“I could be working, you know,” says Rodney. “I am an extremely busy man.”
Elizabeth hands him a program and stands to let an elderly man squeeze past her, while Rodney sits on the edge of the fold-down, plush red seat and flicks through it disgustedly. God. Elgar. The auditorium stretches out huge and empty above them. He taps his feet on the floor.
“This precious student of Zelenka’s better be good.”
“Radek speaks very highly of Peter Grodin, Rodney. Miko’s going to Hamburg at the end of the month, and we’re running out of time.”
The seats are good, of course – Elizabeth has contacts everywhere - but actually the concert hall’s not that full, thank god, and if Rodney didn’t know it was impossible, he’d suspect Elizabeth of fixing that too. He’s grateful, though. It’s calm and quiet even before the lights go down, and nobody else comes to edge past them.
Rodney knows that he’s meant to be waiting for the concertmaster, but when the orchestra files in he elbows Elizabeth and hisses, “Who the hell is that?”
The violinist in question shuffles between the stands to the first desk and sits down stiffly next to the concertmaster’s empty seat.
“That’s John Sheppard, Jr.,” says Elizabeth, with a slightly odd note in her voice, and it’s a few seconds before Rodney realizes why he knows the name, and then he looks back disbelievingly. The stand’s in the way, now, and all Rodney can see is a shock of black hair and the polished wood and horsehair of a bow.
“John Sheppard, as in, the John Sheppard?” Rodney raises his voice over the rumble of applause as the conductor walks up to the podium. “John Sheppard had a son?”
“You didn’t know?”
“And he plays the violin too? What is he, a masochist?”
“Shh!” someone hisses behind them, and Rodney turns around to glare, but Elizabeth elbows him in the side when he tries to ask another question, and Rodney has to fume through the Elgar. He passes the time by pinpointing an empty seat nearer the orchestra, off to the side. The sound won’t be nearly as good, but he’ll be able to see the string section. At the interval, Elizabeth says, “So, what do you think?”
“What?” says Rodney distractedly
“Of Grodin,” Elizabeth sighs. “Rodney, were you even watching him?”
“Yes, yes,” says Rodney. “Why the hell does Sumner have Sheppard as an assistant concertmaster? He’s not a second. Did you see him during Grodin’s solo? He didn’t even try to lead the section. He hardly looked at them.”
Elizabeth shrugs, and says with a wry smile, “Nepotism is alive and well, Rodney, even in the music business.”
“That’s not what I meant,” snaps Rodney. “He should be playing principal.”
He makes a beeline for the empty seat, and watches the strings through the oppressively boring (Elgar and Smetana, is Elizabeth trying to kill him?) second half. Sheppard’s clearly bored too, barely paying attention to the conductor, occasionally making a half-assed attempt at decent leadership for the beleaguered first section. There’s something about the way he holds his instrument, though, that Rodney could see even when he was shambling in, too stiff in the back, like he was wearing a straitjacket rather than a suit, and Rodney knows this piece, knows what’s coming, so he watches Sheppard like a hawk. Sure enough, during the two-part violin solo Sheppard sits up, and Rodney’s breath catches, because he was right, and it’s like looking at a different player. Sheppard’s shoulders loosen, his whole body moulds around the violin and he slides into soaring harmony under Grodin so easily that even though the piece’s phrasing is trite and utterly unoriginal, Rodney feels it in his chest. After that, he can’t take his eyes off Sheppard for even a semi-quaver.
Elizabeth comes and finds him, well after the end of the concert, where he’s still sitting near the orchestra, scribbling feverishly in his notebook, and touches him on the shoulder. He jumps.
“Rodney? Teyla’s got the car outside.”
“So,” she says, as they pick their way past the cleaning staff who are already bringing in vacuum cleaners and putting abandoned programs into black sacks, “Do you still think Sheppard’s a first?”
“No,” Rodney says. “He’s a soloist.”
Elizabeth smiles and shakes her head. “I’ll never understand you, Rodney. I remembered where I’d heard of him. Stephen mentioned him once. He said he had talent, but he was completely unreliable.”
Rodney glances over his shoulder with interest. “Oh, he said that?”
Elizabeth clears her throat. “I believe the term he used was ‘perpetual fuck-up’.”
“Huh,” says Rodney, and sinks into thought.
They’re in the car when Elizabeth interrupts him as he reads deliberately through the program, including all the ads, and says, “Rodney, what should I tell Stephen about Grodin?”
Rodney waves dismissively. “Yes, yes, he’ll do, let’s get him.”
But Grodin isn’t the reason that Rodney comes back the next night, or the next. He sits by the orchestra and watches John Sheppard slouch, drowse and half-ass his way through a few dozen pieces, and occasionally, sometimes for barely a few bars, be so brilliant that Rodney can’t believe, a few minutes later, that it could possibly be as good as he remembers. He knows some of the members of the orchestra have recognized him; Grodin, obviously, but he’s under strict instructions not to say anything until Elizabeth talks to Sumner about his contract, and Rodney's seen a couple of the wind players glancing up at him and whispering together. He wonders if any of them guess who he’s watching. Sheppard never looks up.
After five days of mostly listening to his iPod in his hotel room and going to see the orchestra every night, he’s due back in Toronto, Elizabeth’s getting impatient, Rodney’s sick of the first clarinet constantly playing sharp and as sure as he can possibly be under the circumstances, so one day he leaves during the final applause and bullies an usher, who doesn’t recognize him but knows his name, into letting him backstage. When the orchestra is finished taking their encores, they file out past him in a chatter of laughter and music-noises; a few see him and quiet down, but nobody tries to talk to him. Sheppard comes out slowly, not talking to anyone, and he scratches the back of his neck with the end of his bow as he walks. He looks tired.
“You,” Rodney says, and ignores the violist in front of Sheppard who openly stops and gapes. Sheppard stops, raises an eyebrow.
“You need to have dinner with me. And that was a truly astoundingly lazy piece of playing, by the way.”
“Meet me by the back door in ten minutes.”
Sheppard blinks, then swings around and says to the gawping viola player, “Hey, Aiden, why don’t you leave me and the nice gentleman alone?”
When they’re alone, he turns on Rodney and hisses, “Look, buddy, I don’t know why they let you in here, but I don’t make money like that, okay?”
Rodney has a truly bizarre moment where he feels a little like he’s in a David Lynch movie, and sputters, “What, playing concertos?” before he realizes that actually Sheppard’s looking blank for a reason other than just to be cool. “Wait,” he says, and he is genuinely stunned, not because Sheppard hasn’t recognized him, because although Rodney’s widely acknowledged as one of the best conductors of his day, he doesn’t expect every institution to have a picture of him up on the wall, but because it means that Rodney McKay has been talent-spotting this orchestra for over a week and nobody told Sheppard. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”
They stare at each other for a minute.
“You going to tell me, or are we just going stand here?” Sheppard finally says, and Rodney realizes that, oh, yes, he actually has to introduce himself. It’s been a long time since he’s had to do that, but actually that’s more because, Rodney thinks, it’s been a long time since he met anyone he didn’t know.
