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Another Wraith story, with thanks to artaxastra for the loan of a caste and a character. 

    There was a reason, Zelenka thought, that he didn’t go off planet all that often.  Like the risk of being captured by the Wraith and tucked into a cocoon for later feeding.  Which was a Bad Thing, especially with Rodney and Ronon also captive, Ronon silent and grim with effort, and Rodney so far from silent that Zelenka had even allowed himself to think that almost anything would be better than listening to Rodney for very much longer.

    It was then, of course, that the Wraith returned, a pair of masked warriors led by a single male.  The leader eyed the line of cocoons for a moment, then yanked back the web that had imprisoned him.  Zelenka had an instant to think that he’d been wrong, that Rodney’s chatter was infinitely preferable to being eaten, and then the stunner touched him.

    When he woke, crumpled against the wall of a cell that glowed like the interior of a shell, he was momentarily surprised. But the Wraith liked live food, he remembered, and pushed himself to a sitting position. His glasses had survived, though as his vision cleared he wasn’t sure this was as good a thing as he had thought.  The Wraith on the far side of the cell snarled at him as though he agreed.  Faintly, he could hear Rodney’s voice still raised in complaint, and the Wraith tipped his head to one side.

    “Does he ever stop?”

    It was not the question Zelenka had expected, and he answered honestly. “No. Not really.”

    The Wraith snarled again, and turned away, the leather coat swirling about his ankles. Zelenka had to admit he’d felt that way himself sometimes.  He eased himself to his feet, trying not to move too quickly out of an obscure fear that speed might provoke the Wraith.  At least, that was what he’d read about big cats, though he couldn’t remember what those books had said about things like bears and sharks, and certainly Earth didn’t have any insect predators large enough to be relevant to the discussion.  For sharks, you were supposed to hit them on the nose, but that didn’t seem to be applicable here.

    He understood what he was doing in the cell, or at least he thought he did.  This particular Wraith might be a prisoner, but its needs took priority over the humans’.  And it was looking hungry:  the heavy mass of its hair was dulled, and there were burn holes in the coat’s black leather, stitched across its torso.  Healing took energy, Carson had said, a lot of energy; a wounded Wraith was all the more dangerous because it needed to feed to regenerate.  And that was what he was here for, a feeder fish dropped into the tank for the important stock to feed on.

    “Now I understand why Rodney hates biology,” he said, and only then realized he’d spoken aloud.
   The Wraith bared its teeth at him.  “I share the sentiment, human.”
    There was another little silence.  Rodney had stopped talking, Zelenka realized, and tried not to think what that might mean.  The Wraith paced, one hand running along the smooth hard walls of the cell.

    “So,” Zelenka said.  “I know why I’m here.  But you?”  He let his voice rise in what he hoped was invitation.  Let’s talk, let’s establish a rapport, a connection other than predator and prey….

    The Wraith turned restlessly, the bones of its face sharp, the sensor pits deeply hollowed.  In the relatively dim light, its slit pupils were wide, the yellow eyes both more and less human.  Its skin was more green than blue, different from the Wraith who’d captured them, and Zelenka wondered if that were significant.

    “I have — annoyed this hive’s Queen,” the Wraith said.

    “Unfortunate,” Zelenka said, when it became clear that the Wraith wasn’t going to continue, and for an instant he thought he heard grim humor in the Wraith’s answer.
   “Very much so.”  It swung away, one hand tracing patterns on the seashell wall, glanced over its shoulder as though seeing Zelenka for the first time.  “It’s — complicated.”

    Zelenka gave a shrug.  “It seems to me that one thing we have is time.”
   “And curiosity,” the Wraith said, and this time Zelenka was sure it was something like a joke.  “This is the tale, then.”

