Rodney gritted his teeth as his rented SUV juddered up the winding dirt road to the encampment. Damn fanatical greenies - couldn't Halling have built New Athos somewhere more accessible? The website for his Move the Earth environmental campaign had said that the settlement rejected many of civilization’s trappings, but Rodney bet they used what suited them. Even the Archimedes reference failed to mollify him as he hauled his stupidly large vehicle around a bend in the glorified goat-track pretending to be an access road.
He rounded another curve in the hillside, pulling up short at what could only be called a checkpoint. The track was blocked by a split-rail cedar swing gate, set into a new-looking chain-link fence that vanished away into a gully on the left and a stand of pines on the right. A gangly youth with a goatee leaned on the gate, eyeing him with interest. Rodney glared at him suspiciously, but he seemed relatively normal – no obvious signs of carotene toxicity or heavy weaponry. The New Athos manifesto espoused non-violence, but Rodney didn't trust anyone who ate tofu.
He pulled up and waited in the SUV, gesturing vigorously for goatee-guy to open the damn gate already. The young man gazed up at him calmly, and swatted away a fly but made no other move. Cursing, Rodney extricated himself from the seat belt and, with some difficulty, clambered down from the stupidly high cab. He hadn't quite mastered disembarkation with dignity yet. Idiotic tank of a vehicle, but it had been all they had with four-wheel drive at the airport in Olympia.
"I'm Dr. Rodney McKay. I arranged to come up here to see Teyla Emmagan, so if you can just…" He waved his hands at the gate, closed by a shiny, heavy-duty padlock.
"We're gonna need a little ID, Dr. McKay," said goatee-guy, still smiling at him pleasantly. Probably stoned.
"Oh, for–" Rodney got his wallet out of his back pocket and pulled out his driver's license, thrusting it at the time-wasting layabout barring his way. The guy read it with every appearance of interest, then pulled out a walkie-talkie and called in the details. Rodney tapped his foot impatiently. "I'm surprised Halling lets you use the spoils of the oppressors."
The kid smirked. "Yeah, well, we tried tin cans with string between them, but it kept getting caught in the underbrush." Damn, but he reminded Rodney of Sheppard; it was like he'd graduated from the John Sheppard school of manners. He had the drawl down pat, and everything.
"It's not a great likeness," Rodney felt compelled to mention as he took his license back and pocketed the wallet. "I'd been up for three days mainlining espressos and trying to stop a particle accelerator from melting down."
"Oh, I dunno, it's kinda got a crazy-eyed mad professor thing going for it," said the kid with a grin. "Not a patch on your old look, though. I liked the black eyeliner and the lightning bolts on your cheeks. Very dramatic."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. "I see Teyla's been doing show and tell. Well, if you've finished taking the piss and there aren't any further security hoops to jump through"–he waved at the trees–"like hidden retinal cameras or maybe a DNA test…"
"Nah, doc, you're good," said the kid, unlocking the gate and pulling it back out of the way. "And Teyla didn't need to talk – I've been a fan almost since I could stand upright and bang my toys along with the music. With the Aliens is pretty much a cult classic, y'know." He came around the gate and stuck his hand out. "I'm Jinto."
"Jinto? You're Jinto? But you were just a toddler..." Rodney shook hands, feeling guilty for being curmudgeonly with Halling's son who'd somehow become a young adult. Sixteen years, he reminded himself: sixteen fucking years. "Sorry, I, ah. It was a long drive and I hate these fucking things." He kicked the tire of the SUV.
Jinto eyed the hulking vehicle with distaste. "Yeah, regular gas guzzler. You'll have to plant a tree up at the encampment to offset it."
Rodney rolled his eyes as he hoisted himself back into the driver's seat. "Saving the planet one tree at a time, eh?" he called out the window.
"Sure are, doc." Jinto smirked, then shifted a little nervously. "Um, it's just you, then? Don't suppose…John's…coming as well?"
Rodney smiled sourly, tasting a curl of the old bitterness. Better get used to it now, even though he'd had years to work it through. Years, and a very expensive therapist. Besides, they needed Sheppard's charisma if this lunatic plan had any chance of working. "No, sorry, not this trip. But with luck, you'll meet him before too long."
"Yeah?" said Jinto, face alight with enthusiasm. "That'd be awesome." He stepped back and waved Rodney through. "I'll see you up there. They're in the main hall; you can't miss it."
"It has been far too long," said Teyla, squeezing his shoulders as she drew back from that breath-mingling thing she always did.
"Yes, well…" Rodney shrugged awkwardly, trying to convey you know why and hoping his face expressed the rest. It usually did.
"Halling," said Teyla, turning to the tall, bearded man approaching them. "You remember my old friend, Rodney McKay?"
Rodney went to extend his hand but apparently they all did the forehead-pressing here. Halling released him and stepped back, smiling. "Welcome, Dr. McKay," he said. "It's many years since we last met. I hope you are well?"
"Yes, yes, still well," said Rodney. "Still working for the capitalist-industrialist machine." Halling's eyes creased with amusement and he nodded, acknowledging their past post-concert arguments fueled by cheap wine and the hydroponically-grown pot that had funded Move the Earth when Halling first started the campaign back in college. It had international backers now, including several Hollywood celebrities and a Brazilian soccer millionaire. "I met Jinto," Rodney continued. "Didn't recognise him at all, I'm afraid."
Halling nodded. "He has grown a great deal." He clapped Rodney on the shoulder. "But he has not changed as regards your music. There, he remains steadfast." Rodney flushed and ducked his head, caught, as ever between pleasure at having achieved a measure of fame, and unease that it was built on just one album, now sixteen years old. "But I will leave you to catch up with Teyla." He inclined his head and went to join a group of people sitting cross-legged on a big woven rug.
"Come and have tea," said Teyla, leading Rodney across the large space. They picked their way between bean-bags and Rodney glanced up at the geodesic dome structure arching over living room, dining area and meditation hall combined. Teyla settled herself on a throw-pillow with feline grace and Rodney lowered himself stiffly, trying to figure out what to do with his limbs. He ended up perched on a thick cushion with his arms around his knees, feeling idiotic. Halling had a reputation for holding anti-globalization summits on his own turf – he'd probably banned chairs to give Move the Earth the psychological edge in negotiations with CEOs and senators.
He watched Teyla prepare the tea, using a small burner to heat the water. He knew better than to ask for coffee and had tanked up with a triple shot grande at the last town he'd passed through before leaving civilisation.
They sipped in silence. The tea wasn't too bad, provided you liked essence of lawn clippings. At least it was hot. Rodney's thoughts raced, and damn, this was harder than he'd realized: he'd thought he was ready. Teyla just waited. She knew him too well; knew that like nature he abhorred a vacuum.
"I want to get the band back together," he blurted. Crap. He'd meant to work up to it with chat about his work, about her global warming lobbying. Meant to be suave and persuasive. Might have known that was a lost cause.
Teyla blinked at him, genuinely startled. "Iratus? You want us to reform? But it's been…"
"Sixteen years, yes, I know. We're not completely out to pasture though, and band revivals are all the rage these days. Seems like every second tour's got silver-haired old maniacs up on stage with their walkers in the wings. The venues probably have to provide laxatives instead of LSD. At least we're all still in our thirties." She cocked an eyebrow and he rolled his eyes. "Well, just. Sheppard's 37, but you know him, he's Peter fucking Pan." And I'm 36, he thought, and there's no way I've aged as well as John. He shook off the worry, squared his shoulders and drank some more steeped compost, trying not to grimace.
"But…Aiden," she said softly, staring at the floor.
Rodney sighed. "Yes, well obviously we'd have to find a new drummer, that goes without saying. I've done some research, but he's fallen off the face of the planet. He's probably dead, Teyla. Street kids don't survive long once they go back to the gangs."
She shook her head. "I do not think he is dead, Rodney. I…hear things. Through networks you cannot access."
"Halling's networks?" Rodney asked, but Teyla just gave a noncommittal head tilt. Rodney didn't know or care about the darker side of the anti-globalization movement, but he couldn't resist pressing her. "What, Ford's graduated from local drug deals to being an international terrorist?" Teyla frowned. "Oh, sorry, I meant 'activist'". He made sarcastic air quotes.
Teyla stood abruptly and glared down at him. "I see you have lost none of your old bile, Rodney. I had hoped the years might have mellowed you. Clearly I was mistaken."
Rodney scrambled up as well, hands flailing. "No, wait, I'm sorry, I'm an idiot. Please, Teyla, let me finish. It's just – I'm not political, you know that. For me it's all about the science – well, that and the music. That's what I care about." And John? But he brushed that aside, no time for it now.
He took Teyla's hands and tugged her down to sit again. She settled reluctantly, a small crease between her eyebrows.
Last chance, he thought, taking a deep breath. "Physicists have a shelf-life. We're past our best in our thirties and over the hill come forty. Oh, you can teach, or head a research department and watch the young Turks run rings around you. Some people can." He looked down at his hands and tried to still them where they twined in his lap. "Not me, though." He looked her full in the eyes, knowing it was all there on his face: the bitterness, the fear of failure. Fear of boredom, of meaninglessness. "Too much ego, I imagine, like John always said." The cleft between her eyes deepened.
"I'm lucky, I guess, to have two strings to my bow. It's always been music or science – I think they come from the same place in me." Her face softened and he felt a spark of hope. "But you have to choose when it comes to a career, and I chose physics and engineering. Sheppard chose flying, and you chose all this." Gesturing at the hall where small clusters of people were talking or working on projects, the communal kitchen where two guys were kneading bread, Halling leading a meditation class across the far side. "Yeah, yeah," he said, grimacing, "I know there was more to it than that, with the shit with Aiden and the McKay/Sheppard meltdown. Elizabeth dying didn't help, either."
Rodney scrubbed a hand through his hair. Less of it now, and what was he thinking, wanting to be a rock star again? He'd have to shave it all off or wear one of those appalling knitted skull-caps. He blew out a breath and pressed on. "I want to try the music again, Teyla. Take it as far as it'll go. I want to finish the Pegasus Project."
Teyla inhaled sharply. "You are still writing?" she asked, leaning forward, one hand on his knee. "But you had abandoned it."
"I've done nothing else but write these past few months," he said. "It's not done, can't be done until we start playing – you know the last part's always collaborative, with me and John."
She nodded. She'd been their vocalist, bringing Rodney's creations to life with that incredible voice, too large for so small a frame. It was Sheppard and McKay who'd forged the songs, though, John taking Rodney's music and making it more. Lifting it so far above what most bands were capable of that after barely two years of gigs and only one album, they still had fans. Hell, if Jinto was to be believed, they had a cult following.
Or so Rodney hoped: his plans depended on it. And on being able to bring Teyla and Sheppard around. "Teyla," he said, leaning forward. "I'm going to need your help."
"I didn't know you'd kept in touch," Rodney said, fidgeting restlessly as Teyla drove them through the Shenandoah Valley foothills. The woods were giving way to green fields and fences, horses grazing here and there. He began calculating how many trees she'd need to plant to offset the emissions they'd inflicted on the planet flying from Washington State clear across to Washington, DC.
Teyla's hands were relaxed on the wheel of their rented hybrid. "From time to time," she said. "Not so often when John was in the Air Force and stationed in war zones, but he did send some postcards – of camel races, mosques with blue tiles, herds of goats."
"Yeah, that's Sheppard. I can just see him mailing pictures of dusty goats with 'wish you were here' on the back." Rodney stared at the distant ridge-line, purple now as the day sank towards evening, shadows lengthening. "I never…we were never that great at talking, you know?" His leg started jiggling and he stilled it, pressing his hands down hard on his knees. "I heard, though…well, to be honest I hacked the USAF servers a few months ago and found he'd been dishonorably discharged. Tracked him down here, to Virginia."
