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Title: The Hottest Blood of All
Author: shetiger
Recipient: moonlettuce
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard, McKay/Sheppard/Lorne
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Rodney was trying to catch his eye, but John didn't need the prompting. "I'm afraid you're mistaken in your assumptions, then, because Lorne is bonded. So give him back before this gets really nasty."

A joint mission with Lorne's team seems harmless enough--but that's how they all start, isn't it?

Notes: 20,000 words. Diverges from canon after season 4, though there aren't any real spoilers from previous seasons, either. Thank you to K., A., and S. for holding my hand through this. And to alyse for not turning me into mincemeat pies for being a wonderful mod. :)


Sea slipped to land slipped to sea as Lorne guided the jumper just below the cloud-line. The majority of the planet's surface seemed to be nothing but a crazy-quilt of small green islands splashed through the grey-blue of the ocean. It reminded John of flying low-passes over the Agean, though the sun wasn't nearly as strong or the water as deep a blue here. The cloud mass above them undoubtedly had something to do with that. He wondered if it ever burned off, or if it was a permanent blanket wrapped around the planet.

"Huh." Rodney leaned forward, right hip pressing hard into the back of John's seat. He squinted at something on the HUD, then tapped his finger against his tablet. Not the screen, but the edge, like he was unconsciously trying to smack some smarts into it. "You were right. There is something interfering with the jumper's sensors."

Lorne rolled his eyes, but he didn't look away from the display. "And here I was thinking I forgot how to read."

Rodney dropped the tablet to his side. "That's a more likely scenario than what's happening here. Are you sure you didn't, I don't know, do something while you were gallivanting around?"

"Gallivanting?" John murmured. Sauntering, sure. He could even see Lorne strutting, under the right circumstances. But gallivanting? Rodney ignored him completely, but a small smile slid across Lorne's face before he glanced up and over his shoulder.

"What exactly would I have done, McKay?" Lorne was calm, if a bit sarcastic. John liked that about him; it took a bit of skill to handle Rodney even at the best of times, and Lorne seemed to have developed it well in the past few years. "I didn't spill my coffee on the dashboard, if that's what you're implying."

"No, that wasn't what I was implying. And everyone needs to get over the idea that Ancient systems are as simple as wires and circuit boards." He picked up his tablet again, aimlessly wiping at the screen. "Radek's just paranoid. Coffee isn't really that detrimental, as long as it's cleaned up quickly enough."

"Okay," John jumped in. He knew from experience when it was a good idea to turn Rodney away from a subject before things got out of hand. Especially since John was half the reason they knew what they did about coffee's effect on Ancient systems in the first place. "So do you know what the problem is or not?"

Rodney sighed. "I suspect it's interference of some kind from the atmosphere. Or possibly the planet's crust. From what specific source, I couldn't begin to guess. Well, I could, but the possibilities are practically if not actually infinite, and, frankly, I have more productive things to do with my time."

"Is one of those productive things determining if whatever this is is dangerous?"

"The interference itself?" Rodney frowned down at his tablet, looking like he was actually reading something from it this time. "I don't think so. Like I was saying, the Ancient systems aren't wire and insulation. They're built around crystals, and like any crystal, they're susceptible to harmonic resonance. Like when the whales' echo-location created errors in the navigation system. But this is only affecting a small portion of our systems, thank goodness. I mean, long range sensors are one thing, but can you imagine if it took out main power or our weap--"

John didn't like it when Rodney cut himself off. Didn't like it at all. "McKay?"

"Okay, look. I'm ninety-five percent sure-- Eight-five. Eighty-five percent sure that whatever this is, it's complete coincidence. But if somebody could do this intentionally, it'd be--"

"Dangerous." John eyed the jeweled islands with a little less appreciation and a lot more wariness.

"I was going to say impressive, but yes, that too."

"Could be related to what I saw," Lorne said mildly.

John sighed. Most of him really hoped it was a coincidence. "Definitely worth checking out. How much further?"

"Almost there." Lorne nodded at the landmass directly ahead of them, and two seconds later eased up on the joysticks, slowing their approach. John could barely make out the distant boundary of the far side of the island; it was the largest they'd seen yet. Lorne brought them in low over a natural harbor that curved like a lobster claw out of the near tip of the island. A pair of tall-masted ships, sails furled, sat anchored in the deeper waters, and fishing dories lined the wooden wharves that projected out from the coast.

"We tried a few of the other settlements first," Lorne added as he flew inwards, towards the overlooking landmass. "But this seems to be the main one. More or less."

"It is beautiful," Teyla said. John hadn't noticed when she stood up, but she was behind Lorne's chair now, mirroring Rodney behind him. Ronon probably didn't have a chance in hell of seeing anything but the backs of heads and shoulders. "It reminds me of a world I visited when I was very young, with my father. They lived in sailing ships half the time, so that the Wraith would not find them easily."

"What, that actually worked?" Rodney asked.

Teyla shook her head. "When we returned the next spring, they were gone. Their villages on land had been burned to the ground, and the harbor was full of broken ships."

That effectively killed the conversation. They watched in silence as Lorne gave them an aerial tour, slowly flying over the buildings that covered the top of the seaward hill like mushrooms on a log. The way the houses and streets wound up the steep slope again reminded John of Agean islands. Only with less plaster and a lot more wood. More like San Francisco, maybe, back before the gold rush hit.

Lorne set down in an open field between the last stretch of buildings and the inland forest beyond. It was stubbled with the yellow stalks of some kind of grass or grain, and more than wide enough to hold their fleet of jumpers. Didn't look like the villagers were starving, at least.

"Lead the way, Major."

John was more than happy to wait where he was while Lorne eased his way past Ronon and Teyla and Rodney to open the midway hatch, then wade again through his own team to the back. The jumpers weren't small, but once you got more than one team inside it felt like a bad family vacation in a cramped RV. And that was just on the short trips.