    The Queen was dead, and the hive mourned.  Even the ship keened softly to itself, knowing its loss, and bewildered that no new Queen had risen to comfort it.  The Old One and all the pilots, the ones closest to it after the Queen, took it in turns to soothe it, but the corridors were still chill and the air smelled of its sorrow.  Clevermen had less connection to it than most, as they were the ones who performed maintenance, and the ships often resented their necessary but painful ministrations, but in his cell, Whiskey offered what comfort he could.  After a while, the bunk shifted around him, cradling him, and he lay half dreaming.  She had not been a great Queen, hadn’t lived long enough to be even a good one, and there were no offspring to confirm her title, only the grief of ship and man to carry her to the stars.

    It was three days later that the Old One summoned them, the senior kindred of the blades and the clevermen in their entirety.  Another hive was in range, and they were all alarmed, queenless and vulnerable as they were.  But the hive was one they had joined with before, a strong hive with a Queen and two Queens-in-waiting; there was no need for enmity, the Old One said, and perhaps the chance of an alliance, assistance in their time of need.  The price they did not speak of. 

    The Old One let them argue, talk themselves out, and then declared the decision:  they would meet the stranger Queen.  At his order, they tidied themselves, washed and combed hair left lank in sorrow, oiled leather and polished weapons.  Whiskey bound Salt’s hair into a mass of braids, the strands sharp as wire against the skin of his feeding hand.

    *I don’t like it,* he said, and Salt sighed.

    *She has two daughters, two heirs.  Better that one takes our hive than have one kill the other.  It will happen otherwise.*

    *I still don’t like it,* Whiskey said again.  *I remember this hive.  They’re careless in the hunt, and they waste lives.*

    *They have them to waste,* Salt said, grimly, and turned to tend the other’s hair.  He combed it to a gleaming curtain, fastened it with clasps of carved bone older than the Eldest of the hive, and they preened for a last moment — the ship provided them with a sliver of mirror — and, so fortified, went to join the Old One.

    He had picked his companions already, of course, and when the ritual negotiations were done, he led them on board the stranger Queen’s hive.  It was a gesture of submission already, and she was beautiful:  skin like a clouded sky, hair as sleek and black as space itself, her high full breasts and broad hips caressed by her clothes.  Her daughters stood with her, one as dark-haired as she, the other with hair the color of humans’ blood.  Not as ripe, as queenly as their mother, but worthy heirs indeed.  Whiskey felt the Queen’s mind brushing past them, assessing, dismissing, until her eyes at last met the Old One’s, upright when all the others had averted their gaze.  Her lips opened in a snarl, and her teeth were perfect.

    Whiskey blinked hard, pulling himself free of her snare, felt Salt and Smoke and Bonewhite doing the same.  Her amusement caressed them.

    *So,* she said.  *You admit yourselves leaderless, and need our favor.*

    *We have no Queen,* the Old One said.  There was a dry humor in his mind, and the Queen bared her teeth again.

    *A hive is nothing without a Queen.*

   *We will not be queenless forever,* the Old One answered.  In the most private depths of his mind, Whiskey admired that for a truth that was in fact a lie:  the stranger Queen could only hear it as a promise of a daughter, an heir unborn, sealed in the shipwomb, when it was only a statement of intent.
    The Queen took two steps to her right, the daughters and blades and lurking warriors moving with her.  The Old One matched her as though they danced. 

    *The hunting is difficult these days.  A hive needs a strong Queen,* she said. 

    *That is so,* the Old One agreed.  *And we would welcome such a one.*

    The Queen spread her left hand, a sweeping gesture that encompassed her closer heir.  *Our hive is strong.  Accept our kinship, and my daughter will be your Queen.*

    It was the black-haired one she meant, Whiskey thought, and could not suppress a sudden sense of dread. 

    *We are willing,* the Old One said, and despite his best effort, regret tinged his words. 

    The stranger Queen snarled, and her blades stiffened.  The Old One turned his head in submission.  *Your pardon, Lady.  We have been unaligned for many generations.*

     *You are ill-mannered,* she said, and he kept his head and eyes averted.

