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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.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

The concert the next night goes well and Ronon invites him over for drinks after, which Rodney takes him up on since he knows they'll be drinking the very expensive twenty-five year old Glenmorangie that Rodney bought as payment of the bet.

"I told you," Ronon says. "Sheppard's the best pianist I know."

"Sure," Rodney says simply. He's already on his third glass of scotch and the world looks bright and beautiful at the moment, especially when it's wrapped in a black t-shirt. "So what's he doing at the Boston Conservatory? Hands like that he could be…" Rodney pauses to consider exactly what hands like that could do and forgets about the end of his sentence until Ronon coughs politely.

"What?" Rodney asks. "What was I saying? Oh right! Sheppard should be touring. He can play anything, can't he?"

Ronon raises an eyebrow. "He sure as hell can play you."

"That's… " Rodney starts, then decides not to deny it. It's clear Ronon's got him there. "That's completely true."

"Oh, that reminds me," Ronon says, pouring Rodney a generous third glass of the scotch. Rodney knows he should refuse, but it goes down so smoothly, and he needs something to get Sheppard off his mind so he can sleep.

When Rodney sets down the glass again, Ronon leans in and says, in a low growl, "Sheppard said you should be at Seully Hall at ten am for your masterclass tomorrow."

Rodney doesn't regret it even a little bit when the half-full glass of scotch breaks on Ronon's parquet floor.

~~~

Rodney waits until he gets to his hotel room to dial Sheppard's number. The scotch really must have mellowed him, because he didn't even hang on for his life as the lights flew by on the way back to the hotel.

It's after one in the morning when he finally gets all the numbers in the right order, and he's pleased to hear the sleepiness in Sheppard's voice when he picks up.

"What?"

"When were you going to get around to telling me I had a masterclass tomorrow?" Rodney asks, and he thinks it came out pretty clear. All except the word masterclass, anyway, and Sheppard's smart. He can figure that out.

"Are you drunk?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney laughs until he has to wipe tears out of his eyes. "I'll take that as a yes," Sheppard says, and hangs up on him.

"Sheppard?" No one's ever hung up on Rodney before. Well, Jeannie, but she doesn't count. "Sheppard?"

That makes Rodney laugh too, and he sits down on the couch heavily, nearly falling off when he tries to untie his shoes. He dials Sheppard's number again, and as soon as it clicks over to voicemail, he hangs up and dials again. It takes three more calls before Sheppard picks up.

"Go to sleep, Rodney."

"I will," Rodney says. "Had to verify... the... uh..." The scotch has really taken its toll, and he's giggling into the phone before he can help himself. Sheppard hangs up on him, and when Rodney calls back, he gets Sheppard's voicemail without a ring.

~~~

The next morning Rodney startles awake when the phone rings, complete with a headache and backache and case of dry mouth that makes the Sahara desert look like a rainforest. He hangs up on the prerecorded wakeup call and immediately calls room service and orders the greasiest food on the menu.

By the time nine thirty rolls around, Rodney's changed clothes six times and showered twice. The worst of the hangover is gone, leaving only a lingering sensitivity to light and some nausea that means the cab ride is going to be extra horrifying.

He shows up to the masterclass five minutes late, clutching the coffee he spilled all over his jacket because the cab driver seemed to think crossing three lanes of traffic to make a right hand turn was a perfectly acceptable maneuver.

Sheppard's sitting at the piano, and the hall is filled with a couple hundred students interspersed with adults that are too old to be grad students. Faculty? Since when do professors come to masterclasses? He's never been in a masterclass before, but Teyla and Radek had both assured him that they're small affairs, with a handful of students performing, and maybe the rest of the violin studio in attendance. This is not what he expected.

Sheppard waves him over and Rodney takes the stage to surprisingly loud applause. He shakes Sheppard's hand, and before he can say anything, there is an elderly gentleman reading off his bio and saying how pleased they are that M. Rodney McKay chose to offer his first masterclass at the Boston Conservatory.

The applause roars again and Rodney nods in recognition. A tiny Asian girl comes onto the stage and Sheppard shoves him and whispers, "Go sit down." Rodney leaves the stage and sits in the empty first row, cursing quietly because the height of the stage means he can't see Sheppard very well. The girl gives a technically satisfying performance of the first Fauré Sonata, but she doesn't take any cues from Sheppard, and looks at him sharply when he phrases the piano part too liberally.

The audience claps politely for her, though Rodney can see the troublemakers sitting three rows back, giggling and whispering, one of them with a violin in his lap, waiting his turn.

"Technically, it was perfect," Rodney says, and the girl beams at him. "However," Rodney says, and the girl's face falls. He glances behind him, looking at Sheppard with horror.

Sheppard shrugs slightly, and nods at the girl. Bastard.

"However," Rodney says, looking down at the girl, who turns a brave face to him. "There's a lot more to music than technique, right?" She takes a deep breath and nods, and Rodney warms up to her as someone who's willing to learn and ready to dig in.

"All right, let's take the A theme," Rodney says, and works with her until she has something resembling an interpretation of the first page. Miko picks things up quickly, once she corrects a mistake, she doesn't make it again, and she's able to extrapolate it to similar phrases. Overall, she's an excellent student. Rodney thanks god or whoever might be listening that it isn't going to be as horrible as he imagined.

How wrong he is. A short, awkward boy, one of the bitchy kids, gets up next. He has a cocky strut, and if Rodney didn't like the kid because of his snobby conservatory attitude, he's pretty sure he'd hate him on his lackadaisical approach to his performance. His pedestrian reading of the Debussy G minor is yawn-worthy, not even counting the missed notes and incorrect articulations.

Rodney stops paying attention halfway through, instead opening his case and getting his violin ready to play.

The kid finishes with a flourish and Rodney rolls his eyes. He doesn't clap, and the applause is decidedly lighter than when Miko was playing. The troublemakers are whistling and calling his name. Brendan.

"Brendan," Rodney says, climbing on stage, violin in hand. "Graduate student. Theory? Or history?"

The kid blushes and answers quietly. "Theory."

"I thought as much. You are an utter waste of my time." Several people in the crowd gasp, and he raises his chin a notch. "I don't care what you study, but I would have been disappointed in the Boston Conservatory if it had been violin performance. I can't even discuss musical ideas with you because you don't have the piece well enough in hand to play the right notes." Rodney turns the music back to the beginning, glancing at Sheppard and giving a downbeat with his bowstroke.

The Debussy springs to life, a far cry from Brendan's too-slow tempo and careful yet incorrect note-picking. Rodney has always enjoyed the French composers, and with Sheppard at the piano, the opening of the fantasia sparkles brilliantly. He stops after half a page and startles when the audience erupts into applause; he'd forgotten where he was. He turns to Brendan and fixes him with his best glare.

"That's what it should sound like, or at least it's one of many possibilities. Get the notes right, get it up to speed, and then do something with it. You could learn a lot from Dr. Sheppard, if he ever consents to play with you again." Sheppard ducks his head at the compliment.

Rodney can finally see the fun of teaching. Students don't get to talk back to you when you tell them what horrible musicians they are.

Next up is a nice but unimaginative boy named Chuck, playing the Krenek sonata. He plays adequately, but doesn't have the creative faculties to play solo literature. Sheppard pushes him through the piece, and Chuck usually catches the tail end of Sheppard's musical thought, but never thinks to carry it into the next phrase. Rodney grabs a couple of chairs from backstage and sits Chuck down.

"Who's got their orchestra music on them?" he asks, and Miko pops out of her seat immediately. She runs the oversized music up to the stage and Rodney thanks her with a curt nod and a smile. Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring.

"Classic repertoire," Rodney says with a nod of approval, and flips the music to Danse Sacrale. He works through some of the counting with Chuck, and tries desperately not to look spooked when Sheppard's suddenly covering the rest of the orchestra, playing the score from memory, or possibly more disturbing, by ear. He knows Sheppard's good, he just wasn't prepared for someone of his caliber hiding in a second-rate conservatory in Boston.

Chuck takes instruction well, and Rodney teaches him some tricks to remember more of what is going on when he's playing, and he finally seems to get it when Sheppard prods him through a rhythmic section with bass notes that should be trombones.

He's a section violin at best, but he's solid, and if he learns his way around the audition repertoire, he might be able to get a job in Europe. They like the sturdiness of musicians trained in the States. Rodney talks a little about the music scene in Europe and some of the kids look intrigued, so he takes questions, which isn't something he expected from a masterclass, but neither was a huge audience or Sheppard mysteriously accompanying every student.

Rodney finally moves on to the fourth and final soloist. She's a pretty young girl named Dusty, playing the newest Penderecki. Rodney likes her right away when she digs in and makes Sheppard look up in surprise at her tempo.

Sheppard moves it in accordance with her wishes, which is pretty interesting, since the melody is in the piano in the opening phrases. Rodney has to bite his lip in frustration. Sheppard has been accompanying crappy musicians for too long, if he takes orders so docilely from someone who's probably not even old enough to drink.

He still makes the phrases move smoothly within the fragmented sections, finding a way to connect them all even though they're so disparate. Dusty's off in her own world in the beginning, but Rodney can see the moment she understands what Sheppard is doing, and she starts to move with him, interlacing her lines with his.

There's a nearly audible click when they settle into it together, and Rodney sits back with a wide grin on his face. The Penderecki is a fun piece, intellectually challenging as well as technically difficult, and once Dusty catches on, it takes on a delightfully playful nature.

Watching them interact is fascinating; Sheppard's become more aggressive as Dusty's caught on, and he's not nearly as laidback as he was with Rodney. He actively pushes his agenda, which reminds him of Teyla – they often fight their way through interpretations. Dusty has more guts than he expects from a student, pushing back in spots where she has a real opinion, and Rodney's glad. As good as Sheppard is, he's not able to read the music from both sides – there are times when the violin needs to move differently than the piano and she's not afraid to muscle her way through it and force Sheppard to follow her.

The downhill slide into the ending is brilliant, both of them tripping over each other to get to the end, and then Dusty closes the piece with a nicely melancholy series of trills. Sheppard goes into the next movement attaca, which makes Rodney wonder if she's going to do both movements. They stop after the climax of the first phrase, and she steps back to indicate she's finished. It's smart; it's hard to find a way to close something that doesn't really have an ending.

Rodney applauds loudly and climbs onto stage, violin in hand. He doesn't have much to offer except to verbalize what she learned from Sheppard. He plays through snatches of it with Sheppard as examples, with Dusty nodding her head, Sheppard grinning like an idiot, and the audience leaning forward in their seats.

Dusty is the last of the students, and Rodney is so thankful he's feeling magnanimous when the students ask him to play something. He pulls the Janáček from his bag, throwing the music at Sheppard, who catches it, even though Rodney threw it high and wide.

As soon as Rodney plays the opening theme and Sheppard comes in on the tremolo clusters, Rodney knows this performance is going to be exceptional. He can feel the connection between them become electric, and Rodney spends more time looking at Sheppard than he does at the music. They soar through the first movement, Sheppard alternating between aggressively accompanying him and playing hide and seek when they toss the theme around. Watching Sheppard's mischievous streak is almost more than Rodney can take, and he's glad to get into the lyrical second movement where he can funnel the emotions back into his bow.

Sheppard's accompaniment is gloriously light on the second movement, a shimmer of sound under Rodney's long lines. He forgets himself and even Sheppard for a while, the plaintive melody of Janáček's theme capturing him completely. He comes out of his trance when Sheppard takes over the theme, and a glance at Sheppard shows him watching Rodney with interest. He turns back to his music, his nerves more frayed than they've ever been while on stage.

Sheppard's tempo on the third movement is slightly slower than Rodney would like, but there's a certain majesty to it that Rodney hasn't considered before. Sheppard's leaning back unselfconsciously, arms extended and eyes half-closed. Rodney lets him shine and sits back, stepping into the role of accompanist, enjoying Sheppard's musicianship along with the rest of the audience.

The fourth movement theme is overflowing with such heartache when Sheppard plays it that Rodney almost misses his entrance again. He nearly laughs out loud when he relates the opening of the movement to their personalities: Sheppard's all long lines and beauty, while Rodney is short bursts of static, aggressive noise, purposefully harsh. He glances over at Sheppard during the ascent to the climax, and his breath catches at the openness he sees there.

When they finally finish, the auditorium is reverently hushed, and it takes a full minute before one of the faculty members starts the applause. Rodney briefly wonders if he didn't miss out on something by skipping conservatory as he lets the enthusiastic applause soak in. He waits patiently for Sheppard to stand so they can bow, but Sheppard continues to sit on his bench, even when Rodney sweeps his arm wide in a gesture of stand up, you idiot. After the applause continues too long without acknowledgement, Rodney walks over to Sheppard, pulls him up by the arm, and glares at him until he shrugs in what Rodney hopes is acceptance. When Rodney leans forward in a practiced bow, Sheppard does too, lazily, as he seems to do everything except play piano. The audience only stops applauding when the elderly gentleman treks back up to the stage to thank Rodney and announce that there are refreshments in the lobby.

~~~

Rodney wheedles a ride back to the hotel out of Sheppard, and that makes up for every mean thing he bites back while being introduced to professors who are so old they probably think Liszt was a damn hippie.

Sheppard drives fast, but Rodney doesn't flinch. Something about the way Sheppard instinctively knows where he's going and doesn't have to switch lanes at the last second or swear at every third driver is reassuring.

Rodney debates asking Sheppard to come see the Barber. He's never had to convince someone to listen to him play before.

"You all right there, buddy?" Sheppard asks. "Don't have an aneurysm because of my driving."

"No, it's fine," Rodney says, thinking fast. "I was… debating about my solo piece in New York. I might change it, depending on what you're playing."

Sheppard looks over at Rodney, horrified, and Rodney squeaks and puts his hands up to brace himself, certain they're going to slam into the car in front of them. "Brake! Brake! I'm too young to die!"

Sheppard circumvents the stopped car easily and pulls over into the first available parking spot. Rodney feels a lot less safe trapped in a parked car with Sheppard than in one Sheppard's driving twenty miles over the speed limit.

"What I'm playing?" Sheppard asks, the menace in his voice clear. Rodney hugs his violin case to his chest and wonders if he can beat Sheppard off with it and not destroy the two million dollar instrument inside.

"Yes?" Rodney says, as apologetically as he can. "You didn't really think the Crumb, Mozart, and Brahms were enough to fill a chamber concert program in Alice Tully Hall, did you?" Sheppard's still glaring at him, and Rodney starts trying to talk his way out of this. "Teyla was planning on the Beethoven, opus 101. If you want to stick with Beethoven, then I'll play the Hindemith, but if you go with something more modern, I might do Bach. Or Paganini? I don't know, it really –"

Sheppard pulls out of the parking space and guns the engine, running three consecutive yellow lights before he gets ahead of the timing and starts to hit greens. "I'll play the 101."

"No you won't," Rodney says, shaking his head. People say he doesn't know anything about performance etiquette. "That's Teyla's piece. It'd be rude to play it. Like you're trying to show her up."

"Like I'm what?" Sheppard asks, glaring at Rodney.

"How about the other A Major – what is it, opus 28?" Rodney suggests nervously.

"I hate that one," Sheppard says, and sighs. "I'm not really fond of Beethoven's sonatas. Though maybe the opus 27?"

Rodney laughs good-naturedly until he realizes Sheppard is serious. "The Moonlight? Are you kidding? It's on more movie scores than professional recordings these days. Not to mention it's too far out of key, unless you want to undo the prepared piano after the Crumb."

"Not a chance," Sheppard says, making a face. "It takes over an hour to get all the screws and paper and other crap into that piano, there's no way." Sheppard pooches out his lip for a second before narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. Rodney's glad he's not supposed to be an expert at solo piano literature because any thought of repertoire falls right out of his brain. Sheppard hums. "Brahms?" he asks. "The F sharp minor?"

Rodney shakes his head minutely. "Not unless you want to ditch the Brahms we're already playing." His tone indicates dumbass on the end, but he doesn't actually say it.

"Got it," Sheppard says, and thumps the steering wheel. "The Enescu sonata in F sharp minor. And," Sheppard says, tilting sideways into Rodney's space, "it'll go great with the Hindemith."

Rodney isn't so sure about that, but he has more faith in Sheppard's musicianship than he cares to let on. "Fine. I didn't really want to sharpen something else up this close to the recital anyway."

Sheppard grunts a non-committal 'huh' at Rodney, but drops the subject, humming the Moonlight sonata under his breath the rest of the way back to Rodney's hotel.

~~~

The second night of the Barber goes moderately well, though it lacks the energy of the first night. Rodney's drained from his hangover and the masterclass, and the nap he took that afternoon only made him more tired. His exhaustion practically guarantees reviewers in the audience. They can smell weakness.

Elizabeth Weir comes backstage after the performance to rake him over the coals, cleverly disguised as congratulating him. He's grateful for Ronon's looming presence when she greets him.

"Excellent performance, Mr. McKay." Elizabeth nods at Ronon. "Maestro. The Dvořák was a lovely complement to the Barber."

Ronon smiles, a toothy grin that is in no way pleasant. Elizabeth holds her own in the face of Ronon's intimidation and Rodney takes the opportunity to nudge her about the review.

"I know you're fond of me," Rodney says, and Elizabeth's smile turns wryly amused, "but Boston's a little out of your bailiwick, isn't it?"

Elizabeth stiffens slightly, but her smile gets even bigger. "Not at all," she says, "Especially when I hear M. Rodney McKay is offering masterclasses." Rodney can feel the blood drain from his face as she reaches into her purse and pulls out the simple black and white program from that morning. "Your teaching style was… interesting." She turns her smile on him, and Rodney could swear she's got three rows of very pointy teeth in there. "That Dr. Sheppard. He's rather exceptional, isn't he?" Rodney swallows, and Elizabeth's style turns wolfish. "I wonder why he doesn't perform," she muses, and Rodney retreats to his first, best defense.

"He's adequate," Rodney says, in his haughtiest tone of voice. "For a second-rate professor at a third-rate conservatory."

"I don't believe you." Elizabeth's scented blood, and there's a maniacal gleam in her eye. "Anyone who had eyes could see you adored him."

"Anyone who had eyes could see how good-looking he is. I can deal with a lack of talent for the sake of a little eye candy." Rodney crosses his arms, doing his best to look stubborn.

"He hardly lacks talent," Elizabeth says. "His interpretation of the Janáček was incredible. Especially considering who he was playing with." She makes it sound almost like a compliment.

"I make everyone sound good." Rodney raises his chin, so he can look down his nose at her. "Believe me, I was working overtime with him. Anyone remotely musically inclined could tell that his tempo in the third movement was ludicrously slow."

Elizabeth eyes him, a cold smile on her face. "So you put up with him because he's your lover."

Rodney gets over the shock of the suggestion in a nanosecond, as his brain provides images of Sheppard lying naked on his big hotel bed. "Of course," he answers, and even to his own ears, he sounds sleazy. "Why else would I put up with him?"

Rodney's stomach can't decide between being thrilled at the idea of having sex with Sheppard and sick at the idea of Sheppard finding out Rodney's lied about having sex him. A sense of hopelessness crushes down on him, and all of a sudden he can't stand to trade barbs with Elizabeth any more. "If you'll excuse me, teaching the dolts in that masterclass has worn me out. I need to rest up for tomorrow's performance."

Ronon steps forward and crosses his arms, standing directly behind Rodney. Elizabeth doesn't flinch – doesn't even blink. "Of course," she says, somehow managing to make it sound like an insult to Rodney's manhood.

She turns and strides purposefully out of the auditorium. Rodney turns to Ronon, worry eating him up. "I have to… Sheppard… you know?"

Ronon gives him a single, forceful nod of assurance and claps him on the shoulder hard enough to make his knees buckle. Rodney hurries out of the hall, dialing Sheppard's cell as he rushes out the stage door.

"McKay," Sheppard answers.

"Yeah, hi," Rodney says, putting a hand to his forehead. "Look, I'm sorry you've gotten dragged into this, she's such a bitch, not to mention she hates me, and apparently she has spies everywhere because she was at the masterclass, and now she's going to do unspeakable things to you."

There's a beat before Sheppard answers. "Is she hot?"

"What? No!" Rodney reconsiders briefly. "Yes. But only because she's kind of scary and too smart and looks good in those little black dresses. Come to think of it, she's probably your type." Rodney sighs when he hears the John's snuffling laugh over the phone. "I don't think you're taking this seriously."

"Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Listen, I… " Rodney takes a deep breath and braces himself to tell Sheppard. Better to let him know before Weir can sink her teeth into him. "I told Weir that we were lovers."

"You what?" Sheppard's voice sounds strangled, and Rodney's glad he can't see Sheppard's face. He doesn't think he could handle Sheppard looking disgusted.

"She's going to dig, Sheppard. She may be a bitch, but she's a smart bitch, and resourceful too. I don't know what you're hiding about New York, but she'll find it. I thought if I told her you weren't worth digging over, she'd let it go."

"Explain to me how telling her we're involved makes me less of a target?"

Sheppard sounds almost amused. A thin thread of hope winds through Rodney's exhausted body, a bright ribbon of adrenaline. "I just… she was sniffing around, and I told her you couldn't play, that I only kept you around because you're good-looking."

Sheppard cackles into the phone, a full nasal bark of a laugh. "Thanks, Rodney, it's good to know you appreciate my assets."

"I do, I really do," Rodney says earnestly, relieved Sheppard isn't going to kill him in his sleep. "I also know that Elizabeth Weir is capable of airing your entire wardrobe of dirty laundry – including those too short t-shirts."

"Ooooooh," Sheppard says. "Scary."

"Fine," Rodney snaps. "See if I care when your skeletons are all over the Times Arts page tomorrow."

"Your concern is touching."

Sheppard's cool is calming, Rodney has to admit. "Well, maybe not tomorrow. I'd say you've got at least a week before she skewers you."

"Great," Sheppard says, and if he's concerned at all, it doesn't sound like it. "How did the Barber go?"

"Fine," Rodney says, somewhat dishonestly. "I was tired. Someone scheduled a masterclass at the crack of dawn."

"Ten o'clock is hardly the crack of dawn, Rodney."

"It is after three and a half glasses of scotch at Ronon's house. I know you did that on purpose." Rodney's not sure if it was Ronon's idea or Sheppard's, but he's masterminding brilliant counterattacks on both of them for good measure.

"I had nothing to do with that. I simply asked Ronon to remind you about the masterclass."

"Remind me?" Rodney shouts in disbelief, and a group of musicians coming out the stage door look over at him. "You never told me in the first place! What if Ronon had forgotten?"

"He wouldn't have."

Rodney huffs in disagreement. He's still trying to find a way to ask Sheppard to come see him play without sounding like a pompous ass. He doesn't even know why it's important to him except the Barber is one of the few concertos that still speaks to him, and he thinks it might have something to say to Sheppard, too.

Evan Lorne walks by while he's thinking, waving cheerfully and murmuring congratulations about the performance.

"Thank you," Rodney says, and then into the phone, "That was Evan. He's doing a good job. He's no you, of course." Rodney ignores Evan's amused look at the comment. "You should come to the matinee tomorrow."

"I trust Evan's ability to perform basic orchestral repertoire," Sheppard says, and Rodney collects himself before he yells at Sheppard for being purposefully thick.

"Is it too much to ask that you come to one of my performances?" Rodney's heart speeds up, thumping away, like he's asking Sheppard to the prom.

"Aw, Rodney, do you want me to come see you play?"

When Sheppard puts it that way, it sounds exactly like Rodney's asking him to the prom. "What can I say, Sheppard, I'd like you to give the Barber another chance. Leave after the second movement if you have to."

"You know that would never work," Sheppard says, and he's right. "The second movement isn't a closer."

"So leave after the first movement," Rodney says, and carefully clamps down on the slight whine creeping in to his voice. "The first movement is the perfect ender."

"Exactly," Sheppard says. "So play the thing backwards."

"I can't do that to Maestro Dex, and you know it," Rodney says, but before he can continue with a partially-prepared speech about the obligation a performer has to the composer, Sheppard clicks him on hold. "Sheppard? Sheppard!" The phone clicks again and Sheppard's voice comes back over the line.

"Ronon, tell Rodney you'll let him play the Barber backwards tomorrow."

Rodney gapes. Clearly Ronon and Sheppard are closer than he originally thought. He'll have to confront Ronon about that bottle of scotch later.

"Define backwards," Ronon says, in his typical to-the-point manner.

"Third movement first. Then second, then first. Backwards." Rodney can't read Sheppard's tone, there's amusement and something else in it.

"McKay?" Ronon asks.

Rodney cannot believe the maestro is considering this. "Are you serious?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"You're serious. You're going to, what, write little notes on the music stands to let the orchestra know? Even if I wanted to, it's not like we've rehearsed the thing this way. It's ridiculous. You can't just play pieces in whatever order you like! Barber likes his concerto the way it is."

Sheppard says, "He's the only one," at the same time Ronon says, "He's dead."

Rodney scoffs. "I have a reputation to maintain. I won't go around playing pieces in ways they weren't meant to be played."

"Oh well," Sheppard sighs. "Guess I'll miss this one, Ronon."

"Whatever," Ronon answers.

"Wait!" Rodney jumps in. "I'll do it. But you have to make an announcement."

"You can make an announcement if you want," Ronon says, and hangs up.

"Damn it," Rodney says, already thinking about what he's going to say before the performance.

"See you tomorrow," Sheppard says, and hangs up.

"Damn it," Rodney repeats thoughtfully, staring down at his phone.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Rodney goes to bed with a churning stomach, words writing and rewriting themselves on the insides of his eyelids. How is he going to explain this? What if Weir is in the audience? He can't imagine playing the Barber backwards, his mind going over the gear changes between movements. He groans and looks over at the clock. Three thirty am. He needs to get his mind off this and sleep.

He thinks about Sheppard, his weird insistence on playing the Barber backwards. Is it just to see if Rodney will do it? To see exactly how smitten Rodney is? Rodney knows he's pretty far gone. He even turned down the groupie who was waiting for him by his limo when he finally made his way around to the deserted front of Symphony Hall.

Rodney wishes he hadn't turned the kid away. He could use a distraction about now, and he hasn't had to jack off in ages. He flips onto his back and kicks his boxers off. He knows he shouldn't do this, even if Sheppard's okay with Rodney's attraction, it won't do anything but make working together harder. Still, it's only one concert, Rodney rationalizes. He'll probably never see Sheppard again.

For all his words, Rodney's always been a visual type of guy. He can picture how music flows together, its symmetry and lines, harmonics and overtones creating architecture in the space around him. He applies that to Sheppard too, how exactly his muscles look under that black t-shirt, how the line of his neck curves and runs down his shoulder, how the musculature of his bicep strains as his hand reaches out to grab Rodney's hip.

It's been too long since he's been with a real man; the young androgynous worshippers at the altar of McKay are all lithe and boneless, with barely enough strength to hold themselves upright. Sheppard's strong and angular, able to give as good as he gets. Rodney imagines Sheppard pinning him to the wall, something none of the young kids who come calling would think to do, even if they had the strength. Rodney hasn't been out of control for a long time, hasn't bottomed for even longer, hasn't done a lot of things lately that he might like to do with Sheppard.

Rodney comes, something desperate and pathetic underscoring his fantasies of Sheppard. He gentles into sleep almost immediately, letting his uneasiness dissolve into dreams about scheduling performances and buying strings and a thousand other details of his normal pre-Sheppard life.

~~~

Rodney wakes at nine thirty-six the next morning, his speech written neatly in the back of his brain. He gets up and types it out, as well as general instructions for the orchestra (on which he puts specific comments for some – like Try and keep up in the first movement to the clarinetist and Don't get carried away in the moto perpetuo to the percussion section).

He's got notes for Ronon too, but he keeps a mental list of those, going over them every few minutes so he doesn't forget his ideas about tempo changes, the cadenza, or the breaks between movements. He takes a long shower, fingering through the third movement over and over against his palm to make sure he can play it on its own instead of in the order he's used to. He'd hate to disappoint Sheppard after everything he's done to get the guy there.

Minutes before Rodney steps on stage, after hours of bored waiting, half an hour of rushed instructions to the orchestra, and another forty-five minutes of Dvořák, Sheppard saunters backstage, offering a hand for Maestro Dex to shake. Rodney's thankful his hands are full of violin and bow, because the urge to punch Sheppard is overwhelming.

"I hope you're happy," Rodney says with absolute loathing. "I'm going to blame this whole fiasco on you."

Sheppard grins and raises an eyebrow. "Just wait," he says, leaning in to pseudo-whisper, "It'll be worth it."

"We'll see," Rodney says. The thing is, it is worth it. He looks over at Sheppard and sees the long line of his torso and his mischievous eyes and Rodney's stomach suddenly feels like a rock tumbler. He sucks in a breath that makes Sheppard's expression of delight turn to concern.

Rodney's never had stage fright. He's had plenty of ordinary-place fright, in places like shopping malls the size of Belgium, but no stage fright. His earliest memories are of being on stage, and he's always been perfectly at home with large crowds watching him. Knowing Sheppard is going to be out there, he's caught between bursting with anticipation and throwing up all over Maestro Dex. He can't imagine performing if this was his reaction every time.

"Shouldn't you be taking your seat?" Rodney asks. "I think they flashed the lights." His voice wavers and Sheppard's look of concern turns to distress, but Ronon ushers him out forcibly before he can say anything.

Ronon comes back, puts a heavy hand on Rodney's shoulder and says, quietly, "Breathe."

Rodney does, and finds that the constriction in his chest eases a little and his pulse jumps a bit – why can I feel my pulse in my esophagus?! he thinks hysterically – but then slows down. Thank god Teyla suggested he stop drinking caffeine before performances, or his violin would shake right out of his hands.

The sound of applause for the first violinist – Rodney'll be damned if he'll call Chaya concertmaster – and subsequent tuning has a further calming effect, and Rodney can feel the oxygen returning to his brain as he takes deeper and deeper breaths.

Ronon adds his other hand to Rodney's shoulders, pressing down, grounding him, and then gives Rodney a shove onto the stage. Rodney only trips a little, backstage where almost none of the audience can see him. His irritation burns up most of his nerves, so he spares Ronon his death glare. He makes his way through the first violins to the front of the stage where Chaya hands him a microphone, tapping it first to make sure it's on.

Rodney transfers his bow to the hand that's holding the violin, thankful that he's never had sweaty hands. He takes the mike and looks around the darkened auditorium. It's a new experience – he's never tried to make out faces before. There are only a couple of silhouettes visible, and none of them have Sheppard's telltale hair.

He takes a deep breath and glances up at Ronon, who is whispering things to the orchestra, his hands clasped in front of him. He turns to Rodney and nods, and Rodney brings the mike up to his mouth.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming today, I know it's well below freezing out there." A murmur of assent, a couple of laughs, and Rodney takes a deep breath and continues. "I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Barber Violin Concerto, but it has a very interesting history, which hopefully you have read about in the program notes."

More murmurs, and now there's shuffling of pages. Rodney has an urge to berate the audience for being unprepared and then rude on top of it, and realizes that he feels almost totally back to normal.

"The short version is that the first two movements were finished for a commission and were well-liked by the commissionee, but the third… The third movement, while having an appropriate difficulty level, seemed to be at odds with the other two movements. Briselli, the violinist for whom it was written, requested that Barber expand or rewrite the third movement, but Barber refused, and paid back the money he had received for the commission."

The audience reacts in all the right places; Rodney's warming to his subject, though a glance at Ronon's tight smile makes him rethink expanding into the theoretical issues of the third movement.

"The Barber has always been both wildly popular and somewhat dissatisfying. Today, we propose to rectify the second issue by playing the movements in reverse order. Many people, myself included, like the first movement the best, and this will give all of us a chance to think of the piece in a new way – to turn it on its head."

There's a smattering of applause and Rodney hands the mike back to Chaya, who turns it off and sets it beneath her chair. Rodney takes a deep breath, closing his eyes and running down his mental list of notes before putting his violin up and nodding to Ronon.

The downbeat is soft and understated. It surprises Rodney for a moment before the muscle memory in his fingers kicks in, his bow arm keeping up with the scorching pace like careening around a curve, almost out of control.

It's going perfectly, the orchestra has plenty of enthusiasm. His musical impression of racing down a steep hill seems to have worked because the orchestra's rushing to the conclusion, and Rodney's glad he spent so many hours drilling the movement into the ground. His fingers move faster than his brain, but Rodney trusts them enough to follow along and not try to take control, something he learned the hard way when he was quite young.

The third movement rushes by in a few minutes, over before anyone can get their head around it. The orchestra needs time to move from the restless energy of the third movement and into the tender beauty of the second, so Rodney lets himself pause, remembering why he's going along with this crazy idea. One of the biggest issues for continuity in Rodney's mind is the frenetic pace of the third movement. The first two movements spool out slowly, taking advantage of the lyrical melodies, but the third movement starts in a rush and gathers speed, hurtling toward a finish that is somehow less satisfying for its failure to wrap up the piece as a whole.

Rodney looks up at Maestro Dex and nods. The second movement starts with the orchestra, and Rodney closes his eyes and listens subjectively for a change, letting the oboe solo color how he feels. The oboe is melancholy by nature, and if the cellos didn't rescue the melody after a few phrases, the movement would be much more sorrowful. The sad timbres don't continue though, so when Rodney starts his theme, it's bursting with hope and barely contained joy. It doesn't last long; the second movement shifts through emotions restlessly, like a ghost moving through a house it's lived in and loved. He sifts through them all, letting the ones that catch on his fingers have their moments, his sound thick and enveloping.

He's rarely emotionally connected to his music, but the Barber has always been a deep well of beauty and sorrow, pulling the feelings out of him unwillingly. He's more in tune with the orchestra than he's ever been; he can feel them with him, taking over the melody or adding harmony, supporting him with a web of sound and structure.

They follow him and Maestro Dex through the twists and turns, imbuing the music with shadows and contours. It lets Rodney float on top, riding the wave of alternating heartbreak and hope, the sound of someone learning to live with their grief. The metaphor stuns him and he can't shake it; suddenly the music is sharper in color – brighter and softer all at once. He can feel his eyes well up, and he closes them against the threat of crying on stage.

The movement closes gently, and Rodney would take a moment except he specifically told Ronon that the first movement should be attaca. At the time, he thought moving immediately from the frothing emotions of the second movement into the playful first movement would be a brilliant idea; he still thinks so, but he wishes he could have a second to collect his thoughts and wipe his face.

Ronon is standing still with his baton raised, and when Rodney turns to catch Lorne's eye for the downbeat, he can feel the entire orchestra expectantly watching the maestro. For all his stillness, Ronon has an energy that is straining to be released. Rodney looks at Ronon too, and at that moment, Ronon's baton moves, a smooth upbeat and solid downward swish for the start of the movement. This movement opens with the violin solo, and Rodney lets the melody go, rising upward with happiness tempered by the turbulence of the last movement. It's somehow even more beautiful in its new placement, layered with subtlety and meaning.

The clarinet outlines the bouncy B theme, and Rodney follows along, the violin line a foreshadowing – no, Rodney corrects himself, a remembrance – of the second movement. Sheppard is a genius.

Sheppard. Rodney's never really thought of the first movement as a love song before, but all it takes is one stray thought of Sheppard, and he can't shake the idea of the main theme as designed for no other purpose than to be the background to a couple of windswept lovers in some old-fashioned romantic movie. There's more to it, though, the first movement has its own sort of turmoil, and Rodney can imagine himself alongside Sheppard in an infinite variety of ways, fighting and laughing and kissing. This concerto is one of the few that have any real meaning for him, and suddenly the whole piece takes on a new level of significance.

Rodney alternates between closing his eyes to see John in his imagination and opening them to watch Ronon, lithe and beautiful in his own way. Rodney's grateful for Ronon's grace; he can't imagine there's a single soul watching him when Ronon's conducting is the perfect embodiment of the music.

Ronon notices Rodney watching him and winks. Rodney smiles, following Ronon's lead until it's time for him to take over again, a moment or two before his brief cadenza-like interlude. Ronon brings in the various parts of the orchestra expertly, following Rodney's whim to stretch the long notes, hold on to them like they might desert him. The maestro follows suit – taking time on the high points when the orchestra takes over the lush melody.

The cadenza sounds anguished, not something Rodney's ever put into it before. It can't hold, not when the orchestra comes in with the cheerful B theme, and in his mind's eye Rodney can see Sheppard's megawatt smile, pure amusement. The clarinet closes the movement, and Rodney glances back at her because either she's more talented than he originally thought, or she's reading his mind. The end of the movement is so wistful Rodney can almost feel Sheppard slipping away. He chokes in a breath and passes his sleeve over his face, hoping it looks like he's wiping the sweat off.