It took a little longer than it should have for everyone to file out. Once John finally passed the bench seats he realized why: a group of native settlers surrounded the jumper, hedging in close enough that John readjusted his grip on his P90. He slowed his steps, trying to get a good tactical read on the situation as quickly as possible.

He shook his head, relaxing his grip as he realized his initial assessment wasn't quite acurate. The settlers were mostly young women and older teenage girls--and they weren't surrounding the jumper. They were clustered around Lorne, cheeks apple-bright and eyes practically glowing with eagerness. Lorne looked up when John cleared his throat, and there was a bit of rosey-apple across his cheekbones, too.

"Sir." Lorne shifted like he wanted to take a flat-footed leap free of his admirers, but his smile seemed genuine as he gestured to the woman beside him. "This is Marliane. She's Chief Tradeswoman of the Noroon."

"Pleased to meet you." John held out his hand, and she took it in both of hers. She didn't quite bow over it, but it was a formal enough gesture that it didn't feel too awkward. Teyla stepped forward, smoothly taking over the introductions.

"It is a pleasure to meet you all." Marliane smiled at the group of them, though her gaze lingered on Lorne just a bit longer. She was a pretty enough woman, in her early forties, maybe. There were sunlines around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth, but her hair was a deep auburn that made her blue eyes stand out in a way that didn't belong to any age. She reminded him of Teyla a bit, warm, calm, and clearly confident in her position, though she looked more like Lena Olin. With redder hair. "Evan said you were interested in seeing our village."

"That's what we're hoping for," John said, putting on his best visiting smile. She nodded once, still smiling, then led the procession away from the jumper. And it was a procession--eight of their people and a good double handful of Marliane's was enough to strike up a nice little march if they'd had the instruments to play it. John fell to the back of the group once again, letting Teyla take point while he made a casual surveillance of their rear. To his surprise, Lorne managed to ditch the women and fell into step beside him.

"I see you developed a quite a fanbase. Quick work, too."

Lorne shrugged, loose and one-shouldered. "You do your Elvis impersonation one time in this galaxy, and you're set for life."

John snorted. Lorne's eyes slid to the side, smile tipping up on the right, sharing the moment with him. Just a moment. Up ahead, Rodney paused at the edge of the field, gone still so fast that he drew John's attention more urgently than any blaring alarm could. He quickened his pace, but as he stepped up next to Rodney's side, there wasn't any need to ask.


Rodney hmmed in agreement. The settlement stretched out before them, rows of one- and two-storied buildings merrily jostled together along switchback and dead-end streets. There was something to catch the eye everywhere they looked: flowering bushes, a covered well, children playing with a ball, an old man sitting in front of his house and whittling away at something small in his hands. The whole village was bright and active--and then it just stopped. Blue ocean stretched to the horizon beyond the edge of the cliff, blending into the misty sky above it.

"You could make a fortune on postcards with a few snapshots of this," Rodney said.

"You really think anybody makes a fortune on postcards?"

"Somebody has to. The damn things wouldn't be everywhere if they didn't." Rodney held out his hands, framing the view. "Just slap 'Wish You Were at M52-7X9' across the bottom and watch them fly off the racks."

John shook his head. "I think you missed your true calling, McKay. Maybe you could take some online classes."

"Please. If I wanted to be a millionare, I would be. Can you say 'patent'?"

"Can you say 'property of the US Government' and 'classified'?"

Rodney frowned at him, but it looked more out of habit than humor. "As if I'd let them have my best ideas."

"Besides the life-saving ones, you mean."

"Well, yes. Obviously." Rodney grinned, smug and satisfied, and John had to grin back. It almost felt like they were on vacation back on Earth, nothing to do but take in the view and bait each other.

"I'd like to paint this," Lorne said quietly from his other side. "Or try to, anyway. The colors are incredible."

John raised an eyebrow. "You paint?"

"When I get the time." Lorne jerked his head up, looking away with the view and towards John with wide eyes. "Uh, not that I do it on missions. I just meant--"

"Relax, Major. I know what you meant," John murmured. He was a little surprised at the skittish reaction, considering Lorne could bell a yawning tiger and not get excited, but then again, painting wasn't the most martial of hobbies. He'd probably gotten teased for it a time or two in the past. John was curious, but that curiosity could wait for later.

"Our guides are waiting," he said, lifting his chin towards Marliane, who was standing next to the well at the edge of the village. She had one hand fisted in her skirt, keeping the heavy breeze from whipping it out of control, and the other curled around the support beam next to her. John pressed his left knuckles into the small of Rodney's back, urging him forward. "Come on, quit gawking."

"I wasn't gawking," Rodney grumbled. "I was just getting my bearings."

"They are very pretty bearings," Teyla said, smiling over her shoulder at them. "Anyone would want to take some time to appreciate the view."

"Yes, well."

Ronon slapped an arm around Rodney's shoulders, rocking him back and forth with enough force that Rodney veered off the path and then back on again. "McKay here just doesn't want to admit there's more to life than computers and science stuff."

"Would you stop manhandling...me?" Rodney happened to glance over to him just as he said -handling, and John raised an eyebrow. The stutter and flush in response could easily be written off as irritation, but John knew better. Ronon let go--though not without a parting enthusiastic pat between the shoulder blades--and Rodney tugged his tac vest down with a grumpy jerk that just made John want to mess it all up again. "And don't think I won't remember this the next time my 'science stuff' is the only thing standing between us and annihilation."

Ronon turned around, loping backwards down the slope of the gravel-paved road so that he could grin at Rodney. "What are you going to do, not save yourself just to get back at me?"

"You never know," Rodney said, jutting his chin forward. "You really want to push me?"

Ronon held up his hands, palms forward in surrender. "Okay, man," he laughed. "I get it." Then he turned back around, jogging forward to where Teyla and Lorne had rejoined the main pack of the villagers.

