CALIBER – The High Cost of Living

There is a sickly tension to the air of Carnivale, a faint sort of nerve radiating through the people, running down their spines and twisting into their hearts with all the precision of a dull knife, leaving a solemn ache in its wake. It slips through their nerves, sinking down and into them before seeping out of their pores with an awful stink. It is fear, palpable and cloying, pure and distilled by so many years amid the Wraith threat that holds them so ruthlessly.

Klutch's people turn their eyes skyward and watch with nervous anticipation through the long, cold winter night, constantly scanning the darkened sky for any sign of the Wraith. They keep their silence, shifting uncomfortable glances to one another as they huddle together for warmth amid the tattered relics of forgotten revelry and frivolous abandon. They cannot chance any outdoor fires while so precariously exposed with the possibility of the Wraith in the area for any length of time.

Even Klutch dares glance at the sky cautiously each time she slips between the rusted out hulks of carnival amusements and rides. She does not like the uncertainty to this, the nagging worry; she would prefer to have all of her people accounted for. McKay and the others should have been back hours ago, and, yet, her scouts have turned up nothing, not a trace, not a single scrap of evidence of their impeding return.

The others murmur rumors as though Klutch cannot hear them. She allows this to persist for as long as it does not damage morale; rumors and gossip suggest a normality to her people that they so desperately need in these trying times. They whisper that McKay has simply lost his path in the snow, but Klutch knows better than to suspect that. McKay keeps the trails and roads to each and every one of Klutch's camps locked in his vast, eidetic memory. McKay would not so simply lose his way, nor would he tarry for any reason unless completely unavoidable. No, this is no simple lapse of direction; this is something decidedly unkind that Klutch is unsure she is entirely prepared to face, even though she knows she must on this very night, this very hour.

She shivers, turns to one of the buildings, and lifts a tattered, stained scrap of fabric adorned with bats and skulls enough to slip inside. This was once a haunted house ride, but now it serves as a safe haven for her kin. There, she finds Zeke stoking the dying coals of a campfire back to life with a shower of crisp, cheery sparks. The fire hisses and spits in protest under his ministrations but crackles back to life as Zeke prods at the logs. He nods in humble greeting as she approaches and stands to greet her, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

"About that time?" Zeke inquires softly, hesitantly.

Klutch nods and looks down. "Been that time for a while." She sighs heavily, shaking her head. "Break down camp. We're moving out."

"Where to?" he asks with a subtle tease to his tone; he knows there is no safe place for them, not anymore.

Klutch purses her lips together, chewing on the inside of her cheek for a moment as she thinks. "Rodney said that I should lead you guys to Colorado, to Cheyenne Mountain if anything happened to him. You guys start out West. I'm going to head down the mountain, see if I can't find McKay and the others."

"What about Sheppard?" Zeke asks in guarded tone.

"That's what I came to talk to you about." Klutch rubs the back of her slender neck, massaging the tension from those long, lean muscles to her shoulders. "Can you take him?"

Zeke nods. "Of course."

She smiles and gives a tiny bob of her head. "You spread the word and start packing. I'll get him dressed."

Klutch and Zeke part ways there. She can trust him to know he will do what she has asked of him without further instruction. She slips from the haunted house and strides down to a wide, brightly colored tent where the trucks are clumped together, a tent where there had likely been concessions sold, judging from the scent of grease and fried food that lingers even now. She eases the door open to her truck and climbs into the seat in silence, careful not to jar or wake Sheppard.

He has slept much these days in her camp, and, yet, Klutch knows he needs more. His abused and ruined body is in need of the rest to heal and repair what it may. It requires the energy reserves necessary to fight back any lingering elements of the infection that forced McKay's hand to take the leg. To her eyes, though, he looks peaceful at the moment, tranquil and at ease. She does not wish to wake him, not yet, but she must.

Klutch reaches a hand between the seats and squeezes his shoulder tenderly; Sheppard jerks away, gasping, "What…?"

She waits for him to orient himself and face her before breathing, "Time to go."

"Where?"

"Anywhere but here." Klutch gives a small shrug. "McKay said Colorado was the place to go."

He nods slowly and solemnly, clearly turning the thought over in his mind. His eyes seem distant and glossed as he thinks. Klutch warms slightly; he is pained by this. Sheppard is a hero, beneath it all. It is not in his nature to give up so easily, and, as such, it is a cruel and cutting blow against him to concede defeat and retreat.

"You're going to ride with Zeke this time," Klutch goes on, toying with a frayed hem on her coat. "He'll take good care of you."

"What about you?" he asks in a voice but a shade louder than a whisper.

Klutch draws a deep breath. "I'm going to see if I can find McKay."

"No," he breathes, turning to her and gasping in pain as he accidentally pulls his ruined leg. "You can't go after them." He grabs her by the upper arm so swiftly that it startles her, and he squeezes, digging his nails into her flesh as though he could honestly hold her before swallowing hard and saying, "I'll go."

"No."

"I'm going," Sheppard insists.

"No," she states once more, firmly this time.

"You can't stop me."

Klutch simply shakes his grip loose and asks, almost disjointedly, "It must be tough, isn't it?"

"What is?" Sheppard asks in a rough tone, adjusting himself to a more comfortable position that puts less stress upon his mangled limb and also levels a cold stare upon her.

She glares back, equally defiant. "Being a lightning bolt from god."

"What?" he blinks, taken back by her statement.

Klutch folds her arms across her chest. "That's what you are to these people. You're the closest thing they've had to hope after listening to stories about you for years. You're a hero to these people. Never leave people behind. Never back down." She jabs a finger in the air towards him. "That's you, and you're all they've had to believe in. And, now, those dreams are coming true." She lets out a crazed, manic sort of chortle and explains swiftly, "Ronon told us about Carter, about how there's some way of getting off this rock." Her eyes narrow. "And you're going to throw that all away on them? Crush their dreams and kill their hope? Because, if you go and get yourself killed – which I'm fairly fucking certain you will – that's exactly what you'll be doing."

"And if I don't go, what the fuck kind of a hero would I be to them if I left my friends to die? Huh? Did you ever think about that?" Sheppard fumes, barking in Klutch's face before sighing and shaking his head. "I'm not asking for your approval. Just a truck in decent enough shape to get down the mountains with a full tank of gas and some directions."

"And let you get yourself killed?" Klutch asks incredulously, letting out a haughty laugh. "What kind of a shitty person do you think I am?" At Sheppard's furrowed brow, Klutch shakes her head. "Be smart now. How are you supposed to work a clutch with one leg?"

"So give me an automatic," Sheppard presses.

