Title: Four Quarters
Length: ~8150 words
Summary: Teyla is the beautiful one, Ronon is the enigmatic one, and Rodney, of course, is the genius one. But John, John is the star.
A/N: Written for artword challenge 003A, prompt 03: Truth From Fiction. With many thanks to jarsy, siriaeve, and randomeliza for inspiration and prodding.
None of it would have happened if he’d just owned a decent pair of headphones. But his last good pair had been sacrificed to his younger sister’s Princess Leia costume, and the ones he had left—the pathetically crap pair he’d gotten for free on an airplane—not only brought Chopin’s Nocturnes to his ears with sub-quality sound, they also failed to block out the ruckus coming from next door.
It had started with echoing guitar chords and mangled synth riffs. It had since progressed to echoing guitar chords, mangled synth riffs, and angry shouting. The shouting was really the proverbial straw.
Rodney flung his shoddily-engineered headphones aside and stomped down the stairs, out the front door, across the lawn, and into the neighbors’ garage. The garage’s quartet of inhabitants looked up stupidly: clearly, they had not expected to be interrupted by an angry fourteen-year-old wielding a physics textbook and a glare heady enough to melt steel. For his part, Rodney barely saw them. “For God’s sake,” he said, addressing the room in general, “if you have to disrupt my studies with this cacophonous attempt at music, could you at least do so without the petty—and did I mention? Loud—infighting? Or is VH1 filming a Behind the Music special and the camera crew just stepped out for doughnuts?”
He paused for breath. Two of the four “musicians”—and even with mental air quotes, he was being generous—blinked at him; one glared; the last had lips that spread into a slow, sly smile. Rodney hastily looked away. “And maybe while you’re at it,” he added, “you could try coming somewhere within a hundred meter radius of being on key!”
The sour-looking one—the twit with the ponytail who, judging by his proximity to the keyboard, was responsible for the most dire offences against Rodney’s eardrums—smirked. “What, and you think you can do better?”
Rodney looked him over: greasy hair, bad glasses, maybe a year or two older than him at most. Smug, smug little expression. Well, Rodney would show him smug.
He tilted his chin. “Of course I can do better,” he said.
“Prove it,” the idiot said, and stepped away from the keyboard.
Rodney stepped up. He paused with his hands above the keys, suddenly aware of what he was doing: barging in here, insulting then insinuating himself among these people he didn’t even know. The boy with the baseball cap and the bass slung over his shoulder at least looked amused and encouraging; the girl tucked away behind the drum kit—and wow, she was hot—seemed politely curious. But it was the singer’s gaze he felt upon him as he bent to the keys—eyes he couldn’t even see, obscured by dark sunglasses, and lips curving over white white teeth in some sort of wry, knowing grin. There was an odd sense of anticipation radiating off of him, and Rodney felt it wash over him, bringing his mind back to the safety of his room next door, hearing the mutilated chords and knowing—as surely as he knew the truth behind a series of numbers, a theorem, a natural law—what the right way was, how it was supposed to be.
His fingers touched down and he played: he played: for the first time in over two years he played, and it was perfect and right and everyone in the room knew it.
The boy in the sunglasses knew it. He smiled broadly—sly, but full of genuine delight. “Hey, Kavanagh,” he said, “I guess you’re not so irreplaceable after all.”
“Huh?” said Rodney, stupidly, snapping out of the spell he hadn’t even realized he’d fallen under. “What?”
He looked around. Ponytail was angrily packing up his stuff while the other three bandmembers exchanged conspiratorial looks. Apparently, Rodney had just staged a coup. He double-checked for VH1 cameras, just in case.
“So what else can you play?” sunglasses asked. “Can you play the guitar?”
Kavanagh elbowed Rodney aside, muttering about how once he made it big, the rest of them would all be nothing more than a much-mocked footnote in music history. “No?” Rodney said, ducking as the backpack Kavanagh was packing nearly struck him in the head. “I mean, I don’t have the free time to devote to—”
The garage door slammed. The hot girl behind the drum kit expertly twirled her sticks: rim shot.
“Don’t worry,” sunglasses said, pressing something shiny and red into Rodney’s hands. “You’ll learn.”
When the VH1 special is actually made, they let John do most of the talking. This should be harder than it is. Yet somewhere along the line, Rodney has learned to speak with his music and not with his voice, and all of their music flows through John. It only makes sense. Teyla is the beautiful one, Ronon is the enigmatic one, and Rodney, of course, is the genius one.
But John, John is the star.
“We’re going to be the biggest band in the world,” sunglasses explained. Only he wasn’t wearing them anymore: he had taken them off, and now he was just John. Teyla and Ford (drums and bass—everyone seemed to introduce themselves by their instruments) had gone home, and now Rodney found himself, somewhat inexplicably, taking a walk around the block with a neighbor who, until a few hours ago, had been decidedly less than neighborly. “The biggest band,” John said, “in the world.”
He seemed so sincere that Rodney almost hated having to be the one to crush his delusions. And yet: “You know this for a fact, do you?” he said, sarcasm razor-sharp.
“Of course,” John said, smiling, and for a moment, Rodney was dangerously close to believing him.
He shook his head. “Oh, so now I’m supposed to believe that you have amazing psychic powers along with that—”
He stopped, abruptly, both walking and speaking. That voice, he had been about to say, but suddenly he was back in the moment, the moment when he had first heard John sing.