    *I regret the offense.*

    She hesitated a moment longer, not bothering to conceal the anger and greed that warred in her, then extended her feeding hand, the slit red and full against her pale skin.  *Then the price is mine to take.*
   *I have brought you the best of my blades and my clevermen,* the Old One said.  *We are yours.*

    The stranger Queen considered, tipping her head to one side, then lowered her hand, nodding to the black-haired daughter.  *They are yours.*

    The black-haired daughter — our new Queen, Whiskey thought, not liking the idea — bared her teeth in a snarl of triumph.  She lifted her feeding hand, pointed along the line of clevermen, stopped at last with the greatclaw pointing at Salt.

    *You,* she said.  *You are mine.*
   There was no compulsion in her words, and none was needed:  they knew their duty.  Whiskey felt the quick flicker of Salt’s fear, and then it was hidden, banked down, and Salt went gracefully to his knees.
   *I am yours, Lady.*
   She stood over him for a moment, eyes veiled, then laid her hand against his chest.  It was ritual, the Queen feeding on her new hive as was her right, but still Whiskey flinched at the sight.  Salt gasped once, and then again, eyes suddenly wide and blind.  This was more than ritual, more than was proper; this was feeding in truth, the old way that sealed a new Queen’s rule with a death.  Whiskey snarled, furious protest, heard others echo him.  The new Queen snarled back at them, her hand still planted on Salt’s chest.  Salt’s face was changing, fear rising from him, and Whiskey launched himself at the new Queen, knocking her free.  He tumbled past her, still not able to raise his hand to her, and his body jerked with the impact of the bolts that seared his skin.  He screamed, rage and pain, saw the blades of his hive with their own weapons drawn and Salt sprawled boneless on the hiveship’s skin.  The Old One cried out, the words lost in Whiskey’s pain, and the red-haired daughter screamed with voice and mind.

    The stranger Queen rounded on her. *How dare you —*

    *I speak as heir.  One fool need not invalidate a good bargain.  Mother, sister, let me take this hive.* 

    *Well?*  The stranger Queen met the Old One’s stare.  She had gone too far, and knew it, but could not otherwise back down.  *Will you have her?*

    The Old One looked at Whiskey, still curled on the deck, at Salt gasping on his knees, and the others, clevermen and warriors, waiting for his word.  Whiskey caught his breath, lungs healing ragged, and one of the stranger Queen’s warriors kicked him, rolling him onto his back.  He had no strength to move yet, all his energies concentrating on the sealing of wounds; he lay sprawled, exposed, staring up into the guns’ mouths, and the Old One said, *And what of them?*
   *They’re mine,* the stranger Queen said, grimly, and reluctantly the Old One bowed his head. 

    *So be it.*  He looked at the red-haired daughter, head up, waiting.  *You are our Queen.*

    *So be it,* she said, and laid her feeding hand on his chest.  Whiskey saw him wince, and then the red-haired Queen had released him, nodding briskly to her former hivemates.

    *We are your allies and your kindred,* she said, *and we will hunt with you down the centuries. But we have wounds of our own to tend now.*

    Zelenka leaned against the wall of the cell.  He thought he was at least beginning to understand what was going on, the struggle between hives, this Wraith’s attack on what should have been an inviolate queen, but not why the Wraith was still alive.  Or what was planned for himself.

    “So,” he said slowly, when it became clear the Wraith had no more to say.  “You are this Queen’s prisoner, yes?  To what end?”

    The Wraith bared his teeth.  “To my end, human.”

    I had gotten that far, Zelenka thought.  “So — forgive me, but why bother feeding you?”

    “So my death will take longer,” the Wraith said.  “And provide the Queen with the greatest fulfillment.”

    Despite his care, Zelenka knew his expression changed, and the Wraith tipped his head to one side.

    “And what do you do with your rulers’ enemies?”

    “Shoot them,” Zelenka said, thinking of his childhood. “Sometimes.  Imprison them.  Release them if they are harmless enough.”

    The Wraith bared his teeth again. “So it’s the feeding part that bothers you.”

    “As a matter of fact, yes.”  Zelenka stopped, wondering if he should quit while he was ahead.  But if the Wraith had been interested in feeding, he would already have done so, and surely merely mentioning the fact wouldn’t provoke him.  “Which does raise the question of why you haven’t — fed — yet.”
   “I don’t want to make it easy for her,” the Wraith said, and this time Zelenka was sure the grimace was a smile. “And besides, I’m not really hungry yet.”