"We only have manual." Klutch gives another shake of her head, tousling her blonde locks. "No. If you're going to do this, you'll need a driver." She bites her lip and thinks for a moment before whispering, "Fine."

"Fine what?"

Klutch smiles softly and patronizingly. "You can come with me."

"No," Sheppard protests gently. "These people, they need you… more than they need me. You're a real hero, not some false idol like me." The colonel sighs, exhausted already from the heated exchange. "If these people have any hope, it's in Colorado, with Carter. They need you to lead them."

"I can't go," Klutch whispers hesitantly. "Not without McKay, Kylie and Willem." She runs her slender fingers through her straw colored hair, a faint ghost of a smile lingering upon her pale lips. "I don't leave people behind either. So, if you think you can keep up and stay out of trouble, you can come along."

xxxx

Suspension is, perhaps, the cruelest torture of them all, likely due to how innocuous it may seem upon initial inspection. There is little physical damage done directly unless the subject is improperly bound, as, as such, the worst initial pain is that of strained muscles and joints of the arms and shoulders and the psychological damage of knowing there is little that the subject can do to escape their unsavory predicament, a worsening welt as time goes on. Many subjects will then go so far as to twist, writhe and otherwise struggle in their attempts to pry their wrists free of their bonds, which, if the individual inflicting the session is worth their salt, are entirely futile. Depending on the particular type of bonds, the damage incurred from that could range from nothing so serious as minor friction burns and abrasions to serious lacerations. As such, the actual act of suspending a subject is the act of subjecting the individual to simply extreme discomfort, muscle cramps, exhaustion, and, perhaps, humiliation depending upon the intended application of the act.

Suspension, however, yields a far more sinister result and becomes the more refined art of torture and death when applied over a significant time period. As the body is held aloft by the arms, it places strain directly upon the intercostal muscles, those muscles running between the ribs and forming the chest wall, and, thusly, the chest is held in a state of inhalation that greatly hinders respiration. As the suspension continues, the muscles become more fatigued, cramping and contracting until respiration is an agonizing and tiring effort resulting in but shallow, gasping breaths. Only if the subject is able to lift the body upwards and reduce the strain upon the intercostals and diaphragm are any worthwhile breaths truly taken. In time, though, as exhaustion further sets in, even these small attempts become increasingly difficult, and the subject slowly asphyxiates, generally within a few days, still suspended as a display to any further offenders.

Rodney McKay knows all of this quite well as he hangs in the dim, purple blue haze of the Wraith alcoves, held aloft by warm, sweated coils of organic structure that reek of rot. He has only been hanging for perhaps a day, by his estimates, just long enough to tire and ache incredibly but no more, no lasting damage. As he forces himself upright once more, licking his lips and savoring another gulp of air, sticky and clammy in the alcoves, McKay muses idly for perhaps the hundredth time on how odd it seemed that even creatures from so far as Pegasus could recognize both the ease and efficacy of suspension as both a means of imprisoning and punishing granted the minimal labor and resources expended to yield maximum results of discomfort.

He has been in this predicament countless times before for various infractions against his once masters, the Wraith. McKay understands, somewhere beneath the pain, with his clinical mind; not only is it efficient, it does not immediately nullify the fragile life that the Wraith sup upon so greedily. In the case of the skrae, it left them without so much as a mark while still driving the point of the punishment home for whatever the transgression. McKay smirks to himself deliriously; as if his near boundless spite and sarcasm could ever be curtailed so simply by hanging him for a few days from his wrists. Better and more tenacious creatures have tried and failed miserably in any similar endeavors.

His fellow skrae, Kylie, hangs to his right. McKay occasionally darts concerned yet restrained glances in her direction, cautious to ensure that she does not see. The Wraith have not seen fit to give her anything to clothe herself with save the tapestry of bruises and cuts that delineate Dymas's cruelty, the blue and green tattoos of her training, and the living tendrils of conduit that support her tiny, lithe frame. She is holding herself rather well, considering the sorry state her body is in, keeping herself still, composed, and silent. Her stare is clouded yet empty somehow, the flat, emotionless gaze the Wraith demanded of their perfect pets. She is calm and accepting in this.

To his left, Ronon is not so stoic in this matter. Every few hours, the Satedan summons the energy to struggle and fight against his bonds, jerking and wrestling with the conduits. He strains against the horrid coils of flesh and connective structure until his energy saps, hanging limply and panting for breath. His ferocity would be admirable, were it not so ill placed. The tensile strength of the cords that keep them is too great for any amount of human strength to even hope to come near to breaking them. No amount of logic will stop him; Rodney has stopped trying to argue this with the Satedan. McKay sighs; Ronon has not changed at all, not even after all these years, nor will he ever.

Across from them, dangles the Wraith, Todd. Todd was not among them when they were brought to the alcoves, yet he appeared during a lull when the physicist dozed slightly, already tired from the strain within a few hours. The Wraith has not moved, has not said a word. His head hands still, his mouth gaping open as shallow, rasped breathes escape his lips. McKay still ponders at it, even now, that this hive would instinctively treat Todd with such disdain.

A sound jerks McKay from his thoughts, a heavy and solid series of stomps heralding a march. The Wraith may be silent creatures at will, but the physicist had come to learn long ago that they are a proud race that values the psychological impact of a dramatic entrance. He bites the inside of his lips and forces himself up, just as Kylie and Ronon do, each spurned by the sound to put themselves at as little a submissive posture as possible. Even Todd lifts his head slightly, his lips cracked to a thin, pained smile as the group rounds the corner.

McKay draws a stifled gasp. It is a moderate size of elite guards among the Wraith, and, at their lead, is a scarlet haired female. A Queen! McKay shudders inwardly but hardly moves, while Ronon grits his teeth. She rounds each of them in turn, surveying her captives. They are in a secluded corner of the alcoves, away from the other pitiful wretches than moan and cry out in their agony and terror, meaning the Queen has ordered these four kept separate for a reason.

She pauses before Todd without even deigning to look at him, the tiniest of inclination of her head indicative that she is addressing him when she hisses through her teeth. "Ah, the blood traitor come back to his kin." She smiles, the haughty, crisp sort of expression befitting royalty such as she. "I have heard much of your exploits, and I am not amused." The Queen draws close to Todd now, whispering in a husky breath directly into his ear. "Death is an intimate pleasure, perhaps the only one a creature may know in their lives." She grins in macabre delight, stroking Todd's cheek and purring, "I shall see that you pay for your crimes. Your passing will be quite intimate, indeed, and long enough for you to…. enjoy its many facets, my wayward brother."

