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Act 4

Michael ran both of his hands into his hair, growling softly with enough menace that as he turned to face the hybrid delivering the news, his subordinate actually took a step backwards.

"When?" Michael snapped. "How long since we received the alert?"

"Minutes only, sir," the hybrid answered, "as you were returning to the ship."

Letting his hands fall to his side, he reached out and snatched the tablet from the hybrid's hand, keeping part of his attention focussed on the space in the chamber behind him; on Teyla's unsettled presence he could feel pulsing in the air. This latest disturbance was not what he needed.

Forcing a necessary shift in focus he took in the scrolling Wraith text and cursed in a wordless exhalation as he saw the location of the latest facility the Lanteans had breeched… damn them.

**

She felt his agitation even through the layers of lethargy and discomfort that surrounded her as she lay restlessly on her side. She took advantage of the momentary distraction afforded her by his agitation and fatigue to push beyond the ever present mental protection and discovered the cause of his frustrated anger.

…Michael…

She began to get up as he half turned her way, and held out his hand to her. It wasn't that much of a stretch to reach out and close her fingers around his, allowing him to draw her closer into his side – accepting the tendrils of support that tightened around her as he bound his energy with hers.

"Set a course and make the jump to hyperspace as soon as the ship is ready," he told the hybrid, handing back the tablet. She watched a frown cross Michael's face as she circled around behind the hybrid officer, releasing her hold on Michael's hand.

"At once," the hybrid nodded his head respectfully at Michael and turned to leave, but Teyla had put herself in his path. The soldier glanced fearfully over his shoulder at Michael, uncertain.

"How long will this journey take?" She asked as the hybrid looked her way again. Michael was exhausted – he needed rest, and if this were the only way to ensure that he had the opportunity to get it, then she would do whatever was necessary. The hybrid did not answer, and once again glanced at Michael. Hardening her tone, Teyla challenged him, "I asked you a question."

"Approximately six hours," the hybrid stiffened, his amber eyes shifting almost nervously.

Teyla forced herself to swallow the conflict she felt rising within her – comforting herself in the fact that many a time she had spoken in the same manner to members of the Atlantis Expedition in order to establish herself in the hierarchy there. If she were to similarly establish herself as Michael's equal, she must do the same here.

"Then we are not to be disturbed," she ordered, and stepping aside slightly, nodded toward the door. "Leave us."

When again the hybrid hesitated, she did as best she could to reach within, past her own fatigue and push against the thread that was the hybrid's mind. He moved soon after; hurrying toward the door as she turned her gaze on Michael.

She saw Michael swallow.

"Teyla—"

"You need… to rest," she told him, stepping forward until she could press her palm against his chest.

…I need your strength…

**

As her hand came to rest against his chest, Michael drew breath, and let it out in a long, slow almost-hiss. He felt the tremor in her fingers, and her own need for rest even more keenly than he did his own. The moment he had set foot aboard the Hive every sense had screamed at him of her condition.

"You have… needs... of your own," he answered, his clipped voice somewhat halting.

-rest with me-

As much as he loathed giving up the echo of this welcome, oh-so-familiar contact, he slipped his arms beneath her outstretched hand and guided her around him, toward a return to the bed where she had been resting. Deepening concern circumvented his hesitancy toward a greater intimacy still. Her need for sympathetic enzyme had clearly increased in frequency even during the last several hours, though he knew that even without the urgency of that factor, he would never more deny her such moments.

He sat with her, allowing the slide of his fingertips along the inside of her arm as she reached to unfasten his armoured coat.

"Your work was successful?" she asked softly, as she pushed the heavy leather from his shoulders and he shrugged it off.

"I made some progress," he answered her question, at the same time telling her little. "As with all things, only time will provide definitive success or failure."

The gentle pressure of simply moving closer lay her back against the cushioned bed, and he followed her down to stretch out with her, pillowing her head on his arm as she turned toward him.

He closed his eyes as she reached up to trace the shape of his face with her fingertips, in spite of himself leaning into her cool touch, trapping her fingers against his cheek with the press of his own.

"I am cold," she said.

He opened his eyes and met hers as he nodded, not breaking eye contact as he said, "In the absence of sufficient enzyme of specific genotype—" He stopped himself then, softening his expression, before telling her gently, "It will pass."

She took a breath, and beneath his hand her heartbeat quickened as his fingers worked the clasp of the Athosian style gown she wore. He felt her body shift restlessly beneath his, her thigh running against the outside of his leather clad leg, holding his gaze as he slowly undressed her.

He felt the unhurried reverence of his actions building within him as surely as the sweet physical tension that sharpened through his body, straining where he stirred, trapped against his leathers. The connection of their minds weaving through the unsteady breath they shared, the fluttering heartbeat he still felt from her and his own thundering pulse drew them closer still to an intimacy that even few Wraith queens shared with their own commanders.

**

-let go-

"Teyla," he breathed her name as he returned to cover her, the heat of his skin sliding against hers as he ran his hand upward on her leg to settle her thigh over his hip. The bright blue of the Hive dimmed around them and she gasped softly as he slid inside of her with the same slow reverence with which he had anointed her with her own nakedness; barely felt the sharpness of his latching for the almost burning touch of his fingers over the tenderness of her hypersensitive skin.

"Michael…" his name on her lips was equally a prayer as she arched her back to meet the descent of the wave of his rhythm as he gave himself to the act of loving her. The spiral drew and gathered in her, dissolving flesh, dividing separateness until she found herself again suspended on the shore of the great burning lake.

-parmhunaeturna-

…what is this place…?

-no place- -trust- -let go-

Closing her eyes, she surrendered, becoming the light in the near darkness of the chamber, becoming the fire on the vast burning lake, Queen becoming…

"Yes… Teyla," he gasped against the side of her neck, nipping lightly at her pulse point and drawing a deep needful moan that vibrated through the whole of her pleasure, suddenly more aware than ever of the strength of him, his power moving over her and through her.

The hardness of him filled her, even latched, still stroking her every sensitivity. Never so alive, she clutched at him, and he caught her hand to entwine their fingers, pressing the back of her hand to the bed beside them as she turned her head to capture his kiss, stroking her tongue deeply within his mouth, as his sparred with her own.

…Michael… …please, I can't—…

-trust- -let…-

—go; abandon physical; exist

The dense ball of molten heat exploded, releasing the ecstasy within to subsume, and remake every part of her as she shattered around the rush of Michael's life inside of her, milking him… clawing her free hand, and spearing her fingers into his hair to draw his head down to her breast, her back arched as the climax took her.

"Teyla!"

As he cried out for her she answered with a wordless cry, falling spent… her breath heaving… body trembling beneath his.

She drifted like a snowflake… a blue-white feather descending on some unseen current to touch as lightly as a kiss to the palm of an open hand.

**

"Teyla…" he breathed her name once more against the soft coffee mound of her breast, pushing against her barely before withdrawing his flesh from hers like a whisper. Michael let out a soft, growling breath as he disentangled his fingers from hers, paying no heed to the run of blood across the back of his hand, where her fingernails had cut him, as he moved from her – reaching for the soft furs to cover her.

…stay… …rest…

The touch of her mind in his and the lingering touch of her hand at his cheek as he pulled away were the only reassurance of her consciousness, and it swelled the unbearable wave of devotion that covered him.

-you shall rest protected in my arms-

She turned onto her side, her palm still open where his hand had left hers, and sliding behind her, he circled her with his arms and curled around her, listening as her breathing settled, slower into sleep, before the weight of exhaustion claimed him.

**

…I was summoned by the Hive's Queen…

The words that Kenny had spoken haunted him as he walked away from the centre of the Hive, the queen’s quarters – the strange connected irony did not escape him. Nor did the fact that the human – Vega – had told him she felt compelled to explore, that something had drawn her on. He was well aware that the barely mature queen should not have been able to reach out beyond even the confines of her quarters, not with the drugs to which she was being exposed dampening her mental abilities – she certainly wasn’t able to connect with the sentient heart of the Hive to even discover Vega’s existence, so how had she summoned her… and who, if not the queen, had summoned him?

There was something else going on – something the commander had decided to keep from him – but something of which Kenny would no longer consent to be ignorant. Snarling, he turned his steps toward the commander’s laboratory and from there he would access the files that had so captivated the commander when he had the Lanteans, and more specifically, Doctor Keller on board.

He would have the truth of this.

With a deep breath to calm the still-strong anger in his mind, Kenny stepped up to the access console and laid his hands on the interface and though he knew he could not mimic the commander’s mental presence, without the commander aboard, all access reverted to him as Hive Second. He had made certain of that when his commander had appointed him. It was a fact that had served him well.

One by one he called up the files. He wasn’t as knowledgeable in the area of genetic science, but he was no fool. He knew enough of his commander to have made a point of learning a passing knowledge – enough for him to begin to decipher the information in the files, and as he did, his incredulity – and the uncomfortable feeling that had been growing in him since his commander had brought the humans on board – grew to unimagined heights.

A radical gene in humans, dormant even in most that possessed it, with Ancient markers, markers that were also present in fertile Wraith commanders and in most queens… a shared heritage. Such a thing was heresy and yet – here before him – was empirical, scientific proof.

"To what end, my commander?" he hissed into the silent laboratory, flicking quickly between several file frames to let what information catch his attention as would. It was all so similar, and taxing the extent of his knowledge, that nothing immediately added to the impressions of a study in Wraith and human heritage. Not until a name on one of the slides caught his eye. Jennifer Keller.

Kenny snarled softly. He knew full well what manner of dalliance had passed between the human woman and the commander, and that his commander had treated her less than gently; certainly with a singular lack of respect that even humans sometimes warranted. A deep frown creased his brow ridges as he recalled the puffy redness around her eyes in the time when he had come to see to her comfort… carefully hidden to casual glance with cosmetics, but his gaze had not been casual. He had betrayed his commander for the tattered emotions he had seen that day… and, he realised, looking now on the slide containing Doctor Keller's genetic profile, would again if the necessity presented itself.

