They fall into a rhythm over the next couple of weeks that shores up Rodney's travels with a strange sort of structure he's never had before. Sheppard calls on Monday or Tuesday, depending on some esoteric ritual Rodney can't quite figure out. Rodney calls on Friday. Every Friday. If he has a performance, he calls late and Sheppard listens while he blows off steam about the music, the conductor, the orchestra, whatever he's dissatisfied with this time. If he doesn't have a performance, he calls early and they spend the evening talking about movies or cooking or sometimes music gossip. They spend one memorable Friday night watching The Empire Strikes Back and heckling everyone's wardrobe.
Rodney doesn't really understand he's got a countdown going until he talks to Carson on day one hundred and six. He knows it's day one hundred and six because it was day one hundred and thirteen when he called Carson, telling him to get the hell to Boston and audition Sheppard, and Carson said he couldn't do it until the next week – March seventh at the earliest. "One hundred six," Rodney'd said, and when Carson asked him to repeat himself, he answered, "Oh, nothing."
"Where the blazes did you dig him up?" Carson asks.
"Under a rock at the Boston Conservatory."
"Thank god you told me about the Brahms. I wouldn't have given him a second thought over the Beethoven."
Rodney frowns; he can't imagine Sheppard being less than mind-blowing on anything. "What was wrong with his Beethoven?"
"It was fine – a perfectly acceptable Beethoven. Better than acceptable. But not inspired. The Brahms, though…" Carson sighs. "There's not a lot for him right now, but if he's really as good in a pinch as you say, I can get him a list of repertoire for all the concerts in the area for the next four months and maybe we'll get lucky and someone will get sick." Carson must realize how that sounds after the words are out because he adds a polite little "God forbid," at the end.
Rodney smiles. He'd sabotage Emanuel Ax himself if he knew he was performing anywhere within two hundred miles of Boston.
"I don't know that I'll be able to get Sheppard much, though perhaps some of the orchestras that won't take Carolyn as a substitution for Teyla."
"That's got to be more than half," Rodney says, and regrets it when he remembers what a gossip Carson is.
"No, Rodney, there are only two or three. Chicago – Haitink's a snob. And Montréal! I would never have guessed it of Nagano. He said it would mess with his programming too much."
Rodney's opinion of Maestro Nagano goes up two or three notches, as does his vestigial Canadian pride.
"By the way, Carson, if you even mention to Sheppard that I'm taking masterclass gigs now, I will blow up your house."
"That's very funny, Rodney. You don't even know where I live." Carson sounds unsure, which is good because Rodney's fairly certain he can get the information out of Teyla if he needs to.
"Well then, I'll just have to blow up Scotland."
"When's the last time you won a Grammy?" Rodney asks as he bursts into Daniel's office. It's covered in instruments from around the world, made of bamboo or elephant dung or whatever they have copious amounts of in the third world countries where he does most of his traveling.
"We won in 2010," Daniel says, kicking his feet up on his desk, "but you know that. It's not like you have a trophy room full of them, Rodney, you only have one more than we do."
"Well this will get everyone involved Grammys," Rodney answers, and flips the CD on Daniel's desk. "Just listen. You won't turn me down when you hear it."
Daniel shrugs and puts the CD into the player that's teetering on a stack of papers haphazardly piled on his desk. He listens intently, eyebrows knitting together as soon as the opening chords of the Rachmaninoff march through his tiny office. He leans forward, staring at the CD player like he can see the performance if he stares hard enough, a tiny John Sheppard playing inside the machine.
Satisfied with Jackson's reaction, Rodney leans back in his own chair, letting the perfection wash over him. It gives him gooseflesh, just like it did that night at O'Neill's house, and he's glad to know that it wasn't just the shine of a couple of beers.
In one of the lulls of the first movement, Daniel says, "You know we're a chamber orchestra, right? We'd have to call in a hell of a lot of favors just to get the instrumentation. Not to mention this is pretty intricate stuff to do without a conductor."
Rodney nods, his eyes still closed as he listens. "You can read Sheppard like a book – if you can get brass that aren't morons, it'll all fall into place."
Daniel makes a little 'hmph' that doesn't sound particularly positive. "We'd need to have a live performance," he says, "in addition to the recording sessions."
Rodney shrugs. He wouldn't mind watching Sheppard play the Rachmaninoff live himself.
