "Just give me a minute and I'll have it."

McKay swallowed, and looked up at Sheppard as they waited. The lieutenant colonel looked tired, and looked up to catch his perusal. It was all McKay could do to look away guiltily.

"Rodney, you got a minute?" Sheppard's voice drew his gaze back to the other man as he stepped away from the anxious cabal of the upper echelons of Atlantis command. McKay followed after only a moment, and walked right into Sheppard's hissed, urgent enquiry. "What's going on, McKay?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, swallowing hard. It seemed to be his phrase of the day.

"What do I mean?" Sheppard asked incredulously. "First I have to fish you out of this infirmary, which, I might add, if I ever have to do again, I'm gonna ride your tail so hard you won't be able to sit down for the rest of the year; second I walk in here to find you deliberately picking a fight with Radek—"

"Zelenka and I always argue," McKay offered in self-defence, "It's what we do."

"Not like that," Sheppard said and shook his head. "If you need time, McKay; if there's something bothering you; you need help, I wish you'd come to me. I might be military commander of this screwed up expedition, but I thought I was your friend."

"You are, Sheppard," McKay answered quickly, "You are, but..." he sighed then, and put his hand on Sheppard's shoulder, uncharacteristically reaching out to the other man. "You've had so much of your own to deal with, what with Michael, and Teyla… Todd…"

"I told you," Sheppard said with quiet urgency, his face darkened at the mention of two of the three names in such close succession to one another. "I can handle it. What I can't deal with is the people I can rely on having a major melt down in front of my eyes when they could come to me for help."

McKay sighed again, and before he knew the words that would come spilling out of his mouth he started to speak. "It's Jennifer."

"Keller?"

"Of course, Keller. How many other Jennifers do you know?"

"What about her?" Sheppard asked.

"I just… I wanted to be on hand in the infirmary in case anything… happened," he finished sadly. Then just a beat later, added, "She's not getting any better. Beckett can't do anything, and neither can this so-called expert he called in. I'm scared, John. I think we're going to lose her."

"You're… scared?" Sheppard asked with a frown.

McKay took a deep breath, and said softly. "I love her."

"You… Keller?"

"Yes," McKay answered, and then frowning deeply demanded, "Why is that so difficult to believe?"

"No, no. It's not, just…" Sheppard trailed off shaking his head. "Listen, McKay, whatever the docs may or may not be able to do for Jennifer, the best way you can help her right now is to stay on top of your game. Get that sub-channel deciphered; figure out what it is the Wraith are up to."

McKay took another breath. He knew Sheppard was right, but it was hard to focus on anything else when the woman he loved was lying at death's door – no, worse than that, he told himself. She was firmly ensconced in death's own bedroom, with only a fragile cord tying her to what she'd left behind in Atlantis.

"Okay," he said simply.

Sheppard nodded, and was about to speak when Caldwell called his name. Reluctantly, McKay followed him back to the others, where Zelenka had finished plotting the position of the Hives and cruisers they'd detected.

"Oh this is so not good," Sheppard said as he moved aside to give McKay room in the semi-circle around the screen.

"That's right on the edge of the Atlantis protected zone," Woolsey said in protest as though the gathered Wraith would hear him and move away. "We promised protection to the peoples of those planets out there."

Sheppard shook his head. "That's as may be, but right now, I'm afraid they're on their own. There's very little we can do for them right now, even if we tried."

Caldwell nodded in concurrence with Sheppard's assessment of the situation. "Even if the Daedalus were operational, the best we could hope for would be a partial evacuation, and I doubt that's what they'd want."

"What about the Odyssey and the Sun Tzu? When are they due to arrive?" Woolsey asked, frowning in consternation, no doubt, at being unable to deliver on promises made.

Frowning, Caldwell answered, "Both ships are currently en route from Earth. It'll take them another four, maybe five days before they reach us, but even if they were here right now, against that kind of combined fire power? They'd end up like Daedalus, or worse. What we need is Intel."

"Steven's right," Sheppard said. "We need to know what they're planning so that we can be proactive in defence against whatever it is."

Caldwell nodded and said, "Anything we'd do right now in terms of attacking them would be a reactive assault, and our track record in that respect is not a very good one."

"And where do you propose we… acquire this Intel?" Woolsey asked.

"We, erm," McKay interjected, already moving back toward his station. "We may already have it. That may be what's encoded in the comm. traffic's sub-channel."

"All right," Woolsey said, almost decisively. "See what you can do to decode it. Use every available resource."

"I'm on it," McKay answered, though he didn't miss Sheppard's wry smile as the colonel turned toward Caldwell and Woolsey.