~~~

Rodney's still shaking in his dressing room, even after four calls back to the stage and a glass of the scotch Ronon left as a thank-you present. The Barber always unravels him a little, but the Barber plus his feelings for Sheppard overwhelms him. He feels raw and exposed, and needs time to put himself back together into the tightly controlled package he normally presents to the world.

He can hear the deep rumble of Ronon's voice just outside his door, deflecting people away from him. He's thankful for the maestro's thoughtfulness, and waits for Ronon to come in for a glass of the scotch before the post-concert gathering. He takes the shoulder support off his violin and loosens his bow, tucking them away into the velvet lining of the case.

He hears the rattle of the doorknob a fraction of a second before the door opens and Sheppard slips in, sidling in through the tight space between Ronon and the door frame. Apparently Ronon's not quite as thoughtful as Rodney thought.

"Hi," Rodney says, and his voice sounds too high. It's probably because his heart is lodged in his throat somewhere near his vocal cords.

"Hey," Sheppard says, and moves in a straight line to Rodney, like Rodney's a supermagnet for fluffy-haired pianists. He gets too close and hesitates; it looks like he might have considered hugging but thought better of it at the last moment.

Rodney gets a grip on himself and tries to put something biting between them. "You're lucky they liked it," he says, but there's not even a shred of reprimand in his voice.

"Yeah," Sheppard says, "I'm one lucky guy." He leans back and puts his hands on his hips, taking himself out of the too-close space around Rodney and making himself look ultra-casual in the process. "You were…" Sheppard breathes, hesitating minutely before continuing, "it was gorgeous. I knew," he says as the beginnings of a smile light up his face. "I knew it'd be perfect – I knew you'd get it." He puts a hand on Rodney's arm, and the between the soft touch and the brilliant smile, Rodney's heart fucking aches.

"Thank you," he whispers, rotating his forearm upwards so he can grip Sheppard's arm as well. "For the idea. You deserve the credit."

Sheppard shakes his head, glancing down at their entwined arms and then up into Rodney's eyes. Rodney knows it's obvious he's been crying, he's never been able to hide that sort of thing. Jeannie's always teased him mercilessly about it. Sheppard puts his other hand on Rodney's shoulder, and now he's firmly within Rodney's personal space. Rodney's entire body leans toward Sheppard.

"Hey, buddy," Sheppard says, and Rodney can't help a soft huff of laughter at the 'buddy.' "You all right?"

Rodney nods and lets his head hang. He can't keep looking at Sheppard or he'll do something stupid. He can't make himself disengage from Sheppard's grasp either, can't let go of those warm points of contact. He tries to laugh, but it comes out as a gurgle in the back of his throat.

"Hey," Sheppard says, and takes his hand off Rodney's shoulder, chucking Rodney under his chin, forcing him to look up and meet Sheppard's eyes.

It's only six inches of space, Rodney thinks, his eyes dipping down to look at Sheppard's lips. "John," he whispers, swooping in to press his lips onto Sheppard's.

When he thinks about it later, he's almost certain it was the name 'John' that gave Sheppard pause, that allowed Rodney to get all the way to their mouths touching. There's a moment where John's arm tenses up in Rodney's grip before he puts a hand on Rodney's chest and pushes gently.

"Um…" Sheppard says, and takes a step back, his arms dropping down to his sides. "I don't… I'm not…"

Rodney takes a deep breath and gets some semblance of control over himself. "Yes, I know, I'm sorry." He wipes his hand brusquely over his eyes. "It's the Barber. I always… get caught up. I'm really sorry. I don't know –"

"No problem," Sheppard says, but he's backing away quickly. "I should…" he points over his shoulder to indicate the door, and Rodney nods.

"Sure," Rodney says, trying to make this as easy as possible. "See you later."

"Yeah," Sheppard says, and then, just before the door closes, "Congratulations."

Congratulations, Rodney thinks. You're in love with a straight guy.

~~~

Ronon comes in much later to have a drink with Rodney and escort him to the after-party. Rodney's mostly put himself back together, and he goes along, plastering a fake smile on his face. Ronon doesn't leave his side until the clarinetist shows up, making a beeline for the pair of them, and then he excuses himself and hurries away before she gets there.

"I'm Laura Cadman," she says, her hand extended in front of her as she plows forward to greet him. He shakes it, and she has enough strength in her grip that he disengages quickly.

"Yeah," Rodney says, forgetting her name as soon as it comes out of her mouth. "I'm sorry about the comment on your notes, I just – "

"No skin off my nose," she says. "Played it ahead of the beat, no problem."

"Good," Rodney says. "Excellent solos, by the way. Good sound. Yale?"

Cadman laughs. "That's pretty good, Mr. McKay."

"I like Shifrin," Rodney admits. "Amazing chamber player."

"Yeah," Cadman says. "Anyway, I just wanted to say that it was a stroke of genius, playing the Barber backwards."

"Thanks," Rodney says, "but it wasn't my idea. I'll tell the guy you liked it."

Cadman shrugs and congratulates him, shaking his hand again before taking off for the bar.

Rodney makes it through the rest of the post-concert party fueled mostly by scotch and self-loathing, not to mention worry about Sheppard burning a hole in his gut. He doesn't get drunk, even though he wants to. He does, however, take home the pretty young thing that's been hitting on him all night. He's an ethnomusicology graduate student at the New England Conservatory; Rodney's had enough scotch to make him pleasantly accepting, the words rolling off him as the kid talks about this thesis.

The boy is enthusiastic in bed, which is lucky because Rodney doesn't feel like putting a lot of effort into it. He's also getting too old for a round two, so he lies down and the kid finds him like a heat-seeking missile, curling around Rodney like he misses his teddy bear.

Rodney sighs and drifts off, Sheppard's quick exit still on his mind.

~~~

Virtuoso Turned Pedagogue Shares his Diverse Talents
Review by Elizabeth Weir


M. Rodney McKay, Violinist
Seully Hall, Boston


     M. Rodney McKay, notorious among the academic crowd for his refusal to teach masterclasses, folded to outside pressure and shared his expertise with four students of the Boston Conservatory this last Saturday.
     The students were dull to mediocre, but the highlight of the masterclass (beyond a shouted, "You're not worth my time!" at one of the students) was the impromptu reading of the Janáček Sonata for Violin and Piano by Mr. McKay and Dr. John Sheppard of the Boston Conservatory.
     Dr. Sheppard was a pleasant surprise, with an agile technique and sense of humor (which must be a requirement to play with Mr. McKay). He was able to reign in Mr. McKay's natural tendency to play everything too fast, and produce a stately third movement that was the highlight of the piece.
     I have often said that the only performances of Mr. McKay I find worthwhile are those of contemporary pieces, and this was no exception. He's the fashionista of music, only interested in what's new and fresh. The Janáček was bursting with color and freshness while the Barber fell flat.
     One can't tell if it was the plodding students that tired him out or his newest plaything, but his lackluster performance of the Barber Violin Concerto on Saturday evening (despite the heroic efforts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and their leader, Maestro Ronon Dex) was simply another in a long line of performances that show Mr. McKay has nothing left for music except disdain and boredom.


~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Rodney turns to Radek, waiting for him to finish tuning his cello. He's a perfectionist – each string absolutely in tune, all the time. It's all too fussy for Rodney, except when he's performing. He'll adjust on the fly if he needs to.

"It's Fiorillo, Radek, not Schoenberg," Rodney says, dropping the paper onto the coffee table in disgust. "It wasn't a complete disaster. So I was a little tired. I can play the Barber in my sleep."

"Perhaps that is the problem," Radek says. Rodney frowns at him, which works to shut most people up, but Radek has always been immune. "You know you grow bored with the repertoire. How many times have you played the Barber in the last year? More than enough to make it tedious."

"Well, that's true," Rodney concedes. "Though playing it backwards was interesting."

"I heard," Radek says. "Simpson was in the audience. She said you looked… what was the word?" Radek taps his bow against the music that won't lay flat on his stand. "Oh, yes. Wrecked."

"Wrecked?" Rodney says, and sits down at his own music. "That's ridiculous. It was interesting, that's all. Something different." He nods at the music and puts his violin up. "Are we going to play or what?"

Radek shrugs and gives the downbeat for the Fiorillo. They play along gamely enough, the first movement flying by. There's no challenge in the Classical era composers any more, but it's fun to sight read with Radek. They share a love of theory that makes playing together interesting.

Radek lowers his bow before the second movement and looks at Rodney sideways, over his fingerboard. "So, who is this Dr. Sheppard?" he asks, and Rodney glares at him. He should have known Radek'd read the review.

"Nobody. A second rate piano hack."

Radek raises his eyebrows. "You like him."

Rodney feels more than a little petulant, not wanting to share this information with one of the few people in the world he can call a friend, but he's not ready to sort out exactly how strongly he feels about a guy that he's spent approximately six hours with.

"He's fine," Rodney answers.

"He's good, or you would not have read the Janáček with him," Radek points out.

"Yes, fine, he's good," Rodney admits. "But he's teaching in a second-rate conservatory in Boston, which I'm convinced is at least the third circle of hell, and after tomorrow, I'm never going to see him again."

"Tomorrow?" Radek says with genuine surprise. "You are not playing with Teyla?"

"Shit," Rodney says, letting his head drop back and looking at the ceiling. "No one was supposed to know."

"He's good enough to perform an entire chamber concert in New York?" Radek asks, disbelief clear in his voice.

"Yes, he's that good," Rodney answers. "New York makes him uneasy, too, so there's probably some horrific story, but I wouldn't even know where to go digging."

Radek hums in agreement. "Is he related to Nancy Sheppard?" he asks, and Rodney waves a hand in annoyance.

"Who?"

"Nancy Sheppard. Oboist with the Met." Radek frowns at Rodney. He knows Radek disapproves of his lack of social graces, particularly where remembering names is concerned.

"I have no idea," Rodney says, "and I'm not certain I want to know." It could be his sister, Rodney thinks, but he doubts he's so lucky.

"She went to Julliard with Sam," Radek says.

Rodney frowns. He really doesn't want to talk to Sam Carter. She's probably using Weir's review for wallpaper in her office.

"Can we just play, please?" Rodney says, and raises his bow to start the second movement.

~~~

"Hello?"

Sam's voice is as chipper as ever and Rodney has a sudden urge to throw up. "Uh, hi. Sam. This is Rodney. Rodney McKay."

"Oh," she answers evenly.

"Yeah, hi." Rodney grits his teeth and takes the plunge. "I need a favor. Do you know Nancy Sheppard?" he asks, and he hears her breath catch.

"Well, that's not what I was expecting," she says, and for the first time in their history, he listens to what she has to say without interrupting.

Which leads to him calling on Jack O'Neill – the retired almost-hermit ex-piano teacher from Julliard. He remembers Lorne saying that O'Neill faxed the Crumb over for Sheppard, and that means that Rodney's likely to be seen as an adversary, if O'Neill's come by his status as Julliard's crankiest professor emeritus honestly.

He rings the doorbell on the townhouse, taking a step back and glancing up the three floors of the building. A nice place for Manhattan. Either O'Neill invested wisely or he had a business on the side while he was teaching. He answers the door, looking at Rodney like he's lower than pond scum and starts to close the door even as he says, "I'm not buying anything."

"No no no," Rodney says quickly. "I'm here because of Sheppard. John Sheppard?"

The door stops inches shy of being slammed in Rodney's face. "What about him? He's not even in New York anymore."

"I know that," Rodney says, "I'm the violinist he's playing the Crumb with."

The door opens a fraction, and now he can see O'Neill's strong square frame and silver-streaked hair in the backlight.

"I need to talk to you about him."

O'Neill looks him over disapprovingly, and Rodney clutches his violin case to his chest. "Please?" Rodney says, and O'Neill opens the door and stands aside. Rodney steps in as quickly as he can, hopefully without giving away the fact that he expects O'Neill to shut the door before he can make it across the threshold.

"What do you want with a nice kid like Sheppard?" O'Neill asks.

"Who're you calling a kid?" Rodney says reflexively. The surprise on O'Neill's face is worth it. "He's playing with me tomorrow night. Well, I'm pretty sure he'll be there," Rodney says, though he sounds less than convincing. "Anyway, he wouldn't let me give him any advance press, he was so freaked out about something. Sam Carter seems to think it has something to do with his ex-wife."

O'Neill raises an eyebrow and turns his back to Rodney, walking down the long hallway next to the stairs to the second floor. "Come on," he calls over his shoulder. "We're going to need beer for this story."

Rodney pays for pizza and trades stories with O'Neill well into the evening. O'Neill's got stories about playing with every contemporary violinist out there, as well as most of the other musicians Rodney actually knows by name.

It takes a couple beers, but Rodney finally gets O'Neill talking about Sheppard. There's a fondness there that almost makes Rodney wish he had needed teachers. The last person who tried to teach him quit when he was eleven and he had mocked her for missing the left hand pizzicati on the Glazunov.

When he learns that Sheppard's wife served him with divorce papers the night before the finals for the Van Cliburn competition, he hates her on principle. Sheppard didn't play; O'Neill doesn't elaborate on that, but Rodney knows that had to be the moment he broke.

Turns out he was wrong about that, though. O'Neill convinced him to record his piece (Rach two, for crying out loud) with a hastily put together orchestra. He leaves Rodney with the pizza for a few minutes while he digs out the CD from somewhere deep in the house. He brings a little portable CD player with him and from the moment he hits play, Rodney's mesmerized. The Rachmaninoff is a huge work, beyond the emotional maturity of ninety per cent of the people who attempt it, and that excludes most pianists based solely on hand size and sheer technical strength. Listening to a twenty-one year old Sheppard play it is a religious experience.

When it's done they sit in silence for a while, drinking beer and breathing. Rodney sighs. "When did he quit, then?" he asks, dying to know what, if not his spiteful ex-wife, could possibly have kept that sort of talent hidden for so many years under Sheppard's carefully-constructed casual indifference.

O'Neill looks at Rodney like he's grown a third head. "His wife. Served him papers the night before the finals of the piano competition that would have made his career. Are you deaf?"

Now Rodney's confused. "But the recording–"

"Was done as a personal favor for me," O'Neill says, waving his beer emphatically. "And I'm keeping it as a personal favor for him."

Rodney's face crumples. What if he screwed up Sheppard's comeback by kissing him that day? Made him decide to bury himself in his second rate conservatory and its third rate students again?

O'Neill puts an obviously fake smile on and tries to comfort Rodney. "I know he's not comfortable playing in New York, but he'll be here."

"It's not just that," Rodney admits. "I kissed him. I was overly-emotional, and granted, it was partially his fault, but no one was supposed to get into the dressing room, Ronon promised, and–"

"Whoa," O'Neill says, shaking his head. "John's not–"

"No, Sheppard's not gay," Rodney confirms pissily. "I kissed him, it was a mistake, an accident, whatever, but…" Rodney takes a breath to get his voice under control. He is not going to get upset over this. "But he practically ran out of the dressing room and I haven't heard from him since."

O'Neill takes several swallows of beer and thinks about it. Rodney doesn't talk, even though he really wants to, and concentrates on not fidgeting. He can't tell what O'Neill's thinking, and it's difficult not to babble his way through his nervousness.

"John would've called you if he wasn't coming," O'Neill says finally. "No matter what you did to him."

O'Neill makes it sound like Rodney tied Sheppard up and ravished him against his will. "It was just a kiss. And he touched me first," Rodney adds huffily.

O'Neill's eyebrows shoot up. "He put a hand on my arm," Rodney clarifies, though he can't keep the contempt out of his tone. "How can you have been in music as long as you have and not had contact with gay people? You'd think I came from another planet."

"Sorry," O'Neill says, though he doesn't sound sorry. He doesn't look chastised either, and normally Rodney would take that as a personal affront, but in O'Neill's case it isn't worth the effort. "Tell you what," O'Neill says. "I'll call Sheppard. That'll make you feel better, right?" He dials the phone before Rodney can even blink, and he's got it at his ear as Rodney shakes his head uncontrollably and waves his arms like he's trying to land a plane, an ostinato of 'no no no no no' burbling out of him.

"Sheppard," O'Neill says smoothly, tipping his bottle of beer toward Rodney in salute. "You'll never guess who stopped by tonight."

Rodney gives up and rests his head on his arms, hiding his face from O'Neill and listening intently.

"The great Rodney McKay," Jack says, and that's a little disturbing. Rodney swears he can hear the hee-haw of Sheppard's laugh but it's got to be Rodney's imagination since O'Neill is halfway across the kitchen.

"He's afraid you won't show," O'Neill says, and Rodney lifts his head to when he realizes he's not imagining anything and that's definitely Sheppard spitting righteous anger loud enough for Rodney to hear. O'Neill's holding the receiver away from his ear and he raises his eyebrows at Rodney and mouths told you so.

"I know," Jack says, "I told him that. Maybe you should give him a call." If Sheppard says anything, it's too soft for Rodney to make out. "I've got to go," Jack says, "but I just wanted to call and let you know I've got McKay's comp tickets for tomorrow, so don't fuck up."

~~~

When Rodney arrives at Alice Tully Hall for the dress rehearsal the next day, Sheppard is already there. He's playing through the Enescu, which Rodney's never spent much time listening to. It hadn't seemed worth it – it had always seemed… cheap, almost, shy on the theory, using jazz to cover up its inadequacies. When Sheppard plays it, though, it's breathtaking, and he moves effortlessly from the riffs back into the counterpoint and back again, connecting the lines seamlessly. Rodney stands perfectly still in the back of the hall, worried that even the smallest noise will take Sheppard out of his trance.

Sheppard finishes the movement and sets his hands down at his sides on the bench. "C'mon in, Rodney," he says, and Rodney makes his way down to the stage.

"Hi," he says tentatively, hefting himself up to sit on the stage.

"Hey. Like the Enescu?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney can't help but answer honestly, relieved by Sheppard's casual, 'let's act like it never happened' demeanor.

"Never used to. I'm learning to appreciate… some of it." Rodney puts up his violin and rips through an A major scale, satisfied with how his sound echoes back to him from the empty seats.

"What do you feel like doing?" Rodney asks. "Start and stop on everything? Run something?" Rodney stands and sets his music on the stand that's two feet too high. He ratchets it down while he waits for Sheppard's answer. "Hm?"

"Why don't I go out into the hall," Sheppard says as he walks to the edge of the stage and jumps down. Rodney's eyes are drawn to the line of striped boxers peeking out of the back of his black jeans. "I'll give you a sound check on the Hindemith."

"You like the Hindemith?" Rodney asks, pulling out the music from behind the Brahms and Mozart.

"Not particularly. I find Hindemith to be pretty simplistic. But you got to hear a movement of mine, so I want to hear a movement of yours."

Rodney is tempted to play the Prestissimo, but it doesn't feel like his technique will impress Sheppard. He dismisses the Intermezzo because he doesn't think his sound will do it either. He settles on the third movement for its tempo changes and unusual harmonies. It's difficult enough, with all the doublestops, but non-string players never understand the difficulties of bowing two strings at once. He plays through it, nothing over the top, but with more emotion and forethought than he usually puts into his dress rehearsals. When he finishes, he hears Sheppard's lazy applause from the audience.

"Still simplistic," Sheppard says, "but excellent job with inferior material."

"I can't believe you think Hindemith's simplistic. You have the musical taste of a goat." Rodney whips through another A major scale to test his tuning and adjusts his E string. "Get your ass on stage so we can finish and get out of here."

Sheppard saunters down the aisle and jumps the three feet from the floor to the stage in one graceful leap. Rodney's surprised, not only by the act itself, but by the image of Sheppard's muscular thighs coiling for the spring that has burned itself onto his retinas.

"Auditioning for Percy Grainger, are you?" Rodney teases.

"Thought I might," Sheppard says, and makes his way to the piano, pulling out the Mozart. "Start and stop? Just to get the acoustics of the hall?"

"Sure," Rodney says, "but you realize it doesn't matter. The acoustics will be completely different with a full house of people and their sound-absorbing bodies in the seats."

"Yes, Rodney," Sheppard says, and it's clear that he knew and yet wasn't insulted by Rodney's presumption that he didn't. "You realize that the there is a relationship of the acoustics of an empty hall and a full one. You could extrapolate from one to the other."

"That's not entirely true, and you know it. There are too many other variables to make such a simplistic comparison, there's the lights and–"

"Rodney." Sheppard puts a hand over his heart in mock sincerity. "I promise I can adjust by the time we finish the first phrase of the Crumb. Do you mind?"

Rodney's never felt chastised by another musician in his life, but right now he feels about three inches tall. "Of course, I… didn't doubt it."

"Yes, you did," Sheppard says, but he still doesn't look peeved. "Are you ready? You lead on the Mozart, but don't take it too slow."

They run through the music, and Rodney cuts the Brahms movements off before Sheppard can get too wrapped up in them. Now he looks peeved.

"You don't want to peak too early, do you?" Rodney asks, and Sheppard sighs dramatically. "Yeah, yeah." He stuffs his music forcefully into his satchel. The leather bag is soft and worn, clearly many years old.

Rodney has a weird urge to ask Sheppard to join him at dinner. He's never eaten with anyone before a performance, not even Teyla. He blurts out an invitation before he can overthink it. "I have reservations at Jean Georges. You want to come?" Sheppard's not exactly dressed, but Rodney'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

"Jean Georges? McKay, are you a foodie?" Sheppard sounds casual, but the way he smoothes his shirtfront says he's interested.

"I like innovative cuisine, yes," Rodney says, and there's not even a little defensiveness in his tone. "And they won't overfeed us. I hate to be stuffed right before I have to play."

"Oh," Sheppard says. "When are your reservations?"

"Five o'clock," Rodney answers. "So we should be going."

"I shouldn't," Sheppard says hesitantly, and Rodney can't tell if he's waffling because of Rodney, the food, or the reservations, which Rodney had, truthfully, only made for himself. He decides to take the least offensive option.

"You should," Rodney says. "They haven't yet made a table that can't seat two as comfortably as one." That sounds more intimate than it did in his head. "I mean… You can sit across from me, it–"

"McKay, it's fine." Sheppard says, shaking his head. "I didn't want to intrude if you had some sort of pre-concert ritual."

"Oh, not me, I don't–"

Rodney stops short. Actually, this is his pre-concert ritual. He's not surprised to find that he wouldn't mind Sheppard's presence at his table.

"No, it's fine. Can we go? I don't want to miss my reservations. I may be able to use my clout to get you in like that," he waves a hand up and down Sheppard's jeans and t-shirt, "but I don't have enough to get my table back if they give it away."

"They'll be packed at five on a Tuesday?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney doesn't dignify the statement with an answer.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

The walk to Jean Georges is refreshing, and Sheppard's good company for the first course, but as dinner wears on and more and more small dishes of elegantly plated food come out, Sheppard eats less and less, refusing everything after the third plate and moving from yes and no answers to total silence.

They get back to the theater at quarter after seven, and Rodney's feeling his comfortable pre-concert rush, but Sheppard looks exceptionally pale. They split off into their separate dressing rooms and Rodney gets into his tux, pulls out his violin and plucks the strings to check the tuning.

He glances at the comfortable chair he could sit in and daydream before the concert, but he crosses the hall to Sheppard's dressing room instead. He knocks softly. "Sheppard?" he asks. "You okay?"

He remembers the strange feeling before playing the Barber backwards and for the first time in his life, he feels sympathetic about stage fright. Rodney gives it a few more seconds before he knocks again. "Sheppard?"

There's shuffling noise from inside, and the door opens a crack.

"What, Rodney?"

Rodney's imagination goes wild with all the things that could be wrong with Sheppard, but the first thing that comes to mind is his tux. "Oh, god, you haven't worn a tux since you were a student and it doesn't fit, does it?"

Sheppard pokes his head around the door. "Are you crazy?"

"Well, not normally," Rodney says caustically, "but you have that effect on me." He barges in, shoving against the door hard enough to force his way in. He closes the door behind him and when he turns to face Sheppard, he can feel his face go slack. He was right, everyone looks good in a tux. Sheppard, though. Sheppard looks fantastic. Sheppard's wry grin says he notices Rodney noticing.

"Oh," Rodney says, and his voice feels very small.

"It's not the tux," Sheppard says.

Rodney can see that.

"Obviously," Rodney answers, lifting his chin. "You look acceptable."

"Thanks, Rodney, you really know how to make a guy feel good."

"You fish for compliments more than anyone I have ever known," Rodney says, rolling his eyes. "You look gorgeous. Stunning. Magnificent. Is that enough?"

Sheppard suddenly looks like he might throw up. He brushes by Rodney on his sprint for the bathroom, and Rodney can hear him groaning between bursts of retching. "Speaking of making a guy feel good," Rodney gripes, and sets his violin and bow on the makeup table before walking over to the half bath tucked in the corner of the dressing room. Sheppard has his head over the toilet, and he's holding on to it for dear life.

"I don't know if I can do this."

Rodney takes a hand towel and wets it under the faucet. "Of course you can," Rodney says brusquely. "You know I turned down Richard Goode for you?"

Sheppard retches again. "That's enough," Rodney says, wringing out the towel and dangling it in front of Sheppard's face. "Wipe your face. It'll make you feel better." Rodney can't believe he's coddling the best musician he's come across in thirty-three years of performing professionally. "You have more talent in your hair than all the hacks with recording contracts at Deutsche Grammophon put together. Besides, you're playing with me." Sheppard's soft huff of air is close enough to a laugh that Rodney nudges him to get up. "Come on," Rodney says, and puts his hands under Sheppard's armpits to support him as he stands.

"You don't understand," Sheppard says. "I haven't performed in almost twenty years. I gave this up a long time ago." Rodney escorts Sheppard over to the loveseat. Sheppard sits down heavily, slumped down the chaise like a dejected twelve-year old. He puts the towel up to his face and looks like he's trying to suffocate himself.

"So?" Rodney snaps, pacing in front of Sheppard. "Let's put this in perspective, shall we?"

Sheppard stares at him, his eyes peering over the wet towel he's holding to the lower half of his face. He doesn't move, doesn't make any indication he's even heard what Rodney said.

"Right," Rodney says, taking Sheppard's silence for assent. "So, let's assume the worst happens." Sheppard's eyes go wide, and Rodney goes straight for ridiculous before Sheppard can fill in exactly what 'the worst' is. "You completely and utterly forget how to play piano and sit there like an idiot at the keyboard."

Sheppard's eyes narrow, but he doesn't remove the towel.

"Is your boss in the audience? Your livelihood threatened in some way?"

Sheppard tilts his head, and his eyes narrow practically to slits. Rodney would be worried except he's supremely confident that Sheppard will thank him later.

"All right, then," Rodney continues. "Lover, girlfriend, wife who won't love you any more if you fuck up?"

Sheppard mumbles into the towel, and Rodney can't make it out, but it doesn't sound particularly bad. Or like there's a wife or girlfriend, anyway.

"Okay. So that leaves world destruction. If you can't play tonight, the world's going to implode, right?"

