Wheeee thought John, enjoying the rush as the wheels spun. He loved going fast.
The punter, an elderly woman called Sadie with blue rinsed hair in pin curls under a purple nylon headscarf, squinted intently at the brightly lit machine, muttering “C’mon, c’mon…” under her breath.
Ka-ching! John came to a sudden stop, pulling at least two Gs, and, yes, McKay was beside him! He gave a little sidelong smirk. “Hi Rodney, how’s it going, buddy?”
“Can’t talk now,” Rodney huffed excitedly. “I’m half-way through doing some actual science, as opposed to joyriding like some of us around here. Okay, busy now…” and they were off again, as Sadie fed another coin into the slot.
John loved riding the wheel. He loved the sensation of flight, and he never got dizzy. Plus there was Rodney to tease, whenever they fetched up alongside each other; that never got old.
Mostly, Rodney gave as good as he got, trading rapid-fire quips and snark between spins. As long as there wasn’t a lemon in the row, that was. John always tried to get in between Rodney and the dreaded citrus, to shield him from harm, but Rodney still quaked and fretted the whole time until the wheels engaged and rolled them on to a new configuration.
Once, he’d been unable to intervene and the place had closed for the night with Rodney still tormented by two lemons. He had to stay like that for hours until Jack, owner of the Pegasus Bar and Grill, reopened the next day, letting in old Mr Chong who was always champing at the bit to get at the machine and blow the allowance of coins his daughter doled out to him each day.
That time, when Rodney was trapped with the lemons all night, John had been stuck in the dark grinding his teeth helplessly to hear Rodney’s increasingly desperate whimpers. He had wanted to smash his way out and rescue Rodney, but there was nothing he could do. God. He never wanted either of them to go through that again. He didn’t know if Rodney could survive another bout hemmed in by lemons, he was so fearful and had kept sobbing that he couldn’t breathe, that he was deathly allergic.
For John it was clowns. There were a couple on the wheels to either side of him, nasty pieces of work with cruel, toothy grins and mad eyes. John hated it when they slotted in alongside him; he could feel their malevolent leers and had to bite his lip to stop himself losing it when they muttered threats and insults.
“Hi there, John-boy. How’s your little friend, hey? Heard he’s not so keen on fruits – pity about that for your sake, eh? Hahahahahahaha–” On and fucking on, until some punter pulled the big lever on the side of the machine and they spun away again. Ratfucking clown bastards.
The slot machine was old and sometimes it broke down. It wasn’t all flashy and digital like the ones John heard the punters telling Jack about, down at the new betting parlour on Main Street operated by the Genii mob.
“Why don’tcha get one of them classy ones, hey, Jack? Gotta move with the times y’know.”
“Yeah, not so much. You having another beer, Walter, or you gonna nurse that one all night as per usual? No wonder I can’t afford to renovate the goddam joint.”
No, their machine was a classic, an ancient relic with Atlantis City Wheels of Fortune painted across its battered front in bold, if rather chipped, blue and orange paint, under a big glowing ring. Despite the citrus and the clowns, John liked it in the Atlantis City – nowhere was perfect, you had to take the bad shit in your stride and make the best of it. At least here he felt at home and the wheels sang to him as they spun and whirred. Sometimes he almost heard them talking to him.
And John had Rodney to play with. Sometimes Rodney was on his left when the drums stopped spinning, and sometimes on his right. It made no difference, they just picked up where they’d left off. Every now and then John let himself imagine what it might be like if the wheels stopped and he had Rodney on both sides, surrounding him. It made him feel flushed, made his heart pound harder than when he was riding the wheel at full tilt.
Rodney’s brain turned faster than any machine – he was always thinking, figuring out the world around them while John tried to catch his attention.
“Hey, Rodney, 929?”
“What? Oh, very cute, a palindromic prime. Okay, now let me finish calculating our rate of acceleration.”
“See youuuuu…”, and they were off again.
It was nice, but John wanted so much more. He was sick of surviving on brief snatches of Rodney – a few words here and there, a brief slanted smile. Sometimes when the wheels brought them together he caught Rodney looking at him so intensely, when he wasn’t drooling over a power bar, or calculating the odds furiously as they spun past each other. John wondered if Rodney wanted more as well, but there was never much time to talk as they rolled inexorably on – aligned, then apart, then flashing past each other again.
