The buzzer on the front door went bzzpth, which is all it would do anymore. It wouldn't buzz properly and the landlord wasn't going to fix it since it still technically worked. Rodney long suspected that even if the doorbell quit, Woolsey -- well, the corporation he managed the buildings for -- wouldn't replace it and had given up asking.
Another bzzpth and Rodney growled, "Coming! Keep your shirt on."
No one used the front door except for sales people, Mormons and his sister. None of which were invited in. So he had no real interest in seeing who was there except to tell them to go away.
Rodney hobbled slowly to the door and undid the two deadbolts and struggled with opening the door. It was always stuck since the door swelled when it rained. Or snowed. Or the weather was hot. Or the weather was cold. It was always stuck.
"Oof," Rodney grunted when the door suddenly released and opened to hit his foot.
A stranger stood there. Not his sister. Too old to be one of those Mormon kids, must be a salesman.
"Whatever you're selling, I don't want any. Go away," Rodney snarled. He stood back to wrestle the door shut. For as hard as it was to open, it was just as hard to close.
"I'm not selling anything. I was looking for piano lessons," the man said quickly. "Classical music," he added.
Rodney froze. No one had come looking for a piano lesson since.... He didn't remember since when. He leaned closer to the door and squinted to get a better look.
The man was probably about 40, slim but not quite skinny, dark hair that needed a thorough combing and good looking enough to almost be considered pretty. He was casually dressed in a t-shirt, hoodie and jeans with well-worn sneakers in his feet. What would have been his type if he had been 25 years, okay 30, younger.
"Why?" Rodney asked.
The man shrugged easily. "I'm new in town and I don't know anyone," he said. "I'm only going to be here for a couple of months and like to take lessons wherever I can. I called the university music department and they gave me your name."
Rodney considered. He could use the money, his Social Insurance check and what Jeannie gave him barely covered the rent and his food.
"I'm not so good at it anymore," something forced Rodney to be honest. "Arthritis." He held a crabbed hand up for the man to see.
Another shrug. "That's okay, I'm not so good myself," he admitted. "I mostly do it to have something to do."
Rodney considered as clear, green eyes looked back at him. The man waited without fidgeting for a decision.
"Okay," Rodney decided abruptly. "Come on." He turned and went back into the house. The man followed and Rodney threw over his shoulder, "Close the door and turn both deadbolts."
"Why two?" he asked, the door closing annoyingly easily for him. He turned both deadbolts and checked the lock on the door handle.
"No reason," Rodney replied. "Always been there so I lock them both."
"That works," the man admitted.
Rodney led the way to the living room where the piano sat. He looked at the instrument, a relatively inexpensive upright that hadn't been played since.... well, he didn't remember since when.
"Lizzie" he called it and it had been his pride and joy when he first bought it. He remembered obsessing about the installation – the movers had fled when he wasn't looking as he fiddled with making sure the instrument was level. When he realized they were gone, he had rushed out to the street to find the workmen and their truck long gone. He had written a stern letter of complaint to the store but he never did hear from them.
Rodney had rented the apartment he still lived in with an eye to being able to play whenever he wanted. He had been driven out of his previous apartment by neighbors who vehemently complained about the hours he kept. He couldn't help it if inspiration sometimes struck at 3 am, he wanted to be able to play when he wanted to play.
This had been a better neighborhood then, too. It was almost walking distance, but in reality a short bus ride, away from the university and a number of students and newer professors had lived in most of the apartments. Then the university built housing on campus to cater to students and the number of students dwindled to the point of non-existence. Now, most of the students who lived in the area had been kicked out of the campus housing or were living too many to an apartment in an effort to make for cheap housing. The bus company had also cut service with the decline in students living in the area... there was no money to be made on this bus route.
Rodney had taken advantage of the initial thriving student community and considered himself fortunate to find a two-bedroom apartment on the end of the building. There wasn't an apartment above him since there was some decorative folderol that some overpaid architect must have thought gave the building elegance. Since the room with the piano was on an outside wall and the kitchen and bathroom served as a buffer between him and the apartment next door, Rodney could play any time he wanted without annoying anyone.
He ran a finger through the dust on the cover over the keyboard. "The cleaning lady is slipping," Rodney offered in faint apology. He hadn’t been paying attention to himself, much less Lizzie, in the past few years.
"Good help is hard to find," the man agreed with a small grin.
"What sort of lessons do you want?" Rodney asked. "Just so I know where to start."
"Well, umm... I'm open to suggestions," the man replied. "I've done a variety of things, mostly of the five finger exercise variety. I'm working through the Etudes but the easier ones."
"Number 10?" Rodney asked, wondering what this man was really looking for.
"Nah, not a masochist. I'm in this as a hobby," the man answered with a small grin.
"Want to work on that?" Rodney pursued.
A shrug that wasn't clear and a hesitation.
"So, what do you want to work on?" Rodney demanded. "There's something."
The man rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. "Well... Bach. The Goldberg Variations."
Rodney froze. One of the more studied and analyzed pieces of Bach's work, it had been one of Rodney's special sources of inspiration. When he had been writing music.
"It's not important..." the man hastened to say when Rodney didn't answer. "We can work on the Etude."
"No... no, it's all right. Just... surprised, that's all," Rodney answered slowly. "Not something I would think a casual student like yourself would attempt."
"Just, well, something I've wanted to try," he said, faintly defensive. "Lots of time on my hands."
"Okay, then sit down and..." Rodney considered. "Play some scales for me."
"I just want to see your fingering," Rodney answered. "Without confounding it with melody."
"Oh. Okay, then," the man said. He moved to the bench and pulled it away from the piano. He sat and used two hands to gently raise the cover, a move Rodney approved of. Lizzie was used to being treated like a lady and that this stranger did so made Rodney feel better.
As he moved his hands above the keyboard, Rodney called, "Wait!"
The man hesitated and turned slightly to look at Rodney.
"What's your name?" Rodney asked.
A grin, "John. John Sheppard," the man, John, said.
"I'm Rodney," he replied. "Glad to meet you." He nodded to the piano, "Okay, play."
"Any special requests?" John asked.
"Standard heptatonic scale, both hands, start your right hand at middle C your left hand down an octave -- go up two octaves then back," Rodney directed. "Twice at moderato, three times adagio and then twice vivace." He'd see how much music terminology John knew while having him play.
A nod and then John stretched his fingers over the keys. He rested them gently on the keys without striking them and then softly touched the middle C. A clear tone wafted through the room.
Rodney moved closer to see and absently listened to the scales -- he would replay them in his head later - as he watched John play. He had nice hands, not overly large with long, elegant fingers. The nails weren't manicured but short and neat... there was a hangnail that looked roughly bitten off on the little finger of John's left hand.
John played the scales efficiently, keeping a good tempo for each of the sections. The fingering was light and from the flexing of the muscles on the back of his hands, Rodney could tell that he had some technical skill but did something else with his hands.
When the scales were finished John looked up and Rodney said, "Do that again."
John repeated the scales almost exactly the same as he did the first time. Rodney took in the position of his shoulders, broad and relaxed, centered over slim hips... John let his arms do most of the work leaning only slightly to reach the top of the second octave of the scale.
When he looked up, Rodney asked, "What else do you do?"
A suddenly wary look came into John's eyes and he asked, "Why?"
