Deep breath, one foot after another. They have no reason to dislike you - you aren’t the first guest conductor they’ve had, Shen thought. And at least as far as he knew, none of those concerts had been disasters. He could make it through this. He would, he corrected himself as he straightened his shoulders and opened the door to the auditorium.
From the looks of it, most of the ensemble was already there; only a few spaces were empty and even most of those were taken up by an active holo-screen, the shifting translucence of the people on the screens not at all odd to anyone else around them. He hadn’t seen projects much off of skyships, the technology less used on Ganymede, but Shen still felt his eyes immediately drift towards the chair set up to the right of the conductor’s stand and to the man sitting there. Anais, the ensemble’s regular conductor, hadn’t said much about Alexander Legaspi, other than that as long as Shen didn’t clash with him, he wouldn’t have any trouble with the rest of the ensemble. Shen swallowed and willed his pulse to slow down and his blood to stay out of his cheeks, among other areas. Clashing was the least of his worries right then.
Alexander sat sideways in his chair, one arm slung over the low, curved back to turn and chat with the others in his section, brushing his dark hair back from his face every now and then as he laughed. He quickly adjusted his position as said laughter eventually threatened the instrument balanced precariously in his lap over haphazardly crossed legs. As he grabbed for it, though, Shen watched his expression shift, the distraction sharpening into something more thoughtful as he suddenly switched his grip from rescuing his violin to one meant to play it, his other hand rummaging on his stand for the bow. He presented it with a flourish that seemed to be some sort of signal as Shen watched conversations peter out and even though he caught some rolled eyes at the dramatics, all eyes eventually turned to Alexander. Shen’s own steps faltered, caught in the anticipation of what would happen next.
Alexander posed there, holding his bow perfectly still in the air, and the entire room seemed to hold their breath. Then, as suddenly as he’d begun, he brought the bow down against the strings, fiddling wildly, the base sound of it somehow familiar, but with airs and leaps that electrified the air around him. He swayed back and forth in the chair, his feet and legs bouncing and dancing in a way that made it look like he’d leap up at any moment and made Shen wonder what he would do if he were given the whole stage.
Then it was over, and as if he hadn’t just performed a feat of musicianship that people trained their whole lives to even approach, Alexander dropped his hands and turned back to his section, shrugging. “Something like that. I maybe spent too long staring at the storms planet-side, but that’s the concept. I think it should be ready for the next open night at Rings.”
Shen was abruptly glad he hadn’t made it past the first few rows in the back of the auditorium - speechless was hardly the impression he wanted to make, not when it was likely his one and only chance to have this, and not when no one else seemed to have been as affected. He told himself that he wanted to watch the ensemble, get a feel for their dynamic with their guards down. He consciously pushed aside the thought of how his parent would prefer he use his skills of observation, or what they had in store for him as he simply watched, letting the possibilities of the next month spread out in front of him.
He watched all of the sections, but his eyes kept drifting back to the strings and to Alexander, still sitting backwards, bow still dangling from his fingers. As Shen watched, he realized it was moving to a distinct beat, one that rose and fell with the flow of conversation from each corner of each section. So this was what Anais meant when she had called Alexander a true concertmaster.
A small beep from his pocket startled Shen, and with a slight pang of regret, he realized he was perilously close to being late to a meeting he was already attending. As inconspicuously as he could, Shen stood and edged back towards the doors, hoping no one would notice his second entrance. Softly, he opened the door, and loudly he closed it, making even himself jump with how much the bang echoed throughout the hall.
The musicians settled into their own seats if they hadn’t been there already as Shen made his way up the aisle and to the conductor’s stand. He took a moment to put his papers down before turning to the different sections and bowing to each of them in turn before turning back to the strings and Alexander. Alexander was already standing, close enough that Shen could smell the polish he used on his violin in the wake of his motions.
“Papers, huh? I hope you don’t mind us using data pads, then.” There was a quirk about Alexander’s lips, which Shen took as intent to soften the tease of his words, but the soft snort from the front of the wind section made him aware of the assessing glint in Alexander’s eyes, and as he looked around, he noticed the absence of any paper at all on any other stands, or even peeking out of any bags.
