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Impromptu

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~~~

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."

~~~