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Impromptu

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~~~

Even though he had three drinks on the plane, Rodney's stomach is tied in knots when he lands in Boston. There's a heavy sort of dread perched on his shoulder right beside the anticipation so severe he questions how bad this is on his heart. He's almost sure that his grandfather on his mother's side died of a heart attack.

Rodney picks up his luggage, loading it onto one of the carts so he can navigate the never-ending hallway that leads out to the taxi stand. His ancient suitcase doesn't have wheels, his garment bag falls apart if he doesn't handle it with extreme care, and he has two violins to manage; steering the cart while he has a violin over each shoulder scares the rest of the people leaving the airport enough that they stay well clear of him.

As he walks down the hallway of doom to the passenger pickup area, he can see Sheppard's sleek black Ferrari through the huge plate glass windows. Rodney didn't give the car a second thought the last time he saw it, probably because it didn't have Sheppard leaning casually against it with aviator sunglasses on. Roughly eighty per cent of the women and twenty per cent of the men walking past him take a second (or third) look. He seems oblivious, utterly absorbed in whatever he's thinking about.

"Not me," Rodney mutters, "he's not thinking about me. He's probably thinking up exam questions."

When he finally crosses the threshold of the automatic doors, he gets a better look at what Sheppard's doing. He can see Sheppard's long fingers playing an invisible keyboard on the car's custom paint job. The roll of the wrist is subtle, but Rodney's pretty sure he's doing some serious technique work.

When Sheppard looks up and sees Rodney standing on the pavement not fifty feet from him, he pushes his shades up to rest on top of his head and grins. Rodney automatically grins back, something he wishes he could have avoided, because if his face mirrors Sheppard's, they look like a pair of idiots. Still, his heart rate goes up again and he considers asking for nitroglycerine at his next doctor's appointment.

Sheppard bustles over to Rodney's side and grabs the garment bag off the cart. "You made it," Sheppard says, with bright good cheer that ends in dismay as the garment bag disintegrates in his hands and he's left trying to make sure none of Rodney's five tuxes land on the ground.

"Shit," Sheppard curses under his breath, and Rodney takes pity on him and helps him get the tuxes into the trunk of the car. "Sorry," Sheppard says, grinning sheepishly at Rodney.

"There are better ways to let me know I need a new tux," Rodney says, and Sheppard claps him on the back.

"It's good to see you," Sheppard says, and if Rodney thought he could survive a hug with any semblance of dignity, he would give in to the smell of Sheppard's t-shirt, warm from the sun.

"Of course it is," Rodney says, lugging the huge suitcase into the trunk. Sheppard gives him a hand with it just before it tips him over, and Rodney mumbles his thanks. "What were you practicing?"

"Saint-Saëns 2," Sheppard answers, and Rodney nods. He doesn't remember it off the top of his head, but Sheppard hums a little of the opening theme when they climb in the car, and that shakes it loose.

"Right," Rodney says. "You have a gig?"

"Yeah," Sheppard answers, and pulls his shades over his eyes again. "Friday, in Providence. I'm filling in for Jinto Halling."

"The twelve-year-old?" Rodney asks, and Sheppard nods once, sharply, before pulling into the labyrinthine collection of roads that take them out of the airport. "What, is he sick?"

"Custody battle," Sheppard says, and Rodney can't help but laugh ruefully. He's been there.

"That's great," Rodney says. "I like Saint-Saëns."

"Oh," Sheppard says softly as they slow down slightly for the tollbooth. Rodney feels guilty for not being quicker on the draw, or realizing he'd have to pay tolls to get out of the damn airport. They breeze through it without stopping and Rodney decides not to feel guilty about it. Sheppard offered to pick him up.

"Oh?" Rodney says. "What, you don't want me to hear you?"

Sheppard guns it, letting the car cycle upwards through three, four, five gears before settling onto the highway. "No," Sheppard answers, and Rodney hates it when he has to ask for clarification. He goes on the offensive instead.

"It's only fair," Rodney points out, "since not only did you hear me play, you forced me to play the Barber backwards. I think that entitles me to a little Saint-Saëns."

"It's not that," Sheppard says, and grips the wheel tight enough to make his knuckles white. "I'm forty-three, Rodney, and I'm subbing for a twelve-year-old."

"Are they paying you?" Rodney asks. Sheppard shoots him an annoyed look. "Then who cares? I subbed for André Rieu once. Made more off that gig than three of my normal performances combined."