He didn’t have words. There were no words. He had stood there, clutching the guitar he had been handed—“You know, just do whatever, experiment”—as the little garage band that he was now, apparently, part of went through one of its songs. Musically, Rodney was aware that it was a mess, but the vocal, that voice—
“Yeah, I know,” Ford had said when they were finished, grinning at him from beneath his baseball cap. They were both staring at John, at the undulations of his throat as he chugged from a Nalgene bottle. “Shep’s the best.”
“—Goth chic wardrobe,” Rodney finished lamely.
“Hey,” said John, picking at the hem of his black t-shirt, “everything matches.”
“So you want me to give you lessons?” he asked a minute later.
“Huh?” Rodney was not having a particularly articulate day.
“Guitar lessons,” John said, loosely, rolling his hips: it was like he was always plugged in, always playing. “We can’t just have you on keyboard, you know.”
Rodney couldn’t figure out why they wanted him to be in the band at all. “Why do you want me in this band at all?” he asked. “I’m not—” Cool, he thought. “A musician,” he said.
“What you played earlier sounded like music,” John said.
“Well, of course it did." Someone was running a sprinkler, late at night, water skish skishing across the sunburnt grass. Rodney stepped into the gutter, avoiding the spray; John walked right through. “But I don’t have, I’m not creative enough—”
“Don’t be stupid,” John said, and Rodney almost ran into a post, because that was the first time anyone had ever said something like that to him, ever. “How do you know until you try? Besides,” a hand, resting lightly on Rodney’s back, guiding him, “I have a feeling about you. A really good one.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Rodney said, which of course instantly had his bandmates humming the Imperial March under their breath. “I’m serious!” Rodney said. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
They’d only been practising, the four of them, for a couple of months, but John had gone and signed them up for the Fairfax High Talent Show anyway. He had a tendency to do things like that. Sudden, impulsive: throwing rocks at Rodney’s window at ten o’clock at night, announcing, “Field trip to the Viper Room! C’mon!” “I’m studying,” Rodney would complain, already halfway into his coat. And John would just smile and shake his head: “Think of this as research. Really,” hand on his back, just the tiniest amount of pressure, “you’ll thank me for it, later.”
Later must be a lot further down the line, as currently, the only breaks in the waves of nausea rolling over Rodney were the ones that allowed him to shoot death glares at John. He couldn’t do this. How could he do this? He’d only been going to this school for about four months, and that was still several weeks longer than he’d played the guitar. John had said he had it down, but John, despite looking-walking-living the part, was actually not a very good guitar player: he was undisciplined about it, lazy. His “lessons” hadn’t involved much more than thrusting his Stratocaster at Rodney’s chest, pushing his fingers into position, and drawling, “Yeah, so this is E major.” He’d left Rodney to figure out the rest for himself.
The thing was, Rodney had figured out the rest for himself. And yes, though Rodney was used to things coming easily for him, it was a very specific set of things—if spacetime is a four-dimensional Lorentzian manifold curved by the presence of mass, energy, and momentum... Not this. Never this...except now he was remembering what it had first been like, in his early days of exposure to the piano. How it had all made so much sense. How it had been beautiful.
He tried to focus on that now, the simplicity and perfection of notes on a page. Not that they actually wrote any of their songs down—it was more like, “And now Ford’ll play the bit that sounds like this, and Teyla’ll come in with the one-two-three”—but Rodney, Rodney had started, in the free time he seriously didn’t have, to jot some things down. Just ideas, scattered thoughts and...sounds. Melodies. Music.
“Bad, bad feeling,” he muttered, watching the auditorium fill up. Peeking through the curtain: locked in, trapped.
“Hey, don’t worry,” John said, coming up behind him. He’d changed his clothes for something like the third time, but that was the only sign that he was at all nervous. Rodney looked him over: dark black sunglasses, tight black t-shirt, easily-mistaken-for-real leather pants that John had dragged Rodney with him into Aardvark’s to buy.
John flashed him a broad grin. “It’s going to be great,” he said.
Rodney threw up all over his shoes.
Tell us about some of your early gigs, the VJ says, brightly.
That familiar pull, gravity at work, they turn to John.
Then: he smiles.
The thing is, they won. John went and changed his clothes—again; Teyla and Ford found Rodney a bottle of water and a bucket to wash out his mouth; and then they were hustling him out onto the stage. “And now,” said the host, some student council twit, “it’s The Poodle Jumpers!”
An auditorium full of bored teenagers broke out laughing. John blinded them all with a flash of white. “That’s Puddlejumpers,” he said, fuck-you-very-much. Everyone shut up.
The lights were bright. They stung Rodney’s eyes. He fixed his gaze nervously on John, the guitar strap biting uncomfortably into his shoulder. He watched John give a nod to Teyla, watched her rap out the opening count. He braced himself for the inevitable massive and humiliating panic attack. Instead his hands moved of their own volition: the song, he knew—he knew this—he knew it. And he was fine.
John was better than fine. John was sex with a microphone stand. His voice rich and dark, his body jerking electricity right out of the amps. He had presence, that’s what it was. Like a black hole, sucking everyone in.
