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Fic: Double Escapement (McKay/Sheppard, R)

Title: Double Escapement
Author: viva_gloria
Rating: R
Pairing: Sheppard / McKay
Recipient: Callmerizzo
Summary: AU: Europe, 1820; swords to ploughshares (or rather to
musical instruments). Rodney wants better, louder, more...


I: Brillante (sparkling, brilliant)

John shifted on the little gilt chair, trying to ease the pain in his bad leg without kicking his patron. Elizabeth shot him a glance, and twitched the hem of her crimson dress away from his boot as he smiled apology.

The recital had been due to start at two o'clock: it was now ten past, and the audience was restless. John glanced around, careful not to meet anyone's gaze, keeping his appraisal to himself. Fully half of the people in the room -- the elite of the city's musical cognoscenti -- were female, presumably here in the hope of witnessing first-hand the scandal that dominated the gossip-sheets. And more than a few of the men were, no doubt, expecting to ogle the decadent spectacle of a woman playing the violin. John wondered if anyone besides himself and Elizabeth was there to hear the music.

Raised voices from behind the velvet curtain at the back of the stage: then Miss Jennifer Keller swept out on stage, head high, bow and violin clasped in one hand. Her colour was high, but not (John thought) with rouge. She made a very pretty courtesy to the room. John didn't applaud: he saved that encomium for actual performance.

Her accompanist -- no, hadn't he written the piece too? Her ... her ... The man who emerged from behind the curtain was unexceptionable: a dark coat, somewhat creased, and a shirt that was fading to yellow. Of an age with John, perhaps: unremarkable features, heavily built. His smile was so one-sided that John wondered if he'd sustained some injury in the wars: damaged a nerve, or...

The 'pianist, who had barely glanced at the assembly, took his seat at the fortepiano and nodded to Miss Keller. She hastened to bring her instrument up, and began to play.

At first John thought that Miss Keller's evident anxiety had made her muff the notes: the sound was harsh, and her expression was more anguished than accomplished. But the 'pianist was nodding, and then he began to play too, and John was lost.

A spiralling rising twist, the call and response of the notes, and suddenly the music was faster, emphatic, a ripple of piano-notes, a staccato scale resolving into a sweet melancholy melody that itself resolved into something darker and more agitated.

John's attention was all on the music: had to be on the music, the performance. But, after all, Elizabeth had chosen these seats for their angle, their view of the two musicians on stage. John couldn't help watching the reflection of the 'pianist's quick clever hands in the polished wood behind the keyboard, the arch of the man's wrists, the way the dark cloth of his coat stretched and twisted over the muscles of his broad shoulders.

In the brief silence after the first movement, Elizabeth touched his arm, and raised an eyebrow when he turned to look at her. John blinked back, suddenly concerned that she'd read more than was seemly into his fascination -- but she must have been satisfied with whatever she saw in his expression: she turned back to face the stage.

During the andante, John made himself gauge the audience's reaction to the music. Most of them seemed intent on Miss Keller's performance. Perfectly understandable, of course. She was a handsome young woman, with a fine figure; her blue silk dress made the most of her regal bearing and her fair colouring; more importantly, her playing was vivid and accurate -- passionate, one might almost say, if that didn't suggest something more sordid than an afternoon sonata. She stood so that she could watch the pianist out of the corner of her eye, and every line of her body sang with strain. John could see nothing in the man's manner to warrant such tension. But Miss Keller's hands, at least, were fluid and free, delicate, as a surgeon's, careful, exact.

John was suddenly sure that the rumours were true. Music like this could only come from passion. (He'd been passionate, once.) If the 'pianist -- what was his name? Something Scottish. McCoy? ... McKay -- had written this music for Jennifer Keller to play, he surely ... he must love her. (Or feel passion for her, John amended, with a private smirk. There was a difference, as every man of the world discovered before he was twenty.) The two of them were almost certainly engaged in an affair. Or if they were not, it wasn't by McKay's choice.

There were too many variations in the andante for John's liking, but he forgave them everything when the music soared into its finale, Miss Keller's bowing hypnotic, perspiration shining on her brow, a smile of sheer exhilaration lighting her face.

Abruptly it was over, and in the moment's silence before the applause, John was suddenly aware that his leg was cramping, that the room was cold, that Elizabeth had taken a note-book and pencil from her reticule and was scribbling busily.

The 'pianist seemed to slump, just a little, like a puppet with his strings cut. He looked up, staring at the audience. He hadn't acknowledged their existence at all until now: perhaps he'd forgotten that he had an audience. Did his eyes (vividly blue) narrow when his gaze passed over John? Did he recognise Mr -- formerly Captain -- John Sheppard, conductor and manager of the Atlantis Ensemble? Almost certainly not. Belatedly, John began to clap.