He raised his fingertips to the screen, as if reading the image by touch. There was the gene radical, and there the additional receptors, proving the radical to be active. There was the transcription model, the simulation showing cell division and—

"Wait!"

The word burst from him as if it were a curse, and his fingers flashed over the keypad as he called up a second file from the computer. More recent, and laid it side by side on the screen with Keller's. The same radical – active; the same transcription model and simulation, except…

"This is no model," he breathed, disbelief stealing his breath. "…No simulation…"

Kenny turned from the screen, gripping the edge of the computer console even as he removed all traces of his intrusion and deactivated it. His stomach churned, and he felt as though fluid, not bones, lay inside of his legs.

…I was summoned by the Hive's Queen…

Not by any barely grown mongrel bitch that his commander had picked up on some desolate, hidden world, but by the pure bred thing carried in the human's belly.

Kenny shivered, and pushing away from the console, slipped into the shadows, his head still reeling… and his spine gripped by chill fingers as he could have sworn he heard a light laughter dogging his steps.

**

"Wilson to Major Hollick - Sir, we have incoming. ETA seven minutes!"

"Understood. All non-essential personnel fall back to the safe zones. Lie low."

The lieutenant's report from the cloaked Jumper in orbit, and Major Hollick's terse response in Ayatesha's ear were a stark reminder of the danger any of them faced in being here and in why Carson had been reluctant for her to come.

"Team two, get to the medical personnel. Escort them to zone five. Protect the wounded. Let's show this creep an empty nest, guys. Hollick out."

She looked up from repacking the samples as the twisted metal door opened and closed behind her and straightened her back, tensing the muscles for a moment in an attempt to settle the knot that leaning over the packing crates for so long inside the confines of the ruined laboratory had caused. They had cleared away the debris at her insistence so that she could reach anything that remained intact of Michael's research in this place. She hoped that she could find a way to get at least some of it back to Carson.

"Ayatesha," Jennifer’s soft, almost hesitant voice sounded behind her. "Hollick just ordered the evacuation protocol."

"I know," she answered just as softly, and released the breath she hadn't realised, until that moment, she had been holding since she heard Hollick's orders. "I heard him give the order."

She turned to face the other woman then; watched the mixed emotions warring over Jennifer's paling features – the worry, the gratitude... the regret and the stern glint of fierce protective necessity that had lodged in the corner of her eye. She saw herself in that spark, and was beset by a sudden nauseating fear that trembled through the whole of her body.

The irony of the whole situation was not lost on the subjugated thread of humanity – of her self – that mourned deep in the heart of this new existence. They had done this to her in order to force her to find a way to stabilise the change; to allow for the construction of a super-soldier from a fusion of human and Wraith DNA and now their creation had turned against them. What was it that it said in their holy book? Those that live by the sword shall die by it? They had.

She had worked tirelessly, though not to stabilise her altered DNA, but to find a way to restore her original genome and stabilise that. She had always known that Wraith DNA, when introduced into any living portion of the human chromosome, would prove dominant, and would eventually either stabilise by itself or destroy the host organism. It had been designed that way – to be dominant. Carson's experimentation with the retrovirus had convinced her of that.

The Wraith were a construct; the product of someone's misguided attempt to bridge a gap between matter and energy that had escaped the laboratory and become established in nature – an organism in their own right – an introduced apex predator to rule over the food chain in the Pegasus galaxy.

...and just like the human soldiers here; just like Professor Frankenstein in Shelley's novel... just like Carson in his creation of Patient 4364 – Michael – the progenitors of the Wraith had been destroyed by their own creation.

She snarled again, revelling in the deaths she had caused; in the destruction of the computers and their data; momentarily losing her grip on the remnants of her human consciousness and pulled against the chains in which the last remaining soldier had managed to confine her even as she had attacked him. It was a futile gesture, for both of them. He would not survive the mortal wound she had given him, and she would slowly starve to death in the confinement of the reinforced chains. Part of her wondered how long it would take for her mind to disintegrate under the crushing burn of the hunger that she could already feel, hot and uncomfortable inside of her.

"...have to go," Jennifer was beside her when she came back to herself. "Come on, I'll help you."

Keller leaned down then to snap one of the sample cases closed and reach for the handle.

"It is all right, Jennifer," she said, suddenly tired; almost overwhelmed by sorrow. She reached for Keller's hand then and drew her upright again, away from the sample case, and squeezing her fingers, stretched up to kiss first one, and then the other of her cheeks. "Ma'asaalama. Yallah."

Then she turned toward the door, leaving Jennifer behind her, and in spite of herself took a trembling, but deep breath as she felt Keller's body heat move closer; forced herself not to fight as the other woman's arms closed around her.

**

"Enough!"

Sheppard wasn't even aware enough to realise that that crushing pressure in his psyche had suddenly fractured until he was released and fell backward. His head impacted heavily against the stony ground, and in reflex he tried to suck in a breath into his straining lungs.

Bright spots flew in the air before his eyes as he failed, and a new, crushing and radiating pain spread from the middle of his chest along the left side of him, numbing his arm, filling him with new panic as he could almost feel his heart's failing beat.

He couldn't die… not yet – he had too much to do – and certainly not like that. It was a mistake, that was all. Any minute now he'd take a breath, steady his heartbeat and everything would be—

A faint cry reached through the pounding in his ears – it sounded raw and helpless; hopeless and his panic turned to horror as he barely recognised the voice as being his own.

This is it, Johnny boy… check out time… last of nine, all gone.

He felt his face flush and his eyes grow hot with tears as a hundred realisations crowded in on him at once.

Isn't my life supposed to be flashing before me right about now?

He would never again lie awake at night listening to the wind blowing over the waves of the west pier beside his quarters; never again tease McKay about being a bottomless pit; run a circuit with Ronon…

Never got to tell Teyla I love her… God, what an asshole.

The last thought stuck, added to the desolation, with an image of her smiling face, the memory of the one time he'd crossed the line – his lips on hers… her pliant body tense against his. He moaned… the moan became a cry and a new heat – a new pain assaulted his body from the middle of his chest, horribly familiar and yet as different as night from day.

Awareness of the physical flooded back with the pain and Sheppard became aware of the bite of a Wraith hand against his chest, and a cloaked figure crouching over him, holding him up like a rag doll by the torn shoulder of his uniform jacket with the other hand. She snarled at him as his eyes fluttered open, taking her in. A burning heat flowed from the touch, speeding through his veins hot and unkind in energising his body – stabilising his heart – the energy too much for him, he cried out again… trying to articulate his needs.

"Ple— no mo— sto—sto… p… stop!"

The hands released him; the inner scalding faded to an uncomfortable smouldering heat.

"He will tell you nothing in this way," a voice said as he gasped, taking in huge, rasping breaths – trembling, unsteady, his head swimming. "And certain nothing if he dies."

That struck him as funny, and curling around the pain in his chest and belly which lingered, an uncomfortable, dark laughter bubbled up inside of him. He examined the pain then, spread as it was still radiating outward and adding to the horrors coursing inside of his mind he discovered himself hard and aching… The discovery grabbed the pain and stuffed it into his churning stomach, where it bubbled over – a chain reaction that finally gave him the strength to roll to his knees, retching – vomiting – the acid burn in his throat releasing the hot tears from behind his eyes. The bitter laughter became a visceral sobbing, alternated with the clenching of his gut as he turned himself inside out with the product of his nausea.

**

"Besides," the Shadow Queen continued as all her sisters turned toward her when she straightened from giving the Gift of Life to the Lantean. Malcolm couldn't help but wonder at her actions, tense with the anticipation of what words she would utter next. "It is past time for us to cease this bickering and fighting amongst us. Would any of us have told the others of a Lantean prisoner in our brig? No… and it seems to me that this queen and her commanders – her allies – have pursued matters pertaining to the survival of Wraith far more than those of you that have done nothing but challenge, accuse and castigate."

Malcolm raised an eye-ridge. There had to be some reason for the Shadow Queen so openly supporting the Elder Queen, but he could not reason it, particularly not as she had told him in so many words that she did not approve of the Elder Queen's actions.

=what is she doing?=

{supporting you, my Queen}

=why?=

The word came as a mental slap, and he could not help but chuckle slightly even as he let the Elder Queen understand his own confusion in the matter. In truth, he was even more disturbed by the whole matter than he admitted, even to his queen.

"Wheels within wheels," he murmured softly, drawing a glance his way from the scientist. This other was dangerous, not only to him, but to all Wraith, and yet he had taken great risks to bring them solutions to problems that the queens had, in their self-serving arrogance, only begun to perceive… and then there was the Lantean…

How, and why would the human have so foolishly interrupted such a gathering of Wraith? How many more were here, and where were they? What was the commander's purpose in bringing that one to the conclave?

"Are you suggesting, sister," the Blood Queen began, drawing herself up to tower over the smaller Shadow Queen, "that we should begin our deliberations, and vote for a Primary from among us?"

"I am suggesting nothing," the Shadow Queen answered, "merely stating facts. This one among our sisters has brought us warning against the former Wraith Scientist, a reminder of our most urgent, pressing need, and a means," she raised her hand to forestall interruption, "however uncomfortable to us now, of addressing that necessity. What have we contributed to this convocation except to doubt, to question and to cast suspicion among ourselves?"

"She has a point," the Raven Queen said bitterly.

"I don't recall hearing very much from her at all, bar now?" the Red Queen all but snarled, turning a baleful gaze on the Shadow Queen. "Except in as much as saving the Lantean's life."

**

Sheppard felt the weight of the queens' combined stares turn this way again, and started to curl up on himself, even knowing it was exactly the wrong thing to do. A pale, long fingered hand closed around the wrist of the arm that he had intended to curl around his head in defence, and he felt his shoulder protest as he was all but hauled to stand, swaying and unsteady on legs that were marshmallow puffs.