Sheppard's staring at Rodney, and Rodney knows how he feels, but not keeping his eyes on the road on the road, especially when they're in a tunnel, is not an option. "Watch where you're going, Sheppard. You can goggle about my incredibly bad taste later."

"What did you play?" Sheppard asks, with hushed awe.

"I played his program. Transcriptions of Viennese waltzes. It was awful."

The rest of the short drive flashes by in a flurry of insults and one-upmanship, until they get off the freeway in Beacon Hill. The obviously expensive homes make Rodney reconsider the possibility that Sheppard might actually be independently wealthy.

Sheppard carries Rodney's suitcase in and lets him manage his two violins. "Leave the tuxes," Sheppard says. "I'll get them dry cleaned for you."

"That's not necessary," Rodney says, and Sheppard shakes his head.

"It really is," he says, pointing at the discoloration of one of Rodney's shirt collars.

"Oh," Rodney says, scrunching his nose. "Fine, send them, but chuck the shirts. I'll buy new ones."

"Good call," Sheppard says.

Once Rodney's settled in the guest bedroom, he follows the faint sound of the TV to find Sheppard on the couch with two cold beers, waving him over while he finishes ordering pizza. "You like meat? Pepperoni's okay, right?"

Rodney nods and lets Sheppard finish with the order, reaching for the second beer. It's some local microbrew, not obnoxiously bad, so Rodney tips it up for a good swallow. He watches the baseball for about ten seconds before he reaches for the remote control.

Sheppard sticks a foot out, kicking it off the table and out of Rodney's reach. "No way," Sheppard says. "It's the Sox and the Orioles."

Rodney groans and settles in next to Sheppard on the couch, sipping his beer. He doesn't even realize how tired he is until Sheppard's doorbell rings and he starts out of his doze, spilling beer down his shirt.

Sheppard brings the pizza in but doesn't sit down, glancing over Rodney's head toward the music room. Rodney's only gotten a peek in there, and he's dying to see what kind of piano Sheppard's playing on.

"Practice?" Rodney asks, because he knows that hunted look, like you've got four hours to learn ten hours worth of music. Sheppard nods lightly, and Rodney waves him off, flipping open the pizza box and picking up the remote control to change the channel and put the mute on.

Sheppard starts with scales and Hanon, like a good boy, and Rodney's almost tempted to turn the volume back up on the TV. He's glad he didn't when the Saint-Saëns unspools through the house, the softer sections muddling unrecognizably. Rodney sets his beer down and closes his eyes, listening to Sheppard's practice. It's not the same as a performance, and it probably taints him for Friday night – he knows what Sheppard's worried about, which licks are hard, which phrases don't sit right. Practice is much more intimate than performance, and Rodney can't help but feel like he's eavesdropping.

He wakes out of a sound sleep some time later – the crick in his neck tells him it's been a couple of hours at least – to an oppressive pressure on his chest and pizza-scented dog breath. "Down, Max," Sheppard says, and that's Rodney's introduction to the English sheepdog otherwise known as Max.

"Bedtime, sleepyhead," Sheppard hums, picking up the beer and pizza (which has several Max-sized bites taken out of it). Sheppard deposits the detritus of Rodney's dinner in the kitchen and comes back to offer Rodney a hand up. The couch doesn't look like much, but it eats the unwary alive.

Rodney follows Sheppard up the steps, and when they get to the top, Sheppard walks him to his door – something Rodney would normally tease him for, but which seems sweet in the half-waking state he's in. He groans at himself and opens the door to the guest bedroom. He turns around with his hand still on the doorknob, trying to decipher the satisfied look on Sheppard's face.