"You do something else with your hands," Rodney replied. "Not manual labor and probably not computer things. Just curious."
John relaxed slightly and said, "I'm a pilot. I fly corporate jets and I have a six month contract with O'Neill Industries to fly their executives in and out of here while they set up their new headquarters."
Rodney nodded. That made sense, some of the same fine motor control was probably needed to fly jets as to play the piano.
"Do you know more than the trivial parts of Chopsticks?" Rodney asked, wanting to see more of John's skills.
"Enough to be dangerous, I guess," John replied.
"Do what you remember, then," Rodney directed.
John played the part just about anyone who had ever touched a piano keyboard know then moved past the introduction to the first variations. He muffed a couple of places that he didn't know from memory but recovered without any dramatics and brought the ending around to a reasonable cadence.
"Well?" John asked when Rodney considered.
"You sure you want to tackle Goldberg?" Rodney replied.
Another small shrug. "It seemed like a good idea but I'm not married to it if you have another preference," John said easily.
"No, it's fine," Rodney decided. "Do you have the sheet music or do you need to get it?"
"I have it," John said. "I wasn't going to assume so I didn't bring it along."
Rodney approved of the not-assuming answer. "What do you do about practicing?"
"I have a portable electric keyboard," John explained. "It's good enough for practicing on but it is nice to play on an actual piano." He ran a hand gently over the keyboard without sounding a note. A caress.
"When did you want to start?" Rodney found himself asking.
"I have to fly someone out early tomorrow morning but the plan is to be back later in the day," John replied. "Would you have time day after tomorrow? After lunch?"
"I suspect I can fit you in my busy schedule," Rodney snarked. "2 pm?"
John nodded. "That'll work. Thanks."
"Bring your music and your keyboard," Rodney directed. "I want to see what junk they're making these days."
"What do I owe you?" John asked.
Rodney hadn't considered. He didn't have any idea what was reasonable anymore or what someone like John would pay.
"Nothing for today," Rodney decided. "That wasn't a lesson." He hesitated for a heartbeat then forged on. "Thirty-five dollars an hour."
"That's fine," John agreed without hesitation. Rodney thought for a second he should have asked for more but just as quickly dismissed the thought.
John stood and moved toward the door he had come in.
"Use the back," Rodney directed. "Easier for me." He pointed. "Through the kitchen."
The back door let out on a walkway between buildings. When Rodney first moved in, it had been pleasant space -- green grass, trimmed bushes and several tenants had put in flowers. Now, it was mostly weeds and only a few scraggly bushes had survived. A lawn service mowed down anything straggly every ten days or so. Since it had rained regularly for the past week, it had been about two weeks since the area had been mowed and it looked worse than usual.
"I'll bring a machete, too," John quipped.
"Been raining," Rodney explained. "The lawn guys should be here any day now. But probably wise not to go any further into it since it's a mud pit where the sidewalk is broken." Rodney pointed again. "Around the end will bring you back out to the street."
"Okay," John answered. "See you Thursday."
"Thursday," Rodney agreed. He locked the door up -- this one worked easier than the one on the front since he used it regularly – after he watched John go around the corner of the building.
Turning to go back in, Rodney looked at his apartment with a stranger's eyes. It was more than slightly depressing with faded beige walls, threadbare carpet and a layer of dust everywhere. Jeannie always nagged when she came around but Rodney rarely did more than minimal cleaning just for himself.
Deciding he had time, Rodney made himself a cup of coffee. He wasn't supposed to drink more than two cups a day but today felt special enough for him to have another. While he waited for the drink to brew he considered what he should do next. Some dusting, obviously. Especially around Lizzie. Then he should find his copy of Goldberg to brush up on it but as he considered, he could see the music in his head.
He got out his cleaning cloth and slowly cleaned the accumulation of dust from Lizzie. It was enough that he should have been embarrassed but since he rarely played it was easier to ignore the piano completely. He worked slowly to spare his hands and to enjoy touching the instrument. By the time he was done, the mahogany color of the wood was shining through.
"Great, now I have to do all of it," Rodney groused. The warm reddish tone of the wood put the rest of the room to shame. He dusted the end tables and the cabinet, figuring he could vacuum later.
By lunchtime on Thursday, Rodney was unaccountably... nervous? Anxious? This wouldn't do. He pushed the emotion down firmly, making himself soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.
Two o'clock came and went and by four Rodney gave up. He went to take a nap.
bzzpth Rodney woke with a start.
bzzpth It was dark. Rodney rolled out of the bed, rubbing his face, feeling gritty.
He opened the front door to see a weary-looking John Sheppard balancing a pizza box in one hand and holding his keyboard in the other.
"You're late!" Rodney said.
"Your back door doesn't have a light and the bell must not work," John shot back. "I knocked but you didn't answer."
"Bulb must be out," Rodney admitted. "Still, you're late."
John sighed. "Flight was delayed on the other end for weather." He held up the pizza box. "I brought food."
Rodney sniffed. "Pepperoni?"
"And sausage," John added with a hopeful look.
"It'll do," Rodney gave in graciously. "Come in."
John handed Rodney the pizza box and followed him inside, setting down the keyboard so he could lock the door.
Rodney got sodas from the fridge and put a roll of paper towels on the table. John set the pizza on the table and opened the top.
John broke out a slice and put it on a paper towel and set it in front of Rodney. Rodney bit into the pizza and asked, "Molino's?"
John nodded. "Guy at the field told me it was good and since it was along the way, figured I'd try it."
"There's another place that's better but it's on the other side of the university and inconvenient to get to from the airfield," Rodney admitted. "It's called University Pizza, unimaginatively enough. But they'll deliver here."
"Next time," John promised, which made Rodney feel pleased somehow. "And I need your phone number so I can call since travel arrangements can change without notice. Meeting running late or the weather can make things change. I'm not always in charge of my own schedule."
Rodney rattled off the number and John nodded. They ate most of the pizza and Rodney looked at the last piece longingly but knew he'd pay for it tomorrow already. Eating spicy food and too much pushed the limits on what his body could tolerate.
"Sorry," John repeated. "The one day trip turned into an overnight and then the weather this morning didn't let us get the early start we had hoped for. Without your number I had no way to get hold of you."
"If you're finished, set up your keyboard," Rodney directed.
"Sure," John agreed. He washed his hands in the sink before he reached for the case. "Here okay?"
"Light's better here," Rodney admitted. He had a lamp over Lizzie but that only shone on the piano and not well into the rest of the room. The other lights in the room were okay for general lighting but not for reading music.
John set up the stand and then brought out the keyboard. He looked around plugged it in over the stove, the only visible grounded plug, turned it on and stood back. "All yours," John offered.
Rodney approached the keyboard. It wasn't much smaller than the piano keyboard, having 88 keys. "Not as much different from an acoustical piano as I thought," he commented.
"Not too much," John agreed. "It has other sounds that I play around with sometimes but mostly use the standard piano mode."
Rodney carefully placed one finger of his right hand on the middle C. The tone was good for an electronic instrument. He poked at a scale – C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. He reached out his left hand and held the C and E simultaneously. The weight and reaction of the keys were actually closer to that of a piano than Rodney had expected,
"Not bad," he decided. "Play the scales again. Like the other day."
John played the series of scales as Rodney listened to the sound.
"It's actually very good for an electronic keyboard," Rodney said.