"On your feet, Lantean," Todd's voice was harsh, a little above a snarl – as if he needed anything more to unbalance him – filling Sheppard with even more confusion.

"Indeed," the Shadow Queen moved closer, and Sheppard involuntarily took a step backward, bringing his shoulders into contact with Todd's chest. "This is no place for the prisoner to await the decisions of our conclave as to his fate."

Sheppard cleared his throat, "If it's all the same to you, I'll be going now."

He was surprised at how much the ineffectual show of defiance buoyed his non-existent, let alone flagging spirits.

"It is not," another of the queens, this one familiar to him answered in place of the other, "and you will be going, yes… back to my brig. Commander…"

Sheppard felt, rather than heard Todd's sigh, and then the Wraith released him, only for his upper arm to be caught in an uncompromising grip, as Malcolm took his arm.

"My Queen," the Wraith's voice was like silk, and against Sheppard's already raw nerves, it grated like nails down a chalk board. His teeth ached in protest.

He didn't have time to contemplate his ill fortune, however, as the taller Wraith began striding off, and at one misstep, Sheppard was certain that Malcolm would drag him the rest of the way back to the brig.

**

Isla watched as her lord left the conclave with the Lantean prisoner, and not for the first time, she shivered. Unbidden her eyes were drawn away, to a knot of cloaked worshippers shading in the shadows of the dais on the side belonging to one of the other queens. Impossible to tell from which Hive they came, she could only guess at their allegiance by their position, and even that was uncertain since, at meets such as these, worshippers were often traded between Hives. It was a fate she hoped would not become her lot, now or ever.

Keeping close to the noses of the Hives that formed the ring around the conclave space, Isla moved, silent and watchful, something nagging at her making her want to get closer to these others. As she got closer, Isla could see by what they wore beneath their cloaks, that they were a Handler and several high grade workers. In addition one woman stood, her arms wrapped around herself, dressed as a commander's concubine and newly adorned with the bruises to prove it.

Isla's heart lurched and on sparrows' wings began to fly to the woman, but the sparrow soon became a hawk that twisted, screaming in the air to dive after prey as the woman's voice reached her, returning to the hand of its mistress with its damning catch in its taloned embrace.

"It will be enough," the woman's fingers slipped into the palm of another worshipper's hand. "It will be swift, painful and deadly – you only need a moment."

**

The Shadow Queen circled to her place as the others came together. It would be a wordless time... a discussion held entirely beyond the ears and knowing of the servants that would follow them even to death – should it come to that – such was the loyalty commanded by these five.

Raphael moved to take his place behind his queen. His eyes scanning over the other three commanders and one second – where the Elder Queen's commander should have been, but was not. Raphael felt a surge of bitter resentment at that fact. Any other commander would have been castigated beyond belief for his lack of attendance to his queen's needs, but not so that one. That one seems to believe that he stood head and shoulders above his queen, in more than just physical stature, and to Raphael, that kind of heresy could never be tolerated. To add further insult to his already injured sensibilities, his place was taken by the scientist that had interrupted the Conclave... interloper... Raphael's brother.

Sibling rivalry notwithstanding, to see his brother at the shoulder of another – enemy – queen was almost more than Raphael could stand, and the look in his sibling's eyes – cold and calculating – fuelled the fire beneath the already smouldering kindling of his temper. He wanted answers to his many questions, and more than that, he wanted to show the Elder Queen's arrogant commander that his behaviour was unacceptable and would not be accepted, particularly not when his dam, the Red Queen, was elected Primary over the sorry excuse for ancient queens that her sisters represented. Nodding to his second, he stepped back, and once the other Wraith had taken his place behind the Red Queen, Raphael turned and strode soundlessly toward the exit of the Conclave Space.

**

Todd chuckled slightly in dark amusement as his brother left the confines of the Convocation. He could not have asked for events to progress closer to accord with his plans – except perhaps Sheppard's experience, for which he felt a pang of regret. He did not for one moment however let that regret dull his senses, ever alert for the moment in which all his plotting and scheming could come unravelled. It would suit him well for only one of these ancient bitches to ascend to primacy over the others, and it was she he stood behind. Were any of the others, particularly his dam, to be elected as Primary, he would have to readjust his allegiance, and that would cost him time – time he knew they did not, any of them, have.

Still, with his brother out of the way, even though he knew commanders were expected to hold their silence during such a time, he was free to insinuate what influence he could over the ancient matrons in front of him. He relished the challenge. In his many centuries it would not be the first time he had manipulated a queen's thinking... nor, he was certain, would it be his last.

**

McKay stood tense behind Colonel Tsai's command chair on the bridge of the Sun Tzu. In seconds they would exit the relative safety of hyperspace, relying only on the colonel's wits, and his own genius to get them into position and destroy, or at least heavily damage their target cruiser, before any of the Wraith saw through the deception they wrought. He shouldn't have been nervous; the plan was sound and his genius more than made up for any failings Ling Tsai might have had; but he was. Some prickling, unsettled niggle at the back of his neck, the one that had all of his hair standing to, told him that something wasn't quite right, something had been missed, and that whatever that something was, it was about to come back around and bite him on the ass – hard.

"Twenty seconds to normal space," the calm voice of the Sun Tzu's conn officer broke the tense silence and McKay almost jumped.

"Ready all forward rail guns," Tsai ordered. Then half turning her chair to face McKay she added, "Better hope that this code of yours works."

"And that the Odyssey is in position," the tactical officer muttered as he activated the Sun Tzu's weaponry. "Not to mention—"

"All right, enough!" Tsai finally cut off her subordinate officer, and McKay felt the tightness in his chest begin to slacken. "We're all aware that there are many things that could go wrong, so we don't need to add to them by losing our focus."

"Three seconds… two… one…"

"Open secure channel," Tsai ordered.

"Channel open," came the calm response.

The yawning swirling blue white of hyperspace gave way to the black and pinprick dark of normal space

"Odyssey, this is Su—"

"Oh Crap!" McKay's eyes finally resolved what he was seeing – and it should not have been the sight that dominated the Sun Tzu's forward view screen. Even as his eyes took in the massive black bulk of the Wraith Cruiser, proximity alarms began sounding, shrill and insistent, and even before Colonel Tsai's hurried call for evasive manoeuvres, the deck lurched under McKay's feet as her conn officer struggled with the Sun Tzu's attitude controls, and the inertial dampeners fought to compensate the sudden pitch and yaw.

"What the hell—!" Tsai's voice matched the glance she threw in McKay's direction, and both were colder than the black of space.

"It shouldn't be there," McKay whined, as though the presence of the Wraith cruiser was an offense to his every sensibility.

"We've been spotted," the tactical officer interjected, "Wraith ships in orbit are launching Darts."

"Damn it," Tsai threw McKay another searing glance before demanding of her tactical officer, "Are we still transmitting the false transponder signal?"

"Yes ma'am," he answered after only a moment, "They still think we're the hybrid."

Tsai cursed again, before ordering, "Continue evasive manoeuvres – let's see if we can reach our target."

**

Feeling a little more like himself, Sheppard tried an experimental tug against the Wraith's hold on his upper arm. The grasp was unyielding and Malcolm looked in his direction, a feral cat waiting to pounce – and he the mouse.

"Really," Sheppard tried to engage the Wraith in a little of his usual banter – full of a mix of bravado and extremely dangerous inflammatory comments. It was, Sheppard thought, probably not the smartest thing he'd ever done – probably on a par with trying to take on a grizzly bear with not a can of pepper spray within a hundred miles – but if he could just irritate the Wraith enough for the other to make a mistake… "The strangle hold against the upper arm isn't as necessary as you might think. I'm house broken and I come to heel real well both on and off leash."

For a moment, Sheppard thought that the imposing Wraith commander wasn't going to bite – that he would have to try harder, and probably longer, which sucked of course because he knew he probably didn't have time before he wound up in the Hive's brig, at which point he would be totally screwed because… well just because he would. He didn't think the queen that sent him there wanted him for his good looks, charm and witty conversation. Then the Wraith finally spoke.

"Why do you do it?" he asked, his triple toned voice lazy with curiosity and boredom mixed.

"Do it?" Sheppard echoed the Wraith, knowing full well what he was asking, but playing dumb in a continued attempt to aggravate the predatory commander.

"Yes," Malcolm answered mildly. "Your continued attempts to provoke my ire… amuse me, human. Do you truly think I would make such a mistake?"

"You have me all wrong, buddy," Sheppard answered, his heart sinking to somewhere deeper than the liquid core of the planet beneath his feet. "I'm just trying to get along. It's very important to build a good relationship with those who're going to be keeping you prisoner. There was this one time—"

"I think not."

"I don't suppose you're in a sharing mood?" Sheppard asked.

"Tell me," Malcolm said, and something about the edge that he heard in the Wraith's voice made Sheppard feel suddenly very nervous. "Did she ever return to you? The one you spoke with when last we met?"

"Don't go there, pal, you're way off base!" Sheppard snarled, and suddenly his nervousness became anger, and he tugged at his arm again.

"The one you ordered to leave the Hive with the others…"

Sheppard tugged a third time, and this time the Wraith let go, taunting him to lose what last vestige of cool he might have felt. Sheppard spun to face Malcolm, unthinking, beginning to advance toward the Wraith.

"The one whose heart—"

How does it feel, Colonel Sheppard…?

"I said don't go there!" Sheppard's snarling words would have done any Wraith proud, and in spite of his recent ordeal, the force with which he connected against the Wraith commander was enough to have Malcolm step back a half step, before he regained his balance.

"A raw nerve," Malcolm continued to taunt him, but Sheppard noted the Wraith shifted his stance to a more battle ready position. The realisation only served to further enflame his already burning anger. He lunged at the Wraith again, this time managing to close his fist around the hilt of one of Malcolm's blades.