Finally, Sheppard lowers his towel, either anger or embarrassment making him blush. Rodney nods his head curtly and scoops up the music and his violin before hassling Sheppard up off the couch and out of the dressing room.

~~~

By the time they hand the music off to the stage manager to put on the stands, it's only a few minutes before curtain, and Sheppard's lost his color again. His yo-yoing emotions are making Rodney seasick. "I'm right here," he whispers, infusing his voice with every ounce of irritation he can muster.

The stage manager slides by them and lowers the lights. She puts her hand on the doorknob, looking at Rodney for confirmation that they're ready to take the stage. Rodney pushes Sheppard in front of him and nods at her. She opens the door, and before they can set foot on stage, the applause starts. Rodney puts a firm hand in the middle of Sheppard's back and shoves. The bastard doesn't trip, not even a little. Rodney follows him, and he has enough time to think we didn't talk about bows before he and Sheppard bow together, and it comes off without a hitch.

Rodney moves around the piano and Sheppard sits, throwing his tails out behind him in a move only pianists think is flashy. Sheppard somehow makes it look cool, and Rodney would roll his eyes, but he's on stage, so he settles for an annoyed glare.

The Crumb is a tough starter. Tonally, it's their strangest piece, but the sparse nature of it makes for interesting theater, as does Sheppard standing and reaching into the piano to pluck strings with his fingers or settle a sheet of paper over the inner workings. Rodney keeps an eye on him, and Sheppard's gaze flicks to him nervously a couple of times, but they get through the first movement without incident and Rodney takes an extra long time before starting the pizz of the next movement.

Sheppard loosens up somewhere in the middle of the second movement, and the music rolls off him, playful and innocently sweet. The whole thing is over in less than ten minutes, even with the achingly long breaks between movements to make sure that all resonance had faded away to silence before starting the next assault on the audience's eardrums.

At the end Sheppard forgets to stand, but this time Rodney's glare is sufficient to get him on his feet. The applause is polite. The Crumb will never get the roaring applause of the Brahms; Rodney knows this and programs around it. The Crumb is worth hearing – as is the Hindemith – but they are only appetizers before the main event, and the Mozart is the sorbet to clear the palate.

Sheppard ambles off stage and Rodney's happy to see that he's lost the sharp-shouldered tension he had before they started. The stage manager goes out to move the prepared piano and set up for Rodney's solo piece, and Rodney takes the time to make sure Sheppard isn't going to jump ship on him.

"Sheppard," he says in a sharp whisper. "How are you doing?"

"Hmmm," Sheppard answers noncommittally.

"That's reassuring," Rodney says. "Are you completely freaking out, or only a little bit?" Rodney has visions of going onstage and explaining that he's misplaced his pianist, so would they mind if he played some Paganini?

"Hmmm," Sheppard answers again, as the stage manager returns and looks at Rodney expectantly.

"Stay here," Rodney orders. "I want a report on how boring the Hindemith is when I get back. All right?"

"Sure," Sheppard says, and the stage manager opens the door before Rodney can tell her to keep an eye on him.

Rodney's mind fills with images of Sheppard slamming out the back door and running like crazy for Penn Station. A glance at Sheppard doesn't reassure him, but the show must go on. He steps on stage and focuses on creating something with the Hindemith even Sheppard can't call simplistic. He pushes the upper limits on all the tempos, fully expecting to be called on it in Weir's review.

Rodney bows as soon as the applause starts and stalks offstage, his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest. There's no Sheppard backstage, and now his thudding heartbeat is in his throat. "Where is he?" he whispers menacingly at the stage manager, and she shrugs before she goes to move the second piano into place for Sheppard's piece. There's a stack of music on the tiny table next to the door. Rodney pulls out the Enescu and hands it to her on her way out. "He needs this. Set it up for him."

Rodney runs back to the dressing room, pounding on Sheppard's door with more than a little anxiousness. "Sheppard! Get your ass out here!"

He opens the door, but it only takes a second to sweep the room and know Sheppard isn't there. He stops in own dressing room just long enough to put his violin away, and runs for the back door, hoping that if Sheppard needed some air, he stayed close by. He bursts through the door, and the shocked look on Sheppard's face would be so much better if Rodney wasn't on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"You're up," Rodney says, knowing that casual is completely off the table, considering he exploded out of the door a second ago. The guy standing next to Sheppard (usher, Rodney thinks, judging by the suit) palms the cigarette that was dangling two inches from Sheppard's outstretched hand.

"Thanks," Sheppard says, pulling his hand back, "but I've got to go."

Rodney grabs Sheppard by his jacket collar and yanks him inside. "Are you insane?"

Sheppard shifts under Rodney's grasp, shrugging his shoulder up into Rodney's grip. "Cancel the Enescu," he says softly, his voice strident. "Skip to intermission."

Rodney takes a deep breath and patently ignores the little voice that tells him another kiss would be the perfect distraction for Sheppard right now. He grabs Sheppard's forearm, and as distraction techniques go, it works pretty well. Sheppard looks down at Rodney's hand on his arm and blinks, his face utterly blank.

"Sheppard," Rodney says, his voice quiet but laced with impatience. "I'll turn pages."

Sheppard looks up at Rodney with the same blank expression and Rodney lets go of his arm. Sheppard nods slowly, and Rodney guides him back toward the stage. When they get there, Rodney tells the stage manager to put a chair out for him and she scurries off to do it. Sheppard looks duly embarrassed for his stage fright, and Rodney huffs out half a chuckle. "You'll be sorry when you see how lousy I am at turning pages."

~~~

Sheppard raises his shaky hands over the keys and takes a deep breath before beginning the soft octaves that open the Enescu. Rodney reminds himself to sit back and not get into Sheppard's playing space. Sheppard only distracts him briefly; he wasn't lying when he told Sheppard he's a lousy page turner, and he reads the music ahead, wishing he had had even a moment to look over the score before doing this.

Sheppard has it pretty thoroughly memorized, so he doesn't indicate when he wants the pages turned. Rodney guesses by approximately how far ahead he reads his own music, and does his best to keep his body out of the way while he turns page after page. The first movement is lyrical and slow, and Sheppard's breathing slows with the tempo. He looks much better than he did before coming on stage, and before he starts the bouncy second movement, he turns to Rodney and winks.

From that moment on, Rodney scrambles to keep up with Sheppard. The music moves impossibly fast and Sheppard hardly glances at it. He's moving with the elegance Rodney's come to expect, swaying slightly as his hands travel over the keyboard with surety.

The last two movements pass in a blur, and Rodney doesn't even have to remind Sheppard to stand up and take a bow when it's all over. He waits for Sheppard to move toward the stage door before standing and following, allowing Sheppard time to soak up applause that's meant for him.

When Rodney makes his way backstage, Sheppard's bouncing on the balls of his feet. "I forgot how awesome that is." Seeing Sheppard's exuberance up close, Rodney thinks, yeah, me too.

~~~

Rodney gets his violin from his dressing room and plucks the strings to check the tuning, watching Sheppard fidget his way through intermission. Rodney would suggest he do handsprings down the hallway, but the escape hatch and smoking nook is out that way, so he plays a guessing game with Sheppard instead.

"Symphony number two," Rodney says, and Sheppard frowns.

"Whose?"

"That's what you have to figure out." Rodney's never counted, but he can think of twenty second symphonies off the top of his head.

"Brahms," Sheppard guesses.

"You think I'd pick Brahms?" Rodney asks. "I knew that was going to be the first thing out of your mouth."

Sheppard shrugs. "So I'm predictable. Hindemith."

"Hindemith doesn't have a second symphony, jackass." Rodney doesn't even like Hindemith that much; he only picked the solo piece because he wasn't sick to death of it like everything Bach ever wrote.

"Yes he does," Sheppard says, and he's almost pouting – his lower lip is definitely sticking out. "That piece for band."

"Symphony in B flat, you mean?" Rodney says. "That's kind of pathetic, Sheppard."

"Fine," Sheppard says and puts his hands on his hips. "Dvořák, Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner."

"No, no, no, and hell no." Rodney smiles; Sheppard's frustration is a beautiful thing.

"Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Prokofiev–" Sheppard ticks them off on his fingers, and Rodney admits that he's more than a little impressed how quickly Sheppard is going through the major symphonists.

"You're not even close, and you didn't say which Haydn." Rodney's never felt so smug.

"Either of them." Sheppard's voice is pained. "Is it somebody lame, like Stamitz or Glière?"

"No," Rodney says, genuinely surprised at the suggestion, "but you get credit for even thinking of Glière."

Sheppard screws up his face in concentration. "Gershwin, Ives… Vaughan Williams… Scriabin, Rachmaninoff… Oooh! Enescu!" Sheppard looks at Rodney with a huge grin, like he's sure Rodney picked Enescu just for him. Rodney's tempted to lie and say yes, except he wants Sheppard to give up first.

"Nope," Rodney says, but he's lost some of his smugness. The stage manager flips the lights and the noise from the people returning to their seats filters through the stage door.

"Give me a hint," Sheppard says, and Rodney has a hard time deciding how easy to make it.

"Music was his hobby," Rodney says, and he isn't prepared for Sheppard's quick stab of a finger to his chest.

"I said Ives!"

"It's not Ives," Rodney answers, and Sheppard frowns and stares at the space over Rodney's right shoulder.

"Country of origin or time period?"

Rodney thinks. Country of origin is a dead giveaway, so he smirks and says, "Romantic."

Sheppard's still musing on the answer when the stage manager lowers the house lights, and his eyes go panicked. "Another clue," he says desperately. "Please?"

Rodney gives in. He doesn't want Sheppard distracted for the next two pieces, not when he's so sure the Brahms is going to be the highlight of the evening. "Russian. Georgian, to be precise."

"Oh," Sheppard mutters, and puts a hand over his eyes. His voice sounds slightly muffled. "Borodin. Of course."

"Yes," Rodney confirms, taking a moment to tighten his A string. The stage manager opens the door and he turns his back on Sheppard, ready to walk on stage. He feels Sheppard before he hears him; Sheppard leans in, putting his mouth so close to Rodney's ear he can feel Sheppard's breath as he whispers, "String Quartet number three."

Rodney whole body flushes, and he's certain the temperature around him has gone up by thirty degrees. Luckily, his brain is distracted by Sheppard's cheap ploy, and suggestions throw themselves out, moving through historical periods and listing composers by country, and then there's the part of his brain that randomly throws in the crazy ones, like Koechlin and Berwald. He glances over his shoulder and sees a positively shit-eating grin on Sheppard's face. "Brahms," he says, and Sheppard laughs brightly and pushes Rodney onto the stage.

~~~

Sheppard flips his tails exaggeratedly as he sits and Rodney cannot keep a straight face, so he lifts his violin and gives a quick downbeat.

The Mozart, while lovely, short, and sweet, is still more of an acting exercise for Rodney than anything else. He tires of the harmonies and the style within moments, and has to keep stealing glances at Sheppard to keep himself interested. Sheppard seems to have a natural affinity for spun sugar texture of the Mozart. Maybe he resonates with the deeper truths the obvious harmonic structures hide, the ones that supposedly make babies smarter.

Sheppard was right. The shorter Mozart was the right choice. It's a pleasant way to clear the palate of the crunchy harmonies from the first half of the concert and get the audience into the tonal language of the Brahms. There's good applause after the Mozart; the applause of an audience thankful it doesn't have to struggle to understand the musical vocabulary of a piece. He and Sheppard stand and take bows but don't leave the stage. Sheppard sits back down and waits for Rodney to adjust his D string before raising his hands to the keyboard.

The opening phrase of the Brahms is surreal under Sheppard's gentle phrasing, transporting Rodney to some faraway place where the mundane realities of his existence simply don't matter. Rodney has an aggressive style that suits the contemporary pieces, but it's Sheppard's laidback style that suits the Brahms. Rodney gives in and lets Sheppard lead, following his nuances and phrasing, and curbing his own desire to bowl the audience over. He takes the lead in the forte section of the development, forcing Sheppard to lean into it or be overpowered by the violin. Sheppard raises an eyebrow but follows along, giving Rodney the sound he's looking for. They trade off for the remainder of the movement, Rodney leading Sheppard on the aggressive sections and Sheppard holding Rodney back on the tender moments, forcing him to take the time to savor them properly.

Rodney's barely figured out their unspoken agreement when the second movement starts and all bets are off. Sheppard lays out a pastoral opening theme, but hands the reins over to Rodney as soon as the violin comes in, and suddenly Rodney's afraid his clumsy fingers will drop the fragile opening theme. Sheppard gets the playful theme first, and he nudges Rodney, as if Rodney is the one who wants to make everything sappy and drawn-out. Rodney takes the theme and shoves it right back in Sheppard's face, which makes them both grin. The movement dies down like twilight falling on a game of capture the flag, sleepy kids dropping out for home, until all that's left is the darkness and an empty lot.

Rodney gets the melody first in the third movement, and when Sheppard answers his regal restraint with a similar color, Rodney's intrigued. He would have guessed Sheppard would want to overplay it. He finds himself goading Sheppard, trying to pull out the overly-romantic reading he remembers from the practice session in Sheppard's studio. Sheppard resists, which means Rodney presses even harder, prodding Sheppard, each attempt getting only the smallest increment of give on Sheppard's part. The dam breaks as they reach the development and Sheppard's languorous full-body movements return, so beautiful Rodney blinks slowly, turning slightly toward his music to avoid looking at the full vision of Sheppard's elegance. The music changes for him then, unlocking whispers of dreamy poetry that Rodney's never heard before. It's as if the music translates Sheppard and not the other way around.

When they finish the piece, Sheppard is staring at him, and Rodney's breathing hard, staring right back. Sheppard's grin spreads across his face slowly, and when it reaches its zenith, the sound of applause filters into Rodney's consciousness, the several hundred people he's bared his soul to, who are standing and shouting bravo, who expect him to acknowledge their praise. He jerks his gaze away from Sheppard, smiling toward the audience and watching for Sheppard to stand out of the corner of his eye. He does, and they bow, and Rodney can only barely contain himself enough not to wrap his arms around Sheppard and bury his face in Sheppard's neck, right there on stage.

~~~

The usual crowd of old ladies and students flow backstage after the concert, and Rodney dashes into his dressing room to pack up his violin. He comes back to Sheppard charming the pants off a woman old enough to be his grandmother. Elizabeth's hanging out, apparently waiting for Rodney to return, because as soon as she sees him, she shoves her way to the front of the crowd.

Sheppard continues to accept congratulations from the young girls who make eyes at him and their mothers, who make eyes at him without looking like lovestruck teenagers. Rodney closes his eyes and focuses his attention; he needs to be sharp for Elizabeth, and watching Sheppard flirt is bad for his concentration.

"Mr. McKay," Elizabeth says, holding out a hand. "Always a pleasure."

Insincerity makes her voice cold, and Rodney shakes her hand once, a brief acknowledgement of the formality. "Ms. Weir. I trust you enjoyed the concert."

"I certainly enjoyed the show," she says. She glances at John and lifts an eyebrow. "Dr. Sheppard was entrancing." She takes a step closer to Sheppard, and Sheppard looks over at her. Rodney didn't know it was possible for his smile to get even more fake.

"John Sheppard," he says, turning to face her. "Nice to meet you…" He looks at Rodney for an introduction.

"Elizabeth Weir, John Sheppard." Rodney would normally leave at this point, but O'Neill's wedged himself between Rodney and the door. The crowd is dispersing, and he tries to find a way around O'Neill and duck out, avoiding Sheppard and Weir and what a devastatingly attractive couple they make.

"Elizabeth," O'Neill says, before Rodney can get any farther into his escape plan. "I'm going to take the boys out for a beer. Why don't you join us?"

Rodney glances at O'Neill, who's wearing a sarcastic version of Sheppard's grin, then back at Sheppard and Weir, who are both smiling brightly at the suggestion.

"Thanks, Dr. O'Neill," Rodney says, "but I've –"

"I told you to call me Jack," O'Neill says, putting his arm around Rodney's shoulders and squeezing him tight enough for the air rush out of his lungs. "And I think I've scared away your plans."

The fair-haired young man who had been waiting near the stage door turns away from the quartet and exits. Rodney groans. Chris is a regular at his New York concerts; he likes the guy. Now he's stuck drinking beer with his nemesis, his teenage crush, and his teenage crush's father figure.

"Great," Rodney huffs. "I'm in the mood for beer."

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Rodney stays silent while they walk to the bar, preoccupied with how cold it is and how bad it is for his violin. O'Neill guides them to Tavern on the Green, and Rodney's pitifully grateful that they're only a block away from his hotel. He can beg off before Elizabeth cuts him to ribbons or crawls into Sheppard's lap. With any luck, he'll get back in time to order from the regular room service menu.

O'Neill goes to buy drinks, and Elizabeth wanders off to find them a table. Rodney and Sheppard get looks from the other patrons as they pass. Elizabeth's little black concert dress might fit in, but their tails and loosened bowties look ridiculous. Rodney almost wishes he hadn't had the hotel pick up his clothes from the hall. He doesn't know why Sheppard didn't change, he's got a duffel bag with him that Rodney can only assume contains a plethora of jeans and black t-shirts.

Jack brings over four pints of beer as Rodney tucks his violin under the table, using Sheppard's duffel bag to cushion it. He spends the next half an hour wishing he had a real drink as he nurses his beer. The conversation stays far away from the concert, thanks to O'Neill's remarkable ability to derail Elizabeth. She doesn't seem to mind, and Rodney's not completely sorry he came when Sheppard and O'Neill start to talk about old times at Julliard. Elizabeth's eyes go sharp, and Rodney kicks Sheppard under the table before he says too much.

The discussion turns to other musicians, and when Ronon's name is mentioned, Rodney mentions that he'll be recording Fratres with the BSO this summer.

"Fratres!" Sheppard exclaims, and his eyes light up. "I love Arvo Pärt. Can I come watch you record?" He looks at Rodney with puppy dog eyes that should look ridiculous on someone of his age. "Please?"

"Well," Rodney says hesitantly, "I don't think Ronon will like it."

Sheppard actually sticks his lip out. "C'mon, Rodney. I'll chauffeur you to Symphony Hall… please?"

Rodney laughs. "Fine, I'll ask him. That's the best I can do, all right?"

Elizabeth stands before Sheppard can answer, and O'Neill pushes his chair back and half-stands. O'Neill doesn't seem old enough to follow those etiquette rules, but it's obvious Elizabeth appreciates the gesture. "Excuse me," she says, and leaves the table to pick her way through the crowd toward the restrooms.

"Me too," Sheppard says, and Rodney frowns, watching him follow her to the far end of the bar. He groans and puts his head down on his arms, flip-flopping between voyeuristically turned on that Sheppard could be having sex with Elizabeth in the bathroom and sickened at how badly he wishes Sheppard was having sex with him in the bathroom.

"Got it bad," O'Neill says kindly, and Rodney snaps his head up.

"Excuse me?" Rodney asks, and promptly brings his beer up to his mouth to avoid any more unwanted words escaping.

"It's pretty obvious," O'Neill says, and Rodney's stomach feels like someone slipped a ten pound rock in it.

"I know," Rodney says, since there's no use denying it. He takes another drink of beer, wishing for all the world it was scotch. Or vodka. Or hydrochloric acid.

"Can't be easy," O'Neill says, and his fatherly tone makes Rodney want to drown himself in his disgusting beer.

Rodney doesn't bother to answer because he sees Sheppard making his way back to their table. Rodney's so relieved that Sheppard didn't screw Elizabeth that he gulps down half his beer to get rid of the stupid smile on his face.

Rodney's thankful for the noise of the bar as they wait for Elizabeth to return – he doesn't know what to say to Sheppard, and he really wouldn't mind never talking to O'Neill again. O'Neill and Sheppard both stare pointedly at sports on the TVs opposite them, and when Elizabeth comes back, she doesn't bother to sit.

"I should go," she says politely. "Thanks for the beer."

"Share a cab?" O'Neill asks, and gives her a half-grin that looks oddly familiar. They all shake hands again (Rodney hasn't touched Elizabeth this much in the twelve years he's known her), and O'Neill helps Elizabeth into her coat before ushering her outside.

"Damn," Sheppard says, watching Jack and Elizabeth exit the bar. "I was really hoping to get laid tonight."

Rodney scrubs the inside of his brain, trying to clear it of porn-quality images of John Sheppard, to no avail. "Me too," he says. "I really need to get Chris's number for occasions like this."

"That guy that was waiting for you?" Sheppard asks.

"Yeah," Rodney answers with a shrug. "He comes to most of my New York concerts. Nice kid."

"Mmm hmm," Sheppard says, and drinks the last swallow of beer in his glass.

"What?" Rodney asks, annoyed. "We're all grown-ups here, we can have consensual sex."

Sheppard raises his hands defensively. "Course you can," he says. "I just prefer my women with a little more experience."

"Ha," Rodney says. "I'd bet Chris's got plenty of experience on Elizabeth. You should see–"

"Life experience, Rodney," Sheppard interrupts, turning away to signal the waitress.

"Oh, just ask already," Rodney says, and Sheppard's mouth drops open in surprise, as the barmaid and her scantily clad breasts appear next to their table. "I can hear the questions in your brain loud and clear." The waitress glances at Rodney briefly, and then turns back to Sheppard, waiting for his order.

"I think I need something with a little more kick," Sheppard says, and Rodney rolls his eyes. "Tequila shots, please," he says, with a grin that's just shy of a leer. The girl smiles back at him and heads back to the bar.

"What do you want to know?" Rodney asks.

Sheppard thinks about that for a moment, letting his eyes roam the bar. "Who would you take home with you, assuming a yes on everybody's part?"

Rodney blinks. That's not at all what he expected Sheppard to ask. He stares at Sheppard for a full five seconds, thankfully Sheppard's a little dense, because while he he's not sure he could turn Sheppard down, he does think it would be a really bad idea. He forces himself to glance around the bar, weighing and measuring the men with a single glance.

"The guy in the corner booth," he says with a nod. His groupies are mostly kids, and while he doesn't say no, his tastes run toward older fare. The silver hair and broad shoulders intrigue him.

"The George Hamilton wannabe?"

"He's not that tan," Rodney says. "I like silver hair. It's distinguished." He doesn't mention the salt and pepper showing up on Sheppard's own temples. "Why, who would you have guessed?"

Sheppard scans the bar, and it amuses the hell out of Rodney that his eyes keep going back to the older gentleman who's currently escorting his wife (who also has a gorgeous head of silver hair) through the crowded aisle.

He settles on a group of thick-bodied men, muscular, but not ripped. Rodney guesses they're cops, or maybe firemen. Sheppard finally settles on one. "The guy in the NYU sweatshirt," he says, tipping his chin at the table. He's got huge arms, which is usually a turnoff for Rodney, and his whole presence screams 'conservative.' No gay man in their right mind would hit on that.

"Stop staring before he comes over and beats us up," Rodney says. "First of all," he starts, nearly knocking the tequila and accoutrements out of the waitress's hands as she walks up. She sets everything on their table, smiles at Sheppard, and glares at Rodney before leaving.

"Lemon?" Rodney says, his voice going too high too fast.

"I know," Sheppard says, "I prefer lime."

"Were you not listening at Jean Georges?" Rodney says, leaning away from the noxious stuff. Just smelling it makes it hard to breathe. "I'm allergic to citrus. Deathly allergic!"

"Sorry," Sheppard says, grabbing the lemons and putting them on the far side of the table, "I forgot."

"Never mind," Rodney says. Of course Sheppard hadn't been paying attention at dinner. He had been trying to keep himself from throwing up. "As I was saying," he says, waving his hands in front of him to clear the lemon smell out of the air, "you picked the straightest guy in the bar. Not to mention, he could probably snap me in half. I'm not really that interested in muscle."

Sheppard considers this for a second before shrugging and licking the back of his hand - the web between his thumb and forefinger. Rodney stares, watching Sheppard pour salt on it and lick it again. The broad expanse of his pink tongue short-circuits something in Rodney's brain that he's almost certain he's going to need later, and he's glad when Sheppard downs the shot and picks up a wedge of lemon, which snaps the rest of the bar into place, like Rodney's stepping out of a dark room only he and Sheppard had been in.

Rodney glances around the room, glad to see people involved in their own little gatherings and not paying any attention to them. He starts scouting the women, seeing if he can pick out Sheppard's dream date. It's not too tough, since there's obviously a high degree of objective attractiveness necessary and a brain to boot. There're a bunch of pretty young things giggling in a corner, but they look entirely too vapid for the job. There are several businesswomen around another table, but they look a little too ambitious for Sheppard. He probably has half a dozen female best friends just like them. It reminds Rodney that he'll have to introduce Sheppard to Teyla, they'll get on like gangbusters.

He sees her just as she's standing and putting her – perfect – leather bomber's jacket on. "There," he whispers, flicking his eyes to Sheppard and back to the woman. She's attractive, with her fall of wavy light brown hair and oval face. Pretty, but unusual. She's carrying a laptop case as well as a highly functional yet fashionable purse. The bomber jacket nails it as casual but comfortable in her own skin. He glances at Sheppard to see how right he is, but Sheppard's mouth is hanging open. The woman glances at their table and does a double take.

"Oh shit," Sheppard says, pouring salt on hand and downing a second shot of tequila.

The woman makes her way over to them, and Rodney hadn't really meant to be quite that good at picking out Sheppard's next fling.

"John," she says, and her voice is as sharp as a razorblade.

"Larrin," he says, standing up clumsily. "Rodney, this is Larrin. Larrin, Rodney McKay."

Rodney absolutely does not gloat at the fact that Sheppard offered his last name but not hers. "Pleased, I'm sure," he says, holding out his hand. She shakes it a little too firmly.

"Haven't heard from you in a while," Larrin says, and Sheppard rubs a hand over the back of his neck.

"I haven't been involved in Dad's business in years," Sheppard says, and before Rodney can even process that gem, she leans in to Sheppard close enough to kiss him, though she stops short of actually putting her lips on his.

"You know what they say about all work and no play," she says, her voice deep and sultry. Rodney shoves away from the table, which he meant to do quietly so he could slip away and let Sheppard score, if that was going to be the net result of this disturbing coincidence, but the chair scrapes noisily along the floor and they both turn to look at him.

"Sorry," Rodney mumbles as he scrambles out of his seat. His hands fidget at his sides and he points over his shoulder toward the back of the bar. "I just. Um. I'll..." He gives up and flees for the bathroom.

~~~

When he can't control his nervousness at having left his Stradivarius under a table in a bar anymore, Rodney goes back in. He's surprised to find Sheppard sitting at their table, looking morose.

"I'm sorry," he said as he slides back into his seat. "You could have left with her."

"Ha," Sheppard says, licking his hand again. "She'd eat me alive. Besides, I couldn't leave your violin out here unsupervised." He tips up another shot and follows it with a lemon wedge. Rodney backs his chair up a little.

"Well, thanks," Rodney says, licking his hand and holding it out to Sheppard. Sheppard shakes salt on it and Rodney laps it up, following it immediately with the tequila that burns the hell out of his throat.

Sheppard grimaces in sympathy, and holds up the salt shaker. "Do a couple more, it won't be so bad. Besides," he tips his head toward his collection of three upside-down shot glasses, "you're a little behind."

Rodney holds out his hand again and repeats the process. Sheppard's right. The second shot isn't nearly as bad as the first.

There's one shot left in front of Sheppard, and Rodney figures it's his, since he's still down one. He holds his hand out one more time and Sheppard grins as he shakes salt on it. It goes down smoother than the first two, but he still wishes for the smoky warmth of a good scotch. He's going to have to train Sheppard on the subtlety of good liquor.

"Okay," Sheppard says, raising his hand to flag the waitress down. "Where were we?"

Rodney waits for a few seconds, until he can see the waitress coming up in his peripheral vision. "I believe you were going to ask me all about gay sex."

The waitress is smiling as she walks up to the table, but it's rather plastic-looking. "Sir?" she asks politely, and Sheppard rolls his eyes at Rodney.

"Two more, please," Sheppard says, and puts a twenty on her tray. He's been paying as he goes, which seems a little strange to Rodney, but it's been a while since he's done any serious drinking at a bar.

"So, ask."

Sheppard leans in close, and Rodney knows he's got about ten minutes before the alcohol hits him hard, so he hopes he can get the dangerous questions out of the way early. He's not disappointed; Sheppard picks the biggest cliché right off the bat. "Have you always liked guys?"

"Yes." Rodney doesn't bother with the long-winded explanation about not having social circles because he's been performing since he was eight. It doesn't really matter anyway; he's had sex with women, but they don't count, except for Teyla, and he's definitely not going to tell Sheppard about that.

"When did you know?" Sheppard asks.

Rodney deflects with his normal hetero routine – "When did you know?" – hoping he can get Sheppard to the actual sex questions before he's too plastered to keep a muzzle on the overly-personal stuff.

Sheppard blinks. "What?" He sits back, arms crossed, and looks at the ceiling for a moment. "Huh, okay. I get it." He leans forward again and Rodney's crossing his fingers under the table. Please, anything but – "What does it feel like?"

Rodney puts his head down on crossed arms. "I thought you went to college. You never had this conversation with your gay friends?"

Sheppard doesn't answer, so he lifts his head to find out if he's overstepped some boundary he didn't know was there. He's used to tripping his way through social conversations, so it wouldn't surprise him, but Sheppard's just looking at him, thoughtfully.

"I'm asking all the typical, boring, everybody-asks-these-of-their-gay-friends questions."

Rodney nods. "Sort of, yeah." He normally likes this part, initiating non-gay folks into thinking about gay lifestyles openly, to let their curiosity guide them to a better understanding that gays are people too. It's frustrating him a little with Sheppard, though, because he's a little old to be this naive and the inherent possibility of moving on to experimentation feels downright dangerous.

The waitress drops off their next round and Sheppard's change, and they take time getting to their next shots. As he pitches forward from swallowing his shot, Rodney realizes he's starting to feel the first three something fierce.

"Sorry," Sheppard mumbles around a lemon wedge. He spits it out, making a pile of chewed-up lemon rinds next to the glass with the wedges in it. "I got married at nineteen. I didn't have many gay friends, and Nancy didn't think it was appropriate to talk about that stuff."

"Fine," Rodney sighs, giving in. "It feels good. I mean, sex is sex, right?"

"Not exactly, Rodney." Sheppard leans in a little closer. "I don't let people put things in me."

Rodney laughs and tips his chair back to rest on two legs. "You're missing out. Just because you're straight doesn't mean you can't let people 'put things in you.'" He punctuates with air quotes. "You know your anus is an erogenous zone, right?"

Sheppard glances at the tables next to them, but it's plenty loud enough for this conversation in here. Rodney's supposed dream date is chugging beer with his firemen buddies and between them and the screeching drunk women in the booth next to them, there's no way anything is going to be heard by anybody but their waitress when she drops off their drinks.

"I can't imagine..." Sheppard starts, his hands trying and failing to describe anal penetration without being crude. "I can't imagine wanting anything in there."

Rodney shrugs. "You don't have a very good imagination then."

Sheppard's eyes go comically wide, and Rodney shakes his head and tips his chair back down. He leans in close, careful to steer clear of the lemon. Sheppard leans in too, and Rodney grins. He loves this part.

"Close your eyes," he says huskily.

Sheppard glances at him, a frightened little look, and for a second Rodney's not sure he's going to follow the suggestion. He does, and his mouth opens slightly as his eyes close. He licks his lips, and Rodney imitates him, feeling the slick drag of his tongue over lips that are just starting to buzz.

"Now imagine you're at home, some pretty brunette on her knees in front of you, giving you the blowjob of your life."

Sheppard huffs out a breath and his forehead wrinkles for just a moment before it smoothes out and Sheppard smirks a little. Rodney wonders if he's imagining Larrin.

"Now imagine she has a hand on your balls, just lightly."

Sheppard's forehead scrunches up again, but he shifts in his seat, so Rodney knows he's on the right track. The smirk has disappeared, replaced by a look of determined concentration.

"Now she slips a finger behind to press on your perineum," Rodney says, and shifts too, because it's not a woman he's imagining doing this to Sheppard.

Sheppard's mouth falls open a little more, and Rodney leans in, a fraction closer. "Now imagine she looks up at you and takes her mouth off just long enough to put her finger in her mouth and pull it out slowly."

Sheppard shivers and he licks his lips again, much more obvious this time, and Rodney glances around to see if anyone's looking. A cursory glance doesn't turn up anything, and he goes in for the kill.

"Now imagine she puts her mouth back on your cock while she slides that slick finger right under your balls, over your perineum, and presses on your–"

"You two like another round?"

Sheppard's eyes fly open and he looks up sharply at the waitress. Rodney leans back, smirking, giving the waitress full marks for her timing. Sheppard looks wild, and Rodney would put a calming hand on his knee except that would probably make him fall over in his rush to stand up.

"Yeah," Rodney answers, since it's clear Sheppard's not up to answering. He pulls out his wallet and puts a twenty on her tray. "Keep the change."

She smiles at him, fake, but not menacing like the last half an hour, so he shrugs it off.