Bitter, frozen fingers of ice snake their way down McKay's nerves and coil about his spine at the sound. For a split second, he is confused by the sensation, this growing pit in his stomach. Then, the physicist places the sentiment, incredulous at his own deduction. It is concern, pure and raw, and directed at Todd. He is struck dumb by the worry but swallows it down. Todd can handle himself; McKay has Ronon and Kylie to worry about.

The Queen swivels on her heels and crosses the distance to Ronon in a heartbeat, drawing in a deep inhalation through those facial slits, tasting the air about him before breathing in a dreamy lull, "Ah, Satedan. Warrior vitae of superior quality." The Queen smiles greedily. "I shall enjoy drinking of you."

Ronon growls and snarls something that McKay assumes is to the effect of a profanity in Satedan, however, he is too transfixed by the Queen to notice. She draws his undivided attention by simply existing, tugging upon his soul. His heart stirs in conditioned response to her very presence. Every tiny nuance, every subtle shift of her body and weight consumes McKay. He holds his breath as though it were a blasphemy to behave so humanly before her. It is his training, he knows this, but it is impossible to fight. His head swims as his own body drowns his veins in adrenaline as she drifts to him.

When she finally speaks to him, her words both thrill his heart and burn his ears. "A curious capture, indeed."

Her hand moves to his chest and slams into him before McKay can even realize her intention. The contact sends white hot pain erupting through his sternum as the feeding slit bores into him with rasping teeth and lingual cartilage. In a brilliant flash, the man feels her, rifling about in his brain. He struggles to focus himself mentally and fails, leaving Rodney cruelly exposed before her, his sins laid bare before her for the Queen to sort and pick through. Foothold. Sheppard. Atlantis. The skrae. All of it. She lilts through his consciousness, as the passing of a fleeting yet horrible dream. And, then, just as quickly as it had begun, it is over, and the Queen is stepping away, licking her palm and the lingering traces of blood there. McKay sags forward against the cords, mentally and physically drained by the experience, no matter how momentary it may have been.

"Quite curious," the Queen murmurs as she steps away from him.

He gasps, but he can say nothing. Instead, McKay flushes impossibly, as though he has sinned against his own Queen. He hates himself for this, these small, trained reactions so perfectly engrained in him, even after all these years free in the wild. The Queen moves to Kylie next; McKay cannot stomach to watch as the Queen tastes of the young female. He looks away, swallowing convulsively to force down the shame and agony of this while a part of his mind recognizes that he should be unmoved by the act of feeding.

However, when the Queen slips away from Kylie, there is a worrisome, quiet moment, a lull, before the Queen gives a small chortle. "How delightful." Her haze shifts to the burly drones that accompany her. "Cut this one down."

McKay watches in mute horror as they pull Kylie down, manhandling her delicate body from where it is nestled into her private niche in the alcoves. He wants desperately to scream himself raw, to cry out, to rally against these monsters, yet he cannot. No. Their training precludes such outbursts, and the mental conditioning to subservience is too strong to fight, to break. Rodney cannot defy a Queen so openly. As such, he can only stare and shriek in his mind after her as the Wraith drag Kylie from the alcoves.

Sometimes, silent screams are worse than verbal ones.

xxxx

The drive is long and decidedly unkind to Sheppard as they ride down the mountain. Klutch drives as a woman possessed. She spares not a second as they move, accelerating through the turns and catching speed wherever possibly. Sheppard bounces in the back as the truck bounds over bumps and fallen debris, bucking in the snow wildly. And, yet, Klutch is the very image of cold composure, gripping the wheel with loose hands, even when forced to slip off the road to dart about abandoned vehicles and downed trees.

In time, however, when the sky is just blushing a pale dawn upon the horizon, she brings the truck to a grinding halt; Sheppard furrows his brow and asks, "What?"

Klutch shakes her head. "Nothing. Just…. nothing."

Sheppard roles, slowly and awkwardly onto his stomach to see and is taken back by the sight just beyond. Dawn's first golden rays spill over the mountains' lips and down into what would otherwise be a quaint, picturesque little hamlet. It is a soft, small grove beside a tiny, shimmering lake, wreathed by tiny little cabins. It is a campground of sorts, the perfect little place to spend long, somnolent summer weeks in peace. At least, it would be were it not for the abandoned, yet haphazardly armored trucks and bullet holes marring the adorable, tiny cottages. Smoke still rises from forgotten campfires, while fallen pistols and weapons gleam as they catch the dawn upon the ground where they have dropped. If there were anymore remaining, surely they would have come running by now, drawn by the racket of the truck's engine. In short, this is a camp either hastily spurned, or, in what is an exceedingly more likely scenario, one culled.

"Wraith," Sheppard hisses through his teeth with a sharp disdain. "We're too late."

Klutch shakes her head tersely and barks roughly, "No. McKay wouldn't go so easily."

Sheppard winces; it is still so very hard to imagine the McKay he knew as the McKay he now knows. Yet Klutch says nothing more, scrambling from the truck to dart about the frozen campgrounds. Sheppard watches her, holding his breath as she slips silently between the vehicles and cabins, yet no one comes for her, even when she knocks on the doors with a pale hand and calls out into the emptiness of this place. He tenses when she freezes on a dim and kneels. Sheppard bites his lip as the blonde prods at something in the snow and delicately, gingerly lifts it from the snow at her feet before turning and slowly returning to her truck. The blonde climbs back into the truck and sits in silence.

Finally, Sheppard breaks that silence. "What is it?"

Klutch breathes heavily and slowly, but the colonel can hear the forced constraint as she speaks. "We are too late."

"How can you know?" Sheppard demands, rolling his eyes. "Just five minutes ago, you were damned certain we weren't."

Klutch takes whatever it is she has found and hands it to Sheppard carefully. At first, he is surprised by the weight of it, the heft. Sheppard turns the thing over in his hands. It is a long, finely hewn blade that he knows all too well, having been held by it on more than one occasion. It is Ronon's blade, a dangerous looking thing that belongs firmly rested in the Satedan's boot. The blade has been blackened, either intentionally or by age, marked only by the crisp accents of engraved Wraith lettering. While Sheppard does not know how Ronon ever acquired such a weapon, he knows better than to think that Ronon would so carelessly lose it.

Sheppard contemplates the unusual token before breathing, "How'd you know?"

"About your friend?" Klutch asks oddly. "That it's his?"

The colonel swallows, suddenly dry mouthed and sobered by this revelation. "Yeah."