"You mention Teyla one more time and I swear—"

"Teyla… yes," Malcolm rumbled, ignoring Sheppard's warning, "I remember the equivalent turmoil in the mind of the one you call Michael at the mention of her name; the thought of her."

Sheppard lunged, swinging the Wraith blade in a wide, horizontal arc in front of him. His wrist jarred suddenly as the steel met its twin. He hadn't even noticed the Wraith drawing his offhand blade.

"—I will carve you a new one!" Sheppard heaved against the pressure of blade on blade, his anger lending him the strength to throw the Wraith off.

"So be it," Malcolm answered calmly. "The Queen had wanted you alive, but if you are determined to die trying to defend the honour of a woman that has already abandoned you for her Wraith lover—"

…to know that it's me she reaches for in the dark of night…

Sheppard snarled again and threw himself toward the Wraith, blade leading, and flashing in the muted starlight as he drove the knife forward. Malcolm countered with equal force, and had Sheppard been in any way rational, he would have realised that the Wraith had the advantage of a clear, cold countenance; control.

Sparks erupted into the night air to accompany the bell-like ringing of the blades each against the other as Sheppard moved on instinct to block the Wraith's incoming blow. In the same moment he lashed out with his booted foot against the side of Malcolm's knee, twisting the Wraith's supporting leg as he sought to avoid the threat of injury. Momentarily unbalanced, Malcolm failed to block the downward sweep that Sheppard made with his knife, and Sheppard felt a rush of bitter elation as the bright line of blood seeped through the slashed leather of Malcolm's coat-sleeve.

The Wraith snarled, and came at him again with renewed force. Blocking the four blows in rapid succession, elation soon gave way to desperation as both it, and the edge of his anger faded off, leaving him wondering what in hell he thought he was doing?

**

McKay jumped as the panel on his left exploded in a shower of hungry sparks that began to gnaw at his shoulder as the Wraith assault on his well thought out plan punched another hole in the Sun Tzu's defences.

"McKay," the conn officer's voice, raised above the din of the general chaos on the bridge, sounded more desperate than it had a moment before. "I just lost attitude control. One more hit like that and—"

"I'm on it!" he snapped, already turning to pull at the smoking panel, reaching in for the control crystals just behind the partially melted metal. His hands flashed over the heated crystals, even as he continued, "Though how you expect me to be able to fix anything with third degree burns on the tips of my fingers is beyond me-try it now!"

He turned his head toward the centre console, as if doing so would hasten the conn officer's response, and beyond the trio in command he could clearly see the forward view screen, and the tumbling, twisting attacks of the Wraith Darts almost right on top of them.

"Nothing," the conn officer announced.

"Nothing?" McKay yelped, turning immediately back to juggling the crystals in the various sockets of the ruined console, pausing only to snatch a tablet computer from a passing engineer, muttering, "Heap of crap Asgard technology!"

"It's no good," Tsai spat in his direction before she turned back to look at the escalating number of enemy fighters in theatre. "We're never going to make it through that curtain of Darts."

"Shields at 37 percent," the tactical officer further underlined just how much trouble one little Wraith cruiser had caused them by not being where it should have been. "Ma'am, I strongly recommend we abort."

"Negative!" McKay said before Colonel Tsai could respond. His voice was brittle with annoyance. "The Odyssey will be a sitting duck if we don't at least try and pull those other cruisers out of her way." He switched another set of crystals, "Try now?"

"And we already are sitting ducks," Tsai said, her annoyance clearly matching McKay's.

"Better us than them," McKay answered, uncharacteristically selfless in his assessment of the situation. "They have to reach Sheppard and the others." Then to the conn officer snapped, "Well?"

The man shook his head. "No response," he said.

"Oh, for the love of—" McKay muttered as he quickly clamped the wires of the diagnostic tools to different nodes within the panel. An explosion from a distant part of the ship rocked the deck beneath him, throwing McKay against the neighbouring panel. He gave a sharp cry as the collision jarred the healing injury to his wrist.

"All of this for one man!" Tsai threw the accusation at him across the wavering heat of the many fires that had broken out on the bridge, "Even a handful of men is not—"

"No," McKay switched two more of the crystals even as he argued with the colonel. "All of this for a whole unit of men, including the military commander of Atlantis and the Intel about the Wraith purpose here. Now?"

The conn officer's sigh of relief, and sudden frantic activity; the sluggish, but obvious movement of the ship's deck beneath his feet was all the answer McKay needed, and he climbed to his feet, stalking toward the command chair and its single, stubborn occupant.

"I realise that you have no concept of what it's like to live under the threat of what will happen if the Wraith gain any more of an advantage in the Pegasus Galaxy but—"

His protestations were cut short as the deck tipped sharply leftward, forcing him to grab for the back of the command chair for balance. He glanced at the screen in time to see the dark blur of a number of Wraith Darts disappearing past the view screen, barely missing the vulnerable forward section of the ship. A thunderous explosion followed barely seconds later, and multiple alarms began sounding.

"The Darts just took out the last of our shields," the tactical officer said gravely.

"Hull breech forward on deck five. We're venting atmosphere," the conn officer added. "Closing emergency bulkheads."

"That's it," Tsai said hotly, holding up her hand to forestall McKay's objection.

McKay stopped mid-breath, his mouth open ready to release the string of invectives already poised on the tip of his tongue.

"I don't want to hear it, Doctor," Tsai made her feelings perfectly clear with the expression on her face. "I’m not prepared to risk my ship any further for a handful of men – no matter who they are… or what Intel they have. Conn., Tactical, signal the Odyssey – abort mission. Get us the hell out of here!"

**

Malcolm swept his elbow toward Sheppard's face as he threw out the hand holding the knife to intercept the human's obviously tiring, low thrusting swing of the stolen knife. The wily human had evidently anticipated the gambit as he ducked the blow, and pulled back on the knife, depriving Malcolm of the satisfying ring of metal on metal, and more importantly, of his balance.

He would not surrender to such weakness though, and used the tip in his balance to alter his direction and momentum, and came at Sheppard from the other side, ducking his shoulder low as he drove toward the man's chest. The resulting collision took both of them from their feet, to land heavily against one of the nearby boulders and sent Sheppard's blade spinning away into the shadows.

Sheppard let out a cry, and a sharp crack split the relative silence of their shared, rasping breath.

The two of them rolled to the side, eliciting another cry from the injured human now pinned beneath him, and Sheppard clawed at Malcolm's wrist as he thrust the knife toward Sheppard's vulnerable neck. He hadn't counted on the sheer bloody-minded determination to live that the man so obviously possessed, and couldn't help but feel an irritating flush of admiration for the man as the fist Sheppard had made of his free hand as he fought to hold back the blade connected not once, but twice with the side of his face.

Malcolm snarled, and redoubled his efforts to bring the knife to bear against the human's exposed throat. He leaned his full weight into the assay, pressing hard against the injured side of Sheppard's torso, and was satisfied when the human let out an agonised cry and writhed against his pinioning bulk.

"You will not prevail, human," he growled. "Surrender – allow the inevitable. I promise to be merciful. You will feel no more pain."

Sheppard spat in his face and Malcolm's sensory pits detected the iron scent of blood in the saliva.

"Go to hell!" the human gasped, tightening his fingers almost painfully against Malcolm's wrist.

Undeterred, Malcolm pressed the point of the blade against the soft flesh beneath Sheppard's chin, and leaning down hissed against the human's face.

"Rather I would bathe in your life's blood, foolish human," he said. "But you can be sure that I will tell your friends that you died well… before they are given to service me."

He felt Sheppard's renewed anger in the surge of strength that pushed against his hand, inching the knife back just enough to provide Malcolm with the distance he required, playing right into his hands, and for a moment the Wraith commander almost despaired that he could so easily manipulate an almost worthy foe.

Suddenly he lashed out with his free hand against the inside of Sheppard's elbow, tearing his hand away from his wrist, relishing the pain of the deep gouges left by the human's nails against his skin and in the same moment slashed forward with the blade.

A growl to his offhand side was the only warning Malcolm had of the interloper to the fight before a solid mass, heavy with momentum latched around the side of his neck and shoulders and carried him clear of the struggling human. He landed heavily, thrown clear of his quarry, and instinctively rolled sideways to find his knees, and swiftly push himself to a crouch.

He snarled, finding himself face to face with an almost mirror image. The Red Queen's offspring-commander's face twisted into an expression of contempt as he spoke, his voice low and full of unexpressed, frustrated rage.

"You overreach yourself, Commander," he hissed. "The Queens want this human alive."

Malcolm's first answer was a bitter hiss, and to shift the knife he still held, from one hand to the other, and to tip his head as he watched Sheppard's unlikely saviour draw his own blades, both of them.

"Take him then," he growled softly.

{if you can} {if you can} {you can} {can} {can}

**

Davidson clung to the side of the command chair as the first salvo hit them almost before they could put up shields. The incoming fire from the Wraith was right on target to do the most damage almost the minute they had decloaked.

"Damn it," he spat. "They were waiting for us. What went wrong? What's going on? Someone hail the Sun Tzu."

"No response, sir," his tactical officer answered immediately. "Sensors are reading echoes of a fire fight on the other side of the planet," he hesitated, then added, "and a growing debris field."

"Hail them again," Davidson was out of his seat at once on receiving that news, bracing himself against the continued barrage of fire from the orbiting cruisers. "Shields?"

"Still no response, Colonel," the answer was not what he wanted to hear. "Shields at 85 percent."

"Orders, sir?" his conn officer asked.

"Keep on target," Davidson said, "Colonel Sheppard and his team are counting on us. Until our shields drop below 30 percent we'll stick with the original plan." He rounded on another member of his bridge crew. "You – patch into the comm array from your station, keep trying to raise Colonel Tsai. Tactical – since they already know we're here we might as well give them something to think about. Ready for and aft weapons – fire at will."