    “Perhaps before you get to that point, we could make some other arrangement,” Zelenka said.

    “Such as?”
   “We have interests in common,” Zelenka said.  “I wish to escape, and take my friends with me.  I would assume you would like to do the same — escape, that is. Cooperation seems an obvious choice.”

    “Yes,” the Wraith said.  “And I, too, may still have a companion to rescue.  However, I am not sure how much help we can be to each other.”
   “Two are generally better than one,” Zelenka said.

    The Wraith gave him a look that was frankly skeptical, and Zelenka had to admit that the other had a point.  His own appearance had never inspired great confidence in his ability to do things like break out of prisons or kill Wraith warriors….  He said, “I understand hiveship operating systems.”

    The Wraith rounded on him so quickly that it took all of Zelenka’s control not to take a step backwards.  “Then maybe we can do something for each other after all.  I think I can get us out of here, but this ship knows my touch, and wants no part of helping me. If you can find our friends —”

    Zelenka nodded.  “I can.”

    The Wraith went on as though he hadn’t spoken.  “— then I can persuade it to let me take a Dart.  Darts like me.”  He paused.  “I assume you have transport?”
   “Yes.”  Zelenka closed his mind to the voice that whispered, well, we did.
   “Then let us begin.” 

    Before Zelenka could react, the Wraith caught him by the front of his jacket and slung him casually into the cell’s rounded corner.  The fall knocked the breath out of him; he lay for a moment, gasping, then started to struggle upright.

    “Be still,” the Wraith said.  “Lie still and don’t move.”
   “But what —”

    The Wraith was already moving away, raised its voice in a shout.  “Guard!  What’s the meaning of this?  Guard!”
   Zelenka shifted cautiously, trying to see what was going on, and the Wraith hissed at him.
   “Still, I say!”  He lifted his voice again.  “Guard!”

    There was a noise from the corridor, and Zelenka made himself go limp.  His face was hidden, the warrior wouldn’t ben able to see immediately that he hadn’t been fed upon….

    “What are you trying to do to me?” the Wraith demanded.  “This is tainted food, poisoned —”

    “What are you talking about?”
    Oh, not good, Zelenka thought.  That means it’s not just a warrior but a full male with it.  Definitely not good….

    “Is this the way your Queen treats her prisoners?” the Wraith demanded.  “Poisoning them like a coward?”

    The other male snarled.  “Be silent, hiveless!  There was no taint —”

    Zelenka could hear the faint swish of the Wraith’s coat as he paced at the far end of the cell. 
   “Then why have I not fed?”

    There was a little silence, and then the Wraith said, “Perhaps I was mistaken in your Queen’s intent.  But this human bears the Hoffan taint.”
   Zelenka heard another faint snarl, and then the other male said, “Stand well back.”

    There was no answer, but Zelenka heard the whisper ofthe Wraith’s coat as he obeyed.  The cell’s grill slammed open, and he heard the guard’s feet heavy on the floor.  And then there was a movement like a flurry of drumbeats.  A body struck the wall beside him, and he rolled away to keep from being pinned under it, scrambling to his feet in time to see his Wraith pin the other male to the cell floor, feeding hand digging into his chest.  The other male flopped like a landed fish, his face changing, and Zelenka looked hastily away.  After a moment, the Wraith straightened, flexing his fingers, and with the other hand reached for the drone’s stun pole.  The other male was a withered husk inside the carapace of its leathers.  I thought you weren’t hungry.  Zelenka could hear Sheppard saying that, but it was not his style.

    “I owed him that,” the Wraith said, and there was a grim satisfaction in his voice.  He held out a second stun pole, and Zelenka took it cautiously.  He had never been this close to a Wraith who had just fed — he doubted many humans had — and it was an unnerving sight.  Every move seemed faster than before, each gesture sharp and snapping like a spark; the Wraith was trying to damp it down, and failing utterly.  In a strange way, it reminded Zelenka of an overcaffeinated McKay, except quiet.