Fighting back the warmth he could feel rising to his cheeks from more than Alexander’s proximity, Shen replied, “Not at all. It’s simply what I’m used to, that’s all. I’d never presume to tell you to use one thing over another, so long as the music is the same and you can take notes on my suggestions.”
A beat, and then another. The entire ensemble seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for Alexander’s verdict, making Shen wonder just how much he could fuck this up with the wrong impression. Only seconds could have possibly passed since Shen’s reply, but he could feel that time stretch between them, a taut string starting to vibrate with the tension. Then, just as Shen started to square his shoulders, ready to fight for his case, Alexander’s verdict be damned, Alexander shrugged. “Suit yourself. You from Ganymede, then?”
With that, the tension sank back into low murmurs from the others. Shen forced his shoulders back down on his next breath - his childhood reflexes had no place here. He let a smile ease onto his face as he turned to address the ensemble as a whole. The sea of faces staring back at him seemed curious, not necessarily ready to jump down his throat for any misstep, but he had visited the Courts on Ran, knew the masks that people wore. Better not to let them think he was ashamed of anything. “I originally grew up on Europa — here in Senchin, in fact — but moved to Ganymede fairly early. I did most of my schooling there—I guess when you live on Alexandria long enough, you adopt all their habits,” he finished with, deliberately letting his accent slide from the stressed consonants of Senchin to the long vowels and breathy tones of the Ganymedean island of Alexandria. It had always seemed a more musical take on Common, one that flowed more naturally with the way the students and researchers had a greater tendency to bring back words from the old Terran languages, and Shen loved it. No one could use it against him if he wielded it first, and in fact, he noted a few postures relax at his accent and made a note to try and talk to those few later.
Then, from the back, “We get it, you’re old-fashioned. Xander, he’s old-fashioned—now sit down, and let’s get to starting!” Shen’s eyes jumped up, catching on the percussionist in the back, who sported a wry, bright smile and a shock of green hair styled in a way Shen recognized from recent Senchin fashion magazines as the height of popularity and as one that never would have been allowed anywhere on Gaymede.
To his surprise, Alexander—Xander, it fit him better, better than a name which reminded him of quiet, dusty halls, not this vibrant life in front of him—sat down with a laugh, and leaned forward to Shen. “Ignore Lial,” he stage-whispered, laughing eyes darting back to make sure the percussionist heard. “They’ll run roughshod all over your instructions if you let them.” To Lial, he called back, “I’ll start when you start following time with the rest of us!” From the laughter from the rest of the musicians and how many of them turned around to rib Lial on their own, Shen figured it was a good time to capitalize on the broken tension and step up to the podium.
The view from the conductor’s stand. The auditorium was beautiful—a modern marvel of architecture and acoustics, with rich colors and swooping arches leading into the paneled ceiling, but to him, the best sight was what was in front of him. The gleaming floor, barely visible under the jumble of chairs and bodies and stands and bags, intermingled with glints from instruments to shine in the lights above them, almost blinding him with how much he wanted this. He let his gaze drift over all the faces turned up towards him and cleared his throat. “As you all likely know, my name is Shen Markash, and Anais has graciously allowed me to conduct you for the debut of her wife’s new composition. You all just heard that I am here on visit from the university, Matoung, so an ensemble of this size and breadth of instrument is a challenge I’m eager to take. I hope you all will trust in both Anais’s decision and my own skill and work with me to make this debut a success.” He bowed once more, taking the broken eye contact to allow his heart to settle back to a more normal pace before he lifted his head again. The expressions staring back at him ranged from neutral to eager, and Shen allowed himself a breath in relief. He’d take bordering on bored over annoyed or mischievous any day. Even Lial, in the back, looked like they were ready to get into the piece. Secretly Shen agreed with them—there was a section in the middle that had a number of quick tempo changes that he had a feeling Lial was especially looking forward to, but that was several movements in their future.
“Alright, let’s get started then.” Shen’s heart leapt as he raised his baton. Even if their first pass would be slow, even if they were only going to get through the first movement today, there was nothing like a new piece of music and getting to shape it.
Shen could feel his eyes drifting closed, letting the sound surround him, when a hand on his shoulder made him jolt. He’d already been leaning back, and he flailed against the sudden movement for a second and had resigned himself to fall before he felt a warm hand at his back. He’d purposefully faced away from Xander to be able to watch people other than him, and yet.