The ancient machine was increasingly unreliable as well, jamming and sticking until Jack grumbled his way across the dingy room and kicked it hard, muttering curses. John didn’t like to dwell on that too much, worrying that Jack would finally cave in to the punters and have them carted off to a dumpster. What if the drums stopped moving altogether and Rodney and he were trapped far apart, locked in the machine’s dark metal insides with lemons and clowns and no way to see each other? It didn’t bear thinking about.
He worried about some of the customers as well; it was a poor neighborhood and no-one had much to spare. He knew that people needed to relax and distract themselves from their troubles after a hard day’s work, but he didn’t like to see them spend more than they could manage. Luckily the old machine didn’t take very large coins and Jack hated making change. And John liked to think that playing the slot machine was at least a source of hope for people without a lot of that in their lives.
One young woman he’d taken an interest in came by every Thursday – he figured she maybe got paid then, for the week. She was beautiful, with golden-brown skin and dark eyes, and sometimes she’d whisper prayers in Spanish before pulling the lever so he figured she might be from Mexico. She always bought a glass of Jack’s cheapest beer then came over and settled herself in at the machine, kissing and praying over her coins until she’d run through them all. Her shoulders would sag then, briefly, until she pulled herself together and sat up straight and proud. She seemed to look right at John and Rodney as she whispered, “Next time, amigos. Be lucky for me then.”
Walter came over and chatted to her once while she was playing; he was a harmless old guy and she seemed to appreciate his concern. She said that she was called Teyla and her man was on the run from the Wraith. John shuddered – the Wraith were the worst mobsters in the city, worse than the Genii by far. If the Wraith gang got their hooks into you they’d suck you dry; that was what everyone said. Teyla explained that she needed to win enough money for herself and Ronon, her man, to escape from the city and get so far away that the Wraith would never find them. Her job in a sweatshop just barely kept them from starving and kept a roof over their heads; there was nothing left over to save up for the Greyhound fare. So she played the machine, and prayed, and hoped.
Walter patted her shoulder and bought her a soda and John frowned, determined to help her. But how? He could only control the wheel that he was riding, and then only a little, not enough to deliver her a jackpot. He tried to talk to Rodney about it, but Rodney was preoccupied by some massive calculation involving odds and trajectories.
They never really talked properly, always spinning off, distracted; it was goddam frustrating. Sometimes John wished that it would all just stop – the constant exhausting whoosh of movement and change, the flashing lights, bells and klaxons. Sometimes he wanted to lay it all aside and just be quiet. As long as he still had Rodney – retirement would be empty without Rodney.
Teyla seemed more and more desperate, and she was tired, dragging herself across to the stool in front of them and sinking down gratefully as she rubbed the small of her back. She looked different, too, was she putting on weight? He didn’t have a lot of experience where women were concerned – there were none on the wheels, and Rodney wasn’t any help.
“Rodney? You think Teyla’s looking peaky?”
“What? Why are you asking me? Am I a practitioner of goddam voodoo? Will you just let me finish the very important work I’m doing here?”
John figured that was Rodney’s way of being worried; the worse Teyla got, the tetchier Rodney became. Eventually, John heard Sadie gossiping with Walter about “that poor girl” and it turned out Teyla was pregnant. Jeez, who knew? John was even more worried now; she and Ronon were barely making ends meet and they were going to have a baby as well? He racked his brains to find some way to help her and Ronon and their child escape the Wraith. There must be something he and Rodney could do.
It all came to a head the next Thursday. Teyla had finished her soda and was feeding her second-to-last quarter into the slot. It was good to see her again, even if she did have dark circles under her eyes. The door to the bar crashed open. Jack moved in a way that John knew meant he had his hand on the sawn-off under the counter, but he said nothing. The guy in the doorway pushed all John’s buttons. He was tall and junkie-pale, dressed in stupid clothes with a cruel, toothy mouth, a weird blond fright-wig and big black zig-zags drawn on his cheeks over a white mask of greasepaint. Fucking clowns, how John hated them.