    “And now?” he asked, as much to remind the Wraith that he was here and not food as for actual information.

    The Wraith showed all its teeth.  “We find our friends.”
   “So, a terminal,” Zelenka began, and the Wraith caught his shoulder.  Left-handed, Zelenka realized even as he flinched, not the feeding hand.  The Wraith ignored the involuntary movement.
    “Here,” the Wraith said, and pointed with his off hand.

    Zelenka saw the terminal, edged past as the Wraith swayed back, staying just a little more than an arm’s-length away.  Courtesy?  Avoiding temptation?  Zelenka put the question aside, pushing his glasses up on his nose as he studied the hiveship terminal.  He knew the query code to input, then the override that gave him access.  There was a pause, and then the golden characters rained down, informing him that the most recent human captives had been moved to the portside storage sections —

    “Ah, there,” the Wraith said, and pointed.  Zelenka didn’t recognize the identifying code, but he did recognize the portside storage sections again.
   “This way.”

    Zelenka had to work hard to keep up, even though he suspected that the Wraith was holding back for his sake.  The corridors were oddly deserted, and he thought once or twice the Wraith hesitated, surprised, before leading them through empty spaces.  Another short-handed hive, Zelenka thought.  A natural result of an insufficient food supply, or of the infighting that resulted?  Something to file for later, Sheppard’s precious intel.  For the first time, Zelenka understood the other’s obsession with information:  it took one’s mind off the immediate situation, focused one on the possibility of survival. 
   And then they had turned a corner and were back in a corridor of storage cells.  A part of Zelenka’s mind counted the empty cells, calculating hunger, while at the same time he looked for familiar faces in the gaps of the webbing.

    The Wraith gave a sudden cry, like the shriek of a hunting hawk, and reached with its feeding hand for the contents of a cell.  Zelenka whirled, lifting the stunner, not sure what he could do, and an arm flailed free of the web, a Wraith arm tipped with the heavy feeding claws. It flashed foward, fastened onto the first Wraith’s chest, and that Wraith bared his teeth, wrestling at the web.  It loosened, and the second Wraith fell forward into the first one’s arms. This new one looked skeletal, skin ashen, fragile, the braided hair dull and ugly.   Its eyes opened, blank, hairline pupils, and then flaring with life and hope.  The first Wraith made a soft noise, almost a crooning sound, laid his feeding hand against the other Wraith’s chest, the other hand cupping the stranger’s head.  The stranger’s eyes closed again, head tipping back against the supporting hand.  He was changing, Zelenka saw, reviving — to feed was an ambiguous verb, meant both to feed another and to feed oneself, and that was what was happening, one Wraith feeding the other, being fed upon….  There was fear and affection in his Wraith’s face, and Zelenka looked away from the uncomfortable intimacy.

    The rest of the web fell away, and the stranger Wraith staggered forward.  The first Wraith held him for a moment before he straightened.  Zelenka lifted the stun stick as they turned as one.

    “And my friends?” he demanded.

    The new Wraith snarled, but the first laid his off hand on his shoulder.
   “I made a bargain,” he said, and the new Wraith snarled again.

    I should name them, Zelenka thought, the way Sheppard does.  It’s a kind of control….

    “That way,” the first Wraith said, and the second one snarled a warning.

    That was Sheppard, and Zelenka turned, barely managing not to duck.
   “Wait —!”
   Sheppard had his P90 lowered, Ronon behind him with a captured Wraith gun, and Rodney and Lorne were behind them.
   “Get out of the way, Radek!” Sheppard shouted, and Ronon punctuated the words with a snapped shot.  This time Zelenka did duck, but the Wraith were gone.

    “What do you think you’re doing?” Rodney demanded, his voice high and thin.  “We could have —”

    “The — one of them saved my life,” Zelenka began, not quite believing it himself, and in the same moment, Sheppard said, “Later.  They’re gone now.  Let’s get to the jumper.”

