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~~~

"Teyla," Rodney whines into the phone, marking a caesura in the score and throwing the pencil down on the desk. Maestro Dex raises an eyebrow, catching the pencil easily and writing a tempo behind the caesura.

"It's better to be cautious, Rodney. You know what happened the last time you had to cancel at the last minute."

Rodney frowns, causing his assistant to sink even lower in his chair. "Yes, yes, Elizabeth Weir wrote a nasty article about unreliable performers and the diva affectation. She hates me."

"She's just a critic, Rodney, don't take it so personally."

"Easy for you to say, she never slanders you." Rodney rubs his forehead with his free hand, staring out the window at the snow-covered cityscape. "You're sure you won't feel better by Tuesday? We could wait a day or two, cancel if you don't feel better by Saturday?" The maestro shakes his head, making his dreadlocks sway almost menacingly. Rodney's assistant starts to look like he's trying to disappear in his armchair. "Sit up, Grodin!" Rodney hisses, and he hears Ronon's soft chuckle next to him.

"I think it would be better to give the hall time to cancel and refund the tickets." Teyla's the voice of reason, as always, and Rodney finally gives in.

"Fine," Rodney says, rubbing his forehead again. "I'll have Peter take care of it."

"I'm very sorry," Teyla says, and Rodney finally remembers that he should be comforting her, not the other way around.

"Don't worry about it. You just concentrate on getting better." He hangs up before they get any further into the goodbyes. He's not good at that part of talking on the phone, so mostly he ignores it and hangs up when there's a nice lull in the conversation. "Damn it."

"Canceling Tully Hall?" Ronon asks.

Rodney nods his head morosely. "Teyla's got food poisoning, and she says better safe than sorry."

"I know a guy," Ronon says, and Rodney glances up from the score they have their heads bent over. Ronon's never tried to set him up before, and while that seems unlikely, it's nowhere near as unlikely as him suggesting a substitute pianist.

"A guy who does what?"

Ronon laughs, flipping another page of the score. "He can play anything. He's at the Boston Conservatory." He digs into his pocket and pulls a card out of his wallet.

"I think you mean New England Conservatory," Rodney answers, penciling in another tempo and ignoring the card. Ronon knows how picky he is, there's no way he'd even suggest a pianist who was from –

"No, I mean Boston Conservatory," Ronon says, and the edge in his voice and predatory twist of his smile make Rodney think twice about refusing. "He can play anything. I'll bet you a bottle of Glenmorangie 25-year-old."

"Fine," Rodney says, jerking his head in an irritated nod of affirmation. "Peter, send him the repertoire list." With a look of immense relief, Peter stands, snatches the card out of Ronon's hand, and runs from the room.

Ronon glances at Rodney, with a boyish 'what did I do?' grin on his face. Rodney shakes his head and turns another page. "Stop scaring my assistant. I have enough trouble keeping them around for more than a couple of weeks."