"Well?" said Elizabeth Weir, leaning close, as the 'pianist made a cursory bow and a hasty exit ("Arrogant," John heard someone murmur behind him) leaving Miss Keller alone on the stage.

"Yes," said John, nodding. "Absolutely."

Elizabeth smiled. "I'll write to her, enquire about her availability, suggest ... what is it, John?"

"Him," clarified John. "It's him I want."

Elizabeth's smile faded. She was frowning at him again.

"For the orchestra," said John, exasperated. "I want him in the Ensemble."

"I thought we came --"

John shrugged. The room was emptying around them. "She's pretty good," he said. "Sure, why not?"

II: Rallentando (decreasing in speed)

The concert -- Handel's Fireworks, a late Mozart symphony -- had been a success. The audience had loved it: Elizabeth's eyes had sparkled, a light that John knew presaged the bestowal of more funds. None of that would have mattered if John hadn't been satisfied with himself and with the orchestra. But whilst on the podium, all his cares had been lost in the headlong exultation of the music. It'd been like riding ventre a terre, like bathing in a rapid river, like leading a cavalry charge. Now his leg sparked bright pain as it hadn't since the first days after Waterloo. He had to stop at each landing to rest. What in hell's name had possessed him to take rooms at the top of the house? And he'd have to slip Peter an extra sixpence to bring him a couple of pails of tepid water if he were to soak away the ache. He'd be limping for --

"Captain Sheppard!" came a man's voice from the top of the stairs, well-bred but with an accent that bespoke the New World. "I apologise for the liberty of visiting you at home, but I wished to speak with you in private, and it proved impossible --really, the manager at the theatre should be removed from his post, it's unconscionable --"

"Mr McKay," John interrupted, past caring about good manners. He'd noticed McKay (though not Miss Keller) there in the audience this evening; one of the best seats in the house. All the better to stare at John himself? More likely to gauge the calibre of the Ensemble, assuming that Elizabeth had been sufficiently persuaded of McKay's merits to approach him. ("Nobody will engage him," she'd argued. "He has a reputation: no, I don't mean his ... association with Miss Jennifer Keller. Before that. He's impossible to work with. He's arrogant, petty -- a brilliant artist, of course, but..." And John had shrugged and said, "I'll give him a chance.") And now he was here in the lodging-house, blocking John's doorway, intent on conversation when John's whole focus was on laudanum and hot water. "Come in," said John anyway, because what were a few more minutes of discomfort against McKay's music?

He waved McKay to the chair by the hearth, and offered him brandy. With luck he'd be able to measure himself a dose without being too obvious about it.

"Really? Laudanum?" said McKay, brittle and amused, from behind him. "The concert wasn't that bad."

"War wound," growled John. "I'm delighted that the music met with your approval."

"Ah. Yes." He could hear McKay fidgeting. "My apologies. I -- that is, I did know you'd been wounded. I, I forgot."

John turned around, a glass in either hand. McKay's chin was up and he was rushing on: "The way you conducted this evening -- there was no sign of your, your," he waved a hand, "your infirmitude."

"I was distracted," John said. "Here."

McKay sniffed the glass before he took a sip, but John had been careful, through long habit if nothing else: the laudanum was in the chipped glass that he still held.

"Good brandy," said McKay. "Of course, it's easier to acquire such luxuries since Bonaparte's fall."

"Indeed," said John, sitting down opposite the other man. The relief of taking his weight off his leg was a shocking pleasure: for a moment he simply let himself breathes.

"Swords into ploughshares, eh?"

"I beg your pardon?" said John. Christ, he was half-asleep, and the laudanum wasn't going to help.

"You were a soldier," said McKay. "Now you've turned to music, the epitome of peace. Allegedly."

John chuckled. "Neither your reputation nor your composition say much about peace," he explained, at McKay's sharp scowl. "But ... yes, I was sick of war."

"Oh, me too," said McKay.

John raised an eyebrow.

"I'll -- you know, a lesser man might take offence at your implication," said McKay. "I may not have marched around with a sword in my hand, hacking at the French like a butcher's apprentice, but I wasn't wholly idle. Ever seen Congreve rockets used against a fort?"

John nodded, and tried not to think about the carnage they'd found amid the rubble afterwards.

"It was my work that made it possible to aim them with any accuracy," said McKay. The slant of his mouth was stubborn now, but there was something less defiant than defenceless in his direct gaze.

"You were a ... a chemist?"