"Nobody knows who this guy is, McKay. We need something a little more enticing than a twenty-year old recording."
Rodney opens his eyes and Daniel's looking at him more shrewdly than he would have given the guy credit for. "I'm listening."
"We need your name as a draw."
"No," Rodney says, standing up and crossing his arms. "No, I won't take the spotlight away from him, not on this piece."
"Then play with us," Daniel says, "You can be concertmaster."
"Sam will never allow that."
"Then play second," Daniel says earnestly.
Rodney doesn't answer, knowing that Daniel will apologize for even suggesting it.
"I'm sorry," Daniel says a second later, and Rodney smirks at him.
"Maybe Sam will go for being music director and playing second," Daniel suggests. "I can ask her, if you want."
"Nah," Rodney says, "I'm sure she'll get a kick out of me coming in, hat in hand. I'll beg."
Daniel grins at him, hitting the stop button. He pulls the CD out carefully and packs it up, handing the case to Rodney. "You're going to need this to have a chance in hell of convincing her."
Rodney paces the hall outside Sam's office for a while, working out how to get her to agree to this. She's key to the plan; if he doesn't have Sam on his side, the orchestra will never do Sheppard justice. He forces himself to stop pacing and knock briefly before opening the door and barging in.
"Samantha Carter, if you don't look more beautiful every time I see you."
Sam sighs, setting her pencil down on top of the score she's studying. "What do you want, Rodney?"
"I need a favor," he says, walking over to her CD player and putting in Sheppard's CD.
"I seem to recall you already owe me a favor," Sam says. "Or six. And they're impossible to collect because your schedule is ridiculous."
Rodney smiles sheepishly. He does owe Sam a couple of favors; anyone else would have told him to take a hike already. "I've taken up teaching," he says, not turning around. "I could do a masterclass if you wanted me to."
Sam's breath catches and he smiles as he hears her chair scrape the floor as she gets up and joins him at the CD player, checking his forehead. "Are you sick?"
Rodney shrugs. "I was forced to do one for a colleague and realized it wasn't so bad."
The silence stretches out between them. Rodney can't quite believe he's here, about to ask a favor from a colleague who hates him for a guy he's known less than two months. He doesn't know how to ask, so he lets Sheppard's playing make the opening move. "I need you to listen to something."
She steps away from him and returns to her desk, leaning back in her chair with the pencil twirling between her fingers. "Hit me."
Rodney pushes play, and before Sheppard gets two notes out, Sam looks up from her desk in recognition. "That's John Sheppard," she says.
Rodney stares at her, completely off-balance. He knew they were at Julliard together, but pianists and violinists don't generally have that much contact. "How did you –"
"I was concertmaster on this recording," she says. "O'Neill went around to all the kids individually because he didn't want to announce it in orchestra, thought Sheppard had had enough embarrassment."
"Oh," Rodney says, sinking into the chair on the other side of the desk.
"He was amazing," Sam says, and Rodney looks up.
"He still is."
"I didn't know he was still performing," she says delicately, and Rodney hates to admit that Sam's better than him at anything, but she's clearly more adept at the whole diplomacy thing than he is. If he had known Sheppard when he quit, he wouldn't have been so circumspect.
Rodney taps the CD case on his leg. "He's just starting again," he says. "And I'm looking –"
"For a favor," Sam says, and smiles like the predator he knows she is. "You want Orpheus to play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto." Rodney stutters out the beginning of a protest and she puts a hand up to stop him. "I want a weekend workshop. Three masterclasses and individual lessons, as well as a small venue chamber performance just for my students and their guests."
Rodney nods, his heart thumping in his throat. Sam's really going to agree to this.
Sam looks him over, tapping the pencil on the score again. "Daniel wouldn't do this unless you gave him something too."
Rodney shrugs. "He wants me to play."
Sam sits up straighter in her chair. "A concerto?"
"No," Rodney answers miserably.
"As concertmaster." Sam frowns.
Rodney clears his throat and turns to look at the books on her bookshelf. "I think Carson would kill me if I played anything else."
"Rodney," Sam says, almost a growl. The idea of playing second to Sam is repulsive, but if it will get Sheppard the gig...
"I'll play principal second."
Sam gapes at him openly for a long moment before she gets her wits together. "You're going to have to do whatever I say."
