“I thought Colonel Sheppard was uniquely capable of manipulating his surroundings,” Keller said, scanning John’s medical file on her datapad. “If he’s stuck in a VR system, he should be able to think his way out.”
Rodney gestured to the healing pod where John was lying too still. “Shoulda coulda woulda, Doc. And yet he’s still unconscious.”
Keller frowned. “All of the readings say his vital signs are normal, stable. He’s just — dreaming.”
“Dreaming will not help Atlantis the next time we face a life-or-death crisis,” Rodney snapped.
Teyla put a hand on his shoulder. “Dr. Keller is doing everything she can.”
“Well, there are some things I can do she can’t.” Rodney shrugged out of his jacket.
Keller stared at him. “What are you doing?”
“Remember when there was that nightmare thing pretending to be John and jumping from brain to brain? I went into the system, got him out. And then, okay, he had to get me out. Point is, we’ve gotten each other out of these situations before.” Rodney opened the pod adjacent to John’s. “Send me in.”
Keller’s eyes went wide. “Rodney —”
“It’s not like anything useful is happening while he’s in there,” Rodney said. “The sooner we can get him out, the better.”
Keller looked to Teyla for support or for her to be the voice of reason or something, but Teyla said, “Rodney has helped him out of similar situations before. It could not hurt to try again.”
Keller sighed, set her clipboard aside. “All right. Let me hook you up to the monitors. I’ll send you into the healing environment. But the second anything goes wrong, I’m pulling you out, Sheppard or no Sheppard.”
“Fine,” Rodney said. He lay back and closed his eyes, ignored Keller’s hands on him. I’m going to fix this, John. I promise.
Rodney opened his eyes, and he was wearing — a dress. A long black dress. No, not a dress. His graduation robes. Complete with his doctoral hood. In the right colors for his degree. Underneath his graduation robe he was wearing slacks, a button down shirt, and a sweater vest. Was he at some kind of college graduation? What the hell was going on in John’s head?
But then Rodney looked around and saw that he was standing at one end of a cobblestone street. The stones were dark with age, and the sidewalks on either side were cracked, uneven. Buildings rose on either side of the street, Tudor revival style with black-and-white façades. The street was crowded with people also wearing graduation robes, but robes in colors far more lurid than anything Rodney had seen at any higher education institution.
Some of the people were wearing pointed hats. There were children wearing tiny graduation robes as well, trotting along beside their parents.
Was this some kind of fancy dress party? John would probably imagine a life-long party. A costume party, too. Ronon had said something about John growing up rich. Rich people had crazy costume parties, didn’t they?
And then Rodney realized that the buildings were not Tudor Revival-style homes but businesses. Hand-painted wooden signs hung above massive wooden doors. Florean Fortescue’s was an ice cream parlor, if the way the text blinked in and out was any indication, alternating with an illustration of ice cream.
Hang on. Wooden hand-painted signs shouldn’t blink.
Rodney started forward, scanning the other business signs. Eeylops Owl Emporium. Flourish and Blotts Booksellers. Gambol and Japes. The Leaky Cauldron — some kind of pub, judging by the way a robe-clad man stumbled out the door, roaring drunkenly, laughter following him.
Then the man drew what looked like a wooden conductor’s baton out of his sleeve, pointed at himself, said something that sounded a bit like Ancient, and a shower of sparks fell over him. The man shook himself out, stood up straight, hid the baton away in his robe, and walked away, perfectly sober.
No way. A wizard. And not an interesting wizard, like Merlin of legend (who was technically an Ancient), but a Harry Potter-style wizard.
Rodney remembered the last time he’d fallen into one of John’s dreams, and it had just been an empty Atlantis. And before that, when the Mist aliens tricked them, John had dreamed up an epic bachelor pad for himself, according to Teyla. When that Wraith device had tricked their minds and John had shot everyone, he’d hallucinated that he was back in Afghanistan. Why the hell had the healing environment created a Harry Potter world for John?
He didn’t even like Harry Potter.
But he had been reading the books to Jinto and Wex and the kids as some kind of weird bedtime story ritual.
Why would the healing VR think Harry Potter was a safe and comfortable place? From what Rodney knew of the books they were full of racism, attempted genocide, torture, poisoning, and the raising of child soldiers.
Where among the crowds could John possibly be? Rodney wracked his brain. In adventures and medieval novels, the local tavern owner always knew the local gossip. He’d have noticed if John, a newcomer and a whatchamacallit — muggle — had showed up and suddenly joined the village or whatever, right?
Rodney started toward The Leaky Cauldron, but then he heard music.
What probably counted as muggle music.
Johnny Cash’s Hurt — subdued guitar riff, stark piano chords, melancholy male voice. Not actually Johnny Cash’s voice, but obviously someone covering the Johnny Cash version of the song. (Rodney wasn’t actually a Johnny Cash fan, but he preferred the Johnny Cash version of the song.)
Rodney followed the sound away from the Leaky Cauldron to a building several doors down from Wiseacre’s Wizarding Supplies and stopped beneath a gently swaying wooden sign. Sheppard & Lorne’s had a bright blue door, the same shade of blue as the glow a lot of Ancient tech gave off. The sign didn’t blink, so Rodney had no idea what the business was for. But the door was ajar, and Rodney could still hear that music. If Lorne was in John’s healing dreamworld, was there a version of Rodney? Would John be suspicious of another Rodney?
Rodney peeked through the gap in the door and saw John wearing wizarding robes like he was born to them. His hair was as messy as ever, and he had a wand tucked behind his ear like artists did with pencils and paintbrushes, and he was sitting on the edge of a piano bench, playing a guitar.
It was a beautiful guitar, with fancy abalone inlay, much nicer than the one in John’s quarters. Teyla, wearing that fancy light blue dress she’d worn for Charin’s funeral, was sitting at the piano beside John and playing. Ronon was wearing a big brown robe and looked like some kind of hippie surfer monk, but he was standing tall and singing.
Was that what he really sounded like when he sang? If so, he had a nice voice.
Lorne stood before them, waving his wand like a conductor, only light was dancing in the air, and it formed an image, one Rodney couldn’t quite make out.
He leaned in closer to see and accidentally touched the door, which swung open much wider.
The music cut off, and Lorne’s magical hologram vanished. He turned to Rodney, smiled, and Rodney had never seen the man smile before; he’d have remembered dimples like that.
“Good afternoon, sir. How may we help you today?” Lorne flicked his wand, and the door opened fully, causing Rodney to almost fall over.
Rodney righted himself, smoothed a hand over his robe. Lorne was looking at him like he was a total stranger. Teyla rose up, and she was smiling at him the same way. John beckoned to Ronon, and Ronon leaned in to look at the music on the piano stand, talking softly.
“Hi,” Rodney said. “Um — just browsing. Never been here before. Was — curious.” He glanced at John, but John didn’t seem to even know he was there.
“Welcome,” Teyla said graciously. “Feel free to inspect our wares. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.”
“Thank you.” Rodney sidled further into the shop. “I appreciate it.”
John said, “Teyla, Evan, let’s give this another run. C’mere.”
“All right,” Lorne said. “Let me reset the capture and vessel.” He and Teyla moved to cluster closer to the piano, leaving Rodney to really look at the shop.
It was much more spacious inside than it looked outside, but that was a Harry Potter thing, right? Defying all kinds of physics. Not that Rodney was much of an adherent to conventional physics these days either. The walls were lined with musical instruments — pretty much anything required for a full-sized symphony orchestra, and also every band instrument ever. There were some more exotic instruments, like lap harps, a Chinese violin, a Japanese shamisen, a djembe and cajon and doumbek, various instruments made of bamboo, some wood-and-metal affairs with names like bonang and kethuk and saron and slenthem that Rodney was pretty sure were made up or perhaps alien in origin. And, of course, there was an array of pianos, harps, and guitars. When Rodney peeked at the tags, he couldn’t tell if the instruments were expensive or not. Some of the instruments were self-playing, came pre-enchanted with lullabies or popular wizarding songs.
A few shelves were stacked with sheet music, staff paper, musical supplies like rosin for violin bows, strings and reeds and picks, and polishing compounds and brushes and buffing cloths for various instruments. Stacked on the shelves were some instruction books to enchant new songs into self-playing instruments, and some books that were the wizarding equivalent of Guitar Playing for Dummies.
In the center of the shop stood the upright piano John and his coworkers were arranged around, a wooden counter with an old-fashioned brass cash register, and a display case full of what looked like blown glass paperweights but what were labeled as Musical Whimsies. Rodney prowled closer to them, peered at them closely. They were beautiful, with bright swirls of color inside, splashes and swirls, bubbles and explosions, twists and twirls, like motion frozen in time.
They had inexplicable titles: In Any Tongue and I Could Live With Dying Tonight and Grand Optimist, Firestruck and Lighthouse and Ten.
Rodney turned to John, but Ronon was still singing, and Teyla was still playing and Lorne was still waving his wand, so he waited till the final lines died.
If I could start again
A million miles away
I will keep myself
I would find a way
“That’s it, that’s it!” Lorne cried, and he twirled his wand.
There was a brilliant flash of light. Rodney flinched back, but John, Ronon, and Teyla were gazing fixedly at little worktable in front of Lorne.
“Here,” Lorne said, and he held up another one of those glass paperweights. The swirling design inside reminded Rodney of the colors he’d seen in Lorne’s magical light show. “Another complete.”
He held it out to John, who set his guitar aside and accepted it, cradled it reverently in his hands. “It’s beautiful, as always. I’ll test it later, before we put it up for sale.”
Lorne nodded, took the glass paperweight back, and bustled into the back of the shop, his wand tucked behind his ear just like John’s.
Rodney cleared his throat.
Teyla was before him immediately. “Did you see something you liked?”
Rodney pointed to the display case. “I was wondering what these are. I’ve never heard of them before.”
Teyla smiled. “The whimsies are one-of-a-kind creations. They are music boxes, of a sort. Each has a song enchanted inside. Would you like to try one?”
“If I may,” Rodney said. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Ronon using a wand to move the piano aside. John was nowhere to be seen.
“Which one would you like?”
None of the titles made any sense. Rodney pointed to one that was silver, gold, and black inside. “That one.”
Teyla arched an eyebrow. “Existentialism on Prom Night. Interesting choice. Come this way.” She unlocked the case with a flick of her wand, reached in and drew the glass ball off of its little wooden display pedestal, and led Rodney further back into the store, past the large instruments and into what he thought was a storage area but was instead a little nook with three doors, sort of like a dressing room.
“Each listening room is soundproof,” she said. She opened one of the doors, set the crystal ball onto another wooden display pedestal built into the far wall of the booth.
The booth was snug, sort of like an enclosed dining booth, upholstered in crushed velvet.
How did John even know what crushed velvet was? Or did the VR just make things up? Or was it making things up from Rodney’s mind?
Rodney couldn’t have been in control, not with the way Teyla was still smiling at him politely, like he was a total stranger.
He cleared his throat. “Have we met before? You seem familiar.”
She actually paused and studied him before she shook her head. “I apologize, but I do not recognize you. Perhaps you have seen me when you have come to Diagon Alley on business.”
“Perhaps,” Rodney said. “Thank you.” He sat down beside the glass ball. “How does it work?”
“Just tap it with your wand and say Cantate.”
Wand. Did Rodney have a wand? He smiled weakly. “Thanks.”
Teyla withdrew and closed the door behind her.
Rodney poked around his robe, and sure enough, up one sleeve, he had a wand. It was perfectly straight, black, rounded at the tip, but with an ornately-carved handle. He cleared his throat, feeling a little self-conscious, and tapped the glass ball.
Piano notes filled the air, a simple arpeggiated bass line, a stark treble melody. F sharp minor. A man began to sing, not Ronon, someone with a lighter, sweeter voice. Not John. Maybe Lorne?
When the sun came up
We were sleeping in
Sunk inside our blankets
Sprawled across the bed
And we were dreaming
An image appeared in midair, glowing, like a hologram, only it was shot through with the gold-green-black from the inside of the glass ball.
It wasn’t an image, it was — a movie. Not just any movie, but a memory.
One of Rodney’s memories.
He watched his sixteen-year-old self standing on the edge of the dance floor in a decorated high school gym, in reality a college freshman but sent along with a girl his parents had arranged as a date for him, a girl he really liked. A girl who was dancing with someone else.
The memory was interwoven with other memories, of seventeen-year-old Rodney hovering in the doorway of the physics lab, trying to work up the nerve to talk to Laura Geldar. Of Rodney, thirty-five years old and trailing after Samantha Carter. Of Rodney, forty years old and smiling at Katie Brown. Of —
“Stop. Stop!” Rodney smacked the glass ball with his wand, but nothing happened.
The man kept singing, the piano kept playing, and drums rolled in the background with military precision.
The images continued to unfold, expanding, moving to fill the room, and emotion was swelling and filling Rodney’s chest. He watched himself, ten years old, dancing with Jeannie, who was only six, at the annual St. Andrew’s Ball that Grandma McKay had made the entire family go to every year. Jeannie’s eyes were bright, and she was laughing as Rodney twirled her across the dance floor, and he was smiling too. They were both sweet-faced and blond. Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he’d danced like that. Rodney watched himself, twenty and idealistic and ready to take on the world, dancing with Michael St. Clair in the privacy of their dorm room, wrapped in each other’s arms and swaying, smiling at each other.
Strings soared above the piano and drums during the instrumental break, and Rodney felt like someone had cracked open his ribs and reached inside of him, plucked at his heartstrings and sawed at them as if with a violin bow, and then the music fell in a sharp decrescendo, tinkling piano notes and just that voice.
Sing me something soft
Sad and delicate
Or loud and out of key
Sing me anything
The song ended, and the image faded in a shower of sparks like falling stars, gold-silver-black, and Rodney was left staring at nothing, heart racing.
When he could finally breathe again, he stood up, scooped up the glass ball, and stepped out of the listening booth. Teyla was at the cash register, writing something with an honest-to-goodness quill. She was left-handed. Was she really left-handed? Rodney realized he’d never seen her write anything in real life.
She lifted her head, smiled at him. “Did you enjoy it?”
“I’m not sure that enjoy is the word for it.” Rodney handed her the glass ball, and she put it back in the case. “But it was — intense.”
“The experience can be very intense,” Teyla agreed.
“Who makes them?” Rodney asked.
“John and Evan,” Teyla said. “John picks the songs, arranges the music. We all help perform. Evan captures the music and creates the spellwork that forms the images.”
“That’s impressive,” Rodney said.
“John is the one who invented them, and he is the one who puts the final spells on them,” Teyla said. “Would you like to try another?”
“Ah, no. Not today.” Rodney cleared his throat. “Can I talk to John?”
Shadows crossed Teyla’s face briefly. “Apologies, but he is busy with the newest whimsy. Perhaps another day?”
Rodney didn’t have another day. John didn’t have another day. Atlantis didn’t have another day.
“I really, really need to talk to him,” Rodney said.
Teyla raised his eyebrows. “About how the whimsies are made, or about the opening for a pianist?”
“That second one,” Rodney said, because he knew how to play piano and nothing about magic or Harry Potter.
“You would have to audition for John himself,” Teyla said, “but perhaps you could demonstrate something for us.” She called out, “Evan, Ronon, we may have a new pianist.”
Evan and Ronon appeared from somewhere in the back.
“A new pianist?” Evan smiled. “John will be pleased. That’s one less mixing step for us when we need you on the harp.”
“Indeed it will be.” Teyla inclined her head.
Ronon reached out, pulled out the piano bench, gestured for Rodney to have a seat.
What could Rodney play that would impress? He hadn’t touched a piano in years. He flexed his hands, tested the keys, wary for any magical modifications that would make playing difficult. Between Johnny Cash’s Hurt and that soul-rending emo song in the glass ball, John was looking for something with a lot of feeling, if not a lot of technical complexity. And then Rodney remembered. A movie about wormholes, and not fitting in as a teenager, and fate.
So he began to play a slow, melancholy version of Mad World.
“I do not recognize this song,” Teyla said.
“Neither do I,” Ronon said.
It was Lorne who began to sing along.
I think it’s kind of funny
I think it’s kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
Rodney finished the song, let the final notes hang on the air, took his hands off the keys.
Lorne, Ronon, and Teyla looked at each other.
“Perhaps John will wish to hear you play,” Teyla said.
“Come back another day.” Ronon clapped Rodney on the shoulder perfunctorily and walked away.
After that, there was no reason to stay in the shop, so Rodney thanked Teyla and Lorne and left.
He hung around Diagon Alley after that, walking back and forth past the music shop, hoping John would emerge so they could talk, but after a while he noticed people eyeing him oddly.
Time to retreat.
Rodney closed his eyes, took a deep breath, clicked his heels together for good measure.
And opened his eyes.
“Colonel Sheppard’s still asleep,” Keller said.
Rodney sat up, winced at how stiff his body was. He hadn’t slept in the healing pod. Whatever happened in the healing environment, it wasn’t sleeping. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.”
“But you saw him?” Teyla pressed. She, Ronon, Woolsey, and Lorne were crowded around Rodney’s pod.
“I did,” Rodney said. “And I saw you, and Ronon, and Lorne as well.”
“But — we did not enter the healing environment.” Teyla frowned.
“I guess he made up versions of you to keep him company.” Rodney accepted the glass of water Lorne handed to him, drained half of it in one go.
Ronon raised his eyebrows. “But not you?”
“He didn’t even look at me. And your VR clones didn’t recognize me. How long was I out?”
“Several hours,” Keller said, fretting.
“So time in there runs parallel to time out here,” Rodney said. He pushed himself to his feet. “I need to have a plan of attack before I go back in next.”
“What can we do to help, Doc?” Lorne asked.
Rodney narrowed his eyes at him. “What’s your first name?”
“Evan,” he said. “Why?”
“In there,” Rodney said, gesturing to the pod, “he calls you by your first name.”
Lorne huffed. “I’m surprised he even knows it. Most people don’t.”
“John’s more observant than people give him credit for,” Rodney said, defensive of his best friend. “Anyway. I need to requisition several things from Archives.”
“Anything,” Lorne said, reaching for his radio.
“I need the communal keyboard, every Harry Potter book ever, and a list of the most depressing songs ever written.”
Lorne started to nod, then paused. “What?”
“I realize such a list would be subjective,” Rodney said, “but — generally speaking. Across a population. A North American population.”
“I’ll get someone from Anthropology on it,” Lorne said, and already he was hurrying away.
“Did John seem all right?” Teyla asked.
“He didn’t seem injured,” Rodney said.
“So we are all present in this magical world, and we all work with John at his music shop,” Teyla said.
Rodney nodded. “Best as I can tell from my very rapid skim of the books — and my conversations with the Archivist, who is apparently an avid Harry Potter fan — the universe John has constructed is a mashup of the movies and the books but follows the internal logic of the books, such as it exists.”
“I cannot play piano.” Teyla looked puzzled.
She, Ronon, Keller, Lorne, and Woolsey were sitting around the conference table in Ops, trying to work out a strategy to wake John and not drive him deeper into his coma. Dr. Geri Moon, the new base psychologist, had joined them, though Rodney didn’t think she’d be much help.
She glanced at Ronon. “Are you a talented singer?” She’d taken extensive notes on John’s virtual dream world.
Ronon shrugged. “I can carry a tune but I’m not great.”
Geri turned her gaze on Lorne. “What about you, Major? Are you particularly musical?”
Lorne snorted. “No, ma’am. No one wants to hear me sing. Or see me dance.”
“John is a skilled guitarist,” Teyla said.
Geri made one of those noncommittal humming noises Rodney hated from real medical doctors. He hated them more from head shrinkers. But he was impressed by the way she spun her pen across the back of her thumbnail as she considered her notes.
“The whole Harry Potter setting is decoration. Don’t get distracted by it. The key to getting through to Colonel Sheppard is music.”
“What makes you think that?” Keller asked.
Geri said, “You’ve determined that Colonel Sheppard has a clean bill of health. Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka and Dr. Kusanagi and Dr. Lee have determined that the VR healing environment isn’t malfunctioning and keeping Colonel Sheppard trapped in there. Colonel Sheppard is keeping himself in there, though he may not realize it. You have to talk to him and convince him to come out. And that starts with music.”
Woolsey wasn’t actually much help in a tactical discussion about how to rescue John from his artificial coma, and he looked deeply uncomfortable talking about someone else’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes Rodney missed Elizabeth deeply, and he regretted taking her sensitivity and compassion for granted even though most of the time he’d felt like her touchy-feely approach got in the way of the rationality that science demanded.
“What kind of music does Colonel Sheppard like?” Woolsey asked finally.