So they won. Of course they won. They were up against a girl earnestly screeching “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” a bunch of freshmen gyrating in what they called “Sparklemotion,” and some creepy guy and his extremely creepy dummy Sid. How could they compete against four people who could—shockingly—actually play their instruments? How could they compete against John?
“Biggest band in the world,” John whispered, clutching their prize—an oh-so-exciting $15 gift certificate to Cantor’s.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Rodney said, both tensing under and relaxing into the arm slung casually over his shoulder.
John was always doing that. Getting ahead of them all.
“So I know this guy,” John said, and Ford and Teyla exchanged a look that Rodney had come to learn meant trouble.
Rodney folded his arms over his chest. “This isn’t one of those stories that ends with something ‘falling off the back of a truck,’ is it?”
John appeared to contemplate this for a moment before answering. “No. But this guy I know, he works at Hallenbecks...”
Ford took off his baseball cap and rubbed his forehead. Trouble, definitely trouble. “Are you sure we’re ready for that?” Ford asked.
“Oh no,” said Rodney. “Ready for what?”
“A gig,” said Teyla, raising an eyebrow. “A real one.”
“No!” said Rodney. “No way! I’m not even old enough to drive; I really shouldn’t have to worry about humiliating myself in public!”
“Eh,” John dismissed him with a shrug. “Don’t worry about it; it’s in the Valley.”
Rodney obviously hadn’t been living in L.A. long enough. “So?”
Ford rolled his eyes, but he was grinning. “He means that nobody cool or important will be there.”
“Yet it would still be good practice,” Teyla said.
“Exactly,” said John.
Rodney hung around after the others had gone. He did that a lot: after school, he had his books with him anyway, and he could always run next door if there was anything he really needed. He’d sit on the floor of John’s tiny, cluttered room, under the huge posters of Joe Strummer and Ian Curtis, and work his way through that night’s assignments, his own little projects and theories and experiments. And more and more these days, his music.
That night, though, as he watched John sprawl lazily across the bed, it was his physics textbook that he drew protectively into his lap. He wet his lips. “Shep—” he started, the name, as always, awkward and unnatural on his tongue. “John. You know I can’t be in a band, right?”
John laughed. “You are in a band.”
Rodney also laughed, but uneasily. “Yeah, but just, like, as an extracurricular activity. I mean, doing the school talent show was one thing, but I can’t—I can’t start playing gigs with you!”
“Aww, c’mon.” John pushed his sunglasses up onto his head. “You’ll like it. You’ll be good at it. It’ll be fun.”
He shook his head. “I need to work on my science fair project.”
John grinned, long skinny arm sweeping down and snatching up Rodney’s red notebook. Rodney stifled the indignant “Hey!” that years of living with a younger sister brought inevitably to his lips. He sat and stared as John looked over the neatly ruled pages, the lines of black dots and small flourishes. John read notes the same way Rodney did: like they were words, like they were numbers.
“You know you’d rather be working on this,” John said, and when he spoke it sounded true; it became the truth.
“Now Sheppard,” said the man in the apron, “promise you’re not going to embarrass me here.”
John grinned. “Yes, sir,” he said, and the man gave him a look like a put-upon but indulgent father.
He went back behind the counter and resumed taking orders for malts and muffins as The Puddlejumpers set up their instruments. Rodney, both sweaty and cold under the baseball tee John had made him wear, crept closer to their lead singer. “You know the waiter? That’s who you know here? The waiter?”
John smirked. “Jack’s a very hands-on guy,” he said. “He’s also the owner.”
Rodney said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Oh, crap.”
He hurried to the back of the venue. “Bathroom?” he croaked, catching Jack’s eye.
“Back there,” Jack said, and Rodney started running. “But you’ll need the key,” he added, absently, which is how Rodney ended up puking into a plastic bucket with a dirty mop sticking out of it.
“I hate you,” Rodney pronounced, as John came over and gave him several manly pats on the back.
“Sheppard,” Jack said, scratching his head, “remind me what I just told you about embarrassing me?”
John’s grin didn’t waver. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine.”
Rodney straightened up and snatched the bottle of Fiji water John was holding out to him, glaring fiercely. The worst part was, he really was fine.
Then he went back up on stage, and he was incredible.
Afterwards, once the (not as enthusiastic as they deserved, dammit) applause had died down, and their gear had been quickly cleared away, and a very earnest and extensively braceleted female guitarist had come on, Jack pulled him aside and pushed a milkshake into his hands. Rodney shot him a puzzled look, but who was he to question whipped cream and shaved chocolate? Of course, Jack had to wait until he had just sucked a long, cold gulp into his mouth before muttering, “Don’t let Sheppard push you around too much.”
Rodney spluttered. “What?”
He followed Jack’s gaze over to where John was talking to one of the more enthusiastic audience members from their set. Her hair flashed copper under the light reflected off the stage, moving as she laughed.
“He’s got talent—presence—and he’s got ambition: something he wants very, very badly. But there’s more to it than that.”
Jack wasn’t looking at him, at either of them now. He was working his hand inside a cup with a rag, like a scene from a movie: Establishing shot—bartender polishes glass.
“You’re not bad,” he continued. “I’d work on the vomiting thing, though.”
Rodney licked whipped cream off his finger in what he hoped was an indignant—nay, defiant—manner.
“How long have you been playing?” Jack asked, casually.
Rodney told him.