“Rodney McKay,” he says, sticking his hand out as an afterthought, and he sees the moment Sheppard’s face goes even blanker as the penny drops. He hides it pretty well, though, and shakes Rodney’s hand gamely enough. His palm is dry and warm, and Rodney can feel the calluses on the edge of his index finger. He’s tall, his hair is stupid, his eyes are somewhere between green and brown and he’s startlingly good looking. So much so, in fact, that if his father hadn’t obviously put him through music school, Rodney would wonder if there was a reason Sheppard had jumped so quickly to that conclusion, and if, ten years ago, he might not have come out to dinner with Rodney anyway. It puts a weird, uncomfortable flutter in his stomach, and even more when the guy licks his lips and rocks back on his heels.
“I heard you’d become a recluse or something,” he says.
“Well, obviously not,” Rodney says crisply. “Now that you know your virtue is intact, will you hurry up and get changed so we can go?”
Sheppard shrugs. “Sure.”
When Sheppard re-emerges, he’s in jeans and a t-shirt that says ‘Joe’s Surf Academy’, his hair’s even messier, and if Rodney hadn’t been watching the guy so carefully already, he would never have been able to extrapolate this loose-limbed slacker from the stiff, uncomfortable guy with slightly irregular features and even more irregular hair who’d tuned up the orchestra badly yet again earlier this evening.
Rodney’s already called Teyla, and she pulls up on the sidewalk where there’re still a few players lingering, smoking a cigarette before they leave. Rodney feels their eyes on them as he ushers Sheppard into the car, but Sheppard doesn’t look back.
They go to a Thai place, and Sheppard asks the waitress for a beer and a green curry. Out of the tux jacket and bow tie, he’s much more relaxed, and by the time he’s had a couple of sips of beer, he’s loose and sprawling in his chair, and even gives Rodney a smile. “Hey, sorry about earlier. I thought you were -”
Rodney waves it off, as if he gets mistaken for a dirty old man who picks up attractive violin players every day. “It’s fine. Does that, ah, happen to you often?”
“You’d be surprised,” smirks Sheppard, and takes another swig of beer, his eyes fluttering closed, mouth circling the bottle rim in a perfect ‘o’ and his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows, and Rodney, slightly stunned, thinks that he really, really wouldn’t.
Until the food comes they make small talk, which Rodney normally hates, but now that he’s actually got Sheppard here, unexpectedly hot and even more unexpectedly entertaining, with some reasonably interesting things to say about Ravel and some hilarious gossip about Daniel Jackson in the New York Phil, Rodney’s strangely reluctant to get back to business. It’s been a stupidly long time since he was able to do this, just sit in a restaurant, eat delicious food and talk. He hadn’t even realized he missed it.
It’s John who breaks it up, finally, as he’s scraping the last drops of curry sauce off his plate with the edge of his fork.
“So,” he says easily, but not looking up from the plate, “I’m guessing you didn’t get me here to tell you who’s sleeping with who in New York, right?”
“No. No.” Rodney resigns himself internally to the end of his pathetic pretend date and clears his throat. “I’ve written a concerto, and I want you to play it.”
Sheppard looks up. Puts his fork down carefully on the table. “And by play,” he says slowly, “you mean -”
“It’s a violin concerto. I want you to be the violinist. It’s opening in Toronto in four months.”
“I’m not my father,” John says quietly, leaning forward, face shuttered. “You know that, right?”
“Oh, cut the crap,” snaps Rodney. “I know talent when I see it. You’re being wasted in Colorado, and you know it. What have you possibly got to lose?”
“Look, Dr. McKay,” John says, narrowing his eyes, and oh, Rodney so should not be finding that hot. “You’ve probably asked around about me, so I’m not going to tell you I’m not exactly Sumner’s favourite person. Maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be out of a job, but I’ve got a pretty good thing going, here. I like being able to pay my bills, okay? I can’t just break my contract, I need this work.”
“I can fix the contract,” Rodney says, “and I’ll pay you double. Out of my own pocket. Whatever you want.”
“Do you know how long it took me to get this job?” John bites out. “Sumner took me on as a favor. Because he was a friend of my father, and he died. Yeah, okay, it’s not the best, but I can’t afford to screw this up. No offence to you or your concerto, but you’d better look elsewhere.”
“Are you insane?” Rodney practically squawks, because this not how he pictured the evening going. Sheppard bright eyed and grateful, yes, maybe even a little tearful, thanking Rodney for giving him a second chance, perhaps smiling suggestively as Rodney dropped him home and inviting him in for coffee; but no, it appears he’s underestimated this asshole’s capacity for sheer bull-headed idiocy, and maybe Stephen Caldwell was right, for once.
“Goodbye, McKay,” Sheppard says, and starts to get up, so Rodney stands up too, suddenly sick of this, this pretend date with this stupid guy who clearly couldn’t beat his way out of a wet paper bag without throwing his career away, and Rodney has no patience for idiots.
“Listen, you moron, I’ve been watching you. Sumner doesn’t understand you. He’ll keep you in the assistant seat, where you’ll sit tight and sometimes get to run with the big boys, but you’ll always have the rest of the section hung around your neck. And eventually you’ll either get bored and screw something up and get kicked out or knocked down to picking out fucking chords for the rest of your life, or you’ll maybe get promoted to first, if you last until Sumner leaves or dies, and I really wouldn’t count on either of those things happening anytime soon.”
John’s sitting down again and looking slightly deer-in-headlights, so Rodney presses the advantage. “Look, Sheppa- John – this piece is good. I know I’m, well, I might seem to – but it is. It really is. And you’d be perfect for it. It would be perfect for you. I swear to god, after you’ve done this, you’ll never need to look for work again.”
John smirks bitterly, but he’s not getting up, he’s not going anywhere, and Rodney grips the edge of the table, suddenly feeling tense way out of proportion to the situation. Of course he could find someone else, they’d be begging at his door – are already, in fact – and that’s what’s so ridiculous, because he wants this man in front of him, who apparently is the only person in the world who’s stupid enough to tell him no. But Rodney doesn’t understand why, until John says, in a way that could almost be casual if his hand wasn’t opening and closing on the table, “You think you’re the first guy who’s come to me because he wants my name on a program?”
It’s strange, Rodney thinks, how empty musicians’ hands often look when they’re not holding their instruments.
“Believe me, McKay, they’ve all been disappointed. They come to me because they want my father, and then they get pissed at me because I can’t fill his shoes. I’m just a guy, okay? I play the violin. I’m not as good as he was.”
“No,” Rodney says, without hesitation and with utter confidence. “I saw him play. You’re better. You could be better.”
John’s eyes fly to his face, pinning him with a sharp, assessing glance, but one of the benefits of being a hopeless liar (which Rodney is, he’s willing to accept his faults) is that it’s easy to tell the truth. When John looks away first, Rodney seizes at his hesitation.
“Will you at least look at it?” he says. “Come to Toronto for the weekend. Sumner owes me a favor, he’ll find someone to cover for you. I’ll pay for your flight and your time. You can be back here in a couple of days, if you’re really stupid enough to pass up a chance like this. Believe me, you won’t regret it.”