Geri actually looked interested in the answer.
“Johnny Cash,” Ronon said.
Everyone stared at him.
Ronon said, “He has a big picture of Johnny Cash in his quarters.”
“And he listens to Johnny Cash in his office when he’s doing paperwork, and once in a while he’ll put in a request for Johnny Cash on the radio,” Lorne said.
“Excuse me, the radio?” Rodney asked.
Lorne nodded. “You know, Radio Atlantis. It has an all-request hour every shift.”
“We have a radio station?” Rodney asked.
“I have learned much about Earth music from the radio station,” Teyla said.
“We’re getting distracted,” Keller said. She turned to Geri. “If music is key to getting Sheppard out, what kind of music do we need?”
Lorne pushed a sheet of paper across the conference table to Rodney. “All the most depressing songs we could find, after a quick poll on the radio and Intranet bulletin board.”
Rodney scanned the list. “Suicidal Dream by Silverchair? Don’t you think that’s a bit much? And didn’t you say you’d ask Anthropology?”
Lorne scratched the side of his neck. “I did, but somehow I didn’t think that a sixteenth century ballad about a knight trapped under a hill with a faerie queen would be quite to Colonel Sheppard’s taste.”
Geri craned her neck to peer at the list. “Who nominated Suicidal Dream?”
“I don’t know specifically,” Lorne said, “but I can get someone to find out if you’d like, ma’am.”
“I would like that, yes,” she said, and flipped to another page in her notebook, scribbled a rapid note. She looked at Rodney. “Besides Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt, what other songs did you encounter in Sheppard’s virtual reality?”
Rodney had to think quickly. He wrote them down on a list.
“The question is, are those real songs, or did Sheppard make them up?” Geri asked.
“Why does that matter?” Rodney asked.
Lorne leaned in to check the list. Teyla and Ronon read it out of curiosity.
Keller said, “Let’s talk to whoever runs the radio station. They’d probably know, right? Unless Colonel Sheppard has really, really obscure, hipster taste in music.”
Rodney shook his head. “Not John. He likes his Johnny Cash and that’s just about it, I’m pretty sure.” He looked at Lorne. “Right?”
Lorne nodded. “Pretty much.” Lorne looked at Geri. “What does it matter whether the songs are real or not?”
“Well, you’ve established that Colonel Sheppard has recreated some details quite accurately in his virtual environment, like your first name,” Geri said, “even though no one really uses it in regular parlance in the real world. His VR world is a shield, and if Rodney wants to break through without him battening down the hatches, he’ll have to play by his rules. If he’s using real songs and you approach him with a real song that he doesn’t like or seems insincere, he could cut you off entirely.”
Rodney scrubbed his hands over his face.
“What kind of music do you like?” Geri asked.
“Rush?” Lorne asked.
“Not every Canadian likes Rush and Celine Dion,” Rodney snapped. “I actually enjoy a lot of classical music. I played piano when I was younger, and I enjoyed playing classical and baroque music, and not just because it was technically challenging. Also jazz, so I like Diana Krall.”
Geri made notes.
Ronon looked intrigued. Woolsey looked surprised.
“Does Colonel Sheppard like classical music?” Teyla asked.
Ronon shook his head. “He said he’d always sneak out of the theater when his parents made him go to the symphony.”
“Why do you know that?” Rodney asked, hurt that he didn’t know that.
“He mentioned it, when we were on Earth for his father’s funeral.”
Rodney bit his lip. He still felt terrible that he hadn’t been able to go along for that. He sighed. “Look, I don’t have a lot of time. I need to get back in there with some music to impress John — or at least impress his mental constructs of Evan and Ronon and Teyla so I can talk to actual John, or virtual-actual John, or whatever, and time in there runs parallel to time in here, so tick-tock, people.”
Geri said, “Who’s the station manager for Radio Atlantis?”
Lorne tapped his radio. “Eric, can you come to the conference room in Ops? Great. Thanks.”
A moment later, a young man in a green-patch uniform like Chuck’s stepped into the conference room, laptop tucked under one arm. He had dark hair and golden skin and was sweet-faced, very boy-next-door handsome. He had an American flag patch on his sleeve. Rodney was kind of irritated that none of the Atlantis uniforms had name patches on them like they did at the SGC. That would make his life so much easier.
“Hey, Major Lorne, Director Woolsey, Teyla, Ronon, Dr. Keller, Dr. Moon, Dr. McKay, what can I do for you?” Eric looked puzzled but not nervous.
“You’re the station manager for Radio Atlantis in your spare time,” Lorne said. “You know music pretty well, don’t you?”
“Me? Ah, I have fairly limited taste, honestly, but in college I was told I had a radio-friendly voice, and I’m not terrible at talking on air, so I trained the other deejays,” Eric said. “Miko helped me hook up our equipment to the Archives so we could access all their audio files. Did you need me to make a special announcement on the radio, or did you have a suggestion for a radio show, or…?”
“There are radio shows?” Rodney asked.
“Ronon reads us translations of Satedan plays for our Radio Drama hour once a week.” Eric smiled.
Rodney stared at Ronon.
“We have open mic night, too, for people who want to play live,” Eric said. “Ah — did you want some kind of senior command special show?”
“No,” Geri said. She plucked the list of songs away from Rodney and handed it to Eric. “Can you please look up these songs for us? If they exist.”
Eric nodded and sat down, opened his laptop. “Sure.” He tapped away rapidly. “Let’s see. In Any Tongue, by David Gilmour, formerly of Pink Floyd. That’s been requested a few times, mostly by Marines who served in Afghanistan or Iraq.” His expression turned grim.
Geri raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
“It’s about soldiers who fought over there,” Eric said. “Sort of. Among other things. I Could Live With Dying Tonight by Emma-Lee. Never heard it, but it has been requested at least once before according to the station records — someone made a request on the station website. You want it on request?”
“Make a playlist for Dr. McKay, please,” Geri said.
Eric nodded. “Can do. Miko’s helped us build an intranet version of Spotify, as it were. I’ll send the link when it’s done. The Grand Optimist, by City and Color. Firestruck, by Young Galaxy. Lighthouse, by Patrick Wilson. Ten, by Yellowcard. Existentialism on Prom Night by Straylight Run. Someone was feeling a little emo punk and a little folksy, I see.”
Woolsey, Teyla, and Ronon all looked confused.
Keller said, “I can see Sheppard feeling folksy, because Johnny Cash, but not very emo punk.”
“What are the songs about, do you know?” Geri asked.
“I know Ten is about the lead singer mourning his son who never was — whether his girlfriend miscarried or otherwise terminated the pregnancy, the song lyrics are unclear.” Eric shrugged. He tapped rapidly at his laptop some more.
Teyla said quietly, “John’s ex-wife, Nancy, was pregnant with a boy, but the child did not survive.”
Geri made a note.
“Ex-wife?” Rodney asked, the information like a sucker-punch.
Ronon said, “She was at his father’s funeral. She’s remarried now. She’s pretty.”
“Check your email for the link, Dr. McKay,” Eric said. “And feel free to put in requests on the Radio Atlantis website any time. Anything else?”
“Have all of those songs been requested on Radio Atlantis?” Geri asked.
Eric tapped at his laptop for several moments, humming thoughtfully. His voice was pleasant, musical. He probably did make a decent deejay. “All of them have been requested at least once, but besides the David Gilmour song, they’re not particularly popular. Anything else?”
Everyone else shook their heads.
“Great! Have a good day.” Eric closed his laptop and ducked out of the conference room, aware of the tense air he’d left behind.
“All of them are real songs,” Geri said as soon as the doors swung shut behind Eric.
Rodney tapped at his datapad and stared at the link in his email inbox. He tapped on it, and music began to play. Mournful whistling, followed by slow, melancholy electric guitar riffs. He skipped to the next song. Strings and a woman’s voice. Next song: heavy percussion but otherwise a folksy sound with acoustic guitars and a man’s voice. Next song: slow electric guitars and a woman’s voice and some subdued brass. Next song: pretty piano and a soft man’s voice, high soaring vocals, some Moody Blues-style brass. Next song: acoustic guitars and a punk tenor man’s voice. Next song: those familiar piano chords from the whimsy Rodney had experienced in the VR world.
“None of those sound like anything I’d have thought John would listen to,” Rodney said.
Ronon and Teyla nodded their agreement.
“But Eric said all of those had been requested at least once,” Geri said. “Chances are Sheppard heard them on the radio, and even if they’re not to his usual taste, they resonated with him enough that they’ve manifested in his subconscious.”
“I do listen to the radio in the office when I’m working,” Lorne said.
“So what does that mean for me?” Rodney asked.
“That means you’ll have to approach Sheppard with a song he’ll have no preconceived notions of, but one you can perform with sincerity,” Geri said.
Rodney looked at the list Lorne had given him of depressing songs. “Even if these songs aren’t on the radio, how do I know that at some point in his life, John hasn’t heard one of them and somehow internalized it enough to turn it into a grand magical experience in his VR world?”
“You don’t know.” Lorne sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Then what do I do?” Rodney threw his hands up.
Ronon said, “You need an original song.”
Rodney stared at him. “I need to learn a song. I can’t also write a song. Writing a song and performing a song are two very different skill sets.”
“I used to write songs,” Ronon said.
“Of course you did.” Rodney sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face again. “But how does that help me? Unless you happen to have a depressing song that might be relatable to someone like John? I mean — you used to be a soldier. Do you have a song you wrote? But will it be a song John can relate to? I mean, no offense to Satedan music, but —”
“I know people who write songs,” Ronon said. “They’ve been teaching me how to write Earth-style songs.”
“Oh,” Rodney said. “That’s actually very nice of them.”
“Can you call them here, please?” Woolsey said, and he looked absurdly grateful for something to do.
Only it was Lorne who tapped his radio and said, “Chuck, can you please summon Sergeant Cameron Shin and Warrant Officer Christopher Bang and Captain Steve Park to the conference room in Ops? Thanks.”
Rodney stared at him. “Why do you know them?”
“I know my men,” Lorne said. “So does Sheppard.”
A moment later, three young men assembled themselves in the conference room and addressed themselves to Lorne. One of them wore a flag patch with a corner of it that had a British flag, but two of them wore flags from another country that was in Asia. All three of them looked Asian, sort of like Miko. Did they even speak English? But everyone on the expedition spoke some level of English.
One of the men with the Asian flag patches was as muscular as Ronon, and Rodney imagined that they were probably weight-lifting friends or something. The other was shorter, leaner. Rodney had seen him hanging around the labs before; he had a scientist on his gate team, maybe?
“What can we do for you, Major?” the one with the British-sort of flag patch asked. He had an Australian accent.
“You write songs, don’t you?” Lorne said.
The man blinked. “Yes, sir.”
“We need songs,” Lorne said. “For a mission.”
The man perked up. “Yes, sir! I’ve provided songs for trading missions before.”
“Not that kind of mission,” Lorne said.
Rodney drummed his fingers on his knee under the table while Lorne gave the three soldiers the rundown of the mission. The Australian one — Warrant Officer Bang — helped translate for the others a bit, and they nodded.
“So we need an original song for Rodney to present to Colonel Sheppard to pass his audition,” Lorne said. “It has to be one he can perform himself, preferably on piano.”
Warrant Officer Bang frowned. “I tend to write stuff that has a more electronic sound, you know, since I’m into hip-hop. Jinwoo, you also tend toward hip-hop, right? He and I have been working with Ronon, since traditional Satedan poetry was often set to music.”
“Who’s Jinwoo?” Rodney asked.
The short man said, “My English name is Steve. I do have a ballad, but it’s not in English.”
“How fast can you translate the lyrics into English?” Woolsey asked, still trying to be helpful but mostly stressing Rodney out more, because John was still trapped in that machine and who knew how much deeper he was locking himself in his mental prison.
The very muscular man ducked his head and raised his hand like a student in class. “My song is in English. Dr. McKay plays piano, yes? I play piano. Song is on piano.” He smiled, and for such a giant man he had a very sweet smile. Ronon looked terrifying even when he smiled, but this man looked like he wouldn’t hurt a fly — until Rodney looked down past the man’s chin. Then he looked like he could crush a car with one fist.
“Let’s hear it,” Lorne said. He put in a radio call to Archives to requisition one of the community keyboards.
There was some shuffling to make room for the keyboard, and Captain Park had to crawl under the conference table to plug it in, but then Sergeant Shin cleared his throat and began to play a simple four-chord pop song.
For all that his English was hesitant when he spoke, he sang in English pretty well. His singing voice was a tenor that was high and bright and sweet, like his smile, and if Rodney had closed his eyes, he’d have imagined a slender pretty-boy, not a giant with muscles fit to rival Ronon.
Hold me closer
Don’t let me go over
Hold me closer
The piano chords were simple, the riff very plain. Rodney didn’t even need sheet music. He wasn’t sure about the repetitiveness of the lyrics, but then Sergeant Shin was singing in a second language, so he deserved some leeway.
Lock it away
Keep my heart at your place
Pull me closer
’Cause anytime or place I’d be your shield
When you feel
Like you ain’t got the fight in you to heal
And when you're weak in defeat
I need you to know
Rodney opened his eyes. Hang on now, he wasn’t about to sing John a love song. He opened his mouth to lodge a protest, but the others were listening intently, nodding along.
Baby I would go to war for you
Build an army if you need me to
’Cause losing me is better than losing you
Don’t you know that I would die for you
If I knew that you would make it through
’Cause losing me is better than losing you
Well, that did sound an awful lot like John’s typical self-destructive, self-sacrificing heroic streak. A bit melodramatic, but —
Rodney remembered how John had talked Wallace into killing himself so Rodney wouldn’t have to sacrifice himself to Todd. Remembered the look on John’s face when he said You are not doing this and I can’t when Rodney begged John to let him sacrifice himself.
Even though Rodney had chosen to die, John had chosen to do something worse, and he’d chosen to do it for Rodney, chosen to lose part of himself.
Woolsey said, “Surely a love song is inappropriate. Based on the other songs on the list —”
Sergeant Shin snatched his hands off the keyboard. “No, no, not a love song. Song for — friend. Best friend.” He smiled earnestly.
“You have the word baby in the chorus,” Warrant Officer Bang said.
“I wrote for best friend, but Jinwoo said, for radio, add baby, so also could be like for girlfriend,” Sergeant Shin said, and he twisted around to look up at Captain Park, puzzled. “Baby like noona, yes?”
“What are the chords?” Rodney asked.
Geri tore a piece of paper out of her notebook and handed it to Sergeant Shin, who scrawled out the lyrics, and then the chord notations over top, and he passed it to Rodney with a smile.
Rodney stared at the cartoon bunny at the bottom of the paper. “Why did you draw me a bunny?”
Sergeant Shin beamed and flashed him a peace sign and said, “My nickname is Wontokki!”
“Tokki means rabbit in Korean,” Geri said.
“Why do you know that?” Rodney asked.
Geri blinked at him. “Because I’m Korean?”
“You should start learning the song as soon as possible,” Lorne said. “So when it’s time for you to go in, you’re prepared.”
Rodney nodded. Sergeant Shin rose up and gestured for Rodney to take his spot in front of the keyboard.
“You should send Dr. McKay the guide track,” Warrant Officer Bang said.
Sergeant Shin nodded. “Laptop?”
Woolsey was only too glad to hand over his laptop. Sergeant Shin did some impressive hunting and pecking, and then Rodney had a new email in his inbox.
He opened the message, and an .mp3 file was attached.
Losing you, by Wonho. Rodney opened it, and there were familiar piano chords, and Sergeant Shin’s voice, but the song sounded like it had been professionally produced. Warrant Officer Bang and Captain Park listened critically, nodding, murmuring to Sergeant Shin in Korean.
Geri spoke to them in Korean, and they bowed to her, saluted Major Lorne, and left the conference room.
The song built slowly but steadily. Sergeant Shin had recorded his own backing vocals, and also layered in additional instruments, like strings, not just sweeping orchestral violins but staccato string plucks at the end, stark but still musical.
“Can you learn it in time?” Ronon asked.
“It’s a four-chord pop song,” Rodney said. “It’s not hard.”
“Can you sing it?” Teyla asked.
Rodney started the song again. “Not well, but John doesn’t need me to be a singer. That’s what you and Ronon and Evan are for.”
“In his dreams,” Lorne said, amused.
Or his nightmare, Rodney thought, and began to play along.
When Rodney appeared in the virtual Harry Potter world, he was wearing a button-down shirt, tie, and slacks beneath what he now knew was a wizarding robe, thanks to a chat with the Archivist about wizarding fashion in the movies versus the books. He wondered what it meant, that he was dressed well, when as a rule he dressed casually on his designated Sundays. Did John imagine that people should dress well on their days off? John tended to run around in black t-shirts and his uniform trousers even on his days off.
Obviously Rodney had spent too much time around Geri Moon if he was thinking too hard about what his VR fashion meant to John. He glanced at his watch — he had an actual wristwatch even though more than one person had a pocketwatch — and hurried along Diagon Alley to Sheppard & Lorne’s. Today the shop had a few customers who were browsing the shelves. Ronon was talking to them quietly, showing off a few of the instruments. Teyla stood at the counter, writing in a ledger with a brightly-plumed quill.
She looked up and smiled when she saw Rodney.
“You have returned. John is expecting you.”
That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
“Well, I said I’d be here, and here I am. I’m serious about playing piano for you.” Rodney was sincere about speaking to John and working with him, but he knew that his sincerity wasn’t always communicated well or well-received. Teyla was on the team for a reason.
“John prefers serious musicians,” Teyla said. She reached into the sleeve of her lovely gown — today a sleek dark blue number — and drew out her wand (was it the same wand as yesterday? Had Rodney even seen her wand yesterday? How many of these details was he supposed to remember and report to Geri and the rest of Team Rescue Sheppard?) and waved it in the direction of the little upright piano.
It slid away from the wall, and the lid opened, and the stool slid out.
Wasn’t she supposed to say a spell? Only the Archivist had mentioned that in the movies, wandless or wordless magic was much more prevalent, even though in the books, wordless or wandless magic was considered quite difficult and also uncommon. Had John seen the movies?
“Feel free to warm up,” Teyla said.
Rodney nodded. Since this was a virtual environment, he didn’t actually need to warm up; his mental state was what counted more than anything. He’d rehearsed Sergeant Shin’s song ad nauseum, and he could play it in his sleep. But was that really the kind of song John would respond to? And since Rodney was practically sick of the song, would he be able to play it sincerely?
Ronon finished up with the customers, who departed from the store carrying a massive wooden-and-metal affair between them, laughing and talking, and he came to stand beside the piano while Rodney played scales, then arpeggios, then chromatic scales.
“You’ve got technical skill,” he said.
Rodney nodded. “I’m classically trained.”
Ronon glanced over his shoulder to where Teyla was waving her wand and sending the quill in one direction and the ledger in another behind the counter. “We all have technical skill.”
Evan emerged from the back. Without his military uniform, and with longer hair, he looked more approachable, like he had a sense of humor. He flashed Rodney one of his dimpled smiles.
“Welcome back! How are you today?”
“I’m prepared to prove I’m worthy to work with you,” Rodney said.
Evan laughed. “Enthusiasm. I like it.” He turned and hollered over his shoulder.
“John, we’ve got a pianist here for an audition.”
“She better be better than the last seven pianists who auditioned.” John’s voice, muffled from far behind the counter somewhere Rodney couldn’t see, was typical John-grumpy.
Rodney knew the tone well and hadn’t realized he missed it. Something in his chest tightened. He missed John.
“Pretty sure he is,” Evan said.
John poked his head out from behind a curtain that Rodney had thought was a decorative wall hanging. “Oh. Hey. Be right there.”
He stepped out from behind the wall hanging. Once again he wore a dark robe, this one not quite black but dark enough — charcoal gray? — that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in John’s regular and otherwise generally colorless wardrobe in the real world. He stood by the piano and looked at Rodney expectantly but without any sign of recognition.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.”
He still had a wand tucked behind his ear, and his hair was as wild as ever, and he looked so much like John, military John, soldier John, Rodney’s John, that Rodney wanted to shake him, but he knew that wouldn’t go over well, and John would batten down the hatches or however Geri had put it, so Rodney rolled his wrists and settled his hands on the keys.
And he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t play the song Sergeant Shin had written no matter how earnestly he’d insisted he’d written it for his best friend, because it definitely sounded like a love song, and Rodney wondered if Sergeant Shin wasn’t just having a grand old swim down the River Nile about his best friend.
“Well?” John asked.
