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Summary: In music: a more or less independent passage, at the end of a composition, introduced to bring it to a satisfactory close. Set a year and a half after the end of Unidentified. [SGA AU, McKay/Sheppard.]

[2009. March.]

It’s 7:35 when John finally makes it to Royce Hall, where he weaves his way through the crowded lobby (Jesus, there are a lot of people here) and ducks through the door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” As he slips backstage, one of the stage crew kids hustles past carrying a bundle of electrical cords. “Hey, you seen McKay?” John asks.

“Who?” the kid calls distractedly. John rolls his eyes and heads for the stairs, picking up speed a little as he hears, “What the — wait, sir, you can’t be back here–”

Down in the green room, Amy the violinist throws her hands up in relief when she sees him. “Oh, thank god,” she moans. “I don’t know who phoned you, but could you tell me, ’cause I think I owe them sexual favors.”

John frowns. “Nobody called me, I just came down to wish him luck. Why, what’s up?”

Amy makes a face that could frighten small children. “Go see for yourself — he’s in dressing room four. Oh,” she adds, smirking, “and you might want to identify yourself first, because I heard him tell the ASM that the next person who went through that door was going to get disemboweled with a music stand.”

John snaps off a salute and lopes away in the direction she’d pointed. Predictably, dressing room four is at the very end of the hall and looks, from the outside, like a broom closet. He can hear someone pacing claustrophobic little circles on the other side of the door. John pauses for a moment, debating the merits of knocking, then just turns the knob and slips inside.

Rodney’s in the far corner with his back turned to John, running a finger under his collar and muttering like he does when he’s working on the fantasy version of an argument he plans to have later. The room is stuffy and seems determine to fulfill John’s expectations — the clothing rack and counter nominally qualify it as a dressing room, but the light bulbs on the wall only outline the mirror’s empty frame, and there is an actual broom standing in one corner. John props his elbow against the door frame and says, “You know, your name’s on the front of the program. If you ask, they’ll probably give you a better dressing room.”

Rodney flails in surprise, but his expression turns accusatory when he sees John. “You!” he snarls, index finger leading the way as he advances across the room. “You lied to me!”

John raises an eyebrow. “I did?”

“Yes!” Rodney jabs him in the chest. His face is pasty under the flush mottling both cheeks, and his tuxedo shirt has already started to wilt. “You told me I didn’t have stage fright!”

“You don’t,” John answers automatically. He holds both hands up as Rodney makes a noise through clenched teeth like he’s starting to see the appeal of domestic violence. “No, I’m serious. I’ve seen you give lectures in huge halls at major scientific conferences. You were fine and no one would sit in the first two rows because they were scared you’d ridicule them by name.”

Turning away in disgust, Rodney groans, “Well, thanks, Sheppard, that anecdote totally disproves the concrete evidence of my rapidly increasing anxiety.” He whirls back and grabs John’s lapels, eyes wild. “There are eighteen hundred people out there.”

John recalls the people hovering around the will-call window, eying ticket-holders like pigeons watching a kid with a sandwich. “Actually, I think there might be more than that.”

“You are not in any way helpful,” Rodney grumbles. He flops heavily down into a chair and drops his head between his knees.

John moves to stand behind him, crossing his arms over the chair’s wooden back and stretching his legs out so he’s leaning down over Rodney. “What’s going on? This isn’t the first recital you’ve given.”

Rodney flaps one hand above his head. “No, but the audience is roughly equal to all the others combined.”

“What difference does it make?” John asks, frowning. As causes for panic go, it’s not like this one’s unreasonable, but doesn’t mean it makes sense for Rodney. “You know these pieces backwards and forwards.” He smirks. “I’ve heard them enough times to know.”

“Oh, very nice, I’m so sorry you found my work ethic tedious,” Rodney says in an aggrieved tone. “I’m not worried about my memorization — unless I’m about to suffer another mysterious amnesiac episode, and that’s sounding more appealing by the minute.” He sits up only to slouch backward instead, running a hand over his mouth while jiggling one leg hard enough to vibrate the chair under John’s hands.

