Title: The Price of an Ally

Author: Titan5

Rating: PG

Word count: ~13,500

Summary: When Sheppard's team goes looking for help curing a disease currently raging through the Athosian village, John pays an unexpected price.

Author's note: Written for the Summer pic-fic challenge at the Sheppard h/c community. Many thanks for the beta work supplied by black_raven135. I kept fiddling with it after she'd done her magic, so any remaining errors are mine. Set during Season 3.

The Price of an Ally

John Sheppard shut down the jumper and let out a breath. Sounds from behind him indicated Rodney and Ronon were getting their gear together as they prepared to disembark the ship. Rodney, barely visible in his peripheral vision, paused and then stumbled as Ronon punched him in the arm. The scientist yelped, but took the not so subtle hint to leave with his teammate. John waited until the two men clanked out the back hatch before turning to Teyla.

Sitting in the copilot's seat, she stared straight ahead, probably seeing nothing of the console in front of her. John stifled the sigh that wanted to escape. He was so horrible at this and he had no idea what to say, but he couldn't just sit here and watch her suffer. "I know this is hard." Okay, that was an obvious and stupid thing to say. Way to go John. "We will find the answer to this, I promise. Don't give up just yet." And you undoubtedly took bedside manner lessons from Elizabeth.

Teyla took a deep breath and blew it out slowly before returning his gaze. "I know everyone is trying to help and I . . . we cannot thank you enough for what you are doing. I am afraid, though. Afraid it will not be enough. They are my people." Her eyes glistened with tears she refused to let fall. Sometimes John was astounded at her strength.

John nodded. "I know, and they are a strong people, like you. Carson and Marie will take care of them. Let's grab a quick bite and maybe we can help Rodney and Radek search the database." Standing, he held out his hand. Teyla allowed him to pull her to her feet and they headed out the back hatch. They were almost to the control room when John's radio beeped.

"Colonel, get up to Elizabeth's office," Rodney said. "Radek found something."


John led the way to the control room, crossing his fingers that what Radek had found was going to help them, or rather help the Athosians. Teyla's people had started getting sick one week ago. It had started out like the flu, but had quickly spread throughout the entire settlement. Almost half had progressed to a severe form of pneumonia that their antibiotics were doing nothing against. Beckett had set up a hospital tent on the mainland to avoid bringing it into Atlantis. Since it seemed to be extremely contagious, medical personnel were wearing HazMat suits.

The team had brought Beckett fresh supplies and a couple more nurses to help with the increasing workload, plus Teyla had wanted to check on the condition of her people. Their timing put the team there for the first fatality, an older woman who had already been pretty weak before she got sick. Two more villagers were in very serious condition and the trend seemed to be continuing. Carson was getting worried about the lack of progress in treating the disease, whatever it was. The only thing he'd figured out so far was it seemed to be bacterial.

"What have we got?" John asked as soon as they entered Elizabeth's office. Radek and Rodney were sitting in the corner with Rodney leaned over the arm of his chair to peer at the Czech scientist's computer screen. Ronon stood by the door as if guarding it and Elizabeth sat at her desk, looking like she hadn't slept in a week. Knowing her she probably hadn't.

"What's up?" Dr. Nick Strauhan entered the office at a jog, breathing hard. "Do we have something?" Nick had been left in charge of the infirmary when Carson set up his makeshift hospital on the mainland.

"That's what we're about to find out," John said.

Elizabeth nodded toward Radek. "That's everyone. Tell them what you found Dr. Zelenka."

The short scientist nodded, pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. "After Rodney call on radio earlier to tell us what Charin say about tales of a people called the Acurians having strong medicine, we began searching database for them. We find reference just before you land back in city."

After a moment of expectant silence, Rodney sighed. "Well, what do you want us to do, guess? What did the reference say?"

Radek paused to glare at his colleague before turning to the rest of the crowd. "First reference we find say Ancients were trading with Acurians for strong medicines. But when we begin to look further, we find a reference to what we believe was disease currently affecting the Athosians."

"Really?" asked John. He'd been cautiously hopeful for a lead to these Acurian people. He'd never in his most optimistic dreams imagined an actual reference to the disease. They'd been looking for that for five days with nothing to show. Apparently Ancients didn't set up key words so you could Google what you needed, as they'd painfully discovered over the past year and a half.

Radek nodded, a slight smile forming. "Yes, very much so. Apparently a group of Ancients exploring mainland became sick a few days after returning. The description sounds much like what is happening now; fever, chills, vomiting, bad headache, followed by lungs beginning to fill with fluid. They believe some animal species on mainland harbor the microbe that causes the disease. They had been to mainland many times before without problem, so whatever acts as reservoir for disease was too hard to track down. It is much like what happens with Ebola strains on Earth, making an appearance –"

"Radek," Elizabeth interrupted. "This is all very interesting, but perhaps we could get the details and theories at another time."

"What she's nicely trying to say is cut the crap and get to the part where we find these Acurians and ask for their help," said Rodney. He frowned and looked at Elizabeth. "And I want to go on the record as saying you are never that nice when you cut me off."

"That's because if we were nice, you'd just ignore us and go on," said John. "Please continue Dr. Zelenka." Rodney narrowed his eyes with a snort, but did not say anything else.

Radek glanced at his laptop screen. "Sorry, I get caught up in research. The point is, the Acurians came up with medicine to successfully treat disease. The reference gives the gate address, if they are still there."

"I don't suppose it says anything about how to make the medicine so we can skip the middleman?" asked Nick.

Radek sighed. "No, unfortunately not."

"Surprise, surprise," John breathed out.

Elizabeth rolled her bottom lip and chewed on it a moment before looking over to Teyla. "And you say Charin remembers the Athosians dealing with them?"

"When Charin was a child, her father told of trading with them for medicines for the village before she was born. The Acurians brought their medicines to the common market on Quinara the first trade day of each month. Then one day they stopped coming and no one has heard from them since." Her brow was furrowed in worry lines that had never appeared so deep.

"We need to check," John said. "Even if they don't have records of the cure, they may have something else that can help or the knowledge of how to find it. Carson thinks we're going to need an antibiotic from this galaxy to have a prayer of curing this thing. They seem like our best chance."

"John, they may not even be alive. It's very likely the reason trade stopped was they were culled into extinction," Elizabeth said.

"We don't know that," said John, crossing his arms to hide the fact that his hands were clenched into tight fists. The Athosians had been good friends, helping them and trusting them at times when no one else in this galaxy would. They had helped with their food supplies that first year when the expedition was stranded and rationing to put off starvation. No way was he sitting on his hands when there was a chance he could help them.

Elizabeth pinched the bridge of her nose a moment and then dropped her hand. "I'm not suggesting we don't check it out. I'm just reminding you that there are no guarantees they are still there, much less that they can help. Just don't go off half cocked. Keep things in perspective." She was looking straight at John.

After a few seconds, John dropped his arms and let the tension flow out of his shoulders. It was scary how easily she read him sometimes. But then, that was her job. "Okay, I get it. But even if they aren't there any more, they may have left some sort of records." Now it was his turn to pin her with his eyes, silently making his request.

With a small smile, Elizabeth nodded. "You have a go."

"Thank you," Teyla said. And for the first time in days, her eyes lit up with hope.


As soon as the jumper burst forth from the wormhole into the atmosphere, John brought up the HUD. He scanned it while heading for the last known location of the Acurian settlement. His heart dropped when he didn't see any life signs. Rolling his lower lip under, he glanced at Rodney in the copilot's seat and they traded a look that said he'd seen the same thing as John. Neither of them said anything.

A few minutes later they were over a forest that lay in the valley between two mountains. It was a relatively young forest judging by the size of the trees and the vegetation density. The remains of the city was visible from the air. Plants had begun moving in, but they hadn't taken over yet. The devastation of a Wraith culling many years old was clearly visible, even from the air.