Teyla shook her head, frowning. "I could have told you he was here, Rodney, if you had only asked me. Things did not go well on his last tour of duty. He wouldn't tell me all the details, but I gather he went out into the desert in Afghanistan against orders to rescue some friends. He did not succeed, and on his return there was a court martial." She sighed. "Then his father died a year ago and John…retired…to the family estate after he left the Air Force." She glanced across at him. "I was concerned when I heard that on top of his troubles in Afghanistan he had lost his father, so I came here to see him, last fall."
"You saw him? When you said you knew the area I didn't realise you meant–"
She glanced out the window. "It looked very different then with the trees in autumn colors. He was there, at the house. He lives alone, you know, no staff. His brother runs the family business from Washington. They are estranged."
"Yeah, I knew they didn't get on. He let it slip one time when we were drunk, after the concert in Philly…"
He didn't want to think about that concert. Not about Aiden shooting up in the head afterwards, about John tossing his hotel room and holding Aiden's arms while Rodney flushed packets of smack down the toilet. In the morning Aiden was gone, leaving a smashed bathroom mirror and FUCK YOU in his own blood across the tiles as a parting shot. John had looked for him for weeks, but the streets had swallowed Aiden as though he'd never left them. That was when it all started falling apart, when the arguments began in earnest.
Teyla nodded. "It was a difficult time, but at least he had us, even though you were…not seeing eye to eye. But last year, Rodney…" she sighed and shook her head. "He was so alone. Wandering about in that big house, with just his guitar. His brother had sold all the horses, and there was no one there, not even a dog for company. He was so closed off – I couldn't get through to him. I asked him to come stay with me at New Athos, but he refused." She fell silent, staring ahead as the road rushed past.
Rodney looked over at her. Her face was grave, brows drawn down a little in concentration. "That's why you agreed, isn’t it? To come with me and see him? To rejoin the band? Jesus. It's a fucking intervention."
Teyla raised an eyebrow and shrugged one shoulder. "Not entirely. I am interested in your new music, Rodney, and I do need funds for campaigning." She glanced at him briefly. "But John, I think, needs this even more."
"Yeah, right, but that doesn't mean he's going to say yes, the jackass. He'll probably have dug himself into a nice big broody pit of anger and self-pity, all hermited away in his big old house. Fuck, I must be crazy even to try."
"We will try together," said Teyla firmly.
The miles rolled by, giving Rodney plenty of time for second thoughts, then third and fourth. He'd known John was going to be a challenge – when had he not been? Effortlessly charismatic, an attention-seeking introvert rebelling against his controlling father, he'd taught himself guitar, practicing obsessively after his mother died until he was, in Rodney's opinion, one of the best guitarists in his generation.
Rodney wasn't exactly free of neuroses – his own quarreling parents with their very conditional love had made sure of that. As had the genius that set him apart – always more gifted, younger and sharper-tongued than his peers. But then again, what peers? No one except John had ever really matched him, really got him.
They'd met at college in a music composition class, and inside two months they were inseparable. Rodney had built a lot of their equipment from scratch in those early days so that they could afford decent instruments, and they'd played John's record collection late into the night, copying Clapton and Page, Phil Collins and Elton John and then branching out, writing their own darker, edgier songs, discovering Teyla and forming the band.
Ford was their dealer back then – a street kid from the neighborhood who'd hung around the warehouse where they practiced. Their first drummer, Sumner, had been a jerk. He'd tried to take over the band and order them all around. Rodney thought John and Ford had gotten rid of him somehow as he'd vanished overnight – and his drums as well. The next day, Aiden turned up with a hopeful face and a new drum kit and John let him stay. He was younger than the rest of the band – Rodney was sure he'd lied about his age – but the streets had toughened him and he was talented. He'd never kicked the drugs, though, and Rodney thought, looking back, that they'd all been part of the problem. He himself had been oblivious, and John, who Ford hero-worshipped, liked to get stoned and drop the occasional trip. Teyla had tried to help but Ford's unrequited crush on her had messed him up even worse in the end. And if he were honest, it had suited them to have Ford as the go-to guy when Rodney needed uppers for a creative jag, or when John needed oblivion after a fight with his father. They were a goddamned rock group: it was what you did.
Teyla looked over at him. "You are very quiet, Rodney. Are you all right?"
He waved his hand irritably. "Christ knows. It's all going around in my head. The arguments with John, Ford falling apart, Elizabeth getting sick. I want to make the music work, but I don't want all that crap again, you know?"
Teyla looked thoughtful. "Do you believe we are the same as we were then? That we have not changed, or learned anything across the years?"
Rodney snorted. "Oh, I'm sure you're self-actualized enough to power a small European country. I, despite a fortune in therapy, still have a few issues." He rocked his hand to and fro. "Okay, maybe not quite as many as before, and I've learned to stay off the speed, but still…"
"You are worried about John? After what I said?" She frowned. "He was sad, but he had lost that driven, self-destructive edge that I recall from college. I am not, as you know, a great supporter of the military, but I believe that his time in the armed forces helped him mature and gain self-control. And he did love to fly, and excelled at it." She considered for a moment, then added, "But I think not at taking orders."
"Never his strong suit," agreed Rodney, trying to imagine an older, more disciplined John, holding even more inside. Rodney sighed: closeted, for sure. Would he still have that edge when he played? That feral concentration, as though the music was his weapon against the world, against himself? They had all changed, so it was foolish to assume the band would be the same and he honestly didn't want the old dramas and crises. It didn't matter if they'd changed as long as they could make it work. All that mattered was the music. That was all that had ever mattered to him, really. Getting the music out of his head and making it sing and wail and live, through John's playing and Teyla's voice. He was no slouch on keyboards either; he'd brought a whole concert hall to breathless silence in Philadelphia with the solo from Echoes, weaving together the aching harmonics Rolling Stone later raved about, calling the piece "celestial whale music" and "otherworldly".
But he couldn't do it alone; he needed John and Teyla. And Rodney had no idea if they could make it work again, at least enough for the music, even if there was nothing else left between him and John. The closer they got to John's house the more panicked he felt, because he'd thought that it wouldn't matter, that only the music mattered. He'd been telling himself that for months, now, since he'd stopped working at Berkeley and let the music fill him up again, let it spill out into hand-scrawled notation, stacks of scribbled pages with architectures of sound, in turn moving and majestic, or jagged and terrifying. He'd told himself that he could set the past aside, that he could win John over with the music. But what if he couldn't? What if John didn't want that?
John had made him laugh, had been his best friend, and had driven him to despair. Teyla and Aiden must have guessed they were fucking but John refused to acknowledge they even had a relationship other than band mates and friends with benefits, and the more Rodney'd pushed him, the more he'd retaliated with one-night stands. Chaya, Teer, Norina. Rodney wasn't good with names, but he remembered the ones he'd hated.
"We have arrived," Teyla said, slowing to pull off the highway near a letterbox with SHEPPARD lettered on the side in black.
"What?" yelped Rodney, heart pounding. "How can we be here so soon?" He wasn't ready, but he probably never would be. He'd just have to tough it out, cram all the doubts and hopes down hard and lock them away. He grabbed the rear-view mirror and pulled it around. "Oh shit, my hair's standing up like a hedgehog from that nap I took earlier."
Teyla shot him a smile as he scrubbed at it futilely. She turned the car into a driveway that curved away towards a large two-story house mostly shrouded in trees. Rodney clutched his stomach, trying to quell the anxious churning in his gut. He felt sick – probably food poisoning from that bacon and egg burger he'd had back in Gainesville. He checked his pulse, cursing his luck. Here he was, meeting up with John again after sixteen fucking years and he most probably had salmonella and was going to vomit all over the bastard's expensive cowboy boots.
The car crunched to a stop in the gravel, and Teyla reached over and took one of his hands, stilling it. "Calm yourself, Rodney. It's just John, and you look fine, really."
"I do?" He sounded plaintive and god, how he hated that. "Right, well, he probably won't even be here, and anyway it'll be fine." He closed his eyes. "It'll be fine, it'll all be fine, just fine, it'll be fine–"
A tap on the passenger window made him jump. He swiveled around, eyes wide, heart pounding, and there was John, bending to peer in, frowning at him through the glass.
Rodney stared back at him. His hair was different – shorter, but not a military buzz-cut, and it stood up on top in obviously gelled spikes. He remembered John flicking his bangs out of his eyes and grinning up from under his lashes as he picked out the intro to Rising for the first time. Rodney remembered those bangs dark with sweat, plastered to John's face as he ripped a wailing arpeggio from his Fender Telecaster in the final bars of Epiphany, that night in Philadelphia. John's bangs were shorter now and there were lines splaying out from the corners of his eyes, more lines bracketing his mouth. His face was harder, more angular and heavier, jaw dark with stubble. Rodney would have known him anywhere and he was even more infuriatingly handsome than he'd been at twenty-one. Fucking typical.
The seatbelt clasp finally gave way and Rodney fumbled with the door-release, thrusting the car door open and forcing John to take a step back as he lurched out. "Jesus fucking Christ, Sheppard, way to give me a heart attack, creeping up with your goddamn ninja moves like that. The last thing I need is to be ambushed!"
"Yeah, and hello to you too, McKay," said John, eyebrows all the way up at his hairline, standing there rubbing the back of his neck. He looked across the car. "Oh, hey. Hi, Teyla. Didn't know you were planning on visiting. So, ah…this is an unexpected…" He glanced doubtfully at Rodney, "…pleasure."
Teyla came around the car and pulled John down for the forehead touching thing. He went with it easily enough, and then he and Rodney stared at each other. Rodney had no fucking clue what was on his own face – probably far too much. John's face was shuttered, eyes hooded. The silence lengthened awkwardly, then John seemed to shake himself. He clapped Rodney on the shoulder, and Rodney blinked and swallowed. "Er, yes. Hi." He waved a hand to include Teyla. "Um, sorry we just, ah dropped in like this, yes. But we did try to call, and, and email, or at least I would have emailed but it just said 'no such account holder' so we," he flailed some more, "just came."
"Oo-kay," drawled John. He looked from Rodney to Teyla. "So what, you're…together?"
"Yes, we drove down together," said Rodney, but Teyla shook her head. "What?"
"We are not together in that sense, John. I told you last year; I am too busy lobbying to have time for relationships. And Rodney has I think been occupied with his own projects. He lives in Berkeley."
"Oh," said Rodney, getting it. "Oh no. No no no. Still footloose and fancy-free." Jesus, he told himself, desperate. Get your fucking game face on, McKay.
John had that totally fake smile pasted on his face, the one Rodney had almost forgotten how much he hated. "Yeah, I can imagine," he said.
Rodney crossed his arms and set his jaw, glaring. "Well? Are you going to invite us in?"
"Do I have a choice?" asked John.
"Actually, no," said Rodney, marching past him into the house.
"It is very good to see you again, John," said Teyla. "Perhaps we could have some tea."
Rodney abandoned his efforts to sleep around 2 a.m. and got up, pulling on sweat pants, socks and a flannel shirt to keep warm. The Sheppard house was a little chilly – John didn't heat it all, and many of the rooms were unused, filled with dust-sheet covered furniture. It spooked Rodney, and he wondered how John could bear to live like this, camping in the remnants of his past.