John kept silent for a couple minutes, taking in the houses they passed as they headed towards a lower section of the town. Most of them were one-story, built from rough-hewn planks of wood, but they were washed with a sunset of colors: burnt yellows and rust orange, pale pinks and a deep indigo-y purple. The roofs were shingled with rough-hewn shakes that had greyed with exposure. It was kind of a mish-mash look when you tried to sort it out, but overall the impression was nice. Especially with the windchimes that dangled in front of nearly every house, seashells and unidentifiable baubles clinking merrily in the breeze.

Rodney sighed before they reached the first switchback.

"Something wrong?"

Rodney sighed again. "No. Well, yes. I have no idea what's causing the interference, there's no sign of any power readings or natural anomalies nearby that could be responsible, and instead of actually looking for the problem, we're here playing nicey-nice with yet another gaggle of fawning women."

"Playing nicey-nice is looking for the problem. You know that." John moved half a step closer and lowered his voice. "And they hardly even looked at me, Rodney. Not anywhere near fawning levels, that's for sure."

"Yes, well." Rodney's gaze slid towards him before he shrugged. "They were fawning all over Lorne. It makes me uneasy. Makes me wonder what they really want from us."

"Eh, Lorne's a good-looking guy." John bumped Rodney's shoulder with his own. He understood the paranoia; they'd been burned so many times before that he had a hard time accepting a friendly gesture for what it was, himself. But paranoia didn't get the galaxy explored or put food on the table. "It's probably a good thing. Means they have taste."

"If they had taste, they'd be fawning over me." Rodney's lips quirked up as he said it, and John couldn't help laughing.

"Yeah, well, I don't think they've got a good enough grasp of theoretical astrophysics to truly appreciate you, Rodney." Before Rodney could protest anymore, John quickened his pace, moving to join Marliane, Lorne, and Teyla. They were standing in front of a two-story building, large compared to the houses they'd passed on the way down. John took a moment to look around, to see what he'd missed while he was talking with Rodney.

They weren't in a town square, not exactly. There just wasn't enough room for a square as such, given the slope, but the street did widen somewhat so that the buildings all faced inward, giving the area a mercantile feel. They'd drawn the attention of most of the townspeople, but some were still going about their business. One of the building was more like an open-sided shed, and John could see a woman blowing glass. He watched, mesmerized, as a blob of red hot goo expanded to the size of a softball. Then she pulled the blowing tube away from her mouth and carted the whole thing across the room, where he couldn't see exactly what she did with it.

"Floats," Lorne explained quietly. "For their fishing nets."

"Right." John tipped his head down, fidgeting with his sunglasses in order to cover his mouth. "You ever feel like you bought a ticket to one of those Renaissance Faire things, and somebody forgot to let you back out at the end of the day?"

Lorne snorted. "I'm mostly still stuck on the space ships and aliens part of it, myself."

"That too." He dropped his hand and smiled when he noticed Teyla and Marliane looking over at them. Must be go time. "You have a beautiful home," he said in his outside voice, smiling at Marliane with his best company smile. Didn't even make a dent, though; she still only had eyes for Lorne.

"You haven't seen half of it yet," she said. "This is our meeting hall, where we conduct matters of trade. It's usual for visitors to spend time among our people, see the beauty of our wares, before we sit down to talk in earnest, however."

"That makes sense." John tipped up on his toes, trying to see through the gap between the buildings and down to the rest of the settlement. It wasn't big as far as Earth cities went, but it wasn't exactly two gas stations and a stop sign, either. "So, how many wares are we talking about seeing? Round about, anyway."

Marliane laughed. "Evan told me that he wanted to show you some specific things, so I will let you choose your own path. Though I am more than willing to serve as guide if you wish."

"Evan told you that, did he? Well, good." John turned his grin on Lorne. "I think I should probably follow him, then."

"Please, if you have questions, anyone will be more than happy to help you," Marliane said. "Don't worry if we seem concerned with other things. It's just that our men returned this morning, and there is much cargo to distribute."

"No, it's not a problem," he replied, though he had to raise an eyebrow. He was guessing that the 'men' reference was more figurative than literal, because there were a handful of guys moving about, working in the little cottage businesses. Not a lot though; women and children definitely outnumbered them, maybe three to one. "I'm sure we can find our own way."

"Colonel Sheppard," Dr. Lindsay said quickly. She was the semi-permanent social sciences adjunct for Lorne's team, and John had a habit of forgetting she was around because she was so quiet most of the time. "If you don't mind, I'd like to stay with Marliane. I'll be able to gain a much clearer understanding of their society by observing her daily activities, rather than acting as a tourist with the rest of you."

John nodded. "You're in sociology, right?"

"Cultural anthropology, actually."

Rodney coughed--but if he expounded on his opinion verbally, John didn't hear it. John shifted to the left, trying to block him from Marliane's view. There didn't seem to be a lot of lip readers in this galaxy, but sometimes it was better to be safe than sorry. "Hey, if it's okay with Marliane, it's okay with me."

"Anna is most welcome to stay." Marliane drew Dr. Lindsay forward with a hand on her elbow, then wrapped a motherly arm around her shoulders. "Maybe you can finish telling me about your culture's courtship rituals."

Ronon snorted.

"Well, we should be going," Lorne jumped in. He was looking a little pink under the collar again. "It's not far, Colonel. Just a few levels down."

"Right. Friedman, stay with Lindsay. And don't sign any marriage contracts while we're gone." Friedman's eyes went a little wide as he looked from John to Lorne to Marliane, like he was suddenly afraid that Lorne taking himself out of the picture might make him the next prospect in line. "Have fun," John said, aware that he was being more than a little evil, then turned to follow Lorne.

"Colonel. I would actually like to stay with them, as well," Teyla said before he could get far. "To inspect their wares. I may be able to interest them in trading with my people, if they have anything of value. Unless you think that I will be needed while you...investigate."

John looked at Lorne, who shook his head. "Shouldn't be a problem. Keep--" Ronon shook his head hard, once, and John changed course in midstream. "--Danforth with you."