John looks at the table for a minute, then sits back, drains his glass in one swift movement, and says, “When’s the flight?”
That night, after Teyla’s driven Rodney back at his hotel and checked into the room next to his under strict instructions to book the flights and with a grave, I will see you in the morning, Dr. McKay, Rodney calls Radek. He answers after eight rings.
“It’s me,” Rodney says. “Did you know John Sheppard had a son?”
“Rodney, do you know what time it is?” a yawn breaking up Radek’s attempt to snap.
“Yes, yes,” says Rodney, then notices the time display on the clock next to his bed. “Oh. Um, sorry.”
“John Sheppard Junior. Also violinist? Perpetual fuck-up?”
Rodney groans in irritation. “Oh, god, can’t that woman keep her mouth shut?”
“Rodney. It is late. I have class to teach tomorrow.”
“Look, Radek, he’s good,” Rodney says quickly. “I think he might be our guy, but he’s an idiot and doesn’t think he can do it. I need you to get a rehearsal together for Monday.”
“For – no. No, Rodney, you are insane. Is not possible.”
“Drag them out of bed! Offer them double time! I only need three hours, Radek, I don’t care how you do it, they can come in their bathrobes, for all I care, just get them there. Three hours.”
There’s a silence on the end of the line for a moment, then Radek says flatly, “He is that good.”
“Yes,” Rodney sighs, suddenly exhausted. “He really is.”
“Okay. I will try. But is not my problem if they call in union again.”
“How is the trip?” Radek says more quietly.
“And the flight -”
“Yes!” Rodney starts kicking off his shoes irritably. “What are you, my mother?”
“Elizabeth said you fainted.”
“I did not faint. I was hungry, that’s all.”
“Rodney, you know Dr. Beckett said -”
“Oh my god, Carson’s brainwashed you all. It’s a conspiracy. I’m fine, Radek, I’ve got everything under control. Totally.”
“Good. I am changing my number next time you call me at this hour.”
When Rodney’s finally crawled into bed, he lies and looks at the shadows his bedside lamp casts on the ceiling, and thinks about the place they dropped Sheppard at, a shitty attic apartment downtown, his black case tucked under one arm. He wonders what Sheppard thinks of him, whether he really doesn’t know what he can do, or if Rodney’s imagined everything, and really Sheppard is just a hack who’s gotten this far on a name. Then he remembers the shock that hit him in the gut the first time he saw John put bow to string, and in his head he hears the first three notes of his concerto, clear and strong, and knows he’s right. He holds that in his head, even when he has to get up in the middle of the night to throw up, the hotel walls creeping up around him. He sits on the bathroom floor for a while, then leaves an abusive message on Carson’s answering machine. It’s fine. Rodney’s fine.
Rodney sleeps through most of the flight, and he’s still woozy when Teyla wakes him after touchdown. John says, “Nice of you to join us, McKay,” and stretches until his back pops and his t-shirt rides up to show a sliver of pale skin. Rodney forgets to look away in time, and John gives him a careful look that Rodney can’t read as he pulls his violin down from the overhead locker.
Going through security, John says, “So where am I staying?”
“On my couch,” Rodney snaps, and he’s awake enough by now that he manages to keep it businesslike, and tells himself his face heating up is purely another side effect. He’ll have to mention it to Carson. “It’s only two nights. I’m not made of money.”
John shrugs, expressionless. “Okay.”
His apartment’s fairly clean, thank god, since Teyla started coming round. Rodney owes her money, so he leaves John to look around as he writes her a check, and tries to remember if he’s left any porn out anywhere.
“I will see you tomorrow, Dr. McKay,” she says, and folds the check into her shirt pocket. “My phone will be on. You do remember that I am taking Tuesday off?”
“Tuesday. You gave me permission.”
“I absolutely did n– okay! Okay, fine! But I’ll need groceries. And more of that coffee.”
“I will get them.”
When she’s gone, John wanders back out of the kitchen and carefully puts his violin down by the couch.
“What’s the deal with her?”
“She works for me,” Rodney says tightly.
John rolls his eyes. “Well, obviously. So, what, you can’t drive?”
“I’m sorry, am I paying you to ask stupid questions? It’s none of your goddamned business, Sheppard.”
Rodney storms past John to get the score out of his bedroom and put his porn away, and hears John say, “Jeez, sorry I asked. Can I take a shower?”
He tries not to be nervous when he gives John the score, but after John says, “Wait, for Christ’s sake, I’m looking!” about five times Rodney finally can’t stand it any more and goes and puts on coffee. About ten minutes later, John whistles. “You must have been pretty mad when you wrote this, Rodney.”
Rodney stops mid-pour, caught short. “I – was I – well. I suppose, yes. Yes, you could say that.”
He waits, half-terrified that John’s going to ask, but when he goes back in with the coffee, John’s dark head is bent over the score again. He’s biting his lip as he follows the lines with his finger, utterly concentrated and strangely young-looking, and Rodney has to drop his gaze to the carpet. John sits like that for about three quarters of an hour as Rodney fidgets, walks around, unpacks his bag and makes more coffee.
“Okay. Okay.” John says a few times. Then, “This part here, with the ascent in thirds, you want the crescendo to continue there and fall off at the A sharp, or what?”
“No, what are you - let me look at that,” says Rodney, and they’re off, poring over the score, John making pencil notes over Rodney’s and saying, “What the – is that in Polish?” at Radek’s occasional scribbles. Eventually John gets his violin out and starts humming snatches and feeling his way through phrases on the strings, shifting in and out of audibility like a bad a.m. radio, while Rodney hammers out some of the accompaniment on the piano for him and occasionally yells stuff over it like,
“That’s a G sharp, are you blind?”
It’s only when Rodney stands up too quickly and nearly falls over, he’s so dizzy, that they realize it’s past seven and they’re both starving. They’ve made progress, though, and it’s starting to take shape under John’s fingers, although Rodney can’t quite see it whole yet with John in it. John’s still looking distant and frowning slightly, but he twitches and shakes his head when Rodney suggests a take-out, so Rodney calls Teyla, and they go out to a Greek place and have bitter olives and lamb with rice.
After the meal, Rodney’s getting his Blackberry out to call Teyla when John says irritably, “Look, Rodney, we’ve been inside all day, I want some air. Can’t we walk?”
“I – no,” says Rodney.
“Come on, it’s just a few blocks, give Teyla a break,” says John, getting up, and maybe it’s because Rodney’s had a couple of glasses of wine and still has music humming through his veins, maybe it’s because the top few buttons of John’s shirt are open and his jaw is darkening with stubble, or because he’s looked at Rodney a few times with a weird, quirked smile on his face, but Rodney follows him and walks out into the night air. At first he tells himself it’s fine, it’s okay, he hugs close to the wall, looks at the pavement and argues with John about the merits of Greek versus Turkish food. Then John veers off to the right to cross the road, Rodney follows without thinking and suddenly finds himself out in the middle of the sidewalk with empty space on all sides and the sky yawning open above him, and he comes out in a cold sweat as the terror creeps up his neck.