As far as he could see, John had only nested in a few of the rooms – the kitchen where he'd given them a surprisingly good vegetable soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, a TV room with video games where they'd lounged around afterwards while Teyla had gently quizzed John about what he'd been doing: "not much", and how he'd been: "fine", and a smallish bedroom on the upper floor. Rodney was pretty sure it was John's boyhood room, but the glimpse he'd had from the hallway hadn't shown any teenage decorations, just a battered Johnny Cash poster on the wall and a Gibson acoustic guitar propped in one corner.
John had tuned the TV to a sports channel but none of them were really interested, and Teyla soon declared herself ready for bed. John opened two upstairs bedrooms for them, pulling dust-covers off the beds and apologizing for the unaired sheets like a Victorian housekeeper. It was all very strange, and Rodney kept thinking about the crappy room they'd shared back in college – a converted office in the warehouse where the band practiced. One small, filthy window, a bare bulb, peeling linoleum on the floor and cockroaches as big as mice; John had been phobic about them ever since. He doubted there were any in this house; it seemed far too sterile. At least in the apartment they'd kept each other warm, sharing a double mattress on the floor. It made Rodney ache to think of John here alone. Also, the Fender was nowhere to be seen, which was troubling.
He watched John surreptitiously but he seemed to have the use of all his limbs, hadn't lost any digits; there seemed no good reason why he wasn't playing. John had lived to play, as though his guitar was another limb. He'd said playing was almost like flying, especially when the music was Rodney's. Had he had a guitar in the Air Force? Maybe the acoustic, or perhaps the flying had been enough by itself. That and the danger.
The kitchen downstairs was shadowed but still warm. Rodney found a light switch and started the coffeemaker. Mug in hand, he wandered through the ground floor rooms. He found the Fender at the far end of the house, in an oversized living room with a polished wooden floor. It was set up on a stand with an amp attached, not far from a couch where the dust-cover had been thrown half back. Rodney stood by the windows and ran his fingers over the headstock of the guitar, touching the strings lightly. He sipped his coffee, noting other shrouded lumps of furniture dotted about the room. One shape caught his eye, and he wandered over, lifting the cover and grunting in acknowledgement. He dragged the dustcloth off the piano and dumped it against the wall, pulling out a stool. It was only a baby grand, the typical style over substance choice of a pretentious family like the Sheppards. He tried a few chords, surprised to find it in tune: probably John's doing.
Some time later, in the middle of thrashing out the trickier details of the linking piece he'd tentatively named Conversion, he became aware that he wasn't alone. John was sprawled on the couch, head back, eyes shut. His face looked peaceful in the moonlight slanting in through floor to ceiling windows that filled the end wall. Rodney hadn't turned on any lights; he didn't need light to play and he'd liked the private, secret feel of the moonlit dark. He let the last notes fade away into silence and turned, straddling the stool.
John opened his eyes, and they looked at each other. After a while, Rodney got up and came over, pulling the dust-sheet fully off the couch and dropping down on the far end. He stretched his legs out, resting his head on the comfortably padded back with a sigh.
"You've been writing," John said softly. "You still get time, with the physics and all?"
"I quit," said Rodney. John glanced sideways at him. "Quit my post at Berkeley. It's just been the music, these past few months." He gestured at the Fender. "What about you?"
"I play," said John. "It's about all I do, apart from going for runs, and time in the saddle."
"Teyla said your brother got rid of the horses," Rodney said, frowning and hoping like hell that John wasn't talking about hitting the clubs in downtown Washington.
John nodded. "Yeah. Saddle of the ride-on mower, I meant. There's a shitload of grass here."
"I bet you wear a cowboy hat when you're mowing," Rodney said, snorting.
John cracked a smile. "You're the one who taught me the evils of UV radiation." He got up and went to an antique cabinet against the far wall, crouching to pull out a bottle. Settling back on the couch beside Rodney, he unscrewed the cap and took a swallow, then passed it across.
"Glenlivet? Someone's got good taste." Rodney drank from the bottle, resting his head back and letting the spirits burn an aromatic path down to his stomach, warming him.
They sat a while longer, sharing the whisky. "That piece you were playing: it's new," said John after he'd capped the bottle and set it on the floor. Rodney was feeling the liquor, limbs loose and warm, his head floaty.
"Mmmm," he said. "It's part of the thing. The Project. Kind of a bridge from a high-energy sturm und drang bit to a quieter section."
"It was spooky," said John. "Made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. All jagged and hot at first, and then…somehow alien with those skittering minor chords in the last part." He shivered. "Made me think of bugs." There was a pause, then he added, "What project?"
Rodney yawned, feeling the whisky. "You know. The Pegasus Project."
"Yeah? Thought you'd given up on that." John pushed a hand through his hair, then draped his arm along the back of the sofa.
"Nah," muttered Rodney drowsily. He yawned again. It was hard to stay upright so he let himself list sideways, slumping against the arm of the couch. "What I've been doing, the last few months. Why we came, to get you on board with it, reform the band. Teyla's in."
He could feel the couch rebound as John lurched up. Rodney opened an eye. He was standing by the window, staring out at the dark trees. "It's been sixteen fucking years, Rodney. We can't just…I mean…how…"
"Sure we can," muttered Rodney. He pushed himself up on one elbow. "What, you've got something better to do?" John winced. "Yeah, thought not. Look: tomorrow – talk then. I'll play you some more. 's all done, but it needs your touch. Sleep now." He sank back onto the couch, too drowsy to be freaked out by John's reaction. He lifted his head one last time. "'m sorry. About…before. Shouldn't've pushed you like that; I was a dick."
Something warm was draped over him: a blanket. He was vaguely aware of John standing behind him, looking down. "Yeah, buddy, apology accepted. I was a dick, too. And a coward."
"Don' have to be," muttered Rodney, already drifting. "Take a chance now, with us."
"You always were the brave one," John muttered. Rodney slept.
Rodney woke the next day drooling into the couch cushions. His back was killing him and there was no sign of John. Apparently single malt gave you a refined sort of hangover – he felt slightly delicate, but a few cups of coffee and a shower soon put that to rights.
When he came back downstairs, Teyla was helping John carry dusty boxes down to the big lounge where he'd spent the night. "What's this room called, anyway?" asked Rodney. "And what's all that junk?"
"I believe John calls it the 'ballroom'", replied Teyla. "Good morning, Rodney." She began opening boxes and extracting the contents.
Rodney flapped a vague greeting at her. "Oh, hey, is that a mic? That's a mic." He bustled forward and grabbed it, turning it over in his hands.
"Yeah," said John, unpacking one of the larger boxes. "Figured I should set up some more gear, but we'll have to buy some new stuff as well. I've got an account at Chuck Levin's music store."
That sounded promising, but Rodney decided not to push his luck by commenting.
John began assembling a keyboard. "This used to be Dave's, but it's not like he's got any time for music these days: 'Dave Sheppard and the VPs' is the only group he's interested in." He unpacked another amp and hooked up the keyboard. "It's kind of old, I know, but maybe you can use it while we order some more stuff." He looked around the room and shrugged. "I gotta do something with the family money, preferably something to piss Dave off, so this'll do nicely."
Rodney began sorting through a tangled mass of cables and electrical gear, head down to conceal his elation: John was in: they were actually doing this. "Yeah, yeah," he snarked. "You're a poor little rich kid who's desperately misunderstood. You should be a rock star! Oh, wait–" John dope-slapped him and Rodney darted away, squealing. "Ow! Cool it with the head injuries if you want my musical genius intact so that we can all be famous and besieged by screaming fans." He shook out the fistful of cables. "I was thinking I might wire up the baby grand here, if that's okay? I like the sound of her, and I can amplify the mechanism and patch her into the keyboard and an amp. Where are your tools?"
"Garage," said John, dragging an armchair back out of the way.
"Well, chop chop, Sheppard. Go get me all your tools, so I can sort out this crappy old gear and we can start work." He gestured impatiently and knelt down beside the pedals.
John and Teyla exchanged looks. "Riiight," drawled John. "I'll go do that, then."
"And I will make pancakes," said Teyla, turning to accompany him.
Rodney jerked upright, thwacking his head on the underside of the piano. "Ow, fuck it!" He clawed his way out from underneath. "Ah, Teyla, look, I'm fine with cereal " He looked pointedly at John, who was also a little white around the eyes. "Tell me you've got Captain Crunch."
"I've got Pop Tarts, Cocoa Puffs, and Froot Loops."
"Right, right, so, all the major food groups, no problems there."
Teyla crossed her arms and glowered at them. "It's been sixteen years since we were students. In the intervening time, I have learned to cook proper food." She nodded at John. "I will leave the soups to you, however. The meal last night was delicious."
"They're going to be whole wheat pancakes, aren't they?" asked Rodney in tones of despair. "Or made from soybeans or sprouts." John started backing out the door behind Teyla, looking alarmed and miming lip-zipping.
Teyla pointed at the baby grand. "I suggest that you get back under there, Rodney. You may need the protection it affords, if you forget yourself any further. I have also studied various martial arts across the years, including eskrima and karate."
"Shit," muttered Rodney. He scrambled back under the piano. "Anything you'd like to fix for us is fine, Teyla, honest," he called, voice muffled in the small space. A sneeze overtook him. "Damn. Dusty under here."
"I will have words with John's cleaning service," said Teyla ominously, sweeping out the door.
The last eerily resonant notes fell away into the corners of the room. John's eyes were shut, his head bowed. After a pause he took a deep breath in and let it out, then set the guitar back on its stand, stretching and twisting his spine.
Teyla pushed her hair back and drank from a glass of water on the mantelpiece. Her throat was always dry after singing, and they had been working on the song for over two hours, John and Rodney trying different phrasing and backbeats until they were satisfied. They'd worked their way through nearly all the new pieces in the past week, John helping Rodney to flesh out the arrangements.
"I am very fond of this piece, Rodney," Teyla said. "What are you calling it?"
Rodney got up from the piano stool, pressing his hands to the small of his back with a wince. "The Gift," he said, easing himself down onto the couch. John dropped down beside him, and Teyla took an armchair.
"Ah," said Teyla. "I thought as much."
"Was it the lyrics that gave it away?" asked John with a smirk. He was sprawled back with his arms behind his head. His armpits were dark with sweat, and Rodney could smell him. It was distracting.
"Yes," replied Teyla. "As they consist of: I have the Gift, I am not free, I use the Gift, it uses me, endlessly repeated."
"Look, you know I'm no lyricist!" protested Rodney. "I'm a scientist. I'm not into all that humanities garbage. At least it rhymes. Anyway," he frowned at them, "I'd like to see you two do any better."
"Point," said John. "I'm crap with words."
"Lyrics are not my forte either," admitted Teyla. "I have tried writing, but it always turns out flowery and stilted."
"Forget the lyrics, we've got bigger problems," said Rodney. "What are we going to do about a new drummer and a manager?" There was an awkward pause, and Teyla looked across at John. "Oh for fuck's sake," muttered Rodney. He turned to John. "We have to discuss this, so can you rein in your PTSD for a while?"
John folded his arms, a muscle twitching at the corner of his jaw. "I don't have goddamn PTSD."
"Maybe not, but you're always weird about anything to do with Ford. He's gone, and we need a drummer, end of story."
"Yeah, well, who d'you suggest?" said John, still looking pissed.
"I believe I have an idea that could kill two birds with one stone," offered Teyla. "I will need to go to Washington and talk with some people, but it might solve our need for a manager as well as a drummer."
"We'd need to audition any drummers you dig up," Rodney put in quickly. John nodded.
Teyla inclined her head. "Of course. But if I can arrange it, I will bring them back here, so that we can make up our minds."