John hovered the jumper over what appeared to be the center of town. A crumbling fountain stood in the middle of an open square between the buildings. "Maybe we should land and look around. There might be records somewhere. See anything that looks like it might have been a hospital?"

Teyla stood just behind John, staring down at the wreck below them. He wanted to say something comforting, but the words wouldn't come.

"No," said Rodney. Everyone looked at him as he lifted his head and brought up the HUD again. "I've been scanning farther out and I found a cluster of life signs about five klicks from here."

John's heart rate upped a notch as hope rose. "How many life signs?"

Rodney grinned. "Looks like around two hundred. I think the survivors moved the village. It took me a minute to find them because they keep fading in and out. I'm betting they are at least partially sheltered by something that helps block their signal."

"Rodney, that is wonderful," Teyla said, her face breaking into a smile.

"Told you we'd find them," said Ronon. "Good work, McKay," he added, clasping the scientist on the shoulder. Rodney looked a bit shocked, unaccustomed to getting praise from Ronon.

"Uh, yeah, thanks." As the shock wore off, the usual smirk took up residence and Rodney jutted his chin out. "What did you expect? Genius here."

John chortled as he changed the heading to one that took them toward the life signs flickering in and out on the HUD. It only took a few minutes in the jumper. He slowed the ship as they approached the village, stopping to hover right in front of it. "That looks . . . we are still in the Pegasus Galaxy, right?"

"What?" Rodney said, staring out the window. "Oh, right, yes. We are."

Teyla was sitting behind John and Ronon behind Rodney. In his peripheral vision, John could see that they had both leaned forward, shoulders together to peer through the window between John and Rodney. "I have never seen anything like that," said Teyla.

"Me either," said Ronon. He shifted his gaze to his CO. "Have you?"

John nodded. "Yeah, on Earth. There are several places where the natives of an area built their village in a place like this. We call them cliff dwellings."

"Do you believe the Acurians live here?" asked Teyla.

John shrugged his shoulders. "No idea. Someone does though so I guess we need to check it out."

It looked like someone had carved out a giant opening in the side of the hill. Inside were buildings of what appeared to be clay bricks going back as far as they could see, many of them two or three stories high. Some of the ones in front were damaged and no people were actually visible. The hill that led to the flat valley below wasn't as steep as some he'd seen, but was littered with white rocks of various sizes. John studied the scene until he found what he was looking for.

"How do we get in there?" asked Rodney. "Climb from below?"

"Not unless you want to die," said Ronon.

Rodney blanched and turned around to glare at the Satedan. "What's that supposed to mean?"

John smiled. "I'm betting those rocks are unstable. If I lived here, I'd make sure anyone coming up that hill would start a virtual rockslide to take out the first wave of attackers. Between that and the alarm sounded by the guards posted near the edge of the cliff there," he said, pointing to what appeared to be an abandoned building in the right corner of the cave-like opening before switching to a similar set up on the left, "and there, it would make this place pretty easy to defend."

Ronon nodded in approval. "Moving here was good strategy if this is the Acurians."

Rodney sat staring at the village in the cliff face with his mouth open for several moments before he seemed to get his thoughts together. "Then how are we going to get in there? And if they have sentries posted, they know we are here."

John chuckled. "Oh, they know we're here all right." He was pretty sure he'd seen a messenger leave the building on the far left. "I say we go topside. There's got to be a back door to this place." With that he guided the jumper to the top of the cliff.

It was relatively flat and barren on top. As the slope began to descend on the other side, there was a lot more vegetation than the area in front of the cliff. It was mostly shrubs and small trees, but they were dense enough to provide cover for the back entrance as well as any natives watching it. John set the jumper down on a wide, flat rock a few feet from the small scale forest.

As they stepped out of the back hatch a few minutes later, three dark-skinned men emerged from the brush with drawn arrows pointing at the team. Between their dark skin and hair and their manner of dress, they looked an awful lot like Native Americans. John had been expecting the greeting, so he slowly lifted his arms away from his sides, palms open in as non-threatening a manner as he could. He had already warned his team not to overreact to the situation.

"Hi, I'm John Sheppard. We're looking for a people called the Acurians. We aren't here to cause trouble. We need their help."

A fourth man, unarmed, stepped out from the trees. His long dark hair hung loose with a green and blue feather tied to the right side. He had a dark circle on his forehead with a symbol sort of like a wavy W in the center. It looked like a tattoo, but John couldn't be sure. He and the others were dressed in brown pants and tunics. The man stopped just a few feet in front of John.

"I am Lakota of the Acurians." He nodded toward the jumper. "You are of the Ancestors?"

John paused, totally caught off guard. "We are, uh, I guess you could say I'm a descendant of the Ancestors."

Lakota frowned. "But you are not an Ancestor?"

"No," said John, hoping that wasn't a deal breaker. When Lakota didn't say anything, he began introducing the members of his team. "That's Rodney McKay, Teyla Emmagan, and Ronon Dex."

Lakota looked over John's shoulder to Ronon. "You are of Sateda?"

Ronon nodded. "I am."

Lakota grunted. "Sateda produced good warriors, honorable and skilled. How is it you survived?"

Ronon's expression darkened and John thought he wouldn't answer for a moment. "Wraith made me a runner. His people removed the transmitter. When I found out Sateda was destroyed, I stayed with them to fight the Wraith."

Lakota nodded and seemed to accept the answer. He then moved his eyes to Teyla. "You are . . . Athosian?" He frowned, apparently having a harder time figuring her out. John thought the lack of tattoos might have something to do with that.

Teyla's spine stiffened. "Yes, I am of the Athosians. A member of our village, Chayan, told stories of our people trading with the Acurians a long time ago. She said you were known for your strong medicine."

A small smile finally appeared on the native's face. "Yes, my grandfather told me of the Athosians. Also a very noble people." He glanced to Rodney. "And what of him?"

Rodney's eyebrows shot up and he opened his mouth. John jumped in to successfully cut him off. "He's from my planet."

Lakota looked to John. He obviously knew what had just happened, but seemed more amused than alarmed. "He is also a descendant of the Ancestors?"

John's face twisted in a grimace as he tried to figure out how to answer that. "Maybe not so much."

Lakota laughed and nodded. "I think I see. You need our help with a medicine?"

John sighed, feeling a bit of the tension ease out of his shoulders. "Yes, yes we do. Teyla's people, the Athosians, have become ill and our doctors . . . our healers can't seem to get it under control. We were hoping you could help us with something to treat it. We are willing to trade for it."

"What if we do not need anything?" asked Lakota.

The tension returned triple fold and John felt the beginnings of a tension headache. He stared at the man, unsure of what to say or do. Swallowing hard, he wished like crazy Elizabeth was here. "I don't . . . surely there is something we can trade? If not goods, then maybe knowledge or service? We can help in a lot of ways, provide manpower if you need it . . . " He was at a loss, his stomach clenching in fear. He had been worried about finding people or information. It never occurred to him the people would refuse to help them.

"You would take what you want by force?" asked Lakota, his eyes dark.

"No, no, gosh no. We don't do that. Please . . . Teyla's people are good people." John wondered if he sounded and looked as desperate as he felt. That could work either for or against them. He cringed when Ronon growled from behind him.

"We cannot help you," the man said, his voice firm. "You will leave."

Teyla's gasp almost broke John's heart. "Wait, can we not talk about this? You have not heard what we have to offer. We can –"

"No, you will leave. Now." The arrows that had been mostly pointing toward the ground now came up to point at the team.