"I don't limit myself to chemistry," said McKay, with that haughty tilt of the chin again. "I was a -- I am a natural philosopher. I just don't ... " He was silent for a moment, staring down at a threadbare patch of carpet, and John thought he'd run out of words at last. "There's been too much killing," murmured McKay at last.

John could drink to that. "To the peace," he said, raising his half-empty glass.

"To peace," said McKay, knocking back his brandy like a cavalryman. "So: music," he said, instantly bright again, leaning forward, hands on his knees. "I understand you're interested in some form of collaboration?"

"I've never heard anyone play the way you do," said John, too tired to be anything but honest. "And I want to know if you can write for a full orchestra as well as you manage a sonata."

"What do you want? A symphony? A ... though I should warn you, I've been told I'm difficult to work with. You might --"

"I've heard," said John dryly. Then, because of something in the tension of McKay's shoulders, or some half-formed notion in his own head, he added, "What about Miss Keller? Did she think you were difficult to work with?"

Ah, there was that scowl again, and the slant of McKay's mouth that was almost painful to look at. "The association between Miss Keller and myself is none of your business, Captain!"

"Of course not," said John mildly. "I just wondered if she appreciated the sonata you wrote for her."

McKay sat back. He was smiling now, though there was something false about that smile. "Jenn -- Miss Keller and I have parted ways," he announced.

The leap of John's heart, his hope (for what, dammit?) alarmed him. "I'm sorry to hear it," he equivocated. "She seemed a delightful young lady, and her musicianship --"

"I want more," said McKay. The laudanum often tricked John: for a moment he imagined, hoped, that there was some hidden intent in McKay's intense expression. "I want -- there's so much more to be done with the fortepiano: it shouldn't be mere accompaniment."

"What else would it be?"

"Imagine a fortepiano that could match an entire orchestra." McKay's eyes were alight with enthusiasm, but John couldn't delude himself that he was its target. "Imagine a fortepiano as loud as the whole string section. Imagine being able to play however you wanted, without broken strings," he drummed his fingers, fast and emphatic, on the arm of the chair, "note after note without the lag of the hammers --"

"You think you can do that?" said John, leaning forward a little. He'd never had a great deal of time for the 'piano, but if McKay honestly thought...

"Give me two months," said McKay, eyes fixed on John's. "Two months, and I'll have the Beethoven concerto out of the way -- say what you like about Caldwell, he pays well, and he picks the best -- well, he's engaged me --"

"They told me you were modest," said John lazily, sitting back in his chair. The fire was starting to whisper to him, which meant that the laudanum was taking hold of his body as well as his mind.

"Modesty would be stupid," said McKay bitingly. "I -- but I'll grant you the benefit of the doubt, since you're clearly half-asleep: that is, you -- I'll take my leave of you now, all right?"

"You could stay," John wanted to -- John heard himself saying. Hell! The damned laudanum ... He let his eyes drift closed, hoping McKay, uncharacteristically silent McKay, hadn't heard him. Because McKay wasn't military, with a soldier's sense of carpe diem, not one of the light company who might share one's bed for a night, not…

The silence stretched out and the fire crackled. McKay's voice murmured something but John was falling fast, he couldn't...

The door clicked shut.

III: Impetuouso (impetuous, vehement)

John had not seen McKay in a fortnight. Elizabeth Weir smiled and told him she'd negotiated excellent terms for Miss Keller. "Mr McKay seems reluctant to accept another engagement," she'd said, and John had tried not to flinch. It wasn't his fault. You couldn't (he wouldn't) blame a man for what he might say in laudanum's thrall. Perhaps McKay hadn't even heard him clearly. Perhaps John hadn't spoken aloud after all.

Caldwell was conducting the Orchestre Daedal tonight: John would have attended the performance anyway, he assured Elizabeth, if only from professional interest. Though Caldwell's style was very different to his own, the man was a talented conductor, and he played his orchestra like ... like McKay playing the fortepiano.

Which feature of the programme was, of course, entirely incidental to John's presence.

Unusually, the Beethoven piece -- a concerto for fortepiano and orchestra -- was the first item on the programme. John slouched in his chair just a little more as McKay walked onto the stage. It wasn't that he wanted to hide. It wasn't that he thought McKay would denounce him in front of the assembly. It was just ... just...

McKay's eyes met John's, and John saw his hand come up in some aborted gesture. He was frowning, but not angrily: more as though he were trying to make out something in John's own expression. What? Whatever it was, McKay seemed to think he'd found it. He nodded once, sharply, and took his seat behind the keyboard. Caldwell glanced over at him, eyebrows raised, and McKay nodded to him too. Caldwell's standing too straight, thought John, too tense: but then his hands came down and the music began.