"No normal person would carry something like that, something of the Wraith. Not unless they earned it." She gives a simple, somber shrug. "He was a runner, wasn't he?" When Sheppard nods, Klutch goes on, her voice solemn and off putting, "It just…. it does things to you. It…. changes you. I could almost smell it on him."

She trailed off in a way of such finality that Sheppard had to say it. "You sound like you're giving up, like it is final."

"The Wraith got 'em." She shrugs. "You don't get much more final than that."

"You got away from them once," Sheppard implores with his voice. "You could do it again."

Klutch purses her lips together and looks down at her pale, delicate hands. "That took months of planning, and, even then, it was only with pure, dumb fucking luck."

The muscles of Sheppard's throat twist and constrict. He is not ready to face this certainty, this finality yet. After three years of searching and hoping in vain to find a way back to Earth, to find his friend, he is not prepared to lose everything all over again. Ronon, Rodney, Earth, hell, his leg. He is not ready to concede these things so lightly and casually, to mourn so simply and humbly. It is not in him, not even as cowed as he is now.

He swallows hard, forcing his dry mouth and adams apple to work. "They haven't gone far."

"No, they wouldn't," Klutch admits flatly. "Not when food is so scarce. They'll be combing these mountains for any sign of humans."

Sheppard nods slowly before asking, "You have a tracker in you, don't you?"

"Yeah," Klutch breathes, drawing up her sleeve to reveal something akin to the device that had been strapped to Kylie's wrist. "McKay bodgered this together to cloak the signal."

Sheppard draws a deep breath. It is hard for him to ask what he wants. No, it is near impossible. It is too great a thing, too large a favor to ask. She has already given him so very much, and, yet, he must ask for more. His guilt is quickly becoming a cumbersome thing, too hefty for one person to bear with any measure of grace or sanity, let alone the civility to know how to ask this.

"You could…." Sheppard swallows once more, his words thick and sticky as toffee. "You could draw the Wraith down with it. Bait them out."

Klutch's response is cold and distant, painfully noncommittal. "I could."

"And, then, you could recloak yourself. Like Kylie and Willem's little cat and mouse game?"

Klutch gives a quick nod. "I could."

"I could let them catch me." The words slip from his tongue as a pained breath.

"You could." Her shoulders appear tense and stiff to him, but she rubs her arms. "And, then what? Try to be the first one legged man in history to win an ass kicking contest?"

"I'll think of something."

"You'd better." Klutch sighs heavily as she once again climbs from the truck and opens the back door to Sheppard, glaring at him and pointing a stern finger at him. "Because, if you don't, and if the Wraith don't kill you first, I will."

Despite the cutting threat, she is gentle as she pries Sheppard from his resting place. Her hands are tender and caring, and she speaks soft utterances of compassion and reassurance as the colonel hobbles along at her side through the snow, moaning from the pain and grunting from the exertion. All the while, his mind turns over and over again how foolish this is, how downright suicidal. It is difficult enough for an able bodied man to survive an unarmed fight with even a weakened Wraith; how is he supposed to even dare to hope that he can find and rescue anyone from the Wraith?

Klutch says nothing, helping him to a clear spot a few feet from the truck before settling him down on a snowy, wooden bench. The wood creaks and groans beneath his weight, as though the thing is as tired and old as Sheppard feels. Yet there is something strangely grounding to it as Klutch leaves his side briefly to fetch a few things from the truck. When she returns, it is heavily armed, so much so that Sheppard can feel the bench sag beneath her beside him when she sits.

She slides a rifle into his hands. It is worn yet well loved, the stock polished to precision, the thing cleaned to perfection. Sheppard checks it carefully before accepting the pistol she offers as well, along with ammunition for both.

"Action's a little sticky on it, but it's better than nothing," the skrae announces, hunkering down.

The pair sits in silence for a long moment, watching as the sun rises a bit further above the ridge in the distance. Then, Klutch reaches to the device at her wrist and pokes at it. The screen goes blank, and she draws a shuddering breath. It is time. So exposed and broadcasting from the tracker lodged between her shoulders, they will be sitting ducks for the Wraith. Sure enough, the whine of a dart greets them within minutes of her deactivating McKay's creation.

Sheppard smiles oddly, looking over to her. "We've got their attention." When Klutch does not respond, does not flinch, he touches her shoulder, pressing, "You'd better be going now."

Klutch shakes her head as a single dart crests the mountains, swooping low over the barren trees. She says nothing, not with her voice, but her hand reaches down to take his. He understands; she cannot leave him, will not leave him to be taken by the Wraith. Sheppard squeezes her hand in a reassurance he does not feel right in offering. Klutch laughs a strange, haunting sort of death rattle in her throat as the dart skims low over the lake. Sheppard's heart thunders in his ears, drowning out even the racket of the dart on approach. Their hand hold turns to a white knuckled death grip even as the radiant white of the culling beam sweeps over them.

Then, there is nothing.

xxxx

When the nothing dispels and the world congeals again into something tangible, something real, the campgrounds are gone. The blushing pinks and flashing golds of dawn are replaced, instead, by the dank, deep and fleshy purples and reds that Sheppard knows all too well, highlighted only by the sharp, caustic and electric greens of an advanced technology that defies all logic. Gone are the barren trees in favor of sickly tendrils of organic conduit clinging to the structures about them. It is a Wraith hive ship.

The only thing of that place in the mountains that persists is the deathly grip upon Sheppard's hand. Klutch. She clings to him, her body still and stock stiff to resist the trembles that threaten to quake through her muscles. Klutch is afraid, yet she does not show it, a feat which is admirable in its own right considering that they are not alone.

The stillness and perfection to the situation lingers for less than a second before both Klutch and Sheppard are in motion. They are a smooth concert of motion, swift and diligent. Klutch's skill and innate knowledge of battle surprises Sheppard. He has exceptional aim, as does she. He fires head on into the fray, while she ducks and swoops over him, compensating for where Sheppard cannot turn swiftly enough. She shoves him out of the way from the stray, ozone steaks of Wraith stunner blasts. They fall several Wraith; yet there are too many Wraith and too few bullets between them.

It seems but a mere heartbeat passes between before Sheppard's ears are met by the harsh click of dry fire and is forced to discard the pistol in favor of the rifle. The rifle packs a sound heft in his hands. It is somehow reassuring to know that, when the few rounds in that weapon run out, he will at least have a club to bear.

A stifled gasp jerks Sheppard's attention in time to see Klutch's body jerk, engulfed in a red, electric flare. She falls, limp and lifeless to the ground beside him in a crumpled heap. Yet her eyes are wide and flashing with rage even before the second bolt of Wraith fire steals even that away.

"Klutch!"

