Different from Your Own
The shortcut's right in the middle of the desktop, ostentatiously labeled in all capital letters as though John's too dumb to find it otherwise. Adding insult to — well, insult, the wallpaper is a JSAVNE concert photo, and the shortcut's positioned so that he'll have to click himself in the crotch.
No one ever accused Rodney McKay of being a master of subtlety.
The jumper beeps to let John know that the gate has finished dialing, and he turns his attention from the laptop screen to open a radio channel.
"Atlantis, this is Sheppard."
There's barely a pause before Chuck's cheerful voice fills the jumper. "We read you, Colonel. What's your status?"
"Just calling for my scheduled check-in. Nothing much happening here."
Rodney's voice pipes up. "Finding anything, ah, interesting?" He sounds the way he does when he's scared and trying to hide it. Crap.
"Well, hello to you too, Rodney." A little flashing icon has appeared in the laptop's system tray. Secure connection established. John clicks the "CLICK HERE" shortcut. Transmitting. "Nah, you're not missing much. Lots of space, lots of uninhabited planets. I'll bring you a souvenir." Transmission complete.
"That's all right, I think I've got everything I need."
"What, you don't want a snowglobe?"
Chuck cuts in before Rodney can answer. Brave man. "Anything else to report, Colonel?"
"Negative. Next check-in in ten hours."
"Roger that, Colonel. Atlantis out."
Rodney doesn't say goodbye. The wormhole winks closed.
John takes a moment to exhale, loudly, and shuts the laptop. "Fuck."
He pulls up the HUD and banks toward the landing site he picked out earlier. There are still no life signs in the vicinity of the gate, which is as expected. Officially, he's conducting an aerial survey of abandoned worlds that might be suitable for repopulation. Unofficially, his plans for the next 24 hours will be best carried out without an audience.
He lands in a fallow field, cloaks the jumper, wonders what that says about his level of trust in this entire proceeding, decides not to think about it, and then hikes back toward the gate with his overnight pack and a guitar case slung over each shoulder. He remembers feeling this way before his first date: excited, tense, a little bit sickened.
This is a bad idea. Like, really, really bad. The badness of this idea was drilled into him repeatedly before he even left Atlantis, in subtle, cruel ways: Lorne's ease at their last briefing as he wished John well on his completely routine survey mission; Ronon's offer to keep him company despite his own aversion to long jumper rides; the desperate heat of Rodney's hands moving over his skin the night before his departure, as though building a shield around John to keep other hands away.
He tells himself he's not betraying them. He doesn't quite believe it, but he doesn't turn back, either.
He wades through waist-deep fields of waving grasses, glad for the protection of his sunglasses as startled, long-winged insects flutter up in his wake. The stargate is smack in the middle of a field, its morning shadow falling sharply forward, the grass in front of it cropped short by the wormhole that brought him here. There are some cracked flagstones to suggest that the area might have been well-tended once, long ago.
There's no good cover, just grass and the DHD, so John takes up position behind the stargate. He sets the guitar cases down in the grass and settles down to wait.
He could still leave. The jumper's cloaked; nobody would ever know.
He doesn't leave. The sun is hot on the back of his neck. He sits in the grass and swats at bugs while the shadows slowly move.
It seems like a long time before the gate springs to life, its chevrons flaring one after another. John rises to crouch tensely in the grass with his right hand on the butt of his sidearm. His heart is racing.
The wormhole blooms and fades, clearing to reveal a single traveler. He's not carrying as much stuff as John, just a weapon on his hip and something in a leather case slung across his back. John watches quietly while the newcomer checks out his surroundings. He sweeps the landscape with a practiced eye, but he's not — pointedly, John thinks — looking behind him. Smartass.
He stands up, deliberately making noise, and the figure turns around and not-quite-smiles at him.
There's a remembered stab of terror, always, but it's only for a second. John saunters through the gate's empty circle and puts his hands on his hips.
"Todd." He tips back his head to meet the Wraith's yellow eyes. "Decided to walk, huh?" He flicks a glance skyward. "Nice day for it."
Of course Todd knows what he's really asking. "As we agreed, my hive does not know where I am."
"Oh. Mine does." John smiles brightly.
Todd growls, but it doesn't sound like anger. More like oh, please.
John picks up his backpack and the guitars. "So, where's this great vacation spot you picked out?" As if he doesn't already know. Todd has probably guessed as much, but he just makes one of his indecipherably amused faces and nods toward the northwest.