"It's good to have you here," Sheppard says, and his hand brushes Rodney's as he grabs the doorknob and pulls the door shut.

~~~

Rodney gets up early the next morning, making his way to the kitchen to start coffee and hunt through Sheppard's cabinets. There's absolutely nothing in them; a few mismatched dishes, a box of sugary cereal, and one desiccated citrus fruit in the pantry next to the open bag of potatoes that look like they're trying to take over. He grabs his coffee and goes back upstairs to get his practicing out of the way because they have some hard work in front of them where that kitchen is concerned.

Rodney spends the afternoon listening to Sheppard practice the Saint-Saëns while poking through his cabinets, making lists of cookware and ingredients he'll need to make the dishes he's planning for the next few days.

After practicing a series of trills for fifteen minutes, Sheppard comes in and hikes himself up onto the kitchen counter. "I hate trills," he says, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"Here," Rodney says, and takes Sheppard's left hand, making it as brash a grab as possible. He rubs Sheppard's palm, digging his thumb into the hollow and then pressing into the fleshy heel of his hand. Sheppard shuts his eyes and groans, and Rodney narrows his focus to Sheppard's hand, studying the long fingers and hairy knuckles, completely ignoring Sheppard's over-enthusiastic moaning. He rolls each of Sheppard's fingers between his, and then repeats the works on Sheppard's other hand. By the time he's done, Sheppard's leaning back lazily against the cabinets, looking at Rodney through hazy eyes. Rodney lets go of his hand and picks up the pen he was holding before the detour into erotic hand massage.

"Hope you really did cash out your 401k," Rodney says, underlining the most expensive items on his list as a way to keep his mind – and hands – occupied. His shopping list is likely to cost Sheppard upward of a thousand dollars.

"I need to ask you a favor," Sheppard says, interrupting Rodney's thoughts.

When Sheppard doesn't expound on the favor, Rodney looks up from the grocery list. "Yes, what?"

"Will you come to the Saint-Saëns rehearsal?" Sheppard asks.

Rodney had been planning to practice while Sheppard was gone. He's itching to get to his violin even now, but he was waiting for Sheppard to leave. His hesitation must take Sheppard by surprise, because a shocked expression crosses his face before he can school it back into his normal, affable half-smile.

"You don't have to – it's no big deal."

"Of course I will," Rodney blurts out, even though he had no intention of doing so half a second ago.

Rodney gets in a measly forty-five minutes of practice before they're in the car, playing guess the composer and driving to another state. After the obviously funny ones ("Symphony Fantastique," Sheppard says, and Rodney counters with "L'Oiseau de Feu" which takes Sheppard a second while he translates it from the French) Sheppard busts out Piano Concerto number two. Rodney starts with Brahms, but it takes him almost the whole car ride and two hints to get Lukas Foss. Rodney hadn't even known Foss wrote piano concertos.

~~~

The rehearsal is awful; the flutist is so out of tune Rodney's ready to rip his hair out and the violins can't even play the right notes, much less bow the same direction. Sheppard has to make up for the dolt of a conductor by adjusting his tempos on the fly, and in one horrifying near-miss, skipping ahead two bars when the conductor brings the orchestra in early.

At the break, Rodney comes up to the stage and waits while Sheppard talks to the conductor, their heads bent over the score. Rodney catches snippets of the conversation and shakes his head as it's clear that the conductor couldn't follow a soloist if he was handcuffed to him. Sheppard shakes the conductor's hand and flashes his best fake-charming smile.

Sheppard comes over and sits down, dangling his legs over the side of the stage and kicking it with his heels.

"This is a nightmare," Rodney complains. "The orchestra can hardly play and that moron! He doesn't even know his score."

"Shh," Sheppard whispers. "I've talked to him, told him my main tempo changes. I don't really think it's my place to mention the strings can't start together and the winds are out of tune." Frustration is radiating off Sheppard, and Rodney feels for him. He's played with second tier orchestras now and again, but this is more like the orchestra satan probably has lined up to play with Rodney for his eternity in hell.

The conductor comes over to stand by Rodney and Sheppard introduces them. "Peter Kavanagh, this is Rodney McKay."

"Thrilled," the conductor says, offering his hand. "I have several of your recordings, I like the Barber in particular."

"Thanks," Rodney answers, smiling tightly and crossing his arms. Like hell, he's going to shake this hack's hand. "I'm sorry to say I can't return the compliment. Your orchestra's accompaniment of Dr. Sheppard is awful."

"Rodney!" Sheppard says, his face pinkening. "I'm sorry, Maestro." Sheppard glares at Rodney like he expects Rodney to apologize for stating his opinion.

The conductor has the gall to laugh. "We're doing the best we can," Kavanagh says. "We're no Boston Symphony."

"You can say that again," Rodney huffs.

"Rodney," Sheppard growls, and the note of warning in his voice makes Rodney back off. Fine. Sheppard can fight his own battles. Rodney stomps back to his seat and wishes desperately for the iPod he left at Sheppard's.

Rehearsal resumes, and Rodney tries to keep his mouth shut – even bites his fist for a while. Hello, clarinet, you only get two measures of crappy solo in this whole thing – maybe you shouldn't miss it? Violas, are you illiterate? Read the key signature! Horns, where are you? I think you're in the wrong movement!