There were birds up in the rafters: John heard them singing during the delicate, tentative melody that followed the heroic declaration of the opening. McKay was picking out the notes one-handed, turned slightly away from the fortepiano to watch the orchestra. If he heard birdsong, he gave no sign of it. His attention seemed wholly focussed on the weave of the music, the warp of the notes set free from paper and ink, the weft of Caldwell's measured beat. From where John was sitting, he couldn't see McKay's hands. He'd have to sit further to the left next time.

"McKay must have been playing this piece for a decade now," murmured Elizabeth in the pause after the first movement. "No wonder he's so lazy about it."

John raised his eyebrows. He'd've argued the point -- that wasn't laziness, it was confidence, competence, complete mastery, and it called to John like a trumpet --but: there, the second movement was starting, achingly slow, tender...

Easy, easiest, for John to forget the players, to lose himself in the music. He'd heard that Beethoven had composed it while Napoleon's armies closed on Vienna: and yes, perhaps there'd been something martial in that first movement, but what McKay's hands were conjuring now was sweetness, exaltation, yearning: he was moving with the music now, fluid and familiar, and yes, he knew the piece intimately, haltingly breathless and oh the rush, the passionate rush of the third movement (not a moment's pause for the audience to cough and rustle), and John's mouth was dry and his throat was tight: damn, his whole body ...

He shifted awkwardly in his chair, pretending a spasm in his wrecked knee: it gave him sufficient respite to master himself. Music, just music. Not even McKay, though, Christ, John had to look away from the flex and tense of the man's shoulders as the music came quicker and louder and more exhilarating: not McKay, but just the music, just note piled on note piled on glorious note, and the orchestra gallant and brave despite Caldwell's lacklustre leadership, and --

A whipcrack of sound and Caldwell's head jerked round as though he'd been slapped: McKay gave a frightful grimace, and John could see his mouth moving. That was a string going, down in the lowest octave, and McKay was probably swearing like a trooper, trying to compensate by transposing the bass an octave, and --

Another string broke, and Caldwell was faltering now, his hands stilling: Elizabeth's hand was on John's arm, as if to hold him back, and John realised he was on the edge of his seat, afire with the urge to do something, to push Caldwell aside and --

But McKay was crashing on, pulling the orchestra with him, into that final reckless ecstatic cadenza: and the lead violin (a dark fellow John didn't know) was, thank heaven, was following, and all they had to do was count and play, count and play...

John was on his feet applauding before the echo of the final notes had faded. And yes, his leg'd cramped fit to topple him: he gritted his teeth and breathed through the pain and clapped harder, because it wasn't the first time he'd seen a 'piano fail beneath the weight of the player's hands, but he'd never heard anyone storm through that failure like McKay.

"I need to talk to him," he said to Elizabeth, and waited half a beat for her nod before heading off, as fast as he could (curse his damned leg) for the door that led backstage.

No point in asking anyone: John followed the shouting and found McKay and Caldwell, squaring up as if words were insufficient. McKay was red-faced: Caldwell was pale with anger. John leant against the doorjamb, getting his breath, gauging the field. "-- undermining my authority as leader of the --"

"You have no authority!" spat McKay. "I --"

"Undermining my authority, and your own reputation as a musician. I've heard you play that piece before, and on that occasion you didn't wreck the --"

"I suppose you think every performance should be the same?" demanded McKay. ""Playing a concerto's like, like lovemaking." Caldwell winced, and opened his mouth to say something: McKay barrelled on. "It should be different each time. But -- but honest, always honest."

"McKay," said John. He was grinning, and Caldwell's glare slid off him. "That was -- I have to talk to you."

"... you do?" said McKay, abruptly deflated.

"In private," added John, laying a proprietary hand on McKay's arm -- the sleeve of his coat was damp with sweat, and John could feel the muscle flex beneath -- and past giving a damn what Caldwell might think.

"I'll speak with you later, Mr McKay," said Caldwell, with commendable restraint. "Captain Sheppard: good evening."

As soon as the door was shut, McKay started up again: "I, I understand if you're reconsidering your decision -- but honestly, Sheppard, that man's utterly unequipped to deal with the simplest of Beethoven's compositions, let alone the 'piano concerti. My cat! My cat has better rhythm! And between you and me, I'm not wholly convinced that he's ever --"

"That was marvellous," said John. His mouth hurt from grinning so wide. "I never -- McKay, that was amazing. You were amazing."