John's used to walking with Ronon, so it's second nature to keep up with Todd's longer stride. The vegetation changes as they walk, untended crop plants giving way to generic weeds and finally to a crumbling stone path. It's a short walk; after only a few minutes they see rooftops, and soon after that they're walking down the main drag of what was once a pretty prosperous village. There are no villagers to greet them, though; no shouts of alarm or inquisitive gawking, only a flurry of startled birds that burst out of a hedge as they approach.
It's eerie. The village has clearly been culled, but a long time ago. The buildings are wooden, some of them two stories with big exposed beams jutting out in the middle. Broken shutters hang crookedly from windows that probably never knew glass. Tall weeds poke through the paving stones; sun-tattered banners flutter between the buildings like Tibetan prayer flags. He's seen flags like that on other worlds; wonders whether some survivors managed to escape this place and rebuild their culture elsewhere or whether flags are just a universal… galactic… thing.
There's something like a deer standing in one of the open doorways. It watches them as they pass, but seems unafraid.
"Nice location. Cull it yourself?"
Todd growls softly. The deer twitches an ear, but doesn't run away.
"Here." Todd veers off toward a big building that probably used to be an inn. It looks a lot like the last offworld place John stayed with his team — a stout two-story building with a big public room on the ground floor, and probably guest rooms upstairs. The door is gone from its hinges, and through the doorway he glimpses rows of weathered plank tables with matching benches and an enormous fireplace full of ashes and debris.
Next to the inn there's a partially overgrown courtyard with a crumbling stone well at the center. The ground is a patchwork of grass and flagstones. Weeds and wildflowers tangle in the beds and sweet-smelling bushes tumble over the retaining wall.
They grab two long benches from the inn and drag them out into the courtyard. John lags behind just enough to let Todd choose a spot first and then sets down his own bench facing him, just out of arm's reach. He sits with his back against the well, guitars and backpack piled nearby, and slips his shades into his vest pocket.
"I was expecting you to look different," Todd says. Todd himself is almost cartoonishly bright green in the sunlight, and his gravelly-wheezy voice reminds John of one of his dad's old business partners from when he was a kid. He was the reason John never started smoking.
"I've seen images from your performances. There seemed to be a good deal more… glitter."
John's hand goes automatically to his hair, and Todd chuckles his creepy chuckle. John freezes, feeling momentarily exposed. He doesn't like it much. Come to think of it, he doesn't really like the idea of Todd seeing him on stage. He probably should have thought about that before he did this.
He sits up straight again; jerks a thumb at the thing over Todd's shoulder. "What'd you bring for show and tell?"
"It is a musical instrument." Todd unslings it from his back and carefully opens the leather case, drawing out a graceful, dark blue curve strung with strings. It looks a little like the harp Spock played on Star Trek, except instead of wood it's made of a glossy, resinous material.
Todd plucks the strings with his clawlike fingernails and an eerie, metallic sound ripples out. John tries to place it, but it isn't quite like any of the instruments he knows. It reminds him a little bit of a Japanese koto, but it's also kind of like a zither, and like Radek's violin when it isn't tuned properly.
"This is our most common instrument. It is played alone or accompanied by song or poetry."
"And you do this in your hive."
"So you're, like, a bard or something?" It's oddly easy to imagine. "On top of being a military commander and master hacker?"
"The lives of Wraith are long. It would be dull indeed if we did not cultivate many talents."
Well, that's disturbingly reasonable.
"Many of our scientists are also musically accomplished," Todd says, and John nods; he's only heard the spiel on music and math half a million times.
Todd is playing a slow, monotonous rhythm that's clearly meant to accompany something. John tries to imagine him playing it in some dark, dank chamber while declaiming Beat poetry about the exquisite sharpness of the Queen's vestigial teeth. The image doesn't fit, though. The music sounds too dignified for that; it evokes a more refined culture than he really wants to think about the Wraith having.
After a few minutes Todd switches gears and starts picking out a melody that sounds like a discordant music box. It's weird and delicate and pretty.
John listens a while longer, and then he opens one of the guitar cases and pulls out his battered old Gibson acoustic. It doesn't get played much. He bought it off a guy at McMurdo whose tour was ending, and after he brought it to Atlantis it sat practically untouched until he found his other guitar, the one that made every other instrument obsolete for him forever. He plays a quick riff, making sure it's in tune. Todd's interest seems to be piqued, and he sets his harp aside.