"Aye sir," the two crew members answered in chorus.

Orders given, Colonel Ian Davidson retook his seat and turned his attention to the forward view screen as they pushed and manoeuvred their way past the Wraith cruisers, the steady thump of weapons' fire against their shields, and the answering hiss and whine of the Asgard beam weapons and their rail guns strangely comforting.

It wasn't until the first whine of a wing of Wraith Darts screamed past his view screen that the determined colonel began to worry.

**

Sheppard rolled to his side, moving slowly against the growing pain in his side, his aching hand pressed against his undoubtedly broken ribs. He tasted blood in his mouth, and it made him feel nauseous, weakened again to near helplessness, and the growing sticky patch against his left shoulder told him he was still bleeding from the slashing cut to the side of his face, and the graze against his neck. Small mercies that the Wraith had missed his artery… if he didn't take advantage of the newcomer's distraction he was just as screwed as he had been in the first place.

He staggered slowly to his feet, swaying slightly, and reached out to steady himself against the boulder that had been the cause of his injury – that and the Wraith – and he couldn't help but let out a bitter chuckle that ended in a rasping, bloody cough as he thought about being caught – almost literally – between a rock and a hard place.

The ringing of steel against steel gave him momentary pause in his contemplation of escape, and he turned his head to watch as the two Wraith came at each other. The blades blurred, light against the darkness. Under any other circumstances it would have been magnificent. Two grand-masters engaged in weapons' play.

Malcolm pressed his obvious advantage of experience against the other Wraith – Raphael, as Sheppard was now certain he should be called, an avenging angel, bitter and dark as vengeance itself – who countered with the strength of a conviction that almost shone from his green-white pallor.

They spun and lunged, pressed forward and gave ground, neither gaining the upper hand, but neither did either one seem in any way disadvantaged, in spite of the face that Malcolm had already been hurt by Sheppard's lucky strikes against him. He had to admit to admiration for the Wraith.

Sheppard shook his head, forcing his attention back to his own predicament. Breathing was becoming difficult. His head was swimming, the two things together told him that the rib had probably punctured something, and that coupled with the taste of blood in his mouth did little to inspire confidence in his ability to get far even if he did escape. He wondered, not for the first time, why it was he had sent Ronon away. Sure, the Satedan was hot headed, but rather a hot headed friend in a fight than a cold blooded almost-ally… and he figured that Todd was his best, probably his only hope for getting out of there alive.

In the same moment that he turned to try and find an exit; find a place to hole up and wait for the other Wraith to finish whatever game it was he was playing with the Wraith queens – and Sheppard had no doubt he was playing some kind of game –additional footfalls, coming closer, stopped him cold as suddenly the clearing in which they had been fighting was encircled by Wraith Drones, each bearing staff weapons, and effectively put an end to the fight between the two Wraith.

Among the newcomers, a single subordinate commander, who almost bowed in deference toward the two commanders. Standing as close as they were, each to the other, it was hard to see who was the intended recipient of the honour, at least until he spoke, facing Malcolm.

"Primary Commander," he said softly, "The Primary requires—"

A whining screech from overhead, and a fiery flash cut off his words, and drew all attention skywards as a Dart, damaged and in free fall plummeted toward the ground, passing over their heads.

Malcolm was the first of all of them to look higher, and following the Wraith commander's gaze, Sheppard realised the flashes he saw in the night sky were anything but shooting stars.

"Weapons' fire," he gasped, then making an intuitive leap, he added, "McKay…"

Evidently, Malcolm heard him, and turning his way, snarled, "Lanteans!"

"Don't look at me, pal," Sheppard managed to draw breath enough to speak with some force, "I had nothing to do with this."

He started trying to back away, but Malcolm glanced beyond him, and Sheppard suddenly found himself staring at a dozen staff weapons as Malcolm turned his attention to the other Wraith commander, their animosity of only moments before suspended if not forgotten.

"We must get the Queens safely away at once," he ordered, evidently not having missed the adjusted title by which he had been called, "and disband this Convocation."

"Agreed," Raphael answered, already turning his steps back toward the meeting place. He paused just as he drew level with a narrowing of rocks that formed a natural entrance to the rubble strewn clearing they had occupied. "And Commander…"

Malcolm turned to fix the other Wraith with an uncompromising stare. Sheppard shivered. There was murder in Malcolm's gaze.

"…this is not over."

"Barely begun," Malcolm agreed. Then with a flick of his long hair as he turned his head back to the subordinate commander he ordered, "Bring the Lantean."

Sheppard's straining heart sank into his boots as he realised he was right back… way beyond square one.

**

"Shields at 38 percent, Colonel," the Odyssey's tactical commander was forced to raise his voice above the many alarms sounding across the bridge. "We can't continue; there are too many of them! 35 percent."

"Stay on course," Davidson said and leaned over the back of the conn officer's chair, encouraging the pilot at the same time as keeping an eye on the readings on the man's sensor screen. "As long as we have that transponder signal on our sensors, I'm not giving up on them. Time to range?"

"Twelve minutes," the tactical officer replied.

"Can we read who?" Davidson asked.

The conn officer shook his head, "Not yet. The interference is still scrambling the signal and there's still no guarantee that we can get a clear enough lock even when we get within range. I've never seen this before, Sir."

"And of course McKay would be aboard the Sun Tzu," Davidson remarked as tension descended on the bridge to smother all conversation until the bridge rocked violently again under another barrage of Wraith weapons' fire.

"Eight minutes," the conn officer read off.

"Shields at 32 percent, Colonel—"

"No. Not yet," Davidson interrupted, anticipating what his tactical officer had been about to say. "Plot a direct route out. Direct. I don't care if we have to push a few of those cruisers out of the way as we leave."

"Sir, with our shields depleted…"

"Don't give me excuses, man," he snapped, "just make it happen."

"But, sir," the tactical officer was not going to give up easily. "We can't help them escape if we pick them up and get blasted out of the sky."

"You heard me, Reilly," Davidson said softly, "We're going to make this happen."

"Sir, it's Ronon, and AR-3," the conn officer announced.

"Sheppard?"

"No sign, sir," the conn officer shook his head sadly, "but if he's at the centre of that confluence of energy signatures we detected, there's no way we're pulling him out."

Davidson nodded. "How long before we have Ronon and the others?"

"Three minutes," the tactical officer added. "Shields just hit minimum safety – 30 percent."

"Keep going," Davidson ordered. "Override authorisation, Davidson three niner tango echo."

Davidson returned to the command chair, trying not to let either of his senior officers see how white his knuckles were as he gripped the armrest, murmuring to his ship to hold together just a little longer.

"28 percent," the tactical officer announced as another spray of enemy fire cut across their bow and rocked the ship wildly, "Orbital threshold achieved, hull temperature rising."

"Hold together, baby… I know you can do it, just hold together."

"I have a lock," the surprised tone of the conn officer shook Davidson from his fervent conversation with the only woman that currently occupied his heart.

"Get them out of there," he ordered.

"Shields down," the tactical officer announced. "Go!"

A shower of sparks flew down from the ceiling of the bridge as the weapons' fire continued, and without the shields, even as briefly as it was, penetrated the hull as easily as a hot knife through ice-cream.

"Hull breech, deck 6!"

There were times, and this was one of them, when Davidson could wish that his tactical officer were not quite as efficient as he was at reporting the condition of the Odyssey. In the wake of that thought he blinked as the dim lighting conditions on the bridge brightened momentarily as the beaming technology activated and resolved into the surprised looking members of AR-3.

"Welcome aboard the Odyssey," Davidson nodded to Ronon, then ordered, "Get us out of here. Divert all power to forward shields, ready aft rail guns, continuous firing."

"Aye, sir," the tactical officer responded. "All power to forward shields, aft rail guns to maximum, continuous fire… engaged."

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked, already pushing his way toward Davidson.

He shook his head, "Couldn't get a lock on his transponder. I'm sorry, Ronon, Sheppard's on his own."

**

Keeping to the shadowy edges of the group surrounding the new Wraith Primary, Isla glanced nervously toward the small knot of exchanged worshippers that followed the hurrying group of Wraith at the rear, only slightly in front of the drones that half led, half dragged the sickly looking Lantean human between them.

She could not explain the unease she felt, only knew that it was as strong as any feeling she had ever possessed. There was something that felt distinctly wrong about them. She glanced toward her commander, walking at the Primary's side, her hand on his arm, walking in state even though their need to quit the meeting place was more urgent now with the advent of the orbital battle between the Wraith and the Lantean interlopers.

"My Queen, wait," one from among the group of worshippers called out, and unused to being interrupted, the queen paused in her step, and began to turn. Isla took a breath and started from the safety of the shadows.

**

Malcolm felt the tug on his arm as the queen began to turn just as he spotted the movement coming at them from two directions at once. Sensing threat, he knew he could not respond in both directions. He hesitated for just a fraction of a heartbeat. It was enough.

The cloaked worshipper pushed his way through the band of subordinate Wraith commanders who made up the poor line of rear-guard to the queen and her entourage, and only at the last second did Malcolm see the crystalline dagger in his hand, raised to strike.

"Handmaidens! Look to your queen!" he called urgently, but the women, unused to that part of their duty, were slow to respond and milled around in chaos, adding to the ease with which the enemy worshipper reached the queen.

Crystalline dagger… Malcolm's mind reeled in horror – that could mean only a single truth. The blade was poisoned with a substance, fear of which was only equalled by the plague wrought on Wraith by the former Wraith scientist. A poison so strong that it corroded metal in seconds, and so virulent once in a Wraith's system that a single drop would bring a slow and lingeringly painful death… and he doubted that if the worshipper had gone to the trouble of coating the blade, it would not be with a single drop.

