“John hasn’t been answering his phone all day,” Ronon said.
“Probably because he is answering someone else’s phone.” Teyla rubbed the back of her neck and stared at the business card.
“I Googled this guy,” Jennifer said, prodding the card. “He’s legit. Richard Woolsey. Handles some pretty impressive acts. That classical pianist, Jonas Quinn. And that blues singer, Teal’c.”
Rodney frowned. “What kind of a name is Teal’c?”
“Kind of like Prince, I guess.” Ronon shrugged.
“He represents Samantha Carter, too,” Jennifer said. She adored Sam Carter, a talented jazz singer and pianist.
Rodney smiled dreamily. “Sam Carter.” Jennifer dug an elbow into his ribs, and he winced. “Sorry! Sorry. You’re beautiful and talented too.” Rodney leaned over and kissed her, and she smiled.
Ronon caught Teyla’s gaze. “So are we going to call this guy, or what?”
“Should we not ask John what he thinks?” Teyla asked.
Jennifer shrugged. “He’s just our temporary guy.”
“Also, going back to where we started, he’s not answering his phone,” Ronon said. “I’d go talk to him, but I think the security guys are onto me, and they’ll run me off as soon as they see me.”
“I’ll do it,” Rodney said.
Teyla and Ronon exchanged looks again.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Look, I get that John and I aren’t the best of friends, but that might be to my advantage. We have an objective relationship. And I’m a bigger part of the band than he is.”
“That’s true,” Jennifer said, patting his hand.
When Teyla and Ronon voiced no objection, Rodney stood up. “Great. I’ll go.” He scooped up the card, pocketed it, and strode out of Ronon’s garage. He would be the first to admit that he didn’t have an objective relationship with John Sheppard, but at least his acquaintance with the guy wasn’t riddled with undeserved affection. John was a bastard of the highest order, and Rodney would never forgive him for what he’d done, but Rodney also understood that, objectively, John was a better guitarist and performer than Ford or Markham or any of the other guitarists the band had tried since John up and quit when he was sixteen.
And it meant something, Rodney was sure, that this Richard Woolsey character had given John the card and not one of the others. John had been just as busy with breakdown as the rest of them after the show. Had Woolsey arrived at the start of the show, he’d have heard Jennifer announce that John was their guest guitarist and they were auditioning for a full-time member. Even if he hadn’t arrived at the start of the show, a few casual inquiries would have turned up the same information.
Rodney headed back to the apartment he was sharing with his sister to put on some slightly nicer clothes for gracing the lobby of Sheppard Industries. He’d moved out right after graduation and invited her to move in with him, because Newton knew his parents were too busy in their own world to notice if their children went missing (they’d surfaced, briefly, in sixth grade when the NSA had questions about Rodney’s science fair project, a non-working nuclear warhead, and hadn’t looked at their children since).
As Rodney dressed, he thought of John Sheppard and his smirky little smile and how he’d been stubbornly single and un-dateable until senior year, when the beautiful and intelligent Nancy Heywood managed to snare him long enough to be his date to senior prom (after which he’d broken up with her and confirmed he was the bastard Rodney had known he was all along). With all the privilege John had experienced growing up, playing with a band probably meant little to him. He’d given it up easily enough sophomore year (with surprisingly little protest from Teyla and Ronon) and focused on the track team instead. (Not that Ronon hadn’t also been on the track team, as a javelin thrower and shot putter and long jumper, but still, he’d made the Space Monkeys priority.)
Rodney smoothed down his shirt, made sure he had his keys, cell phone, and wallet, and drove to Sheppard Industries.
The company’s main headquarters were in a glass-walled high-rise downtown, and there were three receptionists on duty at any given time, a woman named Marie, who looked like she could break a man with her bare hands, a skinny little guy named Chuck, and these days, John, wearing a button-down shirt and tie and slacks and a little Britney Spears headset.
Rodney hung back just inside the doors - no doubt incurring the curiosity of the security guards - and waited till Chuck and Marie were occupied before he approached John.
John, in the middle of typing an email, glanced up and flashed Rodney a brief, bright smile. “Welcome to Sheppard Industries. One moment, please.” His hands fairly flew across the keyboard, and then he clicked his mouse, and he turned that smile up at Rodney again.
As soon as he recognized Rodney, his expression faltered.
Rodney had seen just that falter a hundred times over his school years, had aimed to cause it over and over again, because he’d seen that falter in Jeannie’s eyes after John Sheppard broke her heart.
“Rodney.” John reached up, did something to his headset. “What can I do for you?”
Rodney pushed Woolsey’s business card across the desk. “Are you serious about this band?”
John looked down at the card, then up at Rodney. “Not here.” He slid off the headset and stood up. “Marie, Chuck, I’m taking my fifteen minutes.”
They both nodded at him - like they’d say no to the boss’s son - and John stepped out from behind the desk, beckoned for Rodney to follow him to a private alcove.
“As everyone in the band has been keen to remind me,” John said, “I’m just the temporary guitarist, remember?”