"This is a guitar, from Earth. Uh, you're right-handed, right?"
Oh, yeah, he was just asking for that look.
"Okay, hold it like this." He passes it over into Todd's big hands. "No, like that. Yeah."
Todd handles the guitar gently and tries plucking, then strumming the strings. He quickly discerns what the fretboard is for, but obviously doesn't know any guitar chords.
"Okay, put your fingers like this and press down on the strings. That's a C."
John explains a couple of chords, and pretty soon Todd is strumming away. He plays the guitar the same way he played his harp-thing at first, with the same two chords over and over in a weird, languid rhythm. It's strange, but sort of cool-sounding.
"I have listened to one of your team's musical collections," says Todd after a while, still strumming. "I am intrigued by the piece called '38 Minutes.' It is unlike all of the other pieces."
"Oh, that." John wonders where he got a copy of the album. He hopes it doesn't mean he's been snacking on the fans. If he has to kill Todd, he's going to be really annoyed, or disappointed, or something. "It's, uh, sort of an homage to a song from Earth called 'Revolution 9.' You'd have to hear that to really get it." He wonders where this ranks on the list of Most Surreal Conversations Of His Life.
"So your team plays the traditional music of Earth?"
"Well, sort of. We play rock and roll, mostly, which is — well, it actually used to be sort of anti-traditional, but now it's the most popular kind of music on the planet. But Earth has lots of different kinds of music."
"Well — I like country music. That's, uh, music about people who live in farming areas instead of cities. It's all about how your dog died and your truck broke down and your wife left you, so now you just get drunk and play guitar."
"Yeah, it's great. Then there's classical music, that's the stuff McKay likes; it's old and really hard to play and there are a bunch of different instruments but no words. Except in opera, but opera sucks. Oh, and then there's this guy named Weird Al who's a whole genre to himself. Not to be confused with Yanni, even though they kind of look alike."
"Of course." Todd nods sagely, as if he knows what the hell they're talking about. John thinks he looks amused.
"Those are the big ones. There's lots of others, though. And we try to use sounds from Pegasus too — stuff from Ronon and Teyla's people, and stuff that doesn't have anybody to play it anymore."
He wasn't planning to go there, he seriously wasn't, but now he's meeting Todd's eyes with a challenging stare and his heart is racing again. Todd's expression is unreadable. He looks away, finally, and John shuts his eyes briefly and thinks about the tattered village flags.
"I have heard little of the music of humans," Todd says quietly. "Its variety is intriguing."
Yes, it is. John thinks of rap and reggae and Celine Dion; the Athosian Ring Ceremony and the Satedan music that reminds him of swing dancing. He thinks of the marimba-like thing Teyla is learning to play, which was given to them in a decimated village where no one left alive knew how to play it. He thinks of Teyla's voice, and Ronon's, and Rodney's.
"Do you sing?" he asks.
Todd seems surprised by the question. "Our music is not like yours, Sheppard," he says slowly. "We do not normally sing aloud. I suspect my voice would not inspire the type of reaction yours does among your… fans."
"But you can sing."
"Then sing something."
"Our songs would not be to your liking."
"You do not want to hear me sing the fall of your Ancestors and the sinking of your city, John Sheppard."
"Now, see, I don't speak Wraith. If you hadn't told me that, I wouldn't have known. Sing something else."
Todd lets out a long-suffering sigh, but John thinks he's secretly pleased. "Very well." He sets aside the guitar and picks up his harp again.
He runs his hands over the strings, playing a slow, minor melody, and begins to chant in counterpoint. He was right about his singing voice. It's low and gravelly and a little bit off-key, as though unaccustomed to use. Actually, he kind of sounds like Bob Dylan. The words are strange, and John realizes that he's never heard the Wraith language out loud before. Do they even have a spoken language? The music is interesting — would be pretty, even, if someone else were singing it.
But John feels uneasy. It takes a while to notice, but by the time he does, the hair's prickling on his arms and his stomach is coiling with a strange, quiet panic. The music hasn't changed, but there's something underneath the sound, a soft vibration in the back of his head, a bit like the mental pull of a puddlejumper but wrong, all wrong. It feels slithery and dangerous, reminds him of captivity and compulsion and the weird warmth of hive decking under his knees.