"I splurged and bought the slightly better model," John replied. "It sounded the best and I needed something rugged enough to travel well. Been on the road most of my life."
"Play me something," Rodney ordered. "Anything."
John considered. Then he played "Walk the Line" – from memory, Rodney noted. John played easily, like it was an old, favorite tune. Rodney noted the fingering and suspected some small modifications but couldn't be sure since he wasn't that familiar with the music.
"Cash?" Rodney teased.
A small shrug and a smile. "What can I say?"
"You're forgiven only because you brought pizza," Rodney allowed. "Let's start on Goldberg."
"Any place in particular?" John asked, turning off the keyboard.
"Let's take a look at what you have for music," Rodney said.
John reached into the bottom of the case from the keyboard and brought out a battered file folder. "Here?"
"Since you're set up here, I want you to play some of it for me," Rodney directed.
John laid the music against the music holder that he propped up.
"Don't think too much," Rodney said. "Just play the aria and the first three variations so I can see how you're doing."
John gave a small grin then focused on the music. It wasn't too bad for a talented amateur; Rodney could tell he had been working at it. John hesitated at some of the places where he had to turn the pages of the music but he managed a couple of the turns gracefully.
"Not too bad," Rodney gave him credit for having worked at it. "That gives us someplace to start. Bring the music over here and sit."
They settled on one side of the table so they both could look at the pages. Rodney noted the handwritten notes and the page numbering. "I've dropped this sort of thing myself," he admitted. "Putting music back in order isn't always easy."
"Did that after I dropped it one too many time," John admitted. "Where do we start?"
"After the aria," Rodney directed, turning the first set of pages over. "I like to start with the smaller pieces. They aren't necessarily easier or harder, they're just shorter."
"You're the boss," John answered easily. He took out an equally battered notebook and opened it to a blank page.
"Now, the tempo on the first variation is one of the issues…" Rodney started pointing out some of the various features and the idiosyncrasies of the first variation.
They worked steadily for almost an hour. John took notes and asked good questions about some of Rodney's suggestions.
"I want you to work at this at adagio to get started. The idea is to work on fingering and that cross-over before you try to bring it up to speed," Rodney directed.
"Sounds good," John agreed. He shuffled the pages together and put them back into the folder. "When should I come back?"
"When will you be ready?" Rodney asked.
"What?" Rodney demanded.
"Well, to be honest, I'd like to practice some on your piano," John admitted. "I have a flight scheduled that will take me out of town for at least two days and I can manage on the keyboard. But I'd like some time on a real piano. If you don't mind. Some of the other instructors I've had have let me do that."
"Well, you haven't been obnoxious, so I guess it would be all right," Rodney allowed. And he'd been alone so long that some occasional company in his life was welcome.
"Gee, thanks," John grinned.
"Call me when you're coming," Rodney said. "I'll get you to bring something to eat since I don't get out much and I hate paying the extortion they call a delivery charge."
"Deal," John said.
The back light was out but the moon had come out in the meantime, letting John see enough to get around the end of the building and out of Rodney's sight.
The next afternoon front doorbell went bzzpth and Rodney stumped to the front door. It was too early for John to be back. He hadn't had this many visitors in years.
A woman this time, who was not his sister and probably not a Mormon. She had a case in one hand. "I'm not buying anything!" He started to shut the door.
"Rodney McKay?" she asked.
"Who wants to know?" he demanded.
"My name's Kate Heightmeyer," she introduced herself. "Mr. Sheppard said you had a piano in need of tuning."
"I can't afford…" Rodney started.
"It's already taken care of," she grinned. "Mr. Sheppard paid the fee already."
"Damn him!" Rodney ranted. "He can't just…"
She shrugged, "He told me to tell you it's part of the payment for his lessons."
"Yeah, right. You cost like a year's worth of lessons," Rodney grumped. He opened the door and moved back. "Might as well do the work since you're here."
"No problem!" she agreed with a bright smile.
Rodney didn't make her close up the door behind her but did make her wait while he did. He led her to the living room.
"Oh, beautiful!" she exclaimed. "I love the Pegasus brand of pianos, it's a shame they don't make them anymore."
"I know," Rodney agreed. "It wasn't the most expensive model but it was all I could afford then. In the end, it was a good solid investment."
She set her duffle bag on the floor next to the instrument. "May I?" She held her hand above the keyboard.
"Go ahead," Rodney agreed.
She mostly ran a simple scale, fingering the keys lightly. "Nice sound," she said. "And shouldn't need much work."
"Always took care of her myself," Rodney replied. At her questioning look, he felt himself blushing slightly as he explained, "I call her Lizzie."
"Nice to meet you Lizzie," Kate said, nodding at the piano. "Yes, a real lady."
Rodney held up a crabbed hand. "I've kept her mostly tuned but it's harder with the arthritis," he explained.
"The she shouldn't need a lot of work," Kate replied.
"I'll let you get started," Rodney offered. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Hot tea, no cream or sugar, if that's not too much of a bother," she asked. "And you can stay, I like to get a feel for the owner as well as the instrument."
"It's just plain tea and decaf to boot, since I have to watch my caffeine intake," he warned as he went off to the kitchen. He was pleased she would let him stay, there was something about leaving Lizzie with a 'stranger' that always felt odd.
He got out one of his 'good' mugs, the not-quite-fancy ones his sister sent for Christmas one year, that he rarely used. They were actually nice mugs, just the pictures of the flowers on the outside always made them faintly girl-y. But they were perfect for Kate.
He brought the tea out to the living room and sat it down on the end table near the piano. "It's hot," he warned.
"Thanks," she said absently as she sat at the piano with some of her kit spread about her. She worked steadily for the better part of an hour, stopping to sip tea occasionally as she considered a tuning. Rodney watched in fascination and resisted hovering too closely while she worked.
"I think I'm done," she finally announced. She played a simple melody that ranged over the keys, Lizzie sounding brighter and lighter than she had in a long time.
"You make it look easy," Rodney admitted.
"Lucky with perfect pitch and a good ear," Kate said. "And you have a very nice piano in very good shape here – that makes the work even easier. She didn't need a lot of work, just some tweaking. You've taken good care of her."
"Good to know," Rodney replied, pleased with the assessment. "Can I get you more tea?"
"Thanks, no. Need to be across town," she stood and stretched. She reached to the ceiling, stretching out her back and arms in one large but elegant move. "Sorry, need to work out the kinks."
"Nothing to be sorry about," Rodney said. "Doc said that if I spent less time at the piano and moved about more that the arthritis might not be as bad as it is. No guarantee, but…" He let that trail off. He didn't know what prompted him to say that, he hadn't even told his sister.
"I know," Kate said softly. "My mom had rheumatoid arthritis. She died almost five years ago now but I remember as a kid how careful she was and how much attention she paid to how she did things and to taking care of herself. A lot of that stuck with me."
"Sorry," Rodney mumbled. He never knew how to deal with that sort of information.
"She did a lot of brave things for a woman with her condition," Kate said. "I have two brothers and a sister, when the docs had told her that she'd never have kids. We always knew she wasn't healthy but we knew we were loved. That's what mattered."
"Good for her," Rodney added.
"I think you're all set here," Kate closed the cover on the keyboard. "Lizzie's good for a good bit again."
"Thank you for coming," Rodney replied. "I'll show you out the back, it's easier."