“Woah, steady.” Xander’s voice was low in his ear, and Shen tried not to react, knowing that as close as they were right now, he’d never be able to hide anything, not having eschewed his normal loose robes for tighter fare for ease of movement and visibility.
He tried to laugh it off. “Sorry, I just got caught up in...y’know.” He spread his hand out in front of him.
“Everyone packing up?” Shen couldn’t see Xander’s face from this angle, but could all but hear the eyebrow raise in the tone of his voice, and Shen felt blood rise to his cheeks.
“There’s a rhythm to it,” he said, knowing he sounded defensive. If Xander had been genuinely curious and he had messed this chance up…
Thankfully, Xander simply laughed, a sharp, lively sound that made Shen’s pulse leap, then came around the front to look down at Shen, still slightly sprawled on the box. “You really are a bit of an odd one, aren’t you, Markash?” He still extended him a hand, which Shen took gratefully to pull himself up.
Xander’s hand was warm in his, and he tried not to let himself linger for as long as he desperately wanted to. “Please, call me Shen. I never really saw the need for all that formality.”
“Even on Ganymede? I thought you guys were all about titles and ‘proper manners’ there.” Xander’s delighted expression bordered on scandalized at this, especially as Shen couldn’t stifle a laugh at his exaggerated air quotes.
“Especially there. Almost everyone at Matoung drops formalities as soon as they’re out of their family’s clutches.” It was an easy response, and one that didn’t get into why he had truly rejected all the titles due to him. “That way, we get a chance to build up our own reputations.”
Xander snorted a bit at that. “Or you could have just come back here. Even the military titles get ignored once you’re off base.”
Shen still wasn’t back in the habit of guarding his expression from scepticism, because Xander nudged him with one arm. “Really. Give me your full title and we’ll go out tonight and I’ll introduce you. Drinks are on me if anyone even blinks.”
A night out. With Xander. Shen’s mouth was open to say yes before his brain even registered the offer—his previous plans had been to stay in, avoiding calls from his parents with a glass of baiju and looking over the score after everything he’d heard today. Not only was this his first time conducting a professional ensemble, but it was an entirely new piece. He needed to take this seriously if he wanted to succeed, and succeeding at this was the first step in his plan. Xander, with his sparkling eyes and hand outstretched, was exactly the temptation Shen had come to Europa to avoid.
Best to get it out of your system now, a voice in his head whispered. So you don’t long for what you never knew.
“What if I give you a fake title?”
“Trying to sound grander than you are? Just to get a few drinks out of me?” The grin that lit up Xander’s face banished the doubts that clung in the corners of Shen’s mind. Even if Xander didn’t mean anything by it, even if it was just for tonight, even if it did just end in Shen buying a couple rounds of drinks and then retreating back to his apartment and the score, these last few grasps of freedom would be worth it.
“Something like that.” Shen laughed as he took Xander’s hand and shook it, sealing their deal. “Remember, I just got back to Europa—maybe I spent all my money on groceries for the week and need a poor soul to take pity on me to get a drink.” If this was going to be his opportunity to have what he wanted, he’d be as bold as he wanted, even if that boldness surprised him.
It surprised Xander too, by the look on his face before he burst out laughing again. “You really are an odd one, Shen.” And that, the sound of his name in Xander’s laughing voice, was worth it already. “Alright then, give me your best shot—nothing too grand, like a prince or a general—not that anyone would care, but we’d get looks for telling such an obvious lie for where I’m gonna take you tonight, and I don’t want to lose on a technicality.”
Shen thought on that for a moment, leaving Xander to go finish packing up his violin as well as round up a few other members of the ensemble. They all joked easily with Xander, and Shen tried to not let his heart sink too much at the knowledge that it wouldn’t be just him and Xander alone tonight. Instead, he’d take it as an additional challenge, he told himself.
When Xander came back with a small group of others, Shen was pleased to see Lial among them, both as confirmation that the jibes earlier had all been in fun, and that from what he’d seen of them during rehearsal, they were on good terms with almost everyone in the ensemble. Maybe he’d be able to convince them to distract the others so that he could get Xander alone. Xander’s eyes were on him now as he approached Shen, focused and determined, and Shen wanted to keep them that way the rest of the night.