Rodney had played many classical pieces in his youth, and he’d thrown his heart and soul into them, because pounding out pieces on the piano had drowned out his parents’ screaming, and playing piano and possibly earning a spot at a conservatory far from home had been a potential for escape, and a way for him to rescue Jeannie as well. Not that she hadn’t found her own way out, because she was just as brilliant as him (if not more brilliant, not that he’d ever admit that to her face).
So he played some Rimsky-Korsakov. Not Flight of the Bumblebee, because while that was technically impressive, it was overdone, and it smacked of ostentation, and it wasn’t his favorite. He liked Scheherazade better, because it was a bit more romantic, and it wasn’t like Rodney was without romance. He’d been a teenager once, and dreamed of someone who liked him for him, flaws and all, his loud mouth and his tendency to speak before he thought. His awkward brilliance vastly outweighed any social skills he might have learned, because while he was a genius, brilliance still required hard work, work that required sacrifice, and he’d sacrificed his social life. Going to university early meant he’d been cut off from his age-peers, and after being told his piano music lacked soul, science seemed like the better choice, but he had missed the sweeping grandeur of pieces like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
And John would appreciate a man like Rimsky-Korsakov, who’d composed some of his best pieces while an officer in the Russian navy, right?
Rodney was rambling in his own head while he was playing piano.
But Rodney’s mind was always going a mile a minute, and piano was one of the few things that made it quiet.
He closed his eyes, and he let the music flow.
When he opened his eyes, the song was over.
Teyla and Evan applauded, Teyla smiling brightly, Evan cheering.
Ronon had a small smile curving his lips. John nodded approvingly.
Rodney remembered the first time John had nodded at him like that, back when Rodney had first joined John’s gate team and been forced to undergo basic hand-to-hand and firearm training and he’d managed to draw, aim, and fire his sidearm decently.
John clapped Rodney on the shoulder awkwardly. “Sounds good. You’ve got the chops we need. Come back tomorrow when we’ve decided on a project, and we’ll get started.” Then he spun on his heel and disappeared back behind the wall hanging behind the counter.
Disappointment and frustration welled in Rodney’s chest. He opened his mouth to protest, but what could he do, demand that the project begin today? Teyla and Evan looked apologetic.
“We will see you tomorrow. John likes to get started early. The shop opens at eight,” Teyla said.
Rodney rose slowly from the piano bench. “Okay. Thank you for giving me this chance. I’ll do my best. See you at eight.”
He stumbled out of the shop and down Diagon Alley, back toward the entrance that would lead to Muggle London — and out of the VR environment altogether.
Tomorrow. He had to wait till tomorrow to see John again.
“Well?” Keller asked.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Rodney fired back, heaving himself out of the VR pod and shaking out his limbs.
Nurse Ko handed him a bottle of water.
Teyla, Ronon, Geri, and Sergeant Shin were also hovering beside the VR pod.
Teyla handed Rodney a snack.
“No change in vital signs from Colonel Sheppard,” Keller said.
“No change at all? Not even a blip?” Rodney asked.
“He’s not brain dead. He’s showing definite brain activity,” Keller said. “There were spikes and dips, consistent with wake and sleep cycles and other emotions, but we haven’t decoded the readout of the VR’s output sufficient to know exactly what he’s experiencing.”
Rodney considered. “Was there a spike about five minutes ago?”
“How did you know?” Geri asked. She had her ubiquitous notebook and was taking notes.
While Rodney was as human as the next man and often had his temper softened by a pretty face, he was fast becoming immune to her delicate, even features and bright eyes. “I was playing piano for him five minutes ago. I had my audition. I passed. He told me to come back tomorrow.”
“That’s a good sign,” Geri said. “Tell me everything.”
“Song good?” Sergeant Shin asked.
Rodney avoided his gaze and said, “Good.”
“Perhaps Rodney would be best served with a chance to rehydrate and get his blood sugar back up so he can concentrate properly on a debrief,” Teyla said, her tone calm and even, and she really was the team diplomat for a reason.
From anyone else, Rodney would have complained about them mothering him, but he knew Teyla wasn’t being condescending or smothering, and she did know him well, and she had his — and John’s — best interests at heart.
“Go to the cafeteria. Debrief in a couple of hours. I’ll notify Director Woolsey and Major Lorne,” Geri said.
As if Woolsey was any use.
Major Lorne was the senior military officer while John was still in the machine, though, and he did need to know what was going on with the situation.
Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney headed for the cafeteria.
“Did he seem all right?” Ronon asked.
“I saw him for barely five minutes,” Rodney said, “or however long the song was. Time moves the same in there as it does out here, but I wasn’t exactly staring at my watch the whole time. He only came to see my audition and tell me whether I passed, and he left soon after.”
“You passed. That’s what counts,” Ronon said.
Teyla said, “John knows you, in some ways better than you know yourself. As long as you are sincere, he will sense it and understand. He will wake up soon. Do not burden yourself too much. Simply be sincere and patient.”
Rodney bounced on his toes and craned his neck, trying to peer ahead at the chow line to see what the KP Marines were serving today. “Me? Patient? You know who you’re talking to, right?”
“I do,” Teyla said. “And I know you are capable of more than you give yourself credit for.”
Rodney looked at her. “You really think so?”
“Also you have rescued John from a similar situation before,” Teyla said. “You said so yourself. I only wish Ronon and I could help.”
Rodney considered. “Well, you can help. Tell me everything you can about your personal music skills. When I’m in the VR environment with John, he’s not totally in control; we’re manipulating the environment together. I’ve stepped onto his home court, so to speak, so I’m mostly playing by his rules, but I’m not totally at his mercy. John knows you, but so do I. So help me out.”
When Rodney strode down Diagon Alley the next day, it was armed with the knowledge that Teyla had grown up singing; she’d learned from her mother, as her father was rather unmusical, and that the Athosian people had had a rich musical tradition, keeping much of their history alive through poetry and song. As Teyla had inherited her mother’s beautiful voice and natural ear for a melody, she’d learned from Charin and other elders of her people the songs and histories of the Athosians, from nursery rhymes designed to teach children numbers and letters and arithmetic and colors to working songs to teach older children hunting and trapping and skinning and tanning and healing, to love songs and mourning songs and songs about epic hunts and battles against the Wraith, always the Wraith, because why battle other humans when the Wraith were the fiercest enemy of all?
Ronon, in contrast, had grown up with a much more formal musical education. He could read music, and he had learned to play several Satedan classical instruments, and he could compose in addition to sight-reading, and he also knew the history of Satedan music, its major movements and important composers and artists. He had also memorized some of the more seminal musical works which, as described by Captain Park and Warrant Officer Bang, seemed more like poetry set to music, or rap-poems interspersed with sung choruses. Satedan music was akin to Classical Greek epic poetry and was all about epic stories of heroes, lovers, adventurers, and tragically flawed saints. Ronon wasn’t a great singer, but given Satedan music, his voice fit the style well, and he had been considered a talented performer back on his planet. Also, in the Satedan military, marching songs were popular, as were campfire songs to boost morale on long campaigns, and also being able to improvise songs while drunk was considered an exceptional skill, especially to impress ladies, so of course Ronon was very good at it.
Neither Teyla nor Ronon could remember discussing such things with John in detail, though John had heard Teyla sing, and John had taught Ronon a few chords on his guitar. However, both Teyla and Ronon had spoken of their musical education and other aspects of their culture extensively to the anthropologists on Atlantis, as well as to young and curious Marines, so there was every chance that bits and pieces had made it back to John one way or another.
Rodney knew John was much more intelligent than people gave him credit for, than sometimes Rodney gave him credit for; he’d passed the test for MENSA. John was attentive to detail; after all, he had to be observant in the field to survive. And John was aware of things people didn’t think he noticed. Everyone assumed only Lorne paid attention to supply lines and things like whether or not Atlantis was going to run out of toilet paper, but Lorne assured Rodney that he kept John apprised of all the key goings-on in Atlantis, and even if John wasn’t the person rubber-stamping every single requisition form that went in and out of the base, he knew what was going on where it mattered.
Geri reminded Rodney that humans were capable of absorbing far more information on a subconscious level than they realized, and that it was all stored away and processed later, usually in the form of dreams. John’s VR environment was a combination of a dream and a deliberate mental construct, and anything John knew or had heard or seen was fair game to be used in the environment as long as John could make it fit into the setting, and since Harry Potter was a magical setting, John could probably make a lot more things fit in there, especially since he was melding the book and movie canons, and melding the two allowed for a lot of wiggle room.
So Rodney was determined to be prepared for just about anything about Teyla or Ronon’s past to come up. He wasn’t sure how he would leverage it, but he figured if he knew about it, that was better than being totally blindsided by the fact that Ronon could rap or play an instrument akin to a bass guitar.
Major Lorne was a bit of a wild card, especially since he claimed to have pretty much zero musical skill in the real world; Rodney would have to tackle him next.
But it was almost eight o’clock, and Rodney was determined to show up on time and show he was serious about working on musical projects with John, and hopefully he’d be able to get through to John and help John work his way past whatever was keeping him locked in this weird dream world.
Rodney arrived at Sheppard & Lorne’s just as Evan was waving his wand at the wooden sign, setting it to pulsing that gentle blue glow that Rodney associated with Ancient tech.
“Right on time.” Evan smiled. “Come on in. The others are waiting.”
“What are we working on?” Rodney asked. “I’d have liked to look over the sheet music beforehand. Not that I can’t sight read. But I like to be prepared.”
Evan held the door open, and Rodney stepped into the shop, which was still a bit dim in the early morning light.
Teyla lit several candles with a confident flick of her wand and a murmur of a spell.
Ronon was waving his wand so the furniture rearranged itself to create an open space in the middle of the shop with the piano in the middle, as well as several music stands and chairs, microphones, and a pedestal with a plain glass paperweight on it.
“I blow the glass myself,” Evan said.
Rodney filed that away for future reference; could Major Lorne actually blow glass? Why would John have assigned him that skill and not, say, Ronon or Teyla?
John was sorting music onto the stands and onto the piano.
“Good morning,” Rodney said, trying for courteous even though he would be the first to admit he wasn’t known for social niceties.
“Morning,” John drawled, and offered one of his smirky little grins.
Rodney sat at the piano and played some simple scales to warm up even though he’d warmed up before he’d entered the VR pod and had breakfast and gone to the bathroom and made sure he was absolutely ready.
He scanned the piano chords. Simple riff, minor chords, nothing too complicated, checked the arrangement notes.
Pipes? Ronon could play pipes? That was an interesting touch. Dramatic, but otherwise a pretty stark arrangement. Who was singing? This called for a male voice. No guitar for John? Rodney wondered if he should try to listen to the other whimsies, see if Teyla sang the songs that had been sung by women on the playlist that Eric the station manager had sent.
There was also a section for strings. Teyla and Evan would also be playing strings, as would John, which they’d layer on. And there would be timps, which Ronon would also play and layer. John would also be playing the snare.
Bagpipes and a snare riff. Almost like a military funeral.
And then Rodney really looked at the title of the song.
Losing Your Memory.
Rodney sped through the lyrics. They seemed like maybe they could be a love song, if only because the male singer referenced little girl as the person he was singing to, but all Rodney could think of was that time when he’d had the parasite in his brain, and John had refused to say goodbye, and even though Rodney had flirted embarrassingly with Keller (though both agreed not to talk about it now), the person he’d wanted when he was terrified of losing it all was John.
If this song got turned into one of those terrifying memory video ball things, would it be a gut-wrenching movie about the time Rodney was losing his memory?
Rodney cleared his throat and glanced up at John. “Do you pick all these songs?”
John, who’d been showing Ronon something in the section of the arrangement for the pipes, glanced at him. “I pick a lot of them, but the others have made their own whimsies. If you have a song you feel strongly about, you can audition it for Evan, and he’ll let you know if it’ll work with the capture spell. As long as the song evokes vivid enough emotion, it can make a whimsy.”
Geri would want to know that; perhaps not every whimsy was one of John’s songs. What would be a good way to find out which songs were his? Would Rodney be able to see them all? Were there songs that John had made that had been sold?
“Okay,” Rodney said. “I’ll try and think of a song.”
“It has to be a song you feel.” John looked at Rodney, and Rodney was startled by the intensity of his gaze.
Since when did John Sheppard talk about feelings like that?
“Typically we play through the song just to get a feel for it,” John said, “and then we break it down into parts and see what we can play and when. We try to play as much as we can live to maximize the emotional content for Evan to capture and layer as little as possible, so there’s going to be a lot of repetition and engineering as we try to choreograph instrument switches mid-song.”
Rodney nodded. “Who’s singing?”
“Me,” John said.
Rodney hadn’t expected that response. Given that in the real world Lorne couldn’t sing and in here Evan could, there was no reason that John couldn’t sing in here. Although could he sing in the real world? He could play the guitar in the real world. Just because no one had heard him sing didn’t mean he couldn’t sing.
“Ready?” Evan asked. He was the conductor for all of them. Luckily his magic wand doubled as a conductor’s baton.
Rodney checked and made sure he could see Evan from his spot on the piano bench even if he was also reading the sheet music. Given that the music wasn’t complex, really was just chords repeated, he wouldn’t have to read it too closely, but he still needed to keep an eye on it so he didn’t miss his transitions.
John cleared his throat, and Evan counted them in.
Rodney started with the piano chords first, played the riff through twice, which was a pretty common pop feature.
And then John started to sing.
Where Rodney was hesitant on the piano keys, John’s voice was clear and strong and confident.
Call all your friends
And tell them you're never coming back
Cause this is the end
Pretend that you want it
Ronon fumbled for his pipes, played a few soft notes.
The damage is done
The police are coming too slow now
I would have died
I would have loved you all my life
This sounded like a love song all right. John’s voice was stark and emotional, and it seemed like he wasn’t paying attention to the musicians at all.
The chorus started soft and small, but it grew in intensity, and the intensity built when Ronon picked up with the pipes on the second half.
You’re losing your memory now
Evan and Ronon tested a few harmonies, winced when they went wrong.
Teyla hadn’t participated yet, was waving her wand to direct a quill to take notes on her sheet music, about when Ronon had to take up his instruments, about when vocal harmonies might be required, but then she picked up her violin, and Evan picked up his violin. That Evan could play and sing at the same time — even if neither went particularly well — was impressive.
Rodney resisted the urge to twist around and look at John while he sang. Clearly this was some kind of intense, emotional, personal event for him. Only when the song ended, John said,
“That was a pancake.”
That made Rodney twist around. “A pancake?”
“You know, when you’re making pancakes, the first one always burns or is otherwise bad, so you throw it out?”
“I thought it sounded good,” Rodney said.
“There’s a lot we’ll have to tighten up as far as timing, and definitely portions we’ll have to layer,” John said.
“You have a really good voice,” Rodney said, and offered a tentative smile.
John eyed him. “Thanks,” he said, tone dubious.
Teyla held out her copy of the sheet music with the magically-inscribed notes. “It will not require as much layering as you had feared.”
John scanned the notes. “That’s good.”
“Also Evan and Ronon proposed some places for harmonies. Would you like them to provide the harmonies, or will you prefer to layer those yourself?”
“You know I’m not the greatest at harmonies — I’m barely a team player as it is. If either of you wants to sing, that’ll save us another step in the layering.” John nodded at Evan and Ronon.
“Your voice is closer to his,” Ronon said to Evan, who nodded.
“Good luck,” John said, and he headed into the back.
Rodney watched him go, dismayed. “Is he not going to rehearse with us?”
“Once we have the arrangement down pat, he’ll come for the final recording,” Evan said, unbothered by John’s departure.
The wall hanging twitched into place behind John, and then it looked just like a regular wall hanging and not like a door at all.
“Okay,” Rodney said faintly.
“He runs the books, since he’s the numbers guy,” Evan said, “and also he does all the major spellwork on the self-playing instruments, which are our biggest and most profitable sellers, so.”
“That level of spellwork is complex and quite tiring, and he needs quiet for his concentration,” Teyla said gently.
“He is a very smart man,” Rodney said, resigned.
“How’d you know?” Ronon eyed him.
“Obviously he must be if he can do the spells for the self-playing instruments,” Rodney said quickly.
Ronon nodded and checked the reed on his pipes.
Evan tapped his wand on the edge of his music stand. “Okay, from the top.”
In the real world, Evan Lorne was an easy-going man with a curious penchant for mindless repetitive paperwork, but he was detail-oriented and good at his job. In John’s virtual magical musical world, he was an exacting task-master whose attention to musical detail bordered on fanatic. It took them forever to get through the first verse and chorus, because Ronon had to get his cue with the pipes just right, and they had to get the harmonies right — Evan was singing John’s part for the practice while Ronon sang and arranged the harmonies for Evan’s part — before they could move on. If Rodney had thought the song was mournful and emotional the first time he heard it, by the time lunchtime rolled around, he was sick of it.
Whenever a customer came in, they paused to assist however they could. As Rodney was not a shop employee, he took the chance to stand up and stretch his legs and wrists and look around the shop some more.
Finally, at lunch, after another run-through of the song — during which Evan made them stop and restart four times in a row because Ronon missed his cue on one of the harmonies on the first verse — Rodney said,
“Why don’t we take a break? We could all use a break.”
From each other, he meant.
He wanted a chance to talk to John alone, too. Geri was convinced that Evan and Teyla and Ronon were extensions of John’s consciousness, and that by interacting with them Rodney could break through to John even if he didn’t interact with John directly, but Geri had never been in this environment, and also she didn’t really know John.
Luckily for Rodney, John emerged from the back, rolling his neck and shoulders and squinting like he did after Lorne had forced him to face a pile of paperwork that he’d otherwise ignored and that Lorne, no matter his skill in paperwork gymnastics, couldn’t sign for him.
“Hey, you want to go get some coffee or tea or food or something?” Rodney asked. “Get out and have a change of pace.”
Belatedly, it occurred to Rodney that the others might well bring their own food, or maybe did the old-fashioned thing and had living quarters above or behind or below the shop and simply go there to eat. Even though Rodney had never really seen John drink tea — and Telya didn’t really offer it anymore — Harry Potter was a British setting, so maybe John drank tea. Although neither John nor any of the others had British accents, come to think of it, the customers who came in tended to have British accents, even the ones who weren’t white; in the movies that one Chinese girl had had a Scottish accent.
John looked at Rodney, startled and a little wary. Then he offered a faint smile, one of those little smirky smiles that was charming and disarming but, Rodney knew, closed off and defensive, a shield.
“Sure. Lunch sounds like a good idea. Hey, everyone, food at the Leaky Cauldron?”
Lunch with everyone was not what Rodney had intended, but Ronon said, “Sure,” and Teyla nodded as well.
Evan said, “I’ll stay today. Bring me back a plowman’s.”
A plowman for lunch sounded more like a shady hookup than an actual meal, but Rodney followed the rest of his teammates out the door and down the street. Unlike walking the halls of Atlantis, where people recognized John and respected him, no one looked twice at him. New green Marines looked at John with awe, and there was definitely some hero-worship going around. People in Diagon Alley did give Ronon a wide berth, because he was a massive figure even in a world where giants and half-giants were going around.
Surprisingly, it was Teyla who received the most attention. She smiled and nodded at people as they headed for the Leaky Cauldron at the other end of the alley. Other store proprietors called out to her and waved, asked after her — and her husband and son.
The shop was called Sheppard & Lorne’s, but the face of the operation was all Teyla.
“You’re popular,” Rodney said.
Teyla merely ducked her chin and said, diplomatically, “I have made an effort to establish amicable business relationships with other shop owners in the Alley, and my efforts have been rewarded.”
“Husband and son?” Rodney asked.
“Kanaan. He stays at home with Torren.”
“Nice,” Rodney said lamely, and was spared further awkwardness when they reached the Leaky Cauldron.
Ronon held the door open for Teyla, who went first. John gestured for Rodney to go second, and of course Ronon had their six.
Rodney was pleased with himself when he recognized Tom the hunchback barman from his skim of the books. Tom recognized Teyla and Ronon, greeted them with some measure of warmth and familiarity.
“Well, I’ll be, John Sheppard. So you do come out during the day. And here I thought Sheppard & Lorne’s had secretly become just Lorne’s and no one wanted to admit he’d done you in and hid the body.” Tom laughed at his own joke.
John laughed too, even though it wasn’t really a joke, and it wasn’t all that funny.
“I’m here because a man needs to eat to live, and I am still alive,” John said.
Tom looked Rodney up and down. “Who’s this, then?”
“He’s not one of the shop staff, just a musician working with me on the whimsies.” John settled onto the barstool.
Rodney managed to snag the seat beside him.