“Oh, oh, this was such a bad idea.”
“What – hey, Rodney, are you okay?” John says, looking over his shoulder, and no, Rodney is absolutely not okay, he’s sick, dizzy and hyperventilating and he cannot believe he was so stupid. John grabs him just as he’s about to keel over, and Rodney uses his weight to orient himself towards the wall, staggers against it and sinks down to put his head between his knees, John’s hand on his back helping him keep his balance.
“Fuck, Rodney, what’s the matter?”
He’s too busy having a panic attack to answer, but he vaguely feels John fumbling for the Blackberry in his pocket as he bends over Rodney, blocking out the sky, his other hand on Rodney’s shoulder, and it’s only then that Rodney gets a hold of himself enough to get the paper bag out of his pocket and start to breathe into it.
“Jesus Christ,” John says, and then a car’s pulling up and Teyla, wonderful Teyla is there, patting Rodney down, checking his pulse and saying, as angry as Rodney’s ever heard her, “You brought him out into the street? What on earth were you thinking?”
“Hey,” John snaps back, sharp and almost as angry, “I didn’t do anything! He was fine, and then he just freaked out!”
“Dr. McKay is severely agoraphobic!”
“What? But he just - Jesus, look, I had no idea, okay? He just walked out with me! He’s fucking crazy.”
“Right - here!” Rodney manages, between breaths.
“I would advise you to be quiet,” Teyla says. “You have no one but yourself to blame for this,” and Rodney’s so busy attempting to sputter while breathing into a paper bag that he forgets to even cringe when they haul him up between them and get him across the sidewalk into the car.
Back in the apartment, Rodney flops onto the couch and John cracks open a beer grimly and drinks down half of it in one go. He still looks pale.
“You scared the shit out of me, McKay,” he says. “I thought you were having a goddamned heart attack. Why didn’t you just say something?”
“Oh, yes, because that would really inspire your confidence,” Rodney says, and the damage is done now, so he doesn’t bother to inject much energy into it; he’s tired, shaky, his throat is sore and he’s sick with himself. “ ‘I’m asking you to risk your career for me, and by the way, I’m a basket case who has to take pills just so he can go outside for long enough to get from one enclosed space to another.’ Excuse me for not wanting to drop it into conversation. We’ve got a rehearsal at ten tomorrow. I’m going to bed.”
Rodney was going to be a pianist; he was a prodigy, winning national competitions playing Tchaikovsky and Chopin when he was thirteen, until his teacher discovered that he could hear whole symphonies in his head on sight-reading a score, and told him his playing lacked passion and he’d be wasted as an excellent instrumentalist when he could be an extraordinary conductor. Rodney’s not naturally physical, and although he is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest composers in the world, his weakness is in conveying emotion to the orchestra. He can, however, pick out the most miniscule aberration in pitch or rhythm and the instrument it came from with his eyes closed; he has an inner metronome like a speaking clock; he can map out the acoustics of a room in his head; he can see patterns on a sheet of music that even the composer didn’t know were there and draw them out of the players in front of him with his hands. He plays the orchestra like he played the piano, except that, with players, he can delegate passion. It works. By the time Rodney’s finished with them, they’re always twice as good as they were. He conducts the best orchestras in the world, he has a standing appointment at the Royal College of Music in London and is the youngest honorary fellow ever at the Ottawa Conservatory.
When he’s thirty-six years old, he abruptly has a nervous breakdown, and can’t go outside anymore.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, McKay,” is the first thing Bates says to him when Rodney walks into the hall the next morning, but Rodney’s hardly slept, John was silent and sullen over coffee, getting to the car was harder than usual, Teyla lectured him again on the way in, and he cuts Bates off before he can even get started.
“The longer you complain, the longer this is going to take, so I suggest you shut up and sit down so we can get on with this. Is everyone here? Everyone, this is John. John, this is everyone. And Radek Zelenka.”
Radek bounces up from the principal seat and shakes John’s hand, then raises an eyebrow at Rodney when John bends to open his case. Rodney ignores him.
They start with the parts that John and Rodney highlighted yesterday, and then run through the whole thing once with Rodney playing John’s part on the piano and John following along carefully, sometimes playing in unison, sometimes making notes. It’s pure legwork, and Rodney tries not to listen to the way John’s playing, jerky and uncaring, because he knows he’s just absorbing the patterns at the moment and not trying to actually play. He catches a few members of the orchestra exchanging doubtful glances, though, even a shadowed smirk from Bates, and he’s wound up as tight as a bad Stradivarius by the time it’s over.
John’s quiet in the car on the way back, looking out of the window as Rodney twitches and looks at his hands. When they get to the apartment, he says, “I’m going for a walk. Rodney, you got a quarter?”
Rodney wakes up later that afternoon to the sound of John practicing the most difficult section over and over, taking a run at it and sending the notes flying around him like a dog in a crowd of pigeons. He finds he’s relieved; at least he’s not going totally insane, and John does have the technical skill. Then he remembers that it probably doesn’t matter, because John’s pissed at him and will be on a flight back to Colorado at seven this evening. He drags himself out of bed and walks to the doorway. John’s pushed the couch back to the wall, leaving a discolored rectangle on the carpet, and is sitting on Rodney’s piano stool in the middle of the room with the music stand in front of him. He’s taut with concentration, playing with a frown on his face, but there’s something odd about the way he’s sitting, about the angle of his arm on the bow and the curl of his shoulder under the chin-rest; luckily, Rodney’s a genius, and it only takes him a few minutes of watching to realize what it is.
“John,” he says, abruptly filled with suspicion. “Did your father teach you to play?”
John slowly pulls back out of wherever he is and twists to look at Rodney. “I went to Oberlin.”
“No, idiot, before that. When you first started.”
“Yeah, why?” says John, guarded, and Rodney closes his eyes against the understanding of what shitty luck the universe has dealt John Sheppard, to be born a brilliant violinist, and have a father who already was one.
“He made you sit with your elbows in, didn’t he?”
“Yeah,” John says, and he’s frowning now. “He used to make me practice in the closet so I didn’t have room.” He shrugs. “It sucked, but it worked.”
Rodney pinches the bridge of his nose and decides that he’s going to find who John’s professor was and order them to commit ritual suicide with their own bow, because if they’ve missed this for so long, they’re too stupid to live. He’s got his hands on John before he can think better of it, and, wow, bad idea, but there’s no real other way to do this so he’s brisk as he pushes John’s shoulders down and back, nudges his legs apart (really bad idea), and shoves him in between the shoulder blades so he’s hunched further forward. He tries to ignore the fleeting revelations of John’s body, the curve of his knee under Rodney’s palm, the warmth and hardness in his shoulders, and steps back quickly when he’s satisfied, flushing.
“You’re not in the middle of a section now,” he says. “Take up all the space you want.”
John’s looking at Rodney that way again, with that twist of his mouth that Rodney can’t translate, but he puts his bow to string and starts the run again before Rodney interrupts him.
“No, no, take it from the allegro.”