"Thanks," Sheppard says, and the bright pink spots on his cheeks make Rodney grin.

"You're welcome," Rodney says sincerely, raising an eyebrow even though he knows Sheppard meant the drinks.

Sheppard looks down at the table, fiddling around with the discarded lemons, and Rodney wonders if he'll get it together to ask another question. He has his doubts.

"Do you get laid a lot?" he asks, and that's not something Rodney's been asked before, at least not as part of the general gay sex talk.

"Sure," he answers. "I have groupies. I can get laid after almost any concert if I want to."

"Huh," Sheppard says, smirking a little. He stacks his shot glasses, a short little pyramid that's likely to fall over the next time either of them touches the table. "Have you ever been with a woman?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney really hopes this isn't going where he thinks it's going.

"Yes, and as a matter of fact, it was pretty good with one of them. But not the same, or what I really wanted." Rodney debates throwing the question back at Sheppard, but he already knows the answer. Of course Sheppard's never slept with a man; he's never even considered it.

The waitress comes back with their shots, and weariness settles on him like a heavy blanket. He's too old for late nights and flirting with danger like this. Sheppard goes through the motions like a pro and holds up the salt shaker.

"Come on, Rodney," Sheppard says, shaking it. "Lick."

"I think I'm done," Rodney says, determinedly not giving in to Sheppard's pout. "Seriously. You finish these off."

Sheppard pulls his lip back in and eyes the second shot critically. "Okay," he says with a shrug, and licks the salt off his hand before downing both shots. He mumbles something before sucking on his lemon, but Rodney doesn't catch it.

"We should get you home," Rodney says, preoccupied with how quickly Sheppard's gotten himself plastered. "We can walk to my hotel and grab a cab there."

"What hotel're you at?" Sheppard asks, already starting to slur a little.

"The Ritz-Carlton," Rodney answers, and Sheppard wags a finger at him.

"Me too."

Rodney frowns, thinking of his hotel bills. Clearly music professors make more than he thought.

"All right, we should probably walk while we can," Rodney says, grabbing his violin. Sheppard stands up on wobbly legs and picks up his duffel bag. It nearly overbalances him, and he grabs on to his chair to keep from falling on his ass.

"Oh, come on," Rodney says, and wraps an arm around Sheppard's rib cage. Sheppard throws his arm over Rodney's shoulders and leans heavily, which tips Rodney enough that he knocks his violin case into the table.

"Watch it," Rodney says, frowning severely at Sheppard. "That instrument's worth more than your house."

"You don't know what my house is worth," Sheppard says petulantly.

Rodney's surprised Sheppard even has a house. He expected Sheppard to be renting some crappy apartment meant for college students or McDonald's employees. "Unless you're independently wealthy," Rodney looks John up and down pointedly, "there is no way you could afford a house worth two million."

John's face goes slack, and Rodney curbs the urge to meddle with Sheppard's head even more – his second violin is probably worth more than Sheppard's car, but he keeps the information behind his teeth.

"Come on, you lush," Rodney says, maneuvering them the ten feet to the door and then the block and a half to his hotel. Once the fresh air hits him, Rodney feels a lot better. Still pleasantly buzzed, but not drunk.

When they get inside the Ritz, Rodney guides them to the elevator and presses the button for the twenty-first floor before he thinks to ask Sheppard where his room is. "What floor for you?" he asks, and Sheppard blinks at Rodney.

"I'm on floor twenty-one too!" Sheppard says, and laughs so high, it's almost a giggle.

Floor twenty-one is the first club floor; it's a steep rise in price from the rack-rate Ritz rooms, but Rodney's always felt that having a dedicated concierge is worth every penny, especially when he's between assistants. There's also the little bonus that Bill somehow manages to get him tickets to plays that have been standing room only for weeks.

Clearly, music professors earn a lot more than he thought if Sheppard can afford a suite on this level. The doors to the elevator open and Rodney manhandles Sheppard through them. "Well?" he asks, sounding pissier than he meant to.

"Which way is your room?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney could smack himself for not figuring this out sooner.

"You don't have a room," he says, stabbing Sheppard's duffel bag with his violin case. "How could I have been so gullible?"

"Hey," Sheppard says, almost maudlin. "I was going to get one. You're the one who headed straight to the elevator."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, you're completely gone." Rodney sighs melodramatically, as if he's immensely put out by the inconvenience of having Sheppard stay in his room. "Fine. You can stay with me. I'll probably have to make sure you don't die from choking on your own vomit anyway."

Sheppard's megawatt smile makes an appearance, and even it's slightly loose from too much alcohol, it makes Rodney's internal organs head for his feet.

"Come on," he says, and shoves Sheppard toward his suite.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Rodney heads straight to the bathroom as Sheppard flops on the bed, and he takes a moment to sit on the toilet, cradling his head in his hands. After all Sheppard's questions and his own pathetically visual mind's pictures, he wants nothing more than to order room service, take a shower and jack off. He's pretty sure he won't get any of those things now.

When he collects himself enough to leave the bathroom, Sheppard's kneeling up on the bed, phone cradled between his neck and ear. Rodney opens his mouth to start a brain-bending diatribe when he hears Sheppard's polite thank you and list of possibilities. "Sandwiches, pizza, burgers, whatever's fast and easy," Sheppard's saying, and before Rodney can even get his act together to start ranting, Sheppard adds, "and no lemon or orange. No citrus at all, it's an allergy."

Sheppard hangs up and fumbles his way out of his tux jacket, throwing it off the side of the bed in a crumpled heap. Rodney raises an eyebrow and stalks over to pick it up, dusting it off and hanging it up, and then doing the same for his own. When he turns back around, Sheppard's failing at removing his tie, and Rodney wonders if it might be possible to choke yourself to death. He slaps Sheppard's hands and pulls the tie undone, leaving it dangle from the tux shirt.

"You have two beds," Sheppard says suddenly, flopping back onto one of them.

"Oh, you can count," Rodney snaps, moving over to the second queen bed and sitting down uneasily. He debates whether or not hiding under the covers until morning is a viable plan.

Sheppard rolls onto his side and looks at Rodney seriously. "So what about blowjobs?"

"Excuse me?" Rodney says, his voice high. Sheppard did not just say –

"Blowjobs," Sheppard says with deliberate slowness, managing to get rid of the drunken slur for those two syllables. "Do you like them?"

"Of course not," Rodney says, crossing his arms and giving Sheppard a withering glare. "Who in their right mind wants someone's mouth on their penis? How unsanitary."

"No, no, no," Sheppard says, shaking his head like a toddler having a tantrum. "I meant, do you like giving them?"

The wariness Rodney felt earlier rises to near panic levels. "It depends, I suppose," Rodney answers carefully. "I don't give them to the guys I pick up after concerts."

"Why not?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney does his best to ignore the sadness he thinks he hears in Sheppard's voice.

"Because I don't like the guys that much," Rodney says, and his heart twists a little at the admission. "But with boyfriends, I liked it a lot. You should try it."

"Okay," Sheppard says, and Rodney's jaw hits the floor.

"You want to blow me?" Rodney asks, and the panic is reaching a screaming pitch, but for the life of him, he can't figure out how Sheppard's mouth on his dick could possibly be a bad idea.

"No, I want you to blow me." Sheppard's lying on his side, shirt rumpled and bow tie dangling around his neck. Even disheveled he looks exquisite. Rodney's tempted to get on his knees right then and there, but he can't get past the way his heart is trying to beat its way out of his chest.

"Why should I blow you?" Rodney asks. "What's in it for me?"

Sheppard thinks about that for a bit, putting his finger up to his lips and looking up at the ceiling in a drunkenly overstated gesture. "I don't know how to give blow jobs," Sheppard says, and Rodney scoffs.

"You could learn."

"Or I could get you off another way," Sheppard says, and that cinches it. Rodney opens the drawer of the nightstand, pulling out condoms and lube.

Sheppard raises an eyebrow. "Expecting company?"

"Did you miss the part about my groupies?" Rodney says haughtily. "I get laid after every concert."

"Glad I could oblige," Sheppard says, though the nonchalance is ruined by his quick glance at the door.

"I think you're a little overdressed," Rodney says, reaching a hand toward John's shirtsleeves.

Sheppard stands and strips off and Rodney claps a hand over his mouth as Sheppard gets caught in his tux shirt when he tries to pull it off over his head.

"I can hear you," Sheppard says, and Rodney stops trying to be polite and laughs out loud. Sheppard's standing in his boxers and socks, his arms over his head and the tux shirt stuck halfway off.

"Hold still," Rodney says, as he stands up next to Sheppard. He yanks on the shirt, but Sheppard's chin is caught, so it won't budge. Sheppard yowls and backs up against the bed, so all it takes to tip him over is the slightest push. He falls onto the bed gracelessly and Rodney laughs again. He hasn't laughed this much in a long time.

"Okay, wait," Rodney says, and focuses his attention on getting the buttons undone. Tux shirt buttons are tiny and he's had enough to drink that he's not exactly Mr. Manual Dexterity. He starts at the bottom of the shirt, and the way Sheppard's stomach muscles tremble when his hand brushes them makes the laughter dry up as lust comes on full force. By the time he gets the button over Sheppard's face undone, all traces of laughter have fallen away. Sheppard looks up at him with curiosity and a tinge of fear, and Rodney settles him by removing the shirt slowly, the heel of his hand floating on Sheppard's skin right behind the material it removes.

The cuffs get stuck, and Rodney has a fleeting thought of leaving Sheppard trussed up in his tux shirt, but Sheppard tenses in what Rodney can only guess is worry about losing control. Rodney wishes he could have more than one chance at this; there's a lot he'd like to figure out about John Sheppard. He unhooks the cuff links and sets Sheppard's arms free.

"Thanks," Sheppard says, pulling his arms down and letting them hang in midair a second. Touch me, Rodney thinks, and wonders why that's not a truth he can let slip after everything else that's gotten past his defenses. Sheppard lowers his arms, resting his hands on his thighs. He stares up at Rodney, looking for direction. Rodney's not sure what the boundaries on this thing are, but it'd be the easiest thing in the world to lean down and kiss...

Sheppard must see Rodney's intention, because he sits up abruptly, nearly knocking their heads together.

"Wh...where, uh," Sheppard stutters. "Where do you want me?"

Sheppard seems surprisingly timid and suddenly Rodney's keeping everything in, afraid he might scare Sheppard off. "Why don't you sit on the edge of the bed and take your boxers off?"

Sheppard sits up, though Rodney's not sure how long that can last, as he's swaying like a punch drunk flyweight. He wriggles out of his boxers in a ridiculous-looking shimmy, and Rodney can't help laughing. Sheppard smiles with self-deprecating good humor.

Rodney grabs a condom off the nightstand and kneels, not particularly gracefully. It's been a long time since he did this, and his knees weren't forty years old then.

"A condom?" Sheppard asks. "Doesn't that –"

"Taste awful?" Rodney asks, and then answers himself. "Yes."

"I was going to say –"

"Diminish the sensation?" Rodney finishes for him. "Yes. But I'm afraid I'm a stickler about condoms, since they also diminish the chance I'll catch something."

Sheppard's mouth opens in outrage. "I don't have any diseases!"

"And I'd like to believe you," Rodney says patiently. "But when was the last time you were tested?"

Sheppard looks mighty pissed off, and Rodney knows he's going to have to do something to salvage this whole venture, or his one chance at John Sheppard is going to walk right out the door.

"It's for your protection too," Rodney says, as close to contrite as he can manage. "I get tested every month, but I have a lot of casual sex. Can't be too careful." The admission seems to mollify Sheppard, and Rodney puts his attention back on getting the condom out of its foil packet.

"Isn't that... I mean, how do you...?" Sheppard looks down at his decidedly uninterested dick. "I'm not exactly ready for this."

Rodney huffs. "I'm an expert at getting condoms on limp dicks," and Sheppard's unguarded look of pity makes him snap. "My own, you asshole. It's been a while since I got terribly excited about sex with the boys that come around."

Sheppard's still looking at him with pity, and Rodney rolls his eyes and looks down to start unrolling the condom onto Sheppard. "Tell me what you like," Rodney says, nipping at Sheppard's thighs.

"I, uh," Sheppard says, and Rodney's inner librarian files away every little bit of information. Thighs, no. Next.

"Nipples?" Rodney asks, and Sheppard shakes his head. "Stomach," Rodney says, and nips at it before Sheppard can answer. Sheppard's dick twitches, and he lets out a dumbfounded 'huh.'

"Ah," Rodney says, and leans in to press his face against Sheppard's abs. He traces the lines around Sheppard's six-pack with his tongue, and Sheppard's dick goes more than half hard in his hand. He rolls the condom all the way down, and he can feel the weight of Sheppard looking down at him as he does it.

Sheppard's hands are fisted at his sides, curled tight and pressing into his thighs. More warning bells go off, but Rodney's committed now, so he braces himself and puts his mouth on Sheppard's condom-clad cock, wincing involuntarily at the taste of rubber. Sheppard moans softly, leaning forward enough that Rodney worries they might tip over onto the floor. He uses his free hand to shove against Sheppard's chest, getting him to sit up straight enough that Rodney can really get to work on the blowjob.

Rodney knows a few tricks, though most of them are nullified by the condom. Sheppard seems to be enjoying it – the whimpering noises escaping from his tightly gritted teeth are enough to make Rodney half-hard. Thinking about what comes next takes care of the rest.

It only takes a couple of minutes for Sheppard to realize that the blowjob can't get much better because of the condom. "Uh, Rodney?" he says breathily, and when Rodney pulls off and looks up, he can see Sheppard's pulse in his neck, beating fast.

"Can I?" Sheppard asks, and reaches for the lube. "I think –"

"I thought you'd never ask," Rodney says, his knees creaking as he stands up. There's an awkward moment as he reaches down to steady himself on the bed, and Sheppard's mouth is right there, within reach. The taste of latex in his mouth makes Rodney forgo the opportunity, but he runs his fingers lightly over Sheppard's stomach before he stands up all the way.

Rodney steps out of his tux pants and boxers and crawls onto the bed, taking the opportunity to bite Sheppard's neck and make a note of the way Sheppard shivers. Before he can try anything else, though, Sheppard stands, wiping a hand down his neck as he looks down at Rodney. Rodney swallows and focuses on getting his cuff links off.

"Can you figure out how to lube me up," he asks, "or am I going to have to do this myself?"

Sheppard blinks, and Rodney lifts one hand and wiggles his fingers. "It's been a while, so it's going to take some preparation."

Sheppard looks down at the lube in his hand. "Okay," he says, but he sounds unsure.

"I can do it," Rodney says, sitting back on his haunches and reaching for the lube.

"No," Sheppard says, his voice stronger now. "I've got it." He shoves Rodney down onto all fours, and Rodney hears the snick of the cap on the lube. A second later, Sheppard drips some on him and he's ready to scream.

"Cold! Cold cold cold!" Rodney reaches around and wipes the lube off his ass. "Warm it up on your fingers first," he says harshly.

Sheppard doesn't say anything but the next thing Rodney feels is Sheppard's finger, insistently pushing into him. "Whoa, slow down," Rodney says, as the stretch turns into burn and then goes the other side of painful.

Sheppard takes instruction relatively well, and he slows down and pulls out, pushing in slower the second time. Sheppard's got one hand on Rodney's hip, the other one prepping him in a brutally efficient manner, and Rodney wishes there was a mirror over the bed. At least then he could see Sheppard.

Sheppard's now got two fingers in him, and Rodney realizes he can't hear Sheppard at all. If this is doing anything for him, it doesn't sound like it. "Sheppard?" Rodney says, and Sheppard makes a strangled noise that sounds a lot more like extreme concentration than Rodney was hoping for. "John," Rodney says quietly, and that gets Sheppard's attention.

"Yes?" Sheppard asks, and his voice is still tight, but he's lost a little of the desperate edge to it.

"Just go," Rodney says. "I'm fine."

Sheppard takes a moment, and Rodney sincerely hopes that he's lubing up his dick, because the condom is going to burn like hell otherwise. When Sheppard finally knees in and sets his cock at Rodney's hole, Rodney's wound so tight he thinks he might split in half when Sheppard finally gets into him.

Sheppard pushes in slowly, his hands tight on Rodney's hips, though there's nothing more in them than practical navigation. Rodney presses back when his body adjusts, taking Sheppard in by inches.

"Fuck," Sheppard says, and the smallest amount of Rodney's tension slips away. "You're so fucking tight."

Rodney would laugh, but Sheppard's almost to his prostate, and in about fifteen seconds, things are finally, finally going to get good. He keeps forcing himself to relax, to take more of Sheppard in, and Sheppard's whimpering noises reappear, less self-conscious this time.

Sheppard finally reaches his prostate, and Rodney tightens up involuntarily, slowing Sheppard's progress. Rodney makes up for it by bearing down, and it's only another inch or two until Sheppard's all the way in. Rodney hears him groan as he pulls out, and then Sheppard pushes in again, one smooth motion. Two more strokes, and Rodney's hard, starting in on the ground floor of what promises to be a really good orgasm.

"Fuck," Sheppard says again. "I can't–" Rodney hasn't even figured out what Sheppard means before it become obvious. He's coming.

"Damn it," Rodney whispers under his breath, the disappointment threatening to choke him. Sheppard pulls out and removes the condom, throwing it carelessly off the side of the bed. Rodney's about to demand a hand job when there's a knock on the door.

"Room service."

"Fuck," Rodney spits out venomously, and scrabbles off the bed as Sheppard falls face first onto the coverlet. Rodney pulls on his pants before storming through the suite to answer the door. He signs the bill carelessly, charging it to his room and telling the kid to add twenty per cent before closing the door in her face.

In the minute and a half that Rodney left to collect the food, Sheppard fell asleep face down in the bed, sprawled across it like Leonardo's Vitruvian Man. He looks so gorgeous like that, Rodney can't bear the sight of him; it feels like someone's put a blender in his ribcage and set it to liquefy. He sets the food down and stumbles into the bathroom, turning on the shower as hot as he can stand and jerking off with his face turned into the spray.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

When Rodney wakes up the next morning, it's with the strangest feeling of displacement. He can't figure out why until he glances around the room and realizes Sheppard is gone. The bed is neatly made, the condom's off the floor, the room service tray is gone. There is no trace of Sheppard's presence anywhere.

Rodney would say it was a dream, if he didn't know there is no way his subconscious could have possibly dug up that level of humiliation on its own. He sits up and his ass gives him a potent reminder of the fact that Sheppard was most definitely present last night. He winces and treads slowly to the bathroom.

Rodney's in a cab on his way to see Teyla before it hits him that he'll probably never see Sheppard again. After last night, Sheppard's likely to forgo the Pärt and let things slip into a forgotten memory. It'll take quite a while before Rodney forgets it, if he ever does, and he spends most of the ride trying to figure out why it bothers him more that he'll never see Sheppard again than that they had absolutely awful sex last night.

"Rodney," Teyla says as she opens the door. The welcoming warmth of her voice loosens the death grip melancholy has on him. Being near Teyla is comforting, the same sort of natural comfort he felt with Sheppard, until last night.

"You look much better," Rodney says. Beyond being out of the ratty bathrobe he last saw her in, she's clearly got color in her cheeks and she looks happy.

"Thank you," she says with a smile. "Come in." She ushers him to the kitchen, where there's coffee – decaf, he notes miserably from the package sitting by the coffee machine – and muffins set up on a tea tray. He grabs a blueberry muffin and picks at the wrapper idly, staring down at the marble counters and wishing he had a space like this to cook in.

"Your performance was excellent, as always," Teyla says, and Rodney nearly drops his muffin.

"What?" he asks, narrowing his eyes. "How would you know?"

"Kate and I used my complimentary tickets," she answers, diplomatically lowering her eyes as she pours the coffee.

"But the food poisoning," Rodney says, and he's never been this angry with Teyla before, not even when she switched out his Stradivarius with an Amadeus as a joke. "You lied to me?"

"No, Rodney," she answers, calmly pushing his mug of coffee across the counter. "I thought I had food poisoning. But I didn't."

Rodney cannot believe how calm she is. "What, then? Why didn't you play? You made me play with that... that... amateur!"

"Rodney," Teyla says soothingly, which is enough to raise his hackles without the gentle hand she sets on his arm. "He was quite good, and you know it. Your combined interpretation of the Brahms was stunning."

"He's not you," Rodney says, and he swears he's been infected by Sheppard's habit of pouting when he's losing an argument. He crosses his arms and raises his chin. "You don't know what I went through for that son of a bitch. He made me play the Barber backwards!"

"Now Rodney," Teyla says, condescending but not quite insulting. "You like him. It's–"

"I think you're missing the point here," Rodney complains loudly, stepping over her last words. "You lied to me."

"I didn't lie," Teyla says, and her voice contains a threat Rodney can hear plainly. "I thought I had food poisoning, but the doctor said…"

Rodney looks at her expectantly, wondering what she could possibly come up with as an excuse.

"I'm pregnant," she says, and the words hit him with almost physical force, stunning him into silence. "I can play to the end of the season – mid-June, if all goes well."

Rodney shakes his head mildly from side to side, trying to clear it of the buzzing sound that's building inside his head. Pregnant? He vaguely remembers that this is cause for celebration, that he should be congratulating her. "That's… that's terrific, congratulations." It's the best he can do, complete with as much smile as he can muster. They're scheduled through June of next year; even if she comes back after the baby is born, that's six months of concerts they'll have to cancel, not to mention her solo performances.

Teyla reads his mind, as she often has since they started touring together. "Carolyn Lam is taking over my solo performances," Teyla says quietly, and squeezes his arm. "I was hoping Dr. Sheppard would be an acceptable substitute for the chamber concerts," she says, but Rodney must be wearing his distress on his face, because she quickly hedges her bets. "Unless– "

"Oh, Teyla," Rodney says, and the desperation that's been eating at him all day swallows him whole. He puts a hand over his face. "I can't."

Teyla shifts quietly, pulling her mug toward her and preparing her coffee. Two creams, two sugars, stirred eleven times. Her routine is soothing, and Rodney finds his sorrow slipping in the face of her interminable calm.

"I understand he is not... available to you. But considering your collaboration, I would expect you to be able to put that aside."

Rodney stares at Teyla's mug, counting her slow counter-clockwise stirs. Six, seven, eight. "We had sex last night."

She finishes stirring and taps the spoon gently on the rim of the mug. If his admission surprises her, she doesn't show it. "So?" she asks, and Rodney sighs.

"He's straight. He thought he'd try it out, but..." Rodney turns away from her slightly, letting his eyes slide along the appliances as he finishes in a mutter. "It wasn't that great."

When he finally looks back at Teyla, she's smiling as she takes a sip of her coffee, her mug in both hands. "So?"

"So," Rodney says, drawing the word out childishly, "he's going to regret it and never speak to me again because he can't forget about it if I'm around, playing Brahms and making cracks about his premature ejaculation."

Teyla wipes her mouth delicately, not quite hiding her amused smile. "Perhaps you should let Dr. Sheppard make that decision," she says.

"Spoken like a true optimist," Rodney says, and takes a bite of his muffin.

~~~

Personal Performances Outshine the Music
Review by Elizabeth Weir


M. Rodney McKay, violinist, Dr. John Sheppard, pianist
Alice Tully Hall, New York


     Mr. M. Rodney McKay and Dr. John Sheppard (in an impressive last-minute substitution for T. Emmagen) played an intriguing lineup Tuesday evening at Alice Tully Hall. Not known for cosseting his audience, Mr. McKay stretched the imagination with an introduction of Crumb's Four Nocturnes and the Hindemith Sonata for Solo Violin. Dr. Sheppard's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp Minor by Enescu was slightly more accessible, and once Dr. Sheppard got over his nerves, the duets were mesmerizing, if only for the dynamic between these two powerhouse performers.
     The opening contemporary pieces fell flat (with the exception of the back half of the Enescu), partially because they are unfamiliar pieces that are hard to understand with one hearing, but also because Dr. Sheppard seemed to be stricken with stage fright. His pallor during the Crumb was more interesting than the music itself, and Mr. McKay played the Hindemith with tempos so much faster than indicated that one wonders if he wasn't afraid Dr. Sheppard would leave while he was onstage. This impression was further reinforced by Mr. McKay turning pages for Dr. Sheppard on the Enescu, one of the most unusual sights of my reviewing career.
     Roughly halfway through the Enescu, Dr. Sheppard's performance went from merely tolerable to simply incredible. The Enescu sparkled with wit and vivacity, and it appeared that Mr. McKay's presence onstage seemed to bring out some heretofore unseen talent in Dr. Sheppard. It's been said his ex-wife, Ms. Nancy Sheppard, oboist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, had a similar effect on him in their days together at Julliard.
     In the second half of the concert, Dr. Sheppard honored Ms. Emmagen's penchant for natural tuning, pitching the piano to more naturally respond to the violin's frequencies. For instrumentalists, this is supposed to be a relief on the ears, but this vocalist found the unequal temperament grating. While it certainly gave the Mozart an interesting and harmonious brightness, it was not particularly suited to the Brahms, where the harmonies often wander far away from the stated key of the piece.
     The performers came out to play the Mozart in effusive good humor, with bright smiles and a playful, if immature, interpretation. It was a short piece, only two movements, and a pleasant contrast to the nervous, incomprehensible first half of the concert, but not particularly fresh in style or character.
     Despite the tuning issue, the Brahms was clearly the highlight of the evening. Dr. Sheppard not only seemed to have an inherent understanding of the weight of the Brahms, but was able to pull a surprisingly willing M. Rodney McKay with him on the tumultuous journey of the Opus 100 Sonata for Violin and Piano. Faithful readers know that I'm quite fond of Ms. Emmagen and the incredible wherewithal she must possess to be able to collaborate with Mr. McKay. Watching them perform has always seemed like a fight for dominance, clashing interpretations and strong wills. Watching Dr. Sheppard with Mr. McKay, it was more like a whispered conversation between lovers.
     With the exception of the Brahms, the music provided last evening was mediocre at best, but the performance was well worth the price of admission. I doubt Dr. Sheppard will be making another appearance soon, but should you get a chance to see him, I would highly recommend it. As for Mr. McKay, I would only recommend a performance if you prefer soap opera-style drama to real musical talent.


~~~

Rodney sets the paper down on the desk and rubs his eyes. He didn't expect any less from Weir, though she went a little light on Sheppard. One crack about his ex-wife and a handful of innuendo that they're sleeping together? Sheppard could probably knock on doors with this review and get himself a decent lineup for next season.

Rodney pulls out his violin and rosins his bow. He's too wound up to do anything, and simple practice is the best way for him to move past this sort of inertia. He starts with his scales, all slurred, all three to four octaves. Major, then all three versions of the relative minor, arpeggios and thirds in each. He works on bowing exercises next, long smooth strokes, connecting a slow chromatic scale that starts with his open G string and moves up through the harmonics. He does double stops as well, first in fifths, then fourths, then thirds. Then, just to please his contrary soul, in seconds, major and minor.

When he finally looks up again, three and a half hours have passed, and he can smell his sweat so strongly that he opens the window to air out the suite. His stomach is ready for something heavy and he debates braving the New York cabbies to find a steak house. Before he can talk himself out of it, there's a knock on the door.

Trust Teyla to check up on him. He sets his violin down on the bed and takes his time getting to the door, thinking of the ways he can mock her for treating him like a child at the same time he's thinking of restaurants they can go to.

He swings the door wide, insult at the ready, and stops with his lips pursed, blinking stupidly. In his doorway stands Dr. John Sheppard, one hand casually on his hip and the other holding a case of Guinness.

Rodney's mind is utterly devoid of anything resembling human speech. Sheppard seems to catch on to that fact and invites himself in. He walks right through the door, grabbing it out of Rodney's hands and closing it.

Rodney may not be able to form words, but his sense memory is in full-on assault mode. He can taste Sheppard's skin on his tongue and feel Sheppard's stomach muscles trembling under his fingers. He clenches his eyes shut, forcing himself to recover some of the concentration he had while practicing only a moment ago, Say something. Anything. A grunt, even.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he asks, and he hadn't realized he had that many syllables available to him.

Sheppard grimaces, the smallest hint that he has any idea how painful last night was. "I came to apologize," Sheppard says, and something in Rodney breaks, scattering jagged glass in his muscles and bones. Sheppard eyes the paper on the desk and picks it up, frowning. "I know you said she was mean, but I didn't believe she could get such unprofessional bullshit published."

Rodney sputters, a light little 'huh' that breaks into small uncontrollable laughs, until he's laughing so hard he has to bend over and hold his stomach. "Oh god," he says, straightening. "That is not what you need to apologize for."

Sheppard's expression is carefully blank, and Rodney shakes his head. "You don't remember anything about last night, do you?"

"I do," Sheppard says warily, and backs two steps away from Rodney. He obviously hadn't thought that through particularly well, as he's now standing in the entryway to the bedroom. Rodney walks around him, picking his violin up and wiping the rosin off before gently packing it back into its case.

"And what?" Rodney says. "You remember propositioning me and then coming like an inexperienced teenager?"

"What?" Sheppard asks, incredulous. "That's not how I remember it."

"Oh really, Mr. Six-Tequila-Shots-And-I'm-Yours?"

"Hey!" Sheppard's surprise turns to annoyance, his face pinching in irritation.

"Hey, nothing," Rodney says, hitting his stride, and angry enough to ignore the warning in Sheppard's stance. "You conned your way into my hotel room and then conned your way into your first and likely last gay sex experience."

Sheppard points an accusing finger at Rodney. "I don't recall you putting up too much of a fight."

"Well, duh. I've been ogling you since we first met." Rodney doubts that anyone Sheppard sets his sights on turns him down. Certainly they'd have to be a better man than M. Rodney McKay. Or a better woman.

"You could have said no, Rodney," Sheppard says, low and angry.

"I should have. I know better than to play whipping boy for a one night sexual identity crisis."

Sheppard loses a little of his tension, and his shoulders round. "I didn't plan that," he says, and Rodney steps in closer so he can stare Sheppard down when he calls him on his blatant lie.

"Bullshit."

"I didn't!" Anger, near outrage is on Sheppard's face now, and Rodney steels himself for the punch that's coming. "I was drunk!"

"Are you that good at lying to yourself?" Rodney asks, and there it is, Sheppard's arm comes up. Rodney flinches, and Sheppard's mouth opens in surprise. He looks down at the fist he's got at chest level and deliberately lowers it.

Rodney's glad of that, at least. He softens his voice a little as he spells the obvious out to Sheppard. "You were proving something to yourself. You wouldn't touch me, you wouldn't kiss me. You hardly–"

"I didn't think about–"

"We were having sex," Rodney says, butting into Sheppard's repetitive denial. "I don't care who you're having sex with, you touch them, for fuck's sake."

"I touched you, I remember that part perfectly," Sheppard says, distaste clear on his face.

"That painful for you, was it?" Rodney asks, and anger comes back to him in a rush, bile rising in the back of his throat.

"It wasn't what I was expecting," Sheppard says gently, and the kindness in his voice is infuriating.

"That's because you're straight, you asshole, and you went into it hoping it would be awful, so you could prove it to yourself. Congratulations, let me get your god damn certificate."

"That's not–"

Rodney's not done, he's not going to let this go. He likes Sheppard, and he thought Sheppard liked him too. He's disappointed their friendship has to end over Sheppard's idiotic straight-man bullshit and his own lack of willpower to turn Sheppard down. "I wish you had done your experimenting with someone else," Rodney says, and the surprise on Sheppard's face would be priceless if Rodney wasn't so miserable.

"Why? I thought… I thought…" For once, Rodney lets Sheppard flounder, doesn't fill in the gaping hole in the conversation. Finally Sheppard looks at the floor and finishes his sentence. "I thought it would be good for you."

"You are one arrogant son of a bitch," Rodney says bitterly. "You think you're so good-looking I'd come at the sight of you? I couldn't kiss you, I couldn't even touch you."

"You touched me," Sheppard says quietly. "I remember that too."

Rodney viciously stomps on the hope that spikes in his chest at Sheppard's admission. "You ever been with a woman so gorgeous she thought she didn't have to do anything but lie there?" Rodney asks, knowing without a doubt that Sheppard has had many such experiences.