"Maybe you should try saying thank you once in a while." Ronon laughs and slaps Rodney on the back hard enough to make him wheeze.

~~~

Rodney knocks on the sturdy oak door, wondering why the hell he let Ronon talk him into this.

"C'mon in."

Rodney pushes open the door to reveal some kid's perfect ass leaning over one of the pianos as if it's a '57 Chevy. Sure enough, when the kid pops up to see who's at the door, he's holding a tuning wrench. He's wearing jeans and a t-shirt and his hair's a spiky mess, but he's not nearly as young as Rodney would have guessed from his ass.

"Mr. McKay," the man says, and Rodney refrains from preening at recognition from a lowly piano tuner. He nods his head, glancing at the pianos. He appreciates the gesture of Dr. Sheppard getting his pianos tuned before his arrival, but he knows it's going to give him a migraine before too long. Good excuse to leave early.

Teyla's taken to tuning out of equal temperament, making adjustments to more accurately match the natural overtone series of whatever key they're playing in. Rodney's gotten quite used to the soothing consistency of the natural tuning, going so far as to program their chamber concerts around it.

The tuning guy moves on to the second piano in the room, tinkling away on octave As and Rodney sets his case down on the professor's desk, pulling out and tightening his bow.

"So… what can you tell me about Dr. Sheppard?" Rodney asks.

The tuner guy looks up, his eyebrows raised in amusement. "I can tell you he doesn't like to be called 'doctor.'"

"Okay," Rodney says, exasperation evident in his snide tone. "What else? Can he play?"

Before the piano tuner can answer, the door swings open and an overly-cheerful young man bearing a stack of paper comes in. He glances at McKay before raising his chin in greeting to the tuner guy. "Sheppard."

Rodney feels his jaw drop and closes it with a snap, scowling at Dr. Sheppard.

"Here's the music O'Neill faxed."

Rodney sneaks a glance at the badly printed fax and sees that it's the Crumb Four Nocturnes. He laughs to himself. If Sheppard can sightread that, he'll buy the guy a Steinway.

"Thanks, Evan," Sheppard says, taking the music and grimacing at the tiny, wobbly print. "This is M. Rodney McKay, virtuoso. McKay, Evan Lorne. He's junior piano faculty here, though it won't be long before he's full-fledged."

Lorne puts on an 'aw shucks' grin and holds his hand out to Rodney. As if Rodney would be impressed by junior faculty at the Boston Conservatory. He might as well be in backwoods Wisconsin. He shakes Evan's hand briefly and goes back to pulling out his violin and putting the shoulder rest on. Evan leaves, though not before shooting a sympathetic look to Sheppard. Rodney grits his teeth and plucks the strings, pleased to hear they've kept their tuning through the death-defying cab ride over.

"Could've done with an introduction earlier," he says, glaring at Sheppard. He tucks his violin under his arm, picks up his music, and brings it around the pianos to where a music stand is set up.

Sheppard smirks and sits down at the piano, cracking his knuckles before playing a series of scales and arpeggios. Perfectly executed waterfalls of sound cascade from the open lid of the Steinway eight-foot grand.

Rodney shrugs in a gesture that he hopes came across as not too bad. He raises his violin and lets his fingers roll through A major as his bow skates across the strings, connecting the notes like the thread through a string of pearls. Sheppard returns a nod of appreciation and bends back the spine on the score for the Mozart, setting it lightly on his music rack.

Rodney nods to indicate that Sheppard should set the tempo. He chooses something a click or two above the typical metronome marking; faster than Rodney's used to but not completely out of the realm of sanity. It lends the movement bounce, and Rodney's surprised to find that he likes it. Sheppard continues to smirk at him, the sarcastic grin at odds with the playful, childlike quality of the Mozart reflected in Sheppard's hands as they leap gracefully around the keyboard.

Rodney's flabbergasted when he finally realizes, half a phrase in, that the reason the piano doesn't sound horribly out of tune is that Sheppard's tuned it to A major. Another glance at Sheppard shows the smirk's turned into a half-smile that suggests he's used to being underestimated.

Rodney's not about to be outdone by a washed-up piano professor at a second-rate conservatory, though, and he pushes and pulls the next phrase, conducting with his body as he's learned to do to give cues to his accompanists. Sheppard doesn't seem to need it, though, he follows every nuance as if he knows it's coming. Half the time he follows Rodney docilely along and the other half slyly coerces him to go another direction.

As he relaxes, Rodney realizes he hasn't enjoyed playing the Mozart this much since he first played it with Teyla and discovered the difference between accompaniment and collaboration.

At the end of the first movement, Sheppard spins halfway around on his bench, stretching out his legs and leaning back on straight arms. "Are you attached to the K.526?"

Rodney's mouth goes dry as he looks over and sees the black t-shirt pull up, showing Sheppard's lack of a belt and an inch and a half of tan skin. He glosses over the question of being tan in Boston in the middle of winter and focuses on the issue at hand. "Attached?" he asks.

"I just think that it's a whole lot of Mozart, and the K.305 is short, sweet, and a better contrast to the Brahms."

"I like Mozart," Rodney says, and thank god Grodin's waiting outside, because he doesn't need his assistant knowing that his mental faculties can be compromised by a black t-shirt and a winter tan.

Sheppard chuckles. "I like Mozart too. But I have my limits. A little bit of perfection goes a long way."