"Meanwhile," Woolsey said equally as decisively, "we better start paying a visit to some of our off world allies; see what we can come up with."

"And if that doesn't work, I can think of something else that might," Sheppard added quietly. "I think by now he owes me."

**

Todd growled softly as he stepped into his quarters. The bouquet of the handmaiden's mixed emotions was as exquisite as the touch of the most accomplished masseuse. It soothed his lingering agitation – focussed it like a lens into a shaft of cold, hard fury that straightened his back and made his body ache with the anticipation of what he would take from her.

She stood just as straight as he. Her head was held high and he was in no doubt that she knew that he had entered. She flinched, but barely, as he came to a stop behind her and brought his hand to settle on her shoulder; allowed his fingers to stroke the edges of her hair and toy with the tender, soft skin at the side of her neck… waiting.

The silence between them stretched, became an almost heightened sense of predatory desire. On a cruel whim he stepped closer, his left hand ceasing its idle play at her throat to glide within her silken bodice, talons grazing soft curves and the peaks that rose to meet his fingers as she failed to keep her hungry, needful moan inside. Enzyme dripped from his aching feeding hand as he closed it into a fist at his side.

The smouldering embers, banked beneath his anger, lapped to a tongue of flame as he tasted the scent of her arousal – heavy, full hot within his sensory pits. Then her hand flashed up to close around his wrist. Her polished fingernails pricking like soft claws against his skin.

"How dare you presume—" she started, but gasped as he snatched his hand away from her grasp, wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her back against his body; his hand against her sex.

Leaning down, he spoke softly, almost purring.

"It is… customary for the new commander to take everything that had belonged to the one he defeated," he said.

"You!" she gasped.

"I," he confirmed, and shifted his hand over her.

Her breathing quickened and her hand, once clasped against his, restraining, now slid sensually over his leather clad arm until her fingers covered his and encouraged his touch more intimately.

He chuckled, but without mirth, as he turned his hand beneath hers to grasp her fingers and turn her wrist until she yelped in pain.

"My Lord," she whimpered and looked up at him as he spun her to face him.

"You honestly believe yourself to be worthy of my attentions? That I would debase myself in ploughing a furrow between the rot and shit between your legs?" he hissed hotly against her cheek as he pulled her close again.

He felt himself flush and harden in satisfaction as he watched the colour drain from her face, and the first hint of panic dilate her pupils. Ineffectually, she tugged against his restraining grasp until, laughing softly, he let her go. She began to back away.

"What did he promise you, girl?" he snarled.

~where will you go?~ ~go~ ~go~ ~go~ ~go~ ~go~

"What base desires…?"

~you have nowhere to run~ ~run~ ~run~ ~run~ ~run~ ~run~

Still she backed away, but he began to move, stalking her, toying with her as he wound his mind more tightly into hers.

"My Lord, please," she begged, "anything. I will give anything. You can do—"

"ON YOUR KNEES!" he roared and tightened the mental grasp so strongly that she cried out, a thin trail of blood beginning to drip from her nose as she sank to the ground.

"Please, my lord," she whispered and dabbed at the blood dripping onto her lip.

"The time for begging and pleading has long since passed," he murmured, looking down at her, and even as she threw herself at his feet, he filled her mind with the pain and images of his intentions for her. "You will die as you have lived."

**

She closed her eyes and practically prostrated herself in front of him, clasping his boots, trembling uncontrollably. The pain began as an itch, a burning in her most tender spaces as his illusion wound tightly into her mind. She knew it wasn't real, but she could see their faces…

…felt them as they forced her to yield – each and every worshipper and Handler of the Hive. She felt their greedy hands, their hungry mouths, and their fumbling, grunting, desperate possession of her until she ran filthy with their satiation…

Sobbing, then screaming – unable to stop herself, to stand the terror of it – she rolled onto her back. The Wraith commander stood motionless above her and wavered as if he were the illusion.

"Please…" she could barely form the word, her mouth was so swollen and numb from attentions merely imagined, but unwelcome. She understood then, by the merciless anger she saw coming from him, just what her information had cost his concubine. "…forgive…"

**

Finally, her trembling arms collapsed from the effort of holding her up and she fell to roll to her back, staring up at his immobile form. All the pain and horror he had seen in Alicia's eyes he now saw reflected in this one – this frail and worthless human.

"Forgive…" the word was little more than a breath and he knew she understood. Pity, not forgiveness, moved him in the end.

Abruptly, he released her mind, yet remained still as the sound of her keening punished the silence of his quarters for his cruelty.