John turned to look at Teyla. "I'm sorry, Teyla. We'll keep looking in the database. We'll find something in time, I promise." A lone tear escaped to roll down her cheek and he wiped it away. "Come on, we're wasting time here." He didn't try to hide the bitterness in his voice.

Ronon stepped toward Lakota, but John grabbed his arm. "Chewie, no. If they don't want to help, we can't make them."

Rodney snorted. "They apparently attended the Ancient's school of how to avoid helping others. Probably got a master's degree in indifference. Don't worry Teyla, Radek and Carson and I will figure this out. We don't need their help anyway. Although it would have been easier with it."

John herded his team into the jumper. As he stepped onto the ramp, he heard Lakota call to him. When he turned around he was shocked to see it was only the two of them. His security force had disappeared into the trees.

"You and your people may come with me to the meeting hall. I will gather the elders to discuss your needs."

John was speechless. Realizing he probably looked like he'd gone brain dead, he cleared his throat and stepped off the ramp. "You're going to help us? I don't understand." And boy was that an understatement.

Lakota smiled. "I apologize. It was a test to see if you would be honorable to respect our ways or if you would try to use force. We have not traded with anyone in many years. I am afraid we have become distrustful."

John let out a slow breath. "So, we passed? You'll help us?"

"Yes," Lakota said while nodding. "We will try. Please, if you will come with me."

John turned to his team, standing on the ramp starting at the two of them. "You heard the man," he said with a big grin.

Teyla smiled back at him as she stepped onto the rock and then looked at the native. "Thank you. We are in your debt."

Lakota took what looked like a handful of sand from a pouch at his belt, spoke some words over it and then blew it toward the team. The grains seemed to sparkle as they drifted to the ground right in front of them. John found himself lost in the glitter for a moment.

"You are ready?"

"Huh?" John twitched when he looked up to find Lakota right beside him. When had he moved? Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs that seemed to have taken over, John nodded.

"Yeah, we're ready." He struck out right behind Lakota with Rodney and Teyla behind him and Ronon bringing up the rear. As they got a few feet into the shrub forest, another Acurian warrior fell in behind Ronon. Well, he couldn't resent the extra company because he'd have done the same. They had walked for almost ten minutes when the narrow trail widened into a small clearing. Movement to his left caused John to turn his head. A slim boy of fourteen or so came from between the trees. John noted that the feathers in his hair were the same blue and green of their host. He was pretty sure the warriors that had surrounded them earlier had feathers of just about every color except those. Lakota swiveled around to frown at the kid.

"Yuma, what are you doing here?" asked Lakota.

The boy didn't seem concerned, shrugging one shoulder as he answered. "Neka was giving us another tracking lesson. I was bored and wanted to see the strangers so I slipped away. Maybe he can assign the others to track where I have gone," he said, laughing at his own joke.

Lakota brought his hand up, undoubtedly to begin chewing the boy out, when John saw movement through the trees just behind and to the left of Yuma. It was huge and covered in a mixture of scales and fur and moving straight for the boy. John was the closest to the kid and knew he had neither the time nor the vantage point to shoot the creature, so he did the only thing he could think of. Lunging forward, he pushed Yuma to the ground just before the animal hit him in the left side, bowling him over.

There was shouting and movement all around him, but John tunneled in on keeping the giant mouth of teeth as far away from his face as possible. The animal latched onto his left forearm. It had a scaly face with a mane of spines around its head and fur beyond. The spines and frills were standing erect, making the thing look even more intimidating.

John kicked at the animal's underbelly several times and when that had no effect he tried punching it in the side of the head, near the ear. Avoiding the spines proved tricky, but the third punch got the eye and he felt the grip loosen. He followed it up with another kick to the belly and the creature let go. John used his feet to push the animal off him. Before he could roll away, several arrows hit the thing in the side. It howled once and then dropped to the ground, very still and hopefully very dead.

The little clearing was eerily silent as everyone stared, waiting to see if the animal would spring back up, but it didn't move. John let his head fall back, his heart pounding in his chest as he tried to pull in enough air. He could still smell the fetid breath of the thing and it made his stomach churn. Or maybe that was a side effect of almost having your throat ripped out by the porcupine from hell.

"John?" Teyla was kneeling beside him and looking worried. He had the feeling that wasn't the first time she had called his name.

"I'm okay," he said, looking around to see if anyone was hurt.

Rodney snorted. "Yeah, right. Half your arm is ripped off and you've got a bunch of giant quills from a porcupine the size of a small bear stuck in your arm and side, but you're okay. I always knew you were nuts, but this proves it."

John furrowed his brow. "What?" Lifting his head, he glanced down to see the scientist had been right. Several quills at least five inches long were stuck in his upper left arm and down his left side. His forearm was bleeding from several puncture wounds. John let his head fall back to the ground, suddenly light headed.

Lakota crouched beside Teyla. "We must get him to the healers." He looked up at several warriors now standing around the clearing and spoke to them in a different language.

"Wait," Rodney said. "We should take him back with us, to our healers."

Lakota shook his head as four of his men spread out a thick blanket and slid John onto it. The jostling woke up the pain he knew he should be feeling and he groaned. His head was really spinning now and it was making him nauseous. What was really making him worry was the way his lips were starting to feel numb. Lakota began talking again as the warriors picked up the blanket and carried John like he was on a litter.

"We much get him down to the village and to our healers. The spines of the machk carry a venom that is deadly. We have the antidote, but it must be administered quickly."

"Well of course he would find something poisonous to be attacked by. Why am I not surprised?"

It was a testament to how quickly the pain had escalated that John couldn't even be insulted by Rodney's comment. Hot fire seemed to radiate out from the spines into his arm, chest, and back. Everything else was cold and he began to shiver. His head felt like it was going to explode but it was hard to be concerned when he was having more and more trouble catching his breath. He felt like he was breathing but there was no oxygen being brought in. John flailed his arm out, trying to latch onto someone who could help him. The last thing he remembered was the horrified look on the faces of his team and thinking it would be the last thing he would ever see.


Rodney was already terrified, but when John began gasping and his lips turning blue, he crossed over into full blown panic. The colonel was going to die right in front of him and there was nothing he could do. No doors to open or programs to override or Ancient technology to turn off or on. Nothing. Except . . .

"Wait. We have something on our ship to help him breathe," Rodney said. He knew he was talking too fast, so when Lakota turned to look at him quizzically, he repeated himself. He noted the men with improvised litter continued into the forest.

Lakota looked from Rodney to Teyla. "Truly, you have a means to help him breathe?"

Teyla nodded. "It is a tank with air and a mask to deliver it. We carry it with our medical supplies on the ship, in case of injury."

Lakota nodded. "Go. Hurry. I will wait."

Rodney didn't have to be told twice. The ship wasn't very far so it only took a few minutes. A few minutes that stretched out and seemed infinitely too long for someone who wasn't getting enough oxygen. He should have sent Ronon.

When he reached the ship, he grabbed the entire medical kit as well as the oxygen tank just in case there was something they needed. Cursing himself, he realized he really should have brought Ronon to take the supplies back while he radioed Atlantis. No time for that now. He ran . . . or rather jogged to catch up to the rest of the team. He followed the trail through the trees until it seemed to dead end at a rock cliff.

"No, no, we don't have time for this," he muttered as he spun around looking for any sign of which way he should go. As he turned, there was suddenly a tall Acurian male right next to him. Rodney jumped and almost dropped the tank. "Crap! Where did you come from?"

The man's face remained impassive as he took the tank from the scientist. "This way."

"This way, right. Lead on. Man suffocating and all," Rodney said, waving his hand in a get on with it manner. He followed the Acurian around the curve of the cliff wall. It reminded Rodney of a hairpin curve going around a mountain. Suddenly they were in a narrow cave and Rodney wasn't even sure when they had crossed the threshold. It was dark at first, then they made a right turn and torches lit the way. "Okay, this is kind of cool, you know, in a claustrophobic creatures of the night kind of way." There was no response, but Rodney was clutching the med pack to his chest while watching for spiders and other creepy crawlers so it was possible he missed it.