Rodney can hear Sheppard trying to push the tempo and then having to pull himself back as the orchestra plods along with its ignorant conductor. After the third time, Kavanagh stops the orchestra and turns to Sheppard, saying, "You're rushing there."

Sheppard's jaw drops in surprise and that is it. Rodney can't sit by and let this joke of a musician dictate to Sheppard how to play his solo. He stands and stomps up to the stage, shouting as he moves. "Orchestra, this is Dr. John Sheppard. He's your soloist. That means he should be able to play the Saint-Saëns any way he wants, and you should let him. All you have to do is follow along and not fuck up."

"Rodney," Sheppard says, with menace. He and Sheppard have never directly butted heads before, but he's pretty certain that he's more willing to bitch these people out than Sheppard is to drag him bodily off the stage, so he keeps moving, climbing onto the stage and walking right up to the conductor's podium.

"Mr. McKay," Kavanagh says icily, and the violinists all look up at him. That's when the whispering starts, and it only takes thirty seconds for the whole orchestra to be staring at him with wide eyes.

Sheppard's glaring, and that's fine, Sheppard should be pissed off. He's only had five performances in the last four months, and god, Rodney hopes they haven't all gone this badly.

"Maestro," Rodney says, forcing the word out of his mouth, "if I might?" Rodney knows he's pushing the conductor's limits, but he doesn't care. He stands expectantly next to the podium and waits. He'd never play with the Providence orchestra, so he can't hold that over their heads, but he's pretty certain he could make a convincing speech to the board of directors to fire their idiot of a music director.

The conductor – Paul? Patrick? – finally steps down, glaring at Rodney, and it's not the first time in his life he's been glad looks don't kill. Kavanagh doesn't leave the stage, standing off to the side of the cellos, like all Rodney's going to do is give a pep talk.

Rodney steps on to the podium and looks around at the orchestra. "You get paid to do this, right?" The first violist nods. "Then it is this simple," Rodney says, doing his best to keep his voice from climbing into the stratosphere. "Count. Listen. Play accordingly. All I should have to do is rein you in if something goes funny."

Rodney turns around and looks at Sheppard. He's still angry, but he's listening with as much attention as the orchestra, most of which is staring at Rodney with open astonishment on their faces. "From the top."

Sheppard begins to play, freer than he had been, and Rodney closes his eyes and listens. The orchestra's entrance is coming up, and he raises his arms to give the chords. They come in together, but atrociously out of tune. He ignores it for the moment, letting them continue without him until the piano solo takes over again. "I said listen!" he shouts over Sheppard's solo. "That means intonation too, for crying out loud!"

The opening of the first movement is mostly piano, with easy accompanying bits in the orchestra, and it goes smoothly until the flute comes in again. "Keep going," Rodney says, rolling his hands to keep them moving along. "Except you," he says, pointing at the flute player. "Push that head joint in, or I will come over there and do it for you. You are flat."

Sheppard continues, and the movement takes on a new sound as the orchestra figures out how to stay with him. Rodney pushes them along when Sheppard picks up the tempo. "He is not a twelve-year-old. Follow him! He knows how fast he can go."

Sheppard doesn't even register the comment, and he looks like he's finally enjoying himself. The winds come in again, and the flutist is within the realm of the rest of the woodwinds. "Better," Rodney says.

At the end of the movement, the orchestra looks up at him expectantly. "Next movement," he says and Sheppard looks positively gleeful.

The next two movements are fast and straightforward, so the only thing Rodney has to do is push and pull the tempo on occasion. When they finish the piece, the orchestra looks up at him with surprised faces.

"Adequate," Rodney says, and some of the faces fall. "You must still listen. Winds, play ahead of the beat. You understand the physics of sound, right? Your sound has to travel further to be heard, therefore you must play ahead to be heard at the same time." The horns nod at him and the rest of the winds look skeptical.

"Intonation is not optional," Rodney says, ticking complaint number two off on his fingers. "This is a piano solo, therefore, unless he's not playing, which happens for a total of approximately fifteen seconds in this piece, you should be playing in tune with him."

"Finally," Rodney says, raising three fingers for the orchestra to see, "get a recording of this piece and listen to it until you know where all you entrances are." He looks down his nose at the horns.