The rim of the glass clunked lightly against the edge of the counter, but otherwise, Jack limited his reaction to a raised eyebrow.
“Well, good luck, then.” It sounded like he was saying, You are so screwed.
It took Rodney years to realize that it didn’t—none of it, the whole conversation—mean what he had thought it meant.
He wasn’t being warned away. He was receiving acknowledgement that it was already far too late.
In Rodney’s mind, the rest of high school is a blur. In his head, there is a clear dividing line: before, when everything he did, everything he had planned, was neat and organized like boxes in a Periodic Table; and after, after.
One Saturday in May, John took him down to the beach. Earlier that week, they had finished the last of their AP exams—Government and Economics, English, Physics, BC Calculus—both of them, because Rodney had managed to make John do something for once. John had laughed, but he’d taken the tests. Rodney knew his own results already—5, 5, 5, 5; he wouldn’t be surprised (and wasn’t that a surprise) if John’s were the same.
But: “What a fucking waste of our time,” John said, collapsing onto the sand. Venice Beach was a little less crowded than Santa Monica’s strip of sand, just to the north up the coast, but there were still a fair number of people around. They cleared away from John, however, as soon as he sat down: shuffling back, forming an invisible ring.
Rodney stepped inside. He flopped down next to John, reaching immediately for his sunscreen, slathering it on. “Just because we’ve already been accepted to a number of universities—” and in Rodney’s case, they were practically beating down his door— “doesn’t mean that good AP scores aren’t to our advantage. By fulfilling pointless ‘breadth’ requirements, we can—”
John snorted. “No, I meant college in general is a waste,” he said, and while Rodney was still reeling: “You’re not seriously telling me,” John’s eyes on him, there though invisible, the weight of it, “that you’re going to waste your time at some stuffy university when we could be making a name for ourselves?”
Rodney didn’t even know where to start with that; it was as if John had said, “Hey, Jesus called—he hates your guts. Oh, and by the way? Einstein says ‘April Fools!’” He realized he was making frantic fish faces, his mouth moving silently. Finally, he managed a “What? What? You...you’re kidding me, right?”
“Nope,” John said. He lay back, pushing his sunglasses up onto his head. Rodney stared at him as he fumbled in his bag, producing a book and a stick of gum. John popped the gum into his mouth, leaning back against the bag with the book propped open in his lap. Rodney blinked at the cover: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“You’re...you’re crazy,” Rodney said. Dimly, he was aware of the other people on the beach: people sunning themselves, building sand castles, tossing inflatable rubber balls back and forth. It all seemed fuzzy, faded, unrealistic.
John, beside him on the sand, was real: his black tank top riding up, exposing a thin line of stomach; and another line—hair, trailing down. Rodney gulped.
John blinked back at him. The flicking motions of his thumb stopped; he laid the book flat on his stomach. “You are with me on this, aren’t you, Rodney?”
No. Rodney’s mouth formed the word: silently, stagnantly. He stared out across the ocean.
“No,” he said finally. “John, it’s been great, but—”
John sat up, his sunglasses sliding down his nose, back into place.
“—But I can’t,” Rodney said. “You—you can’t seriously be asking me to drop out of school to—”
“Not drop out,” John said quickly, flashing a smile. “Just: don’t go.”
Rodney laughed, though this wasn’t funny. John was going to ask him to just not breathe next.
“I am going to university,” he said, suddenly angry. “I have a brilliant mind; it would be a—a crime against humanity to waste it!”
“You’re a brilliant musician,” John said coolly. “It’s okay to waste that?”
“It’s a hobby!” Rodney said. His hands were moving freely now; with one careless swipe, he knocked the book off John’s lap and into the sand. “Like—like Richard Feynman’s drumming! No one ever asked Feynman to quit physics and become a full-time professional bongo player!”
“You’re way more talented than Feynman,” John said, and Rodney started to preen for a second before realizing that, obviously, John did not mean as a scientist.
John seized his hand when he started to turn away. “You’re a genius,” he said, soft stroke of his thumb, “and we need you. I need you.”
Rodney knew that John could feel his shiver, feel the spasm in each and every one of his clenched fingers.
“Listen,” John said softly—hummed, almost; sang: thatvoicethatvoice—“I’ll make you a deal.”
“A deal,” Rodney echoed, staring out at the waves.
“I’ll flip you for it.”
“Flip me for it?” Rodney said, his voice incredulous, but his eyes were on John’s free hand, the one moving in his pocket, producing a shiny, silver coin.
John nodded. “Heads, we all go to college: put the band on hold for four years, or however long it’s gonna take you to get your innumerable graduate degrees. Tails. Tails,” John said, smiling—like he had already seen it land: eagle, face-up—“you’re with me, you’re really with me, and we do this, we make it happen. The—”
“—Biggest band in the world, yeah, I’ve heard you,” Rodney said, though without bite: his mouth was dry.
“Ready?” John asked, setting the quarter on his thumb.
Rodney nodded; thinking, As I’ll ever be.
A snap of skin against silver, louder than the waves crashing at their feet. They watched the quarter spin, watched it fall.
There’s no one in the world who doesn’t know which way it landed.