“So, did you think up a good title yet?”
“Shen Markash, Commodore of the Imperial Fleet, Second Ambassador to the Court of Feing, and Lord Song, at your service.” He topped it all off with a highly flourished bow, hoping that none of them would detect how practiced it actually was.
“And how much of that is made up to try and get me in trouble?” Xander’s eyes danced like his fingers on his violin, and for a moment, Shen wished he didn’t have to lie.
“You tell me—you’re the one who told me to use my imagination.” He winked, hoping it would help his cover and lies. Not as much as he would have liked, and he hoped that his friend Talia didn’t mind his likely slandering of her future title as Lord Song, but if he knew her, she wouldn’t even look up from her agriculture books or care unless he actually tried to take the title from her.
“Fair enough. But, you know you’re going to have to repeat that for me at least once so that I’m sure I get it right. Grand entrances and all.” Xander slung one arm through Shen’s, who did his best not to jump again, then reached back for another musician’s, another member of the string section. “Alright, let’s go!”
They found themselves at a bar in fairly short order—when Shen asked if it was going to be a problem that those with portable instruments were still carrying them, all he got in response was that it was open tonight. From the sharp grins he got at that answer, he supposed he would just have to see exactly what that meant. The bar itself seemed fairly typical, with a simple holo screen outside proclaiming it as “The Wandering Daughter” on a background of waving wheat. Certainly nothing like the nightclub and tech-heavy scene he’d expected from a bar on Europa, much less in fashionable Senchin. It could have been any of the bars back on Alexandria, or even on the even more traditional island of Ran and its courts. The interior was more of the same: dim but generally quiet, with a staffed bar on one side and a screen bar on the other for simple drinks. But what drew his eye was the stage set up in the back. Being on the music track at Matoung, he was no stranger to trawling the local venues for places to use as performance practice, and with the way the group greeted the woman behind the bar as well as some of the patrons, they were frequent visitors. Shen had a sinking feeling—had this been already going to happen, and Xander had just made it seem like he was getting people together for Shen’s benefit? Shen started to slink toward the screen bar, not wanting to interact with anyone he didn’t have to until he got a better lay of the land, but Xander’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“Oh no, don’t you go anywhere, I haven’t announced you yet.” He spread his arms and inhaled, and even though Shen knew what he was about to do, he could feel the anticipation rise in him, that knife’s edge balance of a moment before a performance where anything was possible, even though Xander was the one performing. “Everyone,” Xander called, neatly sidestepping the technicality of getting the attention of the people who would turn just because his voice was raised, “I’d like to announce that my friend, Shen Markash, Commodore of the Imperial Fleet, Second Ambassador to the Court of Feing, and the Lord Song, has graced us with his presence tonight.”
A beat, and almost everyone gave Xander an odd look if any before turning back to their own conversations and drinks. One person shouted, “yeah, but is he going to play?” before turning back and making it clear that they didn’t care what the answer was.
“See? Free and clear.” The loss of Xander’s hand around his wrist left Shen feeling oddly cold, making him impulsive enough to grab Xander’s wrist himself. That his surprised look was superseded by a pleased one gave Shen the confidence to say what bubbled up in his throat.
“I think you still owe me at least a drink, though. Someone did respond, even if barely.”
Xander tilted his head, assessing. “I think that depends. Are you going to play tonight?”
“That depends. Are you going to buy me a drink?” The words were out before Shen could stop them, and he only just barely stopped his hand from tightening further around Xander’s wrist, from pulling him close and whispering those words into his ear.
The line of Xander’s throat when he laughed made Shen a little dizzy, especially as when he finished he rolled his head to tilt to the side as he looked back at Shen, drawing attention to the movement of the muscles there as well as the bruise that Shen knew was a symptom of every violin player but was jealous of anyway. “For that, Shen Markash, I think I will.” Xander slid close, and Shen wished he could breathe, if only to inhale the scent of the resin Xander used so that he could memorize it. But then Xander was whispering in his ear, “but you have to promise to stay until I play.” Then he was gone, slipped out of Shen’s slack grasp and through the thin crowd of the other musicians who had come with them to go to the staffed bar.
The next Shen knew, he was being guided by Lial to a booth near the stage that they claimed was “theirs”, with a sweeping hand to indicate the now-scattered members of the ensemble.
