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Impromptu

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."

~~~