A few minutes later the passageway opened up to a huge room with lots of buildings and sunlight streaming in over the roofs. "Oh, thank goodness," he mumbled, some of the fear draining away. Ronon was rushing toward him, his brow furrowed. That wasn't a good sign.

"Come on, McKay, Sheppard needs the oxygen."

"I'm coming as fast as I can," Rodney snapped, hurrying his steps to follow his teammate. Ronon took the tank from Rodney's escort and took off at a jog that the scientist could barely keep up with. They weaved through several buildings and up the steps into one with two stories. He was surprised at how light it was inside and supposed they had the row of windows on one side to thank for that. Brightly colored blankets hung from the wall and covered the wooden furniture.

John was on a low bed in a back room and surrounded by several people. His eyes were part way open, but glazed and unfocused as he squirmed and clutched at the blanket with his uninjured hand. He was gasping for air and all Rodney could think of was the cliché fish out of water. Ronon shoved his way through the herd of people and got the oxygen going on the colonel. He was then politely ejected from the area. Amazingly enough, he let it happen.

"What are they doing?" Rodney asked. Teyla stepped out from the corner to stand beside him. He hadn't even seen her over there.

"They have been removing the spines of the creature. They are barbed on the end so they are having to cut them out," explained Teyla. At the explanation, Rodney now saw an older woman with gray hair in a long braid using a small knife to cut out one of the spines. His stomach clinched and he had to look away.

"Only two left," said Ronon. "Lakota said some of their healers are making a fresh batch of the antidote. It should be ready by the time they get the spines out."

Lakota came into the room with an older man. The feather in his gray hair was the same color as that of Lakota, making Rodney study him further. It was hard to miss the similar square jaws or the narrow, close set eyes. The old man carried a clay pot and immediately began to speak to the group surrounding the bed in soft tones of their native language.

Lakota watched for a moment and then motioned toward the door. "We will move to the larger front room and give them space to work. My mate, Aponi, has prepared a drink. Come."

Rodney opened his mouth to argue because really, he wasn't about to leave Sheppard alone in a room with incense burning Pegasus barbarians who were probably going to chant and feed him some nasty fake antidote based on goat pee or something. Instead he yelped because Ronon grabbed him by the neck and hauled him out of the room before he could do more than sputter.

They ended up in an open room at the front of the house with a wooden table and chairs at one end. Bright colored fabric tied back on either side of the windows served as curtains. Ronon shoved him in a chair and finally let go of his neck, prompting Rodney to rub it vigorously while glaring at the grinning Satedan. The nickname Conan never seemed more appropriate.

Looking around, Rodney noted a woman just on the heavy side of average moving around in the adjoining room, which appeared to be a kitchen. She had the same blue and green feathers as well as a few red ones tied together as earrings and a matching necklace. She looked almost familiar when she turned so he could see her face and Rodney realized her straight, pointed nose looked a lot like the kid in the forest. Rodney almost jumped when the boy in question walked out of the kitchen, followed by Lakota.

"Yuma," the Acurian man said, catching up with the boy beside the door to the outside. The boy paused a moment and then turned around. Rodney could see scratches on his forearms, probably obtained when Sheppard pushed him down.

"I told you I am sorry, father. I did not mean for this to happen." Yuma's voice was low and the kid sounded sincere. The arrogance from before was gone.

Lakota put his hands on his hips and stared down at the kid. "You could have been killed. If the stranger had not been as close . . . if he had not acted as he did . . . " He took a deep breath and then moved his hands to his son's shoulders. "Yuma, we have the rules that we have for a reason. Do you understand now?"

Yuma nodded and looked down at his feet. "I do. I thought I was a man, but I am not. I have shamed myself. I will accept whatever punishment is given." He brought his eyes up to meet those of his father. "Will the stranger be all right?"

Rodney stiffened and he was aware the conversation had also gleaned Ronon and Teyla's attention. Lakota didn't speak for a moment and Rodney wanted to yell at him to just answer the question. About the time Rodney had decided to vent his frustration, the man spoke.

"I am uncertain. Alo and the others are wise and have tended to the poison of the machk before, but he received much of the venom. They will do all they can."

Yuma nodded. "When he is better I will serve his needs."

The corner of Lakota's mouth twitched a little and then he nodded. "Yes, you will. You owe him much." He sighed audibly. "We owe him much." He hugged Yuma, bowing his head over that of his son and murmuring several words. Then he stepped back and let go of the boy. "We will discuss punishment later, after we know the fate of the stranger. Go help Cholena work in the fields."

Yuma's eyes widened. "That is woman's work."

Lakota expression did not change. "Working to supply food for our people is honorable for both men and women. I think you have had enough time in the forest for today."

Yuma sighed and bowed his head. "Yes, father," he drawled and trudged out the front door. Lakota shook his head and mumbled something under his breath that Rodney suspected was the equivalent of stupid kids. He then joined them at the table as the woman from the kitchen began serving clay mugs of a warm drink.

"This is my mate, Aponi," Lakota said, waving toward his wife. "Aponi, these are the injured stranger's friends. That is Teyla Emmagan of the Athosians, Ronon Dex of Sateda, and Rodney McKay of . . . he comes from the same world as the injured one, although I am afraid I do not know where that is."

Aponi bowed to them and Rodney noticed for the first time how truly beautiful she was. Her fine features were almost as perfect as Teyla's. "I understand your friend saved Yuma from the machk. We are in your debt."

Rodney almost missed what she said because he was sniffing the mug. Whatever it was smelled heavenly, almost like coffee, but different somehow. Smoother. The second Lakota took a sip, he decided to try it. It was smooth and rich and weirdly thick, almost like chocolate coffee without being sweet. It had a bit of a bitter bite, like dark coffee or unsweetened cocoa, but not so strong as to be unpleasant. He closed his eyes for the second sip and moaned before he could stop himself. Opening his eyes, he found the whole table staring at him.

"I believe Rodney likes the drink," said Teyla with a small smile.

Rodney felt his face flush as Ronon gave him a toothy grin. "I, uh, yes, it's very good. When will we know if Sheppard is okay?" he asked, quickly changing the subject.

Lakota looked out the window a minute then turned back to the team. "We should know by morning. If your friend makes it through the night, then he will live."

"Thank you for helping him," said Teyla.

Lakota thinned his lips and frowned. "I owe all of you an apology, but especially your friend. After what has happened, I regret the test of your honor. If I had brought you into the village immediately, it is probable your friend would not have been injured. Such a thing was never my intention."

"And yet here we are," said Rodney.

Teyla glared at him a moment with one eyebrow arched in her please do not talk any more expression and sighed. "We know you did not mean for this to happen. And if things had not progressed as they did, your son could have been injured or killed."

"This is what Sheppard does," said Ronon. "Protecting people is who he is. He would have done it for anyone."

Lakota nodded. "A true man of honor, which makes my actions weigh heavily on my heart. I know he spoke of your people needing help with treating an illness. Surely that is the least we can do. Please, tell me more."


Rodney grew more and more infuriated. He was on the brink of figuring out how to charge their empty ZedPMs and one of his minions kept calling his name. A hard poke to the ribs had him sitting up straight with a yelp. Blinking a few times, he tried to focus on the unfamiliar room around him. He rubbed his face vigorously thinking where the heck am I? He dropped his hand, his eyes finally focusing on his surroundings and everything came flooding back. He had fallen asleep at Lakota's table. Glancing up, he saw Ronon standing over him grinning.