So, the VJ says, and they all brace themselves: it’s going to be one of those questions. They all have them, the ones they dread. Teyla always gets asked about the time she beat the crap out of a “fan” who got too fresh with her; she was arrested; the charges were dropped. I regret that I did not handle the situation more calmly, she usually says, although Rodney knows her well enough to know: that look in her eyes is anything but regret.
Ronon often gets asked: Do you feel that the African-American members of the group get marginalized by the media?
Ronon will blink slowly (Rodney knows he’s biting his lip) and explain, I’m Hawaiian.
To which more than one reporter has replied: What? Isn’t that a state?
(Why can’t we just be marginalized because we’re the rhythm section, like in every other band? Ronon has often remarked, and Teyla will slide back in her seat and laugh her rich, honey-laugh, and John will lower his sunglasses and beam at them all, and Rodney will think, in that moment: Yes. I made the right choice. Yes.)
The magazines all seem to have run out of fresh ways to cover them; the articles are all the same. A sentence or two about Ronon (mention of the dreads: check; mention of his former occupation: check); another pair of sentences about Teyla (if the article is written by a woman, use of the phrase “role model”; if the article is written by a man, use of some variant on the phrase “smokin’ hottie”); and maybe a paragraph or so about Rodney, lost and tiny in the several thousand-word paean to Shep: Shep’s voice, Shep’s hair, Shep’s moves, Shep’s glasses, Shep’s leather pants, Shep’s causes, Shep’s (rumored) girlfriends, Shep’s smile, what Shep ate for breakfast every morning last week.
Mostly, this is really, really hilarious, and ammunition for much inner-band mocking of John.
Except: Rodney hates his cursory two paragraphs with a passion. He’ll come into their rehearsal space or into some hotel suite, gripping a rolled-up copy of Spin or Rolling Stone like he wants to thwack the reporter on the nose with it. They did it again! he’ll declare, and John or Radek or whoever’s close by will pry the magazine from his hand and read aloud: Rodney McKay, the ‘Jumpers’ lead guitarist and a certifiable genius...
Usually at this point, Rodney snatches the magazine back. This is insulting! he’ll announce. Lumping it in there like that! Like I’m Geena Davis, actress and Mensa member! If I ever find out who leaked those IQ scores...
That was years ago, in their first blush of fame, when Rodney was just starting to feel comfortable with his decision, just starting to feel ready to leave that other, imagined life behind.
So, the VJ asks, oblivious to the sudden tension in the room, what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t members of the biggest band in the world?
Nothing, they say, they all echo John in saying. There’s nothing else I can imagine myself as. Nothing I’d rather do.
Rodney would rather be anywhere but here. Here, in their shitty little apartment on Wilcox Avenue with its lovely view of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, scads of sex shops, and the dumpster behind Popeye’s Chicken. Here, alone in bed—flimsy IKEA mattress on the bottom of a frickin’ bunk bed—while everyone else was off somewhere—while he could be off somewhere, making exciting new discoveries, proving people wrong.
He was wrong. This was such a mistake.
He clutched his pillow more firmly to his chest, rolling over. Outside there was the sound of glass shattering—probably some punks getting into a fight, or maybe someone breaking in, come to steal all the equipment they had stacked in the living room—all of it, worth more than several months’ rent. If they got robbed, they would have to quit. CalTech would probably still take him, if he begged.
A thump: then the door opening, creaking, slow. “Hey,” John said, creeping inside, whispering for no reason. “You’ll never guess what I just did.”
“Probably not,” Rodney said, but John completely failed to register the tone: “I got us a manager! That guy Ford’s grandfather knows, remember? Well, he was reluctant at first, but I—” The smile John flashed had never failed to charm. “—I brought him around.”
“That’s great,” Rodney said, and when John looked at him, murmured, “C’mon, Rodney—” he amended, “No, really. That’s great.”
John smiled, then: the other one, the private one. He took off his glasses, took off his shirt. Slid into bed above Rodney. Whispered, “We’re really getting somewhere. We are.”
Humming to himself, deep in his throat: lulling them both to sleep.
And later, cutting through the quiet: “You believe me, don’t you, Rodney?” It may just have been the low volume, but John’s voice seemed to hitch. “I won’t let us down.”
Rodney swallowed and said, “I know. I know.”
The manager was a let down. A big one. Rodney was sure that he was very good at his job, blah blah blah, but Marshall Sumner’s style of management and The Puddlejumpers' style of...well, everything, just completely failed to mesh.
“You have to pay your dues, gentlemen,” Sumner said as he tried to convince them to take another gig at Borders.
“No,” John insisted, “No. It’s totally the wrong atmosphere for us. The stage is no bigger than an elevator; how am I supposed to move up there?”
“Maybe you could focus on playing the damn songs,” Sumner suggested through clenched teeth, and Rodney threw up his hands—both literally and metaphorically. Grabbing his guitar—the red Stratocaster, formerly John’s and now, by default, officially his—he slammed into the bedroom. He’d let them argue it out; he had work to do.
Songs to write.
They played Borders. The stage was distinctly elevator-esque, “As is the music,” Rodney whispered discreetly into John’s ear, “of every act so far.” Their own performance was—well, far from their best. People drinking lattes and flipping through bargain-priced gardening books were not their ideal audience; they all seemed to feel it, especially John. And when John failed to shine, they all looked lackluster as a result.