Okay, John thinks, use Rodney logic. He starts the process of elimination. It’s not playing for an audience (he’s done that several times already). It’s not the impact of said performance on his degree (John has a distinct memory of sitting in the hall at Caltech during Rodney’s oral defense, listening to him rake several professors across the table — some things don’t change that much). It’s not the size of the house. It’s not his own abilities as a performer. Which leaves … “Is this about the septet?”

Rodney scoffs. “No! … no.” He slumps forward again and buries his face in his hands. “Yes.”

John grins down at the back of his head. “It figures. You would get stage fright about the one part of the performance where you won’t be the only person on the stage.”

“Exactly!” Rodney moans, the words muffled. “All week in practice Martin botched the triplet in measure 254, and Karen kept insisting the G in the third movement should be mezzo-forte instead of piano, even though I’m the one who wrote the damn thing–”


“–What if they screw up?” he insists, suddenly louder as he throws his hands out wide. “What if it doesn’t sound right? It’s not like I can jump up from the piano and say, sorry, my musicians are incompetent, I swear it’s a brilliant piece, if you’ll all just sit tight while I go run off two thousand copies of the score–

“Rodney.” John wraps one hand around Rodney’s shoulder. Some of the nervous tension drains out of him, and he leans slow back against the chair.

“I just.” He waves one hand through the air in front of him, then lets it drop limply onto his lap. “It’s good, and I know it’s good, and I … god, this is pathetic.” Rubbing his forehead, he mutters, “I want them to like it.”

“They will,” John says, squeezing his shoulder soothingly, feeling the humid heat of his skin through his shirt.

Rodney sighs and tips his head back against John’s chest. “I want you to like it.”

Tilting around so he can see Rodney’s face, John smiles. “You know,” he comments mildly, “if you’d let me listen to it sometime in the last four months, we probably could have avoided this last minute panic attack you’re having right now.”

“It wasn’t ready,” Rodney grumbles, retreading a familiar line of argument, then he stiffens and twists around to stare at John frantically. “Oh, god, what if it isn’t ready? What if–”

“Rodney.” When that doesn’t shut him up, John bends in and kisses him, sliding his hand from Rodney’s shoulder to the back of his head and holding him in place long enough for the panicked monologue to sputter and die out. He keeps it up a little longer for good measure, then murmurs, “Hey, we could always blow this off. Wanna sneak out the back?” Rodney huffs a disbelieving laugh into John’s mouth, and John bites briefly at his lower lip, feeling smug. Just to bait him, he adds, “I mean, it’s not like you actually need another degree.”

“Two,” Rodney corrects him, but it’s pro forma at best, and his breath catches a little when John straightens and steps away. “We can’t, anyway,” he says, trying a scowl on for size, like he’s just noticing that his terror has subsided and he’s feeling a little resentful about it. “Have you seen the crowd out there? They’d probably tear me limb from limb when I tried to escape.”

“They’re an audience, McKay,” John replies dryly. “Not a horde of zombies.”

Rodney sulks at him in a way that signals defeat. After a minute, he mumbles, “You look really good in that suit.”

John quirks an eyebrow at him and shoots his cuffs in sequence, mock-preening. He always feels sheepish in anything more formal than a good pair of jeans, but he knows this suit is Rodney’s favorite on him, and in concession to the occasion he even broke out the iron. “Thanks.” He eyes Rodney, who’s wearing his tux as though it’s two sizes too small even though it was fitted to him. “You look like a turtle.”

Rodney drapes himself over the back of the chair and scrubs his face with both hands. “I hate you. This thing is so uncomfortable.” He peers mournfully out at John from behind his fingers. “Can you fix my tie?”

Grinning, John gestures for him to get up, and Rodney clambers to his feet. John takes him by his shoulders and steers him until he’s leaning back against the counter, then steps in between his feet to start working on the mangled tie. “You might have had an easier time if you’d picked a room with a mirror.”