"I do not need a guard while I discuss matters of trade, John."

"Hey, it's the buddy system. And besides--we look like a herd of cows grouped up like this."

Teyla sighed. "I suppose you are right."

John looked over his shoulder, grinning at Danforth. "You don't mind keeping Teyla company, do you, Corporal?"

"No, sir." Danforth had the teeth of a smoker, so he always smiled tight unless you caught him off guard. This time a bit of yellow peeked out between his lips. "Not at all."

"Then it will be good to have a buddy." Teyla's gaze slid toward Danforth, sly smile on her lips. "So I know that he will be protected if we happen to be attacked."

John chuckled, and Danforth joined in a second later. Which was good; it wouldn't be pretty if Danforth was too chauvinistic to take a little ribbing. Not that what Teyla said was a joke, really. John had a very short list in his head of the men on base who could take Teyla in a fight, and Danforth's name wasn't on it.

His own name wasn't on it, either, but he was working on getting there.

Teyla and Danforth peeled away before they started down the hill, stopping to talk to a woman who was carving on what looked like bone. John wondered if they whaled here. Rodney wouldn't be happy if they did; he still hadn't gotten over leaving his friend Sam behind on their former planet.

They walked down through the village for several minutes, nodding politely to the people they passed. Now that he was thinking about it, John realized most of the adults were women of varying ages, or older men. Now and then he'd spot a younger man, usually dressed in dark breeches and a loose shirt, pulling small carts loaded with supplies or flirting with the women.

Then Lorne stopped. They were a couple yards from the entrance to what looked like an inn or tavern. "I noticed it right away," he said, pointing upwards.

John followed his line of sight, right up to the dangling signboard above the door. It was simple wood, like the planks that made up the houses, and a simple painting filled the center: three black towers rising from a swirl of clouds. One tower was larger than the rest, and strokes of yellow surrounded it, giving the impression of light shining out--right at the level that Atlantis's control room would be.

"Well now." John glanced over at Rodney, who was staring up at the sign like it was advertising lemons. "I'd say you found yourself a conversation starter, Major."

"Just conversation? I thought it'd be worth at least a beer or two."

John held in his grin. "I'm old and jaded. Going to have to have more on offer than that before I start buying you drinks."

Lorne flashed him a wide grin. "Then I hope you brought plenty of cash, sir. I'm feeling pretty thirsty today."

Rodney coughed. "Yes, well. Unless the rest of your evidence is better than this finger painting, I say we wrap things up and start making aerial sweeps."

"I'm touched by your faith, Rodney," Lorne said, still grinning. "How about you buy the first round?"

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "Fine. But only if whatever you're so hung up on is actually better than something my niece come up with when she was three."

"I don't care what it is," Ronon said, pushing past Rodney. "But there better be something to drink after you guys spent all this time talking about it."

The inside of the inn was...impressively boring. A scattering of tables and chairs, plain ironwork chandeliers with unlit candles, and a short bar to the right side of the main room. Behind the bar was a narrow column of shelves that held assorted jugs and bottles, and a rack of wooden casks that took up the bulk of the wall. There wasn't any barman in sight, which spoke to just how busy the place wasn't.

"This way," Lorne said, heading towards a door on the left.

John stopped with one foot over the threshold.

The room appeared to be a private dining room, like something that might be rented out for a small reception. A pair of those same plain chandeliers, also unlit, hung low over a long trestle table. High-backed chairs were crowded close together all the way around the table. No fire codes here, apparently. The whole room would have been too dim to make out any details, except there was a square window set high into the far wall. The sun shining in turned the space around them hazy with dust motes, but the rays were angled just right to spotlight the tile mural on the opposite wall.

Rodney wouldn't be able to label this one simple finger painting. The tiles looked fairly old, but they were laid together smoothly, so that the groutwork was barely visible. The painting itself was vibrant, the detail nearly photographic. Blue-green swells lapped at the base of the main tower, and cotton-puffy clouds wrapped round the middle of all three. And there were tiny black sea birds wheeling through the grey sky.

The towers themselves were a deep, glimmering burgandy that was so familiar that for a moment, John was sure he was looking at Atlantis. But even though the main tower was strikingly similar to theirs, the other two were little more than needles projecting skywards from the water. Either this was some other city than Atlantis, or the artist had never actually seen what had inspired him.

Rodney sighed. "I don't, ah, actually have anything on me to barter with."

"Never fear, young man. First time visitors always drink on the house."

They turned as a unit, though Lorne moved a little bit more slowly than the rest of them, smiling as he did. A white-haired man was leaning against the doorframe, and his smile said he was already acquainted with Lorne.

"I was wondering where you were, Henton." Lorne held out his hand, and they shook. "Thought I was going to have to tell your stories myself."

"I'm sure you'd do a fine job, lad. Even if you don't have my flair." He grinned at John and held out his hand. "He said he'd be bringing back his crew, but I didn't think it'd be so quick."

"Oh, we're never ones to let the opportunity for a good story slip by." John pointed to the mural. "Did you paint that?"

Henton laughed. "Oh, no, not me. My handiwork's hanging out front, and that was from when my hands didn't shake half the time." He stepped back out of the room, beckoning them to follow. "Come on, let me loosen what's between your ears a little. Makes the stories so much better."

"My grandfather built this place," Henton said as he began filling ceramic steins from one of the casks. "There was an inn here before that, but the Wraith burned it to the ground, and the family with it. Nobody else stepped forward to claim the land, so now we have The Spires Tavern because of him."

"So you guys do have problems with the Wraith," John said as he took the first pint. It was good beer, as far as local brews went. Thicker than Guinness, but not as smokey, and it had a touch of sweetness to it that spoke of honey somewhere in the mix.

"Everybody has problems with the Wraith. Don't try to tell me they don't." Henton drew the final beer, one for himself, then sat down on a stool that was hidden behind the bar. "We keep our villages small and spread out, though, and more often than not they pass us by."