John suppresses a shiver until he can't anymore. Todd's focused on his playing and doesn't seem to notice.
He holds out for a few more seconds while the sound writhes like a living thing inside his head, and then he's squirming under the weirdness of it and standing abruptly, almost knocking over the bench.
Todd breaks off singing and looks up, startled. John sees a flash image of Rodney, all big-eyed with surprise and realization, and jesus, if that isn't ten kinds of fucked up.
"What is wrong?"
He can't answer. He's just fighting to clear his head, to get his face under control. Why'd he have to go and take off his sunglasses?
He meets Todd's eyes barely, briefly. "What the hell."
"I do not —" Todd breaks off abruptly and lays the harp down in his lap. "What do you hear?"
Hear, hell; he feels like someone's touching the inside of his skull.
"Well, I wouldn't call it music, that's for damn sure." It's gone now, at least, and he's got his equilibrium back. He doesn't sit down. "You said you were gonna sing out loud."
"I cannot silence the voice of Wraith. I did not think you would be able to hear it. Most humans cannot — only some among our worshippers who have often been in communion with us."
"Many have expressed great pleasure in our music. It should not be so… disturbing."
John grimaces. "I feel pretty disturbed."
"My apologies." Todd actually seems contrite. What the hell? He must look as panicked as he feels, which… fuck. He's lost control of this.
He really wants to hear more.
"I've got a radio check to make." And he gets the hell out of there.
When he comes back, the sun is setting and blue fireflies have begun to wink in the tall grass. Crickety things are singing on the cool breeze.
He feels okay. He checked in with his fake report for the duty sergeant and his real one for Rodney. He walked around for a while. He didn't think about Todd's hand on his chest or Todd's voice in his head.
The abandoned village is more than a little creepy with night coming on, but John walks slowly, not anxious to return to the inn.
There's a light in the window.
He goes inside cautiously and is surprised to find that the room has been cleaned up. The displaced furniture has been righted and the piles of dead leaves and broken crockery are gone. There's a lantern burning on one of the long trestle tables, and Todd's kneeling by the fireplace, poking up into the chimney with the handle of a decrepit broom. John smirks. He would have paid good money to see him sweeping the floor.
Todd turns and looks over his shoulder when John walks in. He wouldn't be surprised if he could sense him or smell him or something.
"The chimney is blocked. I was going to build a fire."
"It's not that cold," John says.
Their gear is piled on a table near the bar. He's relieved to see it; he'd been worried about leaving his guitar when he went out earlier. His fingers are aching to open up the case, just to touch it and light up the darkness. Instead, he unearths his pack and zips it open. His grey uniform jacket is rolled up at the top, and he surreptitiously pulls it on before digging around for something to eat.
Todd abandons the fireplace and comes over to the table. "May I?" He gestures toward the Gibson acoustic, still out of its case the way John left it.
John nods, but doesn't say anything.
Todd sits down and fiddles with the Gibson while John eats a spaghetti MRE at the opposite end of the table. He doesn't sing. John doesn't talk.
Todd's playing improves rapidly, his big green hands becoming defter on the fretboard while John pretends not to watch. The guitar looks comfortable in his hands, and his expression, insofar as John can read it, is one of concentration. He's discovering chords on his own, which would be a dead giveaway of his musical talent if he hadn't already demonstrated it with the Wraith harp, and after playing around with three or four different strum patterns he falls into something that's almost a twelve-bar rhythm. John makes a mental note to ask Rodney about Wraith math; they have a running debate about whether a culture with a base-twelve number system would be more or less likely to invent the blues.
Then Todd switches to something unfamiliar — it must be Wraith music again, although it isn't anything he played before. John watches, and listens, and keeps silent.
When he's finished with dinner he breaks a piece off of the little MRE chocolate bar and hands it to Todd like some sort of elementary school peace offering. Todd gives him a funny look, but John's not going to explain. Todd eats the chocolate.
John cleans up the packaging from his MRE, then takes a deep breath and moves to the bench closest to Todd, where there's no table between them. He has to concentrate on his shoulders to make them slouch.
"So, what's next on the agenda?"
Todd looks pleased and still, perhaps, a bit regretful.
"I would like to hear you play something." He hands over the Gibson, but John waves it away.
"No, you hang on to that one."