“I did. It just kept staring at me,” Rodney mutters, chin down as he tries to watch what John’s doing, which only succeeds in blocking John’s ability to do it. “I thought everyone was supposed to look good in these things.”

“I’ve noticed that the people who say that are the ones trying to get you to wear one.” John wraps one hand around Rodney’s jaw and pushes it up, then goes back to trying to flatten the creases out of the tie. Whatever Rodney did to it, it looks like it’s lost all will to live.

Rodney keeps twitching his shoulders and tugging at his shirt cuffs, but he’s got his eyes trained obediently on the wall behind John. “How do you know how to do this, anyway? Is it something they teach you in the Air Force?”

“Yes, right after proper fork use and before intro to ballroom dance,” John deadpans as he teases one fold of fabric through the loop and tweaks at the corners, straightening the bow. “Carson made me learn how before the wedding in case he screwed his up. I can only really tie them on other people.”

Rodney snorts. “How did anyone ever think you were heterosexual?”

“Beats the hell out of me.” John pulls back to survey his handiwork. “There. I think you’ll do.”

Rodney’s mouth slants upward. “Thanks,” he says quietly, in a tone John knows translates as sorry I’m such a pain in the ass, and he curls a hand around John’s elbow to draw him back in. Smiling as he opens his mouth into the kiss, John circles his hands around the top of Rodney’s shoulders and strokes his thumbs along his neck in a gesture that means yeah, well, I’m all about the charity. He hooks a couple fingers into the front of Rodney’s collar and tugs him in a little closer, soaking in the familiar heat of Rodney pressing solidly against him, then slides his hands down Rodney’s chest as he steps back.

“See you afterwards, okay?” John says, tucking one hand into his pocket. Rodney rolls his eyes — don’t look so smug — and points impatiently toward the door, but he’s pink-cheeked and thoroughly distracted, so John feels his grin is justified as he ducks out. He pauses in the green room long enough to catch Amy’s eye and shoot her a thumbs-up (she raises an eyebrow suggestively but mouths thank you), then jogs back up the stairs, where he breezes right by the same kid and steps out into the lobby.

It’s even more packed than when he arrived, and the layout of Royce means he has to cross the whole lobby to reach the doors to the auditorium, so he gets a good look at the crowd as he goes. It’s a strange mix of people — a bunch of students in street clothes cheerfully chatting each other up, a small subset of adults in formal attire that declares they are Here For Culture, and a lot of people who aren’t telegraphing any particular purpose or affiliation. As he gets to the far side, John spots a knot of Caltech faculty, frowning intently at their programs like they’re looking for some code revealing this recital’s hidden purpose. He smirks to himself as he passes them; he hadn’t expected them to be here, but he’s not exactly surprised.

After all, word’s gotten out that Rodney McKay is doing math again.

He lets the usher at the door point him to his seat and then saunters down the aisle to row J (”–the best spot acoustically,” Rodney had claimed when he handed John the tickets). As a concession to their VIP status, Rodney apparently bought out that whole row of the central section, because when John gets there, it’s unoccupied except for Jeannie, Teyla, Ronon, Carson, and Laura, all dressed to the nines.

“Hey Shep!” Laura calls as he slides into the seat they’ve left open for him between Jeannie and Teyla, which has a perfect view of the piano’s keyboard. “Did you get it?”

Grinning, John reaches into his pocket and pulls out the long crumpled strip of Rodney’s bow-tie. Laura hoots in triumph and leans across Carson and Ronon to wave a twenty at him, oblivious to the low neck of her dress. John hands the tie to Teyla, who shakes her head as she executes the exchange.

“Thank god,” Jeannie says, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow as he settles back into his seat. “He always looks like a turtle in those things.”

John smiles at her; she’s in something deep blue and close-fitting, with her hair curling softly around her face. “Hi, Jeannie. You, on the other hand, look great.”