"For her sake," he rumbled, his voice a bastion of control, "and hers alone."

Merihanna sobbed her gratitude wordlessly as he gestured with a jerk of his head that she should rise, before he ordered, "Get up," and remained stock-still as she practically climbed his body, unable otherwise to obey.

"My life in service of the Wraith," she whispered, and clasped him about the knees – he suspected it was the best she could do to rise.

"Indeed," he said almost gently, and as she looked up to see him, lost her balance and swayed backwards, his fisted feeding hand uncurled. With no other warning than his sudden snarl, his claws sank deep into her skin as his weeping maw latched hard against her chest.

Her dying screams were smothered by his near ecstatic roaring, until silence remained, littered only by the whisper of dust, drawn across the deck by unseen currents.

**

"Doctor Beckett, this is most irregular," Varnerin marched alongside Carson, coming in the opposite direction from Ayatesha when she first spotted them. "Standard Atlantis Protocol demands that all personnel returning from perilous situations off world undergo a full debriefing, and since you wrote that protocol I would think—"

"I don't give a damn what you think, professor," Carson snapped, reaching out toward Ayatesha to take her arm and turn her to walk with them, toward the infirmary she realised, and without breaking stride either in his passage along the corridor or the sentiment he was voicing to Varnerin, continued, "I have a patient in need of urgent treatment that won't wait for even the most succinct debriefing, so if you don't mind, and I'll make this as clear as I can so there's little misunderstanding between the two of us, leave me, my patient, and my medical staff the hell alone. I won't tell you again."

Carson thought the infirmary door open in front of them, which Ayatesha supposed was an ATA carrier's way of holding open the door for a lady, and then turned in the doorway itself to prevent Varnerin from following. He folded his arms stubbornly across his chest and remained in place until the professor took the hint and with a huff spun on his heel and returned along the corridor away from the infirmary. Only then did Carson turn and let out a long breath as the door sighed closed behind him. It seemed to Ayatesha that it was all he could do not to lean on it.

"Carson," she let out her own breath in an exclamation of his name and forgetting herself for the briefest of moments, hurried to cross the small space between them to wrap her arms around him. She held him tightly and the hug was reciprocated with matching fervour. "I thought—"

Carson pulled back, cutting her off with a shake of his head.

"I'm fine," he said softly, then his face softened into a brief smile and amusement twinkled in his eyes. "Though, you might want to get changed if you're going to assist."

Ayatesha looked down at herself confused, until she realised she was wearing only the long, soft cotton caftan and hijab she favoured when off duty, or at home. He had seen her wearing it on several occasions before – on Earth – and had always teased her about it then too.

"Give me a moment," she said softly, and hurried to go and find some scrubs to change into.

**

Chaya whimpered as he shifted her in his arms and carefully lay her down beside the stream bed. Her skin was pale, and she was cold to the touch, clammy. Blood caked the side of her belly, and yet more ran freely from a cut at the top of her shoulder. He had to stop that if she was going to have any chance of lasting the fast approaching night.

"Come on, sweetheart," he said softly, nudging her cheek with his flattened hand. "Open your eyes for me."

He reached out to try and free the rapid-breathing animal from Chaya's blistered hands, but even in her semi-conscious state the girl wouldn't release her hold on the creature she had obviously saved from the burning basket.

"It's all right," he tried. "I won't hurt him, I promise."

She opened her eyes, just enough for him to tell that she didn't see him, not truly. She was delirious, her injuries too great for lucidity. Breathing out a hard sigh, he quickly ripped a wide strip from the bottom of his shirt, and wet it in the ice cold water of the stream to bring it back, dripping, to lay over Chaya's hands. She cried out at the contact, roused by the pain.

"Mamma!"

Ronon's heart twisted in his chest, and he swallowed hard, refusing before that moment to acknowledge how he'd failed – how he'd allowed Raisa to be taken by the Wraith; refusing to imagine what could be happening to her.

A snap of breaking wood, like a gunshot to his left brought his blaster to his hand, and he moved to crouch over Chaya, almost like a beast over its prey… protective – possessive.

"Wait," a voice called out. Human. Laquoian. "Don't shoot."

"Come out," he said, moving back only slightly from hovering over Chaya to kneeling by her side. "Keep your hands where I can see them."

First one, and then another tattered survivor stepped from the cover of the surrounding evergreens.

"We won't harm you," the man said. "There is safety in numbers, yes?"