When the next bolt catches Sheppard and takes his breath, his sight, and his entire world away, it is no surprise.

xxxx

Heavy, booted footsteps rouse the captives to full alertness once more before the Wraith step fully into the alcoves, dragging something behind them. Ronon jerks upright against the coils that hold him still, eager to not only show that he is not weak nor cowed by this as well as to see what new surprises those beasts have in store. He narrows his eyes, glaring as the drones come, hauling a single, limp body behind them. The Satedan grits his teeth, steeling himself, yet the Wraith seemed unconcerned by him and the other captives, focusing instead on their human cargo as they bind and cage yet another wayward soul in the alcoves across from McKay and Ronon.

There is movement to his side; McKay stirs. The physicist moves in slow, robotic actions, but they do not hide the truth from Ronon. The Satedan sees the anger flashing through McKay's eyes, the inner wildcat fighting viciously.

When the Wraith leave them once more, Ronon finally spies what has driven Rodney so feral. The pale, scrawny form dangling across from them is none other than Klutch. Her features are still and slack in unconsciousness, yet there is not a mark upon her. She is merely stunned. Ronon furrows his brow. Klutch is supposed to be with Sheppard, safe and sound and escorting her people back to Colorado and off of this desolate world.

Ronon glances to Rodney at his side, who only shakes his head; even Todd seems bothered by Klutch's presence and condition. It is a worrying sign. They wait in uneasy silence, shifting their weights uncomfortably and watching her for any sign o. It is the only thing they can do, granted their situation.

In time, Klutch stirs. The nimble little skrae awakes without moving; instead, she wakes with a flexing and contraction of her muscles, rousing herself and forcing her body to alertness and readiness. Rodney's attention pricks to her instantly, recognizing the signs instantly. However, he waits for her to prop herself up and survey the situation before saying anything. Her eyes rove the organic structure about them, studying it intently, yet there is no fear, no horror nor recoil.

"Klutch…." McKay breathes, his voice the barest shade of a whisper.

She turns to him, her crisp, blue eyes finding him with sorrowed, infinite depths; there is relief in her tone. "McKay." The blonde shifts her weight, her eyes flickering about. "Kylie?"

He shakes his head and asks, "Sheppard?"

Klutch shakes her head, and McKay's heart breaks a little. It is indeed a troubling sign.

xxxx

The Queen is pleased.

It is often difficult to tell the true emotions of any Wraith, let alone a Queen. They are a careful and cautious species, valuing actions and deeds over emotion and relations. Their lives are a guarded masquerade. And, yet, any fool could see the pleasure in this particular specimen, nearly rolling off of her in waves.

The Queen moves slowly and deliberately, rounding her prize; the infamous John Sheppard. He is battered and broken, sorely disabled by a leg that has been mysteriously lopped off, yet it can be no other. To the Wraith, all humans appear as an equal muddle of food, just as cattle to must to humans. However, John Sheppard is unique among humans, singular onto his own. His face and name herald extreme notoriety to the Wraith, whispered in secret circles as a horror of myth. No Wraith could mistake the face of John Sheppard when faced with him.

Her drones have brought him to her, dropping the slowly stirring human at her feet. She kneels at his side, savoring this victory, no matter how chance of an encounter it may have been. She strokes his delicate human jaw line, drinking in the feeling of the fragility of the internal calcium carbonate skeleton of the human.

The human male rouses slowly from the stunner blast, blinking owlishly as he does. The Queen's thin lips curl at the edges to watch the human wake, his eyes glazed with a thick disorientation. Sheppard swallows convulsively and looks up, his curiously colored eyes finally meeting the Wraith towering over him. He swears in crude, human profanity, a choppy, monosyllabic display of displeasure that only further tickles the Queen's delight.

She sneers into his face, "Welcome, John Sheppard."

The colonel jerks to full alertness, twisting under the Queen and scrambling away from her. There are very few things in this life that John hates perhaps as much as waking up to the sight of a Wraith – any Wraith, let alone a Queen. This Queen, in particular, is tall among Queens, with the same, shrewd, angular features as any of her kind. Her hair is rich and scarlet, wreathing her face and cascading down in long locks, like dripping, crisp arterial blood. Those crimson strands contrast sharply against her pearly white gown and pale, slick, shining skin.

She sneers, drawing close to him. Sheppard recoils instinctively, but the Queen reaches out and latches an impossibly strong hand upon his wrist in a motion so fast it is but a blur to his human eyes. He loathes being so close to a Wraith, to feel their touch upon him. The feeding slit on her wrist crawls and writhes against his skin, turning his stomach. And the stench! The Wraith are cleanly as a species, much like cockroaches, but beneath that lingers something else, something vile and repulsive. The Wraith have an entirely unique, cloying scent to them, something skin to the sickly sweet stench of tissue necrosis. A distant part of Sheppard's mind recognizes numbly that it is likely a natural, survival reaction as a prey animal to smell the stink of eminent death upon a predator such as the Wraith.

The Queen can smell his fear, tasting it and drinking it in as a fine, delectable wine as she grins haughtily in his face. "You shall make my most treasured trophy. The great John Sheppard of the Lanteans, brought to kneel before me." The Queen closes her eyes dreamily for but a moment before fixing him in her predatory gaze. "I shall drink of you daily." She jerks upright, shoving him down against the clammy, cold floor. "Take him down to the alcoves. Have him cleaned and properly attired for court." The Queen deigns to flicker a disdainful glance of her golden, feral eyes to Sheppard. "He stinks of human."

xxxx

Down and down, they drag the colonel, deeper into the hive than John Sheppard has ever been. They haul his by his arms as he kicks and twists against them, digging his heels futilely into a floor that offers no purchase, worn butter smooth by the tread of countless drones. The well muscled drones have little troubles hauling the mere human along by his arms. They pay his meager struggles not the merest of attention, silent and impassive beneath the chitin plates of facial armoring as they pull Sheppard along.

Down in the very bowels of the hive, they dump Sheppard in a cloistered chamber. The air clings to him, oppressively hot and humid, so much so that it is difficult to breath. It is dim there, lit only in columns of pale purple hues that shine over sunken wells into the tissue of the hive. Dark water pools in those rounded depressions, a communal bath of some form. Sheppard snorts to himself in mockery and disgust; he never imagined the Wraith as a species fixated on hygiene.

The drones, however, hardly seem to notice as they begin to strip him down; Sheppard kicks and growls, "Hey! No play on the first date!"