"Has anyone ever told you that your alarm clock skills suck? What time is it?" Even as he asked, he noted that the lamps had been put out and daylight was streaming through the window. He would just about kill for a cup of coffee. Then he remembered what they had been sitting around all night waiting on and jerked his attention back to Ronon. After a moment of panic, he reminded himself that Ronon was smiling. "The colonel?"

"Beckett and that medicine man said he's going to be okay. Told ya."

Rodney nodded. "Yes, yes, your unmoving faith in our trouble magnet team leader is once again validated. Can we see him? And where it Teyla?"

"Doc said we can see him in a little while. Teyla went with the old woman to help with the medicine for her people. She's learning how to make it and how to use it since it's something we could need more of in the future."

Rodney sighed. "And isn't that a lovely thought." His luck they'd all catch it on their next trip to the mainland, since that's where the disease apparently hung out looking for its next victim.

Ronon shrugged his shoulders. "Some of Teyla's people had scouted out a new area pretty far from their camp. The forest was really dense there, with lots of trees and animals no one had seen before. Dr. Beckett thinks that's probably where they picked it up so they aren't going there any more."

"Wise choice." Rodney would never admit it, but he'd been so excited to see Carson last night he'd almost hugged the man. Once Sheppard had been settled and the local healers brought in, Lakota had someone guide Rodney back up to the jumper so he could dial out and let Atlantis know what was going on. It was weird the way he hadn't remembered anything about the way back, the little clearing where the colonel had been attacked the only familiar spot. Lorne had brought the doctor and medical supplies on a jumper about an hour later. Carson had agreed with the local medicine man or healer or whatever they classified him as that the colonel shouldn't be moved. And so the night of endless waiting had begun.

Lorne stepped in followed by Lakota. "Dr. McKay, I have a delivery for you from Dr. Zelenka," said the major, handing him a silver thermos. It was a little warm to the touch and Rodney's eyes widened.

"Please tell me this is what I think it is," Rodney said as he unscrewed the top and inhaled deeply. The rich aroma of good, strong coffee tickled his olfactory endings and he felt the knot of tension in his head and neck begin to unwind. "Radek, I take back every negative thing I've ever said about you. Well, most of it." He noticed Ronon, Lorne, and Lakota smirking at him and stiffened his back. "I don't expect any of you to appreciate a fine cup of coffee." He poured a healthy serving into his empty mug from the night before and drank almost half without taking a breath.

"Enjoy, Doc. Zelenka said to tell you that you owe him big time." Lorne waggled his eyebrows in a way that seemed almost like a threat. "Have you guys seen the colonel yet?" Rodney finished his coffee as Ronon caught Lorne up on events occurring since he'd left a few hours before.

Rodney was pouring his second cup when Teyla arrived carrying a large leather pouch that looked like a huge woman's shoulder bag. She set it on the table with the care one would normally give a carton of eggs. She looked tired, but not nearly as worried as she'd looked over the past week. "I have more than enough medicine to treat everyone in the village. Oya has also given me extra of the plants I do not think I can gather elsewhere so that we may start them in the village garden. Have you seen John yet?"

"No, we were waiting on the sheep herder to come get us," said Rodney as he finished his coffee. "I might just survive this little trip after all."

They all turned to the sound of voices coming their way, one of them with a distinct Scottish accent. Carson and the old man from the day before finished their conversation as they reached the cluster at the table.

"Ah, Major Lorne, you're back," said Carson. "This is Havoni. He's Lakota's father and one of the chief healers for the city. Colonel Sheppard is very lucky these fine people knew what to do and acted so quickly. It was close for a bit, but it looks like the colonel will recover. He's awake, but in a fair amount of pain. He's got a bit of pain medication on board now that the toxins have mostly cleared his system, but I'd like to give it a few moments to really take hold before we move him. You can go visit with him until then if you'd like. I know it's been a long night of waiting."

Rodney stood and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his neck and back. Carson stepped over near the table and looked at the thermos. "Is that coffee?" There was no mistaking the hope in his voice.

"It was," said Lorne.

"Was?" Carson's face fell and he sighed as he looked at Rodney. Rodney knew the expression on his face was guilty as sin, but he couldn't seem to control it.

"Uh, Radek sent me coffee," Rodney said, knowing how lame that sounded.

"And you drank all of it," said Carson.

Rodney shrugged his shoulders. "We'll be back in Atlantis soon and you can get your own coffee," Rodney said defensively.

"Aye, I guess I can," muttered Carson.

Rodney had no idea what to say to rectify the situation so he headed towards Sheppard's room. "Let's go see hero flyboy while he's conscious." He felt bad about drinking all the coffee and yet he didn't. Radek sent it to him and how was he supposed to know Carson would wander out and want some. Besides, they really would be back In Atlantis soon.

Sheppard was laid out on the low bed, his eyes at half mast. A bag of IV fluids hung from a peg on the wall and led down to his right hand. His left arm was bandaged from wrist almost to shoulder. Bandages also wrapped around most of his torso. His hair was wild and plastered to his face at the hairline, beads of sweat dotting his brow. His oxygen mask had been switched out for nasal cannula. The colonel seemed to be struggling to get his eyes the rest of the way open.

"Hey," said Rodney, moving over to the bed as the others piled in behind him. "I hear you beat the odds again."

Teyla knelt beside the bed to take his hand, carefully avoiding the IV. She reached over to push the damp hair off his forehead. "How are you?"

John looked at her but seemed to have trouble focusing. After a moment he said, "Kinda . . . weird. You guys . . . okay?"

Smiling, Teyla nodded. "Yes, everyone is fine but you and Dr. Beckett has told us that you will be in time. We are moving you back to Atlantis soon."

John frowned and shifted as if trying to get up. Rodney moved over to push on his shoulder. "Whoa, boy, down. You aren't going anywhere except on a stretcher."

"Athosians? What about . . . " John's head dropped back to the bed as he ran out of steam.

Teyla placed her hand on his other shoulder. "John, it is all right. The Acurians have given me what I need to heal my people."

"Really?" he asked.

"Really," she echoed.

"Okay, s'good. Kid okay?"

Ronon bent over to get almost in John's face. "Sheppard, the only person hurt was you. Everyone else is okay and we have the medicine for Teyla's people. Relax."

John's eyelids fluttered a few times as the tension seemed to drain out of his body. Then his eyes slid shut and his breathing evened out.

"He is always so worried for others?" asked Lakota. Rodney startled because he wasn't aware the native had entered the room.

"Yes, that is quite normal for John," said Teyla as she got to her feet.

Lakota nodded. "Please come back when you can. We would be honored to trade with your people and I would like to know what happens with Colonel Sheppard." He smiled. "And I believe my son needs to offer him thanks."


Random sounds that started out like white background noise eventually clarified into distinct voices and recognizable patterns. John was absorbing the sensory intel coming in and trying to process it into coherent thought when the steady tapping stopped and a loud voice disrupted the calm vibe he had going on.

"He's making that face again. I think he's waking up."

John was wondering who was making a face when he realized he was scrunching up his face like someone with a migraine. A touch on his arm left him flinching and struggling to get his eyes open. "What?" he croaked as a blurry infirmary began to come into view.

As his vision cleared, John saw Rodney and Teyla standing beside his bed. Rodney was grinning. "Are you in there somewhere? The staff is getting tired of checking on you to find the lights are on, but no one is home."

Teyla widened her eyes briefly and then sighed as she gave Rodney a glare. The normalcy made John relax a little more into the bed. Ronon arrived with Nick in tow and everyone stepped back to let him do the doctor thing. After a few moments, the physician crossed his arms and looked down at his patient.

"Everything is looking good. How's the pain?" Nick asked.