Ronon appraised him quickly. Though he carried a stout stick – the end of fallen branch – the man was no threat. He was a farmer, from the look of him, and the other slightly younger man, better dressed behind the soot and dirt and bloodstains likely one of the traders from the market.

"How did you escape?" Ronon demanded, somewhat harsher than he intended.

"We ran," the younger man admitted. "Like cowards, when the Wraith first came, we ran from the market to try and find safety among the trees. They can't cull in the trees. We thought—"

"We heard you coming," the older man said, "We thought you were one of them, searching."

"You should have stayed hidden," Ronon snapped, his tone bitter. "You'd only have gotten yourself killed."

"Perhaps," the older man said calmly, "but we couldn't let them find the others; had to keep them safe."

Ronon frowned. "Others?"

"At the caves," the young man said. "A small group of us; we hid there, waiting for the Wraith to leave us alone."

Barely a twenty of them survived.

A woman, her face streaked with tears detached herself from the huddled, frightened knot of Laquioans and approached the older man as they all arrived back at the cave. She buried her face in the crook of his neck and wept as he held her tightly.

Ronon's gut clenched and he tightened his own arms around Chaya. She was barely breathing. There was only one thing he could do for her, for all of these people, and though it was something he really did not wish to do, he had no choice – not any more. They didn't deserve this kind of end.

**

"All right, everyone," Beckett said softly, trying not to hold his breath as he looked around at the select and trusted few he had allowed into the treatment room with Keller. Ayatesha, of course, and Marie, plus two other nurses that he knew he could trust. "Before we start, I want to make it clear that whatever happens here today, and whatever we see should remain absolutely confidential, and I mean beyond patient privilege. Am I understood?"

He watched and listened as each member of the team confirmed his instructions, and hated the frown that materialised on Ayatesha's face, but… how could he tell her what Michael suspected when he didn't believe it himself, and how much of his own disbelief was wishful thinking?

"I will… need to have the body scanner set to cellular level to be able to see if the serum is producing the desired effects," Ayatesha saved him from his mounting guilt as she spoke. Instead he nodded and made the necessary adjustments.

"All right, bearing in mind the source of this serum, we need to be ready for just about any reaction right across the spectrum, so let's have her restrained please," he fought to keep his voice steady and to keep from wiping his suddenly damp palms against the front of his scrubs.

"We're ready, doctor," Marie's calm voice disturbed the silence moments later.

"Right, stand back, please," it was an unnecessary request, now that Jennifer was restrained, but he refused to put any one of them in harm's way, or to bring them closer to responsibility for Keller's reaction in upcoming minutes, than he had already asked them to be. With a deep breath he inserted the needle into the port on Keller's IV and began to slowly inject the serum he and Michael had developed. He glanced up at Ayatesha and asked, "Anything?"

"Nothing yet," she told him as her eyes flickered back and forth over the scanner screen that scrolled with visual representation of Keller's DNA over half of its surface.

"Come on, Jennifer," he whispered softly, leaning over to brush his fingertips over her brow as he withdrew the needle and as if daring her to prove them all wrong added, "It worked in simulation…"

They waited, and several long minutes passed, each one crawling as if twice or three times its length. He let out a long slow breath, uncertain whether it was one of disappointment or relief when nothing seemed to happen. A prickling at the back of his neck became more noticeable and he knew that wouldn't last.

"Doctor Beckett, I'm seeing an increase in her core temperature. Ninety-eight point five… point six… seven…" Marie read off the numbers that began flashing on the screen.

"Ayatesha?" Carson frowned, as she started to shake her head and then stopped.

"There," Ayatesha said suddenly, "I see encoding transcription and—Oh my God, Carson!"

"Talk to me, please," he snapped. He didn't mean to, and could see for himself the movement of key sections of DNA in the chains displayed on the screen, but Ayatesha could understand far better what was going on; what was likely to be the result.

"That's just it," she told him, "I don't know."

"Temperature now at ninety-seven point nine; her blood pressure is rising." Marie warned.

"Damn it," Carson spat, glancing at the monitors and not at all liking what he saw. He stamped on any threat of rising panic with a heavy boot as he turned to pick up several vials of medication from the nearby tray. "This is why I hate computer simulations."

He turned one vial up and inserted the needle to draw up a medication that would stabilise Keller's climbing blood pressure. He turned to administer the drug, and jumped when Ayatesha caught his wrist.

"Wait!" she said urgently, "Wait."

He shook off her grasp.

"There's no time, Y'tesha, look," he grabbed her arm and turned her away from the screen to look down at Jennifer's immobile form. He too forced himself to watch as the tremors began in his fellow doctor's limbs and her veins and arteries engorged, making it almost possible to see the passage of red and blue-black blood through her body. Her skin took on a mottled red and black spreading pattern as capillaries burst, unable to take the strain of the blood rushing through them.