"Even if you don't like it."
"Even if –"
"Yes, goddammit," Rodney snaps. "I said I'd do whatever is necessary. Just say yes already. You can make me grovel in rehearsal."
Sam leans back in her chair, folding her arms behind her head and kicking a foot onto the desk. "Yes," she says.
Rodney almost doesn't pick up when Carson calls; he knows when he hears his phone's rendition of Scotland the Brave, it's either going to be great news or horrible news, and setting up the recording with Orpheus could go either way.
"Yes?" Rodney answers when he flips the phone open.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Horrible news, then.
"I'm getting someone to record Rachmaninoff with Sheppard – what's wrong with that?" Rodney knows exactly what Carson's complaints will be, but that doesn't mean he has to make it easy for him.
"You volunteered to play principal second. To Sam Carter's concertmaster."
Rodney grimaces. Yeah, he had done that. He stands and starts to pace at the end of the bed; he's got a fight on his hands and he needs to get his blood pumping to make sure he comes out on top.
"I won't let you do it, Rodney. It would ruin your career."
"No one will ever know, Carson, it's not like they can see who's on the recording. They don't list the entire orchestra."
"Actually, Rodney, Orpheus does do that. But that's not the problem. Perhaps you forgot about Jackson's requirement of a live performance?"
"Oh," Rodney says. He had forgotten about that.
"It's damn lucky I'm not within throttling distance, Rodney."
"Well, I assume you negotiated something else with them or you wouldn't be calling me." That's not at all true; Carson has the power to nix any concert Rodney agrees to verbally, and he's done it more than once. Rodney wants this one, though, and he knows Carson knows it.
"I'm working on it. I know this is important to you. Which, by the way," Carson's tone shifts from truly annoyed to fondly exasperated, "it might not be the best thing for your career if you announce the fact that you are in love with someone that will never return your affections."
"What?!" Rodney shouts into the phone. "I never said anything like that!" Carson chuckles and now Rodney wishes he was in throttling distance. "You've heard him play. He should be the next Trifonov. He just needs a shove in the right direction. I'm trying to help him out."
"It's an honorable thing, Rodney, you're just making it obvious that you want this for him more than you care about your reputation. And considering your attachment to your reputation, it's crystal clear to all involved what that means."
Rodney hadn't thought about it that carefully; Daniel might not have noticed, but Sam certainly did. He puts a shaky hand to his forehead.
"There's an obvious solution to all this," Carson says, and Rodney rushes to deny it before he can even get the words out.
"I won't play a double concert, or do a double recording. He'll be tied to me enough with the chamber concerts – and that's never done Teyla any favors."
"I don't know where this streak of self-sacrifice is coming from, Rodney, but it's really quite charming… except that you're starting to worry me with your over-concern about John's career." Carson clucks his tongue and Rodney sits down to wait for the rest of the lecture. "Okay, so what about two concerts then? You give them a solo performance on another date, no recording."
"Jackson won't go for that," Rodney says. "Besides, they're too small to play any of my repertoire, and there's no way I'll do anything Baroque or Classical with them."
"Wait a minute," Carson says, and Rodney covers the phone before cursing at himself for letting that slip. "They're way too small to play the Rachmaninoff. What are they going to do about that?"
Rodney shrugs and hums noncommittally into the phone.
"What if they did it like a festival – a Russian festival? They could program a series of concerts for larger orchestra, and you and John could play Russian concertos. They could do some of the Romantic classics – Scheherazade would be a natural…"
Rodney lets Carson's ideas wash over him. He hasn't played anything Russian for over a decade. Not since Dmitri. He still can remember the sound of the Shostakovich echoing off the walls of their apartment, Dmitri lazing contentedly on the couch with their cat, smiling up at him with soft eyes and –
Rodney shakes himself out of the memory. "What?"
"Have you been listening to a word I said?"
"Yes, Russian festival, blah blah blah. I suppose I can do the Glazunov."
"Isn't it time for you to pick up the Tchaikovsky again?" If Carson were in the hotel room instead of an ocean away, Rodney knows he'd do something ridiculous, like put a hand on his shoulder or maybe try to hug him.
"You know I don't play it anymore."
"Maybe it's time to get over Dmitri, Rodney. It's been ten years."
Rodney hangs up on him, leaving his phone on the nightstand as he heads out for some fresh air.