John took stock of his body. His left arm and side were incredibly sore and his forearm throbbed with a dull, continuous ache. His arm was propped on a pillow and bandaged almost all the way up to his shoulder. An IV snaked down to his right arm, but there were no monitors present and beeping so he took that as a good sign.

"Sore, arm aches. Thirsty." Breathing upped the ache in his side and talking did so even more, so John figured it would be best to keep the comments short.

Nick brought the head of his bed up a little and then offered him a sip of water, reducing the desert in his mouth to just drought status. Maybe he could get more water in a few minutes. "Kid?"

Rodney seemed to understand his monosyllabic speech pattern. "He's fine. That . . . giant porcupine bear thing was killed right after it attacked you. No one else was injured. We've told you this like ten times."

John just grunted. Now that Rodney reminded him, he thought he remembered being told that before, but in an odd, kind of dreamlike way.

"Want the laundry list?" asked Nick, his expression indicating he already knew the answer. At an almost imperceptible nod from John, he continued. "The venom delivered by the spines or quills or whatever they were was a neurotoxin, but very different than the ones we are familiar with from Earth. It's a good thing your team let the Acurians treat you because none of our antivenins would have helped. You wouldn't have made it through the night."

The infirmary suddenly seemed very silent, almost oppressively so. John swallowed hard, his team looking shell shocked at the blunt announcement. Nick cleared his throat, looking a bit sheepish at his abrupt statement, and continued. "Fortunately the Acurians knew what they were doing and you're recovering nicely. We had to do some minor surgery to repair the arm, mostly cleaning and debriding the wound since some of the punctures were pretty deep into the muscle. That animal must have had some pretty wicked teeth. You may need a little PT before you get back to duty, but nothing extensive. All in all, I'd say you were pretty lucky."

John nodded, feeling very lucky indeed. He glanced over toward Teyla. "What about your people?"

Teyla smiled, a broad one that had the last knot of tension in John's shoulders releasing. "They are well. Dr. Beckett is with them now. The treatment provided by the Acurians is already working, reducing their symptoms and improving their condition. Dr. Beckett believes they will recover."

"Sounds like we owe the Acurians times two," John said.

"Lakota seems to feel like it's the other way around," said Rodney. "That was his son you saved."

"I kind of figured." The tension between the two in the clearing had reminded John of a few of the many confrontations between him and his own father. "I would have done the same for anyone though."

Ronon shrugged his shoulders. "We told him that. He's still grateful, as any father would be."

"Lakota is a member of the ruling council and apparently held in high regard by the whole village. He kind of paved the way for some trading. They are going to share a lot of their medicines and treatments with us and we're going to –"

Rodney interrupted Nick, a smug smile on his face. "Not we, me. As usual. It seems the Acurians are pretty self sufficient. They harvest a lot of their foods from the forest and actually grow some crops down in the valley beyond. All pretty hidden unless you're right on top of it."

John groaned involuntarily as he shifted, trying to get comfortable. His arm was really starting to throb, with his side and head threatening to join the party. He felt like every muscle in his body was wound a little too tightly and the tension was beginning to make him nauseous.

Nick frowned. "Better speed it up Dr. McKay. I'll be right back."

Rodney watched the doctor leave, a look of confusion on his face. He turned back to John and widened his eyes. "Oh. Right. Anyway, that city they abandoned used to have a shield, left by none other than the Ancients. It worked a lot like the one on the kid planet. Unfortunately their ZedPM ran out of power several years ago and then the Wraith came. The survivors built the cliff dwellings. You were right, they have the front slope booby trapped and they keep guards posted twenty-four seven. Well, actually their days aren't twenty-four hours long and . . . right. You get the idea."

"They have an entrance through a cave in the back, but it's well hidden," Ronon continued. "If you didn't know it was there it would be almost impossible to find." John couldn't help but notice the approval in the runner's voice. "They've been lucky so far. No cullings since they moved to the cliffs. They've been hoping the cliffs would make it hard for the darts to get the culling beam into."

John furrowed his brow, the pain making it hard for him to think. "What if the Wraith got up that slope? They'd be sitting ducks."

"I believe that is what you would call Plan B," said Teyla. "There are many tunnels through the mountain branching off the one that leads to the city. The people would be evacuated through a tunnel that leads deeper into the mountain. They have a large rock they would roll in place over the opening. It takes several men to move it, but once in place, the tunnel cannot be seen. There are several smaller tunnels that end after a short distance, but it would take several minutes to explore them all. It is hoped that eventually the Wraith would assume they escaped out the tunnel the people enter and leave through when hunting or tending their crops."

Nick arrived with a syringe full of medication he dumped into John's IV port. "Okay, visit is over. The colonel needs to get some rest."

Rodney's mouth dropped open. "What? Wait. I didn't get to tell him how I came up with something to trade."

John could feel himself melting into the mattress as the pain began to fade. "Fix . . . the shield?"

Rodney sighed and then snorted. "Sort of. More of a cloak really. We don't have any spare ZedPMs so I had to come up with something we could run off naquada generators."

"Out," Nick said, pointing to the door. "I'm serious. Go away."

"Doc?" John said, a little surprised at how weak his voice sounded. Nick glanced at him and then back to his team.

"Okay, one of you can stay."

Rodney bobbed his head up and down. "Good."

"Not you," Nick said, putting his hands on his hips.

Rodney began sputtering but before he could wind up to a full rant, Ronon plopped down in the chair next to the bed. "I'll stay."

Teyla gave a tiny nod to the big guy and then grabbed Rodney by the arm. "Come, Rodney. I believe they have cake left from the evening meal. Please join me for a piece. You could have coffee."

"Cake, really? You know I do feel like my blood sugar is dropping so I probably should eat something. And I could really use a cup of coffee after the day I've had. We'll see you guys later."

They all watched the teammates leave and then Nick shook his head. "Wow, she's good."

John exchanged a look with Ronon and they said simultaneously, "You have no idea."


Elizabeth Weir strolled into the infirmary and glanced around. Spotting the subject of her quest sitting on an exam bed while Carson Beckett adjusted his sling, she made her way over to the pair. "Are you about ready?"

John looked up as Carson finished. "Yeah, at least I think so. How about it Doc?"

Carson sighed and crossed his arms. "I'd feel better if you were a few more days out. You're still pretty weak and that toxin has been playing havoc with your systems."

"Doc," John said, his expression serious and his voice firm. "I'm fine. I know it'll take a while to get back to normal, but I'm basically fine. We're talking about going to a celebration meal with the Acurians to finalize a trade agreement for medicines." John flashed him a grin. "I'd certainly think you'd approve."

Carson shook his head and threw his arms in the air. "Aye, aye, I do approve the trade. I'm just not sure having you going through the gate before you've recovered from your last off world trip is a good idea. Since I've been spending so much time with the Athosians these past few weeks, I'm sending Nick to make sure you behave yourself."

John snorted. "Believe me, I'll behave. I'm pretty sure walking to the village, eating, and walking back to the jumper is about all I'll be able to manage." Although all the puncture marks from the spines had healed over, they were still incredibly tender and every step seemed to jar them. His mangled arm still felt mangled most of the time, although the sharp pains had receded to something a lot more manageable.

"Major Lorne will make sure he gets to the village without being attacked by any more wild animals," offered Elizabeth.

Rolling his eyes, John sighed and shook his head. "Gee, thanks," he deadpanned. "I feel so much better."

Elizabeth snickered and Carson, the traitor, joined in. "We'd better get going. The feast is scheduled to begin in a little more than an hour and we don't want to be late."

John eased off the exam bed, shifting his arm and sling as he straightened. He did feel basically okay, but the residual weakness and aches across his muscles was getting a little old. "Ready," he said.

"Run along then," said Carson. "Nick will meet you at the jumper."