“Flatterer,” she disputes, but her cheeks go a little pink. She quirks an eyebrow at him and fingers the collar of his pale green shirt, smoothes the lapel of his jacket. “You don’t clean up half-bad yourself.”

“I guess we’re the prettiest girls at the dance,” he drawls. “Where’s Kaleb?”

“At our place with Madison and Stuart, the babysitter got the flu,” Laura replies. She shakes her head, grinning like a fox in feathers. “I can’t believe you got it off him without him noticing. Did you have to–”

Jeannie snatches her hand back from John’s arm, clapping both palms over her ears as she snaps, “You stop right there, la la la, not listening–”

“Relax, Jeannie,” John says as he shoots a quelling look at Laura, who’s snickering. He shrugs. “It was easy. And anyway, if he does notice, I figure it’ll just give him something relatively minor to freak out about.”

Carson, whose rumpled suit clearly designates him as the father of a toddler, peers around Ronon to catch John’s eyes. “How is our boy doing?”

“Oh, vomiting, but that’s just because he’s been drinking all day,” he answers breezily, keeping a straight face as Carson’s eyebrows start a drastic upward climb. “I gave him a lot of coffee, so that should sober him right up. Hey, Dramamine is good for nausea, right?”

“Dear god in heaven,” Carson mutters, and Ronon snorts. His version of formal wear seems to be a really nice brown leather jacket and a shirt in some deep color that goes suspiciously well with what Teyla’s wearing. She fixes a pseudo-stern look on him as he gives her red dress the once-over.

“John,” she scolds, motioning to Carson, who’s still gawking at him in horror.

Grinning, John says, “I’m kidding, Carson. He’s pretty nervous, but he’ll be fine.” Carson wipes his brow in mimed relief, and John settles back into his seat, listening to the layered sounds of hundreds of conversations, the shift and rustle of the audience moving to take their seats.

Teyla touches his hand lightly. “Do you need a program?” she asks, holding hers out.

Waving it away, John leans a little farther back and laces his fingers in his lap, smile directed at the stage in front of them. To be here, with these people, for this reason: it’s a good night, he thinks. “You keep it,” he tells her. “I’m pretty sure I know what he’s going to play.”

The house lights dim, and the ambient sounds of the audience drop in volume but gain intensity, every cough and crackling program magnified by the anticipatory hush. After a few moments, Rodney steps out of the wings. Applause swells up in a wave as he crosses the stage, the ritual acknowledgment taking on a different character with nearly four thousand hands to enact it. His head snaps up at the fullness of the sound, but he doesn’t hesitate until he reaches the piano, where he stops, faces forward, and stiffly takes the required bow. John can just make out the slight notch at the center of his unbuttoned collar, and it warms him, like he’s cupped his hands around a candle flame.

Rodney sits down, brings his hands up to hover just above the keyboard, and closes his eyes. His profile is still and focused, as though he’s filtering through all the sounds around him for some deep, sub-audible cue. Just as the audience hits a silent moment, he drops his hands and releases the clear, quiet notes of the opening aria of the Goldberg Variations.

The truth is, John doesn’t really know that much about music. Back in college, Rodney once referred to John’s tastes as “pedestrian,” which is fair enough. He plays the guitar a little, but the sounds he coaxes from the strings have always been secondary to his tactile experience, guiding him to adjust his playing the same way the whine of the Skylane’s engines tells him to adjust the speed and angle of his ascent. Generally speaking, John can’t hear the things in music that Rodney hears, but this piece is an exception. John has listened to it so many times that he knows some of the patterns it holds, the threads of melody and rhythm that weave through its 32 parts. Every time Rodney plays the aria, he does it like he’s laying the framework of the universe in place, naming its most essential joints and structures; each subsequent section fills in the open spaces of that scaffolding, adding contour and texture and life. Beyond that first part, he never plays it the same way twice. Over the months of hearing him practice it, John’s begun to use it as a barometer for Rodney’s emotions: whether he chases the tempo capriciously or straitjackets himself with the livid precision of a metronome, whether he draws out the harmonies or the discords, where the volume rises and falls.