He watched Kate walk around the corner before closing the door. He locked up and made a mental note to see if the kid that lived on the other end of the building could change his light bulb for him. Rodney couldn't reach it and figured he'd break something – the bulb or the cover or a hip – before he was done. Maybe he'd complain to Woolsey about the doorbell on the back door while he was at it.
Going back to the living room, Rodney sat at the piano. He lifted the cover and slowly played the aria from Goldberg. He couldn't do it justice anymore but he could enjoy the music. In his head, it was perfect.
His hands ached when he was done but it was a good ache. He hadn't played even for himself for a long time and he realized he had missed it. He'd take some ibuprofen and soak his hands in warm water before going to bed.
That night he dreamed. Dreamed of his first recital… he had been eight and he had so hoped his parents would be there. He played his heart out on the makeshift stage in the community center the piano teacher used for recitals. When he found none of his family there, he had almost been ready to quit but the applause from the crowd – which he now understood to be perfunctory – warmed him enough to make him press on. When the instructor told him when he was ten that you are technically proficient but you will never play professionally he had already learned how to work on out of spite. In the end, Rodney had never really been much of a professional player but he had done well enough.
In the dream, he looked up through the spotlight as he took his bow to scan the crowd for his parents. This time, in the back, was a man he almost knew…
By morning the dream had mostly faded and by lunch he couldn't have described the dream if he tried.
During the day, he carefully played different pieces on Lizzie, enjoying the renewed sound. He played slowly to give his hands a break and took some of the pain pills he had to relieve the aches. He found himself falling asleep with music notes dancing behind his eyes.
When the phone rang, he immediately hoped it was John. "Hello?"
"Hey," John's warm voice came over the phone. "I have some down time, is this afternoon good?"
"Yes, it is," Rodney answered. "Do you like Thai or Vietnamese?"
"I'll eat most anything," John replied. "Sure."
"I'll call in an order to Taste of Thai, it's on Cedar Street. Where are you staying?" Rodney asked.
"Near the airport," John said.
"If you leave now, you'll be early," Rodney warned. "Give them about 30 minutes before it'll be ready. I'll put it in my name because I have allergies they know to deal with."
"Make it an hour and I can take a shower before I leave," John countered. "I called you first in case this wasn't a good time."
"That works," Rodney agreed. "I got the back light fixed, come around there."
"Okay, see you in a bit."
Rodney called the restaurant and put in his order, reminding the person on the phone about his citrus allergy. They took the allergy seriously but every once in a while there was a new employee who didn't understand and he'd get lemon slices on the Shrimp Mi Xao Don. He stayed away from the seafood this time and ordered a variety of beef, chicken and pork dishes.
John kicked at the partly open back door about an hour and fifteen minutes later since his hands were full.
"Smells good," he said as he set the box in his hands on the table and his duffle bag in a corner behind the door. "You've gotten enough for an army."
"Leftovers are good," Rodney defended. He started unpacking the box, faintly embarrassed at how much there actually was.
"Hey! Just teasing," John said. "And I'm starved so glad there'll be enough."
He poured iced tea for both of them, John drank down half the glass thirstily and then grabbed a plate before he served himself from each of the containers.
"The guy in the restaurant was kinda freaky when I picked the order up," John said. "Asked me three times if this really was for you. Do you know why?"
Rodney grimaced. "Sorry. Didn't think to warn you," he said. "I have a severe citrus allergy. Lemons, oranges, the whole lot. I can't always trust a place to not throw lemon slices on food just at random."
"How bad an allergy?" John asked, serious, a forkful of noodles stopped halfway to his mouth.
"It can kill me," Rodney replied. "Full blown anaphylactic shock, stops the breathing." He gestured to the counter. 'Epi pens in all the rooms. Although that doesn't do a lot of good if I'm alone."
"Ever think of one of those call button things?" John asked.
"Yeah," Rodney waved a hand in dismissal. "Costs more money than I can afford and even if I could afford it, there's no way anyone can get here fast enough to save me. Figure it's just as easy to make do."
"Sucks," John commiserated.
"Yeah," Rodney sighed. Then sat up, "And who are you to have my piano tuned?"
He watched a flush climb up John's neck. It was faintly charming, he realized.
"Well," John hesitated. "I've kind of invaded your life and figured I should do something. And you're letting me play your piano. Least I could do."
"It's… a bit much," Rodney protested. "You don't really know me and this is all… well, it's too much."
"I should stop, maybe?" John asked.
"You should keep it reasonable," Rodney countered. "Dinner is one thing. I know how much piano tuning costs and that was... inappropriate."
"I should talk to you first next time?" John asked.
"There shouldn't be a next time," Rodney said carefully. When John frowned, Rodney relented. "Talk to me first," he sighed.
"I can do that," John agreed with a small smile.
"Finish up eating, then," Rodney said, swiping the last of the Pad Thai, smirking at John's feigned squawk of indignation.
Rodney got out containers for the left overs and said, "I'll clean up since I know where everything goes. You go and practice."
"Thanks," John replied. "Bathroom? I'd like to wash up before I play."
"Through there," Rodney pointed, hiding a small wince. He hadn't thought to clean the bathroom thoroughly. It wasn't bad, just that it wasn't something he'd want to share.
By the time Rodney was done putting away the leftovers and dealing with the trash, John had already settled at the piano. He was playing scales, Rodney assumed to warm up.
"She sounds even better," John said without looking over his shoulder.
"I can leave it you want," Rodney offered.
"No, it's okay," John said. "Not used to someone being there is all." He looked up. "If you want. And I'd appreciate the pointers."
Rodney was pleased. "Sure," he said as he settled into his chair near the window.
John dug into his bag for music and set it on the rail in front of him. He played the part of the Goldberg they had reviewed the other night, not for speed but for precision. He would play a few bars multiple times before moving on to the next section.
Rodney watched in fascination. He had been a 'work the entire piece' player and it was interesting to watch John take another approach. John worked steadily for about an hour, eventually working his way through the entire piece several times.
Resting his hands lightly on the keys, John rolled his head and shrugged his shoulders. He closed the lid on the keys and swiveled around on the bench to face Rodney.
"Done?" Rodney asked.
"Yeah," John nodded. "The acoustic keyboard has just enough of a different feel than my unit so it's different from what I'm used to, but it's good."
"You're doing well," Rodney felt compelled to make at least the small critique. "You need to keep working on that fingering and you hesitate at the cross over. But it's just practice to become more comfortable with it."
"I know I'm thinking too much at that point," John admitted. "But it's getting easier. You should have seen some of my first attempts."
"I can imagine," Rodney said dryly.
John looked at his watch. "I gotta go," he said. "Early flight tomorrow but don't know about the return so I have to play it by ear."
"Har, har," Rodney grinned at the old joke and John gave a grin.
"Be two, three days before I can come back," John warned as he packed his music up.
"Not a problem," Rodney said. "Not going anywhere."
"I'll call?" John asked, suddenly hesitant. Rodney wondered at that.
"Sure," Rodney assured him.
Taking his duffle, John bade him goodnight and Rodney watched him walk around the corner of the building.
It was almost too quiet as Rodney closed up for the evening. He debated about turning on the radio for a bit but decided he might as well call it a night himself. It was earlier than he normally went to bed but having John around earlier had been both stimulating and exhausting.