"But not always," Ronon said.

Henton nodded. "Not always. That was a bad day, to hear the tales. Killed half our people and burnt down most of the village. And the ships. All the ships that were in the harbor, split in half like a rotten log and sunk."

"They were lucky anybody survived," Ronon said quietly. John looked down into his mug, fighting down the guilt that always tried to overwhelm him. Didn't make any difference that Sateda had been wiped out before John had made major. Never would.

"I don't know that my grandfather would have agreed with you, but I'm pleased that there are some of us still around." Henton pointed towards the private room. "He's the one who did the painting. He was sea-bonded, before Papa Dii was taken. And even though he still had Mama Rodith, I don't think he ever stopped missing Dii or the sea."

John glanced over at Lorne, who shrugged.

"So have you seen these spires?" Rodney asked. "Do you know what they do? Who built them?"

"Me? No. They don't even exist, for all I know." Henton pulled out a flannel cloth from somewhere and started wiping at the dampness around the base of his stein. "My grandfather never acted like they were anything but real, but who knows? The sailormen always say that the spires guard us from the Wraith, but the whole lot of them are superstitious. Have a saying for every last bit of sand you pick up between your toes. Obviously those spires didn't do a damn bit of good that day."

"Maybe that's because they were out of power," Rodney said. John could see the wheels turning in his head.

"I wouldn't know anything about that. I asked all the time when I was a little boy, but he said that was for the sailormen to know, and no one else." Henton's smile was wistful. "That's the only thing I regret about never pledging to the sea."

"I was thinking about his story after I left," Lorne said. "How come he built a tavern after the attack? He was young, right? He could have gone back to sailing."

"Ahh, I suppose it was there was so much to be rebuilt." Henton smiled. "And... I heard him tell my grandmother every day that he loved her, and that he'd always stay at her side. But really, I think the truth is that he only sailed because Papa Dii did. And Papa Dii was the love of his heart."

John swallowed wrong. He tried to control the cough as he struggled for air, but the beer rushed up and out of his nose, thick and burning.

"Oh, that is disgusting!" Rodney yelped, jumping off his stool and four feet out of range--even though he'd been a foot out of range to begin with.

"Easy there, son." Henton handed over his mop cloth. "It's a sippin' brew, not one for chugging."

"Thanks," John croaked out as he wiped down his face. "I'll remember that from now on."

"Not the first time I've seen it happen," Henton said, taking the cloth back from him. "Though usually with the ones quite a bit younger than you. The ones who haven't been drinking long enough to be used to the strong stuff."

"So you said the spires are a secret of the sailors," Lorne jumped in before John's ego could take any more of a beating. "You sure none of them would talk to us?"

Henton chuckled. "Oh, I bet they'd talk to you, son. Once they've been celebrating half the night, anyway. Talk to Fedeth, see if he'll take you down to the docks tonight."

"Fedeth?" John asked.

"Marliane's brother," Lorne answered. "I met him briefly, but he sailed out soon after I got here."

"They got back in this morning." Henton knocked his knuckles against the cask beside him. "Just a quick trip to Splitback, part of our regular trade. I imagine he's still with the ships, if you didn't see him with Marliane."

Lorne nodded. "We'll make our way down there. Thanks for talking with us, Henton."

"And for the beer," John added, holding out his hand. The Noroon seemed to like shaking hands, which was a nice change from the forehead touching and bowing and other customs that they ran into most places.

Rodney opened his mouth almost before they were out the door. "Sea-bonded? Love of his heart? Did that mean what I think it meant?"

"Lower your voice, McKay," John ordered.

"Why? It's not like they don't know about themselves."

"No, but it's rude to stand around blabbing about people where they can hear you right after they've given you free beer." John waved to a pair of women who were staring at them as they walked by. One of them waved back, and then they both started laughing.

"Oh. Right."

Ronon led them over to a knee-high stone wall that guarded a short drop to the street below the level they were on. Rodney immediately sat down and pulled out his scanner. John propped his right foot on the ledge, far enough from Rodney's thigh that it didn't look sketchy, but close enough that... Well, it was close enough. He crossed his wrists over his P90. From this angle he couldn't see the docks or most of the harbor, and the mist had rolled in so that only a fringe of the ocean showed clear.

"So what's the deal with this Fedeth?" he asked.

Lorne shrugged. "Like I said, he's Marliane's brother. Real big guy, taller than Ronon, but he seems nice enough. They're a little overwhelming when they're together, but I think that's the whole brother-sister competitive thing."

"Oh, joy." Rodney frowned at his scanner, tilted it a couple times against the glare of the sun, then stuffed it back into his vest. "I suggest we make every attempt to talk to him on his own, then."

"You know, one of these days you're going to admit that you like hanging out with Jeannie, and the world won't actually end."

"Or it just might cause the multiverse to implode. I give it even odds." Rodney stood up, knocking his hip against John's knee as he turned. He didn't move away. "So are we really going to ignore the whole homosexual subtext back there? Because I don't know about you, but it definitely sounded like Henton's grandpappy was more than just best buds with that Dee guy."

John shrugged. "I don't see why it matters. Their business, not ours."

"Yes, I know that, but..." Rodney glanced back over his shoulder, then looked away just as quickly. John was pretty sure he knew what he was thinking. But Lorne's team was here, and John wasn't going to take any chances.

Lorne cleared his throat. "Actually, sir. If it's as institutionalized as it sounds, that might make it easier to get information out of the sailors. If it's some kind of Spartan thing..."

John nodded slowly. "You're thinking they might recognize some kind of kinship with fellow warriors, that kind of thing."

"I don't think they're that much into fighting, but yeah, maybe." Lorne grinned. "I mean, space ships, sea ships, they're not that different, right?"

John snorted. "It's a good thing you didn't join the navy, Major."

"Yeah, but I would have looked damn good in the uniform."