With a nod, the two leaders headed for the jumper bay.

Half an hour later, the jumper approached the cliff dwellings, but there were no dwellings to be seen. The big cave-like crevice the village was built in wasn't even visible. It looked like a sheer rock face. John startled a moment before remembering Rodney bragging . . . er, telling him about the cloak he'd been able to put in place. The colonel couldn't help but grin. If the Wraith did come, it would look like no one had survived the earlier culling.

They landed on top of the mountain a few moments later. The hatch lowered to reveal Ronon and three warriors from the village. Ronon had face paint on to match that of the Acurians but had apparently drawn the line at having beads and feathers woven into his hair. "What the . . . " John murmured.

"Just go with it," Elizabeth whispered.

John glanced at her, slightly lifting one eyebrow. "Did you know about this? Whatever this is."

Grinning, Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe. It's part of the ritual, so just follow them to the village." She then prodded him in the lower back until he was walking forward.

The middle warrior gave him a brief nod and turned to walk in the same direction Lakota had led them previously. As John passed between the other warriors, they took up their position on either side of him, with Ronon falling in right behind him. John felt weird being surrounded as if he had his own set of body guards. He guessed Lakota didn't want to risk him getting eaten on the way to the celebration.

Glancing back, he saw Elizabeth, Nick, and Major Lorne bringing up the rear of the group. They seemed to be talking softly amongst themselves, but they were several feet back and John couldn't hear what they were saying. This just got weirder and weirder. He huffed to himself, feeling like something more was going on than a celebration of their trade agreement.

The trip through the tunnels was interesting, especially since he'd missed out on most of it the first time, but by the time they reached the village he was beginning to tremble with fatigue. He took a deep breath to steady himself as they entered the village.

The buildings were surprisingly well built, constructed of clay bricks and stone. They were organized in neat rows with little room between until the guide led them into what appeared to be a large courtyard in the center of the village. Tables covered with bright fabric and set with plates and cups were scattered throughout the open space. Matching bright fabric streamers hung from the surrounding buildings, undulating in the breeze like colorful hanging serpents. A large table sat in the middle of the square, elevated almost a foot on a wooden platform.

John groaned as his escorts bowed and left him at the center table. Ronon crossed his arms, grinning broadly at him as Rodney and Teyla approached with Lakota.

Lakota's hair had beads and feathers woven into the braids. His tunic, almost the same color as his feathers, was a light silky material. John felt underdressed in his black BDUs. He was suddenly glad he'd taken the time to brush his teeth and put on fresh deodorant.

"John," Lakota said with a smile. "I am glad to see you are well. Elizabeth, Evan, Nick. I am very happy all of you could return so that we might celebrate our alliance together." He waved toward the center table. "John and Elizabeth, as the leaders of your people, we would be honored if you would agree to sit with the council members."

"Thank you Lakota," Elizabeth said with a slight nod. "It would be a great honor to sit with the council."

Lakota gave a small bow. "Please feel free to mingle with the others. I must attend to some last minute arrangements. We should begin shortly." With another nod and a smile, he disappeared into the crowd.

They stood there gaping a moment before John leaned over to Elizabeth. "Rodney's going to be pissed if he's not at the popular kids' table."

Elizabeth pursed her lips a moment. "Yes, I know. Think they'd be willing to pull up an extra chair?"

Before he could answer, a teenage boy that looked familiar to John approached them. He stopped, shifting his eyes around as if looking for an escape route. Then he took a deep breath and came up to stand in front of John. "I am Yuma, son of Lakota. I wish to thank you for saving me from the machk. My foolishness resulted in your injury and I beg your forgiveness."

John rolled his upper lip over a moment and spotted Lakota watching from the relative safety of the crowd. Bringing his gaze back to the young man standing before him, he saw genuine remorse and more than a little embarrassment. He smiled, deciding to let the kid off the hook. "You're welcome, but I'm not really sure you caused anything. That . . . machk might have shown up whether you were there or not."

Yuma nodded as a little of the tension left his shoulders. "That is true. But if I had not been there, you would not have had to jump in front of it as you did. My father has spoken very highly of you to the village council. He is not impressed easily."

Shrugging, John felt his face flush. "Yeah, well, my job is to protect people, sometimes even people I don't know. I'm glad I was there at the right time to make a difference."

"As am I," Yuma muttered under his breath. "To show my gratitude, I will serve you this evening. You have only to ask and I will provide for your needs."

Elizabeth chuckled as John gaped. "What? No, really, that isn't necessary."

"It is in accordance with our customs. You insult me and my family if you refuse." The tension was back in the boy's posture and expression. John glanced around, intending to seek advice from Teyla, but she and Ronon had moved off to talk with John's escort service.

And to think, John could have stayed back in Atlantis and avoided all this. There was no way he could mess up this alliance just because having his own personal servant for the night embarrassed the crap out of him. He sighed. "Fine. Do whatever you need to do."

Yuma smiled and bowed. "I will get you a drink." And then he disappeared into the crowd of people milling around the tables.

"That was interesting," John said, mostly because he couldn't think of anything else. Elizabeth just smirked at him. When she opened her mouth to comment, she was cut off by Rodney joining their little party.

"Hey, you're here. About time." The scientist popped what looked like a small roll into this mouth, making groaning noises as he chewed.

John rolled his eyes. "We can't take you anywhere, can we? Should we get you and your food a room?"

Rodney glared until he was finally able to swallow. "Very funny. It's unfortunate for us you brought your rather unpleasant sense of humor."

Yuma walked up and handed John and Elizabeth both a cup. "I have brought you both the cosea drink. It is very good." He set a tray of what amounted to native hors d'oeuvres, including several things that looked what Rodney had been eating, on the table next to them. "I brought some small foods, in case you were hungry. Sometimes father talks a long time."

"Thanks," John said at the same time Elizabeth said, "Thank you Yuma."

Rodney stood with his mouth open a little until the boy walked off and then turned to his two friends. "I want some cosea," he whined. "That's the drink Aponi made the night Sheppard was attacked. That stuff is magnificent. How did you two rate special service?" Immediately distracted, he grabbed a bite of food from the tray and waved it toward the raised platform. "I guess this is where we'll sit since we are the guests of honor. Hopefully the others won't mind sitting out there with the masses."

John glanced at Elizabeth, her eyes wide and one eyebrow raised. He flashed his what the heck do we do now expression at her and she sighed, letting her head drop a bit. "If you two will excuse me a moment, I have something I need to speak to Lakota about." She scowled at John, then grabbed one of the roll like things Rodney kept stuffing in his mouth before darting into the crowd.

Rodney stopped chewing, staring after her. "What was that about?"

John let out a deep breath before shrugging his shoulders. "I have no idea," he lied. Taking a sip of his drink, he widened his eyes and made slurping noises as he took another.

Rodney nodded and gestured with what looked like a small meat pie. "Told you that stuff was good. I think Elizabeth made it part of the trade agreement, at least I hope she did. That stuff is almost as good as coffee." Then he popped the meat pie in his mouth and groaned again.

Elizabeth returned a few moments later with Lakota. Yuma and two of his friends did a little rearranging at the table and added a new chair. Two men at opposite ends of the village blew strange sounding horns, which apparently signaled everyone to take a seat. John was herded to the middle of the table, where he sat between Rodney and Elizabeth. When John had attempted to take the seat Elizabeth now occupied, she'd given him a look that he interpreted as I got him a seat at the head table but you have to sit by him. Then she'd elbowed him aside and taken the chair with a smug smile on her face.

Lakota sat next to Elizabeth and the rest of the council filled the seats on either side of them. Havoni, Lakota's father sat next to Rodney and an older woman next to him. Two more men and a woman about Lakota's age sat on his other side.