He gets up again and goes to the other guitar case. Teyla had it made for him, and it's much more beautiful than the battered one he brought from Earth: deep maroon leather tooled with Athosian designs, custom-built to fit the unusual dimensions of his Ancient instrument. He clicks it open. Inside, his guitar is dark and silent, nestled in the case's soft black lining.
He reaches into the case and the guitar blazes to life, sending tingles through his arm that race all the way down to his toes and up to the top of his head. He lifts it gently from the case — twelve silvery strings, solid body, long, crooked neck covered with blobby metal lacework like the back of the control chair — and its brilliant blue light competes with the lantern to cast double shadows all around the room.
Todd looks appropriately intrigued, and John can't help but grin — 'cause yeah, still pretty much the coolest thing ever. He plunks back down on the bench and launches into the opening riff of "Day Tripper."
The Ancient guitar sounds almost like an Earth electric — Rodney, with his perfect pitch, swears there's a difference, but for John the difference isn't so much in the sound as in the way it encompasses all his senses and demands surrender. He shuts his eyes and the music floods his body, green blue green, until he's hearing it from the inside and the outside at the same time. He's so much better on this guitar than the Earth one; like the puddlejumpers, it pretty much knows what he wants to do before he does it. Time seems to go away.
He sings more Earth songs — Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and The Beatles — and a couple of the new ones he's written with Rodney. He starts in on an Athosian harvest song, one Teyla likes to sing around the campfire, but then he glances up at his audience, sees the light gleaming in yellow predator's eyes, and changes his mind. Teyla's songs are for her people, not for the Wraith. Instead he switches to "Folsom Prison Blues" in mid-strum, and Todd breaks into hoarse, sepulchral laughter.
"What?" John lays his palm flat against the strings to silence them; he feels his hand humming with potential energy.
Todd is smiling. "I have heard this song, John Sheppard."
He nods. "It was in your mind while we were imprisoned by the Genii. Quite incessantly, in fact."
"Well, it was appropriate."
John finds himself smiling, too. "It's a good song."
"I shall take your word for it."
John makes a face at him, but switches to "Ring of Fire" anyway. After that he plays a couple more originals, then some CCR and some Who. He plays for a long time, the music washing through him in a succession of colors, reds and golds and greens and deep, soothing blues.
After a while, Todd picks up the Gibson again. He doesn't ask to touch the Ancient guitar, and John doesn't offer. He holds the guitar and watches John intently — watching his hands, he realizes — and then suddenly jumps in on the second verse of "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Taken by surprise, John stops singing for a second, but Todd doesn't falter, so he joins back in and they finish the song together. Then he shows Todd the chords for "Squeeze Box," and then "Folsom Prison Blues" since he claims to know it anyway, and they're having an honest-to-god jam session by lanternlight in the middle of a culled village on a deserted planet.
A little detached part of John's brain keeps muttering that this is fucking surreal, but they're making music together and it actually sounds pretty good, and it's so much fun to just cut loose and rock out; to be nothing but a musician for a while.
Some time later Todd trades off and plays his own instrument again. The Wraith harp and the Lantean guitar sound strangely good together, and John guesses it's a combination nobody's ever heard before. They take turns improvising, following each other's lead, playing bits of songs they know and making music up from scratch.
Todd tells stories while they play, old heroic ballads full of cunning warriors and mercurial queens. John asks for a story about the Lanteans, and Todd weaves a tale of a great space battle, of Wraith who lay siege to a Lantean warship and finally boarded to find her abandoned, a ghost ship with empty, too-bright corridors. They found no one left but the captain, a tall man with yellow hair, who triggered the ship's self-destruct and vanished even as the hands of the Wraith reached out for him.
John doesn't realize how much time has passed until he glances down at his watch, hours later, and the weight of the long day hits him all at once. He fights back a yawn, probably making a ridiculous face in the process.
"We have played a long time," Todd says. "Perhaps we should stop for tonight."
"Yeah." He's reluctant to call it a night, but… yeah.
Todd puts his harp away while John lays his guitar back in its case. Its light goes out, leaving only the dim glow of the lantern, and it suddenly feels very late indeed. He yawns again as he puts away the Gibson.
"Sleep well," Todd says, as John takes out his sleeping bag and scouts around for a likely patch of floor. It ought to sound mocking, but it doesn't.
John wonders what Todd's going to do. Do Wraith need to sleep at all when they aren't hibernating? Maybe he's going to go stalking the woods with his yellow eyes and hunt down that deer-thing for a midnight snack. But instead, Todd goes out into the dark courtyard and sits perfectly still on the edge of the crumbling well, looking up into the starry sky.