He turned and drew his blade in the same moment, meaning to meet the plunging dagger and turn it aside, but the worshipper was more prepared, and lunged forward with a second, identical blade too far out of Malcolm's reach.

"My Queen!" Malcolm cried out the warning, hoping that the queen herself would be possessed of sufficient faculty to deflect the knife on her bladed finger-guards. But she mistook his intent and stretched out her hand too high to catch the second blade. Time slowed and there was nothing he could do.

**

Sheppard watched through eyes dim with pain at the unfolding drama. The drones holding him had stopped walking and held him slumped between them. It suited him. With no movement the growing pain subsided to a dull ache, and he could at least draw breath enough to clear his sight and allow him to see what was happening.

A lone figure ducked under the Wraith queen's outstretched hand, and put herself between the attacking worshipper and the queen. The sound of the blade penetrating flesh was sickening, but was nothing compared to the cry of mortal agony given by the woman revealed as she threw back her head and her cloak fell away.

"Isla!" Malcolm's voice, raised and coloured with an agony of his own surprised Sheppard, and when the Wraith moved to catch the dying woman, he met the Wraith commander's eyes, and saw in them, for just a second, an expression of a lifetime's love lost.

"Holy shit," he breathed, then gasped as a hand closed around his arm.

"Come with me," a familiar voice purred almost in his ear.

**

Malcolm lifted Isla's body against his chest even before she hit the ground, holding her close as her convulsions began. Oblivious to all else but Isla's pain he promised eternal vengeance against the perpetrator of this terrible scheme against his queen – against a servant who had been with him for most of his lifetime.

He raised his feeding hand, uncaring of what might happen to him in the wake of such an act, preparing to give the Gift to the dying woman in his arms. His failure had allowed this. His sacrifice would be little enough recompense for her life.

Her wrist weakly met his, but pushed his hand away none the less, accompanied as it was by a single rasped and distantly echoed word.

"S…ur…vive…"

::survive:: ::survive:: ::survive:: ::survive:: ::survive::

**

Todd stopped walking as soon as they were a safe enough distance to be outside of the blast range of the Hives as they took off from the planet's surface, and no longer supported by the Wraith's grasp, Sheppard sank to his knees, and then collapsed forward to roll onto his back, desperate for breath, shivering in pain; his body in shock.

"This is getting to be a habit, Sheppard," Todd crooned as he crouched at Sheppard's side, pulling aside his shirt and running his taloned hand down the injured side of his body. Sheppard didn't even have the strength to cry out as pain blossomed through him once more.

"Hmmm," Todd crooned, "broken… and I suspect internal injuries. I could help…"

The tone of amused irony in the Wraith's voice was unmistakable, and in his mind, Sheppard was already calculating the cost that Todd would bring to bear for such help.

"I… I ca— I can't—" he gasped.

"Save your strength," Todd instructed softly. "It isn't every day you survive a mental assault by five of the oldest queens in existence, and a physical battle with one of the oldest Wraith commanders."

"Sur…vive?" Sheppard's shivering broke the word he forced from his lips.

"Yes, John Sheppard," Todd said softly, shifting his hand back upward over Sheppard's injured chest, "survive. Something tells me that we may yet need one another, and besides, I am not yet ready to dissolve an alliance that has so far proven to be… most profitable."

Todd looked skyward, and Sheppard couldn't help but follow the direction of his gaze, watching as the five dark shapes – like angry storm clouds in a sky darkening toward dawn – disappeared into the obscurity of five receding pinpoints of light.

Then Todd flattened his hand, snarling as his maw latched onto Sheppard's naked chest, and Sheppard finally found the strength to cry his agony – emotional and physical – into the coming dawn.

***

Act 5

As Woolsey shook his head, Ronon growled softly and the growl became words as he tried to remind the base commander, "We don't leave our people behind."

"I'm sorry, Ronon, truly," Woolsey answered, "but in this we have little choice. Through one thing and another we don't have the resources to commit to a full scale assault against five Wraith Hives and their entourages – and at this point, that's what it would take to rescue Sheppard."

Ronon rumbled his displeasure, and around the conference table he watched as McKay and Beckett shifted uncomfortably.

"What about a small team in a cloaked Jumper?" Beckett offered. "I could—"

"I'm sorry, Doctor Beckett, but with both Doctor Keller and Doctor Haddad offworld, I need you here." Woolsey countered. "Believe me, I've considered every possibility. I want to bring Colonel Sheppard home as much as each of you, but I'm afraid we have to be pragmatic here. The likelihood of his survival in among so many Wraith is slim to none… so…" Woolsey paused, taking a breath before he continued, "In consultation with the SGC and the IOA, as of two hours ago, Colonel Sheppard has been declared KIA. I'm very sorry."

"What?" McKay exploded, sitting forward in his seat so quickly that he moved the conference table, and Ronon's anger was a mirror to McKay's incredulity as the scientist continued, "You can't do that!"

"It's already done," Woolsey said softly, "And as soon as Major Hollick returns from off world with the others, he'll be appointed as Military Commander of the Atlantis Expedition. I'm to return to Earth briefly to sign all the changes, including Hollick's promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, but we have to continue, gentlemen. For the sake of the Pegasus Galaxy we can't just stand still for the sake of one man… as much as we might want to."

"I won't accept that," Ronon growled, standing up abruptly, and starting for the door.

"Ronon," Woolsey called after him. "We're not done here…"

"Yes we are," Ronon answered, barely breaking stride as he turned his head, and looking first at Beckett then McKay added. "I'll wait in the infirmary until Chaya can be moved, then I'll… head out to the Athosian settlement I guess."

"Ronon, please…" Woolsey began, but was interrupted by the sound of the alarms, and Amelia's calmer voice announcing an unscheduled dial in.

"Sheppard?" Beckett looked over at McKay, then at Ronon and the hope the Satedan saw in the doctor's eyes reflected his own, as all of them hurried to join the security team already assembled in the Gate Room.

"Amelia?" Woolsey asked, as they waited.

"Major Hollick's IDC, Sir," she said. "Must be the team returning from M7F-371."

**

Carson couldn't supress the rush of relief at Amelia's words, and glanced at his watch. It had been well beyond the 24 hour limit he'd given Ayatesha, and he suspected she would need immediate medical attention. Without thinking he reached up and keyed his headset mic.

"Infirmary, this is Doctor Beckett, stand by for critical medical admissions." He blushed only slightly when McKay threw a worried glance in his direction and then shrugging answered, "Just a precaution; better for them to be ready and not needed, than the other way around."

"Guess so," McKay answered, tension colouring his own voice.

"Lower the shield," Woolsey ordered, and the space before the Gate fizzled for a moment, before resolving into a clear passage into Atlantis.

Beckett found himself holding his breath as personnel began to step through the event horizon. His eyes searched the growing crowd for signs of the Egyptian doctor, his chest growing tighter with each person that stepped through that was not her. He glanced at Rodney, and saw the echo of his own anxiousness written on his friend's face, no doubt looking for Jennifer.

As the rate of incoming personnel slowed, Beckett stepped forward, ready to intercept someone, ready to tackle the mission commander, but with each person he asked, he received only headshakes and expressions of sympathy until finally Hollick stepped through the Gate and with a gesture ordered the wormhole shut down. The resulting sliding-hiss-pop of the wormhole evaporating to nothingness sounded like a death knell in Beckett's ears.

His usual patience and placid nature dissolved and he advanced on the newly promoted military commander, and before the man could step away from the ring, grasped both lapels of his tac vest and drove him back against the curving metal of it.

"Where is Doctor Haddad?" he demanded as the man's back collided with the ancient metal.

"Carson," Woolsey called in warning, but Beckett ignored him.

"Doctor Beckett," Major Hollick said softly, sounding overly sympathetic. "Please…"

"Don't you please me, tell me where she is. She's sick. She needs medical attention. You—"

"There was nothing we could do, Doctor," Hollick began, but Radek cut him off, laying a gentle hold on Carson's arm until the doctor let go of him.

"Carson, truly, I'm sorry. We searched as soon as Michael's forces had retreated, as well as we could without the benefit of combat engineers," he said, "but there was no sign of her, or of Jennifer in the parts of the building we could get to. We can only assume that they were both buried deeper and—"

Zelenka shook his head, but Carson wasn't hearing him any more. With the mention of Michael's name he knew – without a hint of doubt in his heart – that it wouldn't matter how much or how long they searched – they wouldn't find Ayatesha anywhere in among the wreckage of the village.

The fact that he was also certain that she remained alive was a comfort that registered somewhere around zero degrees kelvin. He turned his attention to McKay as the man exploded beside him, letting him make all the noises of protest that he should be making over the missing personnel. He stood mute as McKay railed and demanded a return to the planet with combat engineers to dig the women out of the wreckage of the building – that he didn't care if all they uncovered were their bodies, that they deserved to be brought home… given a decent burial – all the things that Beckett knew he should have been insisting. All he could do was stand in horrified silence, understanding all too well the reasons Michael would have had for taking Ayatesha, at least, and cursing himself for being so much of an open book before his creator. A large part of him also stood silently wishing he could ease Rodney's pain by telling him that likely Jennifer was alive and in Michael's hands without incriminating himself and his complicity with their enemy any more than his silence already had.

Their captivity was on his head; to ensure his compliance with the deal he had made with the devil himself.

**

The unnatural sleep gave way to dizziness, and then to the trembling burn coursing through her blood, and Ayatesha moaned as she regained consciousness. As her awakening mind realised her state of being her hand rushed to where the chest pocket of her tac vest would have been. She panicked, awakening still more as adrenaline flooded her body when she found both the tac vest, and the contents of the pocket, missing.