Teyla seems to have a friend in every city they play in. If they're around for a week or more, sometimes she invites Rodney over to cook. It's been happening more and more lately, so either he's getting better at it or she's feeling sorry for him. He doesn't put it past her to be the latter. Somehow it comes up in his stream-of-consciousness phone call with Sheppard on day eighty-eight.
"I didn't know you could cook," Sheppard says. "Where did you learn?"
"I watch the Food Network when I can't sleep," Rodney says, leaning back against the headboard of his bed. Guy Fieri is on, moaning about a huge corned beef sandwich. Rodney can hear Sheppard fumbling around in his kitchen, no doubt looking for utensils to eat his takeout with.
"Tell me you don't have a nice kitchen. It'd be such a waste."
"I have a very nice kitchen," Sheppard says proudly. "You can cook in it when you come up for the Pärt."
"Why would I do that?" Rodney asks, though he's practically drooling at the thought.
"Oh, come on, Rodney. You get to cook, I get to eat, it's a win-win situation."
"All right," Rodney says, glad Sheppard can't see his ridiculously huge grin. "But you're buying the groceries."
"Sure thing," Sheppard says, and then continues without a pause. "Hey! Why don't you stay with me? I've got two guest bedrooms, and it's just me, my piano, and my dog. We can practice some of the repertoire for the chamber concerts."
"That's…" Rodney chokes, surprised at his sudden reaction. He's been living in one hotel after the next for over ten years.
"Just say yes, Rodney," Sheppard says quietly. His voice is tinny, like he's holding the phone away from him.
"Yes." Rodney breathes the word out with relief. The TV is on in the background, and judging by the cheering, Sheppard's watching a sporting event. He's slurping into the phone, something too solid to be soup. Must be noodles. "Let me guess. Thai food and football."
"It's spring, Rodney. Basketball and Japanese."
Basket Case wakes Rodney up at the crack of dawn.
"Jackson, some of us don't live on the East Coast," Rodney says, wishing he had the luxury of ignoring this phone call.
"Right, sorry about that." Daniel doesn't sound contrite at all, to Rodney's ear. "Your agent is a bulldog, Rodney. I need something from you or we're going to walk away from this whole thing."
Rodney sits up straight, his heart hammering a mile a minute. He takes a deep breath to give himself a minute to put on his best sneer.
"Carson's the best in the business," Rodney says. "I need someone to protect my interests. What do you want?"
"Play on his concert, Rodney. We'll have the orchestration – you could do something big."
"I don't want–"
"Listen, no one knows him," Jackson says forcefully. "You want to get him a captive audience? Program yourself behind him. People will have to listen to him to get to you."
It's an elegant solution to the problem, but Rodney still wants to balk at taking the spotlight off John. He knows Daniel is telling the truth, though, and if his name will get people in the seats to hear John, then he should agree. The adrenaline drains out of him and he wants nothing more than to settle back into bed and fall asleep. "Fine," he says, yawning into the phone. "What concerto? And don't even think about Tchaikovsky."
"Glazunov," Daniel says, in his best diplomatic tones. It's a little creepy that he knows Rodney's repertoire well enough to pick something so easily, but Rodney's too tired not to jump at the opportunity to end the conversation.
"Fine," Rodney says, flopping back down into his pillows. "Set up dates with my assistant."
"You know, if we could put the Tchaik violin concerto on Sheppard's recording, he'd sell four times as many–"
Rodney turns the ringer off before rolling over and cuddling up to one of his pillows.
"Vega, I don't understand what the problem is. Call Sheppard's assistant and explain you need his schedule to verify something about the chamber performances. You can work from that."
"Mr. McKay, Dr. Sheppard doesn't have an assistant. I have to call him directly when I want something and he makes me so nervous I always end up saying something I shouldn't."
"For crying out loud, Alicia, are you a man or a mouse? Call his school – they've got to have some sort of schedule for him."
"I tried that, but they don't have anything personal, like family weddings. I don't understand why you can't just tell him about this. Why wouldn't he be happy to find out you're getting him an engagement with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra?"
"That's none of your business. Just find a way to get his schedule without him knowing. I think he has a housekeeper."
"Do it yourself, Mr. McKay. I quit."
"Favorite symphonist," Rodney asks, even though he knows the answer.