"Oh god," Sheppard groans, sitting down hard on the bed and putting his head in his hands. "I'm sorry," he says through his fingers.

"You should be," Rodney says, but the anger is draining and he can't put much heat into it. The way Sheppard practically collapsed with understanding makes him feel a spark of sympathy for the guy. He tries to smother it, but he can't help hoping that since Sheppard's still here, maybe they can salvage a friendship out of this after all. "That was probably the worst sexual experience of my entire life."

"Come on," Sheppard says, and Rodney shrugs, snapping his case shut.

"Three thrusts, Sheppard. I thought you had more stamina than that." Rodney makes the crack as sarcastic as he can manage, and the look of horror on Sheppard's face lets him know he remembers the truth of it.

"Oh shit," he says, and Rodney's unhappiness lifts in equal measure to Sheppard's enlightenment. The more Sheppard feels like crap, the more Rodney feels like he can cut the guy some slack, like it wasn't the end of the world, like it'll be something they'll laugh about this time next year.

"Yeah, oh shit," Rodney says, going for the beer. "And let's not forget the strip tease where you caught your face in your shirt."

Sheppard groans, but it sounds lighter, like he's figured out they haven't completely fucked this thing up. Rodney hands him a beer. "It's not so bad. At least you didn't pass out before your partner came. Oh wait," Rodney says, grinning wickedly at Sheppard's miserable whimper, "you did."

~~~

After Rodney takes a shower, they spend the evening watching sports on TV, eating room service steaks, and drinking beer, all while talking about everything from their favorite recordings to board games.

Somewhere near midnight, Sheppard stands and stretches, setting his half-full can of Guinness down. "Bedtime for me," he says, and Rodney stands up too, planning to move to the other bed, determinedly not thinking about the sex they had on it the night before.

Sheppard surprises him and heads toward the exit. "Good night," he says, and Rodney's torn between the burning desire to ask where the hell he's spending the night, and the icy cold wish to let sleeping dogs lie.

"Teyla's pregnant."

Sheppard stops moving, but he doesn't turn around right away. "That's… great," Sheppard says, still not turning around.

"It is," Rodney says, and he realizes he really needs to let Teyla know that. Sometimes he could kick himself for being so self-absorbed.

Rodney's never been particularly good at reading body language. Are Sheppard's shoulders tense? If they are, what does that mean? That he's confused? Angry? Fuck it, he thinks, and barrels on.

"We're scheduled through June of next year. She can't play after June of this one."

Sheppard's shoulders must have been tense, because they suddenly seem to drop as if the muscles holding them up snapped. "And?" he asks, not sounding casual, not at all.

"And I need someone to play with me. You might have noticed that there aren't scads of talented pianists around."

"Actually," Sheppard says, turning around and resting his hands on his hips, "there are a lot of talented pianists. Daniil Trifanov, Lang Lang, T. –"

"I can't help it if your standards are lower than mine," Rodney gripes. "Do you want these gigs or not?"

"No more natural tuning," Sheppard says, and oh, thank god, Rodney thinks.

"But–"

"No buts," Sheppard says. "It only works for the most basic of pieces, and neither of us likes Mozart that much."

Rodney's going to have to get used to playing in equal temperament again. It's not hard, but it is frustrating. "I suppose I can deal with the intonation issues," he says as snobbily as he can.

"I can't tune on the fly, Rodney," Sheppard says, "and if the intonation is set for the wrong chord it sounds awful. Equal temperament assures–"

"That everything is equally out of tune, I know," Rodney answers. The argument is one he's quite familiar with.

"That everything is equally in tune," Sheppard answers, and Rodney sighs. He understands the point, but it doesn't make it any less wrong.

"We're never going to agree," Rodney says, "so let's forget it. Equal temperament. Any other requests?"

"I want a say in the programming," Sheppard says, taking a step back toward Rodney.

"Okay," Rodney says. He and Teyla always choose their repertoire together, though he supposes he hadn't presented it that way to Sheppard. "Anything else?"

"She doesn't have any solo–"

"No," Rodney interrupts, quirking one corner of his mouth up. "Carolyn Lam is taking care of those."

"The flutist?" Sheppard asks in disbelief.

"I know," Rodney says. She is completely outclassed. "I have no idea how Teyla got the orchestras to agree to the switch, but… Actually," he says, grinning at the thought, "Carson probably charmed them all with his Scottish accent and fawning niceness."

"Carson Beckett?" Sheppard asks. "He manages Teyla?"

Rodney's surprised Sheppard knows of Carson. Active performers know the big agents, but most people that are locale-bound, like college professors, usually do their own booking or book through friends.

"Yeah," Rodney says. "Me, Teyla, and now Carolyn, I imagine. You need an agent? Carson doesn't take many new musicians, but he'll probably come in for a listen if I recommend you."

Sheppard's quiet for so long that Rodney's tempted to snap his fingers in front of his face to see if he's fallen asleep standing up. After an incredibly long moment, Sheppard says, "I'd appreciate that."

"Don't mention it," Rodney says, and makes shooing motions toward the door. "Now get out of here, I have an early flight."

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Rodney hates the cross–country flight to Seattle – it takes almost as long as going to Europe, but it spits you out with the whole day ahead of you. He usually brings a book to read, or plays Sudoku on his phone, but he can't concentrate. He keeps finding himself staring out the window at the clouds, snatches of Brahms ringing in his ears. To distract himself, he figures out how many days it will be until he sees Sheppard again. Seven days in January, plus February, March, April, and May, and twenty days in June. One hundred forty-seven days.

~~~

147 days left

After a surprisingly productive morning meeting with Maestro Morlot, he checks into his hotel, throws his luggage on his bed and considers a nap. He doesn't get past a longing glance at the bed, knowing it messes with his already-sensitive sleep cycle. He looks over the pamphlets for local attractions before deciding to waste his day at the movies. The Oscars are coming up; he wants to see Call Me By Your Name at least, and maybe that fish monster one by del Toro.

He wanders out of the multiplex just before ten, starving, realizing the tub of popcorn he had during the movie really isn't cutting it. He wanders back toward the hotel, finally deciding to give a restaurant called Bateau a try and hoping it lives up to its reviews.

By the time he gets back to his room, he's full to bursting, dead on his feet, and curiously content. He has an urge to call Sheppard, but he'd probably fall asleep on the phone, so he just gets into his pajamas and climbs into bed. He wakes up the next morning to find the light on – he fell asleep before he even reached for it.

~~~

146 days left

"'lo."

"Lo?" Rodney asks. "Lo what? Lo and behold, I've answered my phone?"

Sheppard laughs into the receiver, brushing it against something, making Rodney pull his ear away. "Hel–lo," he says, and snuffles a little more. "As in, hello, Rodney, how are you this fine evening?"

"Lousy," Rodney says, "but luckily it's nothing murdering half the Seattle Symphony won't fix. You're a music educator. What kind of preparation are these kids getting before they go out and get professional jobs, anyway? It's like they've never heard the Shymko Violin Concerto before."

"They probably haven't," Sheppard says. He's not laughing any more but there's still amusement in his voice. "It's only five years old, Rodney, hardly as commonplace as the Barber."

That doesn't mean Rodney can't bitch about it. "All right, it might not be an integral part of the repertoire yet, but wouldn't you make an effort to listen to it before you had to play it? Zovgorodnii recorded it with the Ukraine symphony. It's on YouTube, for crying out loud! Granted, it's not me, but you can't have everything."

"I take it things aren't going so well?"

"They never go well," Rodney says, picking at the ugly bedspread. "The only orchestras I can tolerate anymore are the Concertgebouw, Montréal, and Boston. And Boston only because of Ronon."

"What about Orpheus?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney looks at his cell to make sure he didn't dial the wrong number and he's actually talking to some snot-faced conservatory hipster.

"You're kidding, right? Leaving out the idea of not using a conductor... no wait. Let's not leave that out. Because it's a terrible idea. And then there's the concept of switching the music director with each concert. Whose stupid idea was that?" Rodney talks right over Sheppard's answer of 'Daniel Jackson.' "How do you develop a group sound if you keep switching up the person in charge of musical ideas?"

"I think it's a great system," Sheppard says and Rodney closes his eyes before he rolls them so hard he strains something. He takes a deep breath and tells himself it's only a hundred and forty-six days before he can slap Sheppard upside the head.

"Orchestras are not made to be democracies. If you want to share musical ideas, do chamber music."

"They do," Sheppard argues. "They generally stick to chamber orchestra pieces, it works for them. Besides, sometimes it's good to get a fresh perspective. I mean, weren't you even a little bit glad when Barenboim stepped down from Chicago?"

Sheppard has a point, but Rodney's having too much fun arguing to concede it. "Solti was my conductor. Barenboim couldn't even come close to filling his shoes, and Muti? He's a joke."

"I suppose you have all of Reiner's recordings too."

"Not all," Rodney says, which is only the truth because he hasn't had the chance to get all his Beethoven onto his iPod yet. Sheppard laughs like he knows exactly what Rodney's not saying, and Rodney feels himself smiling and relaxing back against the pillows as he puts the Food Channel on mute.

Three hours later, Rodney's changed into his pajamas and is standing with his toothbrush in hand – which he's been doing for twenty minutes, trying to figure out how to brush his teeth without hanging up or Sheppard hearing him – and he figures it might be time to end the conversation. Sheppard's just baited him about the Oscars, and he's having a hard time not arguing about Nolan being up for best director. He notices that his toothpaste has melted down into the bristles of his toothbrush – it's definitely time to call it a night. "Listen, I'll argue directing chops with you some other time. I have to get to bed before my eyes go on strike and march right out of my head."

"Sure thing," Sheppard says breezily, and his lazy charm is practically oozing over the phone. "Listen, I hate to bug you, but could you–"

"Not yet," Rodney answers, cutting Sheppard off. "I want you to prepare some stuff over the weekend – at least one Brahms and handful of other stuff too – and then I'll call Carson. Sometimes he'll get on a plane with no provocation at all, and I'd hate for you to have to perform for him without brushing up."

Sheppard's quiet for a moment and Rodney hopes that he hasn't said something rude. He doesn't think so, but he's been oh-so-wrong before. He'll never forget the time he told Teyla that he was impressed with her reach because she had tiny hands. Apparently it was a sore spot, and she punched him hard enough to give him a sore spot on his arm to match.

Finally, Sheppard asks, "Any suggestions?"

Rodney shrugs. "Not really. Stuff you like, that you'd want to play. And seriously, at least one Brahms."

"Okay," Sheppard says genially. "I'll call you sometime next week."

"All right. Good night, Sheppard."

"Good night, Rodney."

~~~

144 days left

"So are you going to the festivities?" Rodney asks. He hasn't been invited to the Grammys in a few years – the Pärt better turn out brilliantly. "You're a shoe-in for instrumental solo. I mean, who else are they going to give it to, Frank Zimmerman?"

"Jealous, Rodney?" Teyla laughs. "Perhaps you should do a recording of the Shostakovich concerti."

"Shostakovich is boring," Rodney says, and sniffs. "Have you got your dress? Are you taking Kate?"

"Yes, and yes. Emerald green, and Kate's going in a cream pantsuit. You know how she is about dresses."

"Mmm, okay," Rodney says. "I want pictures. Ronon's going to be there – the BSO is up for the recording of Mahler five."

"Who is Ronon taking?" Teyla asks.

"I don't know," Rodney answers. "I don't call him on nominations anymore, only when he wins."

"He hasn't taken anyone since Melena died. I bet he'd take you if you swallowed your pride and asked him."

Rodney considers it; he could probably catch a last minute flight, and it would be nice to be there if Teyla wins, but it would be excruciating if Zimmerman did. Not to mention he's very protective of his friends, and showing up as Ronon's date would not be in Ronon's best interests. Too bad Radek never records; Rodney wouldn't have anything against being his +1.

"The last thing Ronon needs is me sullying his reputation. We can go next year for Fratres; then going together won't seem so much like a death sentence."

"You're too hard on yourself," Teyla says, and Rodney shakes his head.

"No, I'm only looking out for Ronon. Gossip is a nasty thing, and a dead wife only protects you for so long." He can hear Teyla's intake of breath and cuts her off at the pass. "Don't bother to yell at me. I know my reputation better than anyone." Before Teyla can answer, he changes the subject. "Dr. Sheppard is auditioning for Carson."

There's silence for a beat, but Teyla recovers quickly. "You think he's that good?"

"Yeah," Rodney says simply. "There are issues, but he's really good."

"Mmm," Teyla says noncommittally.

There's a little voice niggling at Rodney to let the subject drop, especially since John is technically Teyla's competition, but he can't help pushing it. "So, what should he play for Carson?"

"Rodney," Teyla says, in a tone of voice that might be considered a whine, if it came from anyone but her.

"I know, Teyla, I just want him to do well. Besides you don't even play the same things – he likes the Romantics."

"Then he should play the Romantics. And the Neo-Romantics, if he wants to look like he has range." Teyla's definitely annoyed now, and he decides it's time to drop the subject.

"Right, of course. Well, I suppose I should let you go. You've probably got a day at the spa scheduled so you can look stunning in your emerald green gown."

"I'm sorry," Teyla says, and damn, she's so much better than he is at apologies. "That was unkind."

"Drop it. Really. You know he'll never replace you in my heart." That gets a laugh from Teyla, and Rodney remembers he has an apology of his own to give. "And I'm sorry I was such an idiot about your announcement. I'm really happy for you and Kate. I didn't even know you were trying to have a baby."

"Thank you," Teyla says softly, and Rodney moves on before she gets all mushy on him.

"You're welcome. And get off the phone already. I know Kate is giving you the 'wrap it up' signal."

"I will call you after the party," Teyla says.

"Call me after you win," Rodney counters, imagining Zimmerman's disappointed face. "I want to gloat with you."

~~~

143 days left

Mondays are rest days in Rodney's book. He practices in the morning, then he takes the rest of the day off. He likes to see movies sometimes, or trawl bookstores and pick up things to read for the week. He's just debating where he wants to go (Seattle is a nice city, but he always feels a little overwhelmed at finding things to do) when the phone rings. He listens to the ring for a while, not at all certain why he thought Are You Gonna Be My Girl was an appropriate ring tone for Sheppard.

"Yeah?" he answers.

"Yeah?" Sheppard asks, and laughs. "Yeah what? Yeah, I'm here? Yeah–" The poor imitation devolves into chuckles, and Rodney can't help but smile.

"Yeah, what, Sheppard?" Rodney says. "I know you didn't call me because you missed the pleasure of my company."

"You told me to call."

"I did?" Rodney asks. He only half remembers their conversation on Friday, and as he fast-forwards through three hours of jokes and banter and guess-the-composer to Sheppard's audition material. "Right, yes. Have you decided what to play?"

He can almost hear Sheppard's lazy shrug. "A little of this, a little of that."

"Brahms?"

"Yes, Rodney, I've got some Brahms. I've got four or five pieces I think I've got a good enough handle–"

"No." Before Sheppard can start talking again, he goes on the offensive, talking fast as he paces the short distance from his bed to the bathroom. "'Good enough' isn't good enough. It's my reputation on the line here too, you know. I've never recommended anyone to Carson before, and I'm not going to let you half-ass your way through this."

Sheppard is silent for the moment; Rodney can't tell if he's pouting or just considering Rodney's ultimatum. "What would you suggest?"

"I wouldn't presume to suggest repertoire," Rodney answers. "I would only presume to say that a weekend of brushing up four or five concerti is not enough. Unless you'd like to prove me wrong? I'll happily listen to the entire Brahms concerto. Let me guess – you prepared the D minor."

Sheppard doesn't answer right away and Rodney forces himself to wait. It takes a good thirty seconds, but Sheppard eventually answers him. "Yeah, the D minor. Played it in college."

That doesn't surprise Rodney one bit. "All right, that's a good start. If Ronon asked you to play it with the BSO today, would you be ready?"

"Yes," Sheppard answers, and Rodney has to stop himself from saying 'aha!'

"Yes?" Rodney says incredulously. "Memorized?"

"Yes."

Rodney blinks. "Oh." It shouldn't be that much of a surprise, really, considering Sheppard's obvious love of Brahms. "What about the other pieces?"

"Not memorized," Sheppard says, and Rodney latches onto that like a drowning man onto a life preserver.

"Ha! I knew you couldn't prepare five concerti over a weekend."

"That's not fair," Sheppard says. "You couldn't prepare five concertos over a weekend."

"I could play ten concerti from memory right now," Rodney answers, and it's not fair, he knows, but all he has to do is get Sheppard to agree to practice for another couple of weeks – he's not planning on playing fair. "With a weekend it could be twenty to twenty-five, easy."

Sheppard sulks so loud Rodney can hear it over the phone. "That's because it's what you do for a living. I'm a teacher."

"You're a retired performer." Sheppard laughs at this; a sharp, sarcastic laugh that Rodney doesn't like very much. "You are," Rodney insists, "and you're just a little rusty, is all. How long will it take you to memorize all five? A month?"

"A week," Sheppard answers.

"Right," Rodney says, utterly unconvinced. "Well, you better get going. I wouldn't want to waste any of your practice time. You're going to need it."

"Oh, that's it," Sheppard says. "It's on."

~~~

139 days left

Rodney keeps himself from calling Sheppard every day by calling other people. He calls Ronon to congratulate him on his Grammy and ask him about the woman Teyla said he brought. He calls Radek to poke him about the article he's writing. He calls Teyla to gossip about Ronon and his date and suggest names for her baby. That gets him to Friday.

On Friday, he calls Sheppard over dinner.

"Hey, Rodney," Sheppard answers, sounding like he's in a good mood. "What's up?"

"Why aren't you practicing?" Rodney asks, annoyed at himself for noticing Sheppard's in a good mood.

"I was practicing," Sheppard says. "Same thing I've been doing every free minute of every day since we talked last."

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh. And I've got four pieces memorized already, so I hope you're ready to eat your words."

"We'll see about that when you actually play them all."

"How are you going to know if I've got them all memorized?" Sheppard asks. "I'll play them for you over the phone, but I'm pretty sure not even you could hear whether or not I was using music."

Rodney picks up his calendar and flips to next week. "I could fly out there," he says, though he knows he won't do it. Cross-country flights are the worst, and three in two weeks would kill him. "I don't have to be in San Francisco until Thursday."

He expects Sheppard to laugh, but he doesn't. "You'd do that?"

"Well, no," he says honestly. "Besides, I'll be able to hear pages rustling over the phone. Don't think you can pull one over on me."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

~~~

135 days left

On Tuesday, Sheppard calls Rodney in the mid-afternoon while he's out walking off his lunch, and even though it seems an odd time to call, Rodney doesn't hesitate to pick up.

"Hello?"

The opening mini-cadenza of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto greets him. He laughs, holding the phone to his ear as he turns around mid-stride, heading back to his hotel. He doesn't put it past Sheppard to play all five concerti in a row just to prove something.

When he breaks between the opening solos for the orchestra, he asks, "I don't have to count all the rests or sing the orchestra parts, do I?"

"No, no," Rodney says magnanimously, waving the hand not holding the cell phone to his ear, "Please, just skip ahead to your solo parts."

The Beethoven sparkles, Sheppard's sarcasm showing through in unlikely places. One of the things Rodney likes most about Sheppard's musicianship is the ability to switch gears from smart aleck to earnest-to-the-point-of-cheesy at the drop of a hat. He's gone from teasing, amusing opening mini-cadenzas to outlining the main theme of the Beethoven like it's a treatise on how to save the world.

The sarcasm doesn't return in the first movement, though there is a subtle humor in the semplice sections. This concerto is Rodney's least favorite of the popular piano repertoire. It's terribly pompous and overwrought and yet not interesting enough to hold his attention, at least until Sheppard's subtle stretching of the chromatic harmonies brings out some of the subtler craziness that Beethoven's creeping deafness brought on in his middle and later years.

The first movement is note-perfect, and better than Rodney would have guessed; he wouldn't have thought Sheppard was a Beethoven fan, or that he would be interested in something as popular as the "Emperor," but the jumps in mood from calm to bombastic and back are reflected as clear as day, as though Sheppard knows them intimately, as though he understands raging mood swings brought on by deafness and despair.

"You're not going to play all five in a row, are you?"

"I was thinking about it," Sheppard answers, and the flowing melody of the second movement comes over the line.

"Skip ahead to the next piece," Rodney says as he tries to open the door to his hotel room with the phone pressed between his shoulder and ear. "I don't like the Emperor." He slides the key card in and out a few times in frustration. When it finally catches, he breathes a sigh of relief and puts Sheppard on speaker.

He hears the piano bench creak, like Sheppard's stretching or repositioning, and a few seconds later, he hears the delicate opening strains of one of Mozart's late piano concertos, something in the twenties. Rodney can hear Vienna all over the simple scales and thirds.

As always, Sheppard is playing with his tongue set firmly in cheek. The only reason he can get away with it is his incredibly light touch – something Rodney wouldn't have guessed from his love of the Romantics. It sounds almost childlike, this concerto, light and simple, and suddenly Rodney knows, without a doubt, that this is the first concerto Sheppard ever played. He can picture a ten-year-old Sheppard, practicing his trills with his football resting on top of his stack of practice books.

He can't shake the image through the rest of the movement, this feeling that Sheppard's been playing this since the piano was taller than he was. The light touch comes from experience and practice, but the innocence comes from knowing something so deep it's in your bones, etched over the years with love and diligence.

"Skip to the third movement," Rodney says. Mozart bores him, and the slow movements more than the rest.

The third movement starts as if on cue, and Rodney's back to imagining Sheppard practicing his staccato and mordents when he was little, fingers flying over the keyboard, staring at them like he couldn't believe they could move that fast.

The movement flies by, the lines so simple, Rodney can almost picture the keys as they're pressed and released, tiny fingers whipping through arpeggios and scales and octaves. It's short too, maybe four minutes of actual solo, though if Rodney remembers correctly, there's a fair sized introduction before the piano even comes in. Rodney's almost holding his breath at the cadenza; he's disappointed that Sheppard's stolen one of the pre-written ones. He'll have to give Sheppard a hard time about that later.

The end is one run after another, and Rodney's clapping and hollering like he's at a rock concert. He puts his fingers in mouth and whistles, and he can hear Sheppard laugh. He doesn't pick up the phone, just launches into his next piece, which, to Rodney's utter surprise, is Lutosławsk. It's one of his favorite pieces, bar none.

The minimalist opening – just a few repeated notes, a motive here or there, almost thrown away – makes the hair on the back of Rodney's neck stand up. His brain fills in the snippets of orchestra over the sections Sheppard's skipping, creating a cascading, layered-over version of the concerto in his mind, lending the piece an even more fractured sound. Sheppard's precise, rhythmic motives fall away into the romantic development. Sheppard's part could almost be Tchaikovsky if Rodney couldn't hear the discordant flute solo in his head.

Sheppard waits before he starts the second movement, possibly waiting to see if Rodney will interrupt, but more probably listening to the cacophony of the orchestra in his head. The low notes of the opening to the second movement lay out the theme like the distant rumble of thunder from a storm that's passed. The line moves all over from there, up and down the keyboard like birds flitting from one perch to the next, stopping only long enough to glance around before finding a better spot.

The soft repetition of the opening thunder of the movement is so quiet, Rodney's not sure whether or not Sheppard actually played the notes, or if his imagination filled them in.

The third movement's opening cadenza shifts restlessly from playful to melancholy, through moody moments of temper and enthusiasm, rippling scales into quartal harmonies and repeated intervals. Sheppard moves between them effortlessly, a ghost, shifting in and out as the mood strikes him.

The rich orchestration plays in Rodney's memory, between the simple movement of the solo, rounding out the lean lines of the piano with rich strings or bright brass or throaty winds. The piece unravels to its conclusion, like a wind-up toy jerkily coming to rest. Rodney waits, letting the piece settle in the quiet of his room. After a minute he picks up the phone.

"John."

He hears the piano bench creak and it takes a moment for Sheppard to pick up the phone. "Yeah?"

"That was..." Rodney can't come up with an adjective that doesn't sound ridiculous. Beautiful, perfect, gorgeous. "That was good."

Sheppard chuckles.

"Really good," Rodney clarifies.

"Thanks. I'm starving though, do you think we could take a break before I play the other two?"

Rodney glances at the clock on the bedside table. Sheppard's been playing for almost an hour, and he's starting to get peckish himself. "Sure," he says, picking up the room service menu. "I have to order, though, so I'll call you back in a few, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," Sheppard answers, and Rodney hangs up on him, calling room service and ordering some kind of pasta dish and salad. He orders a bottle of wine too. He has a feeling he'll need it by the time Sheppard gets to the Brahms.

He putters around his room a little, letting the music in his brain settle. Snatches of the Mozart bleed into the Beethoven, and then the Lutoslawski will come crashing in, making him close his eyes and hum along to the end of the line. He's tempted to pull out his violin, but he calls Sheppard back instead.

"What, did you order the entire menu?"

"No, I was giving you time to cook something." Rodney sighs, leaving the idiot off the end.

"I ordered curry," Sheppard said. "I'm not much of a cook."

That doesn't surprise Rodney.

"So what do you think so far?"

Rodney hmms and thinks about it for a moment. "Conservative."

"What?!"

Rodney glad Sheppard's angry and not maudlin. "It is. Mozart and Beethoven? And yes, the Lutoslawski is avante garde, but he's a neo-romantic. It's not like you're playing Rachmaninoff." Sheppard sputters for a minute and Rodney takes pity on him. "Don't worry about it right now," he says. "Wait until I've heard all of them. It's not fair to have to rate a recital halfway through."

"Fine," Sheppard mumbles. His voice is falsely bright when he speaks again. "So how about them Sox?"

They talk about sports and the Oscars and other things Rodney doesn't have much interest in, and then spend ten minutes eating together after Sheppard's food is delivered, saying nothing at all.

"All right," Sheppard says, and Rodney can hear the click of Sheppard setting the phone on the piano after putting him on speakerphone. "Next piece."

Sheppard's humming, but it's too far away from the phone for Rodney to be able to get a sense of what it is. There's a long opening, and Rodney's mentally listing concerti that have long orchestral introductions when Sheppard plays the first motives of Rhapsody in Blue. Rodney laughs out loud, and can hear Sheppard chuckle as he plays the second phrase.

Sheppard has the right attitude to play Gershwin, brash and cheeky, his rhythm spiky and confident. Rodney sits back and enjoys Sheppard's thoroughly entertaining licks, humming along the solo clarinet parts, the solo trumpet parts, and sometimes making percussion sounds too.

When Sheppard gets to the cadenza before the slow theme, the piece takes on a simplicity that Rodney's never heard in any performance except Gershwin himself. He's dying to know if Sheppard likes the old recording that much or if he's just that intuitive about what the composer's intentions are. Probably both, if he knows Sheppard even a little bit.

They sing the broad orchestral theme together, Sheppard singing the melody in falsetto and Rodney taking the lower accompanying figures. He's going to have to talk Ronon into letting Sheppard play this with the BSO – Cadman on the opening clarinet solo would be the perfect counterpart to Sheppard's whimsical interpretation.

They get through the orchestral interlude and Sheppard plays the rubato theme, a nicely slow rendition that makes it surprisingly majestic. Rodney's starting to get some sense of Sheppard's interpretational kinks. He has a thing for the dramatic gesture, which makes Rodney ache when he thinks that Sheppard could have been performing for the last twenty years. Audiences eat that up. Rodney's been known to go for the drama in his day, though the repertoire he's been playing lately is more subtle than that. He has an urge to play the Tchaikovsky again. He hasn't touched it in years, not since Dmitri.

All thought stops as Sheppard shines in the technique-busting solo just before the end - it's perfect, light and frothy and leading right into the big orchestral flourish before the final pronouncement of the theme – and Rodney will never forgive American Airlines for using it in their commercials – and then the majesty returns for the final iteration of the melody.

Rodney puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles as loudly as he can muster before yelling, "Bravo!" in the general direction of the phone.

That's four concerti, and Sheppard promised to do Brahms, so Rodney knows what's coming next. He can feel his heart beating too fast, and he knows Sheppard is nervous from the cracked knuckles and creaking of the piano bench.

There's no humming before this piece, just a heavy sort of silence. Rodney knows when to start the orchestral introduction by the complete lack of sound from Sheppard. He hears it clearly in his head – slightly slower than Sheppard, as Sheppard's opening phrase steps on the very end of Rodney's mental symphony. The semplice opening is perfect, and for the first time in years, Rodney lies back, closes his eyes, and does nothing but listen.

One of the worst things about being a musician is that it's almost impossible to turn off the intellectual filters telling you everything from the overall form to every wrong note and articulation to a chordal analysis, complete with little Roman numerals marching along beside the music as it sweeps by.

He can keep his brain at bay, keep away the notes of the score in front of his eyes and the motive recognition and everything else, but only by picturing Sheppard at his piano, head dropped and hands and arms moving smoothly over the keyboard, each touch precise and gentle.

The first movement unravels slowly, Sheppard's own romantic streak pushing the limits on interpretation, even for Brahms. Rodney's not a romantic, nor does he have a particular affinity for the great Romantics, but listening to Sheppard makes the music more appealing than it has been since he played his first Brahms and learned the beauty of pushing tonality to its limits and still being able to come home at the end.

The primary Brahms theme is subtle, the piano treated more like an extra color to the orchestra rather than a featured instrument, so it tests Rodney's memory of the score, which is admittedly fuzzy in some of the slower sections of the first movement.

Rodney lets his mental symphony rest, giving up on trying to remember every interlude. Instead, he concentrates on Sheppard's silence, full of tension, like he would play the entire orchestra if he could. Rodney wishes he could too – an entire orchestra following Sheppard's lead on a Brahms concerto would be something to see.

The technique on the end of the first movement is the first challenge for Sheppard and he handles it perfectly, every note precisely in place. Rodney smiles; he hadn't expected anything less.

Sheppard blows a noisy breath out and Rodney hears the bench creak as he shifts. He starts in with his solo in the second movement – a surprise, since there's a long orchestra opening to this movement too. Rodney wonders if Sheppard's wrung out from the first movement, or if he doesn't have the patience to wait for the simple string opening to play out in his brain before he gets to his own iteration of the chorale-like theme.

There are hints of Chopin and Bach and Beethoven in this concerto, and Rodney can hear every reference in Sheppard's performance – a nod to the source even as he draws everything out in a luminous ribbon of Romantic intensity. It all adds up to a knot in Rodney's throat, a chest-tightening understanding of Sheppard's interpretation that makes him feel like he's having an allergic reaction, struggling to breathe.

The movement closes and Rodney takes a deep breath and thanks whatever powers there may or may not be in the universe that the last movement opens with some Bach-like counterpoint and gets more harmonically and technically complex from there. Emotionally resonant movements are all well and good, but they really shouldn't be wasted on such an unimportant performance.

Sheppard's final movement has an agile, light touch and yet is surprisingly purposeful and not overly-dramatic. Rodney shakes his head. Just when he thinks he has a bead on him, Sheppard does something surprising and makes Rodney reconsider the strange jigsaw puzzle that is his ever-changing take on John Sheppard.

The cadenza is original – and much better than his Mozart – and Rodney hangs on every note as the concerto flies to the end, waiting for the final runs and Sheppard busts out, singing the last few measures of orchestral accompaniment and Rodney joins him, since the piece doesn't quite feel complete without it.

Sheppard laughs, a pleased horse-like chortle. "I love Brahms," he says.

"I never would have guessed," Rodney says, picking up the phone and switching it off speaker.

"So, you're going to call Beckett tonight?"

"Tomorrow," Rodney says. "But Sheppard, I really think you ought to consider playing the Rachmaninoff again."

"What?" Sheppard asks softly.

"O'Neill played me the recording, I–"

Sheppard hangs up on him.

Rodney stares at his phone for a second, then looks through his contacts, and dials Daniel Jackson.

"Rodney McKay," Daniel says brightly. "To what do I owe this honor?"

"I have a proposition for you," Rodney says. "But I need to meet you in person."

There's a pause while Daniel shifts something (likely lots of somethings, Rodney's seen his desk) and presumably opens his date book. "When are you in town next?"

"I'm in Baltimore the third week of March," Rodney answers. "I can catch a train up. The fifteenth work for you?"

"I've got time in the afternoon, but that's it. Lessons in the morning and a premiere that night."

"Great," Rodney says. "I'll be up there by two." His phone beeps and he sees that Sheppard's on the other line. "Oh, I have to take this. I'll see you in a few weeks." He doesn't wait for Jackson's goodbye and flips over to the other line. "Yeah?"

"Sorry," Sheppard says, and Rodney laughs at him. "Though no one will ever play it with me," Sheppard says, and Rodney's not sure if it's disappointment or relief he hears in Sheppard's voice.

"Why don't you let me worry about that," Rodney answers, and settles back against the headboard of the bed, remote in hand. "Hey, look, Deadpool is on USA."

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

106 days left

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."