"Temperature one hundred and one point three, still climbing." Marie said.

"Ice packs, now!" Beckett ordered, and moved away to allow the nurses to place the cold packs around Keller's head. He pulled away from Ayatesha as she reached for him again. "I have to do this. If her BP climbs any further—"

"Carson, you administer that and she's going to crash the minute this transcription is complete!" she said urgently.

"Then tell me what's happening!"

"The chimera cells that were causing the continual cellular degradation are being insulated by a layer of rapidly hybridising cells. Transcription is occurring in a bipolar direction allowing for communication between the Wraith and the Human DNA."

"She's hybridising?"

"No," Ayatesha grabbed Keller's chart and a pen from his pocket and rapidly drew a simplified diagram of what was displayed on the screen. "Here is the section of degraded Human cells, and here are the attacking Wraith cells… in between, these few cells are hybridised in such a way as to provide a barrier between the two, like a mesh, with Wraith to Wraith, and Human to Human and between the two, communication, not conflict. This will stabilise and there will no longer be the release of the enzyme into her bloodstream which will allow her already transcribed immune cells to deal with the residual toxins."

"Then she—" Beckett breathed.

"Her condition will stabilise," Ayatesha said even as alarms began to sound from all the monitors. "Trust me."

"Ayatesha…" Carson almost pleaded with her as he listened to the high pitched cacophony that surrounded them both, but this time he didn't pull away when her fingers closed around his wrist. Absurdly he noticed how cold her hand was.

"Insha'allah," she whispered softly, as she looked up into his eyes.

God willing indeed, he thought, and tensed every muscle in his body until it was almost painful in an attempt to shut out the continuing alarms, which pointed at his every sensibility to act… to save his patient.

"Doctor Beckett, her BP is dropping… temperature holding, now at one hundred point one degrees." Marie said softly, and after only another moment or two, the many alarms fell to silence.

"Al hamdu li'llah."

His relief, so intense it almost drained his entire being of all but the will to stand, was halted in its tracks as though it ran into an oncoming freight train as Marie spoke softly.

"Doctor Beckett, is that what I think it is?" she asked, pointing to a part of the scan that was showing in a lesser resolution than at cellular level.

He looked up and cliché though it was, his entire body froze and his blood slowed to a crawl through his veins, and pounded in his ears, like an army marching through his every sensibility.

"Oh, my God, he was right," he whispered.

"Doctor?" Marie asked.

Awareness sharpened into focus again from the blur of unwelcome revelation, and looking at the two nurses he ordered, "Give us the room, please."

They obeyed without question, and once they had, he refocused the scan onto the region of Keller's abdomen, wanting to be doubly certain before he made any firm diagnosis. There, implanted deeply within the upper right side of Jennifer's uterus, was the tiny, but clearly visible foetus.

"She's pregnant," Marie made the diagnosis for him in a voice that was thick with shock.

"Certainly appears that way," he answered, his voice flat with resignation.

"But that's not possible," Marie argued. "She underwent a D and C shortly before falling ill, there's no way—"

"It is not unprecedented," Ayatesha interrupted, staring at the screen. Beckett couldn't help but feel that it wasn't a surprise to her. "Even on Earth."

"What do you mean?" Marie asked, frowning.

"The kangaroo has the ability to freeze the embryo in cases of—," She answered.

"She's not a bloody kangaroo, Y'tesha," Beckett yelped, feeling more than a little overwhelmed, not to mention despairing. "She's human. She—"

"And that is no human child," Ayatesha answered, and at his uncomprehending stare, reached to refocus the scanner on the foetus and close in to a cellular level scan again. He tasted bile as the familiar pattern of Wraith cells and accompanying Wraith DNA began to fill the scanner's screen.

"You knew," he accused softly.

"I suspected," she admitted, "but believe me, I hoped otherwise."

"How?"

"A long time ago, when I began helping you with your research into the identification of the Ancient radical within the human genome, I discovered a different gene fragment related and yet unconnected with the Ancient radical, at the time I dismissed it… yet… when you consulted with me on your hybridisation experiment, there it was again, in… Michael's DNA profile; a gene fragment, a radical that when switched on allowed for transcription between the cells in him that were Human, and the ones that were Wraith."

"The Chimera Radical," Beckett breathed, and at her puzzled expression said, "When… I was working with Michael we…identified a gene fragment that seemed to facilitate the transcription that allowed for a greater success rate in his hybridisation process."