This time, Rodney strips it down to its purest elements and then slowly unfolds it from that opening statement with a growing sense of discovery, of awe. There’s no sentimentality to it, no showboating, and it’s all the more eloquent for it. He plays each variation as though he’s hearing it for the first time, his hands crossing and weaving, his eyelids lowered far enough that he may actually have them closed. The variations swoop and dive, falling into place with the seeming randomness of puzzle pieces, and he follows everywhere they lead. The shifts in mood are as clear as changing expressions on a familiar face, although Rodney’s features remain set in inward concentration. A sharp satisfaction fills John’s chest, keeping his breath company, because he can’t help thinking of Rodney’s old piano teacher, how he got it completely wrong.

Time slips by unattended until the very end, when Rodney turns a corner and they’re back at the aria again. The notes are the same but somehow completely different, transformed by the context of everything that came before, and the silence after the last note hangs for long seconds like an indrawn breath, before the audience bursts into applause.

As the cheers and clapping thunder through the house, Rodney’s hands jump away from the keyboard. He shakes his head sharply, as though reorienting himself to time and place, and then the man in front of John stands and blocks most of his view. There are a good number of people on their feet — at the other end of their row, Laura’s hollering in joyous disregard of all rules of decorum — but John stays seated, along with Jeannie. She has one hand pressed softly against her chest, like she doesn’t realize she’s doing it.

“Is it always like that?” she asks, looking stunned.

“No,” John says, as Rodney steps forward, bows awkwardly, and hurries off the stage. “It’s different every time.”

The house lights come up and people sidle out into the aisles, the crowd ebbing uphill toward the lobby for intermission. “John? Jeannie? Are you coming?” Teyla asks, and Jeannie fishes her purse off the ground and climbs to her feet, but John only rises so that she can get past him to join the others.

“Think I’ll stay here,” he tells her, and she smiles and grips his wrist briefly as she follows the other four out the far side. Once they’re gone, John settles back into his seat and lets his legs stretch out as far as the row in front of him permits. It’s a lot less crowded in here than it will be out there, and all he really wants to do is bask in the glow of what even he knows was a damn good piece of playing while he waits for the second half to start. If the performance continues like this, it’s likely to be tomorrow before Rodney comes down enough to sleep, and they’ve got Jeannie and her family for the rest of the weekend. Next week, though: he should file a flight plan with VNY in case Rodney feels like going up, north along the coast or out over the Sierras, something spectacular.

They’ve been flying a lot the last few months, and more than half the time it’s been at Rodney’s request. He seems to have gotten over his initial nervousness at being in a small craft — he’s been suggesting trips in different directions, at different times of day, and asking lots of questions while they’re in the air. Which controls did what, what it was like to fly under different conditions, how John read the sounds around him during a flight.

A few weeks ago, John tentatively offered to get his instructor’s license. Rodney stared at him uncomprehendingly, then snorted and said, “What? Oh, god no, are you kidding? I barely like driving, teaching me to fly would be like assisted suicide.”

“Okay,” John said, banking the Skylane gracefully north, “so why the interest?”

Rodney drummed his fingers on the armrest for a minute before replying, “Because you’re good at it, and I like hearing you talk about it. And it’s completely different from everything else I’m doing right now — I guess it helps me focus.”

After that, John had tried to answer his questions a little more freely, even the weird ones. It’s not as though he’s ever sorry to spend time in the air, and he likes the idea of winding down from the recital with a longer day trip, maybe even heading off somewhere for a night or two. The way tonight is going, Rodney’s definitely earned just about any reward he should choose to claim.

The house manager must have flashed the lobby lights, because the crowd starts streaming back in, taking their seats with a minimum of dawdling. Jeannie and Teyla slip in from the left as Carson, Laura, and Ronon make their way down the row from the right. “I think that reporter was out there,” Ronon rumbles as he seats himself, and John winces.

Teyla arches an eyebrow at him, amused. “Is that why you were hiding out in here?”