John frowns, licks his lips and starts again, and this time the notes fall perfectly in order, a crisp downward slide and a hesitation before he soars above the woodwind section, and mingles with the horns there before they fall away and he’s left gloriously alone again. He’s a little clumsy and self-conscious at first, but then suddenly seems to fall into the playing all at once, the way he had with Grodin in Colorado, and he stays there. Rodney flashes back to the first time he stepped up in front of an orchestra, aged fourteen and all elbows, and Karloff stopped him and said, think of where we are in the solar system. It made no sense, it still doesn’t, and part of Rodney wonders if it was just some crap he came out with to distract Rodney enough that he wasn’t nervous anymore, but in that moment Rodney became part of the mathematics of the universe, and his fragile, stupid body didn’t matter anymore. John plays through the entire movement, and Rodney hardly hears a note, he’s so fascinated with the way John’s posture opens out by increments.
“Rodney,” John says hoarsely. Rodney comes out of his daze, and realizes that John’s stopped playing. “Nobody’s ever - how the hell did you know?”
“You were – oh, you were playing with walls around you,” Rodney says, and Rodney never knows which of them moves, but suddenly they’re kissing in the middle of Rodney’s living room, John’s mouth soft and raspy with stubble and his hand on the back of Rodney’s neck.
“Do it,” blurts Rodney when they break apart. “God, John, play it, you have to play it.”
John breaks into a real smile, and it’s possibly the most beautiful thing Rodney’s ever seen. He opens his eyes wide in fake innocence. “I flipped for it this morning, Rodney, didn’t I tell you?”
“You’re a psychopath,” Rodney says, and kisses John again. John seems enthusiastic enough, licking into Rodney’s mouth and stroking the short hairs at the back of Rodney’s neck, sparking off a hundred short-circuits in Rodney’s brain, but pulls away when Rodney gets a hand under his shirt.
“Look,” he says, flushed and breathing hard, “I can’t have sex while I’m learning a piece. It’s a superstition thing.”
Rodney shuts his eyes and groans. “Oh, god, I hate my life.”
“What kind of a boy do you think I am, anyway, McKay?” John says, and that bastard, he’s laughing. “I don’t put out on the first date.”
“We’ve so already had our first date,” Rodney says, but he can’t help smiling.
“Good riddance to him,” Sumner says on the phone when they’ve worked out how much it’s going to cost Rodney to break John’s contract. “I had a great deal of admiration and respect for his father, but Sheppard’s had it easy all the way along. No discipline whatsoever. If there was any justice in the world, he would never have made professional. I don’t know what you see in him.”
“John Sheppard has more talent than you have in your baton,” Rodney snarls, “and if you were even a remotely competent conductor, you’d have noticed that, but seeing as your bassoonist is an alcoholic, your third cellist is clearly in some sort of abusive relationship and can’t move two fingers of her right hand and your second flute is quite possibly tone deaf, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you let the best player in your crappy orchestra get stolen from under your nose.” He just manages to stop himself from saying, and your second-best player, too, as Elizabeth would kill him, but he thinks it with a great deal of satisfaction.
“He’s let down a lot of people, McKay, and mark my words, he’ll let you down too.”
“Elizabeth will be in contact with the papers,” Rodney snaps, and slams down the phone, more furious than he could have believed. “Asshole.”
Then he looks up, and John flinches in the doorway like Rodney’s shone a spotlight on him.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he says.
“He’s an idiot,” Rodney says viciously.
John rubs a hand through his hair. “No problem, McKay. Just another orchestra I’ll never work with again.”
Rodney does feel slightly guilty, then, especially because John does still have to stay there for another two and a half months, but he just says, “If you keep playing like you did today, you won’t need to.”
“No pressure, then,” John says.
When Teyla comes to pick him up and take him to the airport, he and Rodney have an awkward little dance of whether they should shake hands or kiss, and they end up somewhere in between, with John patting Rodney on the shoulder and Rodney bumping his mouth near John’s ear.
“I’ll, um, see you in a couple of months,” Rodney says.
“Yeah, see you,” says John, and shrugs his violin over his shoulder.
“You know you can call me, right? If you’ve got any questions, or, ah, if you want to just, I’m not that good at – but, well, that would – it would be nice.”
Rodney cuts his own babble short (god, he hates it when he gets like that) then tries to work out if he actually said the essential part of that sentence, and John blinks, looking amused.
“Ditto,” he says.
Rodney honestly doesn’t mean to call him that same night, but Sheppard’s hidden the TV remote somewhere. Then he has to call him again two mornings later because he's lost Grodin's number. Then again three nights after that, after a concert when he knows John will be awake, to check he’s got all the pages of his score, and that's when John drawls, "You sure you don't just want to hear my voice, McKay? Hey, you watching the hockey?"
"Oh, what channel?" Rodney says, and the next night he doesn’t even bother to have an excuse. They keep similar hours, obviously, rehearsals or matinee performances in the day and concerts at night, but sometimes Rodney calls John at ridiculous hours by mistake and John’s always awake. Rodney begins to wonder, after a while, if John ever sleeps, or if maybe he’s a vampire. John says, sounding slightly ruffled, “Not since you started calling me at four in the goddamn morning, McKay, and no, still eating garlic.”
Rodney wonders about other stuff, too. Rodney’s practically a prisoner in his own apartment when he’s not working, and there is no way John should be home as often as Rodney is. And yet, John nearly always picks up the phone, and sometimes calls just as Rodney’s reaching to dial his number. Once, though, after six weeks of nearly daily phone calls (Rodney has two phone bills that he doesn’t want to look at shoved under the couch, and doesn’t like to think about whether John can afford his) there’s a time when John doesn't answer the phone for three days. Rodney calls twice every one of those days, and then a third time on the third night at two a.m., just to be spiteful, and because he's been sitting in the narrow space between his couch and the wall for two hours and can't seem to get up. He lets it ring and ring, long past the point when it's clear that John is not there, is not going to pick up, and almost falls asleep to the slow, steady pulse of it, when on the thirtieth ring there's a click and John says, "Hey, Rodney." Rodney nearly jumps out of his skin.
"Finally," he croaks, but John keeps talking over him.
"I'm not here, but if you've held on this long, I figure you must really want to talk to me. If that's because you're trapped under something heavy, I recommend you call 911. If you just want to talk and it's past midnight, my neighbours are probably already pissed, so what's a little more noise, right? I've got maybe two minutes before the beep, so I'm just gonna play until then. Leave a message so I know I’m not going crazy doing this."
Rodney lies down on the floor, transfixed, and listens to the opening of Mendelssohn’s concerto, scratchy and tinny down the phone line but weirdly more beautiful for that, so full of sadness that it cuts at something in Rodney’s throat. When the fear which is tightly coiled in all his muscles starts to loosen, the relief is so sharp it's nearly painful. The beep cuts through the music too soon, and Rodney tries to say, that’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me, but finds he can’t make a sound.
"I – thank you," he manages at last, and puts down the phone. Then he gets up, cautiously but without event, and goes to bed. John calls the next night, mutters, “Been busy,” and neither of them mentions it again.