"Ah," she nodded. "Well… when I first examined Keller's DNA, I found it and anticipated a different function for this particular radical – especially since I could not puzzle out why Jennifer would subject herself to such a violent procedure unless she, herself, believed that such an eventuality was possible. I came to the conclusion that she knew of the radical as well."

"You worried that she could have been pregnant and you didn't say anything," Beckett said, trembling in barely contained anger.

"I dismissed it." Ayatesha shook her head. "She was completely asymptomatic and I even tested; there was nothing to lead me to believe that she was. Besides, you had undertaken six separate and all negative pregnancy tests. Would you have me question your competence?"

Beckett sighed. He couldn't be angry with Ayatesha. She had done exactly as he had done.

"Sorry," he said softly.

Again, Ayatesha shook her head. "Wala Haga itsamiH," she said softly.

"But what are we going to do?" Marie asked, staring at Keller, abject sympathy in her eyes.

"We'll do whatever Jennifer wants us to do," Beckett answered, though it didn't, he thought, take a scientist of his calibre to guess what that would be.

"No," Ayatesha answered him, a note of dark sorrow in her voice as she pulled back the scan to a lesser resolution. "There is nothing to be done. Look."

**

Alarm ran through the hallways of Atlantis, hurrying Sheppard's footsteps back toward the Gate Room.

"Unscheduled offworld activation," Chuck's voice was clearly audible even over the sound of the blaring cloister warning, and the hum of the raised gate shield. On automatic, he accepted the weight of the P90 from an SO's hands, and stood ready with the rest of the security detail, waiting for the Gate Tech's word on who, or what might be coming through.

"It's Ronon's IDC," Zelenka's voice smoothed over his jagged nerves. Still no one stood down.

"Lower the shield," Sheppard ordered, and the hum that rattled through his very back teeth, this close to the gate, suddenly ceased.

A moment later his Satedan friend stepped from the shimmering of the event horizon, looking harried, and carrying a small, limp form in his arms. At his back a ragged band of humans – clearly refugees – stepped from the puddle of light, each looking bemused and shell shocked.

Great, he thought. This is all we need. Suddenly he realised how Elizabeth must have felt all those years ago when he stepped through with the Athosians behind him. From the other side, this felt frighteningly familiar.

"Ronon," he said, "What the—"

"I need a medic!" Ronon yelled, ignoring him completely, and already starting toward the corridor that led to the infirmary.

"Ronon, stand down," Sheppard barked the order, and Ronon jerked to a halt. Sheppard turned his head and nodded to Chuck.

"Doctor Haddad, report to the Gate Room. Medical emergency," Chuck's calm voice made him feel just a little better.

"Stand down," Sheppard ordered the security detail, spotting Woolsey coming out of his office. "Let's get these people secured."

"I brought them here," Ronon's voice rumbled in the ensuing silence. "They need sanctuary. Laquoia's gone. Wraith…"

Sheppard looked over at the small group of people that had followed Ronon through the Stargate, and then glanced up to meet Zelenka's eyes only to see the same horror that he felt coursing through him reflected from behind the lenses of the scientist's glasses.

"Oh my God," Zelenka's soft exclamation reached him even across the distance. "We're too late. It's started."

"Let me take her."

The accented female voice drew him back from the darkness of the Czech's words to watch as Ayatesha tried to encourage Ronon to set the child down onto the gurney. He was unwilling.

"Ronon, let the woman do her job," he ordered softly, laying a hand onto Ronon's arm. "And tell me what the hell happened."

Ronon carefully set the bundle down onto the gurney, a young girl, now that Sheppard could see, badly wounded and very pale. She was clutching something close to her chest. Some kind of comforter or soft toy, as scorched as her hands, from what he could see, but then it moved, and mewled weakly.

"What the—?" Sheppard snapped, and for no reason his heart started pounding again in his chest.

"It's a kitling," Ronon told the doctor. "She won't let it go."

"That's all right," Ayatesha said, "I can treat the… kitling also."

"But it's a cat, doc!" Sheppard protested, more out of surprise than actual disapproval.

"A life is a life, Colonel," she answered, already assessing the girl as she instructed the rest of her medical team to give what aid was necessary to the Laquioan refugees. She looked up at Ronon then and said, "Come with us, hmm?"

Sheppard couldn't help but smile, warming to the woman as he followed Ronon and the medical team toward the infirmary, ignoring Woolsey's pointed attempts to attract his attention.