"You've got a manager in mind as well?" asked Rodney. "That's going to be tricky. After Elizabeth, well...I don't see how we can replace her." He stared gloomily at the piano. Those final months when she'd been sick with cancer had been hellish and he still thought the illness had affected her judgement, even if her lawyer'd insisted she was competent. But to have yourself cryogenically preserved, Jesus. He hated to think of her in that vault in California. In all his time at Berkeley he'd never once been tempted to try and visit. Not that the cryonics company encouraged visits from the bereaved; they liked to pretend all their "patients" were alive, albeit in stasis.
"Of course it will not be the same," said Teyla. "But we do need someone for the practical details. The person I am considering would certainly be very…organized. And he is good with financial matters."
"Oh whoop-de-doo, an accountant," muttered Rodney, unsettled by thoughts of Elizabeth in a frozen metal canister.
John had gone blank-faced at the mention of Elizabeth, and he had that crappy veneer pasted on again. He shrugged, obviously pretending indifference. "C'mon, buddy, play nice. We've gotta have someone for all that shit. Then we can lay about doing drugs and being fondled by groupies."
"Speak for yourself," snapped Rodney.
"Oh, I was," retorted John. They glared at each other, then John abruptly backed down, grimacing and pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead. "Uh, sorry, bit tired. Okay, no groupies, and we'll try to stick to booze and coffee."
Rodney shut his eyes briefly, because whoa, John was all over the place. He decided to play along, groaning theatrically. "Oh my god, we're going to be the most middle-aged band in history! We'll be as charismatic as Eurovision!"
Speak for yourself," said John, smirking, and Rodney thought that in the old days, before things had gone sour, he'd have taken John down for that, wrestled him into a snorting heap on the floor. Now, it felt like a minefield. Ah, fuck it, he thought, do it anyway, and he tackled a startled John into the couch cushions and tickled him. John failed to use any trained-killer combat moves to break Rodney's arms, which was lucky, all things considered, instead wriggling like an eel, cursing and grappling until he managed to flip them and gain the upper hand. On his back, panting, Rodney caught a brief wave from Teyla as she slipped away to bed.
Rodney's arms were dragged up above his head, John's hands locked tight around each wrist. "Gotcha," John said triumphantly.
Rodney pulled against the iron grip and wriggled, then suddenly stilled, panting, staring up at John's face. He licked his lips. "Yeah," he said, voice husky. "You got me." And shit, so much for this all being about the music, because he couldn't take his eyes off John's mouth, wanted to taste it. Wanted John's weight to press him down into the cushions and make this real.
Instead, John dropped his face into the crook of Rodney's neck and breathed him in, then pulled back, frowned, muttered "Shit, I…" and released his wrists, pulling back to kneel up above his thighs, rubbing a forearm across his face.
"What?" said Rodney, "John, no, c'mon, get back down here." He reached out, but John slid away and scrambled to his feet, standing there beside the couch, biting his lip and looking off out the windows into the dark shrubbery.
"Look, Rodney…" John tried, not meeting his eyes. "I can't…" and suddenly Rodney was struggling to haul himself upright, feeling like he was drowning on his back in the overstuffed cushions. Fuck, but he was stupid, such an idiot to have put himself out there like a target, begging to be shot down.
Flushed with humiliation he turned blindly for the door, barely able to see for the pounding in his head. John grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "Get your fucking hands off me," Rodney snarled, but really it was himself he was furious with. He tried to wrench his arm away but John wouldn't let him go and Rodney was going to have to hit the bastard, wanted to hit him so badly. It was that or bang his own head against a wall until it all went away.
"I was in the goddamn Air Force for fifteen years," said John, hard and tight. "Couldn't do…couldn't be...and I don't know if I can now. Fuck, Rodney, I'm no Freddie Mercury. It's not fair on you, me still being messed up like this. I know you always wanted us to come out and I fought you on it, and I still don't know. But you have to know I want…you have to know." He was pleading, looking wrecked, and all the fight went out of Rodney, knees buckling as he sat down heavily, head in his hands. John slumped onto the couch beside him.
"I have to say that from my perspective it doesn't look like you know what the hell you want, John," Rodney said, eyes squeezed shut. He forced himself to open them and leaned back against the couch. His timing was terrible, he thought tiredly. They'd only been back in contact for a week, and here he was pushing John already. He didn't care. He'd always been pushy; John knew that. And maybe it was because he was older, but he didn't have the stamina for months on end of unresolved…whatever the fuck this was.
John stared at his hands. "Look, I was caught up in it all – the missions, Afghanistan, the war, stupid orders, people dying, friends dying. Then after, I just felt like shit. Trust me, you wouldn't have wanted to be around me. The only way I could even cope was to block everything out." He made a vague gesture. "Not that I was celibate over there, but, it's how you get by. A hand-job, a blow-job, anonymous. I never…it never meant anything."
"Yeah, right," said Rodney. But he'd known how it must have been. Not like he'd been celibate, either. "I tried to forget you, I honestly tried. I thought girls'd be safer so I dated Katie, who was frighteningly nice, and Jen, who was a doctor and kind of scary but she went back to Wisconsin when her Dad got sick. Her name didn't help either. I think she could tell I wasn't always moaning 'Jen' when she was blowing me."
John screwed up his face. "Ew, classy," he said, and poked Rodney in the side, and then they were laughing, and they couldn't stop, and Rodney supposed it was marginally better than crying, even if he felt the same afterwards, wrung out and bruised.
He should have left it there, knew John had already done a year's worth of talking about feelings, but they had to work together. "So…how's this going to go? We going to try and take it slow, or d'you just want to be friends? Because I can't promise that I can do the 'just friends' thing and I'm sure as shit not doing that 'friends with benefits' crap again and if it doesn't work I'll have to fuck off back to Berkeley and–" He clamped down on the babbling, but he couldn't think what he'd do if John didn't want...if the band failed…if he had to go back to California. He felt sick and hollow even imagining it – Berkeley an arid wasteland and his house there a tomb.
John made a pained noise. "I didn't think I'd ever see you…tried not to think about you, not to remember. I just shut it all down for years, and now I 'm scared it'll fuck up the band. I need the music, Rodney, and I want the band back. But I need to feel a bit less broken." He rolled his eyes. "Christ. Mostly I need to stop saying need. I'm a fucking fighter pilot." He sighed. "Was a fighter pilot."
"Your macho street cred is revoked until further notice," Rodney said, dryly. "So, to translate, the verdict is slow. You need time."
"Yeah," said John. "Slow."
"Does necking count as slow?" Rodney asked, just to be a bastard. Also, he liked necking.
"Jesus, Rodney," said John.
"Right, slow means slow," Rodney muttered. He sighed. "Be nice to get it on while I've still got some hair left."
"McKay," said John warningly.
"I'm just saying," said Rodney, spreading his hands, but when he looked over, John was fighting back a grin.
Teyla made some phone calls, and they worked on the songs some more. John went for a lot of long runs. Rodney tried to avoid him afterwards because there were limits to what he could handle, and a flushed, sweaty, endorphin-buzzed John Sheppard tested them severely. A few days later, Teyla drove up to the city, saying she'd be back in the late afternoon.
The delivery from Chuck Levin's arrived just after lunch and they spent the afternoon plugging things in and setting up the drum kit. They experimented with the new amps, playing a few old classics from their With the Aliens days, some Stones, even some Johnny Cash, Rodney on keyboards rolling his eyes throughout and hamming up a duet with John, fluttering his eyelashes and hip-bumping as he sang, "Because you're mine, I walk the line". He figured a little mild flirting probably counted as "slow". Neither of them had great voices, but they did okay as back-ups with Teyla carrying the vocals. By the time Teyla pulled into the driveway in John's old Jeep there were long shadows across the lawn, and they had the ballroom pretty well organized.
Teyla introduced the two guys she'd brought with her. "John, Rodney, this is Richard Woolsey and Ronon Dex." Woolsey, in a suit and tie and looking like he had a stick up his ass, was all smiling formality. He must be the accountant. The other guy was huge, and Rodney was nervous to see his extremely valuable hand – really, it should be insured – vanish inside his giant paw. Dex's grip was surprisingly gentle, and he grinned at Rodney as though reading his thoughts. Which, yeah, Rodney knew would have been written all over his face, so no prizes there.
Dex was in tight brown leather pants and a black shirt, a hint of dark leather at his throat where the top button was undone – some kind of hippy necklace, probably, if he was a friend of Teyla's. The hair certainly fit with that – massive dreads, threaded with beads which, if he was the drummer – which was kind of a no-brainer – were a potential liability, if he thrashed his head like most drummers Rodney'd known. Guy was going to cut his face on those bits of shell and carved wood.
John nudged him, and Rodney realised he'd been staring. John was looking pissed, and hello, was he jealous? Rodney almost laughed out loud because, yeah, this Dex guy was hot and a part of Rodney's brain was calmly calculating how that would help them with the Eurovision problem, but come on, John was John fucking Sheppard. He made a for fuck's sake face back at John and gave him a hot, undressing once-over to drive the point home. John's ears flushed.
Teyla cleared her throat, and Rodney turned back, guiltily. The other three were looking amused, so, oops, not so cool there with the low profile thing. Never give up, never surrender, Rodney thought, and barreled on. "So what, you're the drummer?" he asked the man-mountain, sticking his chin out.
"Yeah," said Ronon. Brilliant, another wordsmith. He and John were going to get along famously.
"You wanna just get down to it?" John asked, and Dex looked at Woolsey. Right, Woolsey was a manager, probably Dex's manager or agent, whatever.
Woolsey nodded. "That would be excellent. Teyla said that you had some equipment here?"
John nodded. "Sure, the drums were delivered earlier." He grinned at the big guy. "You can check we set them up right." Dex just grunted, and they all traipsed down to the ballroom.
Dex stood and stared at the drums for a moment, as though they were adversaries to be subdued. Just when Rodney was losing patience he sat himself down on the stool. "They're new," he said.
"Yeah," John agreed. "We're just getting set up here, recruiting a drummer. These are for the practice space here at the house, or in case we find a drummer without a kit."
"Oh, Ronon has his own top of the line drum set," said Woolsey. "I make sure of that." Dex flashed him a surprisingly sweet smile.
"Well?" said Rodney, tiring of the chit-chat. "Show us what you've got, then."
"They're new," repeated Dex, frowning and stretching his arms out across the kit, checking the positioning and moving the hi-hat to the right. "Gonna need time to tune 'em up."
John straightened up from where he'd been slouched hip-shot against the wall. "Sure thing, buddy. I think we've got that drum key doohickey around here somewhere."
"Got my own," said Dex, pulling one out of his shirt pocket. Woolsey bustled forward and handed him a black fabric roll which proved to contain drumsticks. Monogrammed ones, although Rodney couldn't see the details. Rodney sighed. Drummers – drama queens the lot of them. Ronon was now tapping the drums, one ear cocked, and pressing down on the heads with his huge fist. Rodney was tempted to snap you break it, you bought it, but he caught Teyla's eye and held his tongue. "This'll take half an hour," said Dex, head down as he tapped and listened, fiddling with the drum key.
Woolsey nodded briskly and raised an eyebrow at Teyla. "Is there somewhere we can talk, while Ronon makes the necessary adjustments?"
They followed Teyla to the kitchen. John leaned into Rodney and murmured, "Guy seems to know his drums."
"Maybe," Rodney replied. "We'll see if he can play them."