"Huh," said McKay, and the simple pleasure he took from the compliment was devastating. "Well, I suppose I was. I mean -- thank you." And then, looking down at John's hand where it rested, still, on his arm, "I wish you'd been conducting. You're ... "

"What am I, McKay?" John asked. His voice came out deeper than he'd expected, low and raw, and hell, this was ... suddenly intimate, as if it'd been the two of them out there, as if McKay'd been playing just for him.

McKay swallowed, and stepped away, and John thought: he's going to hit me. He's going to tell me --

"I want that," said McKay. "I want to play ... I want to write something, a concerto, like that but, but more: and I want you to conduct it."

IV: Intermezzo (an interlude)

A cold wet noon in late November: John's leg was always worse in this kind of weather, and he shifted his satchel to his other shoulder to take some of the weight off his bad knee as he walked, head down against the gusting drizzle.

"Captain Sheppard!"

John's head snapped up: he wasn't Captain Sheppard any more, but who --

It was McKay, of course, bundled against the rain in a disreputable coat, beckoning him from the other side of the street. They had encountered one another more than once over the last month, as autumn turned to winter, but never alone. John had convinced himself that he'd imagined the frisson between them, that time after the concert with Caldwell. He imagined that evening often: imagined how things might've turned out, if Elizabeth hadn't come looking for John, if they'd been somewhere private instead of backstage at the theatre, if...

John made his way carefully across the muddy road to where McKay stood. "McKay," he said. "How's the piece coming along?"

"Pretty well," said McKay. "Let me take that."

"I'm not a cripple, McKay!"

"No, but your leg's playing up: give me the bag."

It wasn't worth arguing about, and John had to admit to himself that it was easier to manoeuvre without the weight of the satchel throwing his balance. He fell into step, awkwardly, at McKay's side. "Where're you headed?"

"Workshop," said McKay. "Hmm. You should come along. I want to show you what I've achieved, these last few weeks."

"Workshop?" said John. "What workshop?"

"Used to be a joiners' shop," said McKay absently, barging past a knot of apprentices. "Grodin's got some good ideas about instrument-making -- not as radical as mine, of course, but he's inventive and not afraid to experiment -- and he's got the skills to put them into practice."

"You're making a fortepiano?" said John.

"We're making something better," said McKay. "Like a fortepiano, but louder. I'd be able to play faster, with --"

"There's only so much you can do with the instrument," objected John. "The mechanics --"

"Well, obviously," said McKay witheringly. "But: hello, this is me, and I'm in the position, the unique position, of knowing what I want to do, knowing how to do it, and knowing where to go with the results."

"Right," said John, because McKay's supreme certainty was oddly infectious. "Does that mean the concerto's going to be late?"

McKay gave him a pitying look. "Are you actually listening to anything I'm saying, or have you been -- Let's see if I can explain this in simple terms."

"I'm a simple man," lied John, just to rile McKay.

"No you're not, so don't waste my time." McKay waved his hand under John's nose. "One, I know how the piece needs to sound." He snapped his fingers. "Two, I can't get that sound from the fortepianos I've played." Another snap. "Three, I need to build a fortepiano -- no, it's not going to be a fortepiano, it's going to be something new -- that can, that can translate what's in my head to actual music."

"Four," said John, "we're going to Grodin's workshop so you can mess around with wood and wire."

McKay's eyes narrowed. "We're going to Grodin's workshop," he countered, "so you can hear what it might sound like: then maybe you'll trust me to produce a workable score."

"Whatever you say," said John, and occupied himself for the rest of their walk by wondering just why he trusted McKay so much already.

Stepping into Grodin's workshop was like stepping into a hell devised wholly for musicians: a cacophony of hammering, of discordant twangs, echoing down from the rafters of the high ceiling. Someone was whistling off-key. John stood in the doorway, trying to comprehend everything that assailed his senses.

"C'mon," said McKay. "This way. Peter! How's it coming along?"

"A couple of the springs were inadequate." Grodin (John presumed) straightened up from where he'd been kneeling, busy with a mess of metal. "Mr Sheppard! If I'd known --"

"You know him?" said McKay, scowling.

"I make a point of attending all your concerts, sir," said Grodin to John. "Your rendition of Handel's Fireworks will stay in my mind for --"

"Yes, yes," interrupted McKay, before John could manage more than an embarrassed mutter. "Some of us are here on serious business, Grodin: I don't suppose your feckless gang have got as far as assembling the keyboard?"

"My apologies, sir," said Grodin, with a quirk to his smile that made John warm to him. "This way, if you please."