She pushed up with her arms, effectively bringing herself to her hands and knees, and dry heaved as the dizziness increased to nausea. She took deep breaths to try and steady herself and understand her surroundings. Beneath her hands and knees the floor, a hard, cool surface with an underlying dampness that seemed to permeate the first several inches just above it, vibrated softly. A ship. She opened her eyes then. Already they were sensitive with the beginning of change, and she knew that the blue-lit walls around her would have shown much darker to her own eyes. A Hive ship.

She raised one hand from the floor again, to run it the length of her torso, checking her first impression of the missing tac vest... her breath hitching on the beginning of a sob as she realised her first impressions had been correct.

"Is this what you are looking for?"

She looked up at the movement of a figure from the shadows as it moved into the light surrounding her; sat back on her haunches and watched, her trembling increasing as Michael – she knew him at once... felt him – held up the last remaining, narrow cylinder of serum already loaded into the auto-injector.

"Michael, please..." The words tumbled out of her before she could catch a hold of her reeling mind to prevent the show of weakness that the words represented. She snatched a breath as he stepped closer and began to move around her, his steps slow, almost measured, speaking as he moved. She could feel his gaze almost like a touch as he circled her.

"Please rest assured," he began, "that there is no need for alarm. I... understand... what it is to lose one's sense of self."

He came to a stop at her left and reached down, offering her his empty hand. With only a moment's hesitation, finding she was still afraid, but curious at his words, she slipped her hand into his and with his help, started to get to her feet. His fingers tightened around hers as she swayed slightly and voiced the pain that movement always caused her during her conversion. She had no choice but to accept his help until she could stand alone.

"Thank you," she said quietly, her voice barely on the edge of being her own, and released his hand. He, not she, moved away then, continuing his final circuit of her to stand facing her in the dim light and barely nodded to acknowledge her thanks, regarding her and apparently waiting for something. For her part she took in the sight of him – his sandy hair, his pale skin and engorged veins visible through the translucent quality of it... the commingled human and Wraith traits on his face lending him a bizarre nobility of sorts; nobility that was emphasised by the burning gold of his eyes. She had seen images of him, reconnaissance photographs taken by Atlantis' intelligence teams, but as he stood before her, those images might as well have been a child's drawings for all the similarity they possessed – all the sense of him that they conveyed.

"Why have you brought me here?" she asked, apparently ending his waiting, as he smiled slightly, and let out a breath in an almost-chuckle at her question. "What is so funny?"

"Most people usually ask what I intend to do to them," he told her softly.

"I am not most people," she answered.

"This, I know," he said. "I know you better than you might think, Doctor Haddad."

"From Carson's mind," she as much stated as asked.

"From Doctor Beckett's mind," he confirmed. "But to answer your question – let's just say that you were... caught in the cross-fire between my people, and yours. I had you brought here to keep you safe."

She opened her mouth to argue the fact, but halted even before the first word came from her lips as she was suddenly filled with the intuitive knowledge that he did not mean because of the fight that had taken place on the planet – he did not mean to keep her safe from that.

"I see you understand," he said. "Good. I also have no intention to make you suffer through this change that is progressing in you even now." He stepped closer again, and deliberately ran his fingers the length of her right arm until he could raise her hand in his and placed the auto-injector into it before releasing her. Then responding to her unspoken why he said, "I told you: I understand what it is to be forced to live as you are not."

She hesitated, though not because she suspected any foul play on Michael's part – more that she remembered what Carson had warned her about the increased strength of the serum in the vials he had reconfigured for her. She looked up as he felt his quizzical expression.

"Carson... warned me of a latent toxicity in the adjustments he made. He told me I would have to return to Atlantis following this final dose of the serum so that he could treat that," she said, but even as she spoke she began fumbling with the cap on the auto-injector with uncooperative fingers. It was – as always – as if they belonged to someone else, and she had little control over them, and even less feeling – other than the spasms of pain that radiated, it seemed, from every nerve ending.

"It is nothing we cannot treat here," Michael said, his voice almost compassionate as he stepped forward again, and took the auto-injector back from her struggling hands. He deftly uncapped the device, and gently pushed back one of her sleeves to expose her arm and pressed the needle to the vein just below her elbow, as he released the stream of serum into her blood he finished, "if necessary."

He slipped his hands beneath her elbows as the action of the serum began in her and her knees almost buckled. Her responding grip on his arms was automatic, an unconscious action as he supported her. In spite of herself she leaned against him, fighting for breath and drawing on the strength that he willingly extended to her... feeling the rush of it extending from the way he joined his consciousness with hers.

-we are a mirror of each other, you and I- -you and I- -you and I- -you and I-

She looked up at him then, drawing another breath as she fully understood just how accurate his somewhat poetic observation truly was... and as their eyes met, she felt him take a word from her mind, and give it back to her in the form of a whispered appellation.

"Ya ukhti." Sister.

**

The cloaked worshippers looked up as his steps disturbed the hushed and echoing whisper of plainsong that sighed through the crystalline structure of the uppermost chamber of the Hive, separated from space only by the transparent chitinous dome that would withdraw at a mental command.

Stalagmite towers surrounded the bier on which the figure lay, motionless, covered from chest to knees in a drape of white silk already sullied with the spreading stain of blood. Only the hesitant, reluctant straining of her chest to rise and fall in a soundless rasp convinced him that she yet lived… her eyes remained open, unfocussed as if already staring into the vast and icy emptiness of space.

A musical trickle of water released the scent of Death-Lotus flowers into the air, as the four worshippers began to anoint her arms and legs in anticipation of the end of her life… the reverent ritual performed only for the most respected of Wraith Queens.

Malcolm curled his fingers into fists against the short crystal plinth at the foot of the bier, the hiss of his breath hard and bitter as he exhaled a long slow breath, his eyes as fixed as hers.

{at least they have given you this}

"Commander?"

The Wraith overseer's voice was hushed, but a disturbance none the less, and Malcolm hissed as he turned his head to pin the subordinate with a burning feral stare.

"What do you want?" he breathed the word-sounds sub vocal in his crushing grief.

"The Primary…"

Malcolm breathed out another long, slow breath, turning his gaze back to the figure fading into night.

"Lives," he said, and could not keep the bitterness from his tone. He took another breath to try and settle the churning uncertainty and then looked at each of the worshippers and the overseer in turn before ordering, "Leave us."

"My Lord—" the overseer began to argue.

"Get OUT!" Malcolm roared, and pushed the command so hard that the other Wraith staggered, a run of blood falling from his nostrils to splash against the leather of his chest; barely gave them time to scurry like rats through the doors before he sealed them closed, like guillotines to slice the unwary in two.

Only when alone did he finally move, stepped within the wall of crystal to kneel at the side of the only companion he had known through countless centuries; laid his hand on the cold of her brow, his face creased in anguish.

"Such… misplaced loyalty, Isla…" he whispered, then picked up the cloth, scented with the water, and began gently to continue with the washing, "Such—"

A rasping breath cut through his whisper and his eyes flashed up to capture the shifting prisms of light in Isla's as the tears in them amplified the guttering spark of her life.

"M… M… M—" her lips moved as if strangers to her to shape the beginning of words, but he rose up over her, shaking his head.

"No… hush, little one, do not try to speak." Hope, sharp and painful lodged in his breast. Three Wraith had spent themselves at the Queen's command to try and save her – neutralise the poison that had coated the blade, but to no avail as the insidious harm had still crept through her blood and bones, and yet in the hours that had passed since then it seemed that she, herself, had beaten back Death's wings.

"Sur…vive," she wheezed, as if explaining how, or why.

"Isla," he whispered, and reached for her, an almost physical ache in the palm of his right hand, but she caught his wrist in frigid fingers.

"Don't," she told him. "The… risk…"

Slipping his left hand under her back, he lifted her almost without effort, cradling the back of her head in his long-fingered hand as he leaned down to nip at her lower lip until she felt him – until he drew the gasp from her parted lips and captured them fully into his kiss.

{is mine to take} {mine to take} {take} {take} {take} {take}

Deepening the kiss, as her touch fell away from his wrist he pressed his right hand to her chest, the barbs beside his feeding slit sank deep and true as he began to feel the visceral pull from the centre of him, hot and so painful it was almost an ecstasy. She gasped, a shrill sound, but it was strong, and pulled away from the kiss, falling back against his supporting hand. She took a huge breath as if no air had graced her lungs before that moment and then he felt her push against his chest, and opened his eyes to look at her, vital and alive in his grasp. He slowed the Gift of Life to a fizzling, sensual tingle left to linger between the two of them, moving to join her more fully atop the softness of the flower-strewn pillows of the bier.

"My lord," she said, her voice almost hale, "you should not have."

"Oh, but I should," he answered, and tipped his head to the side, regarding her with the open edge of invitation in his eyes. "Your actions saved the life of our Queen – our Primary."

"Irrelevant," she said without hesitation, then let out another soft gasp as the fingers of his feeding hand began to walk a long, slow trail down over the swell of her breast, to the newly healed flesh where the near fatal wound had been. Her hands flew to his chest, and then one flashed to catch his wrist again as he continued the gently descending caress. "If you would send me away again, please… do not—"

"I mean to send you nowhere, Isla," he told her, drawing her closer even as he eased her down beneath him. "You are, now and always in my service, and under my protection."

She took a sobbing breath, her eyes filling with renewed tears as she slackened the tight grasp she had on his wrist and instead slipped her fingers over and around his, and guided his touch lower still.

"Please," she whispered softly, arching so that she could reach his cheek with her lips and parted her thighs to admit the slow, sure touch of his fingers between the soft folds of her flesh.

**

Isla sobbed aloud as his knowing touch stroked and stirred her body. Between deep sighs and stuttering breaths she unbuckled and unclasped what barriers remained between them, a deep longing – a painful need to be redeemed in the possession of her lord pulsing with her every heartbeat… crying out against his lips as he removed the touch of his hand from her body, so lost in it; in him, that she did not realise it was to join with her more intimately still that he abandoned her until she felt the ridged head of his risen length press between her lips as he entered her.