“So you’re all here often?”
Lial shrugged a bit. “Probably a little more than ‘often’. The owner used to be a cellist in the ensemble. She and Xander go way back.” They pointed to indicate the woman behind the bar, who was currently arguing with Xander, though apparently not with much heat, for all the attention anyone around them gave them, and as Shen and Lial watched, her scowl broke and she leaned forward to ruffle Xander’s hair with a move too quick for him to avoid. “She also never books any gigs, so we’ve got first dibs if we ever want to perform something on our own.”
“Then what about Rings?” Shen asked, remembering that Xander had mentioned it, before realizing that as far as anyone else knew, he hadn’t been present at that point.
Thankfully, Lial took it in stride, though they did give Shen a long, considering look as they brushed a piece of hair back behind their ear before answering. “One of the most popular lounges in Senchin. They’ve got a list a lightyear long waiting to even try and book a gig there, but they hold an open mic night every so often. That’s always packed too, but Xander knows what seems like every bouncer in Senchin, so we always end up with a slot.”
That piqued Shen’s interest. “We?” Xander had mentioned playing tonight, but based on his performance before rehearsal, Shen had assumed it would be a solo one, not another group.
Before he could clarify or Lial could answer, Xander was there, shoving lightly at Shen’s shoulder for him to move further in. As Shen did so, he sat the drinks down, both a lurid green concoction almost the same shade as Lial’s hair, and then slide a much more sedate drink, opaque and white, to them. “One Calypso, though I don’t know why I’m buying you a drink as well.”
“Because you know I’m good for the later rounds without asking once I’ve got a couple of these in me?” Lial smiled sweetly at him as they picked up their drink and stuck their tongue out at Xander.
Xander, for his part, simply shrugged his acquiescence before taking a sip of his drink with one hand and slinging his other arm along the top of the booth in a languid stretch. Which just happened to put his hand very near Shen’s shoulder. Shen wondered if it was intentional at the same time that he wondered how many of the acid-green drinks it would take to make him bold enough to reach up for Xander’s hand in front of Lial and drape it securely around himself.
“I believe you were going to explain who ‘we’ were?” he said instead, pulling the tall glass to him and almost sputtering at the first sip. For all that the drink could be seen across the room, the flavor on his tongue was smokey and strong, mellow where he’d expected sharp or sweet, and he could see Xander stifling a laugh out of the corner of his eye. Undeterred, he took another sip, prepared this time, and turned to meet Xander’s gaze straight on.
He wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol hitting his stomach or the small smile that Xander directed his way that warmed him, but Shen basked in it anyway. “Lial’s spilling all my secrets before I get a chance to impress you, I see.” Xander shrugged as he took another sip of his drink, the movement of his throat drawing Shen’s attention again. “Lial, a couple of the others, and I have a group that plays together for things like open mic at Rings. All for fun, you know—I could never write a whole symphony like Nadine, but it’s a great experience to come up with something all your own and play it and see other people enjoy it. We’re called Strains and Unusual, in case you were about to take us seriously.”
“I think that’s great, though,” Shen blurted out, quickly breaking eye contact with Xander and turning back to his drink before his blush became far too obvious, even in the dim bar light.
“I had a feeling you’d understand,” Xander said, quietly enough that Shen had to concentrate to hear him. Shen could feel his eyes on him, even as he stared into the green surface of his drink like it held the secrets to the universe within it. Then, Xander was moving, and not only that, but trailing the hand that had been along the back of the booth along the back of Shen’s neck and shoulder, far too much contact for it to have been accidental. Before Shen could react, though, he was standing, waving to the cluster that was still at the bar. “You’re in luck, then—if everyone else is as easily flattered as I am, you might even get to hear us play tonight.”
“No one’s as easily flattered as you,” Lial muttered from across the table, but flashed Shen a genuine grin as they moved inboard to let the others that had joined them into the booth.
In short order, Shen found himself pressed up against the wall of the booth on one side and the wall of Xander on the other, the sound of laughter and back-and-forth conversation bouncing around him. It hadn’t taken much convincing to get the others: Rin, their keyboardist, and Jaime, whom Shen recognized as the other string whose arm Xander had taken as they’d left the auditorium, had agreed readily enough. Kailash, their bassist, had needed the promise of another round of drinks, with the excuse that he’d left his standing bass at the auditorium and the one here had the wrong tone.