The next day Rodney puttered at the piano on and off. He played parts of Goldberg as it struck him and that reminded him of some of his own work. He had to dig through the file cabinets to find some of that work… slightly yellow around the edges and creased from being folded. One page ripped at the fold, Rodney stared at the page in slight dismay.
Deciding to work for a bit on just the manuscript, Rodney took it all to the kitchen. He lay out the pages he had dug out and set the ripped pieces next to each other. Taking some clean paper he started to painfully re-copy the work but found himself editing, revising as he went along.
Staring at the music, he could hear it in his head. He wasn't up to playing it and maybe John would play it for him…
He dreamt again that night. He was older, high school. He had hated high school with a passion that rivaled his love for music. Most of his classmates didn't understand his love for classical music and his genius made him a target in all of his classes. He learned quickly that he was brighter than just about everyone in the school – including many of his teachers – and his attitude of superiority didn't endear him to anyone.
Only in Phys Ed was he at a serious disadvantage since he hadn't come into his growth spurt until he was in college. Gangly and awkward, Rodney only did well in physical events that required him to use his hands – his piano playing came in handy there.
The dream was about his graduation recital. He had no expectations that anyone would be there for him… his parents had not cared in years and Jeannie was away at a friend's for the weekend. The audience was what he had expected… his teacher, the other students in the music program and their parents and a couple of kids who obviously had been made to attend or face detention.
Rodney played well, he knew. With another teacher, he'd be better but once his parents realized he could get free lessons in school that was the best he got. His teacher soon realized that Rodney could only practice on a school piano, he'd managed to get Rodney a key to the practice room and permission to use the room whenever the building was open.
He now knew the perfunctory aspect of the applause but it still meant something to him. This was someplace where his skills were acknowledged if not welcomed and he held that thought close.
As he exited the stage, he saw someone in the shadows. A man with rakish hair… and green eyes. Somehow, Rodney knew the man had green eyes.
He woke suddenly. He was breathing hard as he stared at the ceiling. Looking at the clock, it was only 3 AM. Since he was awake, he went to the bathroom to pee and then climbed back into the cooling bed. Making himself comfortable, he fell back asleep.
Looking at himself in the mirror in the morning, there was something… different. It was subtle but… he could see himself better for some reason. He had developed the usual middle-age need for reading glasses years ago but his general vision had deteriorated to the point that he needed glasses for almost everything. Today… today maybe he didn't need the glasses so much.
He spent the day working on the composition he had unearthed the day before. A piano concerto in F. The first two movements were fairly well fleshed out, the rondo needed a lot of work. He had a ghost of the melody in his head, he needed to make it real.
The phone rang three days later.
"Food?" John's voice asked.
"You near the airport?" Rodney asked.
Rodney hesitated. "Come pick me up," he decided. "I'm in the mood for steak and that's best in a restaurant."
"Be there in twenty," John answered and hung up after Rodney's agreement without any further discussion.
Rodney had his jacket on when John tapped at the back door.
"Ready?" John asked.
"Sure." Rodney left on a night light inside and locked the door behind them.
"Where we going?" John asked.
"Other side of the university," Rodney pointed as they got into John's car. He looked around the beige sedan. "Figured you for something… else."
John shrugged. "It's a company rental," he said. "There's a pool of six or eight. Took the one that was easiest to pull out."
Rodney pointed as John drove.
"In here," Rodney pointed to a small parking lot.
"O'Malley's Pub?" John read the sign on the building.
"Steak, baked potato and beer," Rodney enthused.
"Works for me," John agreed.
"Rodney!" the man behind the bar greeted them. "It's been too long!"
"John Sheppard, meet Radek Zelenka, the owner of this dump," Rodney waved a hand in introduction.
"Is not dump!" Radek protested but with a grin that indicated this was a long standing argument. He turned to John, "Is joint! Good to meet you! Sit anywhere, Miko will be right with you!"
They picked a table against the wall that also faced one of the TVs above the bar.
An oriental woman came over and looked them over. "Steaks, medium rare, potato with butter and sour cream and…" she considered. "Lager, I think."
Rodney nodded then turned to John. "Okay with you?"
"Perfect," he agreed. "Better if we can get college football on that thing." He nodded at the TV.
"Hockey is the perfect sport," Rodney countered.
"Ice skating?" John teased. "Really?"
"I'm Canadian, if you must know," Rodney explained. "It's our national sport."
"Point," John conceded.
"I'll change the channel," Miko announced then walked away.
"Is it always like this in here?" John asked.
Rodney's turn to shrug. "You get what Miko thinks you should eat," Rodney explained. "She's usually right, at the very least it's always good, so it's not worth the frustration of trying to order anything else."
"Okay then," John agreed. He looked up to see the TV change to a hockey game.
Miko brought them a pitcher of beer. "Call cab if it's too much," she said as she put glasses on the table. "You need a drink."
Rodney tilted an eyebrow as to say See what I mean? as he gestured to John to pour.
The steaks were perfectly done, the beer cold and the company excellent. Rodney hadn't had this good a time since… he didn't really remember when.
John drove them back to Rodney's apartment, still talking about the hockey game.
"Come in?" Rodney invited.
"Sure," John agreed.
"Coffee?" Rodney found himself offering. "I shouldn't, this time of night but, well, all that food will keep me up and I'll have to get up in the middle of the night from the beer. Might as well make it worth my while."
"Sounds good," John agreed. "Mind if I…" He pointed toward Lizzie.
"Go ahead," Rodney urged. "You don't have to ask."
"Didn't want to assume," John offered.
"John," Rodney said firmly. "She's meant to be played. You're doing us both a favor."
John held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay," he laughed. Then sobered. "Thank you."
"Go play something for me," Rodney commanded. "I'll bring the coffee when it's ready. How do you take yours?"
"Black," John replied. "I'm easy."
Don't I wish! Rodney thought to himself.
As Rodney organized the coffee, the sound of Johnny Cash filled the apartment. John started with "Folsome City Blues" and meandered his way through several other songs Rodney couldn't name to circle back to "Man in Black."
"It's actually faintly sad that I know some of those songs," Rodney commented as he brought two mugs of coffee into the living room.
"These are classics," John protested.
Rodney rolled his eyes, "Har-de-har-har." He set the mug down on the end table next to Lizzie. "Don't let me stop you."
John took a sip of coffee, green eyes dancing over the rim. "Good coffee," he said. He put the cup down and turned back to the keyboard, playing a riff.
Rodney enjoyed John's playing. The country music wasn't completely familiar but John made it entertaining.
"You could do that for a living, you know," Rodney commented as John took a break to finish his coffee.
"Maybe," John wriggled his shoulders in what could be a shrug. "Wanted to fly more," he admitted. "Not really that good. Outside of Cash, my repertoire is mostly classical but I don't have enough background to do anything with it."
"Better than a lot of the hacks out there," Rodney countered. "I did that for a long time and did okay."
John took a swallow of his coffee, considering his answer Rodney thought.
"Yeah, dunno. This has only been for my own amusement," John said slowly. "Don't even really play for friends. Not that I've stayed in one place long enough to make too many of those. So it's been for anyone I can get to give me some lessons but mostly myself. Gives me something to do while I'm between flights. I get to practice a lot."
"Whatever," Rodney waved one hand. "Just saying."
"Yeah," John said, looking into his coffee cup.