John lies down against the opposite wall, where he can see through the archway into the courtyard, and rolls himself up in his sleeping bag. He lies there for a long time with sound and color running through his head until he finally falls asleep.
He hears music. One voice haunts the darkness, low and resonant, singing words he almost knows.
He's been dreaming of Atlantis, and he follows the voice down a corridor, away from the bright heart of the city, into damp and unused halls. He opens a door and warm, humid air wafts out around him, coaxing him forward. He steps into darkness and feels the ocean lap up around him as the city falls away beneath his feet. The voice is here, stronger now. It's familiar somehow. He's heard this before.
The voice is joined by other voices in complex, layered harmony, climbing over and around each other like clumps of honeybees on a comb. He's heard this song, too. The words are unknown but the meaning is clear. They sing of oneness, of belonging, all the voices woven so tightly together, slow and sleepy and beautiful.
It doesn't sound like Atlantis. Atlantis is all light and air and wide open spaces, soaring unfettered between one note and the next; this is warm and dark and knitted close, flowing slow as honey. But the undercurrent is similar: connection, continuity, (not-) home.
It feels so good, like sinking under warm water. He can't see the sky.
He lies enmeshed in the voices for a long time. Then slowly, so slowly, the voices begin to distort and fade. The long slidy sounds change, becoming bright starbursts of piano, small sweet percussive notes he feels falling on his skin like raindrops. It's refreshing and startling, jolting him from his warm, drowsy haze. He turns his face into the music and feels it kiss his cheeks, his eyelids. The thick entangled feeling slips away and he's floating, flying.
The music stops.
Blue eyes blink down at him, clear and bright, filling the world.
"John. Wake up. John."
He snaps awake abruptly, as though coming out of a nightmare, but the only dream he remembers is a good one. There was music — Wraith music, he knows, but it was okay. It's okay.
He pushes himself up on his elbows to peek out the door. Todd is still outside, lying on his back on a bench with his hands folded on his midsection. The stars are blazing in the moonless sky.
John lies down and goes back to sleep.
He opens his eyes sometime later to sunshine and birdsong.
He feels refreshed and comfortable, if a bit stiff from sleeping on the floor. He yawns, stands, stretches with a firecracker chain of popping sounds, and rolls up his sleeping bag before going to the privy.
Todd is sitting in the sun when John goes outside, his eyes closed like a basking lizard. John wonders if he ever left.
"Water," Todd says, and gestures toward a dripping, mossy bucket on the lip of the well. John raises an eyebrow at that, but he sticks both his hands in the bucket and scrubs them over his face. The water is cold and green-smelling — not dirty, just more alive than what comes out of a tap. It tastes delicious. Rodney would be bitching about typhoid and microbial cysts. John drinks a few more handfuls, the water running down his arms to drip from his elbows.
Todd is looking at him when he finishes. John wonders if he's going to ask about the music.
He's sure that was Todd singing last night, but maybe he hadn't meant for John to hear. Maybe he hadn't even realized he was doing it; maybe it's like when people talk in their sleep. Rodney does that all the time.
He should be seriously freaking out over this, he's pretty sure. He did yesterday — but then, yesterday was all half-heard dissonance, like nails on a mental chalkboard, not like real music. It's weird that he could hear it better when he was asleep.
He wants to hear more.
There are a few things he gets about Todd that he would never admit to anyone. For all his weird maverick shit — and Todd is weird, even for a Wraith — he's fundamentally a social being. He's part of something bigger. He sees how Todd is entwined in a web of belonging not unlike his own, biology and history tugging at his allegiances, his heart tuned to the collective hive-song of his people as surely as John's is to the rhythms of Atlantis.
The Wraith, plural, are a faceless nightmare, an enemy force, for god's sake, a half-insect vampire horde. John really doesn't have a problem killing Wraith. But Todd — Todd is a guy: a smart guy who likes history and poetry and plays a mean harp-like thing and has a dry, wacked-out sense of humor. In an alternate universe where John doesn't rate three stars in Todd's personal Michelin Guide, they could probably be friends.
He does, though, and they aren't.
It's time to go home.
They walk together to the gate.
John doesn't hug. Todd thinks handshakes are hilarious, and also, no. John settles for the time-tested guy nod, which Todd answers with an ironical sort of bow.