“No,” John says, “but that doesn’t exactly make me regret it.”

The house lights come down, the audience getting themselves in order more quickly this time. Rodney’s abilities as an instrumentalist aside, it’s the second half that most of them have come to see. When Rodney walks back out onto the stage, he seems nearly oblivious to the applause, striding toward the piano with single-minded concentration. His bow is a little less uncoordinated for being largely automatic, just another step between him and the task at hand. When he sits down at the piano this time, he sets his hands in place, pauses for a second at most, and then launches full-force into the first of his original compositions, the Fugue after Fibonacci.

One of the most striking things about the first year after Rodney lost his memory was the way he learned afterward. It went beyond just synthetic, as though the only way for him to make up for the lost time was invoke everything he knew in the service of learning everything else. It wasn’t as though Rodney had been easy to keep up with before, but there was something almost scarily intuitive about the way he cobbled together the fragments of every different sphere of knowledge in search of some greater whole. It couldn’t be chalked up to missing pieces coming back, because he never actually recognized anything, and more often than not he ended up somewhere entirely new. So it surprised John maybe a little less than it should have the day he came home to find Rodney at the piano picking out notes and scribbling on two different types of paper, a college-ruled notebook and a binder of blank sheet music.

“What are you working on?” John asked.

Rodney didn’t even look up, his left hand moving over the keys as his right crossed out an equation on one pad and jumped over to jot a few more notes down on the staff. “The Fibonacci sequence,” he said.

The month he spent composing the piece was John’s crash course in music theory, as he tried to learn enough to follow what Rodney was doing. Rodney taught the same way he always had, distractedly and often skipping the concrete to expand on the finer points of the theoretical. When he started on the first round of revisions, John was just barely able to read the score and trace the thread of the sequence Rodney had showed him. After the theme’s first explicit statement, the sequence kept changing incarnations — jumping from one voice to another, commandeering the rhythm, sometimes hiding in the intervals between notes or bridging several lines in a subtle pattern of emphasis. Trying to wrap his mind around it was incredibly difficult.

By the time Rodney was making the final adjustments, John had had enough time with the piece to realize there were measures where the math dropped out and the sequence disappeared entirely. He fretted over them for several days, equally worried that he was missing something and that he wasn’t, before finally asking Rodney.

“Write the algorithms and a computer could do this — structure, harmonies, dynamics, the whole shebang,” Rodney told him. “If your instructions were thorough enough, it might even sound pretty good.” He made another note to himself in the score. “But that doesn’t mean it’d be music.”

And the fugue is music, though stranger and more complex than John would ever listen to on his own. It doesn’t give up its mathematical secrets easily, obscuring them in larger, more organic patterns that change and build, until the only hint left is the sense of something gradually spiraling outward. The music is vibrant in a way that’s impossible to miss, and watching Rodney’s hands fly over the keys, John wonders what, if anything, his former colleagues can make of this. Coming here must be like showing up for a lecture on recurrence relations and finding the whiteboard has been replaced by a field of sunflowers instead.

Ironically, most of the people tonight are here because of the math, even if they don’t know it. As far as John’s been able to piece together, the chain of events went something like this. A month and a half before the recital, Rodney’s composition professor brought everything Rodney had given her home for the weekend. “Everything” included not only the score and a taped version of each piece (save the septet, which he was still fiddling with), but also a set of unsolicited papers he’d written to accompany each one. These laid out the mathematical, musical, and scientific theories involved in each composition, and the nearly alchemic set of relationships he’d created to transmute those theories into music.

Rodney is still Rodney, after all, and while he’s made his peace with intuition, an answer isn’t fully meaningful to him unless you can explain it well enough to let someone else follow you there.