Rising over her, he raked both hands the length of her body, circling her hips to slip his hands beneath her back, drawing her closer, angling him deeper still as he alternately filled her and glided away, rocking against her until the tight pleasure inside her threatened to burst.

"Not yet," he whispered.

{not yet} {yet} {yet} {yet} {yet}

He wrapped his mind around the last vestige of her control and pushed the almost-climax back… away… denying her release. Maddening… and she sobbed for him, a name she harboured for him but had never dared to voice…

"Beloved… please…"

…and she felt his mind-presence tighten before opening to her, filling her with the truth of himself.

She cried out wordlessly at the bite of his opening – such trust to give to her – taking her as equal and not as servant or chattel, the brief pain of it was nothing when compared with that.

"Yes, my Isla," he breathed the words over her lips, and surged strongly within her, "as you have always been."

She arched her back to catch the swell of him, the in-out slide of his inner shaft against the deep bundle of nerves inside and trembled with the nearness of the little-death she welcomed in the grip of his passion.

"Beloved," she dared to breathe once more before his tongue plundered her mouth and shifting again, he slipped a hand from beneath her back, and tearing from the kiss, roared a deep, vibrating a-tonal rush through her with the renewed bite of his feeding hand against her chest… an instant passed before she dissolved into pure sensation, shattering beneath him; flying apart on the Gift he gave her as he pulsed within her, the rush of him filling her body and spirit – as below, so above… and she a trembling crystal flame burning around the heart of him.

**

He held her close, still clasped, his head resting against hers as he freed his feeding hand from between them, to stroke the back of his fingers over her cheek, feeling the rapid beat of her heart against his chest… his own heart still racing, his breathing ragged and trembling still.

"My Isla," he murmured, "look at me."

Her eyes flicked up to his, then fell before she looked up again and finally held his gaze. She freed one hand, and raised the fingertips of it to rest against the apex of his shoulder. He shook his head briefly, and reaching for that hand brought the tips of her fingers to cover his heart.

"Your mother bore you as she helped to save the life of our Revered Matron. I brought you into our world, watched you grow and guarded you through life… I will not ever willingly watch life leave you." He told her softly. "Do not ever take such risk again as you took today."

"She is our Queen," she frowned, "and Primary, she—"

{she is a fool grown arrogant with self-importance; with little care for what it means or the sacrifices we must make to survive}

He moved to cradle her head in his hands, and brushed his lips softly against hers. "Do not ever take such risks again."

**

"Unscheduled offworld activation!"

Both McKay and Ronon looked up at each other as the alarms punctuated by Chuck's voice rolled over the city wide comm. It was late – well past base standard midnight, and the only reason Ronon wasn't still in the infirmary was that Beckett had thrown him out, insisting on his getting some sleep; insisting he would be no good for the 'poor wee lamb', as he called Chaya, if he didn't rest himself.

He came directly to the mess and found McKay, eyes red rimmed, sitting staring into the bottom of an empty coffee cup.

"It couldn't…" McKay was the first to break the suddenly tense silence. "Could it?"

A second later running feet brought the arrival of a breathless SO, who skidded to a halt beside their table.

"It's Colonel Sheppard," he said simply.

In his haste to get to his feet, Ronon overturned the chair, and not waiting to see if McKay followed him or not, raced toward the Gate Room, determined to be there to meet Sheppard as he came through the Gate.

"Lower the shield!" he ordered as he skidded to a halt between two marines, each holding weapons pointing at the still shielded Gate.

"My orders are—"

"To hell with orders," Ronon spat, "I'll take full responsibility. Lower the damn shield. He could be hurt. He could be—"

The shield hissed out of existence, and yet the event horizon remained conspicuously empty.

"Come on, Sheppard… come on," he murmured.

McKay almost ran into him, looking expectantly at the Gate. His face creased into a frown when seconds later they were both still waiting for the man to step through the event horizon.

"Something's wrong," McKay announced.

"Whatever led you to that conclusion?" Ronon asked sarcastically, just as a ripple broke the surface of the otherwise placid shimmering pool, quickly followed by Sheppard's stumbling, shivering form. Ronon caught him before he hit the floor.

Still shivering, Sheppard opened his eyes, and a faint, almost drunken smile crossed his lips.

"Hey, Ronon," he said between his chattering teeth, "Did you miss me?"

**

His head ached. His chest felt as if there were an elephant or two sitting on it, and his mouth felt like the arse end of a Saharan sandstorm had blown through it, but at least – and thank heavens for small mercies – he could once again feel the familiar soft touch of the city against his psyche.

He opened his eyes slowly, and looked across the infirmary to where Doctor Beckett was giving soft instructions to several of his orderlies. The doctor smiled as soon as he noticed Sheppard was awake, and hurriedly sent the orderlies on their way.

"Hey," Sheppard said softly as Carson came to his side. "Please tell me you're not going to confine me to the infirmary."

A rush of relief sped through him as Beckett shook his head. "Far from it," he said, "I want y'out there as soon as possible, before they make Hollick a permanent fixture."

"Hollick?" Sheppard frowned in confusion.

"Aye," Carson said, reaching for the curtain to draw it around the bed. "They made him acting military commander, until you're fit for duty."

"I'm fine," Sheppard said, levering himself up, intending to get out of the bed that instant and he frowned as Beckett raised a hand to halt him.

"I know y'are," he said, "but that's no why I drew the curtain just now. There's something I want to talk t'ye about, and I don't want it common knowledge. Atlantis has enough issues going on without another to complicate anything any more."

"Carson," Sheppard ran his hand through his hair, feeling much in need of a shower, "What are you talking about? To do with me?"

"No, you're fine. You probably feel like crap because that's what withdrawal from massive doses of Wraith enzyme will do to ye, but—"

"Todd… healed me," Sheppard explained haltingly, running a hand uncomfortably across his chest where the tenderness still puckered almost painfully as the new skin grew rapidly to cover the feeding mark – marks, he corrected himself – "so did one of the queens."

Beckett nodded and said, "The scan we took revealed traces of recent and rapidly healed injuries. I assumed it must ha' been something like that. But that's not what I need to talk to you about."

"What then?" Sheppard frowned again, feeling a certain cold trepidation settling into his nerves.

"That woman you sent back with AR-3, the worshipper," Carson said.

"What about her?" Sheppard's confused frown deepened.

"Aside from the fact that Atlantis seems to like her, you mean?" Carson asked.

"She has the gene?" Sheppard's confusion turned to surprise, and he sat up still further. "A gene carrier in the Pegasus Galaxy?"

"Oh, it's a wee bit more than that, I'm afraid," Carson said, his voice low, urgent. "And I haven't told anybody, and I don't intend to tell anybody except you what I've discovered, not unless I absolutely have no choice. The last thing we need right now is Woolsey going poking around our guest and pissing her off.

"You're not filling me with confidence here, Carson," Sheppard said. "What's going on? If she doesn't have the ATA gene, then wh—"

"Oh, she does have the ATA gene… hell, she is the ATA gene!"

"Are you trying to tell me what I think you're trying to tell me?" Sheppard said, and at once he understood the position that Carson, indeed all of them, were in if what he now suspected was true happened to be what the doctor was trying to tell him.

"She's an Ancient, John," Carson leaned close and all but whispered the words. "I don't know how. I don't know anything beyond the fact that the young lady, currently 'locked' away in guest quarters on the east pier, is a one hundred percent, pure blooded Ancient and that if she didn't want to be locked in guest quarters, there wouldn't be a damn thing any of us could do about it. Currently, she is the single most dangerous organism within the city."

"Crap," hissed Sheppard, realising at once the implications of what Carson was saying.

"I also know she's terrified of something," Carson added a beat later, "and because of it, she doesn't at all want to be here."

**

Guilt gnawed at Keller as she hurried to keep up with the Wraith sub-commander that led her through the corridors of the Hive. Whichever way she considered it, she had betrayed Ayatesha and – knowing that Michael, or at least his hybrid army, were descending on the planet – had potentially left her to die.

"...Ma'asaalama. Yallah,"

Then Ayatesha turned to face the door. Behind her, Jennifer slipped her hand into the pocket of her vest, closing her fingers around the syringe, already filled with a strong sedative and flicked off the cap, and before she could change her mind, wrapped first her free arm, and then the one containing the syringe around the Egyptian doctor's slender frame.

Ayatesha didn't even fight her. The moment was over in a second, and as the sedative took effect; as the other woman became a dead weight in her embrace, Keller lowered her as gently as she could to the floor.

The drones flanking her came to an abrupt stop, and crossed their staff weapons in front of Keller, halting her forward motion at the entrance to the bridge. She blinked and took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she would say; for what words could possibly convey the self-loathing, and bitter resentment she felt to once again be standing – helpless – before the creature that had taken her life and turned it on its head.

**

He felt her arrival even before his subordinate commander brushed politely at the edge of his psyche; felt the terrible pulse of life thrumming inside of her as if some kind of bell were pealing out the confirmation of a truth he had identified many weeks before.

Without turning he mentally dismissed the drones from her side, and then addressed her. His tone was mild. He intended to give nothing away.

"It is either great courage or great foolishness that has led you to seek me out, Jennifer Keller," he said.

"Enough," she snapped, and he could not miss the angry rejection of his overture toward her in the tone of her voice. It did not entirely surprise him. Nor did it trouble him in the slightest part. She would come to see matters according to his will. He turned to face her, regarding her with a cool curiosity written on his face.

"I didn't come here to play games, Todd," she said, and the hard tone in her voice wavered, as she finished. "I need your help."

He let the moment of silence following her admission linger and tipped his head to one side, appraising her.

"Indeed," he said at length, and then with an upward nod to his subordinate commander, instructed him quietly, but firm and cock-sure, "Take her to her quarters."

Fin









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