John didn’t seem to mind. Ronon sat on the other side of him, and Teyla beside Ronon. Rodney had witnessed a few high school-style mini-dramas in the mess hall when newcomers — usually young, attractive women — wanted to try to sit next to John and try their hand at charming him.
“He must be quite good, then,” Tom said.
“He is,” John said, and that was the end of that.
Tom scooped up a rag and used it to clean a massive pewter tankard that looked like it belonged at one of those medieval jousting dinner shows. “What can I do you lads and lass for, then?”
“A plowman’s to go for Evan,” John said, and Tom nodded.
“Pumpkin soup and a roll, please,” Teyla said.
“Roast and potatoes,” Ronon said.
John smiled. “Turkey sandwich.”
Some things never changed.
“Ah, also a turkey sandwich,” Rodney said. “Hold the mustard.”
“And make sure it’s citrus free,” John said.
Rodney looked at him, surprised.
“He’s deathly allergic,” John said in an exaggerated whisper.
“I wouldn’t poison a customer,” Tom said stiffly, and he turned and headed through the swinging doors into the back, hollering at the cooks.
“Thanks,” Rodney said.
“Wouldn’t want to poison my brand new pianist, would I?” John lifted one shoulder noncommittally.
“But how did you know I’m allergic?” Rodney asked.
John huffed. “You tell everyone about your allergy. Loudly. And at length.”
Rodney said, slowly, “You’ve been in the back all morning. And Drill Sergeant Evan made us work on that song non-stop.”
John said again, “Loudly. And at length.”
Rodney was confused but also hopeful. Even if John thought Rodney was a stranger, he remembered Rodney, remembered important details about him.
Rodney shrugged. “You’re not entirely wrong.”
“Here, pumpkin spice tea,” an attractive witch — who looked suspiciously like Geri Moon, come to think of it — said, sliding a mug across the bar to Rodney. “Citrus free.”
She gave Teyla a mug of some kind of herbal tea, and coffee to John, and mulled wine to Ronon.
“Drinking on the job?” Rodney asked.
“One drink,” Ronon said, arching one eyebrow and drawing himself up to his full height.
The little cup looked tiny in his fist, so Rodney conceded the point. He turned to John.
“So...how did you come up with the concept of the whimsies? Have they always been your creative vision?”
John glanced at him, then took a sip of his coffee. “After the War, I wanted to do something different. Music seemed like the way to go.”
“What did you do before the War?” Rodney asked. Did John mean the war against Voldemort? Would John and Teyla and Ronon and Evan have had any part of it, Evan being American and Ronon and Teyla being from another galaxy and all? Or did John mean something else? Rodney had to remember John’s answer. Geri would want to know. It would be important.
“I was an Unspeakable,” John said, and drank the rest of his coffee the way most people emptied a glass of hard liquor.
Rodney winced, because that coffee had been steaming.
The pretty witch who might have been Geri Moon topped up John’s mug with a flirty smile, and John smiled back, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
Ronon cast Rodney a dark look, and he winced. Teyla looked sympathetic.
John turned to Teyla and asked how progress on the song was coming. Teyla explained, in very diplomatic Teyla terms, that they had made rather limited progress but that the progress they had made was quite exacting, thanks to Evan’s strict guidance. John didn’t look at Rodney for the rest of the meal.
Rodney didn’t really taste the food, just bolted it down quickly in hopes that the awkwardness would end faster. And then the meal was over. Tom the barman brought them a meal to go for Evan, and back to the store they went.
At the door, John said, “We’re done with whimsy practice for today. See you tomorrow.”
And he headed inside.
“First thing in the morning,” Teyla said with a reassuring smile, and then she headed inside, calling out to Evan.
Ronon swept past Rodney, who remained on the front step, helpless and frustrated. But there was no point in hanging around and waiting for another chance to talk to John, so he turned and headed for the entrance to Diagon Alley.
“If he was an Unspeakable, it was most likely the War against Voldemort,” the Archivist said.
She was a tiny, brown-skinned woman of indeterminable age or race, bespectacled. Her accent wavered somewhere between American and British, and her tiny hands were flying over some kind of project that wasn’t knitting or crocheting and looked like she was making a mess but really she was making lace.
“What was an Unspeakable? Some kind of...assassin?” Rodney asked. “John was just a chopper pilot in Afghanistan.”
Lorne, Teyla, Woolsey, Geri, and Ronon had gathered in the Archives for their next brainstorming session, partially so Rodney could check out one of the communal keyboards again to practice his song, partially so they could confer with the Archivist for her Harry Potter knowledge.
“They’re barely mentioned in the films and books, but in fanfiction they’re everything from deep spell nerds to the equivalent of James Bond,” the Archivist said.
“Fanfiction,” Rodney echoed. “It’s not like John has ever read fanfiction.”
“There’s probably some on one of the servers somewhere,” the Archivist said breezily, a bit too breezily, which made Rodney deeply suspect that if it was on the servers, she’d put it there. “And even if there isn’t, any time someone posits a fan theory, it’s basically fanfiction. What if Professor Saul Croaker didn’t just guard the use of time-turners, but invented them? After all, he developed Croaker’s Law, which states that one cannot go further back in time than five hours with a time turner without harming oneself. But what if he simply made that law up because he’d gone back in time further than five hours and mucked things up like, oh, say, trying to warn Lily and James Potter about their impending doom and instead causing their deaths?”
“You just spoke nonsense,” Rodney said, but Geri was nodding like the Archivist had just made perfect sense.
The patch on the Archivist’s sleeve looked like Radek’s, but had an extra symbol on it. A sun?
“And if Colonel Sheppard, in hanging around other Harry Potter fans, happened to overhear them bandying about fan theories, there’s no reason he couldn’t have internalized one,” the Archivist said.
Rodney gritted his teeth. “You didn’t answer my question. What is an Unspeakable?”
“In the books, simply someone who studies deep mysteries of magic and works for The Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic,” the Archivist said promptly. “Typically characterized as someone rather, well, like you. A theoretical magician, more interested in the inner workings of magic and nuances of specific types of spells than, say combat spell-slinging or magical sports.”
“What about magical music?” Rodney said.
“Apart from the self-playing harp in the first book and the mention of wizarding music that plays on the wireless and the depiction of a wizarding band as a kind of Celtic punk fusion in the film, there’s not much to go on.” The Archivist shrugged.
“The music John’s using is all thoroughly muggle music,” Geri said.
“But he thinks he’s a wizard,” Rodney said.
“In the books, people who have magic can be raised muggle,” the Archivist said, “or half-muggle, so there’s no reason he can’t have all-muggle or mostly-muggle taste in music.”
“Why do we care about his taste in music again?” Ronon asked. “Is it his real taste in music? Seems fake, right?”
“We’re getting distracted,” Woolsey said. “So Colonel Sheppard said he was an Unspeakable before the War. What about during the War?”
“Presumably he was an Unspeakable during the War,” Geri said.
“John is an airman,” Teyla said. “Perhaps he is a version of an Unspeakable that was something similar.”
“So you think he fought in The War?” Rodney asked. “But — he’s American. Why would the War affect him?”
“Even if he’s American, if he was employed by the Ministry, he’d be affected by the War,” the Archivist said. “And is he completely American? His father is American, and obviously he’s an American citizen if he’s serving in the Armed Forces, but what about his mother? If she were English — and in this virtual scenario, a witch — then he would have a more personal stake in the War.”
“What do we know about John’s mom?” Rodney asked.
Teyla shook her head.
Woolsey also shook his head.
Geri flipped through her notebook, which was decorated with a moon and stars. “Amelia Monroe Sheppard, passed away when John was sixteen. No information about her nationality or ethnicity, though.”
“His connection to the War could be entirely fictional, since he’s invented a place for himself in the Harry Potter universe,” the Archivist said.
“What do we know about John’s service prior to Atlantis?” Teyla asked. “That could be important.”
“That time John shot all of us. He was remembering before Atlantis,” Ronon said.
Lorne rubbed his chin, expression thoughtful. “I only knew him briefly in Kandahar before he transferred to Kabul. Good guy to have on the stick. I know a couple of his best friends, Mitch and Dex, were shot down outside Kandahar.”
“He had a black mark on his record,” Woolsey said.
“But he didn’t disobey orders,” Rodney protested.
“Not a direct order,” Lorne said. “He rescued someone without permission, but there was no explicit order not to rescue him.”
Rodney eyed him. “Why do you know that?”
“I wanted to know who my CO would be before I shipped out here.” Lorne shrugged. “Also, do you know how many trained combat pilots there are in the world? Not that many. It’s like grad school. Even if we don’t know each other well, we know of each other. Colonel Sheppard was a legend on the stick in rotor, but I was in fixed wing. After he dropped off the map, I got curious. And word gets around.”
Rodney narrowed his eyes. “Are you judging him?”
Lorne sighed. “You think I hold a grudge against a man who’ll go the extra mile to rescue someone?”
Geri had been scribbling notes. “So there’s every possibility that Colonel Sheppard has integrated his past experiences from his time in Big Air Force into his experiences in The War. You’ll have to tread lightly. It’ll be an emotional minefield.”
Teyla patted Rodney’s arm. “Be cautious, friend.”
Rodney sighed deeply. “You do know who you’re talking to, don’t you?”
“I do,” Teyla said. “I know you care for John, and he knows it too.”
“The John in there thinks I’m a stranger!”
“The John in there still knows who you are. You said so yourself.”
But the next day, when Rodney showed up at Sheppard & Lorne’s — again in very stylish clothes, for a wizard — John only stuck around long enough to do a brief run-through of the song with them and see what their progress was like before he headed into the back and left them to Evan’s mercy, and Evan was a merciless taskmaster.
Rodney watched John disappear behind the wallhanging, which was a tapestry of the Lost City of Atlantis depicted in the traditional way, as described in the writings of Plato, with the concentric rings opening out to the ocean.
This time, John didn’t join them for their lunch break, citing a breakthrough on a musical instrument that had been giving him trouble, so Evan went with them instead.
“Did John learn how to do finicky spellwork on the self-playing instruments from his time as an Unspeakable?” Rodney asked as they headed to the Leaky Cauldron.
“Some, I think,” Evan said. “He doesn’t talk about it much, but I don’t blame him.”
“Oh? What makes you say that?” Rodney kept his tone deliberately light and winced at how fake it sounded.
Evan didn’t seem to notice, though.
Rather than sit at the bar, they sat at a table, and not-actually-Geri the witch brought them drinks, and they ordered, including a turkey sandwich for John to go, which didn’t seem particularly magical or British, but Rodney made no comment.
“Some Unspeakables are mostly spell nerds, and some are a bit more combat-oriented. I was more of the former, and John, as I understand it, was more of the latter,” Evan said.
“Oh?” Rodney asked again and winced again.
“My specialty with the Department of Mysteries was paintings, which is why I was able to develop the captures for the whimsies,” Evan said. “I still draw and paint for fun. Image-capture magic is complicated.”
Rodney arched an eyebrow. “So you’re close to magical televisions, then?”
Evan just stared at him.
Oh no. Had Rodney said something too outlandish? Had he broken the fourth wall? Would the VR system boot him out? Would the part of John’s mind that was controlling Evan realize something was wrong?
But Evan said, “No, not close, but it’s not a terrible comparison.”
“But you and John were both Unspeakables? That’s how you ended up opening the shop together?” Rodney asked.
“You’re really curious about John,” Ronon said.
Rodney cleared his throat. “Yesterday Teyla told me about her husband and son. Tell me about you, Evan. Since you were minding the shop yesterday.”
According to Geri, every detail was important. It was a good thing Rodney had a sharp memory, because after lunch, John cut him loose, and Rodney went to report to Geri and the rest of Team Rescue Sheppard.
“Hahaha, no,” Lorne said, halfway through Rodney’s report.
Today they were in the military command office while Lorne filled out requisition forms that, as temporary military commander of Atlantis, he could sign himself.
“Really? But John was right about everything about Teyla,” Rodney said. “She and Kanaan are whatever the Athosian equivalent of married is, and they’re happy, and they have a kid.”
“Well, Teyla’s one of your teammates, so it would make sense that he knows her better,” Lorne said. “But I’m not seeing anyone. I have no significant other. And if I did have a significant other, it certainly wouldn’t be Captain Laura Cadman.”
“Captain?” Rodney asked.
“She’s been promoted since the last time you saw her, first of all. Second of all, Beckett might have something to say about me going after his girl. Third of all, she’s not really my type.” Lorne swiped his stylus over the datapad with practiced ease.
“What’s your type?” Rodney asked.
Lorne looked up, flicked his glance over Woolsey, Geri, Ronon, and Teyla, then said, dryly, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“That’s not an answer,” Rodney said.
Woolsey said, “Of course not, Major. We have no desire to put you in a difficult position.”
Rodney caught on two seconds later. “Oh.”
“But everything else was accurate?” Geri asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Born and raised on a hippie commune in the Bay Area. Dad died before I was born. Raised by my mom and grandma and older sister. Mom’s an art teacher. Nan’s a chef. Sister’s a tattoo artist. I paint for fun. All that’s pretty common knowledge, though.” Lorne shrugged.
“Any details Colonel Sheppard might know that other people might not?” Geri asked.
Lorne’s hands slowed. “My dad served in Vietnam, an airman just like me. What he saw messed him up, and he killed himself before I was born. My mom always hated that I chose to serve. She was afraid I’d end up like him.”
“Both missing a parent. Uncommon commonality,” Geri murmured, making a note.
“His dad didn’t want him to serve either, I do know that much. He’s mentioned it in passing,” Lorne said.
“His dad wanted him to go to Harvard, but he rebelled and went to Stanford,” Ronon said.
“Stanford?” Rodney echoed.
“Really? I went to the Academy,” Lorne said.
Geri flipped through her notebook some more. “He went to CalTech for his masters.”
“Ah. I just went to Staff and Command.” Lorne nodded knowingly.
“Masters?” Rodney asked.
“Need a masters or its equivalent to make major,” Lorne said. “Colonel Carter being a doctor is above and beyond, especially since she made doctor around the time she made captain. But anyone who makes major? Is no joke.”
“I know John’s smarter than he lets on, that he plays dumb,” Rodney said. “And I know officers are college-educated, but —”
“You know the Air Force are the nerdy ones, right?” Lorne said. “To be a fighter pilot you need to know fairly advanced physics and mathematics. You need to be able to do some advanced calculations on the fly, although aerial combat is a lot more instinct and experience than math. The Marines make fun of us and call us the Chair Force for a reason.”
Woolsey cleared his throat. “We’re getting distracted again. What does it matter about Colonel Sheppard’s prior education?”
“The lives Colonel Sheppard has created for Major Lorne and his coworkers at the shop are significant.” Geri did that fascinating pen flip, studying her notes. “While he seems to have kept the important details about your childhoods and backgrounds, and he’s kept Teyla’s current circumstances, he’s given both of you happy families now, as it were. Both in love, both with full, happy lives outside the shop.”
“You mean boring heteronormativity,” Rodney snorted. “No offense, Teyla.”
“None taken,” she said.
“What about me?” Ronon asked.
“Didn’t have a chance to talk about it before John booted me out.” Rodney sighed.
“Try staying longer next time,” Geri said.
“How? Without looking like a creep and him battening down the hatches.”
“Try talking to Ronon, for one,” Lorne said. “You said yourself the shop isn’t terribly busy. You making a bit of conversation wouldn’t be a crime.”
“Make conversation? With Ronon?” Rodney looked at Ronon and raised his eyebrows.
Ronon also raised his eyebrows at Lorne.
“But you’re not rude when people ask you questions about your life on Sateda,” Lorne said.
Ronon conceded the point with a nod and a shrug.
“Does Sateda even exist in there?” Geri wondered.
Woolsey said, “Maybe try to find out.”
After three days of intense rehearsal, they’d made it to the end of the song to Evan’s satisfaction, so they could probably record what they needed to and all that would be left after that would be some minimal layering.
This time Ronon stayed behind to mind the shop, and everyone else went out to lunch.
Again, Rodney finagled a place at the bar beside John. “So, you’re American. How did you end up here?”
“Says the Canadian,” John drawled.
“Well, I’m an ex-pat,” Rodney said, because he’d had the sense to think up a cover story in advance.
“My mother’s English,” John said, and then took a sip of his coffee and added, “Got my magic from her. Stayed here after my parents split. Dad took my little brother and went back to the States.”
“You never picked up the accent?”
“Nah. Girls like the accent.” John grinned at not-Geri the barmaid, and she topped up his coffee and winked at him in a most un-Geri fashion.
“How’d you meet the others? Lorne — Evan said you two used to work together at the Ministry.” Rodney was glad he didn’t sound stiff and awkward. After this mission he was going to be a pro at small talk, for better or for ill.
“Teyla’s a talented singer. She came into the shop looking for an instrument, and I asked her for help with a whimsy, and when business picked up, I asked her to stay on. Ronon was with the Ministry, too. Different department, though. He was looking for something new after the War, and he liked the shop. Hung around so much he practically worked there. Figured I’d give the kid a job.”
“Cool,” Rodney said, and winced, because people their age didn’t say cool.
Then John cast Rodney a sidelong glance. “What about you?”
“Me?” Rodney echoed.
“For someone who’s basically just a temp worker for the whimsy projects, you’re awfully curious about my coworkers,” John said. His hazel eyes were narrow, gaze intense.
Rodney knew John was smart and observant, but John was also good at deflecting and disarming people with his wild hair and flirty smirk, and it was easy for Rodney to forget just how incisive and insightful John could be.
“Well —” Rodney floundered. “After working with them intensely for hours on end every day, I can’t help but be curious. Besides, it helps, getting to know them on a more personal level.”
“Helps?” John asked.
“I’m less likely to strangle Evan the next time he says ‘it has to be per- fect’ if I remember he has a nice mother and sister and cute nephews waiting for him,” Rodney said. “Laura, though. She’ll do just fine without him. She’s an intelligent, competent woman.”
That made John laugh, one of his weird donkey-bray laughs that was nevertheless kind of adorable. Rodney had missed hearing that laugh, and John didn’t laugh nearly often enough. “Point taken. Evan pays attention to detail, and I respect that. Some people are detail people and some people are big-picture people, and Evan is — well, Evan is both, but he’s better at the details than I am, and also he’s more patient than me, and the others get along with him.”
“Plus division of labor, right?” Rodney said. “You don’t have to rehearse the vocal part over and over again, and you have to work on the self-playing instruments anyway.”
“True,” John said. He sipped some more of his coffee. “You never answered my question though. What about you? What makes Meredith Rodney McKay tick? Why did you decide to audition to be the pianist for the whimsy project? What do you do with the rest of your day outside of the few hours you spend at the shop? Is there a Mrs. McKay? A little McKay?”
“Mrs. McKay was my mother, and we don’t talk,” Rodney said. “The other Mrs. McKay, my grandmother, was a fine woman. She had a grand piano at her house and I used it for practice growing up. I’m still disappointed my father didn’t inherit it, but then my father was a disappointment, so I wasn’t really surprised. As for me, when I’m not hanging around your store helping with music, I’m practicing music, and — who told you my first name was Meredith?”
John paused, his mug of coffee halfway to his mouth. Then he smirked. “No way the others would have kept that little detail from me.”
“First of all, Teyla would never have mocked my name,” Rodney said, and John conceded the point with a nod. “Ronon probably wouldn’t have either, due to cultural differences. And Evan — well, Evan might have, come to think of it.”
John kept on smirking, but Rodney saw uncertainty in his eyes. Had Rodney struck a chord? Was John realizing he knew more about Rodney than he ought? Was he realizing he knew Rodney, remembered him?
After lunch, they headed back to the shop. John disappeared into the back, but not before casting Rodney another strange look. Evan took up some kind of boring task that involved a quill and a massive tome that looked like a ledger, while Ronon and Teyla worked on a new display of instruments.
“Hey Ronon,” Rodney said, “you didn’t get to come to lunch with us today. We brought you roast and potatoes.”
He held out the specially charmed platter that would stay warm, though it had a silver cloche cover, mostly for appearances if the warming charm was actually effective.
Ronon glanced at Teyla.
She said, “Enjoy your lunch.”
Rodney nodded encouragingly.
Teyla added, “Rodney can assist me till you have finished.”
Rodney bit back a reflexive protest and instead said, “Don’t hurry on my account.”
Being Teyla’s assistant mostly involved holding things till she decided where they went, then helping her place them, and also hanging placards with descriptions of the instruments while she told him whether they were straight or not, and helping her with charms that allowed customers to hear brief samples of some of the songs spelled into the self-playing instruments.
“Otherwise it would be noisome chaos all day, if they could sample an entire song,” Teyla said. “I also add a few volume controls, to be safe.”