They sounded out Woolsey, or he interviewed them, Rodney wasn't sure afterwards quite what had happened. Anyway, they seemed to pass muster, and although Woolsey was a tightass he had a nice line in irony that Rodney appreciated, and he seemed to know the music business. Probably it was good that he was nothing like Elizabeth, and times had changed in the last sixteen years, so a frontman who looked like he was one of Dave Sheppard's VPs was…oh, who the hell was Rodney kidding. He leaned across the table. "Tell me, Richard," (they were on a slightly sarcastic first name basis by now), "who's your pick for Eurovision this year?" John kicked him under the table.
Woolsey frowned. "You follow the Eurovision contest? I'm afraid it's…not really an interest of mine. I'm not a fan of television, in general. Give me a cigar and a good quality wine – and Ronon, of course – and I'm content."
Rodney spluttered and blurted, "You're not just his manager, then?" John kicked him again, harder.
Woolsey smiled. "Oh, I'm very much his manager, and grateful for the trust he places in me." He looked at his watch. "But I believe Ronon will be ready to demonstrate his talents."
Ronon looked up as they entered. "Anything you want me to play?" he asked.
John leaned against the mantelpiece. "Nope. Why don't you surprise us."
"Okay," said Ronon, and launched into…wait, Rodney knew that intro, that was Ron Bushey's drum solo from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
"Hah! Iron Butterfly!" Rodney announced, snapping his fingers, and Ronon grinned, getting stuck into the syncopations as the pace ramped up. They were all foot-tapping by the time he switched to another very familiar piece, jazzy and damn, Rodney knew what it was, even without the big band backing. "Buddy Rich!" he exclaimed, and then they were all in it, guessing the tracks as Ronon played snatches of Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith and Keith Moon.
Finally, John couldn't stand it any more. He grabbed his guitar, "C'mon, guys, let's rock," he said, grinning.
Rodney raised his hands "You are such a pushover, Sheppard – roll out the classics and you're anyone's." But he was moving to the keyboard, fitting chords around John's lead as Ronon segued obligingly into Smoke on the Water, and Woolsey sat back, beaming, arms spread out along the back of the couch, fingers tapping, his eyes fixed on Ronon. Then Teyla started to sing and his head snapped around as her voice filled the room. Rodney caught John's eye and they grinned ear to ear.
He couldn't recall later exactly what they'd played, but he knew there'd been Hotel California in there and Knockin' on Heaven's Door – the Guns n Roses version. John gave them Stevie Ray Vaughan's Tightrope and even a cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. There was some Aerosmith, the obligatory Stones bracket, and some AC/DC, but the high point wasStairway to Heaven, because you couldn't have a nostalgia-fest without the crowning jewel. Rodney lost himself in the music, peripherally aware of John, head back and eyes shut in ecstasy as he channeled Jimmy Page, and when Ronon leaned into a mic and added a powerful baritone to Teyla's alto, it only seemed right. Inevitable.
They couldn't top that, coming back to themselves dazed and sweaty as the last notes faded out, and Christ, it was 10 p.m. and they'd completely forgotten about dinner. John broke out frozen pizzas and a cabernet from his father's cellar that Woolsey drank appreciatively, rolling it around his mouth and pronouncing it a "big wine, redolent of blackcurrants, with a hint of citrus."
Rodney almost spat his out at that, but John calmed him down. "It's just a term, Rodney, no actual citrus in there."
"Well, it’s a stupid term," said Rodney, glaring across the table, but Woolsey was feeding Ronon bites of pizza, the two of them totally engrossed and oblivious to Rodney's ire. Ronon had stripped off his shirt during Brown Sugar, and apparently the thing around his neck was a handcrafted black leather collar, D-ring and all, which explained a lot.
"Hey," said John, leaning across the table towards Ronon. His arm was slung warm along the back of Rodney's chair. "You're pretty fucking good, man."
Ronon grinned, white teeth flashing. "Thanks. You're not bad yourself," he glanced at Rodney and Teyla. "All of you." Teyla tilted her head in acknowledgement, and smiled.
"We can play some more tomorrow," John continued. "Our own stuff, from Rodney's latest project. You're staying, right? Plenty of rooms here."
Woolsey glanced at Ronon and nodded. "Thank you, that's very kind. We would love to stay and explore this association further. I take it you're interested in Ronon as a drummer?"
"Oh, yeah," said John. He looked straight at Ronon. "You in?"
"You kidding?" said Ronon. "You're Iratus, of course I'm in." He and John high-fived each other across the table, and Rodney found himself joining Richard Woolsey in an eyeroll, which was disturbing.
John took Woolsey and Ronon upstairs, and Teyla said her goodnights and went off to meditate, saying that it had been an invigorating day and her chakras needed realigning. Rodney was sipping his bedtime coffee when John reappeared, flopping down in a chair and blowing out a breath.
Rodney was pleasantly buzzed from the wine. "You got the lovebirds sorted, then?" he asked, letting his foot rest against John's. John didn't move his away.
"What, Richard and Ronon? Yeah." John grinned conspiratorially. "Put them in Dave's master bedroom, that he keeps for when he visits here. It's got a four-poster, and some of his tie collection's still in the wardrobe."
"You are a wicked, wicked man," said Rodney, leaning into him companionably.
"I'm sorry," said Woolsey politely but very firmly, "but this simply won't do."
It was the morning after the classic rock nostalgia blow-out, and they'd been working through some of the new songs with Ronon on drums while Woolsey read the sheet music. Rodney'd thought the new material was coming together pretty well, so he rounded on Woolsey, who was a fucking accountant so what did he know. "If you're going to represent us, Richard, a little more support would be in order!"
"I am endeavoring to be supportive, Rodney, and the music is not the problem. The music itself is exciting and unusual."
"Oh," said Rodney, somewhat mollified. "So what–"
"'s the lyrics, man," said Ronon, and Woolsey nodded. "Seriously, they suck."
"That is a little harsh," said Teyla, "but yes, they need some work."
Rodney slumped down on the couch, and crossed his arms mulishly. "They're not that bad, and anyway, we've been over this. None of us can write for shit."
John leaned over from behind and squeezed his shoulders. "Easy, buddy, we'll sort something out. I've been thinking about it and I might have an idea about someone who could help." He looked up at Ronon. "Unless you're good with words, big guy?" Ronon just laughed and did a sarcastic drum roll. "Nope, didn't think so." John came around and sat down beside Rodney. "I’ll need a few days to look up an old contact, see if he's available. He's in New York, or he was, last I heard."
"So who is this mystery lyricist?" demanded Rodney, narrowing his eyes.
"Just an old college friend, Rodney. You never knew him and I'd rather see if I can track him down before getting everyone's hopes up. It's been a hell of a long time since I last met up with him. I can drive the Jeep to DC, take Ronon and Richard home and catch a flight from Dulles."
Rodney pouted. He didn't like the thought of John knocking about the Big Apple by himself, getting up to any damn thing. There wasn't much he could do here anyway, without all of them playing through the songs to fine-tune the arrangements. "It's not fair that you get all the fun."
John raised an eyebrow. "You wanna come too? Be my guest. I hate commercial flights so you can distract me. You're pretty good at that."
Rodney flushed and ignored Ronon's smirk. "What, you're a pilot, and you don't like flying?"
"I like flying when I'm doing it, Rodney," said John, rubbing the back of his neck. "Not so much in a tin-can with no leg-room where I'm not doing the instrument checks myself."
"You are such a control-freak," said Rodney, shaking his head. "Clearly you need supervision. Oh, but–" he turned to Teyla. "Will you be all right here, by yourself?"
"I will be fine, Rodney. I will go up to Washington and do some environmental lobbying. I need to return the rental car, anyway. Perhaps you could call me on your return to Dulles, so that we can rendezvous and return here in the Jeep?"
"Sure thing," said John.
"Well then," said Woolsey, rubbing his hands together. "That seems satisfactory. Ronon and I will make arrangements in the city and return on the weekend. May we continue to use the bedroom you provided last night? It was very…comfortable." Ronon grinned wolfishly.
"Yeah, sure," said John. "Whatever you want, just ask."
"Clothes pegs," said Ronon.
"What?" said John.
"You got any clothes pegs?" repeated Ronon, raising an eyebrow.
"You're doing laundry?" asked John, baffled.
Ronon smirked. "No." Woolsey shook his head indulgently.
"Oh for Christ's sake," snapped Rodney. He grabbed a cardboard box of assorted junk he'd been using to tie back the equipment cables and rummaged about in it, pulling out a couple of bulldog clips and throwing them to Ronon. "These do?"
"Oh yeah," said Ronon.
John opened his mouth, frowning, but Rodney held up his hand. "Don't ask."
"This is not looking promising," said Rodney, balking at the funky-smelling entrance to the tenements. They were in one of the crappier parts of Morningside Heights. "You're sure it's the right place?"
"Yeah," said John. "Well, from what Steve down at Wraith Records said, anyway. He's not the most reliable informant, though. Half a pound of hash a day'll do that to you."
They both stared at the elevator. It was scrawled with graffiti and its doors were jammed half-closed. Or half-open, thought Rodney, wondering if that was a personality test as well, like the glass thing. He decided the smell emanating from the disused elevator disqualified it from testing anything except his urge to gargle hand sanitizer. "All rightee then," said Rodney. "It's unlike me, I know, but I'm going to suggest we take the stairs."
"Yeah," said John, peering up into the dimly lit stairwell. "It's only six flights."
Rodney sighed and they started their ascent. "He'd better be worth it," he gasped, four flights up, slumped heavily against the landing wall.
"That I can't promise," said John, who was barely even breathing hard, the bastard. "You gonna be okay? You're an unusual color. Kind of like beets."
"Fuck off," said Rodney, and they continued.
The guy who opened the door John had hammered on was, to Rodney's mind, sufficiently strange-looking to be an actual alien, not just an illegal one. John had said he was a Canadian overstayer who was paranoid about authority and stayed off the grid, but he didn't resemble any Canadian Rodney had ever seen. He was tall and weirdly pale, with long, greasy, white-blond hair and a scruffy chin-beard. His teeth were pointier than Rodney was comfortable with, and he had a momentary flare of panic that the guy might explode in a burst of flame if they ever got him outside en route to the subway.
"Todd, man," said John, with every appearance of pleasure. "Good to see you."
"John fucking Sheppard," said Todd, his face creasing in a somewhat disturbing grin. "Far out, brother." He glanced at Rodney. "And a sidekick."
"Our musical genius from the band," said John easily. "Rodney McKay."
"McKay," said Todd, nodding. "You looked better with the eyeliner." He turned back to John. "Any reason he's purple?"
John shrugged. "Elevator's out. We took the stairs."
"Elevator was never in," said Todd. "This is a health-conscious residence. Aerobic." He stepped back from the doorway. "Come in and take a load off, man, I was just brewing up."
The tea was an odd reddish-purple and Rodney was unsurprised to find that it tasted like lawn clippings. He forced some down, shifting gingerly in his seat in an antique dentist's chair. The apartment reminded him of one of those mutant-creature nests from an X-files episode. He peered into the shadowy, junk-cluttered corners, looking for desiccated bodies or tentacles. It smelled somehow sticky, of rodents and incense.
John was sprawled back in a deck chair, and Todd had the red velour and gilt stool from a lady's vanity set. He was leaning forward, rolling a joint on a low table.
"So," Rodney tried. "How'd you two meet, then?"
"Incarcerated," Todd said indistinctly around the joint as he lit up. "Dark night of the soul." He blew out a long stream of smoke and passed the joint to John.