"More?" Rodney asked. "It's made."
"Nah," John put down the mug. "Have to go back out tomorrow and need to get some sleep."
Knowing John was going to be away again was suddenly depressing. He tried to keep his voice light, "How long this time?"
"Probably only two days," John answered. "A day out, stay overnight and then a day back." A brief hesitation. "I'll call you when I get back?"
"Sure," Rodney answered easily. "Still not a lot on my calendar."
John closed the cover on Lizzie's keyboard carefully and gave it a small pat. "Back when I can, then," John agreed.
John left by the back door with a small wave as he turned the corner of the building. Rodney locked up and drifted back to the piano. He lifted they keyboard and ghosted his hands over the keys.
Then the rondo was in his head and he started playing… When he was done, he played it back in his head. It didn't sound bad at all but there was a section where the phrasing was rough… He got his working papers out and started writing the changes down.
The next thing Rodney knew there was daylight peeking through the windows. He hadn't worked through the night like this in years. He suddenly yawned, stretching out his back.
"Oof!" he mumbled at the ache. He picked up the music and placed it back in the folder he used to store it in.
Drinking some apple juice to get some sugar into his system so he wouldn't have to eat anything, he was too tired to try to prepare any food, Rodney went off to bed as the sun came up.
Day and night turned around as Rodney continued to work on his concerto. He'd get up, fix a pot of coffee and a meal and go back to Lizzie. He'd conscientiously put his manuscript away when he'd stop working but would get it out when he was up. When the coffee ran out, it was a sign he'd need a break and another meal. When he was too tired to keep working, he'd pack everything up and fall back into bed.
When the phone rang, Rodney jumped, startled. He shook himself and went to the kitchen to answer it.
"Hungry?" John's voice asked.
"Starved," Rodney answered. He was, he realized. "I should eat something decent, which means we should go out again, if you don't mind."
"No problem," John answered easily. "Anything in particular?"
"Beer and a burger," Rodney decided. He needed some serious protein at this point. He looked down at his sleep-rumpled clothes. And a shower. He desperately needed a shower.
"Give me… forty five minutes?" Rodney asked. That would let him clean up and throw in a load of laundry.
"Works for me," John agreed. "O'Malley's again?"
"When a cow is involved, it's the best option," Rodney explained.
"See you shortly then," John said.
The shower felt way too good and Rodney put on what was his last set of clean underwear. He loaded a basket with mostly underwear and t-shirts and went to the laundry room two doors down from his apartment. He started the load, relatively sure no one would want his ratty clothes and left it to work.
John was waiting at the back door by the time he got back.
"Sorry, needed to throw in some laundry," Rodney explained.
"Is it okay to leave it?" John asked. "We can stay in if you need to keep an eye on it."
Rodney shrugged waving a hand negligently. "Not worth stealing, even if it is just about all the underwear I own. We can go."
Rodney had to point out that John needed to make a left turn where he started to make a right but John corrected course with good humor and they made it to O'Malley's with no further mishap.
Zelenka greeted them genially when they took the same table they had the previous time. Hockey appeared on the screen before Miko came out to their table with pitchers of ice water and ginger ale.
In response to John's silent question, Rodney said, "Ginger ale is it, I guess."
"Okay," John shrugged.
Miko set a bowl of home-made potato chips on the table.
"Ooohhh…" Rodney moaned. "I love these and I don't get them too often."
John took a cautious bite then nodded. "Fresh chips are such a treat. Most places don't serve them," he added.
They ate through the large bowl while watching the hockey game. Miko brought out platters with sandwiches, a burger and potato salad for John and grilled chicken and cole slaw for Rodney.
"I really wanted a burger!" Rodney pouted.
"I'll trade," John offered.
Miko appeared at that moment, "No trade. Eat what you're given!" She shook a finger at Rodney.
He sighed. "Yes, mom!"
But it was more automatic protest than anything. The chicken had been marinated in something and it was moist and tender. He finished it off quickly.
"Guess I was hungry," Rodney admitted as he ate the cole slaw. He looked mournfully at the empty bowl of chips and grinned when Mike brought them another.
"You look better," John commented. "You were kinda, well, my grandma would have called it peaked." He pronounced it like it was a two syllable word – peak-ed.
"Been working," Rodney admitted. "I lose track of time and, well, this is the best meal I think I've had since you left. Been eating whatever's in the house whenever I think of it."
"Working? On what?" John asked.
"A concerto. Something I started eons ago and never finished when I knew I'd never be able to play it," Rodney said softly. "I had quite the ego about my own music – no one else could play it as well as I could. But working with you made me get it out and, well, it's close to done."
"Will you play it for me?" John requested, just as softly.
"I… I can try," Rodney replied. "I was hoping you'd play it for me."
"Rodney!" John's eyes got big.
"I won't be able to do it justice," Rodney said ruefully. "You will."
"We'll see about that," John declared. "It's your music, you should play it. It won't be bad."
Rodney gave a short laugh. "Oh, yes, it will," he smiled sadly. "You'll see."
John somehow again paid the bill over Rodney's protests – "I had to eat, too!" John had said calmly – and they were on their way back to Rodney's place.
Once there, Rodney dithered. He really wanted to show John the concerto but he was also afraid that John wouldn't like it. Showing a piece to someone the first time was always something Rodney had problems with.
"Coffee?" Rodney asked.
"Nah, something cold," John replied. "Ice tea or even water. I have to fly tomorrow again."
"Ice tea coming up," Rodney went into the kitchen. He could kill all of three minutes this way.
"Thanks," John said as he handed him the glass. "We can work on Goldberg if you want," he offered, sensing Rodney's hesitation.
Rodney hesitated. "Umm. No. Don't, well, don't mind me, I get… self-conscious," he babbled. "And I do want to know what you think."
"Play it for me," John asked gently.
"It'll sound... bad," Rodney protested.
"Never," John promised solemnly.
"If you're sure," Rodney persisted.
"You and Lizzie, you'll sound fine," John encouraged.
Rodney sat at the piano and it was like all the time he spent there over the past week evaporated. He shuffled the sheet music, not really seeing it. He put his hands on the keyboard and… then everything was right.
The opening sonata form wound around the cadenza and flowed into the slower, more melodic second movement. The new rondo wasn't as flowing as the other sections and it wasn't at the tempo he wanted but he'd rather be slow than fumble too badly. He knew he muffed a couple of the reaches that his hands would not do anymore. He played the last notes, letting the sound settle in the room.
"That was beautiful," John breathed. "Thank you."
"I.. it could have been better," Rodney admitted.
"You worry too much!" John teased. He came over and sat on the bench next to Rodney. Rodney felt the heat from John's body, soaking into his.
"Here," Rodney pointed to the music, "I couldn't do the reach, so I adjusted. But it should sound better as written."
"Hey, relax," John said, leaning into him slightly. "It was fine."
"You want to play it?" Rodney asked.
John reached out to brush his fingers gently against the sheets then shook his head, "Not right now. But.. thank you, I'm honored that you would ask."
"Think about it," Rodney suggested.
"Maybe next time?" John offered.
"Okay," Rodney agreed. He yawned. "I'm all turned around from working on the concerto."
"I'll go then," John offered.
"Nah," Rodney replied, "I should get back to 'regular' hours anyways."
"I'll practice some?" John asked.
