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 was Stairway 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.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3