**

Todd stood in the doorway, his bulk preventing the stronger, harsher light from the corridor at his back from invading the obviously intentional soft illumination of the private chamber. He growled softly, mostly inward, watching as Alicia got up from the low divan that graced the centre of the room, and paced to the low table, to sit on the stool in front of it as if to beautify herself in its mirror. Instead she placed her folded arms along its surface, and rested her head on her arms. She was uncomfortable and restless. He could feel it.

At her soft moan, he crossed the room and came to a knee behind the stool, even before the door had hissed closed. He wrapped his strong right arm around her as she sat up and swayed backwards, and laid the back of his other hand against the skin of her neck. It was clammy and overly warm.

"You are fevered, my little Alicia," he told her softly.

She leaned back against him, tucking herself into the crook of his neck, her face turned toward him.

"I don't know what was in that medicine you gave me," she told him, moaning again softly, "but since you gave it to me, I haven't felt… right. I can't get comfortable. It feels like my flesh is trying to crawl off my bones, I'm so restless."

Todd frowned. The serum should have made her feel better. He was certain that he had formulated the drug correctly.

"And my head, I feel like—" she broke off suddenly, and turning slightly in the stool, reached across him and laid her arm over the front of his chest. "It doesn't matter. You're here now."

For a moment, he allowed it, but then eased her away, drawing her to arm's length so he could look into her face.

"Of course it matters, Alicia," he said. "If you are unwell, I need to know. Now – what about your head?"

"It aches," she said and sighed, "I feel as if I'm in a hollow room where a whole army of people are muttering and whispering all at once."

He tilted his head, watching her curiously for a moment, wondering at how she could not have made the obvious assumption. She was aboard a Wraith Hive ship, at its very heart, in the Queen's Chambers, after all. She was—

"What are you thinking?" she asked, derailing his train of thought. She reached up to cup his cheek with her hand; ran her thumb across the shape of his face, and from the contact, his breath caught, his chest tightening.

"I am thinking," he rumbled softly, shifting his arms around her until he could slip his wrist beneath her legs, and lift her effortlessly against him as he rose to his feet. She whimpered slightly, and then clung to him, her arms around his shoulders. "…that you need to relax."

She gave him an almost smile, blinking at him like some small marsupial creature, asking, "How do you propose I do that?"

"Allow me to show you," he purred, and without waiting for permission, he carried her across the room toward the private bathing chamber.

**

When he set her down, she didn't let go of his arm. She grasped the hot leather in her fingers while she waited to regain her balance. He'd said she had a fever. Perhaps that was why she felt so dizzy, unsteady and nauseous.

"Give yourself time, my parmhuna," he murmured, running his fingers around the neckline of the dress she wore. "There is no rush."

She shook her head, and looked over the swell of his biceps to the deep pool behind him. The water looked so clear, so inviting – she could almost feel the warmth of it calling to her suddenly unfamiliar muscles.

"I think my body is arguing with you," she told him, looking up and smiling. "It looks so good."

She relaxed her fingers from the death grip they had on his forearm, and lifted them to the fastening of the dress, struggling with the unusual mechanism of it and trying not to let her haste and failure frustrate her.

His fingers brushed against hers, easing them away as he deftly twisted the fastening free of the clasp, and delicately, slowly began to encourage the soft fabric to slip from the apex of her shoulders, to pool suddenly on the floor at her feet. She shivered, and self-consciously shielded her nakedness against his gaze.

~you have no need to hide yourself from me~ ~from me~ ~me~ ~me~ ~me~

She blushed, and slowly unfurled as he offered her his hand, to steady her descent into the sunken bath. Her fingers trembled only slightly as they settled into the palm of his hand, and he closed their warmth over her hand to almost stately bring her to the water's edge.

He was right. Given their relationship – what they had shared – she felt it foolish, almost childish, to be embarrassed in front of Todd, and he was being so attentive; so concerned.

"Settle yourself, little one," his voice was soft and heavy in the silence of the room. "I will be outside if you need anything."

Swallowing hard, she nodded, then moaned as she stepped into the warmth of the water, and lowered herself into the soothing comfort of its weightlessness. Sighing softly she lay her head back against the cool of the bath's smoothly curved edge, melting into the pleasure that surrounded her. As the tension began to drain out of her muscles though, the desire for privacy, and the need to be alone with her thoughts seeped away. The truth was she wanted Todd to stay.

"Todd," she called out his name, and heard him stop moving; heard the slight rustle of his leather as he turned back to her, wordlessly. "Stay."

"Alicia—"

"Please," she said, "I want you to. Join me."