However, soon enough, they were all on the small stage, tuning instruments and huddled up, discussing in low voices as Shen sat in the booth, sipping on another of the green drinks. Irrationally, it reminded him of the resin Xander used, which he blamed on the nearness of Xander’s hand as he’d been drinking the first one. But now they were intertwined and he wanted more, wanted the sense of that nearness back, even as he relished the sight of Xander up on stage, relaxed and easy. He hadn’t seemed tense or stiff in rehearsal, but he wore his professionalism as concertmaster more seriously than Shen had realized, seeing it shed now.
The group had clearly come to a consensus and each took their places, Jaime and Xander nodding to each other, bows raised, waiting for something. Rin entered first, her entire body swinging forward into a heavy chord backed by Lial on an electric drum set that they had clearly set for specific tones before they started, and then they were off. Kailash plucked at the standing bass, and Jaime and Xander took the line and ran. The piece was fast, even faster than the stanza Xander had played earlier that day, both his and Jaime’s fingers moving at a blistering speed. It was a piece they’d clearly all played together many times before, all of them letting themselves be carried by the music: toes tapped, bodies swayed with the beat of the music they produced, and while Rin, Lial, and Kailash were constrained by their instruments, Jaime and Xander were not. A rush of feeling, as hot as desire, as sour as jealousy, rushed through Shen as he watched Jaime and Xander orbit each other on the small stage, the movements he’d seen aborted in Xander’s legs that afternoon given full freedom here. They lept and ducked, weaving movements into the procession of the music, its lifts and falls and beats carrying their feet and bodies. All at once, the two stopped, the other three continuing though subdued now, as Xander bowed out a long, plaintive phrase that caught at Shen’s heart. Xander’s eyes had closed as he took his solo, the strains of it floating above the continued heavier beats of Lial and Rin’s phrases, but on a particularly sweet note, as his hand wavered, just before his bow lifted, he opened his eyes, instantly meeting Shen’s.
Then, his bow came down again in a flurry of motion. And even as the tempo picked up once again, even as Jaime joined back in, Xander never took his eyes from Shen’s. Shen was trapped in that moment, Xander’s gaze boring into his, and it took the applause that broke out around him for him to even realize the piece had finished. His heart still beat wildly, caught up in the tempo Xander had set, and he realized with a jolt that he was as hard as a rock. As if he could tell, though more likely just from the exertion of leaping around the stage, Xander licked his lips and brushed his hair back from his forehead, shining under the lights, chest heaving.
“Stop making eyes at the new conductor and get your attention back on stage!” Rin called. “This was your idea, and you may want to play more than one song if you’re trying to impress him.”
Not even blushing, Xander winked at Shen and turned back to the group to discuss which piece they’d do next. That was fine, Shen thought. He was sure he was blushing enough for the both of them. Though at least that answered his not-even-thought-of question of what the rest of the ensemble would think if their conductor and their concertmaster fell into bed together. The benefits of being simply a guest conductor, he supposed.
With that ice broken, he allowed himself to be more brazenly appreciative of Xander’s performance, even though the next piece was slower, allowing both Xander and Jaime’s talents to twine around each other. Xander’s bowing was superior and his fingering faster, but Jaime had a precise quality to his playing that lent itself well to some particularly sharp phrases and slides. Rin eventually pulled over a microphone to her keyboard and added some backing vocals to their final piece, another fast-paced composition, but one that had many of the patrons—more now that the evening had started to wear on—clapping along with the beat that Lial and Kailash set, letting Jaime and Rin take the melody.
Finally, Strains and Unusual bowed to applause and whistles, and as they started to pack their instruments back up, Shen spotted another cluster, one of whom he recognized from the ensemble—this time one of the brass—gathering around the stage.
As much as he wanted to pay attention to them and get to know how the rest of the ensemble worked and preferred to play, it was all he could do to make the appropriate appreciative noises at Lial, Rin, Kailash, and Jaime when he was faced with an armful of warm, sweaty Xander, who had given up all sense of subtlety after that performance and had all but sat in Shen’s lap when he came back.