There was something unsettling about seeing a fortepiano stripped to its workings. An ugly instrument, thought John, without the gilding and the polish to hide the mechanism: just another machine, engineered for a purpose. The keys were bare wood, the hammers fuzzy with lint: there was a strong sharp odour of wood, oil, metal.

McKay did not hesitate. Standing in front of the keyboard, he flexed his fingers and brought them down in a chord that crashed.

"Bloody hell," said John. The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling.

McKay shot him a reckless grin. "See? Better. Louder. And hey, how about this?"

There were more keys than John thought usual -- six octaves? Six and a half? --and McKay picked out a rippling arpeggio, left to right, low to high. Every note was clear, and the volume was astonishing. And now McKay was playing music, something of Mozart's, but faster than John'd ever heard it before: faster than he'd thought anyone could play. He leant forward, steadying his weight against the instrument's metal frame, to watch McKay's hands.

"We call it double escapement," said Grodin helpfully. "It means the note can be repeated much sooner than on a conventional instrument: even if the key hasn't returned to its original position, the volume and sustain --"

"Ssssh," said McKay, "working, here", and the music segued into something John didn't recognise, exuberant and brilliant, so immediate that John could barely breathe.

McKay stopped playing suddenly, jarringly, mid-phrase, and he turned to John, close enough that John would have sworn he could feel the hammering of McKay's pulse. John was dazed by the music: he couldn't move.

"Do you understand now, Sheppard?" said McKay, his voice pitched just for John. "I'm writing this. I'm creating this."

"I don't even know what to call it," said John slowly.

"It's for you," said McKay, his gaze intense. "We're going to make this real. You," his hand brushed John's chest, "and me."

V: Gaudioso (merry, joyful)

John wanted to trust McKay, truly he did: but the concert was on Saturday, and it was Thursday, and the fair copies of the orchestra's scores had only just been brought round by a cowed errand-boy. John had tipped him well, recognising the after-effects of McKay's temper, and sent him away. Right: they had the music, and Griffin was passing out the new scores to the orchestra. (There'd better not be any major changes to what they'd rehearsed all week. And if Martin started up again about the penmanship...) They had the fortepiano -- McKay'd argued that it needed another name, given how utterly different it was from any other instrument in existence -- and it stood to one side of the stage, grubby with fingerprints and grease where the stagehands had grumblingly hauled it into place. But where was McKay? John pulled out his pocket-watch. A quarter past three: McKay should have been here half an hour ago, and though John had never visited McKay at his lodgings, he was pretty sure they were less than ten minutes --

"Rodney doesn't let people down, Mr Sheppard," said Miss Keller from her seat at the front of the strings.

John looked at her blankly, wondering who Rodney might be.

"Mr McKay, I mean," said Jennifer: she was blushing.

"Of course," said John smoothly, thinking: how come I didn't know his name? He'd been thinking of McKay a lot, lately. Thinking of his hands. Thinking of his music. Thinking, what if I wasn't imagining that … that something, between us? Thinking, less patiently, that McKay'd better come through with the concerto in time, or John would look like a fool. And Elizabeth Weir wouldn't be best pleased if her expenditures -- hiring the theatre, paying the orchestra, sending out invitations to the cognoscenti -- were in vain.

"He is a musician," said Radek Zelenka, first flute. "We are ... you know, Mr Sheppard." He gestured fluidly. "We are not soldiers. We do not march to another's beat."

"Mr McKay assured me he'd be here," said John, striving for nonchalance. Appearances: he had to look as though he trusted McKay, or the members of the orchestra -- some of them already muttering and scowling at the scores they'd been given -- would rebel. John stared down at the master-score in front of him, not really seeing the music, mentally reviewing their repertoire. Maybe they could repeat the Beethoven symphony, the Eighth, or --

"Sorry, sorry," said McKay, striding into the hall, a swirl of cold air around him. "Just perfecting the final -- oh, don't tell me you haven't even started."

"We haven't even started," drawled John. "We were waiting for you."

"What's the use in --" McKay looked disgusted, and John felt an urge to apologise, which he quashed. "Never mind. Never mind." McKay stalked over to the 'piano, played a brief scale, nodded to himself. "Still tuned," he murmured. "Miss Keller?"

John had not seen the two of them together since the concert where he'd first encountered Rodney McKay. McKay'd claimed it was all over between them: so why was Jennifer Keller blushing?

McKay wasn't blushing. McKay was cool and detached, giving Miss Keller an A, waiting with only moderate impatience as the rest of the orchestra tuned their instruments to her violin. The gentle discord was like a bugle-call to something within John, like a call to arms: his discomfort dismissed, his mind clear and sharp, his body not a burden but an instrument.