Lakota stood once the talking stopped and bowed to his people. He was apparently the spokesman for the council. He proceeded to tell the story of meeting the people from Atlantis in detail, along with the subsequent visits by Rodney and his team to set up the cloak. Apparently Elizabeth had also come for a visit in the company of Lorne's team to negotiate a trade agreement. John had been told most of what Lakota relayed, but still learned a few things. He was starting to doze off when Rodney nudged him with his elbow.

"Wakey, wakey," the scientist whispered with a straight face.

John grunted and rubbed his face. His arm was beginning to throb and he was almost too tired to think. Yuma hadn't been kidding when he said his father could talk a long time. He was becoming increasingly grateful for the snacks the kid had brought them. Not that he got many with Rodney wolfing them down like he hadn't eaten in a week. Hearing his name got John's attention back on Lakota.

" . . . selfless act saved the life of my son Yuma. His people did not react in anger, but came to help us so that we may not fall to the Wraith again. They had been given the medicine that they came for so they had no reason to return and aide us in this way, except as an act of friendship. Their actions have proven that they deserve our respect and our trust. We celebrate our new alliance this night and bestow upon their leaders the Acurian seal, a sign of commitment between our people."

Lakota nodded to his father, who began rising from the table. Yuma came to the edge of the platform holding a small basket. Lakota turned to the three Lanteans. "If you will join me."

John sighed and got up. He really hated stuff like this. He followed Elizabeth and Lakota around to the front of the platform. Drums began a low rumble from the edge of the square. John stood between Elizabeth and Rodney as they faced Lakota and his father.

"We honor Dr. Elizabeth Weir for the way she leads her people with wisdom and kindness." Lakota reached over and took a medallion on a leather strap from Yuma. It was a silver circle almost two inches in diameter, with symbols and jewels embedded in it. He handed it to his father, who placed it around Elizabeth's neck.

Lakota moved down to stand in front of John. "We honor Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, leader of the warriors of Atlantis, for his bravery and his giving spirit, his willingness to put himself into harm's way to protect those he does not even know." The procedure was repeated so that John had his own medallion around his neck.

Lakota looked at Rodney. "We honor Dr. Rodney McKay, leader of the scientists of Atlantis, for his great insight and intelligence and his willingness to use those skills to help and protect the Acurian people." The Medallion he handed his father to place around Rodney's neck was silver, but slightly smaller than the other two and set with different jewels.

Lakota and his father bowed to the three of them. John looked at Elizabeth and she nodded toward the men, so he followed her lead and bowed back. Halfway down he noticed Rodney was still staring at his medallion, so he elbowed the scientist. Rodney quickly joined them.

As Havoni began returning to his seat, Elizabeth motioned stay with her hand before she and Rodney moved back to the table. John looked at Lakota, his eyebrows raised in hopes of getting some kind of clue as to what was coming. Lakota gave him a brief nod and then turned to take an elaborate spear from Yuma and faced the crowd.

"We present this day the spear of Qaletaqu to Lt. Colonel John Sheppard of Atlantis. He is given full privileges of the Qaletaqu, the most honored division of warriors, the true guardians of the people. As such, he is of us as we are of him. This serves to strengthen the alliance between the Acurians and the Lanteans." Lakota turned to John and handed him the spear. "We welcome you to our tribe John Sheppard." As he bowed at the waist, everyone else stood and bowed as well.

John was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do, so he bowed back. Apparently that was okay because everyone straightened up as he did. Lakota smiled and raised his hands to the crowd. "Let the feast begin!" He clapped John on the shoulder and led him to the table.

Lakota led John to a stand behind his seat and motioned to the spear. Glancing around, John noticed for the first time that all the male members of the tribe at the table had a similar spear in a stand behind their seat. He took another look at his spear, the wooden shaft covered with intricate carvings and painted figures. It was beautiful. Lighter than what he expected, it still seemed strong and sturdy. He carefully placed it in the stand and looked at Lakota. "Thank you."

Nodding, Lakota grinned and gestured toward their seats. "Let us eat and celebrate our friendship."

John returned the nod and sat down at the table, which was now being filled with trays of food.

"Why does my medallion look different?" asked Rodney, studying the jewelry. "Mine looks smaller. Why is mine smaller? I'm the person who actually set up the cloak that will ultimately save them from the Wraith."

John glanced between the two medallions and shrugged his shoulders. "They aren't that different, Rodney. Your symbols probably mean you're the greatest thing since running water. Chill out and enjoy the food." John flashed an eyeroll toward Lakota, hoping the man wouldn't take offense.

Lakota pointed to the medallion around Rodney's neck. "Your symbol is one of great importance," he said. "The size might be a little smaller, but the jewels are our most precious and show great appreciation and honor."

Rodney tilted his chin up. "Well, of course. I'm happy to see you appreciate my contribution." Rodney noticed the trays of food on the table and his eyes widened. "This looks great and I'm starving," he said as he began dipping meat onto his plate.

"Thank you for including Rodney in the ceremony," said Elizabeth softly as she leaned in toward Lakota. "He would have been very hard to live with if you hadn't."

"And by that she means impossible," added John. "Rodney's really smart and he saves our lives on a regular basis, but he expects to be stroked for his work."

Lakota chuckled and nodded. "I understand. The ceremony is for leaders so as the leader of your science community, he should have been included. It was an oversight on my part. It was no trouble. And I do understand. We have our own version of your Rodney."

John tilted his head a little. "Really?"

Lakota nodded to the older man at the end of the table talking to the woman next to him. He was frowning as he dipped up food. "I've never understood why Havoni is head of the council and why he should bestow all the honors. I am as important as he is. I know that he is the one who located this place for the village, but I showed many of our people how to construct the dwellings from the stone and bricks. No one appreciates the contributions I make to our people."

The man continued to complain, but the woman beside him was busy eating and seemed to have tuned him out. John grinned. "So you do. I think we should introduce the two after we eat."

"Excellent idea," said Elizabeth.

"I agree," said Lakota. "I will get Dichali after the meal and you get Rodney."

"This should be good," John said. As he looked around for the native version of silverware, he noticed a packet of Tylenol sitting beside his plate. Looking at the crowd, he noticed Nick sitting at a front table with the rest of team, lifting a glass like he was toasting John. John mouthed thank you as he tore the package open.

"This food is amazing," Rodney said around a bite of food.

John grinned at the scientist as he began filling his plate. "Hey, after dinner Lakota has someone he wants you to meet. One of the council members who is very important and Lakota feels the two of you would have a lot in common."

"VIP, huh? Yes, yes, we probably should get acquainted, then."

"Definitely. He kind of reminds me of you now that I think about it."

Rodney's eyebrows raised. "Really?"

"Absolutely," John deadpanned. Rodney looked at him a moment as if trying to decide whether or not to believe him and then huffed and went back to eating. John grinned until he turned his head to find Elizabeth frowning at him.



Elizabeth sighed. "You really shouldn't –"

"Hey, Elizabeth," Rodney cut in, leaning forward to peer around John. "I've been thinking. I'll probably need to come back about once a month to check on the cloak, at least for a while. Think I could get them to give me a house and cook like this for me while I'm here so I don't have to sleep in a tent or the jumper? I mean after all, it's the least they could do for the person saving their village. I wouldn't mind doing a little research on the . . . " Rodney seemed distracted and then stood up flailing his arms. "Hey, could you bring some more of the meat pie roll things over here? Oh, for the love of . . . can these people not hear?" He jerked his chair back and hurried off towards a woman carrying a tray of food.

John turned back to Elizabeth. "You were saying?"

Elizabeth continued to watch Rodney waving his arms and scaring the Acurian woman into giving him a plate of food. Elizabeth shook her head and let out a deep breath. "Never mind."