"I have enjoyed making music with you, John Sheppard."
"Jamming. We say 'jamming,'" John says. "Uh. Me too." He waits awkwardly while Todd dials and the gate whooshes open.
And then Todd leaves, and John starts trudging back across the fields toward the jumper — toward the jumper, and a series of gates, and home.
It's evening in Atlantis and the lighted gateroom stairs are a beacon drawing his eyes up to their summit. Rodney is there, limned in the hazy glow of moonlight through stained glass, waiting for him. His arms are crossed over his chest, but his face looks relieved and happy. He meets John's gaze through the cockpit glass and holds it as the jumper rises slowly toward the irised ceiling.
By the time he's secured the jumper and clattered back downstairs to the control center, Rodney is gone, but John doubts he's gone far. Base security is green across the board, and his own debriefing can wait until tomorrow — it was, after all, a very uneventful survey mission — so he escapes the gateroom within minutes and makes quick work of putting his gear away.
Rodney isn't waiting in the locker room or the transporter, which surprises him. Maybe he's back in his quarters? John takes the transporter down, and when the doors sigh open Rodney's there in the hallway looking impatient and relieved and kind of hyper.
"John." His big eyes make John feel like he's pinned in a spotlight.
"Hey, Rodney." He tries to be slouchy and smirky, to say "yeah, I'm back" and "everything's okay" and "thanks" without saying any of it.
Rodney helped him put this whole thing together. He freaked out and yelled a lot first, but then he seemed to pick up on the fact that John really, weirdly needed to do this, and after that he applied himself to plotting out the details with remarkable calm and focus. He couldn't have done it without him.
He lets himself be herded toward Rodney's quarters, even though he really wants — well, he isn't sure what. Peace and quiet, maybe. But the door opens without either of them swiping the controls, so maybe this really is where he wants to be.
"God. Four days." Rodney's all insistence and grabby hands, kissing John noisily and trying to peel his shirt off of him almost before the door has closed.
"Rodney, I'm really kind of tired — "
"Shut up, I'm checking you for marks." His hand traces a determined path from John's belly up to his sternum. John shivers, and Rodney quickly pulls his hand away, looking guilty and suddenly squeamish.
"He didn't… eat in front of you, did he?"
John tugs his shirt back down. "Do you really think I'd stand by and let him?"
"No. And they don't actually have to do it that often, you know. Not when they aren't being shot at."
"So what did he do? Since there wasn't, you know, eating."
"He was cool. We just... hung out. Jammed."
Rodney stares at him. "You are officially the weirdest person I have ever met, do you know that? And I'm including that groupie from M3C-252 who asked me to bless her uncle's livestock." He pulls John in for another hard, startling kiss and then just hangs on.
John stands immobile while Rodney clings to him, both arms around his waist and the side of his face mashed into John's shoulder. Then Rodney releases him, takes a step back, and just stands there looking at him with a quirky little smile.
"Uh." John isn't sure what should happen next. There's an inhuman song running through his head and his skin feels thick with secrets, unready to be touched. It feels like he's been gone a lot longer than four days. "I'm just gonna —" He tilts his head toward the bathroom.
The shower is a welcome escape: gallons of ocean that warm at his whim, sluicing off guilt and fascination and three cooped-up days of legitimate survey work. He closes his eyes and listens to the city, to the water in the shower stall and the imagined rhythm of the water outside: one and the same, reclaimed ocean reclaiming him. There's a distant sound of piano and he's not sure whether it's an echo of his dreams or just Rodney listening to something in the other room.
When he gets out he feels fragile and tentative, but better. He looks at himself in the mirror — no new marks, just the tiny half-moon from before, and only when the light catches it just so — and then wraps himself in a towel and heads out to the main room.
Rodney's sitting up in bed working on one of his laptops, which he sets aside when John emerges warm and scrubbed from the bathroom. John drapes his towel over the back of a chair and tucks himself up next to Rodney under the soft white blankets. Rodney doesn't say anything, just opens his arms and lets John curl close.
It's such a relief.
He rests his head on Rodney's belly so he won't have to look him in the eye. Rodney is warm and smells good and his faded T-shirt is soft against John's cheek. His hands come to rest on John's back — a warm, comforting pressure. John closes his eyes.