He rumbled softly, and she looked up to meet his steady gaze, nodding slowly, and invitingly moved her hand through the surface of the water, making ripples that lapped back from the side of the bath over her skin… prelude… promise, as Todd reached for and unclipped the belt at his waist, and unfastened his coat.

Alicia looked away, a rush of bashful innocence coming over her. She did not look back until the slight splash of water rushed over her, and she felt him settle at her side, and the wet warmth of his fingers brush over her shoulder.

The touch burned like the sting of a nettle, but with pain of a different kind as desire and fear warred for control. He wanted her – of that she was in little doubt, and she wanted to be with him, but between them grew the thorny forest of circumstance, high and impenetrable, it seemed, encircling their fitfully sleeping desire.

She thought, in a sudden flush of romanticism, that perhaps, as in all good fairy tales, she could break the curse with a kiss, and moving slowly, balancing herself against the side of the bath, she turned toward him, straddled his legs and rested on her keen against the low shelf that served as a seat.

His arms closed around her, his fingers pressing in a gentle massage against her lower back as if he could tell that it troubled her; as if he could feel the dull ache that persisted. She moaned softly at the pleasure of it – not out of any sense of intimate arousal, but simply because if felt so damn good. She forgot herself, and leaned in closer, the full length of the front of her body pressed against his, and made another low moan as he dipped his head and nipped at the fullness of her lower lip.

A full rush of sensation burst through her, drawing a deep ache at her centre, even as her heart skipped and stuttered through a rhythm made reluctant by the violence still too fresh in her mind. She pushed against his shoulder, angrier with herself than any other feeling. She wanted him. She wanted so much to be normal.

"Alicia," he purred her name, "you must give yourself time."

"No," she raised her head from his shoulder somewhat sharply, and thrust her gaze deep into the startled expression in his catlike eyes. "I know you're being patient with me, Todd, and bless you for it, but... I won't let him beat me like this. He's already done enough with his violence... I won't let him take this from me... from us."

"You must give yourself time," he repeated quietly. His expression deepened then, as he tilted his head, regarding her softly. "I understand the sentiment, my parmhuna, and I feel your desire – but I will not compound your anguish by encouraging what would be better served by waiting on the moment. Is that not how it is done with your kind?"

"No," she said, "yes... I don't know. Maybe." She sighed in frustration, "Todd, I can't stand this restlessness. I need to know that my body can feel pleasure at the touch of another – that I can bring that to—"

"Slowly," he said, and to her ears his voice sounded thick and heavy with need. "There are... other—"

Impulse guided her to do what conscious thought would have run from screaming. She reached between them and cupped him... trapped him against the heat of the inside of her thigh... cutting off the words and drawing a deep growl from the back of his throat.

Swallowing down her mounting nervousness, she began to tease the stiffening length of him with the tips of her fingers, until she could move back enough to close her fingers around him, stroking him lightly from his base to the budlike head of his sex, and again.

He took in a deep breath that she felt vibrated between the two of them, and once or twice shifted to catch the feathery touch of her hand against him.

"I will not break, my Alicia," he chuckled softly, and closed his long fingered hand over hers. His touch guided her hand against him... eased the stroke and taught the pleasure that changing pressure clearly intensified his arousal as he responded to the beckoning of her hand. She became lost in the almost meditative flow of it and barely noticed when he slipped his hand away.

A sharp gasp, and a long, deep moan escaped her as his touch followed the direction of her own. His knowing fingers penetrated slowly, teasing over and around her own peaked nub, delicately parting the silk of her enfolding flesh before gliding within, lingering against the protest of her trembling muscles with an almost rapid flicker until the tension evaporated into the purity of her need, and she pressed against him, giving his touch deeper still.

She ran the palm of her hand over his opening glans as she stimulated his pleasure to greater heights, and his low rumble was almost one that voiced an anguish far deeper than the pleasure was high. His inner organ was softer, hotter, and as she matched the manner of her touch over the almost silk of it, with the touch he had shown her, his breathing quickened, the rumbling moan that growled at the back of his throat increased until he threw back his head and roared as his fulfilment rushed from him.

The sight and sound of his pleasure, and the shared sensations from his mind that had slipped, unnoticed over her own, drew the sharp edge of her own need – unfulfilled and burning in her – and as she shifted against him, moving to catch the touch with which he had been teasing her still, he plundered her; found her within and without, and crying out for him she shattered, blinded and trembling in intensity as her climax took her into senselessness.

A blood-red river flowed from a high plain across a withered desert... and where it touched the bank, green orchid-like flowers, tiny, a carpet of them, began to creep across the land.








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