~~~

Sheppard calls on Tuesday – the day before he plays for Carson. Rodney isn't sure what that means, but he doesn't want to screw up the rhythm they have going, so he doesn't ask and waits patiently for Carson to call him with the good news. Carson calls him the day after Sheppard's audition – day one hundred and five, Rodney notes, and surrenders his dignity to the fact that he's counting down the days until he sees Sheppard again.

"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."

~~~

97 days left

"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."

"Yes."

"Even if you don't like it."

"Yes."

"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.

~~~

96 days left

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.

"Rodney!"

"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."

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.

~~~

88 days left

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."

~~~

87 days left

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.

~~~

84 days left

"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."

~~~

80 days left

"Favorite symphonist," Rodney asks, even though he knows the answer.

"Brahms."

"Favorite composer for piano."

"Brahms."

"Favorite chamber composer."

"Brahms."

"Favorite opera composer."

"Brahms."

"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?"

"Hamilton."

"Hamilton who?"

"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?"

~~~

76 days left

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?"

~~~

72 days left

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?"

~~~

62 days left

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.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

60 days left

A knock on his hotel door at nine am sharp wakes Rodney out of a sound sleep.

"Go away!" Rodney yells, and pulls a pillow over his head.

The knock comes again – a strong knock, three short raps. Rodney throws his pillow the direction of the door and it lands in the middle of the suite.

"I don't want room service right now!" Rodney shouts, hoping the intractable knocker will leave him alone.

No such luck. Three more knocks. Rodney gets out of bed, grumbling about blunt instrument evisceration and crosses the suite to the door.

"What?" Rodney says in his most exasperated voice as he whips the door open. In front of the door stands an impeccably dressed young man with a Bluetooth in his ear and an extremely aromatic coffee in his hand.

"Mr. McKay?" the young man says, sizing Rodney up with a single glance and smiling brightly. "I'm Aiden Ford, your new assistant."

Rodney takes the coffee suspiciously, but it's from a local coffee shop and smells impressively good. One sip tells him that someone has informed Aiden Ford exactly how he takes his coffee.

"Did Jeannie send you?" he asks, and Ford's questioning look tells him that's a bad guess.

"Manpower sent me, sir."

"Manpower?" Rodney asks, wasting precious coffee by choking on it when he can't help laughing. "Who hired you? Because it sure as hell wasn't me."

"I don't know, sir," Ford says, and the kid's overbearing politeness is already getting on Rodney's nerves. He takes another sip of the coffee and sucks it up. Decent coffee counts for a lot.

"You can travel?" Rodney says. "We'll be in a different city every week to ten days, sometimes less than that."

"Yes, sir," Ford answers.

"Violin concerto number two," Rodney says, waving Ford in and closing the door behind him.

"Excuse me?" Ford says, and remembers himself after a moment. "Sir."

"Violin concerto number two," Rodney reiterates, and Ford looks even more confused. "Who wrote it," Rodney explains, though the look of confusion on Ford's face looks permanent. "Take a guess."

"Beethoven?"

"Oh god," Rodney says. "You don't know anything about classical music, do you?"

"Is that a requirement?" Ford asks, frowning.

"No," Rodney says, "but it would have made things easier. Keep bringing me coffee like that, and I'll even get over the fact that you're ridiculously well dressed and cheery for this hour of the morning."

Rodney motions for Ford to sit. "Can you entertain yourself for half an hour while I get ready?"

"Of course, sir." Ford takes a seat on the sofa and pulls a kindle out of his briefcase.

Rodney sighs and goes into the bathroom to get ready to face the day. It hits him while he's in the shower. Sheppard.

"Seriously, who sent you?" he asks Ford as soon as he's out of the shower, standing in the doorway of the bathroom, sopping wet in just a towel. "Call the person who gave you instructions on how to get here and how to fix my coffee, and tell them I want to know where they're sending the bill."

Turns out, they're sending the bill to him. It has to be Jeannie, Rodney thinks, no one else knows his bank account number and how he takes his coffee. Still, there's something suspicious about the whole situation, and Rodney vows to interrogate Jeannie until she cracks.

~~~

"What the hell, Jeannie?" Rodney shouts, not even waiting for her greeting. "Why are you hiring my assistants now?"

"This is what makes you call?" Jeannie asks. "Seriously, not my birthday or to talk to your niece or–"

"Jeannie," Rodney whines, because it's the one thing he knows will make her stop talking. She hates his whining. "Thank you for the assistant, even if he's a little scary."

"I didn't get you an assistant, Rodney," Jeannie answers. "Though it's a brilliant idea for a present. Wish I had thought of it."

"They're billing me," Rodney says. "I don't think it's that thoughtful."

"Hey, if he sticks around, then he's worth his weight in gold. You do realize you can be an abrasive jerk, right?"

"Whatever," Rodney answers. "Did you give my banking information to anyone? Because you're the only person that has access to that information."

"Not true," Jeannie counters. "Carson's got access to your accounts."

Shit, Rodney thinks, she's right. "Thanks. I have to call him."

Before he can click off the phone, he can hear Jeannie yell, "Don't forget Mads' birthday is coming up!"

Like he'd forget. He snorts at the phone and dials Carson.

~~~

58 days left

Sam Carter calls him in the middle of a practice session. Rodney spends so long staring down at the phone while it plays It's the End of the World as We Know It, he misses the call and has to call her back.

"Rodney," Sam answers smoothly, all the brightness of her smile in her voice. "Glad you called back."

Rodney's never learned these pleasantries. He knows Sam doesn't want to talk to him any more than he wants to talk to her, but you'd never be able to tell from her voice. "Sorry I missed your call. I thought I was hallucinating."

Sam laughs pleasantly. It sets Rodney's teeth on edge. "I need to talk to you about the Rachmaninoff."

Great. He thought Carson had hammered this out for him. "What about it? I thought we had this all hammered out."

"That's the problem. We can't afford it."

"What?" Rodney asks. Orpheus isn't a business machine, but they're well-liked, he assumed they were operating in the black. "What do you mean?"

"We can't afford all the extra musicians for the recording – they're on a per gig basis, which means between the rehearsals, concerts and recording sessions, we're looking at fifty thousand, minimum. More, if the recording takes more than one session, or either of you need more than two rehearsals – which, I might add," she says over his protest, "is extremely likely, considering the size of the orchestra and the nature of Orpheus's music directorship."

"Why do you need scale musicians?" Rodney asks. "Do it during spring break and get the grad students. They don't work for scale, and it'd be an honor to play with Orpheus." Rodney manages to keep the sneer out of his voice on the last part, but only because this whole gig is about to fall apart on him, and he can't let that happen.

"Students all work for scale these days – the smart ones, anyway, and you know damn well we don't want the ones who aren't smart enough to join the union."

"Speaking of which, I want a say in the extra musicians," Rodney adds. He's not going to let some weird part assignments ruin this for him.

"Rodney," Sam says, and her cheerfulness has finally given way to exasperation. "We don't have the budget. We could do it next year, maybe, but we're touring, and I don't see Daniel going for Russian music."

"What if I paid the extra musicians out of pocket?"

The silence on the other end of the line is supremely gratifying. "Fifty thousand minimum, Rodney. Probably twice that. That's crazy."

"It's not," Rodney answers, knowing he's giving Sam more than he should, but hoping it gets her on his side for once. "He deserves the chance, you know he does, and you guys are the only place I have enough pull to get him the opportunity. I'll pay. But I want a say in every single hire, then. I'm coming to auditions."

Sam chuckles. "All right. I'll figure it out."

~~~

Not half an hour after he hangs up with Sam, Scotland the Brave interrupts his practice of the Glazunov.

It can't be good news, not this quickly, so Rodney decides to go on the offensive. "What, Carson?"

"Are you a bloody idiot?" That's pretty uncalled for, Rodney thinks, but before he can say so, Carson is ranting at him like he hasn't since Rodney was nineteen and trying to program the same concerto for every concert that year. "You're going to pay Orpheus to record with Sheppard? It's outrageous, Rodney, I don't know why you think I'd let you agree to it. You can't afford it, anyway."

"What do you mean, I can't afford it?" Rodney's not oblivious about his finances, he signs the contracts, know what he's making per performance, what his royalties are.

"I mean, you can't afford it, Rodney. You're not the financial genius your father was. You're making enough to support the way you live, and that's it. You don't have a cushion – and certainly not a hundred thousand dollar cushion." Carson tuts into the phone, takes a deep breath and continues in a calmer vein. "Maybe if you'd buy a house, stop living in hotels… you're getting a little old for the vagabond lifestyle."

"I think you're getting off-topic, Carson." Carson is a good agent, but he's Rodney's friend, too, and between them, it's Rodney who sets the boundaries. "I assume you didn't cancel the performance outright?"

"Of course not. I told Carter to get a grant. MacArthur loves her, she can milk them for a hundred thousand. Wait before you hang up, Rodney," Carson adds, and Rodney frowns at the phone. Has he become so predictable that Carson can tell when he's going to hang up unannounced? "Please stop agreeing to ridiculous terms. Let's have a conference call. We can sort this out with all parties on the phone. I'll even set it up."

"Fine," Rodney agrees. He should have thought of that himself. Carson is surprisingly good at cutting through red tape and making things actually happen. "Next week sometime, after I'm done in Atlanta."

~~~

55 days left

This day is in the running for the strangest day of Rodney's life – and that includes a couple of doozies with his mom and dad working through their divorce and a senile conductor that tried to stab Rodney with his baton when he was fourteen.

Ford shows up at his hotel room after lunch, with Carson in tow. Rodney blinks as they come through the door and set up camp on the king-sized bed. They get out an iPhone and bend their heads over it like they're trying to defuse a bomb. Finally, Carson dials someone and puts the phone down on the bed.

"Hello?" Daniel's voice answers.

"Hello, Dr. Jackson," Carson says, and Rodney continues to stare at the two of them, Carson cross-legged at the head of his bed and Ford looking as professional as ever, sitting on the bed with his legs crossed, suit jacket still buttoned impeccably, Bluetooth in his ear. "Is Dr. Carter there?"

"I'm here, Mr. Beckett," Sam answers. "As well as Mr. Hammond, our general counsel. Do we need to dial Rodney in?"

"No, no, he's right here," Carson answers, waving Rodney over to the bed. "Say hi, Rodney."

"Hi," Rodney says weakly, collapsing onto the bed.

"Also, his assistant, Aiden Ford." There are a few more muttered greetings as Rodney stares at Ford. He's really too freshly pressed for Rodney's tastes, but he's better than any three assistants Rodney's had so far, so he sucks up his unease and deals with it, even if he can't get Carson to tell him who sent Ford to his door.

"So, we're thinking about pushing this back to the year after next," Daniel starts, and Rodney's attention is immediately centered back on the phone.

"No," Rodney says, and Carson gapes at him, but isn't quick enough on the draw to tell him to stop talking. "It needs to be before then so he can have a real season in '19-'20."

"I'm working on writing the grant," Sam says, "and that takes some time – as does negotiating with the foundation, hiring musicians, getting a venue… and you know our '18-'19 season is set already."

"Who's playing?" Carson asks.

"Lindsay Novak, Teal'c, Malcolm Tunney, and Anne Teldy," Sam answers.

Rodney barks out a laugh. "Tunney? He's a hack. You know he couldn't come up with his own interpretation if his life depended on it. Didn't he steal one of your Mozart cadenzas?"

Rodney glances at Carson, and Carson nods his head slowly before picking up Rodney's argument.

"Ditch Tunney. You know Rodney will sell out the house and get higher ticket prices."

"We've got a contract out to Tunney," Hammond says, disapproval clear in his voice.

"But he hasn't signed it yet," Carter says eagerly. It'd be weird to have her on his side in this, except he knows she hates Tunney as much as he does.

"Probably still writing in his clauses for dancing girls and sushi," Rodney says, and the whole group busts out laughing.

"All right," Daniel concedes. "And that's enough extra time to get the grant support for the extra personnel."

"The Glazunov is a little overmatched, don't you think?" Sam asks. "I wouldn't want to play it after Sheppard's Rachmaninoff."

"What would you suggest?"

"What about Tchaikovsky?" Sam asks, and Carson looks up sharply at Rodney.

"It would help the sell," Daniel adds. "You've never performed it – that would guarantee a full house, and probably secure the grant."

Rodney walks away from the phone and the bed and Carson and stares out the window at the parking lot. Memories of playing the Tchaikovsky for Dmitri's grandfather bubble to the surface, playing with the family clustered at the kitchen table and Dmitri's mother baking pie for dessert. He can still smell it as he hears the strains of the nocturne in his mind.

Carson's hand on his shoulder brings him back, and he's about to say no, he can't do it, when Carson leans in and says softly, "Remember this is for John."

It's a dirty trick, effortlessly superseding Rodney's mental soundtrack with Sheppard's quiet opening chords from the second Rachmaninoff concerto. He closes his eyes and listens to the music in his head for a moment before he nods. Carson slaps him on the back and returns to the bed.

"That's a yes," Carson says, rubbing his hands together, and moving to the next issue. "There will have to be a clause that you wait until next year to put the recording out. We don't want it competing with Rodney's recording with Boston."

"If you can get your recording out by the end of August, we won't be competing for Grammys. I know it's tight, but Boston doesn't usually require a lot of touching up, right?"

Rodney nods, picking up his phone and dialing Ronon. At this point, he'll take any distraction he can get. Unfortunately, he doesn't get through and has to leave a voicemail, which should probably be kept for posterity because he never knows what to say and ends up rambling way too long.

When he finally gets back to the conversation, Hammond and Carson are hashing out something about the royalties, and Rodney coughs. "Can you discuss the boring stuff later? Because it's about time I get something out of this deal, and I have a list of things I want in the contract."

Sam laughs, and Daniel says, "I was wondering about that."

"I want a say in every musician playing on the concerts. I want to hear their auditions."

"What about current Orpheus musicians? They don't have to audition, right?" Sam asks, and Rodney supposes that's fair enough, though he would give a lot to have Sam audition for him.

"There may be Orpheus regulars that want to bow out on such a large orchestration," Daniel points out, and Rodney shakes his head, laughing.

"You mean that might want to opt out of playing with me."

Carson snickers, and Ford and Sam follow suit.

"I mean that two concerti is not the most attractive concert for professional orchestral musicians," Daniel says with dogged tactfulness.

"Whatever," Rodney says. It's not like idiots not liking to work with him has ever bothered him. "I want a say in every new musician on the roster."

"I was planning on going to some of my contacts, Rodney, not just holding open auditions."

Rodney can't read Sam's tone. It's not amused, but it's not as annoyed as he expected, either. "Then email a list of those you plan on asking sans audition and I'll send you my verdict."

"This is highly unusual," Hammond chips in. "Orpheus is an independent organization; we've never had someone outside the organization have any say in our hiring practices."

"Then you can just pay Rodney a consultancy fee," Carson says. Rodney waves the idea off, but Carson puts up a hand to keep Rodney out of the bargaining. "Or make him an honorary member of Orpheus."

Rodney shakes his head vigorously, but Carson signals him to wait, and sure enough, Daniel balks.

"We don't have honorary members. Either he plays with us or he doesn't, and you've made it perfectly clear that playing with us as part of the orchestra is unacceptable."

"Not to mention," Sam says with a laugh, "Rodney's sound is a little too distinctive for our orchestra. He'd stick out like a sore thumb."

"Hey," Rodney says. "I can blend."

Sam snorts, and Daniel outright guffaws. Carson does a commendable job of keeping his smile hidden behind his hand, but Rodney punches him on the arm anyway.

"I want to be in on Sheppard's rehearsals," Rodney says for his next demand.

Sam, Daniel, and Hammond all start talking at once, and Carson raises an eyebrow at him.

"I didn't say I wanted to have any say, just that I wanted to sit in."

"You know it's not possible for you to keep your mouth shut, McKay," Sam says with some venom, and it's been a while since he's heard that in her voice. They've been getting along so well.

He leans over and puts his mouth next to Carson's ear. "I don't trust Sheppard not to let them walk all over him."

Carson nods and puts a finger up. He looks at Ford and waits for Ford to nod before he says anything. "It can't hurt to have Rodney in rehearsal," Carson says, and over Sam and Daniel's vehement protest, he says, "and I'm afraid it's a sticking point. We'll walk away from this if it's not in the contract."

Rodney blinks. He hadn't expected Carson to go straight for the big bluff. The silence unnerves Rodney, and he fidgets nervously while he waits for them to decide.

"All right," Daniel says finally. "But you've got to be on your best behavior, Rodney."

"I am always on my best behavior," Rodney says, smiling at Carson's chuckle and Sam's exasperated sigh. He nods at Carson, and stretches his arms before standing up. He hates sitting on beds. There's no comfortable position unless you're an invertebrate or a cat. He grabs his coat and raises a questioning okay sign to Carson.

"All right then, I think it's time to talk about fees."

Rodney smiles gratefully at Carson and slips out the door, glad to be out of the torture chamber.

~~~

54 days eft

Rodney waits a day to call Sheppard, partially to make sure Carson really did iron out the logistics and partially because fifty-four is a lucky number, and he's glad he stopped pretending not to be counting down the days, because it's a lot easier to just admit it to himself and get the embarrassment out of the way before the phone call.

"Hey, Rodney," Sheppard says, and Rodney can hear the TV on really loud in the background.

Rodney picks up the remote automatically. He stops before he turns on the TV, knowing he'd be a coward if he didn't tell Sheppard about the concert and recording before they settled into their Friday night ritual. "Wait." He takes a deep breath. "I need to tell you something."

Sheppard laughs, the bastard. "That sounds ominous."

"No," Rodney says, though it did have the ringing sound of doom to his ears. He hopes whatever lines he's crossed, Sheppard will see them for the goodwill gestures they're meant to be. "It is a big deal, though."

"Spit it out, Rodney."

"I've gotten you a gig."

"O... kay," Sheppard says.

"A solo gig. With Orpheus." Sheppard remains silent, and Rodney can barely tell how Sheppard's feeling with him standing right in front of him; trying to read his silence is impossible. "Oh, and a recording too."

"O... kay," Sheppard repeats, and Rodney can't believe he forgot the most important part.

"It's the Rach two."

Rodney waits, holding the phone away from his mouth because he's breathing too fast, and he doesn't want Sheppard to hear his nerves.

"Rachmaninoff. With Orpheus," Sheppard says. "They're not big enough."

"They're hiring personnel."

"They'd need a conductor."

Rodney bites his lip. This part is a little tricky, but Sheppard can do this, and he's not going to let him walk away from it. "Your body language is plenty easy to read."

"That's ridiculous."

"So you'll conduct a little – it's not like you don't do that already with your students and the imbeciles you accompany."

"Rodney, that's not the point. The Rachmaninoff would be bad enough with a normal orchestra – I'm not going to do it with one that's not big enough or experienced with large orchestrations."

"You'll have extra rehearsal time," Rodney says, trying to keep his voice down, sound reasonable. It's not really working.

"What's in it for you?" Sheppard's voice is soft, a signal Rodney recognizes, but can't place in his mental menagerie of Sheppard expressions.

"Nothing," Rodney says. If Sheppard even understood half of what Rodney is giving up to get him this gig –

"Bullshit," Sheppard accuses. "Daniel Jackson doesn't know me from a hole in the ground. He wouldn't go to such trouble for some unknown piano professor from the Boston Conservatory. What are you giving him?"

"I have to play with you on the live concert."

Sheppard laughs into the phone, his normal broken sort of laugh. "Okay, I can't do it. You do know that Carson is my agent too, right?"

It hadn't even occurred to Rodney that Carson was negotiating on behalf of John as well as himself. He's s complete idiot. "You're such an asshole, Sheppard."

Sheppard continues to laugh. "Yeah, but I totally had you worried."

"Asshole," Rodney says again, and flips on the TV to see what's playing. "Seriously, I'm never doing you another favor as long as I live."

"And I can't thank you enough for that." Before Rodney can squeeze in a crack about payment about favors, Sheppard says, "Hey, the Michael Keaton Batman is on TNT."

~~~

44 days left

Rodney meets Sheppard's dog, a half-Husky, half-German Shepherd named Max, on day forty-four. Sheppard sets the phone down to answer the door (undoubtedly to get the takeout he ordered for dinner) and Max knocks the phone over, licks it, and then hits several keys with his teeth while he transports the phone to some dark secret hiding place. The line disconnects before Sheppard can wrestle it back from Max, and a few minutes later Sheppard calls him back on his cell phone.

"I think I need a new phone," Sheppard says by way of a greeting.

"I don't even know why you even have a landline," Rodney answers. "Or a dog," he says, under his breath.

"I like dogs, Rodney. I suppose you're a cat person."

"Yes, so?" Rodney answers. "They're smarter and more independent."

"I think you mean spiteful and standoffish." Sheppard says, and Rodney's familiar enough with the nuances of Sheppard's voice to hear both the general teasing and the underlying honest dislike.

"Aw, was a kitty mean to you when you were little?" Rodney says in a singsong voice that's guaranteed to irritate Sheppard.

"My uncle had a little devil spawn he called a cat, yeah. I hate those things."

"Well, I would have one if I could. The touring life's too hard on pets."

"I think it's too hard on you," Sheppard says. "Don't you ever take a break from it?"

"I never really thought about it," Rodney answers glibly.

"You should. Everyone deserves a vacation. You could hole up in a rented house somewhere and watch all those movies you don't get to see in the theater. By my estimation, you're roughly twenty-three years behind the times."

"I've seen movies, Sheppard," Rodney says. "I go to the movies all the time. Or pay the fifteen bucks and watch them on the hotel TV."

"I wasn't talking about porn."

~~~

38 days left

They're close enough to New York on Mother's day that Rodney catches a train up the night before and stays with Teyla and Kate, getting up early to cook them brunch. He knows Kate's a late sleeper on the weekend, and they will stay in bed until Teyla finally drags Kate out of it – usually around noon.

He heads to the market down the street, picking up challah bread, cinnamon and eggs for the French toast, and then gets the idea to do three cheese-omelets and ends up with two stuffed-full bags of groceries that he can barely carry.

Rodney and Kate have an uneasy relationship; she's one of the few people in his life that has absolutely no understanding of what he does. She will go to Teyla's concerts when Teyla's in town, but she has no clue about the music, and Rodney's always gotten the impression that classical music bores her.

She's extremely circumspect about it, listening to Rodney's stories with a mildly interested smile, and then steering the conversation to her newest building project. She's a popular architect, and Rodney has to admit her designs do appeal to him.

One thing about Kate, though, she knows her coffee. He makes himself a cup with her French press while the French toast is in the oven and waits for the couple to make an appearance.

Three cups later, he debates barging into their room and dragging them out of bed. He settles for calling upstairs at eleven o'clock.

"Teyla! Kate! Get your lazy asses out of bed!"

He waits until he hears movement, and heads back to the kitchen to cook up the first omelet. He usually makes his own food first, as a test run, but the omelet turns out so beautifully he debates giving it to Teyla, provided the happy couple gets up before it gets cold. He makes another just like it for himself, then makes one for Kate with no tomatoes or bleu cheese.

As soon as Kate's is out of the skillet, he tromps upstairs to drag them out of bed, forcibly if need be. He stops halfway down the hallway, as he can hear Kate's breathy sighs and Teyla's voice, saying something he thankfully cannot make out.

He backs up and calls from the stairwell, "Hurry up, you two, your food is getting cold!" and scurries down the stairs as fast as he can.

He serves up his own plate of French toast and digs in, forcing his thoughts to cooking, digging into his omelet and deciding if he wants to change up the cheese.

Teyla and Kate come down a few minutes later, both looking tousled and gorgeous, and Rodney's annoyance fades as they moan loudly about the food. Kate's fond of the French toast (he's not surprised – she has a huge sweet tooth) and Teyla asks for a second omelet.

"Happy Mother's day," Rodney says, as he sets the plate in front of her. "You too, Kate. More French toast?"

Kate stuffs the last couple of bites in her mouth and hands her plate to Rodney. "Yes, please!"

"Any plans for tonight?" Rodney asks, arranging four slices on Kate's plate and drowning them in syrup.

"Mmmmm," Kate says, picking up half a slice with her fingers and putting it in her mouth before Rodney can even set her plate down.

"Yes," Teyla says, patting Kate's knee affectionately. "We're going to Kate's parents' this afternoon. Her father cooks dinner every Mother's day. What about you?"

Rodney shrugs. "No real plans. I was going to stay in, if that's okay with you two? Maybe bingewatch something."

"Rodney," Teyla says, and the pity in her voice is more than he can deal with. "You could come along with us."

He doesn't have to glance at Kate to know she's glaring daggers at Teyla right now.

"It's fine," Rodney says. "I could use a day to laze around by myself. Just don't be too late – we have an early train tomorrow."

~~~

16 days left

"Copland's third symphony is the great American symphony," John argues, and Rodney has to wonder what he ever found attractive about a guy who can't even tell a serious composer from a hack.

"No, the great American symphony is Hanson 2. Don't even play stupid. All Copland did was regurgitate his biggest hits into a symphony. You don't really buy into that populist crap, do you?"

"Rodney," Sheppard whines, and Rodney can't wait to hear the argument that follows that. "It's one of his most beloved pieces. It's a critical work in his repertoire. He is the name that people think of when they think of an American composer."

"He steals! From himself!" Rodney shouts at the phone, holding it in front of him so he can have a straight line from his mouth to Sheppard's ear. "He's not even smart enough to change it around. The opening of the fourth movement is Fanfare for the Common Man, note for note!"

"It's a culmination of all of his other works, it's the pinnacle–"

"Exactly!" Rodney interrupts. Sheppard is making his argument for him, how can he not see that? "Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, the Clarinet Concerto, Fanfare for the Common Man… RE-CY-CLING!"

"Rodney, he's an American icon. The Third Symphony encompasses his entire output. He's like the Frank Lloyd Wright of music."

"I'm not saying he's not a crusty old piece of Americana. I even happen to like Appalachian Spring in its original version," Rodney admits. "But his Third Symphony is shit, and I'd expect you to at least acknowledge that the works he stole from are better than the derivative crap he made out of them. And seriously, the Hanson is by far a richer harmonic work."

"But I like Copland three," Sheppard says, and Rodney lets his head thunk back against the wall because there is simply no arguing with Sheppard's bad taste.

~~~

11 days left

"A mirror, Rodney, you know what that is, right?"

"Very funny, Radek, yes, I get it," Rodney says, kicking his shoes off. "The rhythm of the theme is retrograde. A bit of a stretch, don't you think?"

"Yes, because I didn't spend several months analyzing this piece in every detail." Radek clucks his tongue. "It is a mirror. Nimrod is Elgar himself, and I think if you consider the general shape of the movement, you–"

"Right, right," Rodney says, brushing Radek off. He won't be able to argue until he gets a score and Radek's article anyway, so there's no point in trying to debunk him now. "So have you heard anything from Simpson lately?"

"That was very subtle, Rodney, I almost didn't notice you were trying to change the subject."

"You know I need to do the analysis myself. It's going to take me a couple of weeks. Email me the proof of the article so I can check it myself."

"The Journal of Music Theory has people who do that already," Radek says, but Rodney knows he'll send it. "So how is Dr. Sheppard?"

"How the hell would I know?" Rodney asks, though it's less than two weeks before he's going to stay in Sheppard's house, and that makes him unaccountably nervous. "I haven't seen him in months."

"But you will be in Boston next week, yes? Radek presses. "Recording the Fratres with Ronon. Don't tell me you won't be seeing him."

"I suppose so," Rodney says, and he's still weirded out that he's not being completely honest with Radek about Sheppard. It doesn't bode well for him; secrets never seem to work out. Either he forgets they're supposed to be secrets, or he simply can't avoid messing them up, or he gives himself away. Radek has always guessed his secrets before he's said anything anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter.

~~~

4 days left

It takes three and a half months to plan, but on day four (also known as the day after their last chamber performance), Rodney throws Teyla a baby shower. No one shows up, but that's okay because Rodney had Ford hound people into sending gifts. They're stacked in a huge pile next to Teyla, who's sitting on the floor, ripping wrapping paper like it's Christmas morning.

He saves his gifts for last, the teddy bear made of home-spun clouds or some other ethereally soft material, which gets a warm smile, and the quarter size violin with scribbled IOU for lessons that makes Teyla tear up. She climbs over the toys and furniture and clothes (with amazing agility for a woman with a basketball in the front of her pants) and hugs him fiercely enough that he has to tap her to let go or pass out from hypoxia.

~~~

3 days left

"This is Rodney McKay. If I really wanted to talk to you, I would have answered the phone. Don't leave a message."