Rodney starts talking about the labs. John zones out, catching a few words here and there — "neutrinos!" "undying wrath!" — and then something about a duet for marimba and didgeridoo, and some sort of atrocity in the mess hall — "it was purple. Purple!" He lets the sound of Rodney's voice wash over him, undecoded. He feels tired, even though he just came from another planet's morning, but he needs to say something, needs to find a way to tell Rodney about the up-and-down of fear and camaraderie and music that was his last twenty-four hours.
"I taught him how to play guitar," he offers finally.
"Hm. Is he any good?"
"Decent, yeah. He picked it up fast. And he's got kind of a Vulcan harp thing that sounds like a zither."
"Really? I wouldn't have figured the Wraith for… well, actually I don't know what I would have figured them for. Besides the obvious."
"It sounds awesome. Can't dance to it, though. Well, maybe interpretive dance."
"Oh, thank you, I'd just been longing for the mental image of interpretively-dancing Wraith."
John smiles into Rodney's warmth. "You're welcome."
"Did you record any of it?" Rodney asks hopefully.
"Little bit, yeah. It's a cool sound. I thought maybe we could figure out a way to duplicate it."
"If we can explain where it came from."
He sighs and closes his eyes against the stab of guilt. "I don't like lying to Ronon and Teyla."
John looks up, horrified, but Rodney pushes his head back down and leaves his hand there, petting the back of his neck as if to anchor him.
"She guessed! Okay, I mean, she didn't guess exactly; it was more of an educated deduction based on, well, I might have been acting a little — anxious? Subtly anxious, but you know how Teyla is. She knew something was up."
"Was she pissed?"
"What? Oh, no, I wouldn't say that, exactly. She was, um, concerned. But I told her about the plan and the safety precautions, and that you were checking in and we could go get you if we needed to and that you, um, needed to do it." Rodney sounds awkward, apologetic. "And she agreed that we shouldn't tell Ronon."
John sighs, both in relief and in resignation. It could be worse. But still, they're going to spar tomorrow and she's going to look at him and then he'll cave and try to apologize and she'll probably smile that gracious smile and kick the crap out of him. Either that or she'll go easy on him, which might actually be worse.
But Ronon — god. He doesn't know how he's going to look Ronon in the eye.
He knew it would be like this, is the thing. He knew, and he doesn't know what it says about him that he went anyway.
Rodney's fingers are working slow patterns through his wet hair. It's really distracting. He lets his eyes close and just lies there for a minute, arms around Rodney's waist, breathing in comfort.
Then Todd's song winds its way back into his head, and he shudders.
"What?" says Rodney softly.
There are no Wraith here. The music isn't real, it's just stuck in his head like a half-remembered dream — a good one, but one he wants to forget.
He forces himself to speak. "I heard their music."
"So I gathered, what with the jamming."
He shakes his head minutely. "Not that. That was just playing instruments. But their — his voice… you know how they communicate with their minds?"
"Their singing's like that, too. Telepathic. They don't usually sing out loud at all. It's in this place in between their minds, and we — humans can't hear it unless they've been… y'know. Fed on."
"Oh." Rodney's fingers still for a moment, then spread out protectively, cradling the back of his head. "What, ah, what does it sound like?"
Like a hundred thousand voices, every one familiar to each other but alien to him. Like Atlantis dubbed into a foreign language. Like being summoned back to somewhere he doesn't belong and never did, even though part of him wants to go.
"It sounds like home," he says, and he's pressing his face so tightly into Rodney's body that he's not sure the words can even get free. "But not mine. It isn't mine."
"John." Rodney's voice cracks on his name.
John pushes himself upright on the bed, bracing his weight on one hand and pulling Rodney to him with the other. Rodney looks lost and unhappy — worried for him — and John leans in and kisses him as though he's been understanding and selfless and brave, as though John's just come back from a suicide mission instead of a jam session, as though it's been four days. He kisses Rodney and hangs on, feeling suddenly, desperately grateful.
"Thank you," he whispers, a long time later. "Thanks for letting me go."
Rodney's arms tighten around him. "Thanks for coming back."
John sleeps and dreams the music of his city, piano and waves and Rodney's heartbeat: familiar music, songs sung in voices he knows, and one of them is his own.
Author's Notes: This takes place in a collaborative AU by suzat and me in which John, Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla are in a rock band. The band is perhaps regrettably called The John Sheppard Aqua Velva Noise Explosion (JSAVNE for short).
This story was written between June 12 and December 3, 2009. Thanks to general_jinjur for beta reading. <3