Pairing(s): John/Rodney (and in the background: Teyla/Kanaan, Richard/Ronon, Jinto/Wex)
Warning(s): Bad language and drug use. But you get that with rock bands.
Summary: Sixteen years ago they were in a rock band and their one album's a cult classic. Rodney wants to re-form the band, but will he succeed? And can he and John get past the mess they made of things the last time around?
Notes: An Earth-based non-science fiction AU, so many of the underlying details are different to canon, including some of the characters' relative ages. For what it's worth, it's set in 2004. Created for the very evocative artwork by
Art Title: Promises to Keep
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.