Rodney nodded. He glanced over his shoulder at Ronon, who seemed quite focused on his food. “So...Teyla is married and has a cute son. Evan has Laura. What about you, Ronon? Have anyone special in your life?”
“Melena,” Ronon said. “Mediwitch at St. Mungo’s.”
Rodney had never heard the name before. “Oh. That’s lovely. How long have you two been together?”
“You’ve been married seven years?”
“As good as.”
“Wow. Any, uh, any kids?”
Ronon shook his head and drank some mead.
Teyla said, “Melena volunteers at a home for children orphaned in the War. Ronon helps teach the children music, and Melena sees to their medical needs.”
Rodney looked at Ronon. “That’s very admirable.”
“Melena says music heals the mind. I’m no good at healing bodies.”
Rodney nodded. “Fair enough.”
And then Ronon said, “What about you?”
“When you’re not here,” Teyla said, “what do you do?”
“When I’m not here,” Rodney said, “I’m working on a way to help my best friend come home.”
“Your best friend?” Teyla furrowed her brow. “Are they all right?”
“He’s lost,” Rodney said. “I’m working on finding him. And music might be the key.”
“That’s why you came in here?” Ronon asked.
“I figured it out after I came in here and looked at that one whimsy,” Rodney said. “Now I come in here for inspiration while I work on the problem.”
“I hope you find the answer you are looking for,” Teyla said.
Ronon finished his meal, dusted off his hands, and tapped the platter with his wand. It — and the cover that had come with it — vanished, presumably back to the Leaky Cauldron. “I’ll help you finish.” He rose from the counter and crossed the shop.
Rodney said, “See you tomorrow.”
“Melena was a doctor in a hospital on Sateda,” Ronon said. “We were as good as married. She died in the culling. She refused to abandon her patients. She was trying to save a child.” Ronon was sitting on the balcony beside Lorne, who had been teaching him how to paint the New Lantean sunset, sort of Bob Ross style, but with fewer happy trees.
“Did Colonel Sheppard know this?” Geri asked, scribbling notes intently.
“I’d mentioned it to him.” Ronon looked — not discomfited, but solemn at the mention of the woman he’d loved and lost.
“Well, it sounds like Colonel Sheppard has created happy lives for everyone in there,” Geri said. “That has to mean something.”
“Boring contentment?” Rodney asked. “If everyone’s living happily ever after, why would he want to leave?”
“What about John?” Teyla asked. “Is he happy?”
“I don’t know,” Rodney said. “He said his parents had divorced. He didn’t say his mother was dead, so maybe she’s still alive in there? That has to make him happy, right? He’s rescued his mother. The War still happened, so it’s not all unicorns and puppies.”
“What’s a unicorn?” Ronon asked.
“One of the magical horses that stabs people with its horn and farts rainbows,” Teyla said wisely. “The ones with the rainbow hair and tails? Miko’s nieces send her drawings.”
Woolsey spluttered. “Who told you that?”
Geri raised her eyebrows, flipped to a different part of her notebook, scribbled a note, then flipped back to her original spot. “You’ve done well, Rodney. You’re getting closer. That you were able to have an extended conversation with John himself at lunch is a huge step. Keep on doing your best.”
Rodney threw his hands up. “It’s been almost a week! It can’t be healthy for him to just keep lying there.”
“The VR pod is a healing environment,” Keller said gently. “It won’t hurt him.”
“He’s basically in a coma.”
“Look, focus on your part and let Dr. Keller and the rest of the medical team focus on Colonel Sheppard’s vital signs,” Lorne said. “You need to remain calm so you don’t rush things and, I don’t know, scare Sheppard’s VR puppets in there.”
Rodney glared at him. “I’m doing my best! I know I’m not a very emotionally savvy or sentimental person, but I certainly don’t need to be harangued about being emotionally sincere and sensitive by a soldier.”
“Airman,” Lorne said, and took a breath. “I apologize. Look, Rodney, you’re one of Sheppard’s best friends. You’re not just his teammate. He’d die for you and kill for you like you’re one of us. You’ve never served, so you don’t really know what it means, except you do. You’d die for Sheppard, right? And you’d do some crazy stuff to save him. He knows that. So just — get in there and be you.”
Rodney stared at him. “Okay, as pep talks go that wasn’t that bad.”
Lorne said, “I was raised on a hippie commune by a bunch of women. I’m about as touchy-feely as it gets from a career military man, okay?”
Rodney nodded. Then he said, “If you were good friends with John, and I was the new guy, and you learned that my first name was Meredith, would you tell him? To have something to laugh about.”
Lorne shook his head. “Stones and glass houses.”
“Your name is Evan Lorne,” Rodney said. “That’s such a nice, ordinary boring name.”
“You did just hear me say I was raised on a hippie commune, right?”
“So my middle name is Bluebell.”
Rodney stared at him.
“Does Sheppard know that?”
“There’s not even a ‘B’ on my nameplate for any of my uniforms,” Lorne said.
“I knew your middle name,” Geri said.
“Because it’s in my medical files so you don’t mix me up with the other Evan Lorne who also went to the Academy and is a pilot,” Lorne said.
“Why? What’s up with him?” Rodney asked.
“Her,” Lorne said.
Rodney blinked. “Ah.”
“What made you ask that?” Geri asked.
“Something John said, was all.” Rodney shrugged. “Don’t think it’s pertinent to the mission, though.” He wasn’t going to tell Geri everything.
Rodney remembered the first time he’d stepped into Sheppard & Lorne’s a little less than a week ago and seen them recording for the whimsy for Johnny Cash’s Hurt. It was surreal in more ways than one to be working with them now.
Since the musicians had their performance down, they had to practice with John to make sure he could integrate smoothly into the performance and get used to him directing them, because Evan would have to be working the whimsy capture spell on top of everything else he’d be doing during the recording.
It felt like ages had passed since the last time Rodney had heard John sing. Did he really sound like this when he sang, out in the real world, his voice husky and a light baritone, just a bit too deep to really be a tenor, with enough grit in it to be strong and emotional, not too sweet and pop-like?
Rodney did his best to keep an eye on John’s wand while he sang — and for two seconds he had to resist the urge to laugh, because this was a serious moment, and he didn’t really like serious moments, and he’d rather laugh than cry, and how was Harry Potter not rife with terrible wand puns? Maybe it was; the Archivist would know — and keep time with the others, but he’d played with them so many times it was second nature. He didn’t have to think about time signatures, rhythms. They were a team. They were a unit. Their sound rose and built together, and John’s voice soared above the instruments, and Evan buttressed him with harmonies, and for all that it was just a run-through, it was intense.
Rodney felt goosebumps prickle along his skin at the chorus.
You’re losing your memory now
Because he’d lost his memory once, not just of who he was and where he was and the people around him, but of things that were fundamental to his identity, like his knowledge of how the universe worked (though his knowledge was constantly changing, expanding and growing, because he was on Atlantis, and Atlantis was amazing).
The song ended, and John flicked his wand with a flourish, and they all ended their notes at once.
“Good.” John nodded at Evan. “You’ve trained them well.”
“We worked damn hard,” Rodney said, “and he’s a demonic taskmaster.”
“Not demonic,” Evan said. “I just have high standards.”
“Whatever, Bluebell,” Rodney retorted.
Evan’s eyes went wide. “Who told you that? And you have no room to talk, Meredith.”
Teyla smiled and patted first Evan on the arm, then Rodney. “You both did well. We all did well. Do we need to run through further, or no?”
John said, “A few more times, just to make sure everyone is focused on me and not Evan, because his wand-waving during recording will not be related to time-keeping in any way, and I don’t want us getting distracted.”
“I’ll angle myself so you all can’t see me. That should help.” Evan flicked his wand, and his music stand levitated, as did his violin stand.
He and Ronon shuffled so everyone was facing John, but then Evan had to adjust the stand with the glass globe on it where the whimsy would be stored.
“Twice more,” John said, “to be sure but not overdo it, and then we’ll take a break and then record after that.”
Rodney nodded as well. “Aye aye, Colonel.”
John arched an eyebrow. “Most people say captain.”
“You deserve a better rank than a mere captain,” Rodney said quickly, wincing at the gaffe, but John was Colonel Sheppard and Rodney wasn’t about to betray that; John had earned that with blood and sweat, if not tears.
“What am I, chopped liver?” Evan asked.
“Major,” Rodney said magnanimously.
“And what are you?” John asked.
“Doctor,” Rodney said.
“You heal people?” Teyla asked.
“I have my PhD. Two of them,” Rodney said.
John looked intrigued for a moment, and Rodney thought he saw recognition glimmer in John’s eyes, but then John was tapping his music stand with his wand, and Rodney settled his hands on the piano keys.
John began to sing again,
You’re losing your memory
Rodney was suddenly struck with the notion that this song wasn’t about him, wasn’t about Second Childhood, but was about John. John was crying out for help. John was losing his memory. Losing his memory of what? Was he asking for Rodney’s help remembering?
Rodney did his best to listen to John’s voice, to the emotion he was pouring out. It was almost uncanny, to hear John being so emotional when in the real world John was a spiky defensive smirk and bright eyes and a brisk stride and a black wristband and a uniform and a gun.
This VR environment was John’s subconscious. Rodney could learn anything about John in here, right?
Anything and everything. If only he could figure out what John was trying to say.
I would have died
I would loved you all my life
What had John been willing to die for?
Who would John have loved all his life?
Rodney thought of this mysterious ex-wife whom he’d never heard of before, the woman who was the mother of the son John had never been able to hold in his arms.
Rodney thought of Teyla, who was happy with her family, and Evan who was happily married, and Ronon who was almost-married and spent his spare time being kind to children.
Rodney thought of how in this strange little universe John had lost his father and brother but saved his mother, and after the War he’d turned to music.
Rodney knew John played the guitar. Rodney had told Carter about playing the piano, and of course he’d told John about the time he’d won a Sears Drama Award when he was twelve, but before this mission to rescue John, when was the last time he’d touched piano keys?
He couldn’t remember.
Had he mentioned playing the piano when he was losing his memory to Second Childhood? Was it one of the things he’d been afraid of losing, because despite not playing for years, he’d still cared about music, the beauty it represented, and the challenge, and the serenity of it even when it was fiercely difficult?
Remember the day
’Cause this is what dreams should always be
I just want to stay
I just want to keep this dream in me
What did John dream of?
John dreamed of this world.
Maybe it was Rodney who’d lost his memory after all. What did Rodney dream of, besides maybe getting a Nobel Prize someday?
These days Rodney dreamed of this damn song and getting the notes right on the piano, making sure his hands were flawless on the keys so he could listen to John sing and stay in time with the others and build a song, be as confident and calm with this team in this strange magical music shop as he was with his real team walking across an alien planet.
And then the song was over, and John said,
“We’ve got this. Let’s take a break, stretch our legs, wet our throats, and come back and do it just like that.”
He was grinning like an eager kid, like he did when he’d won an RC car race, and Rodney’s chest ached with missing his best friend.
But he rose up and closed the lid on the piano keys, and he said, “Want to go get a cup of coffee, you and me?”
“Go to Rosa Lee Teabag and bring back some Athosian brew for me, please,” Teyla said.
John nodded. To Rodney he said, “You can help me bring drinks for everyone.”
The door opened, and a couple of girls stepped into the shop, one tall and slender, her dark hair tinged blue, her eyes an uncanny shade of blue. There was something lupine in her smile as she threw back her hood, but then she was looking at Ronon, and she said,
“Do you have a gayageum? One that has a pre-spelled Butterfly song would be ideal. I’m trying to teach my little brother to play. He loves the Butterfly song, and I’d like it as a guide.”
“Honey tea for me,” Ronon said, and then nodded to the girl. “We have a gayageum over here.”
The other girl was shorter, with broader features but a very sweet smile and a curious silver ornament in her swept up-hair. Her robes were pure white with clouds embroidered at the cuffs and hem.
She addressed Ronon politely. “Also, do you carry guqin strings? Some of mine broke when I was out on a recent night hunt.”
Rodney and John headed for the door.
“You’re a really good singer,” Rodney said.
“Don’t sound too surprised.” John kept pace with Rodney, but then they’d walked the halls of Atlantis for over half a decade together, didn’t need to think too hard to fall into step together.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. Just — you sound really good. I like your voice.” Rodney offered John a tentative smile.
“Well, thanks. You’re a pretty good pianist. When you broke out that Rimsky-Korsakov, I thought something like Ryan Star might be beneath you, but you’ve been patient, and honestly you’ve performed really well.” John glanced at him.
“Well, thanks,” Rodney said, and John rolled his eyes at Rodney parroting his tone, but he didn’t seem offended.
Rodney added, “You have interesting taste in music.”
“You mean muggle taste in music,” John drawled.
“I’m not judging. I am the one who played Rimsky-Korsakov.”
“My dad’s a muggle, and my younger brother was never particularly strong, magically. When I got a Hogwarts letter and Dave didn’t, it was kind of a breaking point in my parents’ marriage. Mom was up front with Dad about being a witch, but living in America, she was an immigrant, and I think he thought some of her quirks were cultural and not magical and quite as significant as they were, but when we moved back here and I started school and came to Diagon Alley for the first time, it really hit him. And then there was the rise of the Death Eaters, and — I don’t blame Dad for bailing. Muggles don’t have any way of defending themselves against magic. It can be terrifying.” John shrugged.
John in the real world never would have been so free with his life story, but Rodney listened intently, nodding.
“Understandably, but it still must have been hard for you and your mother.”
“I was the man of the house, and I took care of us, plus Mom was a pretty savvy witch. I got a lot of my talent from her, not just strong magic,” John said.
Was, he’d said. So he hadn’t saved her in this universe.
“What does Mrs. Sheppard think of her?” Rodney asked carefully. “Did they ever have a chance to meet?”
“What? You mean —? Oh, no. I never married. It never worked out for me. Not really my area, as they say.” John affected a bit of a British accent, but Rodney didn’t quite catch the reference.
Rodney’s heart sank. So John had imagined happy families and lives for everyone but himself. Why?
“It’s not like you have a Mrs. McKay. You understand the bachelor life.”
“I do,” Rodney said. “Work comes first.”
Rosa Lee Teabag’s had a broad multi-paned shopfront set in dark wood. John pushed open the door and gestured for Rodney to go first. A girl who looked like she was straight out of Alice in Wonderland the Disney cartoon stood at a large antique brass cash register behind the counter. Several more boys and girls were waving their wands at teapots and coffee pots. One boy in an apron came skittering by, waving his wand at a tray laden with tea cakes, shouting, “Hot! Hot! Coming through!”
The girl behind the counter smiled and beamed at John and said, in a distinctly non-female voice, “Welcome to Rosa Lee’s! The usual for the crew at Sheppard & Lorne’s?”
“Yes, thank you, Chittaphon, and also a coffee for my friend here.”
Not-Alice raised his eyebrows.
Rodney jerked a thumb at himself. “Coffee, please. Three sugars and a cream.”
“Excellent. Order for Sheppard & Lorne’s coming right up.”
“How much?” Rodney asked.
“I’ve got it,” John said.
“Are you sure?” Rodney asked.
John flipped a gold Galleon over the counter like a cowboy in a card game at a saloon. Not-Alice caught it mid-air, tapped at the cash register with one hand, popped the coin in, dug out some change, and tossed it to John, who also caught it mid-air.
It was clearly some kind of familiar game to them.
“What?” John asked. “We were both our house seekers back in the day.”
“You have quick hands,” was all Rodney said.
Not-Alice turned and called out to the boys and girls supervising the teapots, and then he handed John a little silver tea-tray and a pair of tongs, and John led Rodney along the counter to where a selection of tiny, artfully-made pastries was on display.
John selected something that looked like a rose, something that looked like a small wrapped gift, something that looked like a chocolate truffle, and something that looked like a sugar mouse, then held the tongs out to Rodney.
“What do you want?”
“Obviously something citrus-free.”
Rodney considered the selections. “What are they? They look like art, not food.”
“They’re both.” The boy behind the counter had silver hair, impossibly blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles.
“What’s good?” Rodney asked finally.
“Depends on what you’re in the mood for.”
“Always chocolate,” Rodney said.
The boy smiled. “Then I recommend one of the dream truffles,” the boy said, and pointed to what looked like a row of tiny soda bottles, all of them in a rainbow of colors, none of them remotely chocolate-colored.
“What makes them dream truffles?” Rodney asked.
The boy winked and said, “Eat one and have good dreams.”
“What do the different colors mean? Different flavors?”
“Of dreams,” the boy said.
Someone in the back shouted, “Oy, Felix! Get in here! Chris is about to burn the chocolate!”
And the boy dashed away.
Rodney took a deep breath and selected a blue bottle, because it was bright and cheery and reminded him of the color of Ancient tech and also he was a scientist and blue was his color, and he placed it carefully on the tray.
John raised his eyebrows. “You’re brave.”
“Brave?” Rodney echoed. “Why?”
“The blue is a bold flavor.”
Rodney looked down at the little blue bottle. “But it’s chocolate. Isn’t it? He said it was a truffle. Right?”
“Yeah, but it’s a dream truffle.” John waggled his eyebrows.
A pretty girl with soft pink hair — although on second glance she might not have been a girl at all, might have been a pretty long-haired boy in a dress — placed several lidded mugs on John’s tray. The mugs were ceramic, looked like little cauldrons with handles and were sort of cute, if one were into that whole cute witchy aesthetic, which Rodney most certainly was not.
He’d been spending too long in this VR Harry Potter world. John was going to be slightly insane when he got out. Geri would have to deprogram him or something to turn him back into a real muggle.
“The way you said that makes me think I just helped myself to the confectionary equivalent of a magic mushroom,” Rodney said.
He held the door open for John, who nodded his farewells to not-Alice, whose actual name Rodney had no hope of remembering, and together they headed back down the street.
“Relax,” John said. “It’s like one of the Weasley daydream potions, only it kicks in after you fall asleep.”
“So you’ve had one?” Rodney asked.
Rodney almost asked what John had dreamt about, but then he stopped himself, because even though VR John was more open and honest and chatty than IRL John, there were some lines Rodney wouldn’t try to make him cross. John was Rodney’s friend, and while Rodney wanted to save John, he didn’t want to betray his confidences either.
Although by telling Geri everything that went on in here, was he betraying John anyway?
“I don’t usually remember my dreams,” Rodney admitted. And then he sang, a little hesitantly, “I just want to stay, I just want to keep this dream in me.”
“What does the great Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD, dream of?” John asked. “Not necessarily when he’s asleep, but — what does he dream of for himself?”
Rodney glanced at John, then looked away. “I dream of saving my best friend.”
John looked at him sharply. “Your best friend? What happened to him?”
Rodney said, “He’s lost, and he doesn’t know he’s lost, and he doesn’t know he needs to be found.”
John looked away. “How do you think you can find him?”
“I’m hoping if I play the right song he’ll hear it and come home.”
“How will you know when you’ve found the right song?”
“When he comes home.”
John looked at him again, for a very long time, and then they reached Sheppard & Lorne’s, and Rodney opened the door for him.
Teyla thanked them for the tea, and she was delighted to see the extra little treats.
At the mention of treats, Evan came to see the tray, and when he lifted the lid off of his little cauldron mug, he grinned, bright and dimpled.
“Mmm. Chrysanthemum honey tea. Only the best for this voice.”
“As if you’re the best singer we have,” Ronon grumbled, and he shouldered his way past them to grab the treat that looked like a wrapped gift. He ate it in one bite and then chugged the contents of his mug, which smelled like cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves.
Teyla sipped at her tea delicately and nibbled at her sugar mouse.
Evan savored his chocolate truffle. “Ah, Felix my boy, I’ve taught you so well.”
Rodney stared at the little blue soda bottle. “John made all kinds of innuendo about this and now I’m afraid to eat it.”
“John,” Teyla said disapprovingly.
John shrugged and smiled innocently.
“The chocolate is smooth and quite delicious,” Teyla said. “And it contains a potion that will give you pleasant dreams.”
Rodney remembered, belatedly, that none of this food was real, so he popped the little treat into his mouth, and — it certainly tasted real. Teyla hadn’t been exaggerating about the texture and flavor of the chocolate. Rodney hummed happily, savoring the tiny morsel, and closed his eyes. If there was a potion in the truffle, it was undetectable. All Rodney could taste was the smoothness and sweetness and rich cocoa flavor of the truffle, plus something dark and smoky. He hummed again, licking his lips to make sure he didn’t waste any of it.
When he opened his eyes, John was staring at him.
Rodney blinked. “Do I have something on my face?”