"We'll go from the top," he told the orchestra. "All the way through, and then let's see what we need to work on."

"This passage in the second is still --" said Stackhouse, horn, flicking a nervous glance at McKay.

"From the top," said John firmly.

They weren't, at least, coming to it cold. McKay had grudgingly provided a scrawled copy of his master-score, which John'd hastily arranged for the various parts, paying over the odds for quick work from the copyists and cursing McKay for leaving him to do the drudge-work. He'd squinted at McKay's hasty scrawl, puzzled over some of the dynamics, scowled at the sheer iconoclasm of the piece: but it had not been music, not then. Only now, with the orchestra smooth and responsive in those first stormy bars, was McKay's concerto becoming real.

John glanced at McKay, expecting a frown or a glare or some sign of disapprobation: then found he had to force his gaze away from that eager, happy readiness, the tilt of McKay's head, the fluid movement of his hand as he followed the rhythm. The way he was watching John.

McKay didn't have a score in front of him. It was all, everything, in his head.

And then, diminuendo, the orchestra dying away, and McKay bent his head and flexed his fingers, and…

The sheer volume alone would have been thrilling. The speed and force of the music, of McKay's playing, sent John shivery, vibrous with tension, with excitement. He'd seen the music in black ink on the page: he knew the shape of it, the call and response of each motif, the places where McKay demanded more from the musicians, the pages where, if John's focus lapsed, the concerto would collapse. He knew the music, but he'd never heard it outside his own mind. He'd never heard it like this, fierce and thundering and vivid around him. If there were birds in the rafters of the theatre, they'd flee before the gale of McKay's music.

Distantly he was aware that he was still in command: that the orchestra was responding like a single being to his baton, that he was leaning in to draw more from Radek's flute for this delicate melodic phrase, that he was turning towards McKay to share the man's glee as he corrected, developed, resolved that phrase.

There was barely a pause between the first movement and the second: no pause at all -- McKay's scribbled note insisted -- between the second and the third. John kept an eye out for any slackening of pace, any appearance of discontent, but the musicians seemed as entranced as he was, sweeping on -- no, swept on by the music. This was how it'd felt to lead a charge, to have a mass of men at his command: nothing without the others, part of a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. He was nothing without the music, without the way he and McKay were making this together.

And this might be the most intimate conversation they'd ever have, the way that McKay only had to shoot a glance at John for him to know just how to moderate the orchestra, the way that John could shrug off McKay's glare when the strings were too smooth or Stackhouse mistimed his breaths. The way that, now -- already, now? --John could nod at McKay and stand still, trapped, as the orchestra fell silent and McKay conjured cadenzas that John'd never heard before. Nobody, anywhere, had heard anything like this, ever: John was pretty sure of that. His heart hammered in his chest with the immensity of what they were creating: broke free, lifting to the cold clear heaven beyond the rafters, with the sheer sweetness of the resolution.

Silence: silence for just a moment, and John wanted this moment to last forever, wanted time to stretch around him and Rodney McKay and keep them here in the heart of the music. McKay looked slightly stunned; slightly ... there was a painting John'd seen in Italy, of a saint ...

Then the orchestra began to applaud, and to shout, and to cheer. "This is not a concerto. This is piano against orchestra!" came Radek's accented voice, rich with laughter. Jennifer Keller was weeping, but her smile was radiant. Stackhouse was on his feet, his horn gleaming under his arm, clapping wildly.

John looked over at Rodney, whose face was wet with more than just perspiration, who was staring down at the keyboard and scowling furiously --

"McKay!"

Rodney looked up, and his expression was open, everything there. John couldn't speak: couldn't, it turned out, walk without stumbling. But he made it to the 'piano, and took McKay's hand, and pulled him upright. All right, so he didn't have the words, but ... but words weren't everything.

"Come on, then," said McKay fiercely: and, heedless of the Ensemble's uproar, he took hold of John's arm and practically hauled him off the stage.

VI: Vivace (lively)

McKay was silent, for which John (the music still ringing in his head) felt grateful. He let McKay lead him, and barely noticed where they went: out of the theatre, through the streets, to John's own lodgings.

"I -- is this all right?" said McKay, halting in front of John's door and fixing John with one of those intent stares. "Only, you looked --"

John muttered something, some assent: got the door open, got McKay into the room without letting go of him and kicked the door shut. And Christ, McKay was right there, closer than ever, right up against John, pressing him against the door, not exactly kissing him but his mouth was against John's, his mouth was moving --right, because McKay had enough words for both of them.