That was nothing but the truth. John looked away from Lorne's pretty white smile--and found Rodney staring at Lorne, lips pursed specutively. He sighed and tried to pull his thoughts back from dangerous territory.

"You think Friedman or Danforth will have any problem with this?"

Lorne shrugged one shoulder. "It might be a good idea to put them on jumper duty later."

John sighed. He hadn't had much opportunity to get to know either soldier all that well, but he wasn't surprised by Lorne's assesment. "All right. But first let's find this Fedeth and talk to him. For all we know, we could be way off base with this."

"Don't think so," Ronon said. He pointed down the hill, at a house that seemed a little nicer than those around it. It had a courtyard in front--a luxury in the narrow space--and window boxes full of purple flowers. There was a statue in the middle of the courtyard, carved from deep black stone. John squinted, trying to puzzle out the details that bled together in the dreary afternoon light. It looked like a giant anchor with two people clinging to the shank, feet balanced on the flukes to either side. Clinging to each other, too.

"Are they doing what I think they're doing?" Rodney asked.

"If you think they're getting off, then yeah." Ronon's grin was a bit feral, but then he did have the best eyesight of any of them. "Looks like they're having a good time, even with that pole in the way."

"Who does that, anyway? What if one of them slipped?"

"I'm pretty sure it's just art, Rodney." But the guy who stepped out of the fancy house was real enough. He glanced up to where the group of them stood, then started walking towards them at a good pace. John nudged Lorne with the earpiece of his sunglasses. "You know that guy?"

"That guy," Lorne said, "is Fedeth."


Fedeth was a big man. He had an inch or two on Ronon, and his shoulders were broad enough that John bet he had to turn sideways to get through the doors around here. The resemblence to Marliane was clear in his eyes, cheekbones, and mouth, but where her hair was a sleek auburn, Fedeth's was a sunbleached strawberry that curled above his shoulders and went kind of wild whenever the wind gusted. He was all smiles as he approached, and he latched onto Lorne almost immediately.

"You're back, good." He nodded to John, Rodney, and Ronon, but he didn't bother with formal introductions like Marliane had. He just slung one arm around Lorne's shoulders and waved towards the house he'd come from with the other hand. "Come, Abalyn has just finished preparing the food. There's plenty for all of you."

"Food?" Rodney held up a finger. "Just, ah, is there any lemon in it? Citrus? It's a kind of sour, acid fruit. Tart, I think, although I'm not really the best one to ask--"

John slapped a hand down on Rodney's shoulder. "McKay here is allergic to some foods. But we'd be happy to join you. Right, Rodney?"

"Yes, of course." Rodney frowned at his hand. "I just want to make sure I don't cause a intergalactic incident by accidentally dying at the dinner table."

Fedeth laughed. Louder and a lot harder than Rodney's sarcasm really deserved. "Then we will have to make sure we don't serve anything too tart for your tongue, won't we?" He gave Rodney a friendly nudge with his free hand, then turned Lorne down the slope and started walking. Rodney followed, practically on Fedeth's heels, no doubt looking forward to the prospect of a citrus-free meal.

John looked at Ronon. Ronon shrugged. "Food's always better when it's hot," he said, and fell in line behind the others.

"Not ice cream," John said, mostly to himself. "Or sushi. Oh, and Jell-O. You just really can't have hot Jell-O."

"Tried to heat up Jell-O once," Ronon said, grinning over his shoulder. "Turned into blue soup. Didn't think my tongue would ever go red again."

John snorted. Only Ronon would actually drink Jell-O soup once he was past the age of six. Well, he wouldn't put it past Rodney, actually. He was about to tell Ronon to give Jolly Ranchers a try if he wanted to experiment with tongue color, when he realized they were drawing even with the...interesting statue. Up close there was no mistaking how happy the men clinging to the anchor were, or the fact that they were being happy together.

He didn't have time to stare at it, though, because a woman had emerged from the house. She was about Lorne's height, white-blonde, and very, very pregnant. Fedeth curled his left arm around her shoulders, though he still hadn't let go of Lorne. They looked like some kind of fancy wrought-iron fence, short blades on two sides with a long spike in between.

"Fedeth! Let me see to them," the woman said, playfully smacking his arm away. She stepped forward and held out both hands to them. John wasn't exactly sure what to do, so he held out one of his. She pulled him forward, urging him past Fedith and into the house.

"I'm Abalyn," she said. "We only heard moments ago that you had arrived, so I'm afraid I haven't prepared much."

"We only got here moments ago," John said. "It's not like we were expecting a big gala event or anything."

Abyalyn smiled and didn't say anything more. She seemed a lot quieter than Fedeth, more of an introvert to his extrovert. But not shy about playing hostess, leading the group into the large room to the right of the entryway with obvious pride. He'd seen a small kitchen-ish room to the left when they came in, one with a small four-seater table and an upright stove, but this room was clearly meant for guests. A long table stretched nearly from wall to wall, with ten high-backed chairs clustered around it.

"Sit, sit." Fedeth set his hand on the back of the head chair and motioned them towards the empty seats. "Take what you like. We don't have ceremonies here."

Despite Ronon's earlier assumption, the food wasn't actually hot. John wasn't sure whether it was supposed to be a simple meal or a filling snack, but it was good either way. Heavy-grain bread, some kind of aged cheese, and a smoked fish spread that had Rodney moaning and rolling his eyes.

John picked up a pickle and chewed on it slowly, wondering what was the best way to bring up the spires. "You seem pretty used to having visitors," he finally ventured. "That kind of surprises me, what with the stargate so far away."

"Stargate?" Abalyn asked.

"Ring of the Ancestors," Ronon answered, mouth stuffed full of bread and cheese.

"Ah, but we are not limited by land travel like so many other worlds are," Fedith said. He gestured at John with a hunk of bread in his hand. "We might not move as quickly as your air ships, but on sea we are faster than any traveling over land that I have met. The distance to the ring is nothing."