John nodded. "Yeah, we got ourselves locked in the basement props store-room of the drama department by mistake. Had to spend the night there." He grinned at Todd and took a drag, holding his breath then releasing it in a rush. "It was intense, thanks to some tabs of acid Todd had stashed away. The details are a bit hazy but I'm pretty sure spirit animals were involved. Todd went on a poetry jag and I found a ukulele so we had a jam session, kind of feeding off each other. At some point we became blood brothers."
"You saved me from the mirrors, man," Todd said, nodding. "That's a life debt, right there."
John handed the joint on to Rodney who, with some trepidation, took a careful drag. He tended not to do well on drugs; they had unpredictable effects on him. Weed could go either way – acute paranoia or the munchies. But he was fucked if he'd be out-cooled by Todd, who was a definite check mark on the not-so-Eurovision side of the ledger.
Todd took another long drag. "So, Sheppard, brother mine. You come to collect what you're owed?"
John grinned and looked up at Rodney. "Todd's got a thing about mirrors. Thinks they steal your life-force or something. It was a props store-room, so there were a few of them about. I just draped some curtains over 'em, turned one to the wall. No big deal."
Rodney frowned at Todd. Mirrors, huh? Evidence for Todd being undead was mounting. Or possibly that weed was stronger then he'd realized. John handed him the joint again and he took a puff anyway, because he could be a risk-taker, damn it, riding the edge of chaos. He doubled over in a paroxysm of coughing.
John leaned over and patted his back. "Hey, buddy, easy there, you're not used to this stuff. C'mon, just breathe, that's it, that's better. Here, have some tea." Rodney clutched the mug and drank thirstily; it needed honey. Mostly, it needed to be coffee.
"The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," intoned Todd. "Your inner animal's probably a whale. Something watery, anyway."
"Todd's is a cobra," explained John. "Mine's an eagle."
"Yes, yes, I get it," snapped Rodney, obscurely annoyed. He'd had nightmares about whales. "I'm all wet and you get to fly, quelle surprise. Can we cut to the chase and get on with the recruitment drive?"
"Chill out, McKay," drawled Todd, and Rodney wanted to kill him. Or possibly to eat chocolate. He wondered if Todd had any Peanut Butter Cups. His stomach rumbled, and John smirked and felt about in the pockets of his leather jacket.
"Here, buddy." He threw Rodney a Hershey's bar, and Rodney fell upon it greedily. Oh yeah, sweet melting chocolatey goodness. He closed his eyes in bliss. John watched him, amused. "Thought we might need that. I remember you and the munchies from the old days."
"Mmmpfgd," said Rodney happily, mainlining chocolate. "Mffphgu!"
"You're welcome," grinned John. He turned to Todd. "Look, it's like this. Rodney's written some new music, but the words are shit."
"Rrnt!" protested Rodney. "Mffgns."
"Anyway," continued John, "we need a lyricist, so I wondered if you wanna be part of the project, help us out? We're reforming Iratus – got a practice space in my family's house in Virginia. Promise I'll sort out the mirrors. I mean, you're still writing, Steve said? The poetry?"
Todd eyed him thoughtfully. "Yeah, man, still writing. You know the score – poetry slams, the beat circuit, throw-downs at the clubs. Teach the odd avant garde class. Rapping in the subway." He shrugged. "Harder to scrape by these days."
"So come stay with us for a while, see how it goes," suggested John, loose-limbed and easy in his deck chair, hands clasped behind his head. Rodney stared at him, wanting. He'd forgotten this part of the munchies, the horny part.
Todd came to a decision. "Very well, John Sheppard, I'll be your poet in residence." He leaned across and did some secret handshake thing with John. Rodney rolled his eyes, then wished that he hadn't, because, wow, vertigo.
"Can we go now?" Rodney asked, licking chocolate off his fingers. "I need ice cream, or, ooh, pizza!"
John did a smooth athletic push-up and was suddenly vertical. He leaned on the arms of Rodney's dentist chair and smirked down at him. "Munchies, huh, buddy?"
Rodney beamed at him happily because John was fucking gorgeous, and soon there would be pizza. He dragged John down and hugged him, sucking on his ear. It tasted of chocolate, delicious. John snorted and wriggled in his grasp, gasping, "Quit it, Rodney, not the ears! Tickles!"
He pulled them both up, steadying Rodney and grinning at Todd. "We've got less than an hour before he crashes into a sugar coma and starts snoring."
"Hey!" protested Rodney, swaying.
"I'll get my coat, man," said Todd.
The dining room at John's house was elegant with brocade curtains, a long polished table covered by a white cloth, and chandeliers glowing soft gold on a dimmer switch. The only discordant note was the large mirror, twisted to face the wall. Candles flickered in the center of the table, Teyla having decided they needed "ambience" for the artistic conference Woolsey had called after two weeks of Todd reviewing Rodney's music and listening to them practice.
Rodney had his laptop open in front of him, playing about with a few music files on the desktop. Ronon was leaning back on the other side of the table, Woolsey's arm draped across the back of his chair. Rodney suspected they were holding hands under the tablecloth. Beside him, John was slouched down, one foot resting on the other knee, long fingers tapping out a rhythm on his thighs.
Teyla was chatting with Kanaan, a dark-haired guy Rodney had last seen kneading bread in New Athos's communal kitchen. Kanaan, Jinto, Wex, and Sora, a scowling young woman, had arrived the day before. Teyla had recruited them from New Athos as roadies and security, and it looked to Rodney as though she had an ulterior motive in picking Kanaan, from the sparkle in her eye as they conversed. Wex and Jinto were trying to act cool, but they kept shooting worshipful looks across at John, and he'd suddenly developed an entourage, to Rodney's intense annoyance.
Todd swept in, clad as ever in a full-length, black leather coat, stovepipe jeans and a ripped Rage Against the Machine t-shirt. He took a seat at the head of the table, removed the pair of aviator shades he'd stolen from John, and nodded at Woolsey.
Woolsey raised an eyebrow. "As everyone's here now, we'll begin." At least he seemed impervious to Todd's posturing. Woolsey cleared his throat. "First: branding." He picked up a sheet of paper and read from it. "'Iratus: from the Latin, meaning angered, enraged, furious'. And your symbol is the Iratus beetle, highly stylized. I assume you'll want to stick with that?"
John screwed up his face and shrugged. "Yeah, I guess. I'm not a big fan of bugs, but Ford stuck us with the damn logo – he designed the posters for our first concert. It's part of Iratus's image now, so we’d better not fuck around with it." He glanced at Jinto and Wex and quirked a smile. They were both wearing t-shirts with the logo and IRATUS printed on the front. Rodney figured they'd had them made up at a mall.
"Besides," said Wex eagerly, "it's an endangered species whose habitat's threatened by rising sea-levels."
Teyla inclined her head. "I am not fond of the angry symbolism but few will know the Latin meaning, and it represents the fight against corporate oppression and environmental degradation. It will do."
Woolsey looked at Rodney. "Dr. McKay?"
"Look, call me Rodney – I'm not a professor any more. It's edgy, it identifies us, end of discussion. Can we move things along instead of getting stuck on trivia? I've got things to do."
Ronon narrowed his eyes across the table, and Rodney crossed his arms and glared back. Woolsey cleared his throat. "So then, continuing. I suggest we hear from Todd, now, as his artistic direction may influence our decisions about marketing and posters." He gestured to the head of the table, and Todd rose.
He paced to and fro dramatically at the end of the room. Rodney nudged John, and rolled his eyes. John's lip twitched. He kicked Rodney's foot.
"Death," intoned Todd, standing stock-still. His glittering gaze moved from person to person around the table.
"Ancient and alien locked in battle.
Warriors, new blood, an old curse.
The hero's journey, transformation, transgression.
Time and Space fracture: what is real?
Magical science, wormholes spiralling.
A city gleams in sunlight, silver spires
Under threat – the beasts chitter, swarming about their queen.
Warped sewer creatures, unnatural.
Who stands against the dark? Who wields the knife?
Who will lead? Who follows?
In Atlantis. In Pegasus."
He fell silent, then bowed. Jinto and Wex stared at him, wide-eyed. Woolsey, who had been scribbling frantic notes, put his pen down.
Rodney began a slow, derisive clap, until John cuffed him on the back of the head. He subsided, glowering at John and rubbing his neck.
Todd slid into a chair, smirking at Rodney. "It's all there in your notes, McKay. But you only wrote episodes – songs. I've made it a Concept. A Legend."
Rodney rolled his eyes – the pretentious capital letters were practically audible. "It's hardly original," he complained. "It's every space opera in history mashed up together."
"Still," mused Woolsey. "Opera has a timeless appeal. The big issues: doomed love, loyalty, betrayal, who will triumph."
"Where to get the perfect cappuccino, yeah, yeah," said Rodney, windmilling his hand.
"I like that bit with the knife," Ronon interjected. "I could hold one in my teeth when I'm drumming. Or stash it in my hair."
Woolsey patted his knee. "We'll see." He smiled around the table. "Ronon's rather fond of knives. He has a collection."
Rodney groaned. "Oh my god. Airport security checks are going to be a nightmare."
"So…what, Todd? You see Rodney's work as some big musical drama?" John asked, looking skeptical.
"I'm not writing a fucking musical, Richard," Rodney put in, leaning across the table. "Even if Phantom of the Opera was your peak experience."
"Cool it, man, not a musical," said Todd. "A story arc, linking the disparate pieces into a whole. The songs will still stand alone."
"I believe it has merit," said Teyla thoughtfully, "and it will give the vocals more power if there is meaning." She smiled at Ronon. "We have two vocalists now, with Ronon. You must write some songs for his voice as well, Rodney."
"Yes, yes." Rodney called up the files. "I have two completed – Runner and Sateda – and I'm rearranging Tabula Rasa as a duet for you both. We can try them tomorrow." Ronon actually grinned at him, no teeth at all, and Woolsey beamed.
John pressed their legs together from knee to ankle, and shoulder-bumped him. "Way to go, buddy." Rodney ducked his head to hide a blush.
"Then it seems we are all agreed to try Todd's suggestion." Woolsey frowned at Todd. "How much longer will you need to finish the lyrics?"
Todd shrugged. "Half of them are completed. The rest I'll have perfected in another couple of weeks." He smirked at John. "Sheppard's got a good cellar here. I find it…inspiring."
"Just do the job before you need a liver transplant," said Rodney, snapping his laptop shut. "Are we done here?"
"Yes, thank you," replied Woolsey, "I'll get the minutes to you all tomorrow." He began tapping his papers into a stack while chatting with Ronon.
"Eu-Ro-Vision!" singsonged Rodney in John's ear, sotto voce.
"Ah, Richard," said John carefully, running a hand through his hair. "We're a rock band."
"Yes?" said Woolsey brightly.
"So no minutes," John said firmly.
Woolsey's face fell. "It seems somewhat irregular. Perhaps if I record them, but don't circulate them to you all?"
"Knock yourself out," said John.
Todd continued his exploration of the Sheppard vintages, working on the lyrics nocturnally. They had decided they needed several more tracks to round out the story arc, so Rodney was often up at night, finding it easier to wrestle complex passages into submission after the house quietened down. When he was in the grip of a new song, sleep became secondary. He sometimes ran into Todd skulking about the kitchen after dark, or emerging from the cellar stairs clutching another bottle. Todd always managed to catch him unawares, startling a shriek out of Rodney as he slipped past, grinning toothily and tipping him a mocking salute.
"He almost gave me an aneurysm, the way he lurks. I think he'd live in the damn wine cellar if you let him," Rodney complained to John. "He's drinking you dry, and I bet he's going for the really good wines, not the cheap stuff."