    In the dark of a strange world, the Wraith made camp, bending the young trees still living to form a canopy that mimicked the curve of a ship.  The night sky was clear of clouds, the air touched with the chill of oncoming winter.
   *Appropriate,* Salt said, catching the stray end of the thought, and Whiskey snarled.

    *What do you mean by that?*

    They were tired, drained, hungry, ripe for a quarrel:  Whiskey saw it, not quite too late, turned his head away.  Sale snarled in answer, but softly, without real anger, and tipped his head back to rest against the bole of the nearest tree.

    *What are we do to?* he said, and the touch of his mind was faint and tired.  Whiskey eyed him with concern: they hadn’t chosen this world at random, but it had been culled recently and carelessly, and they haven’t yet been able to feed.  It had been a long journey, doubling back and forth through the gates to throw off pursuit, and they were going to need to feed soon.  Not for the first time, Whiskey regretted not feeding on the human when he had the chance — but it had helped him escape and it was honorable to keep a bargain…. He glanced sideways at Salt, wondering if he would accpet another feeding, and Salt bared his teeth again.

    *We’ll feed together or not at all.*

    He was strong enough to make a fight of it, though not to win, and Whiskey dipped his head in submission.  *Tomorrow, then, we’ll try a different world. Perhaps the crystal shores?*

    He chose the words to spark argument but Salt merely looked away.  *And then what?  We can’t go home.*

    Whiskey froze.  He had not, until now, considered deeply, but in that moment he saw that Salt was right.  They had put themselves outside the protection of the hive — a part of him mourned the red-haired queen, even though she would certainly choose her consorts among the blades and not the clevermen — because even the Old One won’t be able to shield them from the Queen who claimed their lives.

    *It was ill done,* he said at last, as close to an apology as he dared come, and Salt ran his off hand through the other’s hair.
  *I’m grateful nonetheless.*

    And that said a great deal about the black-haired daughter, Whiskey thought, at the back of his mind which he did not share with anyone.  If she had been worthy — if she had been a queen in truth, he would have fought not to save Salt, but to take his place.  *There are other hives,* he said, *ones that share our lineage.*
   *We are forsworn,* Salt said.
   *We did not swear,* Whiskey answered.  It was a weak excuse, and Salt didn’t bother to lift an eyebrow.  Whiskey sighed.  *We are clevermen, not blades — we are blades-in-darkness, and it is not our place to keep our word.*
   And that was also true, though not a truth everyone could bear to contemplate.  It was the reason that not every hive bred clevermen, the reason that in all the memories of all the hives only three Queens had taken a cleverman to their beds even for a night.  All but one of them had ended badly.  Whiskey leaned his shoulder against Salt’s, off hand against off hand, and to his surprise Salt shifted to draw him closer.  He had not thought himself in need of comfort, but he was glad of the other’s arm, the mingled curtains of their hair.

    *There is the one called Guide,* Salt said, after a long and restful time.

    *I thought he was dead,* Whiskey said.
   *So did I,” Salt answered, *but then I heard otherwise. If he lives, I think he would take us in.*

    Guide was old and wily, a Consort generations ago who somehow survived his Queen, a leader of a lineage not their own.  If he ruled, then his hive was queenless, or the queen was young and weak. But it was better than being alone in the dark, every man’s hand against them.

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You know I am in absolute love! I adore Whiskey and Salt, and you write Zelenka beautifully. I love the way that he doesn't have to explain this escape to John -- he gets it in a second.

Most especially I adore the story, and the beautiful intimacy between the clevermen. You sell me on worldbuilding like nobody else! You just get the Wraith, and it's a marvelous thing.

And I like the bit about Guide at the end -- I hope they do find him! I want to see you write him so much!

This is amazing, and I'll never see the Wraith in quite the same way again. World-building at its finest, as artaxastra said.

A known enemy, with understandable ties, history, relationships, and hunger - so much more frightening than a nameless horde. Wonderful ♥

Thank you!!! I'm fascinated by the Wraith - the show gives so many hints and shadows, and it's been fun trying to flesh things out.

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