"You do realize that will shorten the program by ten minutes?" Rodney's extraordinarily pleased that he can even remember the sonata, not to mention the fact that it's only got two movements and is ten minutes shorter than the K.526.

Sheppard leans forward conspiratorially. "You really want them to wait that extra ten minutes to get to the Brahms?"

Rodney swallows convulsively and almost leans forward to meet Sheppard, like they're planning a heist and need to whisper. He mentally shakes himself and stands up straight. "That's not the point," Rodney says, taking a step back. Irritation at having his programming second-guessed finally overrides the lust that's kept his mouth in check for the last few minutes. "I've programmed my own concerts since I was ten. I don't need some second-rate piano professor questioning my methodology."

Rodney expects the rehearsal to come to a screeching halt, expects Sheppard to either bristle at the insult or be cowed by his rudeness like everyone else, with the notable exceptions of Teyla, Ronon, and Radek. Sheppard surprises him, pulling out a score from the bottom of a pile on the floor and cracking its spine before setting it on the rack. "You can read over my shoulder."

The idea of leaning in close enough to smell Sheppard's aftershave ensures his agreement, and Rodney's again grateful that no one is here to see how easily Sheppard overcomes his stubborn streak.

Sheppard takes off at a ridiculous speed on the first movement, and it makes Rodney's accompaniment figure so fast it sounds more like bees buzzing than proper intervals. Rodney snorts out a breath, and he can see Sheppard's smirk on the corner of his mouth. He's playing it perfectly in style and yet... and yet there's an almost sarcastic edge to it. Rodney can't tell if it's just the smirk, or if it's the exaggerated choppiness of Sheppard's arms, but he can feel it down to his bones.

Sheppard glances at him before the second movement, and the entire mood shifts into something more reverential. Rodney's not likely to be appreciative of Mozart; he respects the man's genius, but it has been a long time since he's felt anything besides boredom playing compositions from the early Classical period.

That changes the moment Sheppard lays out the opening ornament and they trade off setting the theme up. It's a close back and forth, and Rodney realizes he's leaning in a little too far when he can feel the heat of Sheppard's body through his clothes.

He backs up a half-step as Sheppard plays the elementary first variation, watching him imbue the simplistic section with a rich undercurrent of mischief. Rodney picks it up on his turn, and suddenly he remembers why Mozart is a genius – there's an inevitableness about his music when it's played conscientiously, like it's one of the immutable laws of the universe.

The rest of the variations move between playful and naive, and Sheppard surprises him with an incredibly light hand that makes them seem more like they're floating than flying, even though his tempos all tend toward the hasty side. It's fun, a lot more like reading music with a friend than rehearsing for a concert, and he can't help the smile that's plastered across his face.

They get through the piece without further incident (unless he counts forever associating the piece with apple shampoo and unruly black hair), and Rodney admits that it is a better match for the Brahms. To himself. To Sheppard, he says, "I'll think about it." After a second to regain his composure, he tacks a white lie on the end. "Teyla was looking forward to the K.526. I suppose we can do it when she's feeling better."

Sheppard looks confused, but Rodney figures it's because no one knows Teyla's first name. She's gone by T. Emmagen since she was a teenager, on the advice of her agent. He told her she was likely to get more engagements since they would assume she was a boy. Rodney told her that was bullshit, but when they compared their childhood touring schedules, he had been forced to admit she was not as easily accepted in her early years as he was. Of course, she'd been six years older than him when she started. He's smart enough not to bring that up to her face.

When Rodney looks back at Sheppard, he's flipping through the stack of scores trying to locate the Brahms. Rodney's had the sonata memorized since he was seven, so he doesn't carry the music anymore. Sheppard finally finds it and bends back the spine, gentler than the Mozart, and Rodney can see how well-loved the score is. It doesn't have a cover and the pages are brownish, dog-ears everywhere.

Now we'll see what he's got, Rodney thinks. The Mozart is all well and good, but Brahms had larger hands, a larger range, and a larger harmonic vocabulary. If Sheppard can manage the Brahms, then Rodney will have to admit that Sheppard's better than he expected, and that way lies buying an expensive bottle of scotch for Ronon.

Sheppard's entire demeanor shifts as he lays out the opening phrase of the Brahms, as if the rules of gravity have changed. His arms move languidly, every gesture full of promise. His interpretation is unusual, and Rodney realizes he's compensating for the natural tuning that suited the Mozart so well and only partially serves the Brahms.

The difference in the emphasis lends an entirely new melodic background to the piece, and Rodney has a vision of exploring some strange new landscape. No, he thinks, no, it's more like looking at familiar childhood scenery with grown-up eyes.

Rodney finds himself engaged in the Brahms more than he has been in years. There's very little left in the chamber music repertoire that he truly enjoys anymore. He never would have thought he'd come back around to Brahms, but between the gorgeous show of Sheppard emphasizing the climaxes with his entire body and the absolutely heartbreaking moments in the andante, Rodney is swept into it. He gives a performance for Dr. John Sheppard that probably should have been saved for the concert hall on Tuesday night.