John shrugged. "I don't think my father ran much to cheap wine, and I don't give a shit. I prefer beer." He demonstrated this by draining a can on the mantelpiece, then grabbed a towel to wipe off his face, sweaty after a long session on the instrumental duo for keyboards and guitar in Trinity, an ambitious new piece currently preoccupying Rodney. The others had left them to it. The ballroom was an annex at one end of the main house, so people could work there without waking everyone up.
"I'm getting another beer," John said. "Want anything, or are you gonna keep dicking around down there all night?"
Rodney was under the piano again and all he could see of John was his legs. He had a screwdriver in his mouth so he grunted a general obscenity in reply, concentrating on some tricky cross-wiring. John snorted and headed for the kitchen. Rodney spent a lot of time tweaking the gear, wiring things up in new ways to improve the sound. Sometimes it worked, although John had bitched that he was obsessing about the technical side to delay the Project's completion, anxious about how it was going to be received. Rodney hooked up the final few cables and slid out, scrambling to his feet and going over to the main control console near the door.
He could hear John approaching down the hallway, but he wanted to try it now, anxious to test the new system out and see if it would take the reverb he'd wired in, amplifying it in a chain reaction like he'd planned. He flicked the switch and scurried back to the piano, leaning over and playing the chord sequence from Trinity. As he'd intended, the sound was immediately captured and fed back to the piano strings themselves, setting up a discordant resonance that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
It was mind-bogglingly loud, building as more and more cycles added their harmonics, and it was fucking amazing, but it should be dying off by now. Rodney fought back a surge of panic: the fail-safe should have cut in, but if anything the volume was increasing. He caught sight of John in the doorway. His mouth was moving but Rodney couldn't hear him over the incredible noise coming out of the piano speakers. He jammed his fingers in his ears and staggered towards the power console, but he was only half-way there when the piano's guts exploded, sending strings and chunks of wood flying across the room. One string with a plank attached hit Rodney on the back of the head and he went down hard. The speakers exploded and he smelled burning electricals, and then John grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the room, mouth working angrily in the ringing silence filling Rodney's ears.
"…fucking insane, do you hear me, McKay? You nearly blew both of us up! No don't move, your stupid goddamn head's still bleeding. Christ, you're a moron. I told you to stop futzing around with the gear, but did you listen? So fucking stubborn, like always. Stay down or I'll knock you out myself, you irresponsible lunatic!"
Rodney winced, almost wishing he'd stayed deaf for longer. He was lying crushed to John's chest in the hallway outside the ballroom, with John's hand pressing the balled-up cloth from a side-table to the back of his head. It hurt, and he felt sick. "Lemme up," he mumbled into John's t-shirt, and John let him sit up a little, keeping the cloth firmly applied to his wound.
Voices were calling and feet thudded down the hallway. Ronon skidded into view first, took in the scene in the hall and stuck his head in through the ballroom door, whistling at the damage there. "Impressive. Good thing you missed my drums, McKay, or I'd've had to hurt you."
"Yeah, yeah," said Rodney bitterly. "Kick me when I'm down, why don't you."
"I'll fucking kick you, you asshole," snapped John, glaring at him. People were milling about, checking out the ballroom. Sora began gathering debris into a box, helped by Kanaan.
Woolsey picked up a chunk of piano and turned it over in his hands, frowning. He looked at John. "I assume you have insurance?"
"I don't know, maybe? There is no insurance against Rodney when he's on one of his quests for the 'ultimate sound'," said John angrily. He glared at Rodney again. "People could've been hurt – you were hurt, you idiot."
Teyla had worked a shattered spike of maple out of the wall beside the door. It was two feet long and razor sharp. She showed it to John, looking grave. "This could have done serious damage."
"Jesus Christ, Rodney," snarled John. "That was three inches from where I was standing."
Rodney stared up at John and Teyla, mouth open. Oh shit, he'd really fucked up this time. His mouth was bone dry, and he swallowed painfully. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have. John, I never…"
"No, you never. Never fucking listen to me about this shit. It was the same in the old days – you were always on about our 'sound'. You and your giant ego, all wrapped up in your 'musical vision' and giving the rest of us shit. Just because Aiden didn't have a fucking physics degree didn't mean he wasn't a damn good drummer, but did you cut him any slack? No! No wonder he left!" John turned away and slammed his fist against the wall, breathing heavily.
Jinto and Wex watched big-eyed from down the hallway, and Todd was leaning against the wall, arms crossed and aviators on, smirking at the show. Teyla moved between John and Rodney. "That is enough," she said firmly. "We will go to the kitchen and have tea, and we will all calm down. Recriminations about the past are not helpful, John, even though I know you have been badly shaken." She put a hand on John's back, where he was leaning against the wall, resting his head against the cream paintwork as he collected himself, chest heaving.
"He almost blew himself up, Teyla," John whispered, his voice hoarse.
"Yes, and I think he regrets what he has done," said Teyla, taking John's arm and extending a hand to pull Rodney up. His legs were shaky, and she steadied him.
John stared at Rodney, shaking his head. "It was a fucking grand piano, Rodney."
"Baby grand, less than five-sixths full size," muttered Rodney, then he caught Teyla's disapproving eye. "Yes, I'm sorry. I'll replace it. I'll replace all the gear we lost, I promise."
"That's so not the fucking point," said John. But he went with them to the kitchen and drank some of Teyla's tea, and he sat in the back of the Jeep keeping the dressing pressed to Rodney's head while Teyla drove them to the local ER, Kanaan riding shotgun and chatting with her quietly about a new recipe for pumpkin bread he wanted to try.
"Throat singing," announced Todd, slouched against the kitchen wall and for once, up during the day.
Rodney was working on his laptop at the kitchen table while he wolfed down a plate of eggs and hash browns. Kanaan had taken over the household's cooking but he only did vegetarian, leaving anyone who wanted meat to make it themselves. Rodney was too busy (John said: too lazy) to be bothered frying up a pan of bacon. Beside him, John munched a piece of toast and sipped his coffee. Three weeks after the exploding piano incident and they hadn't been talking much, except when they had to, for work. Rodney ignored Todd, but John cocked an eyebrow. "Come again?"
"That number, The Queen," said Todd. "It needs something inhuman-sounding before Teyla does her alien queen thing. She's going to be in this far-out make-up, insectile, with the breathing-slits. I want Ronon beside her, like he's her consort or high priest, doing throat singing."
Rodney snorted. "Throat singing is by definition not inhuman, since it's made by a human throat. And these demands are getting ridiculous, probably as the liquid diet's addled your brain. I mean, Teyla made-up as an alien, all of us with painted-on facial tattoos and wearing Matrix-style coats." He pointed at Todd. "And don't think I haven't noticed that you've modeled the costumes on your own outfit. That stuff's so passé, for Christ's sake, we don't have to wear the warpaint to play rock like we did sixteen years ago."
"The fans might like a few things that remind them of the old band," said John. "And we don't need the visuals to record the album, so there's time to get the stage show sorted."
Rodney raised his hands. "Fine, have it your own way! Throat singing! Sword dancing! Naked bear-wrestling! See if I care!" He resumed typing, catching John's eye-roll out of his peripheral vision.
John looked up at Todd. "You want Teyla to learn it?"
Todd shook his head. "No, Ronon. I know how to do it, so I'll teach him." He shrugged. "Good training for voice-control and breathing, for the poetry slams."
"Jesus," said Rodney, pointing at him accusingly. "You want to be part of the band, don't you?"
Todd grinned. "Thought you'd never ask. Just for that number, man. I can be part of her entourage, with Ronon."
"And throat singing," said Rodney, dripping scorn.
John rubbed his stubble. "Okay, we'll try it." Todd smirked, flicked them a sardonic salute, and sloped off.
Rodney turned to John and opened his mouth for a grade-A rant, but John shook his head curtly so he choked it back. He frowned, feeling oddly wounded that John would allow new people into the band. Their band, even if it was John and Teyla's charisma that drew the crowds. It was his goddamn music that'd kept the fans faithful. Just because John knew Todd from some drug-fueled student all-nighter…
John shrugged. "It's not the same band as before, Rodney. We were too small then, we imploded. We've gotta be more flexible, not all wrapped up in ourselves like before. Especially you and me. Teyla's great, but it's too much for her to handle, wrangling us all the time. We need Ronon, the crew, Woolsey, Todd."
Rodney pushed down the part of him that wanted John all to himself. Wanted John not to need anyone else. They'd tried that and John was right: it didn't work. But now, especially after his last spectacular fuck-up, he didn't even have John, not really, and it hurt. He cleared his throat to get rid of the lump. "Flexible, huh?" John nodded. Then he curled his hand around the back of Rodney's neck and drew him into that forehead-touching thing of Teyla's, resting there, breathing against him for a long moment before slowly pulling back. Rodney blinked rapidly, then turned, grateful for the distraction of Woolsey's entrance.
John leaned back beside him, radiating casual charm. "Hi, Richard. Seen Ronon?" A distant motor coughing into life answered that question.
"He's mowing the lawns again – he finds it relaxing. I'm afraid that the balcony of our townhouse in DC offers him little scope for outdoors activity. He has a gym membership, of course, but he's developed rather a fondness for your ride-on mower." Woolsey smiled and poured himself a coffee. "As you may have noticed."
John grinned. "Yeah, he just loves to ride."
Woolsey's smile took on a reminiscent quality. "Indeed."
Rodney gritted his teeth and focused on his laptop. Flexible: they had to be flexible. Damn, that image really wasn't helping.
Woolsey cleared his throat. "I wanted to talk to you about marketing. I know we're not thinking about live performances for another few months, but we should start establishing Iratus as a presence. We need a pre-release strategy before you finalize the album and start performing. I was thinking of an interview with one of the music magazines – Spin, or Revolver – that sort of thing. And Jinto was telling me about this new thing on the internet – called a Facebook? You could start with that, perhaps have a webpage as well."
Rodney looked at John, panicked. John rubbed his chin. "Yeah, okay, but I've never heard of this Facebook thing, dunno if that's gonna fly. Talk to Teyla about that stuff, and the kids. Wex and Jinto're always fooling around on-line." He paused. "You think anyone's gonna want to interview us? I mean, before we've even released the new album?"
Woolsey nodded. "I have a few contacts, and you still have a fan base. But we'll do posters as well, of course, when the album comes out. For the music stores."
"Yeah, sure," said John. "That's more our speed." He looked at Rodney, who tried to smile. It came out a little forced. "We're really doing this, huh?"
"I guess so," said Rodney. He seemed to have lost his appetite.
As they got closer to the recording date, the house filled up even more. Woolsey came and went from the city, and recruited a guy called Lorne to be their road manager. Lorne took over the logistics and equipment side, bringing in a recording specialist with an impossible foreign name, Zelda or Radish, or some damn thing. Rodney was resigned to John's "one big happy family" shtick, but this was a circus, not a family. Well, he supposed that some big families were like this, but with his parents not talking to each other half the time, and just him and Jeannie, his own family had been nothing like this madhouse. He took to working at night when he could, to get away from the noise and the people, and it made him think about Jeannie, so he called her, and told her about the band. "About fucking time," she said, and "You be nice to John, now." He'd always been her favorite, hell, he was everyone's favorite, especially Rodney's.
Things were easier now with John, which helped. Their paths didn't cross much in the mornings as Rodney slept in after working late, and John was always up at some stupidly early hour, running in the grounds with Ronon or Lorne. Teyla was teaching John eskrima, and Ronon and Sora turned out to be karate whiz-kids, so they spent the mornings beating each other up, which was fine by Rodney as long as they left him out of it. Running up and down the stairs and standing for hours at his keyboards gave him more than enough exercise.