Another time, John says flatly, “Oh, hey, Rodney,” and there’s a loud smashing sound.
Rodney jumps. “Jesus, what was that?”
“Broke a cup,” John says. There’s another smash. “Broke another one.”
Rodney stares at the wall in front of him. He can’t believe he ever thought John was laid back. “Are you trashing your apartment? What the hell happened?”
“It’s just kitchenware, Rodney,” John says, and doesn’t even bother to pretend to answer the question.
“Far be it from me to suggest you find more constructive ways to manage your anger,” says Rodney carefully, “but, um, maybe you should -”
“Find a more constructive way to manage my anger?”
John manages to sound amused and totally mirthless at the same time. There’s another smash.
“When was the last time you had a tetanus shot?” Rodney says.
“My coffee cups are not made of rusty nails, Rodney.”
Another crash, this one in two stages.
“Rebound,” John says lazily.
“Oh my god, you really are a psychopath,” Rodney says, worried. “You don’t set fire to things, too, do you? Oh, god, don’t get ideas. That’s a bad idea. Don’t set fire to anything.”
There’s an almighty clatter.
“Hey,” John says, sounding interested, “shatter-resistant,” then proceeds to hit it repeatedly against a table as Rodney yells into the receiver, “Flying shards! Cover your eyes! Oh, god, and please tell me you’re wearing shoes.”
“Cracked it,” John says finally, with some satisfaction. “What do you think, Rodney? Plate or bowl?”
Rodney has to admit, there is a kind of morbid fascination in listening to John systematically destroy the entire contents of his kitchen. After a little while, though, John runs out of things to break and starts throwing forks out of his window. When Rodney begs, because he’s four storeys up and he could kill someone with a fork to their brain, he stops that and says, “Okay, okay, Rodney, jeez. You know, I think I do have some matches somewhere…”
“Okay, this stops right now,” Rodney snaps, on the edge of panic and frantically searching his jacket pockets one-handed for his Blackberry in case he has to call the fire brigade in Colorado. “I am the psychologically damaged one here and you are not taking that title away from me. Can’t you just go and get hideously drunk and spend the night vomiting in a police station or something?”
For a moment, there’s nothing but the sound of John breathing on the receiver.
“My place kind of looks like an F-15 went through it,” he says at last, sounding confused, as if he’s just woken up, and Rodney sags in relief.
“Well, yes, that would be a natural result of you breaking everything in it into little tiny sharp pieces,” he says.
“I. Yeah.” John says.
There’s another silence. Then Rodney explodes, “Why in gods name do you play the violin? You could have picked anything else! Why not a piano? Even woodwind, for fuck’s sake!”
For a moment Rodney thinks John’s going to hang up, but he just says, sounding tired and small on the other end of the line, “There wasn’t anything else, Rodney.”
The next day, Rodney finds a cleaner on the internet and gives them John’s address. Two days later, he gets a check in the post with a note saying, you didn’t have to do that. He tears them both up. They don’t talk about that, either.
When John next steps through Rodney’s door, carrying a much bigger bag but otherwise looking exactly the same, it’s oddly like he’s been there the whole time. Rodney looks up from his laptop, says distractedly, “Hi, put your stuff over there,” and completely forgets to be awkward. It’s only later, when John’s tucked up on the couch in the other room and Rodney’s in bed, staring at the slightly open door, that it occurs to him that it might have been more obvious for John to go to a hotel, or even find a place; that John has, in effect, moved in with him for the duration. He finds himself remarkably unworried, despite the fact that he hasn’t shared a living space with anyone for fourteen years.
Even more remarkably, it turns out not to be a problem at all. John is tidy to the point of obsession, and Teyla stops rounding up mouldy coffee cups. Rodney’s out for most of the day, so John has the place to himself, and when Rodney’s in and working, John goes out. John won’t let Rodney listen to him practice anymore (Jesus, Rodney, will you stop goddamned pacing? You’re making me nervous,) but goes to the concert hall and uses the soundproof rooms there. John’s toothbrush, razor and hair product settle easily into Rodney’s bathroom, and the copy of War and Peace he pretends to be reading becomes a permanent coaster. Even his clothes eventually migrate from his bag to the side of Rodney’s closet, and Rodney doesn’t even notice for a week.
Rodney can’t help staring at John when he slouches into the kitchen in the morning, smelling clean and his hair still damp from the shower, and on the nights after Rodney gets in and drops down next to him in front of the TV, exhausted from a concert but too high on adrenaline to fall asleep for hours, John slings an arm around Rodney’s shoulder and presses up warm against his side. Sometimes John blows in like a nervous whirlwind, picking things up and putting them down again or playing strange, stuttering tunes on the piano that Rodney sometimes recognises as part of his concerto, and sometimes Rodney gets an ugly flash of recollection when he comes home to find John lying on the floor next to the couch, but John always looks up and smiles. It’s all bizarrely comfortable, somewhere on the line between domestic and not, chaste and not, and Rodney feels half like a stranger in his own home and half like he’s never really lived here before. He doesn’t know what to think, and can’t even begin to guess what John feels about it, but he doesn’t seem to want to move out, which, as far as Rodney’s concerned, is absolutely fine.
And in between Rodney’s concerts, John’s practicing and occasional disappearing acts into Toronto, there are rehearsals, and in erratic stops and starts the concerto starts to translate itself from notes in Rodney’s head to sound.
The violin concerto has its true roots in Spohr’s twelve violin concertos written between 1802 and 1827. They were influenced by the Italian opera, and laid out in three movements where the violin sang in a language that everyone could understand. Mendelssohn opened his 1844 concerto with the lone violin, laying a claim to the central theme like a question for the orchestra to answer. Paganini, the violinist composer, wrote pieces to display his own genius, artistic showcases like shiny, empty boxes. In 1878, Brahms wrote a piece for the violinist Joseph Joachim, a huge, furious, passionate work so difficult that it was called a concerto against the violin rather than for it. Brahms was a pianist, like Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, and the complexity of his writing was too much for most players; Rodney’s a pianist too, but he’s used to dealing with other people’s shortcomings. He’s drawn to the violin because of its sound – it’s the instrument with a range and timbre closest to the human voice – and its range and flexibility, but actually he finds it most fascinating because of its built-in limitations, only four strings and its inherent reliance on the player for the quality of sound, which made it more of a challenge for Rodney to write music which would push the instrument and its operator to the utmost without making it unplayable. Rodney’s concerto is based on his work on harmonic theory and tonality, building layers and patterns, threading strands together in his head to form a picture of the universe from the most basic elements up (and Rodney is still adamant that Radek’s stupid joke about string theory is not the title, although it’s somehow made its way onto the orchestra’s scores). It’s a brilliant technical work, but John, John plays it like it’s music.
Six weeks go by, almost before Rodney’s noticed them. The concert’s announced, and John asks (tensing up just thinking about it, for god’s sake) if he should have his tux cleaned. Rodney tells the orchestra that he’ll fire anyone who turns up to the concert in anything even as formal as a tie.