Rodney cleared his throat. "So, ah, do you have a regular schedule, or do just show up whenever you feel like it and hope somebody's there?"

"McKay..." Lorne warned, and Rodney gave him the same look that he'd given John so many times over the past four years.

"What? It's a legitimate question."

Fedeth laughed. "Yes, we have a regular route. Our allies are well aware--" He didn't finish, though, because enough racket sounded from the front of the house that John wondered if an entire platoon was trying to shove their way in. Fedeth screeched his chair back and stood up.

"Well, get on in, woman!" he called out. "Before I think you're trying to rob me!"

A woman laughed in response, and a second later Marliane stepped into the room. She and Fedeth hugged, kind of European-style, and when they moved apart John could finally see Lindsay and Friedman jammed in the doorway, Teyla and Danforth behind them. Or at least he assumed Teyla was back there; all he could see of her was a halo of reddish-brown hair behind Friedman's shoulder.

"Someone whispered to me that you were going to make Abalyn work her fingers to the bone," Marliane said, fingers curled into Fedeth's forearm. "For shame, brother mine. For shame."

"I'm fine," Abalyn said, but her soft voice was lost between the two siblings.

"So you bring her more mouths to feed?" Fedeth asked. "Marly, you outdo yourself this time."

"Yes, I do." Marliane grinned up at him. "I suppose you won't be wanting any of my pie, then?"

"Only if you serve yourself a plate of respect along with it!"

Marliane just laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. Then she gathered up Abalyn with a glance, and together they managed to slip between the rest of John's people and out of the room.

Fedeth sank back down into his chair. "That woman needs to find a new husband, so she'll stop mothering me." Fedeth very clearly didn't look at Lorne, but John couldn't help watch the way Lorne squirmed in his chair. He wasn't blushing, but he looked uncomfortable enough that John knew he was aware of the interest implied. Aware, and not necessarily happy about it.

That really shouldn't please John as much as it did.

Teyla and the rest of the team spread out around the table, taking the rest of the open chairs. Rodney leaned over as they passed behind him, into Lorne's space, and whispered something that made Lorne chuckle. Dirtily. Rodney's lips drew up high to one side, his eyelashes dipped low, and his cheeks brightened in the way they did whenever he came up with some of the filthiest suggestions John had ever heard. John shifted in his chair and tried to take some interest in the way Teyla was overseeing the distribution of bread or how Danforth couldn't seem to figure out how to arrange his P90 and reach for the pickles at the same time.

"You were asking about our trade," Fedeth said. "Marliane is the one to speak with about specifics. Especially since you clearly do not need our vessels."

"Actually," John said, sensing the perfect opening, "we're not as much interested in exchanging goods as we are information."

"That is a disappointment," Marliane said as she reentered the room. She and Abalyn were each carrying serving plates full of food. "Teyla has spoken of some interesting wares that her people make."

As they set the food down, John realized they were one chair short--but Ronon jumped up first. Marliane patted his cheek, stretching her hand up with a naturalness that said she did it to Fedeth all the time, and accepted the seat as if it were her due.

"John did not mean that we are opposed to trade," Teyla said, reprimanding him with a look. "Also, he does not speak for me or my people in these matters."

"Yeah. What she said." John nodded at Teyla, and got a pointed eyebrow in reply. "It's just that we're really curious about something."

"The spires," Lorne said. "We saw the paintings at the tavern, and Henton said that you were the one to ask."

Fedeth went still. He looked at Lorne for a long moment, chewing his mouthful of bread with slow, deliberate motions. He swallowed, then tossed the bread left in his hand to his plate. "It is not for mixed company."

"Mixed company?" Rodney snorted. "What, because Teyla might somehow--" He cut off with a yelp. John wasn't sure who had done what, but it hadn't been him. Lorne, possibly, or Teyla herself from Rodney's other side.

"Could we maybe talk about it later?" John asked Fedeth. "Somewhere less, uh, mixed?"

"Henton said something about a gathering tonight," Lorne said.

Fedeth leaned forward, elbows planted on the table. "You truly want to see the spires?"

Lorne looked at John, but he didn't wait for encouragement. "Yes. I do."

Fedeth nodded. "Then so be it. Tonight, you shall see them." He stood up, looking down at the table like a king surveying his throne room. "But for now I have work to finish. I will send someone for you when it is time." He wagged his finger at Marliane. "Do not stuff them with pie all afternoon!"

"Don't forget to raise your head out of your mug before you drown!" Marliane shot back. Fedeth just laughed. While they'd been jousting with each other, Abalyn had stood up, moving so quietly that John hadn't even noticed her until she gathered Fedeth's plate and mug from right next to him. Fedeth bent low to whisper something in her ear, and then left the room with a parting wave and smile.

"Please, sit down," Abalyn said, waving to Ronon. "I am sorry we had no space for you before."

"I've been worse places, believe me." Ronon set his plate down on the table, but before he could do the same with his half-empty mug Abalyn scooped it out of his hand.

"Here, let me fill that for you."

John waited until she'd bustled out of the room, then leaned forward. "Is it just me, or did that go a lot easier than it should have?"

Lorne smirked. "I don't know, sir. Kind of took a bit longer than it usually does for me."

John was tempted to stick out his tongue. "Yeah, yeah. Rub it in. Just remember who signs your evals."

"Colonel Sheppard."

John tore his gaze away from Lorne's amused eyes. He had to lean forward to spot Lindsay on the other side of Marliane and Friedman. "Doctor?"

"It's obvious that Teyla and myself won't be welcome at the gathering tonight." She looked irritated, but not surprised. He wondered how often her work was stymied by this very thing. "But I have a camera with me and I was wondering--"

"They won't welcome you knowing their secrets, no matter how you try to get them down," Marliane said. She shook her head. "Not that it's all that secret, what they do. Eat the better part of today's catch, drink until they're more stupid than usual, and then get sloppy all over each other like they don't have wives waiting for them in their real homes."