"Sheppard, that was -- I knew you'd make it come true, I knew you'd trust me, you wouldn't hold back, you wouldn't ask stupid --"

John wrapped his arms around McKay (God, the breadth of his shoulders, the way he was still resonating with what they'd done) and kissed him, desperate and gasping, as hard as he'd ever been, wanting and still not quite believing that maybe he'd been right about McKay from that first meeting. This was nothing like the other times he'd wanted someone. This was ... this was McKay.

Who, impossibly, was still trying to talk to him, talk and kiss and Christ, put his hands on John's skin --

"Rodney," John managed, his voice as rough and raw as it'd ever been on the battlefield. "Ssshhhh."

"No, I can't -- Sheppard --"

"John," said John dry-mouthed from kissing.

"What? Oh, right. Look: no, listen to me: am I right, is this what --"

"McKay!" Which felt right, because when John'd lain here in his solitary bed, hand on his prick, pressing into the mattress, the name on his lips -- never out loud, never where anyone else could hear -- had been 'McKay'.

Maybe McKay could read his mind, the way he'd been reading John without a word spoken, in the theatre. He was manoeuvring them both towards the bed, shoving John down (and John let himself be shoved, because this was, this was all and more of what he'd wanted), McKay's weight atop him, McKay's voice warm and tickling against his ear. "John, John, that was for you. You know that, right? All of it, all for you. I never -- nobody ever -- and the way you looked, like you were right on the edge: you always have that distance, you know? And I made you lose --"

John groaned: he was arching up against McKay, desperate for more, desperate for touch and skin and the immediacy of Rodney McKay here with him, like this, kissing, touching, sliding his big hands under John's shirt and over his ribs, cupping him, stroking him, his mouth hot and hungry and fierce against John's jaw, and every sinew in his body was wound tight and ready to, to ...

John thought he might have cried out as his climax overtook him, but Rodney was kissing him again, muffling the noise, moaning into John's mouth, shoving his prick into the crease of John's hip and tightening his hands almost painfully on John's body as he spent.

All John could do, for now, was breathe. Breathe in Rodney, and feel his own seed clammy and cooling against his skin, and Rodney's weight on him, and a distant irrelevant clamour of pain in his wound-knotted leg, and a pleasurable ache that spread from the base of his spine to the tips of his fingers, like a fossil relic of the music he'd conducted not an hour ago.

Rodney was a dead weight atop him, his face buried in the curve of John's neck, his breath shuddering against John's collarbone. "Before," said John softly, turning his head and pressing his cheek against Rodney's, "we could've done --"

"Not 'til I'd finished the music," said Rodney groggily to John's shoulder.

"Why?" John's throat was dry, and his leg was starting to ache pretty badly, though not enough to make him move.

"You," said Rodney: was he laughing?

John poked him in the ribs. "Me what?"

"That's how I could get to you," said Rodney, propping himself up on one elbow. "The music." His mouth was red, and there was a mark on his throat where John'd apparently bitten him, and now John wanted to do it again. All of it. More.

"You could've said something," objected John, though his heart wasn't in it.

"Yes, and you'd have listened?" Rodney rolled his eyes. "Anyway, I didn't ... I don't..." His mouth twisted. "I don't have words for. For that. For you."

There was a melody going through John's head, clear and free: it took him a while to realise that it wasn't from the concerto, but a memory of that first afternoon, the sonata Rodney'd written for Jennifer Keller. Before he'd --

"I don't know what you're thinking," said Rodney sharply, his fingers wrapping round John's jaw, turning John's whole head towards him. "But if it's about me and it's bad or, or mistrustful or something, don't. Please --"

John licked at Rodney's fingers, and Rodney made a ridiculously high-pitched noise and leant in to kiss him again, and John was perfectly happy to forget all about Jennifer Keller and the orchestra, Elizabeth Weir, his leg, the war, the peace, the world.

"It's not always going to be like that," said Rodney much later, leaning against the headboard of John's bed, his bare skin hot against John's, candlelight gilding his skin and shining redly from the wineglass in his hand.

"You mean...?" said John lazily, waving his hand in the narrow space between the two of them.

Rodney's smile was fond. "I mean the music, idiot."

Every time different, every time honest, Rodney'd told him after the concert with Caldwell. And John was all for that, truly he was. But ... "Bigger," he said, with a demonstrative caress. "Faster. Louder."

"More," agreed Rodney, and pulled him down again.

-end-



Soundtrack: examples ...
Beethoven Piano Concerto #5,
'Emperor', played on fortepiano


Brahms Piano Concerto #2
Tags: genre: slash, pairing: mckay/sheppard
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