His professor, a brilliant woman in her own right, understood the paper on the fugue and picked her way with difficulty through the one explaining the four parts of The Laws of Thermodynamics. However, she was stumped by the sheer breadth of information Rodney had assimilated in Snapshots, a set of brief movements he’d written as the auditory equivalent of twelve Hubble images. She called a friend from the astronomy department and asked him to walk her through the logic. He was skeptical at first, until he realized that the conversions Rodney had developed (pitch to wavelength, composition structure to physical shape, dynamics to density, scale and chord structure to composite radiation mapping) weren’t just artistic interpretations — within the limits of the piano’s eighty-eight keys, they were as scientifically accurate as the images themselves. This was when he flipped to the first page to find out the student’s name.

He emailed a friend and former coauthor in the PMA division at Caltech, who was completely baffled but confirmed that yes, it could potentially be the same Rodney McKay. She, in turn, was still puzzling over it the next time she spoke to her sister — who happened to be on the staff of the L.A. Times.

The next day, the condo’s voicemail had a message requesting an interview. Rodney deleted it and refused the reporter’s three subsequent attempts to persuade him before he started screening all calls. Carson cited patient confidentiality, Ronon and Teyla escaped her attention, and Laura had enough advance warning to pull up the list of every bomb threat the paper had ever received, which she read with loving slowness before ending the call. John just hung up on her. Repeatedly. After a while went by without any more attempts, they all assumed that was the end of it — until two weeks ago when Laura called them up and said, “Have you seen the Sunday magazine?”

The profile didn’t lack for interviews, ranging from the well-meaning (Tombrello, Rodney’s professor, a couple other music students) to the opportunistic (the requisire psychomedical “experts” and Weir, which in hindsight shouldn’t have surprised John at all) to the vindictive (one or two Caltech colleagues nursing old grudges). She’d even used their roadblocking to punch up the tabloid value; the final piece was light on facts, full of shallow philosophy and pseudo-scientific speculation, and basically amounted to eccentric, reclusive gay genius suffers mysterious memory loss but gains a new love of music. Jesus Christ. There was even a grainy photo that someone had dug up from their Caltech days (though who the hell knew who): Rodney scrawling equations on a chalkboard and arguing with someone who’d been cropped out, and John seated with his back to the camera and his feet kicked up on the desk, out of focus and thankfully unnamed in the caption.

At the end of the article, she’d included the recital information and the number for UCLA’s central ticket office. One week later, Rodney had been informed that they were moving him from Schoenberg to Royce Hall. “It’s a student recital!” he ranted that night when John called from the hotel in Maui. “Half the program is experimental compositions that no one has heard, and, by the way, no one is actually going to understand — why the hell are these people coming?”

“Masochism?” John joked, but he thought he understood it. If you live in L.A. in spite of the industry and not because of it, you develop a thirst for anything real — good or bad, it doesn’t matter, as long as it hasn’t been pumped up and airbrushed and repackaged for mass consumption. Anyone who stays in southern California long enough learns a sixth sense for what’s unique, what’s undiscovered and truly new.

Whatever the rest of the audience had expected, they’re certainly getting something they haven’t heard before. The character of the applause is different in the second half of the recital: more thoughtful, but with an appreciative undertone, and sustained too long to be just polite. John has the sense that most people can’t tell if they like the music, but the low murmur of conversation in between pieces suggests that they’re absorbed by it either way.

It’s a little strange to sit in the expansive dark of the auditorium and watch Rodney’s fingers move over the keyboard, firm as he lays out the emphatic and incontrovertible statements of the Third Law of Thermodynamics, flickering in the bright, chromatic bursts of the Carina Nebula, slowly drawing out the dark ripples of Hoag’s Object. If John was a stranger who had wandered in here by chance, he never would have guessed he was watching someone who’d walked away from the piano for twenty years and had gone back less than two years ago.

But if John was a stranger, he wouldn’t have wandered in here at all. If Rodney had done this the first time, gone with music instead of science, they never would have met.