Lunch was generally a make-your-own-sandwich buffet, Kanaan's compromise to satisfy the carnivores and vegetarians, so they caught up then, sitting out on the patio or around the kitchen table until Kanaan shooed them out. The afternoons and evenings were given over to practicing the new material, with a break for dinner around the long dining table where Rodney was made to eat vegetables, even the dreaded bean sprouts. At one point he realised he hadn't had any fast food for over two months, which would have been inconceivable a year ago. Better food and his general nervous energy had burned off a few pounds, and he caught John eyeing his ass from time to time. Rodney may have found the occasional thing on the ground that needed picking up, when he was aware of John's covert interest. It was good exercise to bend from the waist, anyway: flexibility was his new watchword.
"It's gonna work," said John quietly in Rodney's ear. They were on a short break while Todd and Ronon worked on the throat singing some more. Ronon had picked up the knack of it quickly, but Todd was getting him to vary the pitch more, make it almost a ululation. He had his hand pressed to Ronon's chest to feel the vibrations while Ronon produced a deep humming whine seemingly emanating from the air all around them. Rodney had to admit that it didn't sound remotely human, especially when Todd joined in as well.
"Yeah," said Rodney, and he grinned. "I really think it is. I think the whole crazy thing's going to work." John ruffled his hair and gave him a fond smirk. He'd gotten a lot handsier in the past week or so, but Rodney wasn't sure whether to make a move or not, and he didn't want to fuck things up right before they recorded the album.
Apart from his quiet times tweaking the arrangements at night, the practice sessions were helping to keep Rodney from freaking out. John had grown in confidence as they'd mastered all the new numbers, and there were times, every day now, when Rodney forgot the technical details and lost himself in the music as John's guitar wove in and out of his keyboards, Teyla's voice soared above and Ronon's drumming anchored them all to the beat. The crew were increasingly hanging out around the practice room, and sometimes, after a particularly inspired passage when Rodney had closed his eyes and let the music take him, when they'd all been flying high and it had jelled, come together precisely as he'd imagined it, there was a burst of spontaneous applause.
The hardest thing was constantly seeing John's face twisted up in those weird expressions guitarists got when they were really lost in it. Pained, shocked, ecstatic and tender, biting his lip or open-mouthed, John looked like he was seconds away from coming. It made him remember John arched back, crying Rodney's name in the privacy of their squalid room, John's legs wrapped around his waist as his cock jerked in Rodney's hand. Christ, but he wanted that again.
He kept busy, instead. The recording guy, whose name turned out to be Radek, was surprisingly intelligent and they worked together, getting the ballroom ready. Rodney had customised the equipment so much that it made no sense to use a professional recording studio and lose all his tweaks. Radek shrugged, and said the acoustics would be fine once he'd finished setting up the room, and anyway, Indie music was still fashionable.
Someone who Rodney thought had been called "Dave" and who looked far to young to be a journalist came and interviewed them all in the ballroom. It was the usual three-ring circus and he looked shell-shocked afterwards, but the eventual article was reasonably positive, and didn’t dwell too much on the bad stuff. They'd played him one of their new songs, which probably helped.
Teyla was glowing and her thing with Kanaan seemed to be going well. Rodney had come upon them late one night when he'd gone back to the ballroom to work on Conversion some more. She'd been singing the solo from Search and Rescue, unplugged, her hands on Kanaan's waist, and his cradling her face, and as soon as she finished they were kissing frantically, wrapped around each other. He'd backed away quietly, happy for her. Kanaan seemed like a nice guy and he baked a mean chocolate cake.
"You should practice some of your old material as well," suggested Woolsey, at one of the artistic conferences that had become regular events, all of them back around the big dining table lit by Teyla's candles. "Not for the album, but for concerts. The fans are going to want some numbers they know, mixed in with the new songs."
Ronon nodded. "I know those tracks pretty well. Won't take long to get up to speed."
John looked at Rodney. "We could go over the tracks on With the Aliens and pick out the ones we want to do," he said.
Rodney nodded. "Yeah, okay."
"Echoes," said Jinto, "You have to do Echoes – please?" Beside him, Wex nodded furiously, taking Jinto's hand and squeezing it. Rodney was pretty bad at relationships – hopeless where his own were concerned and inclined to be oblivious about others – but even he'd finally realized Wex and Jinto were an item. Maybe it was the music, he thought. It made you want things.
He wondered if the other gay couples were freaking John out or putting him more at ease. He seemed perfectly comfortable around Ronon and Woolsey, and he was clearly fond of Jinto and Wex, so Rodney allowed himself to hope. Just a little.
"Echoes, huh?" said John, teasing the kids, and Jinto and Wex both grinned back hopefully. "Yeah, that's a favorite of mine too." John put his arm around the back of Rodney's chair. "What d'you say, Rodney? Reckon we can do Echoes?"
"Sure," said Rodney, and he could feel his smile was goofy but he didn't care when John looked at him like that, "We can practice them all up, then decide."
They started that night, and the practice session turned into a concert, the crew egging them on, dancing between the furniture and calling out requests. They did Echoes, of course, Rodney reprising his celestial whale music solo before bringing the others in for the final chorus, the crew singing along. To Aiden's lyrics, Rodney realized with a shock. It was Aiden who'd fixed the lyrics and he'd never even noticed at the time.
He thought there might have been a lot he hadn't noticed back then, when he was barely twenty, music pouring out of him and his brain working overtime, brilliant and full of himself, and desperately insecure. Weird now to be playing the old songs, relearning them. Remembering all the baggage that went with them – the good stuff and the crap.
He could see it was affecting John as well, and they kept locking eyes as they played the familiar chords. Rodney remembered the night they'd worked out the arrangement for this one, Inferno. Something about it always made him hot, and their instruments dueled as though they were flirting, then the split second timing at the end, as the music soared up and out, breaking free. They'd never played it before without fucking afterwards. Rodney looked away from John's face and tried to pull himself together.
They wrapped it up after that – it was very late and everyone drifted off, keen to get to bed. Rodney slumped down on the couch. He was tired, yes, but his single bed upstairs didn't appeal. Maybe he'd sleep here again; he liked this room, where the music happened.
John dropped down beside him. "You okay?"
Rodney rolled his head sideways. "Yeah. Just tired. Good tired." John nodded.
"Kind of weird playing the old stuff again, huh?" said Rodney. "Made me think how much I've changed." He shut his eyes. "God, I hope I've changed, anyway."
"Yeah, you've changed, buddy," said John, slipping an arm behind him and stroking the hair curling at the nape of his neck. "We both have."
Rodney closed his eyes and made a small, pleased noise at John's caress. Then he opened one eye and looked sidelong at John. "I've still got some hair, though."
John grinned. "I'd better make my move, then, before its all gone," and he leaned in and cradled Rodney's face, licking into his mouth as Rodney opened for him, moaning around John's tongue. John straddled him, hands in his hair, biting his lower lip and mouthing at his jaw, desperate, before sealing their mouths again. Rodney was desperate as well, sliding his hands up under John's t-shirt and pulling him in tight, until they broke apart, gasping and breathless, half-laughing.
"Not so slow anymore, then," said Rodney, his voice rough.
"Slow's over-rated," replied John, sounding equally wrecked, and pulled him in again.
On the first day of recording, Rodney lost it. John, who'd come looking when Rodney didn't make it down to the ballroom, found him in the upstairs bathroom having a minor freak out.
"It's all very well for you, moaned Rodney, hunched over the washbasin. He hadn't thrown up, but he was keeping it in reserve as option B. "You're the golden boy. If all this works out, I'm going to have to wear one of those horrible knitted caps."
"The fuck are you on about?" asked John, splashing cold water on his face and drying him off with a hand towel.
"My hair!" insisted Rodney. "Or the lack of it. It's either shave or wear a beanie; I'm not having a hair transplant."
"No one wants you to have a hair transplant, Rodney, me least of all. You look fine. This is just stage fright – you know you always get like this before a show."
"Promise me it'll be all right," said Rodney, clutching at John.
"Rodney," said John, "I promise." And it seemed that he wasn't just talking about the music, the recording session, the band.
"I promise," he said again and he turned Rodney around and pressed him back so he was propped against the vanity. "Here, this always used to work."
John slid to his knees and opened Rodney's jeans, nuzzling his cock, which was not in the least hard, what with the panicking. It woke up fast, though, as John licked along the shaft and lifted it to suck on his balls. "Fuck," said Rodney fervently. "Oh my god, John." And then he just concentrated on not bruising John's throat, because they might not be the main vocalists but they still had to sing back-ups.
It didn't take long, what with John moaning, sloppy and eager as he licked around the head and tongued that sensitive spot underneath. He took Rodney's cock as far in as he could and hollowed his cheeks, sucking hard. Rodney whined, thighs trembling, and he put his head back and felt the pleasure build up at the base of his spine. He came with his hands in John's hair, gasping pleas and curses and babbling John's name.
Then he hauled John up, pushed his pants down and returned the favor, because John was looking wild-eyed by then and his cock was hard and leaking. Rodney needed a folded towel under his knees, but apart from that it was very like the old days.
"Anyway," said John after they'd straightened themselves up and were making their way down to the ballroom in a pleasant haze of endorphins. "Your hair's a lot better now. You used to have a mullet."
On the last day of recording, they were all but done when Sora came in and called Teyla over. Sora, who wasn't very musically inclined, was covering general security at the front door.
Teyla listened to Sora and then followed her out, turning back at the door to say that she would not be long, and they were to wait for her.
Rodney got himself a drink of water and John wandered over to chat with Ronon.
When Teyla came back, instead of Sora she had Aiden Ford in tow. John and Rodney stared at him, speechless. Ford nodded to them. "Hi there," he said. "Been a while."
He was thinner, but he looked fit. He'd lost an eye somewhere, probably in a gang fight, and he wore a black patch over it, a narrow-brimmed black hat tilted down on that side. He'd taken a leaf out of John's book with the black jeans and shirt, and he looked hard, and dangerous, and absolutely all grown up.
"Aiden?" said John, handing his Fender off to Ronon and approaching Ford as though he was a nervous colt who might bolt. He stopped just outside Ford's personal space. "You're okay?
"Yeah, mostly," said Ford. "Ah, fuck it," and he stepped forward and grabbed John, wrapping him up in a hug, pinning his arms to his sides. John laughed and let him, and then Rodney was being hugged and Teyla was beaming.
"Aiden saw our Facebook page," she said, "and the interview."
Aiden shrugged. "Just a flying visit, can't stay."
That turned out to be because he was wanted by the governments of eight countries, after some exploits involving whaling ships and C4. He'd kicked the drugs though, and seemed happier, or at least more sure about who he was and what he wanted, and he stayed long enough to borrow Ronon's drums and record Lost Boys with them, the one track from their old album that they hadn't yet tackled, because it had always been about Aiden and the drugs, and no one had wanted to put John through that.
"Not so lost any more, or not in that way," said Aiden as he was leaving, after a lot of shoulder-clapping and a long New Athosian embrace with Teyla. He tilted his head and grinned at Rodney, then at John. "See you two got your shit together, finally. Try not to fuck it up this time."
"Yeah," said John, taking Rodney's hand and lacing their fingers together. "We're working on it." Rodney rolled his eyes.
Aiden got into the passenger seat of a black van. The windows were tinted so the other occupants weren't visible. He leaned out the window. "I'll send you a postcard," he called.
They stood on the steps for some time after the van vanished into the night, black on black. John's hand was warm in Rodney's.
"It was very good to see him again," said Teyla. "And now we will have tea."