“So?” Xander had stolen Shen’s drink after gulping down the water the owner had brought to the table, grinning and glowing as if he didn’t know exactly how affected Shen was.
“You looked free.” Xander looked about as surprised as Shen was at the words that came out of his mouth, at the raw honesty of feeling behind him. Shen’s arm tightened around Xander’s waist where Xander had dragged it as he’d sat down. “It was amazing. You were all amazing,” he tried to address the rest of the table, pitching his voice to carry to more than just Xander to cover for himself, the way his words seemed to surpass his better judgment to stop them. “Who writes your pieces?” he asked, as a way to try and get attention off of the way he could feel Xander staring at him, likely picking up far too much from that statement.
Kailash took pity on him, surprisingly. “We all do, really. Usually it’s Jaime or Xander who’ll come up with a good phrase, but then we all build on it. Like you heard, it usually centers around them, but we all get our time to shine.” He shrugged. “I keep trying to get Rin to write some vocals to some of them, but she’s oddly shy about it.”
“Oh, shut it! Maybe you should write lyrics, if you’re so keen on it!” Rin threw a balled up napkin across the table, all of them laughing when it hit a surprised Kailash dead-on on his nose, and even harder when he simply raised his eyebrows in challenge. “Maybe I will, then, and you’ll have to sing them, no matter what they are.”
Lial met Shen’s eyes across the table and rolled their eyes, gesturing as if to welcome him to the madness. Shen simply lifted his glass in solidarity after stealing it back from Xander.
“Alright guys, I’m calling it a night,” Jaime announced, nudging Rin until she slid out to let him out of the booth. “I’ll see you all in a couple days - see you tomorrow?” The last he aimed at Xander, who gave a small flick of his wrist that Shen assumed was an affirmative, as Jaime turned and left without waiting for more.
“That’s our cue then, too,” Lial added, raising their eyebrows meaningfully at Rin when she started to protest. Kailash slid out without protest, grabbing Rin’s wrist and pulling her towards the bar. “See you in a couple days. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” With a wink, Lial downed the rest of their drink.
“Lial, there’s literally an entire religious tome dedicated to the things you won’t do,” Xander complained through a groan.
“Still leaves you with plenty of options! Cheers!” And with that, they turned and headed towards the door with a wave, leaving Xander with his head on his arms, muffling his laughter.
“What’s tomorrow, then?” Shen picked the seemingly easier of the two questions he wanted to ask.
Xander rolled his face towards Shen to answer, his hair ruffled from being against his arms. Shen let himself indulge in the desire to brush those strands back, relishing and filing away the knowledge that they were thick but soft, likely perfect for grabbing between the texture and length. “Section rehearsal. It’s a new piece, so we’re the first to make any sort of decision on style, so we’re doing more rehearsals just to make sure everyone’s on the same page.” Xander tilted his head into Shen’s touch, baring more of his neck, and Shen felt his mouth go dry. “You’ll just have to wait until next full rehearsal to see what we’ve decided.”
“I trust you,” Shen breathed, the stark honesty of it surprising him for the second time that night. “I mean, I would anyway, since you’re the one who actually works with all of them and knows the ensemble and I’m just visiting but, uh, you’re clearly talented, and I’m not going to second-guess your opinions, and—”
Xander’s mouth on his thankfully stopped the flow of words that Shen couldn’t, and grateful, Shen let himself melt into the kiss. With his mouth already open mid-sentence and his hand still in Xander’s hair, it was easy to pull him close and keep him there, a show of dominance that Xander clearly hadn’t been expecting by the jolt that went through his body but also didn’t mind, by the way he went pliant in Shen’s hands. He gave as good as Shen did, mouth moving in the rhythm that Shen had started but never settling, moving and shifting and challenging. One corner of his lips was chapped, and Shen nipped it lightly, imagining the tip of Xander’s tongue sticking out there as he rehearsed.
Rehearsal. Shit, Shen thought as he pulled back, every atom of his body wanting to give in to Xander chasing after him, to lean into the way Xander’s weight pressed down on him, to lick down the column of Xander’s throat. Even as he pulled back, Shen’s thumb rubbed along the line of Xander’s jaw, the motion making Xander tilt his head into the touch, baring that length of golden skin and the mark that his violin had left there. The sight of it made Shen want to kiss his way down to it, nipping and sucking until he had left his own mark next to it, at the same time that it made him realize just how much work was waiting for him back at his apartment.