They were packing up when a woman approached John. This was not unusual; Ford (who didn’t do too badly himself), was already exchanging winks with Teyla. But the woman didn’t giggle, didn’t bend over and flash John her cleavage (which was, Rodney noted objectively, quite nice); instead she raised an eyebrow and said, “What’s with the sudden decision to go emo?”
“Excuse me?” John said, the hostility beneath his words barely noticeable if you didn’t know him, if you didn’t know him like Rodney did.
“I kept expecting to see eyeliner dripping out from beneath those shades,” the woman said, with an oddly-restrained grin. “Why the mopiness? At all your other gigs, you’ve been so high-energy; that’s what I like about you.”
Some of the nearly-invisible tension went out of John’s shoulders. “All our gigs?” he repeated.
“Oh yeah,” said the woman, with another arch of a delicate black brow, “I’ve been stalking you.” She turned, discreetly, and shot Sumner—who had his back to her, deep in discussion with a man wearing a clip-on tie—a cautious glance. “So, do you have representation?”
Suddenly, Shep was all teeth. “You’re a manager? Or,” and even with all his practised cool, John couldn’t hide his excitement, “you’re a scout?”
The woman laughed, a little ruefully. “Actually,” she admitted, “I’m in my last semester of business school. But I’m going to be a manager—”
“You bet you are,” John interrupted, maybe turning to the rest of them for approval, maybe not, “You’re going to be our manager. Shep,” he added, sticking out his hand.
“Elizabeth Weir,” said the woman, extending hers: bright, calm, professional.
“Hey, Sumner,” John said, turning, shouting across the quiet café. “Guess what?”
He raised a hand, index finger extended, thumb lifted, cocked. Eyes narrowing, sighting along his arm, his jerked his wrist: Bang. “You’re fired.”
Within a month of her graduation (they all came, and Rodney tried not to be sick when he saw her get handed her diploma; he saved puking for right before shows), Elizabeth had them cutting a demo CD. “Instincts,” John said, tapping his head, winking at Ford. “It’s all about instincts, this business.”
It was unfair, Rodney knew, to wonder which one of them would next be replaced: on an instinct, a whim.
The night they signed with Interscope, they all went out and got hammered, shit-faced, falling-down drunk. It was one of the best nights of Rodney’s life. Like all good nights, his memory of it is a little hazy, but he does recall: Teyla and Elizabeth, arms draped over each other, doing tequila shots at the bar. John refrained, volunteering to stay with Rodney in his happy, non-citrus-tainted world. They drank beers and sat with their feet up, making fun of the people doing karaoke on stage. At some point, John launched himself at the mic, dragging Rodney with him, and they did a series of boisterous, drunken duets; he remembers making up his own lyrics to “The Boys Are Back in Town,” John leaning heavily against him, Elizabeth and Teyla out in the crowd, clapping and laughing themselves sick.
He remembers: Ford, off in the corner, talking and talking and talking to a couple of pasty guys with ridiculous white-boy dreads. With the benefit of hindsight, the memory makes him ill, nauseated and shivery; then he simply mumbled the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” turning in toward the pale expanse of John’s throat; and raised his hand, and waved.
There’s another question they’re inevitably asked. They let John field this one, too. Not because they don’t have plenty of their own to say (so much they need to say), but because John won’t let them. He’s made it very clear that this one is his: his duty, his responsibility.
Ford is a great kid, he’ll say, in spite of the fact that Rodney, the youngest of them, is pushing forty. (And maybe, Rodney suspects, in John’s mind Ford really has stayed frozen at twenty-two: forever young, forever innocent. Untainted.) Yeah, it really sucked that we had to part ways, but Ford’s doing great. He’s got a new band now, The Lost Boys, have you heard them? No? Well, I’ve got a whole bunch of their demos, it’s seriously great stuff, talk to me after, you should really give—give ‘em a listen. Ford, he’s just...waiting for his next big break.
But, uh, and Rodney will cough then, usually: do something to make that second of tape unusable, kill the fraction of a second when Shep’s façade breaks. Hey, how lucky are we to have Ronon? Have you heard the story of how we landed this guy?
It doesn’t matter. They always want to hear it again.
Everyone was in a panic. Eight dates into their first big tour, the one supposed to launch their debut album, and Ford had gone AWOL, an hour before showtime.
They were expressing their panic in different ways. Rodney had cornered one of the sound guys—Radek, the one who seemed vaguely interesting and intelligent and who, to Rodney’s surprise, was quickly becoming his favorite person on the tour to talk to (when John was unavailable, that is). Teyla was hiding out in the back of the tour bus, trying to meditate. Elizabeth was calmly calling anyone and everyone who might know Ford’s whereabouts, occasionally taking time-outs to go stand in the corner and put her face in her hands. John had not stopped smiling for forty minutes straight.
Eventually, there was a knock on their dressing room door. “Hey, it’s Sam,” a voice called, and Rodney almost fell over an amp in his effort to stand straight, stand tall. John gave off impersonating the Cheshire Cat long enough to roll his eyes: Rodney’s little crush, coupled with his almost grudging idolization of The Terrans’ lead guitarist, was the talk of the tour.
Sam poked her shining blonde head inside: she was wearing a leather bustier, and Rodney had to expend a great deal of effort to keep his eyes on her face. Sam didn’t help matters: she folded her arms across (under) her chest. “You guys solved your little problem yet?” she asked, ribbing them a little, but without malice. “Or are we going to need to open for you tonight?”