“What?” John coughed. “Oh. No. Drink your coffee and, uh, we’ll get this recording nailed down so the others can record their layers.”
Rodney nodded. “All right.” He scooped up the cauldron mug, pleased with how its round shape fit in his hands, and eased the lid off.
It smelled just like the coffee from the labs in Atlantis, the homegrown kind that Parrish and Kiang and Kim had managed to cultivate off of a sample Parrish had found on a local Pegasus planet, and it had been brewed just how Rodney liked it.
He drank slowly but steadily, feeling warm and happy.
He noticed, over the rim of his mug, John still watching him.
Right. John wanted to get to recording. Recording this whimsy could be an important step toward John waking up.
Rodney finished his coffee quickly, wincing because he burned the roof of his mouth a tiny bit, and then assumed his place at the piano.
Had it really only been a week ago that he’d walked into this place and seen Evan doing what he was doing now, waving his wand and somehow capturing sound and turning it into light and motion, placing it into the crystal paperweight he’d made himself, making it available for replay?
Rodney sank into the music, lost himself in the sound and the sway of John’s wand as it kept them together in time and pace and volume and dynamics, and then —
Then the song was over, and they’d all done their part.
“Now for the layers,” Evan said, and John cast a spell, and the recording started to play back.
Rodney could only watch, entranced, as half-formed images danced in the air above the glass paperweight while John played the violin and Ronon played the timps, Evan capturing the sound and weaving it together further.
And finally, finally it was done.
John scooped up the whimsy and rushed it into the back, muttering spells and waving his wand as he went.
“Now we need lunch,” Evan said. “I’ll run down to the Leaky Cauldron for food. The usual, everyone?”
“Sure,” Rodney said, only did he have a usual?
But the others answered in the affirmative, and Evan was out the door.
Ronon asked Teyla and Rodney to help him clear a space to eat. Rodney didn’t actually know much about Harry Potter magic, so he just fished his wand out of the sleeve of his robe and muttered under his breath and waved it around, and sure enough, the instruments and music stands returned to their rightful places — they were all display pieces only, on account of being used so often — and a low round card table shuffled into the middle of the shop floor instead, along with several mismatched wooden chairs. Five of them, enough for all of them.
John returned, breathing hard like he’d just run a race. “I’ll have to adjust that one as well, but we did good. Really good.”
“How’s the other one coming along?” Rodney asked.
John raised his eyebrows.
“The one you were working on when I first came into the shop. The Johnny Cash version of Hurt.”
“It’s finished,” John said.
“Really? Can I see it?” Rodney asked. “After lunch.”
John nodded. “Sure.”
Rodney didn’t miss the way Ronon and Teyla exchanged looks.
“Cool. I was really curious because I walked in on it and all,” Rodney said. “And the other one I looked at, that Teyla let me see, it was really intense.” He cleared his throat. “How many of them have you made and sold? Have you picked the songs for all of them?”
“Most of them have been mine,” John admitted. “We’ve only sold a couple so far.”
“The customers who purchased them did appreciate them very much and came back in to tell us so,” Teyla said.
“Grand Optimist is Evan’s,” John said.
“Firestruck is mine,” Teyla said.
“Lighthouse is mine,” Ronon said.
Rodney made a mental note. “Cool.”
“I Could Live With Dying Tonight is my choice but Teyla did the vocals for it,” John said.
Evan returned with several covered trays of food floating behind him, and the others gathered around to eat and enjoy.
“What kind of music do you like?” John asked Rodney. “If you were to make a whimsy, what kind of song would you pick?”
“Since I mostly prefer classical music, I don’t know,” Rodney admitted.
“Well, if you think of something, let us know,” John said.
Rodney nodded. “How many instruments do you play?”
“He can play everything in the shop, to one degree or another,” Teyla said. “He is most competent at the guitar, however. He is quite skilled at the violin, of course.”
“Teyla is a skilled musician at multiple instruments herself,” John said.
Before the conversation could devolve into a compliment battle, Rodney asked another question. “The whimsies. When people look at them. Do they only see their own memories, or do they also see ours? Are parts of us captured in there? I mean, I only saw my own memories when I looked at Existentialism on Prom Night, but what if someone had never gone to prom or anything like it?”
“Our emotion and music is captured in there, but no, they have no way of accessing our memories,” Evan said. “The spells are quite complex. It’s difficult to explain.”
“What happens if two people watch one together?” Rodney asked.
“Then the whimsy would draw from both of them,” Evan said, “but unless they were two people who knew each other well, the images they saw of each other wouldn’t have much impact because they wouldn’t have emotional and historical context for the other person’s images.”
That made sense. Rodney eyed the others some more. “Have any of you ever watched them together?”
Evan and John glanced at each other, and then Evan shook his head. “No. John’s spellwork is solid. When he watches one, he’s checking for gaps in my spellwork, and I’m checking for gaps in his, and Ronon and Teyla check for flaws in the arrangement and musicality. Even though multiple people could watch a whimsy together, I wouldn’t recommend it. We just take turns before we put one up for sale.”
Rodney nodded. “Has anyone tried to steal one?”
Ronon shook his head. “Who’d dare?”
“We have excellent security in the shop,” Teyla said, and Rodney thought she didn’t just mean Ronon’s imposing figure, and Rodney wondered what Ronon had done before the war and just how formidable he was magically.
“They’re really expensive, though, aren’t they?” Rodney asked.
“They are,” John said, “but they’re kind of a niche item, and not exactly popular or collectible. And like the lady said, we have excellent security.”
As it turned out, Rodney did have a usual, which was Salisbury steak, just like it tasted in the mess hall. John had a turkey sandwich, and Ronon had a roast, and Teyla had pumpkin soup and a roll, and Evan — he didn’t have a usual. He was a self-declared foodie, and he tried something new all the time. He and Tom had a bit of an arrangement going, where he’d try different recipes and send feedback, and he received a bit of a discount on account of being Tom’s guinea pig.
“So, can I see the whimsy you just finished?” Rodney asked John. “I’m curious. And also — also I might have a song I might want to propose as a project, and I’d like to see another to get a feel for how they really work, so.”
John nodded. “Okay.” He headed into the back.
Evan flicked his wand and banished the dishes back to the Leaky Cauldron.
John reappeared with the glass globe in hand. Rodney hadn’t been able to get a good look at Losing Your Memory to see what the inside looked like once the music had been captured inside of it. When they’d begun recording, it had been a plain glass paperweight. Hurt was black but filled with a spiral of color, gold and red and green and the faintest hints of blue — all the colors of uniform patches on Atlantis.
“You know how these work?” John asked.
Rodney almost said, Teyla showed me how, but then he said, “Could you give me a refresher?”
John nodded and led Rodney to one of the viewing booths. They crammed into the booth that was still upholstered, bafflingly, in crushed velvet. John placed the glass ball on the pedestal.
“The spell is Cantate. The wand motion is —”
“Stay and watch it with me,” Rodney said. “I’m curious. It’s for science.”
John stared at him. “For science.”
“Yes,” Rodney said.
“You heard what Evan said before.” John’s expression turned not quite blank, but closed off. Rodney knew that expression all too well. “We’d see each other’s memories, and they wouldn’t make sense in combination.”
“I’m curious about the percentages, though. Would it be a full fifty-fifty? Would the person who cast the spell provide the majority of the memories? Would we have to cast the spell together? Since you recorded the song and have more emotion invested in it, would your memories be stronger? Would my general familiarity with the song give my memories some strength?”
John stared at him. “It really is science for you.”
“Like I said, I want to rescue my best friend, and I think music is the key, and I’m exploring all my options.”
“Your best friend,” John echoed.
“Must be some best friend.”
Rodney said, “I’d die for him.”
John arched an eyebrow. “That’s intense.”
“Science is much less extreme.” Rodney cleared his throat. “I realize you know nothing about my best friend, but he’s intelligent and brave and also very — very handsome. And sometimes funny, and he has an annoying laugh, kind of like a donkey braying, and he never notices when people are flirting with him, which usually results in him either getting seduced or causing an incident with the locals. Also he has a twelve-year-old’s sense of humor, and he’s obsessed with video games and remote-control cars, and I swear he cheats at both video games and RC car races, but I don’t care if he cheats. I just want him back.”
John stared at him for a long time. Finally he said, “Well, if someone missed me half as much as you miss your best friend — all right. For science.”
“Let’s cast the spell together, to be safe. Try to get it as close to fifty-fifty as possible,” Rodney said.
John nodded. “After three. One, two, three.”
Acoustic guitar chords filled the little room, and Rodney knew John must have played them. Ronon’s voice joined in after several iterations of the riff.
I hurt myself today to see if I still feel
The first images unfolded of John, wearing wizarding robes, sitting in a dark corner of the Leaky Cauldron, drinking out of a massive tankard.
The next image was of Rodney in his Atlantis uniform, slumped over one of the communal keyboards, hammering away at Sergeant Shin’s song over and over again.
“Looks like it’s fifty-fifty so far,” John said, his voice flat and dispassionate.
Rodney glanced at him. So the whimsy was drawing on his fake memories. Had he noticed that Rodney’s clothes were muggle? They’d never discussed whether Rodney was a pureblood or not.
But then the next verse started, and with it, a whole new slew of images.
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
Rodney’s heart started to pound. It was their most recent mission, the one where John had been injured, the reason he’d been put into the VR healing machine in the first place.
Rodney saw himself, Ronon, Teyla, and John, all in their Atlantis uniforms, walking across M6R-223 after what they’d thought was a successful trade negotiation. Ronon had his weapon in hand but was laughing with Teyla about how the daughter of the locals’ chieftain had been enamored with John and his wildly spiky hair and John, in his usual flirt-blindness, had led her on by letting her touch his hair and almost gotten himself married off. Teyla, also with weapon in hand, had done her best to be diplomatic and charitable about John’s ignorance to basic social cues, but she had a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Rodney saw himself, LSD in hand, checking for any stray and tempting energy readings, unamused.
John in the listening booth with him said, “Seems like it’s swinging away from fifty-fifty and mostly to me.” His voice was strained.
“What?” Rodney turned to him, startled. “I was going to say the same except it’s swinging toward me.”
John’s face was pale, and he was watching the images dancing above them. They were the same images Rodney was seeing, only —
Only the team wasn’t marching across an alien planet. The setting suddenly switched to a street that looked like Diagon Alley but wasn’t quite, was somewhere else in Wizarding England. And the team was wearing wizarding robes. And the team was Evan and Ronon and Cadman and not Rodney but someone who looked vaguely like him, if Rodney squinted.
What the hell?
Rodney could see the images were playing out the same way, only one set overlaid the other, and they wavered between wizarding and muggle.
I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar's chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Rodney watched as their march was interrupted by the pit trap. John and Rodney fell in — or John and that weird not-Rodney. The other two peered in from the top, panicking. Some kind of laser trap triggered and covered the top, so the other two couldn’t reach in and help them out. There’d been discussion of Ronon jumping down and hoisting them out, but that wasn’t an option anymore. John tried to touch the shining grid and yelped, yanked his hand back. His skin was red where the green light had touched him.
Electric field, John in Rodney’s memory said.
Spell ward, John in John’s memory said.
How do we get out? Rodney in Rodney’s memory asked, the strange anonymous stranger in John’s memory asked.
Rodney’s heart pounded. Why was this memory tied to this song? When Rodney had watched Existentialism on Prom Night, it had drawn on multiple memories and created a broad sense of emotion. Why was this song tied to this specific memory for both of them? And why was John’s sense of the memory so altered?
Rodney watched as blue light from Ancient tech flared, because they both had the Gene. Neither of them knew who’d triggered it. Both of them had figured out close to the same time, John a hair faster, that the lights flashing on the wall were a countdown. A countdown to what, neither of them knew, but it couldn’t be something good.
For a moment, Rodney was swamped with the ghost of the panic as his mind raced to figure out what the countdown was for.
It was Rodney who figured it out first, from the panel that swung open on the wall. John knew math, but Rodney knew electrical engineering. A bomb was about to go off. He was the one who figured out the blast. He tried to shove John out of the way. John tried to shove him out of the way.
Around them, the music built and built, piano chords layered under the guitar riff.
What have I become
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
Rodney slammed into John and took some of the blast. In John’s memory, John hung onto his not-Rodney teammate and tried to push him, and he caught some of the blast.
Above them, their other teammates shouted.
Rodney’s heart raced. He had no real clear memory of this, mostly knew it from the others’ telling, but now he was flooded with adrenaline and panic. He had to save John. He had to.
Memory-Rodney crawled for the engineering panel. His skin was blackened and charred.
Revulsion swept over Rodney at the memory, and he felt his breath come faster, his heart racing. When he glanced at John, John’s expression was stony, but his hands were curled into white-knuckled fists on his knees.
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
The blast wavered but didn’t fade. Memory-Rodney slumped to the ground. The image wavered, and wizarding-John, also covered in burns, his robes smoking, managed to crawl to his feet and wave his wand, and the blast finally went out.
The laser grid vanished.
Ronon dropped into the pit and scooped Rodney into his arms.
Rodney had no memory of what came next.
He saw himself sitting beside John’s healing pod in the infirmary, waiting for John to wake up.
He saw John sitting beside not-Rodney’s cot in an unfamiliar, medieval-looking stone-walled room. Not-Rodney was utterly still, burn-scarred. A woman in a nun-like outfit was shaking her head, expression sympathetic.
The music built, instruments crescendoing, the piano chords hammering beneath the stark guitar chords strumming, and Rodney was swept up in his own emotions, his frustration at himself for not figuring out how to get John how to wake up, and also just missing John.
If I could start again
A million miles away
And then the instruments dropped away, and it was just Ronon’s voice.
In the memory-images, rage flared in John’s eyes for a moment, but then he nodded, stood, and walked away.
I will keep myself
I would find a way
The song ended, and the images vanished.
John was breathing hard. “Well? Was that useful? For science?” He didn’t look at Rodney.
Rodney turned to face him. “John? Is that what you think happened? That I didn’t wake up? John?”
John threw open the listening booth door. “We’re done with the whimsy project. Thanks for your hard work. Teyla will contact you if we need your service again.” And he was gone.
Rodney ran after him, but John vanished into the back.
Rodney tried to follow and ran up against an invisible wall. Some kind of ward. Dammit. He didn’t know enough about the Harry Potter world to be able to manipulate the environment to get himself past it.
“You should go now,” Teyla said, her tone polite but firm.
Evan’s expression was sympathetic.
“Please,” Rodney said. “I need to talk to him. He’s got it all wrong. I’m fine. He can wake up now.”
“You should go now,” Teyla said again.
Rodney took a deep breath. Yes. Yes he should. He had to talk to the others. He turned and dashed out the door.
“He thinks I’m dying or dead or comatose or something.” Rodney paced a trench beside John’s healing pod. “And so he’s trapped himself in there. It was in the lyrics of the damn song. If I could start again a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way and — and I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”
Geri scribbled notes furiously. “It’s a defense mechanism, we knew that much.”
“But he doesn’t remember me,” Rodney said. “He’s imagined up some other team for himself, and some random no-face was in my place. And now he refuses to see me. He’s battened down the hatches tighter than a nun’s habit, so I’m probably never going to be able to see him again.”
“But he helped you,” Teyla said. “When you spoke of wanting to help your friend. He sensed your sincerity when you wanted to help your friend and he watched the magical musical device with you even though it would be a difficult experience for him. Your sincerity reached him.”
“And pushed him away. Dammit!” Rodney threw his hands up.
“Music,” Ronon said.
“That’s what helped me figure out why he’s still trapped in there, and what chased him further in there,” Rodney said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
“John said you could make a whimsy of your own,” Ronon said. “Make one. Show it to him.”
“His mind will just warp it.” Rodney dragged a hand through his hair.
Geri flipped her pen expertly several times and made one of those noncommittal doctor humming noises. Rodney wanted to shake her.
She said, “You said his memory was the same as yours note-for-note except he’d replaced you with some not-you and reshuffled the team so it was Cadman and Ronon and not-you instead of Teyla and Ronon and you.”
“If you create one of these magical music boxes for him —”
“They’re called whimsies,” Rodney said.
Geri arched an eyebrow at him.
Right. There was no such thing.
Rodney gestured for her to continue.
“If you create a whimsy for him,” Geri said, “perhaps the memories it triggers in him will be real enough to get through to him and wake him up.”
“Or shut him down further,” Rodney said. He turned to Keller. “What if you just pull the plug on him?”
She shook her head. “No. His consciousness would be trapped in there. That’s not an option at all. Dr. Kusanagi is helping Dr. Naoe and Dr. Tsukiyono try to hack the system, as it were, treat Sheppard’s consciousness like a computer program and isolate it, but it’s a long shot.” She bit her lip. “There’s still so much we don’t know about Ancient tech.”
“You can’t give up on Sheppard,” Ronon said.
“I’m not giving up on him,” Rodney snapped.
Teyla said, “The versions of myself, Ronon, and Major Lorne are also part of John’s mind, are they not? Even if the version of John himself refuses contact with you, part of him is still willing to have contact with you. You can still speak to him and communicate to him through them. They are his team as we are his team.”
“She’s right,” Geri said.
Lorne said, “Sheppard wouldn’t give up on you. You won’t give up on him, will you?”
Rodney stared at him. “You’re right.” He started toward the other pod.
“You’re gonna do it?” Ronon asked.
Rodney climbed into the second healing pod. “Yeah. I’m gonna do it.”
“It is a good plan,” Teyla said.
“Got a song picked out?” Geri asked.
Rodney nodded. “I do.”
Teyla’s expression was apologetic when Rodney swept into the music shop. “John is not seeing anyone today, not customers or visitors.”
“That’s fine, because I’m actually here for the rest of you,” Rodney said.
Evan raised his eyebrows.
Rodney cleared his throat. “I realized that what happened last time was — upsetting. And I respect that. I don’t plan on pestering John. He’ll talk to me when he’s ready. But my best friend is still lost, and I still need help guiding him home, so. I’ve come to the rest of you for help.”
“Us?” Ronon crossed his arms over his chest and managed to look skeptical and threatening all at once.
“You said John let you work on whimsies of your own, right? That you could audition a song and make one into a whimsy if it was sufficiently magically and emotionally evocative, right?” Rodney plunked down a bag on the counter. It landed with a heavy, metallic sound. “I want to commission a whimsy of my own. A thousand galleons up front, another thousand when it’s done.”
Teyla’s eyes went wide. “But Rodney, that is easily four times the cost of a regular whimsy.”
“Well, this is a custom job, and I’m paying you for your time and effort above and beyond your duties at the shop. I know the whimsies you make are as part of your employment at the shop. This is a side job, so you should get paid extra. And I want to guarantee that this whimsy gets made. So I’m buying a guarantee.” Rodney nudged the bag a fraction of a centimeter across the counter toward Teyla; because it was heavily laden, it didn’t move far.
Where this world wasn’t real, Rodney could imagine up as much money as he wanted.
“You’re not working right now,” Evan said, staring at the bag of money like it might turn into a snake and lunge at him. “At least, not full-time. What John paid you for your time on the whimsy project wasn’t much. How can you afford this?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rodney said. “My best friend is worth every penny. Knut. Whatever.”
Ronon studied him for a long moment, the aggression melting out of his expression. Finally he said, “Let’s hear this song.”
Rodney said, “I’m not a good singer.” But he sat down at the piano, lifted the cover off the keys, and rolled his wrists.
For all that Sergeant Shin’s song had seemed silly and awkward, it made sense to Rodney now, and he knew it by heart, so he began to play, and he began to sing.
Losing me is better than losing you
When the song ended, he yanked his hands off the keys and twisted around and looked up at the other three.
“You aren’t a good singer,” Ronon said.
Teyla said, “You care for your best friend a great deal. We will help you as best as we can.”
Evan nodded his agreement. Where Ronon didn’t voice an objection, Rodney figured that was consensus enough, and hope rose in his chest. These were avatars, extensions of John. They were listening to him.
“Did you have thoughts about the arrangement?” Evan asked.
“Since it’s just the four of us, pretty simple. Mostly piano-driven, maybe a really basic beat starting on the second verse, and some strings, staccato and plucked at the end for some drama,” Rodney said, doing his best to recall what he could of the fancy produced version that Sergeant Shin had emailed to him.
“Male or female voice?” Evan flicked his wand, and a quill and parchment appeared midair, began taking notes.
“Male,” Rodney said. “Probably you more than Ronon, since it’s a softer song. A bit sweeter on the vocals.”
“Surprising, given how dramatic the vocals are,” Evan murmured.
“Well, the original artist is a male, so.” Rodney shrugged.
“You didn’t write this?” Ronon asked.