By the time Sheppard prances up the final arpeggios of the last movement, they're both sweating like crazy. Rodney knows he's red-faced and breathing hard, but Sheppard only has a light sheen of sweat on his forearms and neck that Rodney's dying to lick off. Sheppard, however, smiles so widely that Rodney can't do anything except beam back at him. Brahms. Of course Sheppard likes the Romantics.

"That was amazing," Sheppard says, ducking his head a nanosecond after he says it. It takes all the control Rodney has not to gush over Sheppard's heroic interpretation, or to lean forward to smell Sheppard's shampoo again.

He lets his violin go slack in his left hand, dangling it by the fingerboard, and gestures with his bow, nearly clocking Sheppard. "It was reasonably good," Rodney says, tapping on Sheppard's music with his bow. "I think the second movement–"

"Tell you what," Sheppard says, and Rodney blinks. Sheppard continues, oblivious to Rodney's disbelief at the interruption. "We can discuss the Brahms over dinner. Let's just finish up with the Crumb and we can go get some lobster."

"No!" Rodney says vehemently, and Sheppard turtles his head backward, looking surprised. It makes Rodney uncomfortable enough to explain himself. "Seafood doesn't agree with me. Besides, after this, I'm going to need a steak."

"All right," Sheppard answers. "Let's get through the Crumb and I'll take you to Abe and Louie's."

"You're doing me the favor," Rodney says. "I'll buy. You can drive, though, since the cabbies here scare the hell out of me."

Sheppard looks confused again, and Rodney doesn't dismiss it offhand this time. "Why do you keep looking like that? What aren't you telling me? Oh god, tell me you've got a tux with tails," Rodney says, taking the opportunity to look Sheppard up and down again.

Sheppard inhales slowly, rolling his lips in a little and squinting. "Why would I need tails, exactly?"

Rodney can feel his blood pressure rising, his pulse thumping loudly in his ears. "Peter!" he shouts, moving toward the door. He yanks it open and Grodin is standing in front of it, holding out coffee. Normally an excellent ploy, but it's not going to get him out of trouble this time. "What did you tell Dr. Sheppard about this rehearsal?" Rodney asks, and jabs his bow tip into Grodin's chest to bring the point home.

"I-I-I-" Peter stammers, glancing over at Sheppard. "I told him the repertoire."

"And?" Rodney asks, his voice climbing in pitch. "You told him what the rehearsal was for?"

Peter looks miserable, and realization dawns. Peter, like Rodney, had assumed Sheppard wouldn't be good enough and Rodney would rather cancel than play with him. "You didn't want to hurt his feelings?" Rodney asks.

"I–" Peter starts, but Rodney turns away from him, blasting Sheppard with his annoyance instead.

"You. You're not an imbecile. You thought Rodney McKay, violin virtuoso, would want to come in and run a few things because my pianist is ill? You think I need rehearsal?!"

"I didn't think it was an audition," Sheppard says, leaning back again, letting the t-shirt ride up.

"Oh stop it, with the shirt and the flaunting and the–" Rodney waves his hand dismissively in Sheppard's general direction. "This isn't an audition, you idiot, it's a rehearsal. For the concert at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday."

Sheppard turns to Peter, who nods sheepishly.

"Are you asking me to accompany you?" Sheppard asks innocently, complete with wide-open eyes.

Rodney groans, and takes the coffee from Peter, gulping half of the awful lukewarm stuff in one go. He turns to Peter and points at the door. "You're fired."

Peter takes the news surprisingly well, his face moving from shock to disbelief to something like joy within a few seconds. He drops Rodney's music bag on the floor and turns to leave with a smile on his face.

Rodney turns back to Sheppard, takes a deep breath, and gets ready to do something he's never done before.

"Please, Dr. Sheppard, would you play the concert with me next Tuesday in New York? I would consider it a personal favor."

"What kind of payment do I get on a personal favor?" Sheppard asks, and before Rodney's mind can get beyond images of bending Sheppard over the piano, Sheppard provides a much less savory option. "How about a masterclass?"

Rodney takes a moment to answer. Sheppard knows who he is, knows how he tunes his pianos. He has to know that Rodney doesn't teach. "I don't offer masterclasses."

"And I don't accompany snobby fiddle players." Sheppard smiles brightly, seeming for all the world to be enjoying Rodney's discomfort.

"Will you stop saying that? It's not accompanying. These are duets, not solo pieces with a backup band." Rodney hopes the peace offering will get him out of danger, and maybe even back into the realm of salvaging a steak dinner out of this.

"I know that," Sheppard says, his tone only mildly sarcastic. "I was making sure you did."

"Oh, ha ha," Rodney says. "Teyla and I share the billing and the fee. You'll get her billing and her money."

Sheppard pales, and before Rodney can do more than notice, Sheppard stands and puts a hand on the piano. "I don't want billing. Bill it as Emmagen and say she got sick at the last second. I don't want my name in any of the advance press."

Rodney would argue about that, but it's obvious something about performing in New York upsets Sheppard, and they've gotten off the subject of masterclasses, so he hastily agrees. "All right. No press. Last minute substitution. You do have tails?"

Sheppard frowns exaggeratedly. "They look ridiculous."

"Don't be absurd," Rodney says, back on firm ground. "Everyone looks good in tails."