"Favorite composer for piano."
"Favorite chamber composer."
"Favorite opera composer."
"He didn't write any opera."
"I like the operas he would have written better than any that exist."
"You have such a hard on for Brahms. If he were alive today, you'd be humping his leg." Rodney pauses for breath and realization hits. "You listen to Brahms when you have sex."
The silence on the other line would be enough of an answer, even before Sheppard's guilty admission. "So? Why, what do you listen to?"
"What do you mean, 'Hamilton who'? Hamilton the musical, you idiot."
"There's a musical named Hamilton?"
Rodney groans. "You're pop culture-challenged, aren't you?"
Sheppard casually mentions that his mother is hinting that he should settle down and produce some grand-babies for her. Rodney has no idea what to say to that. His parents are dead, have been a long time, and neither of them ever expected grandchildren from anyone but Jeannie. It bothers Jeannie that she didn't have kids before their parents died, and Rodney's never been able to understand why. For years he tried to figure out why she quit music, and it always seemed to come back to being a mother. He still likes her smooth sound over Radek's aggressive tone, but she won't even bring her cello out for family occasions anymore.
Rodney realizes the silence has lengthened beyond what's normal for them, and he clears his throat.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I was just thinking of Jeannie and her daughter."
"Do you want kids?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney doesn't even know where to begin.
"What's the saying? I try not to worry about things I can't do anything about."
"The Serenity Prayer? God give me the grace to accept what I cannot change?" Sheppard says, and Rodney's never heard it like that before, and it's not exactly what he's going for, but it's close.
"Close enough," Rodney says. "The way I see it, I can't raise a kid while I'm on tour. I have no reason to settle down, so I don't see it being a real possibility any time in the future." Rodney rubs his tired eyes and sighs deeply. "That way I can ignore the equally unappealing choices of single adoption, gay couple adoption, or some kind of artificial insemination of my sister. Ew."
"I could knock your sister up," Sheppard says ruefully. "Then we'd both get a kid out of it."
"That's completely creepy and also disgusting."
"That depends," Sheppard answers with a laugh. "Is she hot?"
The subject doesn't come up often, but every once in a while, Sheppard will ask something about sex out of the blue. It's not any weirder than any of his other straight friends; he will never forget the day Ronon called him up after watching Another Gay Movie to ask whether he was a pitcher or a catcher and he nearly swallowed his tongue. This call, Sheppard asks him how big his dildo is.
"What makes you think I have a dildo?" Rodney asks, honestly curious that Sheppard would presume such a thing.
"You seem to like… bottoming," Sheppard says, and Rodney rolls his eyes at his hesitation. "But you said you always top those boys, so I figured…" Sheppard's voice trails off, his typical way of letting Rodney know it's too embarrassing for him and he doesn't want to say things out loud. Rodney laughs at him.
"I've had dildos, but they don't travel well," Rodney answers. "It only took one embarrassing airport scene for me to give up that particular guilty pleasure."
"You didn't answer the question," Sheppard points out. "How big was it? Were they? How many did you have?"
It's been six or seven years since Rodney's had a dildo and he doesn't have a particularly fond memory of any of them. "I don't know. I've never had more than two at a time, and they're usually different sizes, depending on what I'm looking for." Rodney feels like the woman in the Portland toy store that sells him his lube. She could teach a college course on the subject.
"So what do you look for?" Sheppard asks.
"Are you shopping for a dildo, Sheppard?" Rodney asks, hoping it'll goad Sheppard into telling him what he's looking for so they don't have to spend an hour going around in circles about dildos.
"No!" Sheppard answers quickly. "I mean, I'm just curious."
"You're just curious about a sex toy you don't want for yourself? Is it going to be an early birthday present?"
"Birthday?" Sheppard asks, in the smoothest transition Rodney's ever heard. "When is it?"
Rodney's playing the Sibelius in Chicago and he's tempted to send his recording to Sheppard so he can listen along. Instead, he logs in to Amazon and sends a copy of the Hamilton soundtrack with a note that Sheppard should give it a try, maybe it'll help his technique. Sheppard returns the favor by sending Rodney the biggest dildo he's ever seen, a long purple jelly one practically as thick as his forearm. His new assistant thoughtfully opens the package for him, and sets the record for shortest time in Rodney's employ – approximately six hours.