"Hey. Just wondering when your flight gets in. I can pick you up at the driveby, right? You don't need me to rent a uniform and hold up a sign?"

~~~

1 day left

Sheppard tells Rodney he needs a grocery list.

"No you don't. Do you even know what jicama is? Plantains? Do you know where to get sushi-grade tuna or the best steak? We'll go shopping when I get there."

"Why do I feel like I should cash out my 401k?"

"I suppose I could make mac and cheese. From a box."

Sheppard concedes and then babbles on about his kitchen and his bathroom, his cleaning lady and his laundry room (his laundry room?!) and Rodney shakes his head when he realizes Sheppard is nervous.

"I'm sure I'll like your house, Sheppard. Relax."

"Of course you'll like my house. I have a kitchen worth more than your second violin."

"I think you underestimate my second violin."

"I think you underestimate my kitchen."

"You understand the irony of a man who eats nothing but takeout having a fifty thousand dollar kitchen, right?"

"I expected to have someone to cook in it by now."

"Well," Rodney says with a little laugh, "You could always make an honest man of me."

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Even though he had three drinks on the plane, Rodney's stomach is tied in knots when he lands in Boston. There's a heavy sort of dread perched on his shoulder right beside the anticipation so severe he questions how bad this is on his heart. He's almost sure that his grandfather on his mother's side died of a heart attack.

Rodney picks up his luggage, loading it onto one of the carts so he can navigate the never-ending hallway that leads out to the taxi stand. His ancient suitcase doesn't have wheels, his garment bag falls apart if he doesn't handle it with extreme care, and he has two violins to manage; steering the cart while he has a violin over each shoulder scares the rest of the people leaving the airport enough that they stay well clear of him.

As he walks down the hallway of doom to the passenger pickup area, he can see Sheppard's sleek black Ferrari through the huge plate glass windows. Rodney didn't give the car a second thought the last time he saw it, probably because it didn't have Sheppard leaning casually against it with aviator sunglasses on. Roughly eighty per cent of the women and twenty per cent of the men walking past him take a second (or third) look. He seems oblivious, utterly absorbed in whatever he's thinking about.

"Not me," Rodney mutters, "he's not thinking about me. He's probably thinking up exam questions."

When he finally crosses the threshold of the automatic doors, he gets a better look at what Sheppard's doing. He can see Sheppard's long fingers playing an invisible keyboard on the car's custom paint job. The roll of the wrist is subtle, but Rodney's pretty sure he's doing some serious technique work.

When Sheppard looks up and sees Rodney standing on the pavement not fifty feet from him, he pushes his shades up to rest on top of his head and grins. Rodney automatically grins back, something he wishes he could have avoided, because if his face mirrors Sheppard's, they look like a pair of idiots. Still, his heart rate goes up again and he considers asking for nitroglycerine at his next doctor's appointment.

Sheppard bustles over to Rodney's side and grabs the garment bag off the cart. "You made it," Sheppard says, with bright good cheer that ends in dismay as the garment bag disintegrates in his hands and he's left trying to make sure none of Rodney's five tuxes land on the ground.

"Shit," Sheppard curses under his breath, and Rodney takes pity on him and helps him get the tuxes into the trunk of the car. "Sorry," Sheppard says, grinning sheepishly at Rodney.

"There are better ways to let me know I need a new tux," Rodney says, and Sheppard claps him on the back.

"It's good to see you," Sheppard says, and if Rodney thought he could survive a hug with any semblance of dignity, he would give in to the smell of Sheppard's t-shirt, warm from the sun.

"Of course it is," Rodney says, lugging the huge suitcase into the trunk. Sheppard gives him a hand with it just before it tips him over, and Rodney mumbles his thanks. "What were you practicing?"

"Saint-Saëns 2," Sheppard answers, and Rodney nods. He doesn't remember it off the top of his head, but Sheppard hums a little of the opening theme when they climb in the car, and that shakes it loose.

"Right," Rodney says. "You have a gig?"

"Yeah," Sheppard answers, and pulls his shades over his eyes again. "Friday, in Providence. I'm filling in for Jinto Halling."

"The twelve-year-old?" Rodney asks, and Sheppard nods once, sharply, before pulling into the labyrinthine collection of roads that take them out of the airport. "What, is he sick?"

"Custody battle," Sheppard says, and Rodney can't help but laugh ruefully. He's been there.

"That's great," Rodney says. "I like Saint-Saëns."

"Oh," Sheppard says softly as they slow down slightly for the tollbooth. Rodney feels guilty for not being quicker on the draw, or realizing he'd have to pay tolls to get out of the damn airport. They breeze through it without stopping and Rodney decides not to feel guilty about it. Sheppard offered to pick him up.

"Oh?" Rodney says. "What, you don't want me to hear you?"

Sheppard guns it, letting the car cycle upwards through three, four, five gears before settling onto the highway. "No," Sheppard answers, and Rodney hates it when he has to ask for clarification. He goes on the offensive instead.

"It's only fair," Rodney points out, "since not only did you hear me play, you forced me to play the Barber backwards. I think that entitles me to a little Saint-Saëns."

"It's not that," Sheppard says, and grips the wheel tight enough to make his knuckles white. "I'm forty-three, Rodney, and I'm subbing for a twelve-year-old."

"Are they paying you?" Rodney asks. Sheppard shoots him an annoyed look. "Then who cares? I subbed for André Rieu once. Made more off that gig than three of my normal performances combined."

Sheppard's staring at Rodney, and Rodney knows how he feels, but not keeping his eyes on the road on the road, especially when they're in a tunnel, is not an option. "Watch where you're going, Sheppard. You can goggle about my incredibly bad taste later."

"What did you play?" Sheppard asks, with hushed awe.

"I played his program. Transcriptions of Viennese waltzes. It was awful."

The rest of the short drive flashes by in a flurry of insults and one-upmanship, until they get off the freeway in Beacon Hill. The obviously expensive homes make Rodney reconsider the possibility that Sheppard might actually be independently wealthy.

Sheppard carries Rodney's suitcase in and lets him manage his two violins. "Leave the tuxes," Sheppard says. "I'll get them dry cleaned for you."

"That's not necessary," Rodney says, and Sheppard shakes his head.

"It really is," he says, pointing at the discoloration of one of Rodney's shirt collars.

"Oh," Rodney says, scrunching his nose. "Fine, send them, but chuck the shirts. I'll buy new ones."

"Good call," Sheppard says.

Once Rodney's settled in the guest bedroom, he follows the faint sound of the TV to find Sheppard on the couch with two cold beers, waving him over while he finishes ordering pizza. "You like meat? Pepperoni's okay, right?"

Rodney nods and lets Sheppard finish with the order, reaching for the second beer. It's some local microbrew, not obnoxiously bad, so Rodney tips it up for a good swallow. He watches the baseball for about ten seconds before he reaches for the remote control.

Sheppard sticks a foot out, kicking it off the table and out of Rodney's reach. "No way," Sheppard says. "It's the Sox and the Orioles."

Rodney groans and settles in next to Sheppard on the couch, sipping his beer. He doesn't even realize how tired he is until Sheppard's doorbell rings and he starts out of his doze, spilling beer down his shirt.

Sheppard brings the pizza in but doesn't sit down, glancing over Rodney's head toward the music room. Rodney's only gotten a peek in there, and he's dying to see what kind of piano Sheppard's playing on.

"Practice?" Rodney asks, because he knows that hunted look, like you've got four hours to learn ten hours worth of music. Sheppard nods lightly, and Rodney waves him off, flipping open the pizza box and picking up the remote control to change the channel and put the mute on.

Sheppard starts with scales and Hanon, like a good boy, and Rodney's almost tempted to turn the volume back up on the TV. He's glad he didn't when the Saint-Saëns unspools through the house, the softer sections muddling unrecognizably. Rodney sets his beer down and closes his eyes, listening to Sheppard's practice. It's not the same as a performance, and it probably taints him for Friday night – he knows what Sheppard's worried about, which licks are hard, which phrases don't sit right. Practice is much more intimate than performance, and Rodney can't help but feel like he's eavesdropping.

He wakes out of a sound sleep some time later – the crick in his neck tells him it's been a couple of hours at least – to an oppressive pressure on his chest and pizza-scented dog breath. "Down, Max," Sheppard says, and that's Rodney's introduction to the English sheepdog otherwise known as Max.

"Bedtime, sleepyhead," Sheppard hums, picking up the beer and pizza (which has several Max-sized bites taken out of it). Sheppard deposits the detritus of Rodney's dinner in the kitchen and comes back to offer Rodney a hand up. The couch doesn't look like much, but it eats the unwary alive.

Rodney follows Sheppard up the steps, and when they get to the top, Sheppard walks him to his door – something Rodney would normally tease him for, but which seems sweet in the half-waking state he's in. He groans at himself and opens the door to the guest bedroom. He turns around with his hand still on the doorknob, trying to decipher the satisfied look on Sheppard's face.

"It's good to have you here," Sheppard says, and his hand brushes Rodney's as he grabs the doorknob and pulls the door shut.

~~~

Rodney gets up early the next morning, making his way to the kitchen to start coffee and hunt through Sheppard's cabinets. There's absolutely nothing in them; a few mismatched dishes, a box of sugary cereal, and one desiccated citrus fruit in the pantry next to the open bag of potatoes that look like they're trying to take over. He grabs his coffee and goes back upstairs to get his practicing out of the way because they have some hard work in front of them where that kitchen is concerned.

Rodney spends the afternoon listening to Sheppard practice the Saint-Saëns while poking through his cabinets, making lists of cookware and ingredients he'll need to make the dishes he's planning for the next few days.

After practicing a series of trills for fifteen minutes, Sheppard comes in and hikes himself up onto the kitchen counter. "I hate trills," he says, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"Here," Rodney says, and takes Sheppard's left hand, making it as brash a grab as possible. He rubs Sheppard's palm, digging his thumb into the hollow and then pressing into the fleshy heel of his hand. Sheppard shuts his eyes and groans, and Rodney narrows his focus to Sheppard's hand, studying the long fingers and hairy knuckles, completely ignoring Sheppard's over-enthusiastic moaning. He rolls each of Sheppard's fingers between his, and then repeats the works on Sheppard's other hand. By the time he's done, Sheppard's leaning back lazily against the cabinets, looking at Rodney through hazy eyes. Rodney lets go of his hand and picks up the pen he was holding before the detour into erotic hand massage.

"Hope you really did cash out your 401k," Rodney says, underlining the most expensive items on his list as a way to keep his mind – and hands – occupied. His shopping list is likely to cost Sheppard upward of a thousand dollars.

"I need to ask you a favor," Sheppard says, interrupting Rodney's thoughts.

When Sheppard doesn't expound on the favor, Rodney looks up from the grocery list. "Yes, what?"

"Will you come to the Saint-Saëns rehearsal?" Sheppard asks.

Rodney had been planning to practice while Sheppard was gone. He's itching to get to his violin even now, but he was waiting for Sheppard to leave. His hesitation must take Sheppard by surprise, because a shocked expression crosses his face before he can school it back into his normal, affable half-smile.

"You don't have to – it's no big deal."

"Of course I will," Rodney blurts out, even though he had no intention of doing so half a second ago.

Rodney gets in a measly forty-five minutes of practice before they're in the car, playing guess the composer and driving to another state. After the obviously funny ones ("Symphony Fantastique," Sheppard says, and Rodney counters with "L'Oiseau de Feu" which takes Sheppard a second while he translates it from the French) Sheppard busts out Piano Concerto number two. Rodney starts with Brahms, but it takes him almost the whole car ride and two hints to get Lukas Foss. Rodney hadn't even known Foss wrote piano concertos.

~~~

The rehearsal is awful; the flutist is so out of tune Rodney's ready to rip his hair out and the violins can't even play the right notes, much less bow the same direction. Sheppard has to make up for the dolt of a conductor by adjusting his tempos on the fly, and in one horrifying near-miss, skipping ahead two bars when the conductor brings the orchestra in early.

At the break, Rodney comes up to the stage and waits while Sheppard talks to the conductor, their heads bent over the score. Rodney catches snippets of the conversation and shakes his head as it's clear that the conductor couldn't follow a soloist if he was handcuffed to him. Sheppard shakes the conductor's hand and flashes his best fake-charming smile.

Sheppard comes over and sits down, dangling his legs over the side of the stage and kicking it with his heels.

"This is a nightmare," Rodney complains. "The orchestra can hardly play and that moron! He doesn't even know his score."

"Shh," Sheppard whispers. "I've talked to him, told him my main tempo changes. I don't really think it's my place to mention the strings can't start together and the winds are out of tune." Frustration is radiating off Sheppard, and Rodney feels for him. He's played with second tier orchestras now and again, but this is more like the orchestra satan probably has lined up to play with Rodney for his eternity in hell.

The conductor comes over to stand by Rodney and Sheppard introduces them. "Peter Kavanagh, this is Rodney McKay."

"Thrilled," the conductor says, offering his hand. "I have several of your recordings, I like the Barber in particular."

"Thanks," Rodney answers, smiling tightly and crossing his arms. Like hell, he's going to shake this hack's hand. "I'm sorry to say I can't return the compliment. Your orchestra's accompaniment of Dr. Sheppard is awful."

"Rodney!" Sheppard says, his face pinkening. "I'm sorry, Maestro." Sheppard glares at Rodney like he expects Rodney to apologize for stating his opinion.

The conductor has the gall to laugh. "We're doing the best we can," Kavanagh says. "We're no Boston Symphony."

"You can say that again," Rodney huffs.

"Rodney," Sheppard growls, and the note of warning in his voice makes Rodney back off. Fine. Sheppard can fight his own battles. Rodney stomps back to his seat and wishes desperately for the iPod he left at Sheppard's.

Rehearsal resumes, and Rodney tries to keep his mouth shut – even bites his fist for a while. Hello, clarinet, you only get two measures of crappy solo in this whole thing – maybe you shouldn't miss it? Violas, are you illiterate? Read the key signature! Horns, where are you? I think you're in the wrong movement!

Rodney can hear Sheppard trying to push the tempo and then having to pull himself back as the orchestra plods along with its ignorant conductor. After the third time, Kavanagh stops the orchestra and turns to Sheppard, saying, "You're rushing there."

Sheppard's jaw drops in surprise and that is it. Rodney can't sit by and let this joke of a musician dictate to Sheppard how to play his solo. He stands and stomps up to the stage, shouting as he moves. "Orchestra, this is Dr. John Sheppard. He's your soloist. That means he should be able to play the Saint-Saëns any way he wants, and you should let him. All you have to do is follow along and not fuck up."

"Rodney," Sheppard says, with menace. He and Sheppard have never directly butted heads before, but he's pretty certain that he's more willing to bitch these people out than Sheppard is to drag him bodily off the stage, so he keeps moving, climbing onto the stage and walking right up to the conductor's podium.

"Mr. McKay," Kavanagh says icily, and the violinists all look up at him. That's when the whispering starts, and it only takes thirty seconds for the whole orchestra to be staring at him with wide eyes.

Sheppard's glaring, and that's fine, Sheppard should be pissed off. He's only had five performances in the last four months, and god, Rodney hopes they haven't all gone this badly.

"Maestro," Rodney says, forcing the word out of his mouth, "if I might?" Rodney knows he's pushing the conductor's limits, but he doesn't care. He stands expectantly next to the podium and waits. He'd never play with the Providence orchestra, so he can't hold that over their heads, but he's pretty certain he could make a convincing speech to the board of directors to fire their idiot of a music director.

The conductor – Paul? Patrick? – finally steps down, glaring at Rodney, and it's not the first time in his life he's been glad looks don't kill. Kavanagh doesn't leave the stage, standing off to the side of the cellos, like all Rodney's going to do is give a pep talk.

Rodney steps on to the podium and looks around at the orchestra. "You get paid to do this, right?" The first violist nods. "Then it is this simple," Rodney says, doing his best to keep his voice from climbing into the stratosphere. "Count. Listen. Play accordingly. All I should have to do is rein you in if something goes funny."

Rodney turns around and looks at Sheppard. He's still angry, but he's listening with as much attention as the orchestra, most of which is staring at Rodney with open astonishment on their faces. "From the top."

Sheppard begins to play, freer than he had been, and Rodney closes his eyes and listens. The orchestra's entrance is coming up, and he raises his arms to give the chords. They come in together, but atrociously out of tune. He ignores it for the moment, letting them continue without him until the piano solo takes over again. "I said listen!" he shouts over Sheppard's solo. "That means intonation too, for crying out loud!"

The opening of the first movement is mostly piano, with easy accompanying bits in the orchestra, and it goes smoothly until the flute comes in again. "Keep going," Rodney says, rolling his hands to keep them moving along. "Except you," he says, pointing at the flute player. "Push that head joint in, or I will come over there and do it for you. You are flat."

Sheppard continues, and the movement takes on a new sound as the orchestra figures out how to stay with him. Rodney pushes them along when Sheppard picks up the tempo. "He is not a twelve-year-old. Follow him! He knows how fast he can go."

Sheppard doesn't even register the comment, and he looks like he's finally enjoying himself. The winds come in again, and the flutist is within the realm of the rest of the woodwinds. "Better," Rodney says.

At the end of the movement, the orchestra looks up at him expectantly. "Next movement," he says and Sheppard looks positively gleeful.

The next two movements are fast and straightforward, so the only thing Rodney has to do is push and pull the tempo on occasion. When they finish the piece, the orchestra looks up at him with surprised faces.

"Adequate," Rodney says, and some of the faces fall. "You must still listen. Winds, play ahead of the beat. You understand the physics of sound, right? Your sound has to travel further to be heard, therefore you must play ahead to be heard at the same time." The horns nod at him and the rest of the winds look skeptical.

"Intonation is not optional," Rodney says, ticking complaint number two off on his fingers. "This is a piano solo, therefore, unless he's not playing, which happens for a total of approximately fifteen seconds in this piece, you should be playing in tune with him."

"Finally," Rodney says, raising three fingers for the orchestra to see, "get a recording of this piece and listen to it until you know where all you entrances are." He looks down his nose at the horns.

Rodney steps down and the principal cellist starts clapping. Most of the orchestra joins in, though there are several sour faces in the crowd and Kavanagh certainly looks like he swallowed a lemon. Rodney waves it off, clambering down from the stage and leaving the auditorium. Technically they have another forty minutes of rehearsal left, but Rodney doesn't want to hang around for any more. He knows he's overstepped his bounds, and even though he's saved the performance, Sheppard's probably going to be pissed off.

Musicians start filing out a few minutes later, the strings first, then some winds, then the stragglers, the suck-ups that stay after to talk to the conductor and the slowpokes that clean and sanitize their instruments before leaving.

A few of them try to sidle over to him, one even offers him a cigarette, and if he was ever remotely tempted, now would be the time. He shakes his head, and exchanges a few pleasantries with the young man. Another time, Rodney might push it a little, see if he's interested, but Sheppard stalks out of the building, and he's frowning so severely, Rodney worries he might pop a blood vessel.

Rodney thanks the guy and gets into step with Sheppard, who's ignoring him and walking incredibly fast toward the car. Rodney decides to wait it out, see if he can get Sheppard to talk first.

That lasts for about ten minutes. Rodney makes a play for the radio, until Sheppard turns a glower on him that makes Rodney worry Sheppard might rip his hand off. He pulls his hand back in and crosses his arms.

"Fine," he says, "Say it."

Sheppard stares straight ahead and keeps his silence.

"I'm not sorry, so if you're looking for an apology, you can give up right now."

Rodney stares out the window for a few more minutes before giving it another try.

"Are you ever going to speak to me again? Or does this juvenile tactic mean I'm going to have to speak to you through Ronon for the rest of our lives? Because I'm not sure he has enough words in his vocabulary to adequately express how immature you're being."

"I told you to back off," Sheppard says, and while there's heat there, it doesn't seem like Rodney's antics are what's pissing Sheppard off.

"Come on," Rodney says. "I bitch about the New York Phil. You think you can take me to a crappy orchestra rehearsal and I'll be able to sit quietly? I kept it in check until he said something about your solo."

"And it was my job to tell him–"

"Tell him what, Sheppard? You were speechless."

"I would have recovered," Sheppard says. "I was–"

"And said what?" Rodney ignores Sheppard's protests. "I meant to rush there," he simpers. "It was ridiculous. You're too good for that."

"I'm not!" Sheppard shouts, and Rodney's heart skips as he gets what this is all about. "I'm not you, Rodney. I have to take what I can get–" Sheppard's voice chokes off, and Rodney immediately regrets saying yes to this misadventure. He should have begged off and practiced.

"You think that's what you deserve?" Rodney asks, wishing he could force Sheppard to look at him. "John, you are better than this. I don't even know why you're taking these shitty gigs."

"I need the practice," Sheppard says, his typical self-deprecation walking the razor-thin line of self-loathing.

"Wrong," Rodney says. "You'll have plenty of practice when you take over for Teyla. After the Rach with Orpheus, you'll be able to play with real orchestras."

Sheppard lets out a sarcastic laugh, a low little 'ha.'

"I'm serious," Rodney insists. "You'll get reviews, and it won't take long before you have second tier orchestras asking for you. Then it's only a season before the big boys come calling." Rodney debates putting a hand on Sheppard's arm, but decides it's probably not a good idea. "You will get plenty of time with decent orchestras. These hacks don't deserve you."

Sheppard's hands are tight on the steering wheel but his body has lost some of the wiry tautness. "I don't know if I'll ever be as good as I used to be," he says, and Rodney has to bite his tongue. John's not as good as he used to be – he's ten times better.

"You're already better than you were as a kid," Rodney says earnestly, going for it and laying a hand softly on Sheppard's arm. "Trust me. If you've lost technique then you had plenty to spare, and now you're an adult – you have wisdom and insight and decent interpretation. It's worth whatever skill you thought you had."

Sheppard tensed up when Rodney touched him, so he lets his hand drop as naturally as he can. "Seriously, John. They won't know what hit them tomorrow night."

Sheppard twists his hands around the steering wheel and his whole body pitches forward a little. "Yeah, okay. I can sub for a twelve-year-old."

"Jesus christ, are you listening to me?" Rodney practically shouts. "You can play for anyone you want, Sheppard, so I'm telling you right now – no more crap orchestras. My nerves can't take it."

Sheppard laughs, a nice fat honking sound, and Rodney shakes his head, chuckling like he always does at Sheppard's obnoxious laugh. "I better not, then," Sheppard says, patting Rodney's hand delicately. "We wouldn't want you to have a fainting spell."

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

Rodney feels weirdly nervous the next night, wearing khakis and a button down to a concert. He doesn't normally go to concerts he's not performing in, and all he really knows about audience etiquette is that you don't wear a tux and you don't clap between movements. He's not likely to applaud anyway, considering the crap orchestra and its crap conductor.

Sheppard plays first, which adds insult to injury in Rodney's opinion, but at least he doesn't have to sit through an impossibly bad rendition of the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony to get to Sheppard's performance. Rodney paces backstage as Sheppard runs through some quick and dirty warm-ups on the Blüthner grand piano. Sheppard doesn't look too nervous on stage, but when he joins Rodney for the short walk to his dressing room, Rodney can see the greenish tinge to his skin.

"What have you done the last four concerts?" Rodney asks, because if he had to deal with nausea every time he performed, he'd give it up without a second thought.

"I haven't been nervous the last four concerts," Sheppard answers, and Rodney remembers his own brief bout of stage fright at the thought of Sheppard in his audience.

"I don't have to–" Rodney starts, but he knows he's lying, and he can't force the words out. He doesn't know why he can't say he'll wait in the car and then sneak into the concert hall when the lights go down, but he can't.

Sheppard looks up at him and grins, and some of the green fades at the same time his ears turn pink. "Jeez, Rodney, you're like a mother hen."

Maternal is nowhere near the instinct he's feeling, but he doesn't say anything else, as a knock on Sheppard's door with a call of "Fifteen minutes, Dr. Sheppard," interrupts his train of thought.

As Rodney makes note of Sheppard's panicked glance at the door, he's about to break out Sonata No. 1, but an email from Ford about reservations for the next month stops him. He nixes two of the hotels and rolls his eyes when Ford texts him to give the hotels a chance. He's trying to get Rodney more points by staying with a particular chain, but he's never like Hiltons and there aren't Omnis every city he plays in. He rolls his eyes and texts back Whatever you want – but the beds better be comfortable.

By the time he's done texting, it's five to and he really needs to get out of Sheppard's dressing room. When he looks up at Sheppard – who's lost a lot of the green tinge, thankfully – he smiles and turns back to his phone to turn it off.

"Better get out there," Sheppard says. "Wouldn't want to have to wrestle the old ladies for a good seat."

Rodney nods and briefly considers shaking Sheppard's hand and wishing him luck, but that seems too formal, and all the informal options involve more touching than Rodney wants to think about. He backs away to the door and tosses "break a leg" over his shoulder before leaving the room.

He glances around as he heads to his seat, trying to scout a better location in the hall; Rodney had called to claim Sheppard's comp ticket late, and he's too far back to be able to see Sheppard well. There's an open seat next to an elderly lady, and he decides to chance it as the lights dim.

"May I?" Rodney asks, and the woman starts at the sound of his voice. "Is anyone sitting here?" he asks patiently.

"Oh, no," she says, entirely too loudly for the darkened theater, "Edgar died last year, and I have such a difficult time finding someone to come with me to these things."

Rodney nods energetically and slides into the seat as a chorus of 'shhhh!' comes from a couple of rows back.

"I'm Wilhelmina Perkins," she says, ignoring the warning and offering her hand to him limply. He doesn't know what he's supposed to do, exactly, so he shakes it gingerly, hoping not to break anything.

"Rodney McKay," he says, pleased when her eyebrows go up.

"Not the violinist?" she asks, and Rodney opens his mouth to answer when they get shushed again. He settles for a short nod, and a shrugged shoulder to indicate they should quiet down.

He settles in, leaning into Wilhelmina's space a bit to see if he can get a better view of the keyboard. She clears her throat delicately, and he rolls his eyes. "I'm sorry, I want to be able to see Sheppard's hands," he starts, and she smiles warmly at him.

"Let's trade seats," she says as the concertmaster comes on stage and plays an A on the piano for the oboist to tune from. The oboist ignores the piano (which is approximately six cents sharp) and tunes to A440. Fantastic, Rodney thinks, migraine by two minutes after eight.

He climbs over Wilhelmina and lets her settle into her seat before he sits again. He still can see the keyboard mostly, if he leans into the aisle just a bit.

The orchestra quiets, and the stage door opens. Polite applause greets Sheppard and the maestro, and Rodney finds he's clapping after all. Sheppard scans the audience, and Rodney enjoys the brief moment of self-delusion that Sheppard is looking for him. Sheppard bows, one hand on the piano, and takes a seat without the ridiculous flip of his tails. Rodney frowns; he hadn't even noticed Sheppard wasn't wearing tails.

The audience, respectfully quiet before the piece started, shifts to rapt attention as soon as Sheppard plays his first notes, and almost as quickly, Rodney forgets all about anything outside of Sheppard, leaning into the piano like he's going to press through it right into the floor.

The melancholy opening cadenza makes Rodney's breath catch, the slow climb stretched so every subtle shift of harmonies is like a single step on an infinite staircase. And just like Sisyphus, as soon as the melody crawls out of the depths, it starts right back at the bottom. Rodney shivers, and somewhere in his mind it registers that Wilhelmina has put a hand on his arm.

The orchestra comes in right on time, and even though Rodney was expecting it, he's jolted out of his trance. They sound better than he's ever heard them, better than he could even imagine them, perhaps because they can sense the difference between what Sheppard has given them in rehearsals and the transcendent beauty of what he's doing now. Even with the orchestra's good intentions, they're still at a level so far beneath him they can't do anything but detract from the building wave that is Sheppard focusing on every detail of the performance.

He watches Sheppard follow the winds as he accompanies their melody, and something in the orchestra transforms, a subtle shift in their reaction to him that means they start to move with him instead of fight him. The intonation still makes Rodney cringe, but the movement is right – they're getting it – and Sheppard pushes to the front again, his solo instantly capturing Rodney's entire attention. His worries about the orchestra fade as Sheppard lays out the melody dreamily, the sadness of the opening slipping away even in his features as his mouth loses its tense set.

The movement swells, the lazy sorrow bursting into a not-quite-happy sort of determination, and Rodney's pulse speeds up as he recognizes the trills Sheppard practiced over and over again while Rodney dozed in his living room. He can feel his shoulders tense up, but Sheppard not only nails it, he adds a sort of majesty that Rodney has never gotten out of this piece before. And that, he thinks is why a twelve-year-old shouldn't be allowed to play anything more emotionally challenging than early Mozart. Sheppard's hands and arms move jaggedly over the keyboard, the melody cresting with crashing octaves before slipping back to the subdued opening phrases in the recapitulation.

Rodney takes a shaky breath at the end of the movement, and glances down at the hand on his arm before looking up at Wilhelmina, whose eyes are shiny bright in the half-light. Maybe she's got glaucoma, Rodney thinks, though he's feeling a little raw himself from Sheppard's near-perfect first movement.

Wilhelmina squeezes his arm as the timpani opens the second movement, and the huge grin on Sheppard's face as he bounces through the playful melody makes Rodney feel like someone's squeezed the air right out of him. The opening shifts into a bawdy little section, and Rodney sees Sheppard's smile settle into an amused smirk as his hands fly over the piano, and the exceptionally light touch Sheppard uses makes Rodney shift in his seat. He understands why young players think this piece is a good match; on the surface this is an adorable little romp, but the undertone of the B theme is definitely more mature than that, and if Sheppard's cues are too subtle for the rest of the audience to catch, then too bad for them.

In the two seconds between the second movement and the third, Wilhelmina leans in and says, "He's a cheeky one, then," and Rodney clamps his mouth shut on the laugh he can't quite control. A couple of heads turn in the rows ahead of him, but he doesn't think the sound made it to the front of the auditorium.

Sheppard's leaning into the piano again at the start of the third movement, lending the notes weight and breadth, something, thank god, the orchestra picks up. The movement is fast, but far from light, and as it flies by, Rodney has to remember more than once to stop holding his breath. He can feel his heartbeat thumping in his throat, especially as another trill section comes up and he has a sudden sense memory of John's hand in his, warm and pliant.

The movement plows on to the inevitable ending, just as fast as the Barber, and Rodney knows his fingers are just as deft as Sheppard's, but the distance Sheppard covers, traveling from one end of the keyboard to the other, the way he plays with his entire body, makes Rodney simultaneously envious and horny. He sits forward in his seat, and by the time Sheppard is racing to the finish, Rodney's hovering, barely even in his seat any more, waiting to jump up and start the applause.

The final three chords sound and Rodney's on his feet, clapping wildly. A few others in the audience stood as quickly as Rodney (including a surprisingly nimble Wilhelmina) and the rest of the crowd stands quickly enough, giving Sheppard the recognition he deserves. Rodney waits a moment, letting the whistles and calls settle before cupping his hands and shouting "Bravo!" at the top of his lungs. Sheppard swivels toward the sound, his eyes scanning the crowd.

Sheppard leaves the stage and the applause continues for three more curtain calls, the first for Sheppard alone, which earns him a lot more whistles and shouts, the second he returns with Kavanagh, something Rodney wouldn't have done, but he supposes Sheppard can afford to be generous while he's still playing with the minor leagues. Kavanagh calls for the orchestra stand, and the applause lags a little. The third curtain call is all Sheppard, though Kavanagh trails him on stage, looking a little confused.

Rodney's practically running for backstage as soon as Sheppard takes his final bow. He acknowledges the orchestra, shakes the concertmaster's hand, and then the principal cellist's and jesus, Rodney thinks, get offstage already. This orchestra did you no favors.

There are a few orchestra members milling around and Rodney bustles through the wings, and only one is stupid enough to talk to him even though he's hell bent on getting to Sheppard. He doesn't stop, catches a snatch of what the man was saying, something about the Barber or the Korngold, a recording.

Kavanagh is in the back hallway, shaking hands and smiling like he did any of the work to make this an incredible performance, and Rodney sneers at him as he hurries past. Sheppard should be out here shaking hands and charming people, not this moron.

He gets to the green room and thinks about knocking for approximately three nanoseconds before simply opening the door and walking in. "Congratulations!"

The word hangs in the air uncomfortably as Rodney stares at a half-naked Sheppard, in tux pants with the suspenders hanging down, his hands on one of his ubiquitous black t-shirts. Rodney slams the door shut and goes into full assault mode.

"What are you doing?! You're supposed to be out there shaking hands and taking credit for that performance! The little old ladies are all fawning over Kavanagh, as if he had anything to do with it."

"I didn't feel like–"

"I don't care what you feel like! This is part of being a performer. Put your shirt back on, get buttoned up and get your ass out there!"

"Rodney," Sheppard complains, and the whiny tinge to his voice sends Rodney right over the edge. He picks up Sheppard's tux shirt from the floor and starts stuffing Sheppard's arms in it.

"I came back here to congratulate you on getting out of that with your balls intact, and you're cowering in your dressing room. For crying out loud, that shouldn't have been half as good as it was, and if that's how you perform when you're handicapped with this sort of crap orchestra, I can't wait to see what Weir's going to make of you when you play with Orpheus." Sheppard's twisting around, making it nearly impossible to pull the shirt on. "Stop that, here, let me get this over your shoulders."

Rodney concentrates on pulling Sheppard's shirt on, turning him around roughly to work on the buttons. "Rodney," Sheppard says, and Rodney glances up at him. He's looking down at Rodney fondly, and when the hell did he get so tall? Rodney continues with the buttons, but he's run out of steam to rant at Sheppard, especially when the performance was so inspired.

"John," Rodney says, and all the tension returns to Sheppard's body in a rush, his lackadaisical façade completely blown. "You were amazing out there. Beyond what any of those people expected. Beyond what anyone expected, except me. And maybe O'Neill."

Finished with Sheppard's cuffs, Rodney steps back to pick up the jacket. Sheppard's staring down at the floor, and Rodney wonders absently how long this strange humility will last. He snaps his fingers impatiently. "Come on, there are still some little old ladies hanging around to molest you."

Sheppard turns around and lets Rodney slip the jacket on, buttoning it up before he turns around to present himself for inspection. Rodney nods tersely. "Acceptable. Now get out there."

Rodney waits in the dressing room long enough for Sheppard to get into the thick of things before exiting and standing far enough away from the proceedings to avoid the press of people and talcum powder smell.

"Oh, there you are," a crackly voice says, and Rodney turns around to see Wilhelmina exiting the ladies room.

"You know you should use the restrooms in the front of the theater," Rodney says, before he can stop himself. "These are for the musicians," he adds lamely.

"Those are too crowded," she says smartly, and leans in to Rodney to whisper. "Besides, I've paid for a large part of this building, so I'm claiming this bathroom."

Rodney chuckles and offers his arm. "May I introduce you to the soloist? Dr. Sheppard is an acquaintance."

"An acquaintance, eh?" Wilhelmina asks, and takes his arm. "Lead the way, Mr. McKay."

Rodney walks her over to where Sheppard is holding court, and elbows his way to the front of the crowd, viciously elbowing a fawning woman in an inappropriately low-cut dress.

"Dr. Sheppard," Rodney says, and Sheppard grins at him, amusement clear on his face.

"Mr. McKay," he answers.

"I'd like to introduce you to Wilhelmina."

"Pleasure to meet you, ma'am," Sheppard says, taking her hand gently and pressing his lips to it. Rodney rolls his eyes behind her back. "I hope you enjoyed the performance."

"Oh, yes, it was quite transporting," Wilhelmina says, and pulls her hand back firmly.

Surprise briefly crosses Sheppard's face, but he covers quickly and inclines his head. "I'm pleased to hear it."

"I think I've heard you before, young man," she says, and the smile drops right off Sheppard's face. "You were at Julliard?" she asks.

Sheppard clears his throat, shooting a quick look at Rodney. "A long time ago," he finally answers.

"Yes, twenty years or so. But you played Brahms with the orchestra, I remember."

Sheppard swallows. "Yes, ma'am. When I was a sophomore." He looks like a trapped animal, and Rodney would rescue him except he has a deep desire to learn everything he can about Sheppard's past at Julliard, his wasted potential and the vagaries of fate that led him here.

"Jack told me you were the best student he'd had in twenty years." Rodney starts at the mention of O'Neill.

Sheppard laughs. "He'd only been at Julliard for six years when I got there, ma'am."

She smiles indulgently. "Yes, but he'd been teaching for a lot longer than that."

Suddenly Rodney puts it all together. "Oh my god, you're Billie Evans!"

Sheppard's face goes slack, his mouth hanging open gracelessly. "I have every bootleg recording of your performances that's ever existed!"

She smiles up at them. "That was a long time ago," she says, and nods at something behind Sheppard. "Kavanagh is heading back to the podium," she says, and Rodney feels a pang of guilt for planning to skip the second half of the concert, but then Billie whispers, "Let's get out of here before they murder the Mendelssohn," and appropriates Rodney's arm.