“I’m a pianist, not a songwriter,” Rodney said. “But the lyrics are apropos, so. It’s the song that I want.”
“Could a woman sing the song? Given that Teyla has more vocal flexibility and range than me?” Evan asked.
Rodney considered. “Hm. Where a man would need to make it lighter and sweeter, if you could make it deeper, that would work.”
“We can both try it,” Evan said, and Teyla nodded.
“If you could give us music and lyrics to work from?” Teyla asked.
Rodney nodded, snapped his fingers. Evan handed him parchment and a quill.
If Rodney took his time writing out two copies of the lyrics, then the chord notations over the top even though he knew full well that a duplication spell existed in the Harry Potter universe, well, maybe there was a chance John would come up front for a coffee break.
But he didn’t, and then Rodney was finished writing down what he could of the song.
“I’ll see you here first thing tomorrow, like before?” he asked.
The other three nodded.
Rodney cast a glance at the wall hanging, but it didn’t even twitch, so he swept out of the music shop and down the street toward the entrance to Diagon Alley and the portal to actual reality.
“Well?” Geri asked, appearing above Rodney, upside down.
He yelped, startled. “Give a man some space.”
Geri took two deliberate steps back. “How did it go?”
Ronon offered Rodney a hand, helped him out of the pod.
Teyla handed Rodney a snack. “You were in there for over an hour.”
“They accepted my money and agreed to work with me, so I go back in tomorrow, and we practice and record, same as before,” Rodney said.
Geri shook her head. “It can’t be exactly the same as before.”
“Obviously it won’t be; John’s not there, and it’s a different song.” Rodney rolled his eyes and then bit into the blueberry muffin with a happy moan.
“You have to do something different, though,” Geri said.
“Disarm the enemy,” Ronon said. “Don’t talk about John. Don’t ask about John.”
“But perhaps talk about John in terms of your friend,” Teyla said. “It will be only natural, after all, as you are creating this whimsy to rescue your friend, yes? The others ought to know about him, and you speaking of him will not be strange and suspicious.”
“Just don’t make it too obvious that it’s John and don’t push too hard about the notion that your friend is John or you might make the avatars retreat,” Geri said.
“Except it is John,” Rodney pointed out.
“Well, don’t call him John,” Evan said.
“I’m not an idiot,” Rodney snapped. He finished wolfing down the muffin. “Also I need to talk to Sergeant Shin.”
“Why?” Geri asked.
“To find out what other instruments he used to produce his song,” Rodney said. “The more complex the production is, the longer the rehearsal and recording process is, and the longer I can stay in there.”
“How is John doing?” Teyla asked Keller. “How did he respond to the song?”
“When did you play it?” Keller asked Rodney, without looking up from her scan of the data readout from the healing pod.
“I’m not sure of the exact time, because I didn’t check a timepiece while I was in there,” Rodney admitted. “But in the first half of my being in there, I’d say.”
“He definitely responded to it,” Keller said. “Whether that was good or bad, I suppose we’ll find out.”
In furtherance of Operation Rescue Sheppard, Rodney tracked down Sergeant Shin who was, indeed, in the gym lifting weights where Ronon had said he’d be. He wasn’t just lifting weights, though — he was coaching another soldier, correcting his form and shouting encouragement.
As soon as the poor Marine had put the weights back on the rack and was lying on the padded bench panting and wasn’t at risk of dying, Rodney cleared his throat.
“Dr. McKay, song still good?” Sergeant Shin’s smile was still so incongruously sweet.
“Yes. Good. Great, even. Listen, I really liked the arrangement on the file you sent me. Can you tell me more about it? The instruments you used, that sort of thing.” Rodney offered up the nicest smile he could manage.
Sergeant Shin nodded. “Yes. You want to see arrangement?”
Sergeant Shin spoke to the poor, panting, red-faced soldier in a mix of Korean and English, and the soldier flashed Sergeant Shin a weak okay sign, and then Sergeant Shin beckoned Rodney out of the gym.
Sergeant Shin lived in the military residential tower. Apparently the low-level Marines didn’t have private quarters, were four men or women to a room in barracks just like back on Earth. His roommates didn’t seem to mind Rodney’s presence, however, just nodded and smiled and went back to their respective tasks — shining their shoes, cleaning their firearms, sharpening their knives — while Sergeant Shin plopped down on the couch and fired up his laptop. Sergeant Shin beamed at Rodney and patted the space beside him, so Rodney sat next to him.
Sergeant Shin opened up some kind of very fancy music production program.
“Here, Losing You,” he said. “Vocal track. Strings. Drums. Piano. Guitar.”
“Guitar?” Rodney asked.
“Electric guitar,” Sergeant Shin said. “Here and here. Subtle. Soft.” He made a strumming motion, gaze upward as he searched for the word. “Mute?”
“Muted?” Rodney asked.
“Yes,” Sergeant Shin said. He tapped at the keyboard. “Listen, just vocals and guitar.”
A guitar part was perfect, because John played the guitar. If there was a guitar in the arrangement, Rodney would need John. Maybe he’d come out after all.
Sergeant Shin wasn’t lying, though. The guitar part was sparse, and the chords were soft, muted. Would an electric guitar even work in a wizarding setting? But John was part muggle. He could probably get one to work. He’d be interested in the challenge, right?
Rodney listened to each instrument track separately with the vocals so he could hear how they worked in the arrangement, and then he listened to the song as a whole one more time.
Sergeant Shin’s roommates must have been used to him tooling around with his songs like this, because they seemed utterly unbothered by the repetition.
“Thank you,” Rodney said.
Sergeant Shin’s beaming smile was unbearably sweet. Rodney wondered if the sweetness of his smile was terrifying, especially to someone who was about to die by his hand. “You are very welcome.”
“It really is a beautiful song.” Rodney stood, and Sergeant Shin showed him to the door. “I hope your best friend likes it.”
“Best friend is good singer,” Sergeant Shin said. “Best friend will sing it one day.”
Rodney eyed him and was pretty sure his best friend was going to be his boyfriend one day. “I hope your best friend does a good job. Gotta go save my best friend.”
And he headed for his own quarters. He had a phenomenal memory. If he wrote out the arrangements by hand once, he’d have them committed to memory, and he could recreate them inside the healing pod.
“Just a little longer, John,” he said to himself, hunting for a pen and some staff paper. “You’ll hear the real song soon.”
The first thing Rodney did when he arrived in Diagon Alley was go to Rosa Lee and buy a round of drinks for everyone from Chittaphon, who was again dressed like Alice in Wonderland. He paid for the drinks himself instead of putting them on the tab for Sheppard & Lorne’s, and then he delivered them with the nicest, most sincere smile he could manage.
Teyla looked delighted. “You are too kind,” she said, but she accepted the tray of mugs.
“I figure we can all get hydrated before we start rehearsing,” Rodney said. “And also I brought improved sheet music and updated notes on the arrangement.”
“Updated notes?” Evan asked.
“Yeah. I spoke to the songwriter and listened to his arrangement, and he pointed out something I’d missed.” Rodney distributed stacks of parchment. While handwriting sheet music took time, he had some power in this environment, and he could bring sheet music into Diagon Alley, the same way he’d brought money to pay the crew at the music shop for help with the whimsy project.
“What did you miss?” Ronon asked. He cradled the mug in his massive hands and sipped cautiously.
“A guitar part,” Rodney said. “An electric guitar.”
Ronon looked confused. Teyla looked confused.
Evan nodded slowly. “That could be complicated.”
“Because electricity, yes. But I’m sure we could work something out,” Rodney said. “Right?”
“Perhaps,” Teyla admitted.
“I’m not exactly a musical spell genius, but just look at the arrangement and see what you think.” Rodney nudged Evan’s stack of parchment and then proceeded to sip his tea as innocently as possible.
Evan retrieved the parchment with the notes he’d made the day before to make a comparison, and he studied quietly while he drank.
“You’re pretty set on making this as close to the original as possible,” Ronon said.
Rodney said, “The original version of the song is very powerful, and meaningful to me.”
“You think it’ll be meaningful to your friend?” Ronon asked.
“Would a cover more in your style be more meaningful to him?” Teyla asked. “Unless he is quite familiar with the original and the original is quite meaningful to him.”
“He’s never heard the original,” Rodney said. “This piece isn’t commercially available, as it were.”
Ronon raised his eyebrows. “You commissioned this for your best friend?”
“Something like that.”
“Ah. Then the arrangement is very important,” Teyla said. “I see.”
“The guitar parts are pretty minor,” Evan said. “How about we make a mock-up and just hear it. Unless you have a copy of the recording we can just...hear? So we know what we’re up against.”
Could Rodney make one of those just appear in the healing pod environment? Money and sheet music was one thing.
But he’d also listened to the .mp3 of Sergeant Shin’s song a thousand times while he learned it on piano.
“Unless you need some kind of muggle device to play it?” Evan asked.
“Is your friend a muggle?” Ronon asked.
“No,” Rodney said. “He’s not. But the song was written by a muggle, yes. Hence the electric guitar in the arrangement. I’ll see what I can do as far as getting a copy for you to hear. In the meantime, why don’t we rehearse the parts we can rehearse?”
Ronon nodded, and he and Teyla waved their wands, rearranging the instruments on the shop floor so they could see each other and keep an eye on a magical metronome that would function as a stand-in conductor till they knew who’d be conducting them for the recording process. Evan retrieved stands for the sheet music, and Rodney gathered up the mugs onto the tea tray, waved his wand to banish it back to the tea shop.
“You are going to great lengths for your friend,” Teyla said. “He must be quite important to you.”
“He’s my best friend,” Rodney said. “I’d die for him.”
“You’d go to war for him and build an army for him?” Ronon asked.
“Even though I’m no soldier, I’d do my best,” Rodney said.
Evan eyed Rodney. “But would losing you really be better than losing him? If he came home and you were gone, how would he feel?”
“I don’t know. I’m not very good at feelings,” Rodney said. “But at least he’d be home. So, how does this magical metronome work?”
“It’s quite an ingenious device. John designed it.” Evan showed Rodney how to set the time signature on it, and the tempo.
Teyla tuned her violin, and Ronon rolled his wrists, twirled his drum sticks.
The first run-through was, of course, the pancake. Playing with the metronome was harder than playing with a human conductor for whatever reason, which Rodney remembered from piano lessons in his youth.
But the second time through was better, and after several passes, they could play together passably well.
“Shall I buy you lunch?” Rodney asked while he waved his wand vaguely and helped them reset the furniture.
“Not today, but thank you,” Teyla said, expression apologetic.
Evan cast a glance at the wall hanging.
Right. They were probably going to have lunch with John.
“See you tomorrow,” Rodney said, and he headed for the door.
“Well?” he asked as soon as he opened his eyes.
“I think that’s my line,” Geri said.
Ronon gave Rodney a hand up off the pod table.
Teyla handed Rodney a bottle of water, which he drained in several swallows.
“Sheppard’s brainwaves were definitely elevated while you were in there,” Keller reported. “You’re affecting him with what you’re doing.”
“The song is affecting him,” Rodney said. “For good or for ill, who knows?”
“If he wakes up, it’s good,” Miko said.
Rodney spun around. Miko, and two tiny Japanese boys with uncanny blue eyes and omnipresent massive headphones that they never actually listened to were poking at the machine, datapads and LSDs in hand.
“Did you see Sheppard himself?” Geri asked.
“No,” Rodney said. “I need to talk to the Archivist. Let’s go.”
And he left the infirmary. He made a detour to the mess hall for some food, then headed for the Archives.
“No food or drink in the archives,” the Archivist said.
Rodney, blueberry muffin in hand, froze in the doorway. “Oh. Ah, I’ll just finish this and then —”
“What’s your question, Dr. McKay?”
The Archivist was scanning in books with some kind of scanner gun and looked quite bored.
“Music in Harry Potter. Besides the wireless, how would I go about playing it?”
“Victrola,” she said. “And a record.”
“Oh. Okay.” Rodney had listened to LPs growing up. Thinking one up wouldn’t be a problem.
The Archivist said, “You know Harry Potter isn’t real, right?”
Rodney stared at her.
“It’s a vivid world, and it’s captured the imagination of many, including Colonel Sheppard, but it’s not real.” The Archivist looked at him for a long moment, then resumed scanning books.
“Miko, Thing One, Thing Two, give me a moment.” Rodney stood in the doorway of the room where the healing pods were kept.
Miko looked up.
She murmured to her assistants — Naoe, Tsukiyono; Rodney could remember their names when he really looked at them, because Tsukiyono had bleached blond hair to go with his unnaturally blue eyes where Naoe had dark hair and darker blue eyes — and they nodded and bowed and then all three of them ducked out of the room.
“We’ll go get some tea from the mess hall. We could use a break anyway,” Miko said.
She was doing him a professional courtesy. Of course she couldn’t outright abandon her work, because Keller wasn’t around, and Keller had entrusted John’s healing pod to her and her team.
While Rodney was at least as smart as Miko and her team, and in many ways smarter than them, when it came to the intricacies of the Ancient tech that made the pod work, they were smarter than him, and technically they were taking a risk with John’s life by leaving him unattended.
But also it was a healing pod, and Rodney was a genius, and also he was John’s best friend, and the best and brightest of Atlantis’s medical staff were literally on the other side of the door, so if Rodney had a few moments alone with John, what did it matter?
Geri was gone, and Woolsey was gone, and Teyla and Ronon and Lorne were gone as well, overseeing their regular duties, because they were important to the day-to-day running of Atlantis. Technically Rodney was, too, but so was John.
Atlantis needed John.
And so did Rodney.
As soon as the door was closed behind Miko, Rodney pulled up a rolling chair and sat beside the healing pod where John lay, in clean hospital-issue pajamas. He looked serene in sleep, comfortable, like he was just having a nice nap. His beard had grown heavy and thick, obscuring his features although someone on the medical staff had been keeping it neatly trimmed.
In the healing environment, the John Sheppard who was co-owner of Sheppard & Lorne’s magical music shop was clean-shaven, his hair cut neatly, not quite military short but still short enough, with its signature wildness; that wildness was not a stylish affectation but, Rodney finally understood, was genetic, somehow.
Rodney cleared his throat. “Keller says you’re not really in a coma, so I’m pretty sure you can hear me. After all, people who are sleeping can hear what’s going on around them. It’s not real in there. The shop, Diagon Alley, the tea with Alice in Wonderland — none of it’s real. I’m real. I’m here, and I’m awake, and I’m fine. I healed up. The healing pod I was in worked. It saved me. You saved me. I’m healthy and living a good life. A — well, not a happy life, because I’m a cranky bastard, but you know what I mean. I nearly sacrificed myself for you, and you nearly sacrificed yourself for me, and it was another day at the office, but we both made it back here alive. So you can stop blaming yourself, and you can wake up, all right? Sure, the fantasy world in there is fun and the music is relaxing, but it’s not enough. Not for you, not for John Sheppard. And it’s not enough for me. Atlantis needs you, John Sheppard. So wake up.”
Rodney did his best to keep his voice calm and even, but he was not a naturally calm and even-tempered person. Despite many a person’s suggestion that he join Atlantis’s local thespian club on account of being a former Sears Drama Award winner, he hadn’t had a chance to sharpen his drama skills in a long time, so he probably sounded a little desperate and pathetic.
“Come on, John. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself for me. I don’t need saving, because I’ve already been saved. Open your eyes.”
There was no response.
Rodney listened, and he watched, and he waited.
But there was still no response.
Eventually the door opened, and Miko and her two assistants — brilliant young men, doctors in their own right — returned, mugs of tea in hand. One of them bowed and offered a mug of coffee to Rodney.
“Thank you,” he said, accepting it.
“Any changes?” Miko asked.
Rodney sighed and rose up from the rolling chair, surrendered it to Dr. Tsukiyono.
“None,” he said.
Miko’s expression was sympathetic, but she just picked up her LSD off the little rolling work cart and said, “We’ll continue.”
Rodney nodded and strode out of the infirmary. He had work to do as well, until his next appointment with John Sheppard’s subconscious in Diagon Alley.
As it turned out, Sheppard & Lorne’s did have a victrola, so Rodney could use it to let Evan, Ronon, and Teyla listen to Sergeant Shin’s guide version of the track, which really was a very well-produced version of the song.
Once it was finished, Rodney took the record off of the victrola and tucked it into its sleeve and waved his wand and shrunk it, tucked it into the sleeve of his robe. Magic was quite convenient. He wondered how many of its principles he could one day make work in the real world. After all, so many things that were once considered science fiction had been made into reality. Magic was, in its own way, science that people didn’t yet understand.
That was another issue for another day.
“That is a very beautiful song,” Teyla said. “I can see why you chose it. It is quite powerful and emotional.”
Ronon had listened silently, said nothing.
Evan had listened silently but also had a quill and parchment to hand, flicked his wand at them occasionally, taking notes on the arrangement. “I can hear the electric guitar in there. It is really subtle, but it does add a depth to the arrangement that is important, and leaving it out would make the sound hollow in places. Also, the plucked staccato strings are on top of the legato regular strings, so either that would require some layering or some of us playing our violins at the same time. What do you think?”
“We could double up,” Ronon said. “Two legato, two staccato. The guitar and violins aren’t at the same time. Drums aren’t at the same time either.”
“Two and two?” Evan raised his eyebrows.
Rodney said, “I don’t play the violin, and the piano is continuous in the arrangement.”
Teyla said, “John will help us.”
Hope surged in Rodney’s chest. He fought to keep his expression neutral. “He will? I didn’t realize. I haven’t spoken to him. Of course I can pay him as well —”
“You don’t have to pay me.” John stepped out from behind the wall hanging, guitar case in hand.
Rodney stared at him. Even though he saw John every day, he’d missed John. An unconscious John lying in the healing pod wasn’t the same as this John, awake and animate, even if the unconscious John was real and this John was technically fake. This John was real enough. Rodney could see him, speak to him, reach out and touch him —
Rodney snatched his hand back.
“Thank you for helping me,” he said.
“It’s a really good song,” John said.
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for the pop type,” Rodney said.
“Well, four chords are catchy for a reason,” John said. “And it’s for your best friend. He must be a hell of a guy, for you to do all this for him.”
Rodney stared at John for a long time, willing John to remember that he was a hell of a guy. “My best friend,” Rodney said, “is a hero.”
John raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not one to mince words,” Rodney said.
“I have no doubt about that,” Evan muttered.
“Can I hear it one more time?” John asked. He hopped up on the edge of the counter with the same rather un-military perch he often had on his own desk or on beds in the infirmary.
Rodney reached into his sleeve and unshrunk the record. Even though he’d heard the song a thousand times and should be sick of it, he was more than willing to play it one time and one time more for John. “Of course.”
I would go to war for you
Build an army if you need me to
’Cause losing me is better than losing you
When they broke for lunch, they finally had the rhythm of the arrangement down, of how the five of them would play it together. Because it was a fairly simple arrangement, they could do it in a single take with no layering, though it would take Evan some skill to sing and play his violin at the same time. The most complicated part would be setting the capture spell so it would be fairly automated, which they’d never done before.
“It’s that or teach the spell to another person,” Evan said, which John made a face at.
“He is rather private about his custom spellwork,” Teyla explained.
“I understand. Intellectual property is unique and valuable,” Rodney said, as they headed for the Leaky Cauldron together.
Tom offered them hearty greetings, and not-Geri brought them their usual drinks to start.
John sat beside Rodney at their usual table. Once again, Ronon was minding the shop, so Teyla ordered lunch for him to go.
“This best friend of yours,” John said. “You’re doing a lot for him.”
“You heard the part where he’s my best friend, right?” Rodney sipped at his tea. Even though it was fake, it was hot on his tongue, and the fall spices were sharp and vivid. He could smell them. Everything here felt so real. No wonder John stayed here. Why would he leave, when things here were mostly better? Even if he wasn’t happy, everyone else was happy.
Losing me is better than losing you.
John Sheppard was an intelligent and rational man, and a mathematician at heart. One unhappy person was worth less than three happy people — Teyla and her family; Evan and his wife; Ronon and his not-quite-wife. A very simple equation.
“Just because you like him the most doesn’t mean he’s worth saving,” John said. “Worth all this effort.”
Rodney turned a gimlet eye on John. “While I realize that I can be a rather dramatic person — I did once win a Sears Drama Award, after all — I am rational, and I’m not afraid to point out a person’s flaws. My best friend is laconic, emotionally repressed, tends toward violence instead of words, has puerile humor, and a frankly juvenile fondness for weapons and things that go boom.”
“He sounds dangerous,” John said.