“Woolsey gave you the card for a reason.” Rodney saw something flare behind John’s eyes, knew John wasn’t surprised. “I need you to decide right here, right now, how important this is to you.”
“That’s not fair,” John began.
“What’s not fair is the fact that if Ronon doesn’t come into money soon, he’ll have to drop out of college to support his grandfather, who has to go to an assisted care facility, because his health is failing.”
John raised his eyebrows, shocked, but Rodney plowed ahead before John could get a word in edgewise.
“What’s not fair is that Teyla has been responsible for her massive brood of cousins and extensive family forever and now that she’s of legal age, they’re heaping even more responsibility on her shoulders, and she, too, is in desperate need of funds to keep everyone afloat. What’s not fair is that Jennifer, despite coming from a long line of dedicated medical professionals, won’t have enough money to get through college, let alone med school, without the kind of success the band could bring her. And let me be clear - this band is guaranteed for success. I know it. Richard Woolsey knows it.”
John wet his lips, brow furrowed in concern.
Rodney sneered at him. “Didn’t know all that about your friends, did you? Too busy wrapped up in your comfortable little world?” He gestured at the marble floors and tall ceilings and chandeliers overhead. The lobby of Sheppard Industries had once belonged to an Art Deco bank. “If you’re serious about this, you need to give it a hundred and ten percent, because that’s what the others need. But if you’re not, get out and get out now.”
But Rodney knew that without John, they’d never make it. Whatever Woolsey had seen in them, he’d seen it with John in their line-up.
John tilted his head curiously. “What about you? Why does this band matter to you?”
The band mattered to Rodney because music was everything to Rodney. Both of his parents were brilliant physicists, and they’d passed that onto their children. Music was something that belonged to Rodney and Rodney alone. His piano teacher had criticized his playing, said he had no heart in his performances, so he’d stopped performing, but he’d kept on writing, pouring his soul into his songs. He was going to make it on his own, protect himself and Jeannie, make sure Jeannie had access to the education she deserved, and he was going to make it his own way - with his music.
He said, “I love Jennifer and want to support her in any way possible, which is why I’m here talking to you and not her. There’s no way I’d subject her to you, given how you treat women.”
John frowned. “How I treat women? What is that supposed to mean?”
Rodney curled his hands into fists. “You don’t remember what you did to my sister?”
“Your sister? Jeannie? We barely even spoke in school.” John looked genuinely confused. He’d spent a good chunk of school with that expression on his face, too. He’d probably been in all of those AP classes on the grace of his father’s money. Why he’d even bothered to sit for the AP exams was beyond Rodney.
“Oh please. Jeannie was in love with you our freshman year. She sent you a series of very thoughtful love notes in an elaborate mathematical code. I saw you reading them and - who knows how - deciphering them, but you never said a word to her. The least you could have done was let her down easily. She cried for weeks.” Maybe Rodney was exaggerating a little about how long Jeannie’s mourning had lasted, but she’d been devastated when John showed up to the meeting place designated in her final note, taken one look at her, and walked away.
Shock flared in John’s eyes. “Jeannie sent those notes?”
“Who the hell else did you think sent them?”
“I recognized her handwriting,” John said slowly, “but I’d assumed she’d written for someone else. As a disguise.”
Rodney snorted. “Who else would have sent those notes?”
John wet his lips again, lowered his gaze. “Well, the math - it reminded me of you. The way you’d structure your solutions in Calculus.”
Rodney had helped Jeannie with the equations, true, but John had recognized her handwriting. Rodney shook his head. “Wow. You really are as moronic as I thought you were.” And there it was, the tiniest flinch, but Rodney knew he’d scored a hit. “Look, we don’t have to like each other to be in a band together. You stuck it out through sophomore year, after all. Or was that why you quit? Because you weren’t professional enough to work with me?”
John sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. “You really hate me, don’t you?”
“Hate’s a rather strong word,” Rodney began, realizing he’d made a misstep. “Like I said, we don’t have to like each other to work together. We’re older now, more mature. I think we can work together. If you really care about this band.”
John looked away, stared off down the marbled hallway to the wide lobby where the reception desk was waiting for him. “You planning on sticking with the band, too, once we make it famous?”
There. John had said we. “Of course. You do sing my songs, after all.”
“Has Jeannie hated me as much as you do all this time?”
“She’s a strong woman. Moved on. Dating someone new. Kaleb Miller. An English major.” Rodney grimaced.
“That’s good to hear.” John’s expression was unreadable once more. “Will you ever forgive me? For hurting Jeannie?”
“If you make a suitable apology to her,” Rodney said promptly.
“What constitutes a suitable apology? Chocolates? Flowers?”
The last thing Rodney wanted was John wooing Jeannie with some grand gesture. “A verbal apology and a sincere handshake should be enough.”
John nodded. “All right. I’ll apologize to your sister.”
“And the Space Monkeys?”
“I will give them a hundred and ten percent,” John said, and Rodney couldn’t help but smile. John looked away, glanced at his watch. “My fifteen is up. See you at practice tonight.”
“See you,” Rodney said, and turned to leave. He climbed into his car and started the engine, drove away sure of his victory. The music was going to happen.