The drones say nothing more as they tear the last of the clothes Klutch clothed him in and dump him into one of the pools. He gasps in shock. Despite the cloying heat, the water is frigid, achingly cold. One of the drones gives a tiny chortle beneath his mask as they step away. Sheppard blinks in confusion and scrambles to climb from the well, yet a hand clamps down upon his wrist. He turns in fright and gasps at the familiar face in the shadows.

"Jacob!"

The boy emerges fully from the shadows that shroud him, his face solemn and sorely bruised. His eyes are cold and sorrowed. Yet it is the same whelp of a child that Sheppard knew just a short time ago in Foothold, the same child he had delighted with stories of Pegasus and Atlantis. He is wide eyed and terrified, yes, but, to Sheppard's excitement, he appears otherwise uninjured.

The colonel glances to the Wraith at his side and drops his voice to a whisper. "Jacob, what happened?"

"The Wraith."

"They culled Foothold?" he asks, his heart trembling with fear.

The boy nods, a tear slipping down his cheek. "Yeah…" The Wraith glare in his direction, and Jacob snaps to, stuffing a variety of what appears to be cleaning implements and soaps in Sheppard's numb hands, muttering, "'M supposed to be working."

Sheppard nods and takes the proffered items without actually looking at them, more concerned with showing the Wraith that they are making an attempt to obey as he leans close. "How?" Sheppard's blood runs cold in his veins, as ice water as Jacob looks down. "How did they find the mine?"

Jacob's face scrunches, tightly holding back the tears that threaten to spill forth. "I don't know." He purses his lips together. "I'm scared."

The boy has every right to be frightened, and Sheppard knows this. McKay and Klutch had sounded insane with their rants and theories on a spy, a traitor among them, yet there can be no denying it now. There is a spy somewhere between the camps, slowly filtering information to the Wraith about the whereabouts of humans, of food. Otherwise, the Wraith would never have found anyone nestled so deeply below ground as to mask both their body heat and their vital signs. No tracking or searching devices could penetrate that deep into solid rock riddled with various ores that would scramble any results anyway.

Sheppard nods and puts a shaking hand on the boy's shoulder. "I know. Me, too." He licks his lips. "But I'm going to get us out of here."

He cannot offer more. Sheppard will not offer what he cannot guarantee, and that includes any sense of safety or security beyond fleeing the hive. Until the traitor is found, flushed out, and dealt with, there can be no safety for any of them. Yet, it could be any one of them, any of them was capable. So many lies have been bandied about, and so many relationships have been merely an elaborate act, like the supposed hatred brewing between McKay and Klutch. It is no wonder that a viper should be nestled so neatly and so unseen among them.

The Wraith hear them and begin to stomp over; Jacob draws a breath and asks before they can storm them and blurts out, "Promise?"

"I do," Sheppard assures him.

Jacob's lips quiver as the Wraith bark orders back and forth; he murmurs, "McKay said you always keep your promises."

"I do," Sheppard quickly affirms. As wide, broad hands clamp down on the colonel, he nods and shouts while they drag him from the pool, "I promise!"

xxxx

In time, the Wraith come to pull Ronon, Rodney, and Klutch down from the alcoves. No longer supported by the organic tendrils of the hive, Rodney crashes down to his knees. Rodney's shoulders and arms flare with white hot pain as his arms hang loosely and the blood pumps down to the tips of his fingers. He hugs his arms close to his chest, as much as they will move granted the prior strain, savoring the exquisite agony that throbs down his limbs with each beat of his heart as the welcome sign that there is no lasting nerve damage from the suspension. He will be sore for hours, yes, but, from the pin-prick pains that flicker and fade, dancing across his fingers, Rodney knows he will maintain most, if not all of the range of motion of his shoulders.

McKay savors the monetary respite before one of the Wraith jabs him viciously with a stunner between his shoulder blades. He grits his teeth without allowing the action to show through his facial features, and forces himself upwards. Carefully, McKay clambers to his feet as war rages in the back of his mind. His logical mind demands that he fights, that he digs his heels in and pulls the wire tight, defy in any manner, but obeisance is too richly steeped into his limbic system. He forces himself upright, swallowing his stubborn pride convulsively, swaying as his mind goes blank for just a moment and his vision fades from the sudden motion after so long in such stillness.

It does not escape Rodney's notice that, while the Wraith free Klutch and Ronon of their bonds along with him, Todd is left to hang. Todd lifts feral, golden eyes to meet Rodney's gaze. The captive Wraith dips his head ever so slightly, a small inclination to suggest that this is to be expected. The physicist wonders, idly, how long Todd can hang there. Human respiratory musculature will begin to spasm and fully fail within three days of suspension; yet, there is no telling if the Wraith have anything resembling a human respiratory system let alone the basic intercostal musculature to stress to the point of failure granted their insect based evolutionary path.

The Wraith herd them down and deeper into the hive with a series of quite pointed jabs and shoves. Klutch and Rodney move docilely at their gesture, their minds and bodies paralyzed by their prior training to do anything but comply. Ronon fights and garners only severely rather cruel blows. Rodney knows it is pointless to argue against such defiance, for Ronon will never so easily submit to the Wraith, no matter the circumstances. He also knows it is pointless to fight at the moment anyway, for he has walked these paths several times before. The Wraith are merely taking them down to the pens for further storage, not to their deaths.

It is when they reach the feeding pens, however, that Rodney blinks; they are not the only human captives here. He looks about wildly and uncertainly. For there, to his right, is the silver-haired Amerie, along with Sulley. Eric, Jonas, and Travis lurk closely as well, as though huddling and herding together for safety like skittish colts. Upon further inspection, it seems the entire population of Foothold is there.

The Wraith shove Ronon, Rodney, and Klutch into the feeding pen with these cowering others. Yet, as soon as the organic webbing of their prison slams down, that fear melts and gives way to aggression. It is primal and illogical, and it is entirely directed at Klutch. They rush with their rage before McKay or Ronon can make any defensive move to assist her. They hurl cruel and cutting insults, spitting profanities as they charge and lash out.

"Worthless bitch!"

"Fucking traitor!"

"She did this!"

"Slut!"

"Cunt!"

They strike with wild abandon. They are the Bacchante, driven wild with bloodlust by the offering of this small morsel of a sacrifice to stay their suffering ever so slightly. They kick, punch, and snap their jaws in the air. They are wolves, feral as they circle their prey. Yet, Klutch is not so defenseless to cave without a fight. She is swift and lean, tucking low and moving with deliberate strikes to incapacitate without damaging.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Knock it off!" Rodney bellows over the shouts and cries for blood, but his words are swiftly drowned out.

"Little bitch!"