Two weeks before the concert, there’s a day when Rodney has a panic attack while stepping out of the door, and John rubs his back and says, “Easy, Rodney, you’re okay,” until Rodney is. He doesn’t go anywhere that day, and they see how far they can throw cheetos into a cup, watch about a zillion episodes of The Flintstones with John imitating Fred’s voice until Rodney nearly strangles him, then John sits in the chair and plays scales and exercises while Rodney lies on the floor and slowly feels the universe settle into place again.
On the last rehearsal, the day before the concert, John’s late. Rodney tells them John has a doctor’s appointment, pretends to get a call from him in traffic, then runs the orchestra through their entrances with Radek playing John’s part (under great protest) until they’ve been there for two hours and John still isn’t there, and he sends them home in disgust.
He sits gloomily on the chair next to Radek in the empty concert hall, surrounded by music stands.
“Where do you think he is?” Radek says carefully, rubbing rosin on his bow.
Rodney puts his face in his hands, remembers all the broken cups and plates, and wonders if he really has made a terrible, catastrophic mistake. “I have no idea.”
It’s two a.m. when John lets himself into the apartment with his spare key. Rodney’s gone to bed, because he refuses to become his mother, sitting tight-lipped at the kitchen table, and because he doesn’t want to think about the possibility that he might wait all night. John’s violin is still here, though, which dispels Rodney’s last hopes that he really was stuck in traffic, once he’d checked that no John Sheppard had been checked into any hospital (or police station) in Toronto. However, it does mean that he hasn’t left the country, which is something. When Rodney hears the door, he lies stiffly on his bed and listens to John swear as he stumbles over a chair – and of course he’s drunk, that’s all the scenario was lacking - pour a glass of water, then go into the bathroom and brush his teeth. Rodney ignores the light tap on his door, but John opens it anyway and whispers, “Rodney, you awake?” and Rodney gives up the act and sits up.
“Where the fuck were you?” he hisses. “So help me, John Sheppard, if you flake out on me now I don’t care if you go and live a hundred miles from any building, I will hunt you down and kill you.”
John sways over to the bed, flops onto it and crawls on top of Rodney before he can roll out of the way, then sort of snuggles into him like he’s a comfortable mattress, squeezing all the breath out of him.
“I freaked out,” he whispers, and Rodney can smell the alcohol even over the toothpaste. Then John licks Rodney’s jaw against the grain all the way from his neck to his ear and snuggles up against him again, except it kind of ends with John rubbing against Rodney’s hip through his jeans and Rodney’s boxers, and this is so not what Rodney needs right now.
Rodney shoves at him and whispers, “You’re drunk, get off me – gah!” breaking off into something that sounds unfortunately like a squeak as John slides a cold hand under Rodney’s t-shirt. John giggles, then goes limp when Rodney tries to heave him off, turning into a warm and unresisting weight that Rodney seems to get more tangled up in the more he struggles. For a couple of ridiculous minutes they’re practically wrestling on Rodney’s bed, the silence only broken by Rodney’s huffs and the occasional breathless laugh from John every time he manages to lick some part Rodney’s neck or face again. Finally Rodney gives up, hisses, “I’m serious, I’m so pissed off with you, get off me right now,” and John goes still at last.
“I just wanted,” he says, in a voice that Rodney’s never heard before, quiet and almost sing-song, like an four-year-old pouting because he took his goldfish out of a tank to see it flop and now it’s inconsiderately dead, “I just wanted to get away, okay? If I screw this up, I’m screwed.” He sniggers – at his own wit, apparently, and Rodney remembers why he hates drunk people, at the same time as John’s thumb brushing behind his ear makes him shiver.
“Oh, yes, and going out and getting drunk is going to improve your performance more than actual rehearsing, I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it,” Rodney says, but somehow can’t quite sound as furious as he is, when John’s nuzzling at his neck like some big, pathetic, drunk puppy. Rodney’s human, and it’s been a really, really long time since anyone’s done that.
“I’m sorry I missed your rehearsal,” John whispers in Rodney’s ear, and licks him again. When he rubs against him this time, it’s definitely with intent.
“I thought,” Rodney manages, “you couldn’t have sex while you – while you were learning a piece.”
“I’ve learnt it now,” John says, and Rodney sees his grin flashing in the dark.
“Oh,” says Rodney, voice too high, “oh, well, that’s – are you, oh, oh my god,” as John slips a hand into his boxers. It’s warm now from where it’s been pressed against Rodney’s stomach, and John doesn’t waste any time, wraps his long, callused fingers around Rodney’s dick and pumps lazily a few times as Rodney makes embarrassing whimpery noises and arches up against him.
“I’m going to suck you, now,” John says, still grinning, and drops a quick kiss on Rodney’s chin before sliding down his body and pulling Rodney’s boxers down. Rodney just has time to say faintly, “Oh my god,” again before John’s licking him down there, hot, wet strokes of his tongue around the head of Rodney’s dick and down his shaft, and Rodney loses the power of speech, sight and pretty much everything else as well.
John turns out to be as fast, messy and stunningly talented at blow jobs as he is at music, holding Rodney’s hips down onto the mattress against his vain attempts to thrust upwards and sliding his mouth up and down on Rodney until he finds a perfect rhythm and Rodney babbles, “Oh, oh, fuck, John,” then ignores Rodney tugging half-heartedly at his hair, swallowing down as Rodney comes in his mouth. Then he’s gasping against Rodney’s thigh, rolling back and over, tugging his jeans and boxers down over his hips and climbing on top of Rodney as he lies dazed and boneless. Rodney puts an arm around him automatically, then touches bare skin and wakes up fast, because John’s, wow, naked and on top of him, hot and desperate, tugging Rodney’s t-shirt up and gasping, “Rodney, c’mon, please,” and Rodney wants to touch him like he needs to breathe.
They get Rodney’s t-shirt over his head and off, then Rodney tries to slow John down so Rodney can look at him, maybe ask him to fuck him, but John’s too far gone, grinding up against Rodney and groaning in frustration as he tries to find some friction, so Rodney reaches down and takes John’s cock in his hand. John makes a noise in the back of his throat, thrusts into his palm and says, “Yeah, fuck, Rodney,” clearly past all sensible suggestions, so Rodney shoves John over onto his back, kneels half-over him and buries one hand in his hair so he can kiss him while he jerks him off with the other. John shudders under Rodney for about fifteen perfect seconds before he convulses against him and comes all over Rodney's hand and stomach, moaning into his mouth.
After a couple of minutes, Rodney reaches over John to get a Kleenex and clean them both up, and finds that John’s already asleep. Rodney sits and looks at him for a while, then lies down next to him, pulls the covers over them both and closes his eyes. Eventually he scoots closer to John and presses his forehead against his bare shoulder, and falls asleep like that. In the morning, he wakes with John’s arms around him.
Rodney doesn’t want to let John out of his sight on the day of the concert, but he has to leave early to supervise the stupid setting up, make sure there are no last-minute crises (he still has nightmares about the time when Ronon’s timpani turned out to be in Florida), and to shake some hands, but as he’s fidgeting with his score, John, who’s looking like he’s about to be sick and is flicking through TV channels without looking at what he’s watching, gets up, steps right up into his space and kisses him quickly on the mouth. “It’ll be great, Rodney,” he says. Close up, John’s as white as a sheet, but weirdly, Rodney feels better.