“In his defense, he is a trained soldier. Airman,” Rodney corrected himself hastily, having been on the receiving end of a long screed from Aiden Ford, of all people, about the difference between Marines, soldiers, seamen, and airmen (and okay, everyone but seamen could have a laugh about seamen).
“But he is also, quite frankly, a hero,” Rodney said. “He’s put his life on the line for others, just not myself, countless times. He’s always the first into danger and the last one over the threshold of the gateway home. He has my back no matter what. I trust him with my life. And even though it’s perhaps terrible and immoral and frightening, I know he’d put my life above others’ when it counts. I mean, my intellect is invaluable and useful when it comes to saving the universe, but also I know he just cares about me, so. He’s my best friend, but also he’s one of the best human beings in the multiverse.”
John stared at him.
Rodney drank some more tea. “Apologies for rambling.”
John finally said, “I’m guessing your best friend is a muggle.”
Rodney raised his eyebrows. “What makes you say that?”
John sang softly, “Fast car, no brakes. Also you called him an airman. No magical airmen, that I know of.”
“Yes, he is.”
“How will you show him the whimsy?” John asked. “Without breaking the Statute of Secrecy.”
“He’s actually a squib,” Rodney said. “But he lives as a muggle, so. He knows all the secrets. We have no secrets between us.”
“Does he know you play music? That you’ve gone to such lengths for him?”
“He’ll find out when he experiences the whimsy, I suppose.” Rodney shrugged and finished his tea, then began wolfing down his lunch.
John eyed Rodney some more. “You’re a really good friend.”
“You say that like you’re surprised.”
“Well, you just sort of seem like —”
“Someone who has no friends?” Rodney asked between bites of his Salisbury steak.
“Maybe that’s why I’m doing everything I can to get him back,” Rodney said.
“You are a very kind and loyal and hardworking person,” Teyla said. “I am sure that anyone who works with you will, after a time, see these qualities and consider you a friend.” She patted Rodney’s arm.
“After a long time,” Evan said.
Teyla cast Evan a sharp look, and he ducked his head and cast Rodney an apologetic look, but Rodney just rolled his eyes.
John said, “You seem like the kind of guy who never remembers people’s names unless they’re useful or exceptional.”
“Did you not hear me talk about my best friend? He’s obviously very exceptional,” Rodney said.
John looked at Rodney. “What’s his name?”
“His name,” Rodney said, “is John.”
“What a strange coincidence,” Teyla said. Something about her tone was strange as well, not quite right.
Like someone in The Matrix who was experiencing deja vu.
“A coincidence indeed,” Rodney said flatly.
Then Teyla smiled at Rodney and said, “I hope this project is successful and that your friend is able to find his way home once he hears this song.”
“Me too,” Rodney said. “Me too.”
“We should rehearse a bit more after lunch,” John said. “Evan, how about you and Teyla go back to the shop and straighten up the practice space, and Rodney and I will head to Rosa Lee’s and grab more drinks for everyone?”
“Sure, thing, Boss,” Evan drawled. “Grab us some treats while you’re at it. For dessert. On me.”
He flipped several gold galleons toward John, who caught them midair.
“Let me guess,” Rodney said. “You were a house seeker when you were in school?”
“Chaser,” Evan said. “But still plenty good with my hands, if you know what I mean.” He winked.
Rodney rolled his eyes.
John pocketed the coins.
They finished their meal, thanked Tom, and left the Leaky Cauldron. They parted ways at the door, Teyla and Evan back to Sheppard & Lorne’s, John and Rodney to Rosa Lee’s.
Chittaphon, again — still? — dressed as Alice in Wonderland was at the counter, and he greeted them and took their order. He was training a very pretty person who was dressed as Cinderella (also from the Disney cartoon, also maybe not actually female), and so when Rodney and John stood at the dessert end of the counter, Cinderella (whose real name Rodney hadn’t caught) said,
“Would you like to try one of the dream truffles?”
Again with the colored soda bottles.
“Sure,” Rodney said.
“What color?” Cinderella asked.
“Surprise me,” Rodney said at the same time as John said, “How about red?”
Cinderella looked back and forth between them, confused. Finally they said, “Are you sure?” And they reached under the counter, came back up with a rainbow list of each truffle color and what it represented.
Apparently red was energy, passion, warm, love.
Rodney looked at John. “Did you know that the colors meant something?”
John said, “I like the color red. And orange. And blue. And also black, but black isn’t really an option, and also is not technically a color, so.”
Rodney looked John’s charcoal gray robes up and down. “You like black? I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Red is fine,” John said.
Cinderella still looked a little hesitant, but they put the menu away and used the silver tongs to pick up a pretty little red truffle and add it to the tray of treats (a blue sugar rose, a delicate chocolate kitten, a sugar tiara, and a chocolate tiger).
Chittaphon brought out all the drinks, added them to the tab for Sheppard & Lorne’s, and he and John had their seeker exchange of the galleons Evan had given John, and then Rodney and John headed back toward the music shop.
“You really care about your best friend a lot,” John said.
Rodney glanced at John, who was staring ahead resolutely. “So we’ve previously discussed.”
“Does he know how much you care about him?”
“We don’t exactly talk about our feelings. We just do what needs to be done so the other comes home safe,” Rodney said.
John flicked him a glance, then rearranged his grip on the tray, which was odd; why was he carrying it by hand when he could be letting it float behind him with a levitation charm? “But if you didn’t make it home safe, would you think he didn’t care about you?”
“I know that some things are out of his control. Life is dangerous, and life is unfair,” Rodney said. “But I also know he’d do everything in his power to try to bring me home. Like I’ve been doing, working on the whimsy project with all of you. Among other things.”
John nodded stiffly. “Right.”
Rodney paused, turned to John. “Look. About your friend who didn’t make it home.” Rodney resisted the urge to shout, I made it home and I’m fine! “He knows you did your best, that you did all you could. But he’d care more about you living your life and being happy than you being half-miserable and feeling guilty about him not quite making it back. Losing me is better than losing you. But if you lose yourself too, then both of you have lost, and his sacrifice is worth nothing, right? So. It’s okay to move on. Or at least to stop blaming yourself. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but in the moment, could anyone have done better? Probably not. You’re a brilliant man, from what I’ve observed in our time together.”
John didn’t quite meet his gaze. “You don’t know much about me, or my teammate.”
“I saw what I saw when we watched that whimsy together. And you saw my memories too, right?” Rodney said.
John shook his head. “I only saw mine.”
“I saw some of yours, but I mostly saw mine.”
John tilted his head. “How does that work?”
“Because,” Rodney said, “our memories are very, very similar.”
John’s brow furrowed. He stepped closer to Rodney, searched his gaze. “How could they be that similar?”
Rodney leaned in, searched John’s gaze, his eyes that were that indecipherable mix of hazel-brown-green-gold-gray. “How do you think?”
John narrowed his eyes and peered closer.
Rodney leaned in even closer, felt John’s breath on his lips.
John’s eyes went wide.
The tea tray clattered to the ground at their feet.
The world around them dissolved.
Rodney opened his eyes and slid out of the healing pod.
“Well?” Geri asked.
Keller said, “Colonel Sheppard! How do you feel?”
John said, “I think you are my teammate.”
Rodney shoved Geri aside and rolled to his feet, only he was still dizzy from having been essentially kicked out of the virtual healing environment, and he almost fell over.
Ronon caught his shoulder.
Lorne, Teyla, Keller, and Woolsey were all crowded around John, who was blinking myopically and looking very confused.
“What’s going on?” John asked. “Where’s Rodney?”
“I’m right here,” Rodney said, trying to push past Woolsey and Lorne, only the world swayed and Ronon had to catch his shoulder again.
“Colonel,” Keller said, “you’ve been unconscious for the past two weeks.”
“What?” John demanded.
Geri managed to work her way past the human wall of Lorne and Woolsey and Teyla and stood beside Keller, wearing one of those patient and slightly condescending professional smiles.
“We’ll explain everything, Colonel.”
“Oh, hey, Moonie.” John scrubbed a hand over his face.
Rodney gaped. John had a nickname for Geri?
“We need to run some tests on you as well,” Keller said.
Miko, Tsukiyono, and Naoe were all chattering away excitedly in Japanese, tapping away at their datapads and poking at the healing pod.
“Everyone,” Keller said, “please leave so Colonel Sheppard can have proper patient confidentiality, and also some privacy while he undergoes some routine medical examinations.”
Woolsey blinked. “Oh, yes, of course. Everyone out!”
“Glad to have you back, sir,” Lorne said fervently, sounding both genuinely relieved and like he was going to immediately head to the military command office and deposit a mountain of paperwork on John’s desk.
John nodded, a little dazedly.
“John,” Rodney said.
John glanced at him, met his gaze, and then looked away.
“Welcome back,” Ronon said, clapping John on the shoulder so hard his entire body jolted.
“I am sure all your test results will be fine,” Teyla said, and then she and Ronon towed Rodney out of the room.
Rodney tried to protest, because it wasn’t like they’d never hung around the infirmary and witnessed each other’s medical examinations, but then John started shucking his pajama top, and the doors hissed shut, and Rodney felt like part of him had been cut off in a way he hadn’t felt before, even when John had been unconscious.
“Whatever you did, it worked,” Ronon said, plunking Rodney down in a chair at a table in the mess hall.
Teyla sat opposite him. “You are indeed John’s best friend, and you know him very well. Your previous experience in being inside John’s dreams served you well.”
Rodney was still reeling. He’d done it. He’d freed John from his weird mental Harry Potter dream prison.
Ronon went to the chow line and had two trays and was loading them up with food and, apparently, spreading the news to the KP Marines that John was awake, and that was why the Marines should give him three people’s worth of food, because it was also for Rodney and Teyla, and Rodney was the one who’d woken John up.
The Marines had taken up some kind of rhythmic celebratory chant, and whispers were spreading through the mess hall, but Rodney didn’t care. He wanted to see John and know that he really was okay.
Sure, John was awake, and his body had been healed, but all that time in that fake world in that pod had to have done something to his mind, right? It had definitely done something to Rodney’s mind.
He could still remember, all too vividly, standing so close to John, feeling John’s breath on his lips, looking right into John’s eyes, even though none of that had really happened, because nothing in that world was real.
Ronon returned with two trays of food and three plates, three drinks, and three sets of cutlery. He distributed the food and dishes and utensils, and they ate. Rodney didn’t think, just inhaled calories and rehydrated himself. Time in the pod was contiguous with time in the real world, and he really was hungry and thirsty.
People stopped by the table to offer Rodney, Teyla and Ronon greetings. The comments were a mixture of condolences and congratulations, as if John had simultaneously died and been born. Perhaps, in a way, he had done both. After all, he’d been absent, invisible to everyone for two weeks, and now everyone was celebrating his return, his rebirth.
People patted Rodney on the shoulder and congratulated him for his hard work, soldiers, scientists, and civilians alike with a fervor not even his most brilliant scientific breakthroughs had netted him, not even the ones that were considered Nobel-worthy, had the Stargate Program been declassified. Rodney could only nod blankly, barely making eye-contact.
It was Teyla who fielded conversation, nodding and smiling, letting people know that Colonel Sheppard was undergoing routine medical evaluations to ensure that he was in top condition before he returned to duty, and that he would also undergo some routine debriefings with Major Lorne, Major Teldy, and Richard Woolsey so he could catch up on everything he’d missed before he resumed his regular duties.
Rodney just nodded and did his best to make vague noises in all the right places.
That made perfect sense.
As soon as all that bureaucratic nonsense was done, he could talk to John, the real John, and make sure he was all right.
But the medical examinations weren’t done. They took two days.
And then Geri Moon had John in for multiple counseling and debriefing sessions for a full week.
Rodney only saw John in passing in the hallways because somehow they’d ended up on opposite shifts, what with Atlantis’s weird twenty-eight hour days, and they didn’t even manage to overlap in the cafeteria.
Did John know how much Rodney had told Geri about what he’d seen in the healing pod’s virtual environment? Had Rodney seen too much? Did John feel betrayed? Had Rodney told Geri too much? Had John’s extended stay in there compromised him somehow? Was he going to lose his command and get sent back to Earth?
Only after Geri had John in her office for hours and days on end, Woolsey had John shut up in his office forever, and then Teldy and Lorne had John shut up in the military command office forever.
If not seeing John for the two weeks while he was in the healing pod was bad, not seeing John while he was out of the healing pod was worse, because Rodney knew he should have been able to see John. John was out of the pod and free. He’d been given a clean bill of health. As soon as his one thousand and one hours of debriefings were done, he should have been allowed to return to his regular duties with his team, right?
Teyla did her best to distract Rodney from John’s gaping absence from the team. They should have been put back on the Away Mission schedule, or at least back on the Away Team training schedule, because Away Teams had to engage in regular offworld training.
It was Teyla who suggested they send a gift to the Archivist to thank her for her assistance. It was Ronon who went offworld and picked her a very exotic bouquet, and Dr. Parrish and Dr. Peace in botany helped preserve it under a bell jar for her to keep.
Teyla also suggested inviting Sergeant Shin for dinner and a movie, sort of like a team movie night. Because Sergeant Shin was a very healthy eater and Rodney had a citrus allergy, figuring out something all of them could eat was a bit of a nightmare, and then because English was Sergeant Shin’s second language, figuring out a movie all of them could watch was an even bigger nightmare (especially as Teyla and Ronon had very little useful taste in movies and Ronon sort of hated watching movies anyway), so they ended up just making a picnic and sitting on the balcony and listening to traditional Satedan music that Ronon had recreated and recorded for the anthropologists.
It wasn’t exactly Rodney’s cup of tea, but it was interesting to listen to, because it was alien music, and also for once Ronon did most of the talking, so Teyla and Rodney (and Sergeant Shin) didn’t have to, and for an evening Rodney wasn’t anxious with the stark reminder of John’s absence.
Rodney ended up going to the Archivist and asking to borrow one of the communal keyboards so he could distract himself.
As it turned out, in addition to the two cheap little electric folding keyboards she had for whoever wanted to just dink around, she had a very nice electric piano with weighted keys and some fancier settings for someone who was a more serious pianist, or for when someone like Sergeant Shin was maybe doing some intense music recording.
A couple of Marines helped Rodney wheel it to a deserted rec room, and armed with some sheet music also borrowed from the Archivist — Rachmaninoff, because Rodney had been good before he’d quit when he was twelve; perhaps he’d underplayed his skill when he’d told Samantha Carter about it — he set about distracting himself.
Halfway through a Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, John Sheppard said,
“You really do play the piano.”
Rodney automatically snatched his hands off the keys, because he’d had the reflex of slamming his hands down on the keys trained out of him at a young age, and spun around. “Pardon? Ah, yes. I really do. When I was a child, I wanted to be a concert pianist. I was just as prodigious at music as I am at science, but I ended up focusing on science. The usual stereotype is that all astrophysicists are guitarists, but here I am. A pianist. Why are you surprised?”
John stood in the doorway of the rec room, wearing his uniform, and for one moment Rodney wondered why he wasn’t wearing his robes, but of course John had never actually ever worn wizarding robes, and he looked good, so good in his uniform even though no one ever actually looked good in the Atlantis Expedition uniforms (although there was something to be said about John’s thigh holster for his pistol, which Rodney might or might not have noticed before).
When John was in that uniform, John was himself; John was home. Even on his days off he at least wore that black t-shirt.
“Well, I can’t really sing, and Teyla can’t play piano, and Ronon can’t really sing all that great, and neither can Lorne,” John said.
“True,” Rodney said. “And magic isn’t real either, so, why would anything in there be real?”
John stepped further into the room, and the door hissed shut behind him.
Why did the wizarding world have regular doors and not magical doors like the ones on Atlantis? Rodney wondered.
John remained just inside the door, his expression strangely bland and unreadable in a way that Rodney found utterly disconcerting. He knew John, knew how to read him.
But right now John was a stranger.
“You were real, though,” John said. “In there. Even though you had the robes and the wand and whatnot, you were real. You were you. You were pretty much all muggle, and you had your citrus allergy even though there was probably a spell for that.”
“Well, in there, the only real people were you and me,” Rodney said, “so of course I was real. You were real too.”
“Besides playing the piano, how much of everything else was real?” John asked. He stepped closer.
Rodney switched off the piano and stood up, faced John. “What do you mean? It was all fake. Like I said, magic isn’t real.”
John swallowed hard. “I mean — what you said. About your best friend.”
“You’re my best friend. You’re a hero. You nearly kamikaze’d yourself at the end of our first year in Atlantis. You convinced a man to sacrifice himself to a Wraith to save me and Jeannie. But also you like big honkin’ space guns,” Rodney said. “That’s all real. You know that.”
John nodded. “But also the other part. Was it real?”
John sang, softly but a little off-key, “Hold me closer, don’t let me go over, hold me closer.”
It was Rodney’s turn to swallow hard. “Well —”
John sang on, “Lock it away, keep my heart at your place, pull me closer.”
Rodney said, “The man who wrote that song said he wrote it for his best friend, and you’re my best friend, so. Seemed appropriate.”
“Best friend,” John echoed, the light in his gaze flickering.
Rodney said, “The lyrics were very accurate, okay? I was a mess and it was all wrong without you here, while you were trapped inside that ridiculous make-believe world.”
“Baby?” John asked, raising his eyebrows.
Rodney blushed. “I don’t actually think you’re my baby, obviously.”
John said, “I thought you were gone. I thought I’d lost you, that I’d failed you. And — I was a mess without you. It was all wrong without you. You’re the air inside my lungs, and I was suffocating when you were gone. So.”
“So...Harry Potter Land.”
John shrugged. “It’s kind of a cool universe. You can fly on broomsticks.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Of course that’s why you think it’s cool.”
John stepped a little closer. “You stuck it out for me. You got me out of there. Thank you.”
Rodney nodded. “Of course. We’re best friends. I’d do anything for you. You know. Go to war for you. Build an army. The whole nine yards.”
It was John’s turn to nod. “Yeah.”
Rodney realized, for the first time, how close they were standing. It was like they were back in Diagon Alley again, standing so close that Rodney could feel John’s breath on his lips, look right into John’s eyes.
“’Cause losing me is better than losing you,” John said softly.
Rodney nodded again.
John reached out but didn’t quite touch Rodney’s hand. “You won’t lose me again.”
“You can’t say that. You’ll always sacrifice yourself for me. And for Atlantis.”
John looked into Rodney’s eyes. “I have a reason to come home now.”
Rodney blinked. He said, “You drive me insane.”
The corners of John’s mouth curved up into that sexy little smirk, the one that drove commanding officers and civilian commanders alike just a little insane too.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” John said.
“Oh yeah? What have you got?” Rodney asked.
John leaned in and kissed him.
“What have we got?” John asked, peering down into the shadows of the underground bunker.
“I think it’s some kind of research outpost,” Rodney said, “but I’d need to do a more detailed examination to be sure.”
“Well, we can come back with a fire team and a science team with an anthro attaché and do that later,” John said.
Rodney spotted what looked like Ancient writing on a panel on the far wall, but it was covered with cobwebs — or possibly Iratus webs. “I see something that might be a clue.”
“It can wait,” John said. “C’mon. We met with the locals, we made a trade deal, let’s go check in with Woolsey and let him know, and we can see who’s on rotation to do some exploration.”
“But —” Rodney protested, because he was pretty sure he could see the Ancient word for energy on that panel.
John caught his gaze and held it. “But we need to get home safe, and together,” he said.
Rodney took a deep breath and counted to ten. “But John —”
John casually put a hand on his thigh holster. The gesture was two-fold — he was prepared to draw his weapon in case an enemy got the drop on him. But also Rodney remembered what it was like to have those thighs wrapped around his hips.
“Right. We can check this place later. Ronon, give me a hand up?” Rodney tucked his flashlight back into his vest pocket.
John grinned. “Attaboy.”
Teyla cast Rodney an amused and knowing smile, and she said, “I do hope the mess hall is serving something energy-dense for supper tonight.”
Rodney gaped at her, but she simply offered Rodney a hand up, and together the four of them headed for the stargate.
Ronon said, “Warrant Officer Bang says red soda tastes like red. How does that work?”
“It shouldn’t work, but he’s not wrong,” John said.
As Rodney punched in the address for Atlantis at the DHD, John stood at his shoulder, protective and comforting, keeping an eye out. Rodney glanced at him and smiled, and John nodded and smiled back.
Teyla told Chuck her IDC, and John radioed in their progress to Woolsey.
“Well done, AR-1,” Woolsey said. “Come on home.”
Teyla went first, Ronon second, Rodney third — with John right on his heels, because John would always make sure Rodney made it through.
Rodney waited on the other side, because he’d always make sure John made it through too.