He pushes against them and watches in horror as their sheer numbers overpower Klutch. She sinks below the bobbing heads and swinging fists, as a swimmer sucked down by the undertoe. She never screams; McKay knows she never will. The physicist grits his teeth and pushes through them, parting the others by force until he reaches her, still throwing punches and fighting even when taken down.

"STOP IT!" McKay screams over them, his voice roughened by rage at the senselessness to all this.

"This is all her fault!" Amerie shrieks at the top of her lungs, a shrill sound that cuts the air and down to the marrow. The old woman surprises McKay by spitting – actually spitting – directly on Klutch's face and snarling, "That little traitor sold us out to the Wraith just like she did before!"

"No!" McKay growls, hunching low over his fallen skrae. "Klutch would never do that!"

"She's betrayed us before!" Eric argues sharply.

"She NEVER did!" McKay snaps, his eyes wide with exasperation; it is a wild, furious side of the physicist that Ronon has not seen in some years, that brings a small measure of comfort to know that the old McKay lives on in this newly forged warrior. He narrows his eyes and hisses, "She would never help them. She hates the Wraith more than you could ever know."

"How can you know that?" Sulley blasts him. The hunter jabs a finger in the direction of Klutch and her tattoos. "She's one of the Wraith's little pets." He faces McKay, his expression dark. "How can you know she hasn't been lying to you this whole time?"

Something breaks in Rodney, so much so that Ronon can spy it from where he stands beyond the ring of strangers and fellow captives. The tension to the physicist winds and snaps, leaving him somehow hollowed. The ferocity cracks and falls away, leaving Rodney's features softened and serene. There is an understanding there, somehow, a knowing to his eyes. McKay licks his lips and nods, slowly, gazing into nothing. His fingers twitch at his side.

"Klutch," McKay murmurs, his voice hazy and thick. "Klutch is not like that. I just…. I know."

"How could you know that?" Eric growls bitterly.

Ronon sees the discomfort written so plainly upon McKay's features, poorly masked at best. This is difficult for the physicist, Ronon knows now, for this approaches a painful line drawn in the sand ages ago out of absolute necessity for survival. Ronon understands; coming to Atlantis so very long ago had been crossing his own line, plunging into an uncertain world that honestly frightened him in the wake of so many years on the run.

McKay's fingers twitch once more, shaking slightly as his hand lifts to the collar of his shirt. Ronon eyes him cautiously, but McKay shakes his head tersely. He has come this far, so much further than imaginable and after so much, that it should be a trifling thing to face the risk of human ire, and, yet, it feels as an immeasurable weight upon him, bearing down and dragging him into the mire. McKay and the others, they have lived too many lies for too long to have garnered any small trust, likely very deserving of whatever justice these survivors choose to mete out, yet he must. For Klutch, McKay must.

He draws the collar of his shirt down to expose his upper chest. Just a small triangle of it, the same bit of pallid flesh McKay presented Ronon with, marked by dark, odious tattoos that swirl and twist away before knotting together once more. The people of Foothold take a collective breath and step back reflexively. They know those tattoos that mar McKay's skin, the marks of the Wraith. The color drains from the face of many, as others spit profanities.

McKay bears it unyieldingly, whispering, "I know Klutch wouldn't do it, because I know Klutch better than anyone."

Amerie steps forward swiftly, with a mother's determination. Her hand moves in a flash, swinging through the air before striking McKay hard. She purposefully slaps him across the face once, then twice. The old woman trembles in her rage and turns away, unable to face the man before her.

The physicist turned skrae stares numbly and silently at Amerie's back for a long moment before speaking."I deserved that," McKay utters simply and sadly, his voice strained by the emotion. "I know. I lied to you." He looks to the people fathered before him and shakes his head. "But you've got to know. We did it to survive. We just…. we just wanted to live."

There is a desperation to his voice. He is pleading, begging with them to just understand, to be somehow alright with this. And, yet, even as McKay stands there, his eyes wide and glossy, the people turn on him. Slowly, they turn their backs to him, some swearing and muttering, others just glaring. They spurn him, one by one. Rodney just nods to himself slowly; he deserves their scorn. He tells himself that over and over again, reminding himself that something this expected should not hurt as much as it does, should not cut nearly as deep.

His lips move of their own accord. "I'm sorry."

The apology goes unaccepted as the people who had once been his own abandon him to the far reaches of the feeding pen. McKay's mouth quivers, his lips bobbing in unspoken words. A less trained individual might not see, but Ronon can almost hear the soundless apologies spilling from his mouth. He is begging without sound, without spoken words, pleading for a forgiveness he does not deserve.

"McKay," Klutch breathes softly, her voice tired and weathered with a masculine edge in her exhaustion as she graces his arm with the faintest of touches. "Let them go." She narrows her eyes. "They're not worth the trouble." The hunter rises slowly, groaning as she does from the effort. "They're not worth anything."

The physicist looks down and shakes his head. "No, Klutch. Life is always worth it. No matter who it belongs to."

A part of Ronon is impressed. The old Rodney McKay would never have been caught dead speaking such words. And, yet, it somehow feels wrong.

The Satedan says nothing as the two skrae slip away to the side, close enough that their shoulders brush as they move. McKay hangs his head in what might be shame or sorrow, while Klutch holds her head high in defiance against their fellow earthlings that have cast them out when they should be banding together. This is all wrong, and Ronon can do nothing to stop it. Ronon shakes his head; he has always been under the impression that earthlings were not this petty and pathetic.

xxxx

By the time the Wraith have Sheppard wrestled into clothes, his body shakes with exhaustion, and he acquiesces to their will for now. Fighting, it seems, is nothing short of a futile waste of energy when so badly outnumbered by guards in far superior physical condition. Once he acknowledges this, he lets them dress him, regardless of how completely humiliating it is.

They dress him in strange clothes. The Wraith do not favor plant based textiles in their garments, a fact which, in Sheppard's retrospect, should have been common sense granted nomadic hunting patterns that leave no time for the demands of agriculture. Instead, the garb consists primarily of a variety of animal products. The crude pant and shirt undergarments are a dark leather of some kind, tanned to a buttery and velveteen softness. Above that, there is an ebony coat with simple toggles that close up to Sheppard's neck, long sleeve that cuff at his wrists, and a deep hem that hangs to just below Sheppard's knee. The leather is still and heavy, warm and protective as armor. The material is richer than the coarsely woven hair and hide based textiles of the attire granted to worshipers, forcing Sheppard to wonder the vile possibility that this is the quality of clothes offered to perhaps those oh so rare of creatures; the skrae.