"That works," Rodney replied. "Go ahead."
"Let me get my music, it's in the car," John said.
Rodney suddenly remembered, "I need to put the laundry in the dryer anyway. Go ahead."
John grinned. "O'Neill provides a laundry service. Leave a bag and the elves do the work."
"Lucky you," Rodney grinned. "Be right back."
As Rodney moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer, his back twinged. He took a deep breath to let the pain flow away and finished the task. He set the dryer running and went back to the apartment.
John was already sitting at the piano when he got back. Rodney dropped into his chair to listen.
The sharp pain in his chest came from nowhere as he sat there listening.
"Rodney?" John's voice was faint, as if he were far away.
"Can't… breathe," Rodney panted.
"Come on, let's get you to lie down," John coaxed. He put an arm around Rodney and guided him to the bedroom. Once he had Rodney on the bed, he made Rodney lie back and eased his shoes off.
"Better?" John asked.
"Some," Rodney admitted.
"Should I call someone? You want a doctor?" John asked calmly.
"No," Rodney refused. "Just… want to lie here for a moment."
"Okay," John said, Rodney could hear the reluctance in his voice.
Rodney lay in the bed, staring at the ceiling. A good day to die he thought absently.
John came into sight and sat on the side of the bed. He took Rodney's hand into his and held it gently.
"Don't think we're going to finish working on Goldberg," Rodney wheezed.
"There… there is an option," John offered, not looking at Rodney.
"What? Undiscovered Johnny Cash songs?" Rodney teased. Then coughed weakly as the laughter bubbled up in him.
John grinned. "No… something… something else completely," he said.
"What then?" Rodney asked.
"Trust me?" John did look into Rodney's eyes then.
Falling into green fields, Rodney whispered, "Will it hurt?" He winced at how… weak that sounded.
"A little," John replied. "But then… everything will be better."
"I'll miss you," Rodney squeezed John's hand tightly.
"Not going anywhere," John said softly. "Trust me."
"Close your eyes and think of clear blue skies," John whispered in his ear. Rodney could feel John lowering his body on the bed to lie along side Rodney. He wrapped his arms around Rodney and tangled their legs together. "Clear blue skies…"
Rodney breathed deeply and then pain… hit hard. He panted and the pain struck again, making him curl his shoulders off the bed. John held on firmly, calmly chanting "clear blue skies" over and over.
"Come on, you can do it," John's voice urged. "Focus on me. On my voice. You can do it."
Suddenly the pain was gone. Rodney could feel John's arms around him but nothing else. He opened his eyes… then slammed them shut.
"What the fuck?" Rodney asked. There was nothing there.
"Relax," John murmured soothingly. "It's over."
"What? I'm dead?" Rodney demanded. "That's an improvement?"
"I'm dead, aren't I? But, wait, you're here with me and, oh my god, we're both dead," Rodney moaned.
John laughed a little, "Well, honestly, we're not really dead but Ascended."
Rodney opened his eyes. "What the fuck? Ascended? What is that? Who are you? Really!"
John's arms never let go and it never occurred to Rodney to move from them. It was a comfort in the nothing they seemed to be in. "It's kind of a long story. Mind if we find somewhere comfortable?"
"Umm... do I have a choice?" Rodney asked in a voice that came out too small for his comfort.
"Rodney," John said gently. "Always."
A deep sigh. "Okay then," Rodney found himself agreeing.
"Close your eyes for a moment," John ordered. Rodney felt a kiss on his temple. "Okay, you can open them again."
They were in O'Malley's. Rodney looked around but no one else was there. It was oddly still.
"Thought someplace familiar would be better," John explained.
"I guess," Rodney answered warily. "What the fuck is Ascended?"
John sighed. "It's supposed to be a higher plane of existence," he replied. "It's hard to describe but there's a certain level of existence after leaving one's body. The… essence of the person goes on and becomes part of… the universe, I guess. But there are rules and power-that-be that make hanging around mostly a pain in the ass."
"And now we're Ascended and I don't have a body anymore?" Rodney demanded.
"Rodney," John took his hand, rubbing a thumb across the back, soothingly. "This is going to sound pretty fantastic and some things I can't quite explain but… well… I came to get you. We," John swallowed, "I need you so much and you're important to all of us. We… lost you to an Ancient machine that forced you to Ascend then the fucking Ancients wouldn't tell us where they sent you. It's taken years for me to find you, to connect."
"Ancients?" Rodney asked.
"There are lots of other people in this universe," John said. "The Ancients were one of the races that built a lot of incredible technology. But they have those stupid rules that we're supposed to help ourselves when too many times it's their fault we're in trouble. Like… like this time. With you."
"What... what can I do? What do you want?" Rodney asked.
"Come back with me," John begged. "Together, we can do anything but without you…" John's voice trailed off.
"I'm just a musician!" Rodney shot back. "And… old. What good can I be?"
"Rodney," John chided. "Age isn't important to the Ascended." He rubbed the back of his neck. "And, well, you won't remember all of…" he waved a hand, "this. You'll.. merge is the best I can describe it, with the other Rodney. Your music, his science. It's an unbeatable combination."
Rodney sat back in the chair. He didn't let go of John's hand, he needed the contact to ground him in this unreality that he was now in.
"You did all this… for me?" Rodney asked.
"For us," John said softly.
Suddenly suspicious, "It's not going to hurt, will it?"
"Nah," John assured him. "You've been through the worst of it."
"What if I say no?" Rodney needed to know.
John shifted uncomfortably. "We can stay here, if you want. Or, walk out the door and that will be the end. And… you have to know I'll come with you. I'm not going on without you."
"Well, if we stay here, this would be it. I mean it can look like other things but, well, it's pretty boring," John elaborated.
"I've just been through like twenty years of boring," Rodney declared, thinking of the years lost in that apartment. Maybe he'd been waiting for this and never knew. "It can't be much worse."
"It's not easy but it is amazing," John said.
"We're together?" Rodney asked.
"Together," John promised.
"Okay," Rodney said firmly.
The smile that went all the way to John's eyes told him it was the right answer.
"Stand up for a second," John directed. "Come close and put your arms around me."
"Like that's a hardship," Rodney grinned. As he moved into position he couldn't resist and leaned in for a quick kiss.
John surprised him by holding him close and deepening the kiss. John pressed closely to Rodney and Rodney reveled in the closeness.
"Ready?" John asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Rodney agreed.
"Close your eyes and hang on tight," John said. "We don't want to get separated."
"Never again," Rodney promised.
He closed his eyes and clung to John. There was an extended dizzy period and Rodney felt himself buffeted by a sudden wind.
Then it stopped. John's voice in his head said Remember… before everything went black.
Rodney woke groggily. The beeping noise in the background told him he was in the infirmary. Again. He took as good an inventory as he could – fingers, arms, toes, legs, all there. He concentrated and realized he didn't have to pee which meant he had a catheter in his dick. Ugh. He fell back asleep.
The next time he woke, there were voices.
"He's doing better," someone… Carson! Was saying. "I'll call you when he's awake."
"Im.. 'wk," Rodney managed to mumble. He tried to move.
A warm hand on his chest. "Don't move," Carson commanded. "If you tear out any stitches, I'm going to use a knitting needle to fix them."
Rodney relaxed. "Wha.."