~~~

Three hours later, as Rodney is gorging himself on warm bread pudding with pears at some restaurant Billie loves. They've talked for hours about performing and Julliard and O'Neill, and Rodney really can't imagine how he was ever intimidated by a guy who thought smuggling a skeleton into the staff coat closet for Halloween was the epitome of practical jokes.

"I think that's why he likes Crumb," Sheppard is saying, and Rodney nearly snorts bread pudding out his nose.

"Tell me he doesn't have expensive pianos," Rodney says. "They're such a waste for Crumb."

"Only the best," Billie says, "two Steinways, both over a hundred years old."

Rodney groans.

"We played a Crumb duet once, Zeitgeist. I spent two hours preparing my piano for that concert. He walked in, threw a handful of screws in the strings, put a couple of pieces of paper on top, and said, 'let's go!'"

Sheppard chuckles and scoops up a bit of bread pudding. "I bet he had them all right, too, didn't he?"

"Of course," Billie says, sighing. "The bastard. He must have been practicing preparing the piano. Silly me, I actually practiced the music."

There's maybe half a spoonful of bread pudding left, and before Rodney can even get his utensil off the table, Billie swoops in and takes it, licking her spoon obscenely when she's done.

"I should get home," Billie says, and fiddling with her handbag and pulling out a credit card.

"Oh no," Rodney says, immediately reaching for his wallet. "This is on me. Think of it as payment for all the dirt on O'Neill."

Billie inclines her head. "Very well then. This was really quite enjoyable. I was so pleased to hear you were performing again, Dr. Sheppard."

"Thank you," Sheppard says, ducking his head a little. "It's all because of Rodney," he says, and Rodney opens his mouth to deny it, but Billie's too fast for him.

"I don't doubt it. You make a lovely couple."

Sheppard nearly chokes on his tongue and Rodney shoots out of the booth saying, "No, no, you misunderstand, we're just friends, he's subbing for Teyla, I…" The rest of his stumbling explanation dies on his lips when he realizes both Billie and Sheppard are giving him sharp-eyed looks.

"What?" he says, turning on Sheppard, because Billie may not be delicate, but she's old, and he has no idea what might cause a stroke or something. "You of all people should want to protect your reputation as a ladies' man!"

"Forgive me," Billie says, clambering out of the booth and setting a hand on Rodney's arm. "I simply meant that you seem to fit together well."

Rodney nods, irrationally angry at Sheppard's frown, and stomps off to the cash register to pay the bill. The machine takes forever to print, and he sees Billie kiss Sheppard on the cheek and hears the bell on the door jingle as she leaves. He ignores Sheppard moseying over to him lazily, almost reluctantly.

"Smooth, Rodney."

"I was just trying to do you a favor," Rodney says, ruthlessly signing his name to the receipt, ripping the bottom of it for his trouble.

"You have a weird idea of a favor," Sheppard says, but he claps Rodney on the back and chortles, a short broken series of sounds that's surprisingly contagious.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

They spend Saturday morning warming up in their separate areas of the house, Rodney with his earphones on to avoid listening to Sheppard's Chopin préludes when he has the Tchaikovsky to work on. The technique practice is the easy part; he can shut off his brain and work his fingers or his bow without thinking about anything. As soon as he starts one of the lyrical sections, though, he can see Dmitri dancing along, and he stops. He has no idea how he's going to get through this onstage. It doesn't seem possible.

Sheppard knocks on his door after he's stopped the melody one last time, and he throws open the door, glad for a distraction.

"Lunch?"

"Yes," Rodney says, loosening his bow and tucking things in their case. "I'm starving."

They jostle each other down the stairs, and Sheppard spends a few minutes gathering a truly impressive number of takeout menus from various hidey-holes around the kitchen. He hands them all over to Rodney, who separates them by cuisine and puts all the Chinese and Thai ones on a pile.

"How's the Tchaikovsky going?" Sheppard asks.

"Fine," Rodney says, flipping through another Chinese menu, "how's the Rach?"

"I heard you," Sheppard says. "You can't even get through a whole phrase."

"I can get through the whole piece, thanks for your concern," Rodney says, switching to a Thai menu for a restaurant named Montien.

"I just meant that maybe I can help," Sheppard says, and Rodney shuffles the menus again, determined not to think about it. "I could play the orchestral parts," Sheppard clarifies. "So you can't stop."

It's a brilliant idea; Sheppard calls every bookstore in Boston and finally finds a copy of the score at the Barnes and Noble in Braintree. They stop for Thai on the way, Sheppard making a spectacular mess of himself, trying to eat his noodles and drive at the same time.

The afternoon goes much smoother. Sheppard plays the orchestral parts for the Tchaikovsky from the score (sight-reading like a monster, which is so unfair) and nudges Rodney to keep going. After half an hour or so, memories of Dmitri fade, and Rodney can get through the second movement without stopping even once. It helps that Sheppard interprets the music like he's pulling it out of Rodney's brain, and he has some strange ability to change the timbre of the piano to make it sound almost like a wind section or oboe solo.

They finish reading the Tchaikovsky by four o'clock and Rodney makes Sheppard take him shopping before they have to order in another dinner. All the greasy food is wreaking havoc with his digestive system.

They start at Williams and Sonoma, and Rodney goes a little crazy, deciding to try crème brûlée and buying miniature ramekins and a mini-blowtorch. He also buys a complete set of Wüsthof knives. He collects saucepans, frying pans, mixing bowls and all sorts of utensils from all over the store, and they walk out with nearly a thousand dollars' worth of kitchen items and Sheppard doesn't even blink at the price tag.

"All right, where do you get your money?" Rodney asks, and he seems to remember Jeannie telling him that it's uncouth to talk about money, but there's too much about John Sheppard he doesn't know, and if he has to kill someone to find out why he has a million dollar house on a professor's salary, then he will.

"Don't you know you never ask a girl that?" Sheppard answers, fluttering his eyelashes. "It's rude."

"That's weight, Sheppard, and you're a hundred and eighty if you're a pound. I don't care about that – I want to know where you get the kind of money that you can throw it around on stocking a kitchen with first rate cooking gear that we both know you'll never use."

"A hundred and eighty?" Sheppard balks, turning to look at himself in a display window. "Are you serious?"

"Oh, come on. You look skinny, but you run, and I know about the muscles in your arms from first-hand experience."

Sheppard raises his eyebrows and Rodney shakes his head disgustedly. "I can see them when you're performing, you narcissistic idiot. Come on, we have to get to the grocery store and the liquor store yet."

"Whole Foods first," Sheppard says, "Liquor store's open 'til eleven."

They spend over two hundred dollars at Whole Foods, and Rodney makes Sheppard pay for all of it, which he regrets later as they're unpacking and he sees the Sharon, 617-555-1692 written in Sharpie on one of the grocery bags.

"Seriously," Rodney says, putting the vegetables in the crisper, "how do you avoid being trampled by your copious admirers?"

"It's just a phone number. It's not like I'm going to call her." Sheppard folds the paper bags up and starts a collection off to one side of the pantry. Rodney snorts and continues stuffing food into the refrigerator and throwing out old takeout cartons until it looks like a normal human being lives in the Sheppard household.

"There," he says, wiping his hands on his pants and groaning as he stands up. "Oh, my back is going to kill me tomorrow."

Sheppard slips off the counter he was sitting on, ties up the garbage bag Rodney cleaned his mold collection out with, and takes it out the back door. Rodney surveys his handiwork, going over a recipe in his head. He grabs the sausage and parmesan cheese, stops in the pantry for an onion, some beef broth, and the Arborio rice. He throws it all on the counter and quickly washes the largest frying pan Sheppard bought.

"What're you doing?" Sheppard asks when he gets in.

"Dice this," Rodney says, handing over the onion and one of his new, extremely sharp knives. "We're making risotto."

"Risotto? Sounds complicated."

"Not really. If Teyla can manage it, anyone can." Teyla's been banned from the kitchen when Rodney's cooking, but apparently Kate has a keener sense of adventure, and she reported to Rodney that Teyla made a respectable risotto, only burning the bottom of the pan. Kate likes the burnt bits, so that probably worked out well for them.

Rodney cooks the sausage while he listens to Sheppard chop onions and whistle Papageno's birdcatcher aria. Opera. Opera and Brahms. Rodney shakes his head and sets the browned sausage aside. "Bet you can't sing the Queen of the Night," Rodney says, mostly to see if Sheppard will go for it in some crazy falsetto. He steals the pile of onions and throws it into the pan with the grease, laughing like a maniac when Sheppard does, indeed, start singing the aria in a voice that should not be possible short of Sheppard being a castrato. Rodney spares a glance for his crotch. It's hard to tell, but considering how hairy he is, his balls are probably functioning just fine.

"Are you checking me out?" Sheppard asks, and Rodney jerks his eyes up to Sheppard's face.

"No," Rodney answers, though he can feel his neck getting warm. "Just wondering if you're actually a castrato or if you're taking estrogen supplements."

Sheppard laughs so hard he snorts and Rodney will never, ever be able to take him seriously again. "Come here and stir this," he says, feigning annoyance. Sheppard resumes his aria, stirring as Rodney adds ingredients and sticks a spoon in to taste.

Twenty minutes later, Rodney's cheeks hurt from smiling for twenty minutes straight at Sheppard's perfectly in tune falsetto rendition of the most famous coloratura solo in the history of opera, and Sheppard is moaning around a spoonful of risotto like he's having mind-blowing sex. Personally, Rodney figures the risotto comes in around a seven point five.

"Can you make this every meal from now on?" Sheppard asks, kicking his heels against the cupboards. "Because I think this is the best thing I have ever eaten, and I don't even know what it is."

"No," Rodney answers, "because there are a lot of other things I want to try while I have access to this kitchen."

Sheppard eats in silence for a little while, and Rodney's about to throw his dish in the dishwasher and head upstairs for a couple of hours of practice when Sheppard says, quietly, "You can borrow the kitchen any time, you know."

"Thanks," Rodney says, not quite able to inject the required amount of sarcasm. He grabs for Sheppard's empty bowl and puts it in the dishwasher with his own. "I'm going to go practice," Rodney says, his smile an echo of the one he was wearing half an hour ago.

~~~

Scotland the Brave interrupts Rodney's practice of the Fratres, which is something of a relief, as it's a little boring to saw away on arpeggios without the harmonic background of the orchestra.

Carson tells him about contracts he needs to sign and tells him to remind Maestro Dex about rushing the recording through to make sure it's eligible for the 2018 Grammys, and not in direct competition with Sheppard in 2019. They chat for a while before Carson switches topic, subtle as a jackhammer.

"I got a call from Peter Kavanagh," Carson says casually, and it takes a moment for Rodney to remember the person that goes with the name.

"So?" Rodney asks when he finally remembers.

"So, he mentioned you."

"So what?" Rodney didn’t think Kavanagh would have the nerve to do more than whine to his friends and family.

"He threatened to blackball John," Carson says, and Rodney's anger goes ice cold. He's going to bury this guy.

"I want to talk to the Providence Symphony board of directors," Rodney says, and Carson tuts quietly.

"Believe it or not, Rodney, I am able to handle these things." Carson's soothing tone holds a note of warning. "I told him he owed you a guest conducting fee," Carson says, and chuckles. "And I dropped the hint that if he said anything less than glowing about John's performance or your assistance, that I'd be speaking to their numerous fine benefactors."

Rodney gapes for only a second until he remembers that this is why he's paying Carson an exorbitant fifteen percent. "Good to know you're earning your keep," Rodney says.

"How did it go, by the way?"

"It was good," Rodney says, fingering the Fratres on his fingerboard.

"Good?" Carson asks, sounding doubtful. "That's high praise coming from you."

It was one of the best performances he's heard in his entire life, but if he said so, Carson would probably tell him lie down and take his temperature. "He played well. He deserves the reviews."

"Too bad the only review will be from the Providence Journal," Carson says. "But it won't be long. I don't suppose we'll get a positive review out of Elizabeth Weir on your next concert in New York?"

"I doubt it," Rodney answers, deciding to give up and pack his violin away. "You read her review of the Tully Hall concert. It was more gossip than review."

"Which, as far as John is concerned, was quite a positive outcome. You, on the other hand," Carson says, not voicing the obvious.

"I'll never get a good review out of her. I don't know what I did, but she's never going to forgive me for it."

"Well, I'd suggest you try and figure it out," Carson says, "for John's sake."

~~~

A lazy Sunday morning means it's too late for a real breakfast when Rodney wakes up and too early for a quick lunch. He wanders through the kitchen grabbing new cookware and random veggies and throwing together spaghetti and a puttanesca sauce. By the time he's finished his stomach is growling loud enough he's surprised Sheppard can't hear it all the way in the music room.

The only rule Rodney enforces at Sheppard's place is that he makes Sheppard come into the kitchen to eat meals. He doesn't know if Sheppard generally eats at his piano, but he's not going to encourage the practice. Sheppard closes his eyes after the first bite of puttanesca, a surprisingly gratifying gesture, considering Rodney's pretty sure he put way too much basil in.

"Why don't you invite that guy up for a while?" Sheppard asks, and when Rodney looks up at him, sitting at his usual spot on the counter, he looks strangely serious. "What's his name, from New York."

"Of course not," Rodney says, strangely annoyed at the suggestion. "I wouldn't invite another guest into your home."

"Mi casa es su casa," Sheppard says. "Come on, you haven't seen him for what, six months? Invite him up."

"He's probably busy," Rodney says, taking another bite of his spaghetti before he can say anything else.

"Come on, Rodney," Sheppard cajoles. "We can bring him with us while you record the Fratres. Any one of my grad students would give their left arm for that privilege."

"It'll be boring as hell," Rodney answers. "I don't even know why you want to be there. You know recording isn't like performing, right?"

"Of course I know," Sheppard says pissily, and Rodney looks down at his bowl when he realizes Sheppard probably doesn't know. He recorded the Rachmaninoff in one go – there are small mistakes throughout the recording that no professional engineer would have let go.

"It'll be boring. And do you really want Chris here? I'm not a saint, I won't–"

"I know, Rodney, that's why I brought it up," Sheppard says, rolling his eyes. "I thought you could use a little something to unwind. You're strung up tight."

"Oh, and you're not?" Rodney asks. "The Rachmaninoff's going to be a breeze, right?"

"This isn't about me," Sheppard says. "I'm trying to let you feel at home, for once in your life. You can bring guests over."

"Oh," Rodney says, playing with his food until he realizes he's not hungry anymore. "That's… thank you." He gets up and dumps the rest of his spaghetti into the sink before he says, "But I don't have his phone number."

He drowns out Sheppard's obnoxious laugh with the garbage disposal.

~~~

Rehearsal with the BSO always starts early. Rodney's almost positive that Ronon does it on purpose because he knows Rodney hates mornings; every other major orchestra Rodney rehearses with schedules time in the afternoon and evenings.

By the time they get to the hall, playing with Sheppard's presets and finishing off Sheppard's coffee in addition to his own has made him feel almost human again. He feels totally himself after a few warm-up scales backstage, and Maestro Dex calls him onstage a few moments later.

There's a smattering of applause as he walks up to the podium to shake Ronon's hand, and he nods in recognition.

"From the top," Ronon says, and raises his baton. Half the orchestra scrambles to get ready to play, and Ronon laughs, turning to Rodney and lowering his baton. Rodney grins, putting up his bow and taking off fast enough on the opening cadenza that the entire violin section just sits back and stares. He turns around and faces the empty auditorium, looking for Sheppard. He's in the back row on the mezzanine level, legs stretched out into the aisle, looking like he's reclining on his exceptionally comfortable sofa instead of the rock hard chairs of Symphony Hall.

He sits up as Rodney starts to play, and Rodney finds himself leaning forward, like he's trying reach Sheppard from where he's standing. He rocks back on his heels before he launches himself offstage, and closes his eyes, concentrating on the perfection of the opening arpeggios, crescendoing through the repetition to the climax of the cadenza, pulling his bow across the strings with an almost desperate force.

The pizzicati ring in the hall, and Rodney looks up at Ronon when the violins come in so subtly, he's not entirely sure he heard them. Ronon is barely moving, his baton tracing delicate shapes in the air in front of him, and the violin section is leaning in, like marionettes with their strings attached to Ronon's stick.

Rodney's arpeggios pick up again, and the violins start with a calmly beautiful chorale, underscoring his gentle waves with the vastness of the ocean. The speed picks up and the color changes, the orchestra meeting the grit in Rodney's tone with more developed sound of their own, and the percussion finally makes an appearance – right on time, as always.

The music continues its pendulum swing from pastoral to stormy and back, and Rodney kicks the podium at one point when Ronon takes a little too much liberty with the tempo, rushing through one of the calm sections on the way to something more interesting. Ronon grins at him wolfishly and writes it in his score – switching the baton to his left hand to continue conducting as he pencils it into the score with his right.

Ronon takes it extra slow at the section with the harmonics to get back at Rodney, and he kicks the podium again, getting a laugh out of the orchestra.

"Come on, Dex, that's ridiculous."

Ronon laughs. "Whatever, McKay, if you can't handle the tempo–"

"I can handle it," Rodney says, ignoring the tittering of the second violins. "It just sounds stupid and you know it. Let's run that section again."

They spend half an hour running the two problem sections and then the piece from top to bottom, and Ronon shakes his hand again before he leaves stage. "Don't forget, you're recording your cadenza tomorrow morning at seven," he says, and Rodney would try to punch him for that, but Ronon's too fast, a fact Rodney knows from painful experience.

"I know, I know, torture McKay for fun and profit."

"Torture?" Sheppard asks as he walks up. "Did I miss something?"

"Just a ridiculous call tomorrow morning, that's all," Rodney answers, and Ronon grins at him and shoos them off the stage.

~~~

Six am comes ridiculously early in the morning, though Sheppard knocking on the door with a steaming cup of coffee certainly takes a bit of the edge off. "Let's go, sleepyhead."

Rodney groans and grabs the mug out of Sheppard's hands, drinking it in five long gulps. Sheppard laughs, taking the cup back and threatening not to provide any more coffee if Rodney isn't dressed and ready to go in half an hour.

Rodney showers and dresses, jeans and t-shirt good enough to record in. He used to dress for every rehearsal, his father's advice about dressing for success ringing in his ears. He's old enough and respected enough to skip the suits all the time, though he usually dresses for the first rehearsal – especially with an orchestra that he hasn't played with in a while.

Boston is a second home to him, though, and as much as some of the musicians hate him, they all respect him, and Rodney's pretty sure the recording is going to be a huge success. The Pärt is a beautiful piece, and paired with his third symphony that the BSO is recording, it could bring them two or more Grammys.

Sheppard sits on the floor level today, a few rows back from the engineer. Rodney's worked with Amelia before – a solid engineer with a good ear and a good work ethic.

"You know the drill," she says, and before Rodney can answer, she's listing off the usual routine. "Wait for the red light, give at least a good three count of silence before you start and a five count of silence after you finish. Don't shuffle your feet or move too much; the stage is old and might creak. Remember to listen for the echo of the hall, and start your five count after all the sound has died away." She turns around and glares at Sheppard. "I don't normally allow anyone else to be in the hall, so if you make any noise at all, I will kick you out myself."

Sheppard sits up straight in his chair and Rodney can't help laughing. Amelia turns back around and Rodney clears his throat self-consciously. "Okay," she says, "give me a couple of harmonics for the high range."

It takes half an hour to get everything set up to Banks's specifications, and she glances back at Sheppard to make sure he's sitting still before she nods at Rodney and gives him a countdown with her fingers. The red light comes on and he counts to ten, since the last time he counted to three and started playing, she'd stopped him before he'd even gotten three notes in to explain that he should count one-mississippi and not just one-two-three (which he had, but apparently too quickly for her tastes).

The first pass is tight, too technical and edgy sounding for his tastes. He's tempted to stop and ask her for a new take, but she gives him death glares when he does that, so he continues, trying to loosen up his bow arm so he can get the sound he's looking for.

Sheppard's leaning forward in his chair, as still as a stone, proving he knows when not to mess with someone, because Banks is a black belt and really would kick him out on his ass.

He finishes, the top note of the pizz not even coming across, and he has to keep himself from groaning as he counts to twenty-five and waits for the little red light to shut off.

"That was awful," he says, setting his violin on a chair and pinwheeling his arms. "I feel like my arms weigh two hundred pounds."

"Don't worry," Amelia says, writing things in her score. "We've got an hour and a half before the BSO shows up, you've got time for at least ten takes. We'll get one."

Four takes later, Amelia doesn't look quite so hopeful. "Listen," she says, standing and stretching. "I'm going to go get some coffee. There's a Dunkin up the street. Why don't you stretch or meditate or something, and I'll be back in about fifteen minutes."

Rodney sighs and plops down into one of the chairs onstage as Sheppard makes his way over. The stage is too high for him to jump, so he hoists himself up and Rodney watches the bunch of his biceps under his t-shirt, glancing away before Sheppard catches him at it.

"What's going on?" Sheppard asks, standing in front of Rodney with his hands in his pockets. "I thought you liked this piece."

"I love this piece," Rodney answers. He does; it's gorgeous and lush in a stripped down way. "I just feel uptight. I haven't recorded in a while, maybe I just need to stretch things out a bit. It takes a while to get into the feel of a performance when there's no conductor or strings, or anyone else to feed off of."

Sheppard nods and listens while Rodney talks, the whole while circling Rodney slowly until he's standing behind Rodney's chair. "What are you doing?" Rodney asks nervously.

"Just relax," Sheppard says, and digs his fingers into Rodney's muscles. "Damn, you're tense."

"Didn't I just say that?" Rodney says, but his head drops forward, and he can feel his shoulders loosening under Sheppard's warm hands. Other things are tightening up, though, and if he lets Sheppard continue, he won't be able to stand up when Amelia gets back. "Right, good, thank you," he says, standing and bending over to pick up his violin.

"I'm here," Sheppard says, squeezing Rodney's shoulder when he comes back upright. "I'm your audience. Play to me." He hops down and takes his seat again, leaning forward like he's waiting for Rodney to start.

"What, now?" Rodney asks, and Sheppard jerks his head in an impatient nod.

Rodney puts his violin up and concentrates on Sheppard for a second while he sets his fingers and bow. Sheppard's staring at him intently, his furrowed brow making his face look stern. They're too far apart to really be staring into each other's eyes, but it still feels intimate somehow, and when Rodney finally pulls his bow across the strings, the arpeggios grow out of a perfectly controlled whisper of sound that make it feel like he's getting ready to take off.

He closes his eyes as he continues, the arpeggios finally speaking to him, intensifying infinitesimally with every note until the cadenza reaches the zenith and he plucks the pizzicato, perfect and round, followed by a secretive second pizzicato, something so barely-there he almost can't hear it himself until the echo comes back to him from the hall.

He takes a deep breath and releases it, opening his eyes and grinning at Sheppard. Amelia is standing in the doorway, a tray of coffees in hand, staring open-mouthed at Rodney.

"Whatever that was, you do it again right now," she says, and rushes over to her table. "Do it just like that or I won't give you the coffee I got you."

Rodney plays three more perfect takes before Amelia turns over the coffee, decreeing they've got what they need on the opening. Then she makes him do the ending col legno chords fifteen times before she lets him go, calling someone on the phone and telling them to let the musicians inside the building.

The rest of the morning goes by for Rodney in a strange hyperaware state. He has never felt so completely in control of the music, every nuance coming across with perfect clarity. Ronon clearly feels it too, as his conducting takes on a luminous feel, like he's pouring strings of light over the orchestra and reeling them in to a private performance for the empty seats and marble statues.

The hushed feeling makes the chorale even more luxurious, and they play through the piece twice from top to bottom before Amelia starts making them record small sections of the music between the major reference points just in case.

The feeling fades as the technical part of the recording grates on him, but he's still relatively cheerful as they finish up and he shakes everyone's hand, even Chaya. He wishes he could take it back when he sees her trying to catch Sheppard's eye, and the nods of recognition that pass between them before Sheppard catches his elbow and leads him offstage.

~~~

Practice seems to fly by. They switch off between rehearsing their chamber music repertoire and Rodney's Tchaikovsky – the parts that require concentration more than anything. Rodney's fingers have a mind of their own. They can play most of his repertoire on autopilot. It's only the emotional pieces where they short out and Rodney needs to actively hear the melody in his head so he doesn't lose track of it. Sometimes he can hear it but not place it on the violin, the pitches muddied to his ear. Mostly this is when his memories are more of Dmitri than the music itself, but they're getting fewer and farther between as he and Sheppard go over the Tchaik time and again. There's a section in the middle of the first movement that now reminds him of Wrigley Field, thanks to Sheppard's crap visualizations, and another in the second that will forever be associated with Back to the Future. As the new memories replace the old, the music gets smoother and easier to string together.

He hasn't gotten Sheppard to play the Rachmaninoff yet, but that's going to stop this afternoon. When Sheppard tries to pull out the Tchaikovsky, Rodney puts his bow down on the score. "I think it's time for some Rach," Rodney says. Sheppard's mouth opens and closes a few times, but Rodney's giving Sheppard his best glare. Sheppard glares back for a while before sulking.

"Fine," he says, pulling the score out of a stack and handing it over to Rodney. "But only the third movement."

The Rach two has a tough opening, somber and yet anticipatory, and Rodney's pretty sure those opening ten bars are going to be the toughest thing about it for Sheppard, so he acquiesces. "All right. For now."

Sheppard scoffs but says nothing, pulling out his sheet music and flipping it open on the stand. Rodney starts the orchestral part, flipping octaves to play the cello melody in between his punctuating notes. Sheppard waves his hand, letting Rodney know it should go a little faster and Rodney moves it along. When Sheppard plays his opening motive, he could knock Rodney over with a feather. It's light and perfect and like he's been playing it every day since he dropped it back in college. The technique is perfect, the interpretation subtle, and Rodney misses his next entrance, gaping at Sheppard.

Sheppard clears his throat and looks pointedly at Rodney's score.

"What the hell," Rodney says.

"What?" Sheppard answers, skipping ahead to his next cadenza-like line. It, too, is technically perfect and beautifully phrased, and Rodney can't do anything but let his instrument drop and wait for Sheppard to continue. Sheppard shrugs and does, going into the part where he's actually got the melody and the orchestra is just accompanying him like some Mozart concerto from two hundred fifty years before.

He keeps going, seemingly oblivious to Rodney's open-mouthed amazement, and plays through the entire movement. There are only a few small orchestral tuttis where he doesn't play, and he hums them under his breath while he counts rests.

By the time he's finished, Rodney's mad enough to spit nails. Sheppard does the final arpeggiated flourish and Rodney waits for him to look up, arms crossed. He's grinning.

"What was that?" Rodney asks. Sheppard's face clouds over. "I thought you were too…" He waves his hand, trying to catch the right word. "Too distraught to play the Rachmaninoff. Or at least out of practice."

Sheppard ducks his head and shakes it at the same time, looking away from Rodney to a spot on the wall. "You seemed to think I was some sort of kindred spirit, I didn't want to disappoint you."

"Disappoint me? By being able to play the Rach two perfectly?"

"By being able to play it at all," John says. He looks back to Rodney. "I know it like the back of my hand. I practice it every day."

Rodney stares and his mouth drops open again. "Every day."

Sheppard nods. "I've practiced it every day since my divorce."

"Bitch," Rodney mutters, and Sheppard's features take on a pained look. "What?" Rodney asks. He can't imagine why Sheppard would want to defend an ex-wife that didn't just divorce him, but took his entire future away.

"It wasn't her fault," Sheppard says, pulling down the music and closing it. He hadn't even turned a page the entire time he played. He laughs, a single dry chuckle. "I wasn't supposed to find the papers. She was waiting until after the competition."

"What?" Rodney asks. He wonders if anyone else knows this story. O'Neill certainly didn't seem to have a clue – this is nothing like what he told Rodney.

Sheppard shrugs. "You know, when I told her I was going to try Van Cliburn, I knew something was funny about the way she looked. She was surprised, and she was supportive, but she looked sad, too. I thought it was because she thought I'd embarrass myself."

Rodney scoffs. Sheppard looks up at him for a second and then back down at the music, folding down the dogears and holding them in place. "We'd been fighting, I knew things weren't good, but it's hard being students and married. I figured we were just hanging in there until we got out of conservatory and could do everything properly." He snorts out a soft breath. "She had the papers already, then. She decided to hold on to them until after the competition. That was the worst part, finding the papers and seeing they were dated over a year before."

"So how did you...?" Rodney closes the score in front of him and hands it back. He can't help asking the questions, but he doesn't really expect Sheppard to answer.

He shrugs again. "Found them in her underwear drawer the night before my first audition. I was looking for her underwear size - I was going to buy a little something to celebrate getting through the first round." He huffs out another laugh. "I signed the papers right then, left them on the dresser for her."

Rodney can just imagine. He rubs his hands down his face and scrubs. "And you went off to lick your wounds and missed your audition."

John nods. "Drank myself stupid, literally. Spent the day in the hospital with alcohol poisoning."

Rodney laughs. It's the stupidest thing he can imagine, but oh-so-John Sheppard. "You're such an idiot."

John stares at him for a second, his face scrunched up in confusion. It smoothes out a second later, and he looks away. "Yeah, I suppose I was."

"No," Rodney says, coming around the piano to get Sheppard to his feet. "You are. You've been practicing the Rachmaninoff every day for nearly twenty years and never performed it? Idiot. Ronon would've taken you on."

"I –"

"I know, you never thought about it. Come on," Rodney says, once Sheppard's up and out from behind the piano. "I'm starving and the mac and cheese won't make itself."

~~~

After lunch, Rodney sits down and makes Sheppard play the entire concerto, top to bottom. He doesn't play along – he doesn't need to – and Sheppard doesn't bat an eye before launching into the halting opening chords. He has it down to a science; Rodney has him play the opening eight bars ten times in a row, and they are absolutely the same, every time. He alternates between closing his eyes and listening to the music flowing over him, the melody picked out in clear, bright notes while the chordal underpinnings roll by, supporting the structure, and watching Sheppard's hands move with perfect grace over the keyboard.

"You're such a bastard for holding out on me."

Sheppard shrugs, but keeps playing. "I figured you needed the practice more than me. My problem isn't really emotional – it's just stage fright, and there's nothing I can do about that here. You..."

"Yes, yes, the piece is tied to my dead boyfriend." He thinks of Dmitri dancing and smiles. "You would have loved him," he says. "He was an idiot too."

~~~