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Impromptu

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~~~

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.

~~~