Wraith Wraith Wraith. Low, fearful murmurs rippled about the bar as the customers shrank back into darkened corners. Teyla froze on the stool, her back to the doorway. John concentrated all his energy, desperate to reach her. He used the singing of the wheels, the whirring, spinning voice of the machine. Behind us, hide, behind us.
He thought at first that it hadn’t worked, that she hadn’t heard. Then the door banged shut and the wraith snarled something at Jack, asking about Teyla, and she slipped from her stool and crept behind the old machine. There was a gap in the wall there, a crevice just large enough to conceal her and she pressed herself into it, barely breathing while the wraith strode around the ill-lit room, pushing people aside and knocking over bar stools. He ended up staring at the machine, the lights glinting off his make-up and fake hair. Jackass, thought John, glaring back at him, defiant. If you want Teyla, you’ll have to go through me.
Rodney whimpered faintly, off to his right. “Hang in there, Buddy, I’ll look after you,” John muttered, hoping Rodney wouldn’t lose it and give the show away. But they toughed it out, and after way too much sneering and posturing the wraith creep finally took off, slamming his way back out the door. John had to hand it to Jack – he hadn’t cracked and given up Teyla, none of the punters had. He felt proud of them all; they might be down and outs, but they looked after each other.
Teyla extricated herself from her hiding place and Sadie fussed about, tutting and stroking her hair. Jack offered her a glass of JD but she refused – the baby, of course. She needed to get home and find Ronon, but Jack made her wait until he was sure the street was clear.
Rodney was muttering something about qantum probabilities, concentrating fiercely. “Come on, come on, yes!” His face intent, he stared up at Teyla. “Play the last coin!” he whispered urgently. “Play the last coin!” He turned, agitated: “Help me, John.” Play the last coin, they thought at her in unison, Play the last coin.
“I may as well play my last coin, while I’m here” said Teyla softly, leaning forward.
Sadie patted her shoulder. “You do that, sweetie. It’s kinda been your lucky day anyway, dodging that wraith bastard.”
Her quarter dropped into the slot and John could feel something shift in the ancient machine, the spin seemed twice as long, went twice as fast. The stop, when it came, was sudden and wrenching, locking him in, front and centre, with a grinding metal clash of gears, the wheels shivering into immobility even as the hopper drawer opened and coins spilled out in a clattering frenzy.
“I still think you could fix it with a sonic screwdriver,” said John, smirking.
“Yeah, right, because you’ve been watching way too much bad TV again,” said left-Rodney, rolling his eyes.
“At least The Doctor won't rot his brain as much as endless ESPN College football,” added right-Rodney.
They often ganged up on him, but John didn’t mind. They went at each other even more, snarking away hammer and tongs until he had to go “Guys, guys, the ref’s calling time out”. He didn’t mind – he loved having Rodney on either side of him.
The old machine had never worked again after Teyla’s big payout. Jack had added it all up and given her $154 in bills to take away, the coins being too heavy. She’d kissed everyone in the bar and rushed off to get Ronon and their tickets to freedom. John missed her, but he was glad she’d gotten away safely.
Rodney had managed it. The science was beyond John (something to do with extradimensional vectors), but somehow Rodney had fixed the odds and made the machine give Teyla a bumper payout – and brought them together at long last. He’d been working on it for weeks; no wonder he’d been distracted.
They were still in their usual place in the corner of the bar. Jack had decided the machine was an antique, and was keeping it until it was “worth a fortune to some idiot collector”. John thought he was just sentimental, but that was okay, he kind of liked it here, watching the usual punters gossip with Jack and shout catcalls at the TV sportscasters. It was a good place to retire, moldering cheerfully away in this quiet backwater with the other old dudes. Could be a lot worse.
John cut his eyes sideways, grinning as left-Rodney resumed his usual rant about the sad lack of talent in the latest Leafs line-up. At least he and Rodney could finish a conversation these days. John wasn’t a great talker, but he was getting better, and Rodney had himself to argue and debate with as well, so that was cool.
He settled back for a power nap, the familiar, rapid-fire voices lulling him as he drifted, at rest. Man, thought John to himself as Jack closed up for the night and the lights dimmed. Never thought I'd end up in a threesome. He shut his eyes and drifted off, happily enfolded by Rodney.
~~~ the end ~~~