It’s not the first time he’s thought about it: all the disconnected decisions and small accidents it took to put them in the same place, at the same time, and then make them friends. The last two years have been a living demonstration in how differently things could have gone. Of all the things that have changed, Rodney’s shift to music has been one of the hardest for John to adjust to, though not for the reasons he expected. From college onward, a defining part of their friendship was John’s ability to follow Rodney’s physics — not perfectly, but better than most people ever would. With music, Rodney immersed himself in something that John can’t really understand. It’s been hard to come to terms with the idea that he probably never will.

But all the ways things could have been otherwise — that doesn’t bother him. John’s whole life has been shaped by these kinds of random chances, by good instincts or shitty luck, occasionally by some kind of plan but never one that went where he intended. He never imagined that he’d end up here, and he couldn’t have done it on purpose if he tried. But here he is anyway, and that’s much more than enough. Questions of causality and probability don’t matter when he gets to watches Rodney bang out the final chord of the Snapshots, to listen as Jeannie and Teyla and Ronon and Carson and Laura and the rest of the audience break into enthusiastic applause.

If this is the way the world works, he’s just fine with letting chance run the show.

Rodney heads off-stage as several crew members stride out with stools and folding chairs, followed by the six musicians with instruments in hand. The cellist and bassist seat themselves while the percussionist and two techs retrieve the four great drums of the timpani from behind the symphony shell, both trumpet players blowing quiet pitches and tinkering with their valves. A minute goes by as all six test out short phrases and make minor adjustments their instruments, and then Amy straightens and bows a long, sustained note. The other five fall into line, refining pitch and changing posture until they match her. When they do, the combination races suddenly down John’s spine, like his whole body was made to resonate on exactly that frequency, because that sound, that sound

John’s hand closes down over Teyla’s on the armrest. “Your program,” he whispers urgently as applause welcomes Rodney back onto the stage, “do you have it, can I see it?” She pulls it out of her purse, and he can feel her eyes on his face as he opens it and flips to the last page, scanning down until he finds the last piece. For five months Rodney has only referred to it as “the septet,” but here in clean black print is its name: Flying Lessons, and the first movement is called “January 16th, 0600, Going East.”

Teyla tips her head in close, fingers warm on his wrist. “You didn’t know?”

All he can do is shake his head, trace his fingers over the words again. The house falls silent, and then it starts: the low, solid hum of the bass and cello, the kind of vibration you can feel down to your bones, and the violin whispering into place high above them as the engine picks up speed. There’s a scattering of notes from the piano, the background activity of flipping dials, checking instruments. A short burst of static crackles over the radio, and then the deep rumble of the timpani rolls in, quiet at first but gaining volume and speed, breaking out in syncopated bursts as the strings intensify. The dissonance builds, the plane straining against the yoke of gravity, engine whining as the air roars harder, louder, each fighting for the right to name the moment of release. When the wheels finally lift free, the change can be heard immediately, the strings’ protestations modulating into a glad chord, joy undaunted by the buffeting of turbulence as the plane climbs up through the cloud cover. And then comes that moment, that moment that John loves the most, when the last of the clouds drop away and the trumpets sing out the bright exultation of the dawn straight in his face, the piano finding the rays that shoot through the windshield — blinding, but so beautiful. John’s eyes are closed, and in the dark of the auditorium he can’t see for the sun in his eyes. He’s got Teyla’s hand on his arm and Jeannie’s fingers curled in his and his hands are on the control wheel, he’s got a whole world of sky around him and all of California spreading out below, he’s got the air pressing up like loving palms under the Skylane’s strong wings, and he’s got Rodney in the copilot’s seat, blue eyes wide open, hearing exactly what he hears.

A note on the soundtrack: I included this because it’s hard to get the sense of the story if you don’t know the kind of music Rodney is playing. It’s impossible to fully appreciate the Goldberg Variations from excerpts; I recommend getting a copy of Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording from your library, turning the volume way up, and not doing anything for about an hour. The John Adams, Ingram Marshall, and Stephen Scott pieces have a bit of the feel of Flying Lessons, though they use different instruments. I think that some of the Snapshots probably sound a lot like Henry Cowell’s “Exultation,” played here by Brad Gowen.

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