The drones haul him up by his armpits. Sheppard wants to argue, to blast them with some witty, sarcastic remark, but he is thoroughly drained. It frustrates the soldier in him immensely. He has hardly even begun to recover mentally and physically from both the infection and the butchery of his leg; Sheppard knows this in his logical mind. Still, granted the severity of the situation and his own stubborn pride, the colonel feels he should at least be able to muster some snide commentary against the Wraith. Disappointingly, his mind and tongue are numbed by exhaustion.

The Wraith bring him back up to the Queen's chambers. He shudders to himself; Sheppard had been half-heartedly hoping to curl up on himself and sleep somewhere, just rest for a little while, just long enough to regain his strength and vigor. The drones hurl him to the center of the room where he sprawls out, a tasty morsel tossed to a hungry predator.

Sheppard lies there for a moment before gathering himself, wrapping his arms about himself. He does not like to feel so helpless and defenseless amid the Wraith. Somewhere in the dark, the Queen chuckles to herself at the sight, a haughty, trilling sound that chills down to the bone.

"Welcome, my pet."

The Queen slips from the shadows and into the light, circling him as a hawk on the wing. His muscles tighten and clench defensively at the sight. The Queen sneers, a vicious, cold and calculating quirk of her lips that speaks infinite volumes of horrors to him. She reaches down, her hand achingly tender as her long, bony fingers stroke his cheek in a macabre mockery of tenderness that turns his stomach.

The Queen strolls about him, purposely revolving about the axis of John Sheppard. He loathes this play, this dance of theirs. He has been in this place several times before. However, that had always been by the mental force of the Queen dragging his body into a submission his mind would never willfully yield, while now, he has not the mental nor physical fortitude to even bother fighting. That fact does not change how he hates this, the Queen toying with him so.

She gestures with a flicker of her wrist to a chair, grand and towering as a throne of Wraith structure so dark and red it appears as piled viscera and not anything at all furniture like. "Come, here." The Queen eases herself down into the throne with an elegant grace, curling her finger in a beckoning gesture. "I shall relish having you kneeling at my side." When Sheppard does not show any inclination of bending to her will, the Queen narrows her gaze. "That was not an invitation."

Impossibly, he smirks. "I'm quite fine over here."

The Queen glares bitterly, her eyes gleaming bitter amber gold that distantly and almost incongruously reminds Sheppard of aspen leaves caught in a frozen glaze. There is a sharpness to the color that defies accurate description. Even from his distance, Sheppard can see those alien pupils dilate and contract sharply amid the metallic array as the Queen measures her steadily building irritation with the human.

"Do not try my patience, Lantean." The Queen tilts her head in annoyance. "Come here."

Sheppard does not move. Even if he actually wanted to, he is too spent to drag himself across the floor to the Wraith's side. He drops his head and stares quite intently at a small patch of the floor, at the swollen blotches of bruised coloration to the smoothly hewn floor. The Queen sighs heavily and gestures to her personal guards. The drones haul Sheppard across the floor and drop him at the Queen's feet.

"Much better." She leans close, snatching the colonel by his chin and dragging his jaw up to face her. "You will behave yourself and hold that insolent tongue of yours, or I shall cut it from you." When Sheppard shakes his head at her, gritting his teeth, the Queen states emotionlessly, "It is not a fatal injury to your species, so do not think that I will be hesitant to rip the thing from your mouth."

The Queen drops her prize to the ground in a crumpled heap, and a drone clamps a secure shackle about the colonel's remaining ankle. Sheppard's heart contracts sharply at the act, at how weak and pathetic it makes him appear, while his rational mind pipes up at how truthful the impression is granted the agony flaring through his body from the physical demands of that day. It is fortunate then, that the Queen largely ignores the man curled up at her feet as he drifts and the darkness of exhaustion and slumber takes him finally both by surprise and by force.

He does not dream; it is a small and fleeting mercy.

Sheppard wakes only when the floor quivers beneath him at the behest of many feet, all thundering in one direction – his. He starts at the commotion, twitching away from the open expanse of the Queen's great hall, only to brush against the Queen's leg. The Queen makes a soft sound at his fright, something akin to a haughty little chortle, lodged deep within and reverberating against her dermal skeleton. Yet, there is disquiet to her eyes, something subtle and lingering beneath her expression, betraying her otherwise composed exterior.

He licks his lips and steels himself for whatever is to come through the doors on the far side of the room as the doors are thrown open, yet he cannot prepare himself for what comes. Not ever. His heart breaks, ripping asunder at the sight of the stranger who strides in ahead of a sizeable cohort of high ranking drones. The drones flank three Queens, but Sheppard has no eyes for them, only for the hideous sight of the creature who leads them.

She stands taller than Sheppard has ever seen, holding her head high upon her neck with pride, yet slightly down tipped in what seems ample respect for the Wraith about her. Her raven dark hair is longer than before, plaited elegantly close to her scalp where Sheppard knows some sort of extension has been added and concealed neatly in the knot work. The tattoos that mar the alabaster face are different, altered somehow to fit a new pattern. The attire upon her is neater than he has ever seen her in, tailored from the Wraith leather to fit her form in a knee length coat that conforms perfectly to the slender, lithe shape of her upper body before swelling outwards slightly at the hips as though cinched and corseted about her tiny waist. The coat is done up to her neck, lending a taller, elegant and regal appearance.

"Kylie," he croaks, his voice still muddled.

The Queen ignores him and purrs in a gentle beckon, "Come."

When the skrae kneels and bows deeply before the Queen – her Queen – he knows, and it is worse than a punch right to the gut. It is Kylie, pressing her forehead to the floor at the Queen's feet. It has always been Kylie. She is their traitor, and Rodney has been nursing the little viper this entire time. The skrae slips aside with a practiced grace, but Sheppard cannot help but glare. Even as the Queen speaks over him and presents her prize to the other rather envious Queens, he does not hear her words. Instead, he feels only his rage boiling over as he continues to stare at the expressionless skrae.

He stares, his eyes scoring the promise of a hundred thousand terrible deaths for Kylie, but she hardly seems to notice, hardly seems to care. And why should she? For Sheppard knows the truth now that he sees it so plainly laid before him; Kylie has won.

XXX

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XXX

Author's Notes : Yay! Sorry I've been getting a bit behind in everything. But, I have a good reason for it….. I will have a new, harsh, and expensive mistress in the fall. Her name? Rutgers, NJ. So, until then, I'm going to keep forging ahead with all my stories in an attempt to pretty much wrap up all the long running stories so I can switch to either one shots, or more episodic pieces as compared to these novels. You won't be shortchanged, I swear, since more of these pieces are near their climax and resolution anyway.