"Wait," Carson said. "Let me get you some ice." Some rustling and a spoon at his mouth. Rodney opened and took in the slivers. They melted too quickly and Rodney asked, "Mor..?"
Another spoon and a few more slivers. "That's all for now," Carson said. "Don't keep him up." Rodney figured that was for someone else.
"Rodney," Teyla's calm voice spoke to him. "We were worried about you."
"Yeah," Ronon rumbled from somewhere beyond his feet.
A warm hand took his. "Yeah, scared us all," John said seriously.
"Srry," Rodney mumbled.
John gave a small laugh that sounded strained, even to Rodney. "Yeah, well, looks like you'll be okay," John said softly.
"Stay," Rodney tightened his hand around John's.
"For a bit," Carson put in. "You'll be falling back asleep in a wee bit."
"Stay," Rodney repeated.
"Yeah, buddy, I'll stay," John answered.
"Good," Rodney said as the blackness took him again.
The next time Rodney woke, the lights were dim and the infirmary was quiet. Night. He stirred and a head popped up in the bed that was pulled up next to his.
"Shhh…" John whispered. "You're supposed to sleep through the night, Carson said."
"Msty 'wake now," Rodney mumbled. Although his eyes kept wanting to close, he fought to keep them open.
"Let me get you some more ice," John said softly. "Be right back." John rolled out the other side of the bed and padded out of the room. He was back shortly with a cup. "Here," he spooned ice into Rodney's mouth.
"What happened?" Rodney asked when he could work up some moisture in his mouth.
"Lab accident," John said. "We… we almost lost you."
Rodney frowned. "Don't remember," he admitted.
"Carson wasn't sure you would," John said gently. "You got banged up pretty badly and you have a concussion besides."
"Doesn't hurt," Rodney murmured. He'd had a concussion before and the headache had been ferocious.
"Carson has you on the good drugs," John replied. "I suspect it will hurt more when he starts taking you off them."
"Okay," Rodney replied. Nothing he could do about that, besides, he really was feeling pretty good right now.
"Go back to sleep," John soothed.
"Stay," Rodney replied.
"Always," John agreed, putting a hand on his arm.
With that, Rodney fell asleep again.
Daylight this time. Carson was standing over him, checking the machinery that surrounded the bed.
"Welcome back," Carson said. "How are you feeling?"
"Like crap," Rodney muttered, honestly.
"That's actually a good sign," Carson told him.
"What's wrong with me?" Rodney asked.
Carson hesitated and Rodney added, "Tell me now or tell me later."
Carson relented. "There was an accident in the labs. You, you daft man, jumped in front of the machine and you got the worst of it. You were thrown against another machine and ended up with a gash on your leg, some serious bruising, two cracked ribs and a serious head wound. The concussion is the least of it, you had us worried for a bit."
"'Worried' means I died, doesn't it?" Rodney asked, already sure of the answer.
"Your heart stopped, yes," Carson admitted. "But it's working now and right as rain."
"What does that really mean? Right as rain? Really?" Rodney asked, bemused.
Carson grinned and patted him on the arm. "You'll be fine, Rodney," he reiterated. "Don't try to sit up just as yet, you don't want to stress the ribs. And you need to stay in bed until we're sure you don't have any problems related to the concussion. So don't be in any hurry to leave here." He made some notes in a chart and left Rodney.
He wasn't alone for long when John, Teyla and Ronon came in.
"You are looking better," Teyla said with a smile.
"Sit me up so I don't have to strain to look at you," Rodney directed. Teyla maneuvered the bed so he was sitting up slightly and he could look at his team.
"Tell me what happened," Rodney demanded.
John shuffled his feet in a way that told Rodney he didn't want to talk about it.
Ronon shrugged, "Explosion in the labs. You got hurt."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I know that much, thank you," he shot back.
"Zelenka can tell you more," John put in. "He was there and since you saved his life, he can tell you more about it than we can."
"You can't tell me you didn't watch the security footage a dozen times," Rodney persisted.
"Rodney," Teyla said gently. "I think we will have time for this later. You need to rest."
He was suddenly tired and forced himself to breathe, to relax. "You owe me," he tried to glare at his team but suspected he failed when Ronon smirked at him.
"Sleep," Teyla said, putting a chaste kiss on his cheek. John pulled up a chair and put a hand on his leg to let Rodney know he wasn't going anywhere.
Zelenka didn't come to see him for three days. No one had thought to tell Rodney that Radek had been hurt – a badly broken leg – and hadn't been mobile.
Zelenka swore at Rodney for almost five minutes in Czech, waving his hands from the chair Carson made him sit in, crutches lying on the floor.
"Thank you," Radek said simply when he finally wound down.
"You save my life next time," Rodney agreed.
It took almost ten days, ten very long days in Rodney's estimation, for Carson to release Rodney from the infirmary with the caveat that someone had to stay with him.
At that declaration, John rolled his eyes and volunteered with, "I guess I can do it."
"Oh, thanks!" Rodney protested with a small grin. "Don't be so enthusiastic."
John escorted him back to Rodney's room – he had a 'real' bed after all where John had one of the munchkin sized beds the Ancients had left behind. Once he had Rodney sitting on the bed with orders to not move, John went back to his own room for some of his things.
Rodney took a shower while John puttered in the room, coming out in boxers and a t-shirt. "God, that feels good."
"Always does," John agreed. "Even a shower in the infirmary isn't the same."
"And how sad is it that we know that so well?" Rodney asked.
"Back in bed," John directed. The shower had felt good but he was now exhausted. He climbed into bed with no complaint.
Rodney was grateful when John simply climbed into bed with him, gently wrapping himself around Rodney.
"This okay?" John asked cautiously. "Doesn't bother your ribs?"
"Perfect," Rodney replied and dropped a kiss on the top of John's head. "I… wanted this for a long time. Too bad I'm not up to anything."
John moved closer and kissed Rodney gently. "This is good enough," John replied. "Just… want to be here with you."
"Okay," Rodney agreed.
"Just like that?" John asked, amused.
"Just like that," Rodney confirmed.
It was while they were exploring the North Pier a few weeks later while Rodney was still on 'light duty' but felt the need to do something productive, that they found it.
"A piano?" Rodney was dumbfounded.
"Looks like," John said.
Rodney peered into the device to see what kind of electronics and crystals were inside. It wasn't really a piano since it had a hundred and four keys in multiple shades of blue and green and it had crystals rather than strings. But it had a red mahogany looking exterior and, most importantly, it would play music.
"Harmonic resonance is a universal scientific principle," Rodney pointed out. "Developing musical sounds and musical instruments from that is a simple deduction."
"Rodney!" John sighed. "Come here."
Rodney came closer and John dragged him down onto the seat in front of the keyboard. They sat side-by-side, shoulders touching.
John played a scale and Rodney watched his hands move up and down the keys.
Remember… John's voice whispered in his head.
Rodney stared at the keys. The music appeared in his head. Music he knew. Music he wrote.
Music he wrote in another lifetime.
"Play for me," John requested.
"John?" Rodney whispered. "I... was that a dream?"
"It was real," John said softly. "Another life, another universe. I wasn't going to lose you."
Rodney knew then it was true. He had been… another person.
"Play for me," John repeated. "Please."
As Rodney played, the memory faded. For he was this person now and richer for it. Where the music came from was no longer important for he had someone to share it with. He had John to share it with.
Rodney played on.