‘We’re fine,” John snapped.
“Actually...” said Elizabeth.
John turned on her, glaring. “Ford’s going to show,” he insisted. “I—we’ve know each other for years, he—”
Sam watched them both, eyes astute. “Maybe,” she said carefully, “you should consider finding someone else to play tonight—”
“What, and just give up on him?” John demanded, getting into Sam’s personal space. Rodney swallowed. This was not a fight in which he wanted to choose sides.
Luckily, Sam held up her hands—a placating gesture, though she didn’t step back, step down. “I’m not saying give up on him. Just find someone for tonight.” She looked him full in the face, unblinking: acknowledging, maybe, that she’d been at this a lot longer than he had, that she knew what she was doing. “It won’t look good if you don’t go on.”
John looked crushed: Rodney could tell, could see it in the slight tension of his shoulder blades, his back. He took a breath, then stepped forward. “Yeah, well who’re we gonna find? J—Shep’s right. We can’t play without Ford; no one else knows his part.”
(Now in reality, there were several minutes concentrated panic in which they tried to find a way around this very real and serious issue. But the way John tells it—and as far as Rodney’s concerned, that is, has become, as good as truth; the way John tells it:)
“I do,” said one of the roadies, stepping away from the crate of equipment he’d been moving out into the hall. “I know it all.”
“See?” said Sam, winking at him; then she turned, and in a flash of gold, she was gone.
You could map their lives in clippings, a giant web of release dates and album covers; of cities, towns, and their name up on the marquee in lights; of who fucked whom, and who fucked whom over; of contract negotiations and deals, receipts detailing accounts of lavish meals and bottles of expensive champagne—Elizabeth wining and dining Caldwell from the label, or Caldwell wining and dining her; of awards won and battles lost; of Rodney’s receding hairline and his sudden fondness for pork pie hats; of Ronon inching closer and closer until he was really and truly part of the group, part of the family; of John, John—Shep, brilliant and glowing and bright, the largest thing in the room, in the world: arms spread, gigantic at the top of the stage—and every moment, moving farther and farther away from them all, receding.
Rodney has his own scrapbook, a private one. His own collection of clippings, the ones that declare him an unparalleled genius in his chosen field (the field he chose); the ones that have caught them, maybe, in a candid moment: Ronon smiling at something just out of sight, Teyla’s head on his shoulder; and John, for once facing away from the camera, his hands in his pockets, staring out at the ocean.
(And John: turning toward him, gripping his hand tight enough to make the knuckles white out; clutching him like an anchor, a lifeline.)
Rodney has learned to speak through his music, and keep the rest in silence.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Rodney shouts.
He’s in the back of the limo, his hands balled into fists that pound rhythmically against the soft leather upholstery. They just did a long—and may he say? Brilliant—show, and while it’s not quite midnight, well, he’s not as young as he used to be. And there, glittering and welcoming, is their hotel...but there are hands thumping against the limo’s roof, there is shouting and screaming and the waving of jump ropes, and goddammit, John’s fucking groupies are blocking the door again.
“Who are these idiots?” Rodney snaps. “Don’t they have anything better to do with their time?”
“Rodney, they are your fans,” Radek says.
“Okay, so they’re idiots with taste.” Rodney looks around tiredly—suddenly jealous of Ronon and Teyla, who decided to check out the local night life, and of John, off doing whatever the fuck he’s doing. “Radek, see if you can distract them, okay?”
“Oh, I am your bodyguard now?” Radek says, amused at the very suggestion. He lays a hand on Rodney’s arm. “Why don’t you call Lorne? It is his job to deal with security issues, yes?”
Rodney sighs, thunking his head back against the seat. “I think he went to a strip club with Shep. But—” He looks out the window, and sees at least two girls already waving their panties. “Well, it’s worth a try.”
Lorne is not at a strip club—or if he is, it’s one very close by, because he arrives within minutes, sliding into the limo and directing the driver to a second entrance in the back. He keeps the crowd at bay as Rodney and Radek make a break for the hotel; in the elevator on the way up to their penthouse, they collapse in a fit of exhausted snorts that can almost pass for laughter. “Ah, we came in right next to luxurious trash incinerator,” Radek says. “You rock stars, your lives are so glamorous.”
“Hey, I don’t hear you complaining,” Rodney says, once they’re inside, raiding the bar that isn’t so much mini as full-sized and stocked with John’s favorite beer—Elizabeth must have called ahead.
For a second, Radek looks worried, guilty. “Rodney, you know—” so Rodney has to say, “Oh, Christ, shut up, you know we’d sound like crap if it weren’t for you.” He sighs, stretches—despite the new, custom guitar straps, his back is totally going to shit. “I’m going to bed,” he announces. “You...?”
Radek sits down on one of the couches. “I am going to wait for a while, see if Elizabeth...”
Rodney pauses in the doorway to his suite. “She’s out with Mr. Interscope,” he says, gentle but firm. “It might be a while.”
Radek shrugs. “I will wait,” he says simply. Then he looks up, catches Rodney’s eye. “You understand.”
Rodney scowls. “Goodnight, Radek,” he says, and closes the door firmly behind him.