~~~

"Of course I know the Barber. What kind of uneducated savage do you think I am?" Sheppard takes a swallow of beer, and Rodney takes a moment to appreciate the long line of Sheppard's throat and think of anything that doesn't involve mental images of Sheppard in a loincloth. Sheppard spares him having to answer by continuing to talk as soon as he's set his bottle back down. "I was supposed to play the concerts, but I passed it off to Evan."

"Oh, of course," Rodney says, smiling at Sheppard. "You wanted to be able to listen to my performance without having to concentrate on your own."

Sheppard almost-laughs, a horse-neigh sound, and hangs his head. "You are something." He raises his beer for another swig, and Rodney watches Sheppard for a moment before raising his own glass. "I don't enjoy listening to the Barber," Sheppard says, and Rodney's glad he's had enough scotch to take the edge off that statement.

"What do you mean you don't like the Barber? How can you not like the Barber?" He can't help the whine that creeps into his voice, and he takes a drink to cover his upset, glad Sheppard seems more amused by his outburst than irritated.

"You know the history of the piece?" Sheppard asks.

"Of course I know," Rodney says. "What kind of uneducated savage do you think I am? I don't perform without doing my research."

Sheppard shrugs. "You never went to school. A lot of the prodigies I've played with don't think they need things like history and theory."

"That's patently ridiculous," Rodney says, and John puts on his thousand watt smile. Rodney clears his throat and smiles back tightly. "So, why don't you like the Barber?" he prompts.

"I think the third movement ruins it," Sheppard says. "The first movement is my favorite, and the second movement is gorgeous, and then… the third movement is from a whole different universe."

"I know," Rodney admits, sighing in sympathy. "I like it, I just don't like it as much as the first two movements."

"I think it should be played backwards," Sheppard says, and it takes Rodney a second to realize that Sheppard is serious.

"But it wasn't written in that order!" Rodney says loudly – too loudly, as the little old lady in the booth next to them glances at him and clucks her tongue.

"So?" Sheppard asks, gesturing with his beer in a way that is wholly inappropriate. "Bartók wrote the second movement of the Contrasts after he wrote the other two."

"Oh please," Rodney says, signaling the waiter for another scotch. "Not chronological order, the order he intended them to be played. Don't play dumb. It's not an attractive look on you."

"Hey," Sheppard says, but the slight rolls off him as soon as the word is out of his mouth, and he leans back against the booth, lifting one arm and putting it comfortably behind his head, making his t-shirt ride up again.

"Stop that, too," Rodney says, attempting to look anywhere but at the top of Sheppard's jeans and failing miserably.

"I saw you looking," Sheppard says, and Rodney knows he's blushing.

"So you thought you'd give me a show?" Rodney asks, and he looks Sheppard in the eyes. They've been avoiding that most of the night, Rodney editorializing on the merits and pitfalls of contemporary music to the vicinity of Sheppard's black t-shirt clad shoulder, and Sheppard baiting Rodney, all while examining his beer and the table and the booth, his food when it arrives, and the waitress, especially when she leans over to fill his water glass, giving them both a spectacular view of her breasts.

Sheppard grins, only five hundred watts and sarcastic too. "Habit. Doesn't hurt, does it?"

"It does when you use it to avoid answering with the brain you pretend you don't have," Rodney snaps. "You're a professor at a music conservatory! Do you really think the appropriate answer to a question about a composer's intent is to show off your abs?"

Sheppard puts his arm back down, and for the first time in their short acquaintance, he has the hangdog expression Rodney's used to getting from his rude outbursts. "Oh, for crying out loud," he complains. "Fine. You're gorgeous, I can't help looking, but seeing how you're interested in the fairer sex, I'd appreciate it if you would keep your oddly tanned six pack to yourself and save me from embarrassing myself in public."

Sheppard grins the full thousand watt smile, and Rodney groans and downs his second scotch in a single, wasteful gulp.

I am so fucked.

~~~