Rodney steps down and the principal cellist starts clapping. Most of the orchestra joins in, though there are several sour faces in the crowd and Kavanagh certainly looks like he swallowed a lemon. Rodney waves it off, clambering down from the stage and leaving the auditorium. Technically they have another forty minutes of rehearsal left, but Rodney doesn't want to hang around for any more. He knows he's overstepped his bounds, and even though he's saved the performance, Sheppard's probably going to be pissed off.

Musicians start filing out a few minutes later, the strings first, then some winds, then the stragglers, the suck-ups that stay after to talk to the conductor and the slowpokes that clean and sanitize their instruments before leaving.

A few of them try to sidle over to him, one even offers him a cigarette, and if he was ever remotely tempted, now would be the time. He shakes his head, and exchanges a few pleasantries with the young man. Another time, Rodney might push it a little, see if he's interested, but Sheppard stalks out of the building, and he's frowning so severely, Rodney worries he might pop a blood vessel.

Rodney thanks the guy and gets into step with Sheppard, who's ignoring him and walking incredibly fast toward the car. Rodney decides to wait it out, see if he can get Sheppard to talk first.

That lasts for about ten minutes. Rodney makes a play for the radio, until Sheppard turns a glower on him that makes Rodney worry Sheppard might rip his hand off. He pulls his hand back in and crosses his arms.

"Fine," he says, "Say it."

Sheppard stares straight ahead and keeps his silence.

"I'm not sorry, so if you're looking for an apology, you can give up right now."

Rodney stares out the window for a few more minutes before giving it another try.

"Are you ever going to speak to me again? Or does this juvenile tactic mean I'm going to have to speak to you through Ronon for the rest of our lives? Because I'm not sure he has enough words in his vocabulary to adequately express how immature you're being."

"I told you to back off," Sheppard says, and while there's heat there, it doesn't seem like Rodney's antics are what's pissing Sheppard off.

"Come on," Rodney says. "I bitch about the New York Phil. You think you can take me to a crappy orchestra rehearsal and I'll be able to sit quietly? I kept it in check until he said something about your solo."

"And it was my job to tell him–"

"Tell him what, Sheppard? You were speechless."

"I would have recovered," Sheppard says. "I was–"

"And said what?" Rodney ignores Sheppard's protests. "I meant to rush there," he simpers. "It was ridiculous. You're too good for that."

"I'm not!" Sheppard shouts, and Rodney's heart skips as he gets what this is all about. "I'm not you, Rodney. I have to take what I can get–" Sheppard's voice chokes off, and Rodney immediately regrets saying yes to this misadventure. He should have begged off and practiced.

"You think that's what you deserve?" Rodney asks, wishing he could force Sheppard to look at him. "John, you are better than this. I don't even know why you're taking these shitty gigs."

"I need the practice," Sheppard says, his typical self-deprecation walking the razor-thin line of self-loathing.

"Wrong," Rodney says. "You'll have plenty of practice when you take over for Teyla. After the Rach with Orpheus, you'll be able to play with real orchestras."

Sheppard lets out a sarcastic laugh, a low little 'ha.'

"I'm serious," Rodney insists. "You'll get reviews, and it won't take long before you have second tier orchestras asking for you. Then it's only a season before the big boys come calling." Rodney debates putting a hand on Sheppard's arm, but decides it's probably not a good idea. "You will get plenty of time with decent orchestras. These hacks don't deserve you."

Sheppard's hands are tight on the steering wheel but his body has lost some of the wiry tautness. "I don't know if I'll ever be as good as I used to be," he says, and Rodney has to bite his tongue. John's not as good as he used to be – he's ten times better.

"You're already better than you were as a kid," Rodney says earnestly, going for it and laying a hand softly on Sheppard's arm. "Trust me. If you've lost technique then you had plenty to spare, and now you're an adult – you have wisdom and insight and decent interpretation. It's worth whatever skill you thought you had."

Sheppard tensed up when Rodney touched him, so he lets his hand drop as naturally as he can. "Seriously, John. They won't know what hit them tomorrow night."

Sheppard twists his hands around the steering wheel and his whole body pitches forward a little. "Yeah, okay. I can sub for a twelve-year-old."

"Jesus christ, are you listening to me?" Rodney practically shouts. "You can play for anyone you want, Sheppard, so I'm telling you right now – no more crap orchestras. My nerves can't take it."

Sheppard laughs, a nice fat honking sound, and Rodney shakes his head, chuckling like he always does at Sheppard's obnoxious laugh. "I better not, then," Sheppard says, patting Rodney's hand delicately. "We wouldn't want you to have a fainting spell."

~~~