He doesn’t feel like he breathes for the next few hours, though, and everything goes by in a blur, even the Bach in the first half, until he’s standing up in front of the orchestra with post-interval applause rising like mist, the lights are down so he can’t see the roof, his skin is starting to prickle and he’s thinking god, please not now, not now; then the noise in the audience rises as John steps out, and relief washes over Rodney like a wave. John walks to the centre of the hall in his black t-shirt and jeans, violin hanging casually from one hand and bow from the other, and the spotlight casts a shadow under him that’s as dark as he is and sharp enough to cut. He sits down on the single chair to the right of Rodney’s podium, tucks his violin under his chin and looks up and meets Rodney’s eyes, his face concentrated and unreadable. Then he nods, and Rodney turns to the orchestra, closes his eyes and thinks of where they are in the solar system. John raises his bow to string.
As John draws the first long, pure notes out of the violin, Rodney’s first, panicked thought is, the lunatic, he’s going too fast, but John hits every note like a precision crack-shooter, and of course, naturally he’s a speed fiend on concert day, Rodney doesn’t know how he thought a man who makes life-changing decisions by flipping a coin would be any different. Rodney’s next thought is, oh.
John puts the anger into it, makes what had sounded like mathematics in Rodney’s head into furious, crashing downward runs that sound like punching a wall again and again, and suddenly Rodney’s back in that dark, stuffy room with all the windows covered up over the three months after his breakdown, writing and writing as if he could find the right combination of notes to open the doors, make the walls fall away with music and not be afraid. He’s so transfixed that he’s not ready when John reaches the end of his opening cadenza, but the orchestra slots in on cue, and Rodney finds that he’s brought them in regardless. The orchestra picks up the themes of John’s opening and weaves them into a greater whole, building a structure of harmony that was closed around Rodney, although he never knew until John saw it; John, who felt as trapped as Rodney, maybe, was as angry, and with a shock that’s like a sudden harmony sliding into place Rodney realizes that what he’d felt when he first saw John was recognition.
Rodney conducts on autopilot until suddenly they reach the end of the first movement, and the silence in the auditorium is tense enough to hurt. As a few coughs come out of the darkness behind him and the musicians rustle their scores, Radek catches Rodney’s eye and raises an eyebrow, his eyes wide and his mouth twitching into the beginnings of a crazed, exhilarated grin. Rodney’s too terrified to grin back, in case he jinxes things, and Radek ducks down into his music like he’s thinking the same thing. John settles into an easier pace for the second movement, but it’s still all barely-contained energy, weaving between the horns in the second, integrated cadenza, dipping under them to shore up the melody before soaring above them to complete it. This movement requires more concentration from Rodney, and he’s so busy assembling the pieces that the time flies by. The silence before the third movement is even heavier, but Rodney feels light-headed, his head filled with, we’re doing this, it’s working, he’s getting it.
The orchestra sweeps in with the violin, and Rodney adjusts his time without having to think about it as John speeds up even more, until he realizes that even though he hadn’t meant to write like Brahms, John’s playing against the piece, trying to out-fly the orchestra, Rodney, the music, himself. In that moment, Rodney suddenly understands why seemingly every single person John Sheppard’s ever encountered in the course of his career – his father, the teachers who didn’t correct his posture, Sumner - built fail-safes into him to hold him back, because he’s like a whirlwind, almost impossible to contain. Given full rein he’d be too much for a lesser conductor than Rodney, but in that same moment Rodney has the rush of knowing that he doesn’t need to hold John back, because he can keep up with him. John pushes higher, crashes through the last cadenza in a barely but precisely controlled free-fall, totally insane and god, such a rush, and when the interweaving themes slot into place perfectly at the end and Ronon thuds out the foundations of the last three notes, John flying high above him, Rodney holds the ending absence of sound in his hands and feels he might break open, he’s so full of light.
The silence is broken by the first few claps, a trickle which turns to a waterfall, then a deluge, and Rodney turns slowly, blinking away a few impressions of the orchestra as they begin to pull themselves together – Radek, breathing hard with his head tilted back, his eyes closed and his hair sticking in all directions, Laura, sucking her pinky, Ronon, laughing like a crazy man – and looks out into the dark, because he can’t look at John yet. He bows and bows again, goes through the ritual of handing the applause to the orchestra and John, dazed and deafened by the noise, and then, when he thinks he won’t just cry or kiss him or shatter into tiny pieces, turns again and steps off the podium. Rodney means to just clap John on the shoulders, he really does, but John looks like he’s coming back from very, very far away, and before Rodney can stop himself he’s pulling John into a hug. He’s desperately grateful when John hugs him back, hard and fierce.
“John, you were so good, John, god -” Rodney manages before his voice breaks, and he thinks he’s crying after all, but John’s whispering, “Rodney, thank you, thank you,” and it’s okay. Everything’s really okay.
They have to break apart as Laura brings out flowers for John, which he tucks easily under one arm, and he kisses her on the cheek like a gentleman before following Rodney out, leaving the roar behind them. The moment they get out of sight of the audience John drops the flowers on the floor and pushes Rodney up against the wall. There’s a trickle of sweat running down the stubble on his jaw, he’s still breathing hard, he looks unhinged and dangerous to know and Rodney’s never wanted anyone so much in his life. In the dark outside the auditorium, they can hear the pounding of the audience’s feet.
“Rodney -” John says hoarsely, and, Jesus, he’s twitching and shaking all over, just as much as Rodney is, then suddenly he leans forward and kisses Rodney, and, god, Rodney can taste the adrenaline.
“Rodney, come back out here,” Radek yells from somewhere, but Rodney can’t move until John grabs his hand and yanks him back out, letting go the instant before they come into view from the auditorium. This time Rodney looks at the orchestra properly, to check none of them have had cardiac arrests in the interim; they all look euphoric and dazed but alive, which is fine, so Rodney goes right back to drinking in the sight of John, who’s facing a roaring audience and bowing ironically, which Rodney didn’t think was even possible. John’s got more of his swagger back when they go out before a second encore, and this time he doesn’t even bother going all the way into the corridor, just grabs Rodney and shoves his tongue in his mouth for a few heart-stopping seconds before they have to let go of each other and go out again. This time, Rodney has to grab his score from the podium to hold it in front of himself to hide the bulge in his pants, and he doesn’t even look to know how much that bastard Zelenka’s laughing.
When they go down out of sight for the last time, Rodney grabs John’s shoulders and holds him back when John leans in to kiss him. John’s eyes are wide open and brighter than Rodney’s ever seen them, the rush still humming behind them like electricity. It’s like looking into a sky before a thunderstorm, open and wild and going on forever, but Rodney’s not afraid.
“I’ll write a symphony for you,” he blurts out.
John says, “Okay, Rodney,” and laughs, and all Rodney hears is music, music, music.