Unfortunately, he’s not that tired. Over the years, there are certain things that haven’t changed. He gets sick before every show, but is fine the second he hits the stage. After, he’s full of an odd, humming energy, a certain restlessness. Sometimes he craves chocolate, and fresh-whipped cream.
And: he is the genius one. Ronon, the enigmatic one. Teyla: the beautiful one.
It’s after three when John comes in. Rodney’s still awake, sitting on the edge of the bed with an acoustic guitar in his lap. He hears John enter, but he doesn’t look up; doesn’t stop playing; doesn’t stop singing.
“That’s nice,” John says, when he trails off—he’s just fooling around; no Grammy winners here. Rodney shrugs and sets the guitar aside. He stares at his fingers: permanently callused, permanently creased. “No, really: I like it.”
“It’ll sound better with Shep singing,” Rodney says—and out of the corner of his eye, he can see John’s face fall, that certain weary slump.
“Christ, Rodney, don’t be like this.”
I’ll be however you want me to be, Rodney thinks, but he scoots back, and lets John come to him.
John comes gratefully, Rodney’ll give him that: breathing slow, relieved breaths as he lowers himself into Rodney’s arms. He lifts up his face for Rodney to kiss, but Rodney turns his mouth away. Instead, a finger: reaching out, scraping across John’s cheekbone and up under the earpiece of John’s glasses. One twitch and he knocks them askew; another and they’re tumbling, limply, onto the bed. John draws the line at letting him swipe them onto the floor; he picks them up gently, setting them on the nightstand.
“Rodney,” he says, an edge of desperation in his voice now. “Rodney—” And now Rodney does kiss him, takes his face in his hands—smooth palms against stubbled cheeks—and jerks him forward, holds him still. The worst of the rigidity goes out of John’s shoulders the second their lips touch; John melts against him, gripping blindly at Rodney’s shirt, grabbing fistfuls of soft fabric, sheened with sweat.
“I missed you,” John says—the kind of stupid thing he says sometimes, because Rodney’s been right here. He’s always right here.
John pauses, resting his forehead against Rodney’s; Rodney can feel his breath hot on his eyelashes, closed and fluttering. “I need,” John breathes; and Rodney knows, he always knows—exactly what John needs.
The fight goes out of John’s shoulders. He lies back limply on the bed, for once willing to let Rodney take care of him, take care of everything. His shoes and his socks, thumping onto the floor. His shirt, pulled a little roughly over his head. His pants, fly undone button by button, buttery slick leather inched slowly down hot thighs with the precise movements of Rodney’s trained hands. And then John is naked before him, there, on the bed: naked, vulnerable, exposed.
“God, Rodney,” John says, watching as he takes off his own clothes, one arm flung up over his head. “What would I do without you?”
“Learn to play the guitar,” Rodney says.
“I can play the guitar.”
“Not like I can. Not like me.”
Rodney climbs up onto the bed, running his hands up John’s calves, calves John obligingly raises and parts. “You want me to fuck you?” Rodney asks, though he professes to hate obvious questions.
“Yes,” John says. “Yes.”
There’s lube in the bedside drawer, on top of the Gideon Bible; either this is a very full-service hotel, or Elizabeth definitely called ahead.
“So,” Rodney says, slicking his fingers, “where’d you go tonight? After the show?”
“Rodney, can’t we—” and then he groans, moving against Rodney’s twisting fingers. “I’m just curious,” Rodney says. “There were a lot of disappointed people, outside. Wanting to see you.”
“Nowhere,” John says, grinding down, fisting the sheets. Rodney pulls away, readying his cock, and John sighs, further spreading and lifting his legs, readying himself to receive him. “Took a walk on the beach.”
“The beach,” Rodney says.
“Yeah,” John says. “Oh—Rodney—oh—”
“The ocean,” Rodney says, thrusting into him, floating above him, and John stretches up, his stomach clenching, seeking Rodney’s mouth. They kiss, Rodney pausing for a moment, stilling; and when he starts moving again, it’s slower, gentler.
“I’ll go with you, next time,” Rodney says.
“I know,” says John, “I know.”
Later, they lie in bed. There’s a lamp on, somewhere in the room; they’re both too lazy to get up and switch it off. The glow it casts is soft amber-gold; Rodney likes the light it shines on John’s face: just a little, piercing the shadow. He watches John as he blinks, long lashes closing and opening, hiding and revealing his smoky green eyes.
“Sometimes,” John says, his voice gentled by sleep, “I can’t believe we’re here.”
“In Melbourne?” Rodney says, just to annoy him; and just to annoy Rodney, John says, “Yes. Exactly. Yes.”
Rodney isn’t sure if he falls asleep. He thinks maybe he hears music, a soft hum or a whistle, but that’s what he dreams, now. Notes and colors; and John, standing atop a cliff, watching the crashing of the waves.
At some point, as he drifts, he hears a voice that sounds like John’s. “I didn’t—I never meant—”
“Shh,” Rodney whispers, “it’s okay”—his own siren song, rocking them both to sleep.
1. Story title is an allusion to the T.S. Eliot poem Four Quartets, which you should really read, especially "The Dry Salvages." Album titles from U2's Lemon. They are all, living and dead, far cooler than we are.
2. Interscope Records would like to officially deny any and all implications of homosexuality or bandcest present in this story. The Puddlejumpers have a new album coming out 03/21! Pre-order through Amazon.com!