Friedman coughed, like he was about to repeat John's earlier beer explosion. Yeah, it'd probably be better all around if both he and Danforth stayed home instead of partying tonight.

"I, for one, will be more than happy to spend more time talking with you," Teyla said smoothly, smiling at Marliane. "I didn't have much time, earlier, but the work I saw of your artisans was most impressive."

"Oh, yes! I saw some beautiful scrimshaw on the way here," Lindsay said, excited again. "Is that traditionally done by the women, then?"

John sighed and eased back in his chair. It was going to be a long afternoon, he could tell. Full of talk about which world had the best grain and and how the tides affected trade routes. Rodney was looking bored already. John figured his scanner would make an appearance in the next thirty seconds, but Abalyn returned with another drink for Ronon in one hand and a rectangular dish topped with a flakey crust in the other. Dark purple juice stained the edges, and Rodney went on point the instant it touched down in front of him.

"So," John said to Abalyn as she started dishing up the pie. "Has anybody around here ever heard of surfing?"


"Gotta talk to you." Ronon nodded at the kitchen room a few feet behind them. John raised an eyebrow, but he followed Ronon over, trying to do so as inconspiciously as possible.

"What's up?"

"I was, uh, thinking of sitting this one out. You think you guys can handle it without me?"

Both of John's eyebrows went climbing. That wasn't something he ever expected to hear out of Ronon. "You okay?"

Ronon bobbed his head back and forth, maybe-yes maybe-no, which was as good as admitting he needed to curl up and die--soon. "If I had to fight, I'd fight. But if we're just going to hang around and drink while they bullshit, well, I'd like to sit this one out."

John frowned. "Be straight with me, Ronon. Do we need to go back to Atlantis, get you checked out?"

"No, man." Ronon grimaced and rubbed at his stomach. "Something they fed us just isn't sitting right. I'll get over it, but if you want me to drink on top of everything else..."

"I get the picture." He'd been there himself in the past. To this day he couldn't look at corned beef without feeling queasy thanks to a childhood bout of stomach flu. And that hadn't been half as bad as some of the food poisoning he'd had when he was first stationed overseas. He patted Ronon on the shoulder, a lot more gently than he usually did. "We'll be fine. But if you get any worse, radio me. I don't want you dying of dehydration because you're too stuborn to admit there's a problem."

"Yeah, yeah." Ronon managed a half-hearted grin. "If more goes out than goes in, I'll make sure to tell you all about it."

"Great, thanks." John wrinkled his nose. Ronon's grin got a bit bigger, definitely smugger, and then he slipped away, back towards the padded bench where he'd been hanging out for the last hour. John watched him move, considering scrapping the mission anyway. He should have realized something was going on earlier. The first time Ronon had scuttled out of the room, John figured he was sneaking away from the discussion on the benefits of crop rotation. But even with all the in and out the rest of the afternoon, John had just attributed it to Ronon's natural restlessness.

John sighed. He was just going to have to trust Ronon's judgment on this one.

"What was all that about?" Rodney asked.

John shook his head. "Ronon's going to keep an eye on things here. Ready?"

"We were waiting for you two." Rodney finally looked away from Ronon. "So it's just going to be the three of us? Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"We'll be fine." John gave Rodney a little push, turning him towards the front door. "It's a clam bake, McKay. Not the Battle of Normandy."

"Which means there will be seafood, which means there will probably be lemons." Rodney's face screwed up like he was tasting lemon-spritzed lobster right now.

"That's the spirit." John smiled at Abalyn as they passed the dining table, and gave Rodney another little push to get him out the door at last. Lorne and their guide--his name was Tims, or Toms, something familiar that shouldn't be plural--were waiting for them, Lorne leaning nonchalantly against the base of that statue. John ignored the way his pulse sped up and nodded at both of them.

He figured they'd have to walk all the way down the long curve of land to get to the harbor, but Tims led them away from the down slope, over to where the island ended in a near-sheer cliff. John hadn't noticed it when they flew in, but there was a shed a few feet from the edge and what looked like a short dock next to it. At the end of the dock was a platform hitched to a complicated rope-and-pulley setup.

"Cool," he said, stepping up to the edge so he could get a better look at how the elevator worked. The base of the cliff was in deep shadows, but he could tell that the drop really wasn't as far as he thought it was. Still deadly, yeah, but not high enough that it made the whole rope thing impossible. Looked pretty climbable, too.

"Cool?" Rodney sounded a lot more freaked out about this than any possible lemons. "Are you nuts? What part of plunging to a certain death is cool to you?"

"I'm sure it's perfectly safe, McKay." He gave the pulley system a distant once-over, but nothing horribly wrong jumped out at him. "Right, uh, Toms?"

"I don't know about safe," Toms said, flashing that same crazy feral grin that Fedeth had. "But if you hang on tight, you shouldn't have any problem."

Lorne climbed on first, going right up to the corner between the wooden rail on the right and the thick rope that was the only protection at the front. Rodney looked like he was about to be sick, but he got on, planting himself in the very middle of the platform.

"You heard him," John said quietly as he stepped up behind Rodney. "Probably want to hang onto the railing."

"Like that flimsy thing would do any good," he said, but he stepped to the left and wrapped his hand around the wood. The strength of his grip turned his knuckles white, and John hoped that the railing wasn't as flimsy as Rodney had proclaimed.

"It's not the height," Rodney said, quietly, just for him to hear. "It's that I don't trust anyone who's not, well, me, to take into the account everything that could go wrong."

"I kind of got that, yeah." The elevator lurched into motion, and Rodney went pale around the mouth. Lorne was staring out, not down, grinning at the view and the rush like any pilot would, and Toms was behind them, working the brake system. John curled his hand into the back of Rodney's vest, giving him one more anchor. He seemed to relax, just a bit, and then they were down, solid rock under their feet.

Part 2 of 2


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