“Shen?” Xander’s voice was gratifyingly muzzy, and he’d flung one leg over Shen’s lap, climbing further into it so that Shen could feel just how much he was giving up by pulling away.
“Rehearsal.” Even to his own ears, it sounded weak, and Xander gave him the disbelieving squint it deserved.
Shen waved one hand between them, as if that would create any more distance when they kept swaying back and forth into each other. “Rehearsal. You have it tomorrow, I have it with everyone day after tomorrow.”
“So?” Xander tried to move in, to set his own lips and teeth along Shen’s jawline, a convincing argument if Shen had ever heard or felt one, but he had to stand his ground.
“I’ve got a lot of preparation. You might be a prodigy, but I really should go over everything after today before I forget everything I meant to note.”
“Are we really that forgettable?” Xander made another pass, rocking his hips against Shen’s thigh, one hand dropping to cup Shen through his pants, another very convincing argument.
“Some less so than others.” Shen allowed himself one more kiss, a hard press of his mouth against Xander’s. Pulling away was the hardest thing he’d done all day, harder even than taking the stage at all.
“I can’t. Rehearsal, remember?”
“You think that’s stopping them?” Xander’s head jerked back, indicating, to Shen’s surprise, where Kailash and Rin were also making out along the corner of the bar.
“How…?” He hadn’t even turned and looked.
“Musicians, remember? Passions run high.”
At that, Shen’s stomach dropped a little. Was this all that was? Passions running high, only to burn out once they were done? If so, all the more reason to stop, to stretch this out while he could, to have this flame burn bright and be a warm memory for when he had to leave. Forcing himself to smile, he trailed his hand down Xander’s jaw. “Even so, they don’t have twenty different parts to bring together into a whole.”
Sensing defeat, Xander leaned back, out of Shen’s space, and Shen allowed himself a gulp of fresh air. “Yeah, yeah. But,” he said, eyes losing the darkness of desire and gaining the sharpness Shen had seen during right before rehearsal. “Once we’ve done a successful run-through of the entire composition, you, me, your place. Promise me that.”
Shen swallowed. “What makes you so sure it’s going to be my place?”
“Come on. Musician,” a point to himself, then to Shen, “a visiting conductor who is also a commodore, and ambassador and a noble. Who’s going to have the better digs?”
Shen’s mind flashed to the view from his apartment, the nicest his parents had been able to secure on short notice. “Fair.”
“So we’re on.”
“The first full run-through, with all of my notations.”
As if Shen’s eyes were anywhere else. With obvious reluctance, Xander climbed off of Shen’s lap. He extended one hand as he had earlier that day, and without thinking much of it, Shen took it, only to find himself pulled up off the bench of the booth and into Xander’s arms for one final kiss, shocked enough that he could only react before Xander pulled away again, the last word truly and fully gotten.
“See you in two days, Shen.”
“Good. Now, three measures past rehearsal 72, really back off into that pianissimo, and horns, I want you to come in louder than everyone else at 74.” From the grins of delight he got in response, that didn’t seem like it would be a problem. At least one section was happy.
He shot a look over to the strings, most of whom were conferring with Xander. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Xander about how the past few days had been, but he seemed to have taken Shen’s declaration as nothing less than the challenge it sort-of was. He’d translated Shen’s instructions, given with a keyboardist’s feel for flow and dynamics, into something that all of the sections could interpret, and not for the first time, Shen sent up a prayer to the Fates for giving him an ensemble with a concertmaster as skilled as Xander, and to Anais for giving him the chance at all.
At the thought of Anais, though, his stomach dropped. In two rehearsals, she and her wife would be by to see how progress was going. Shen had hoped to have the entire composition done by then, all four movements, which he knew was a gargantuan task for a week and a half, but he didn’t want to let Anais down after all she’d done for him back at Matoung.
He swallowed, then tapped the stand, lifting his baton again. “Alright, let’s take it from rehearsal 70.”
Eventually, all questions were answered, even if Shen suspected some of the last of those may have been tests to his patience, given the glances the askers had given both him and Xander and the lack of substance of said questions.
“So,” Xander began, sitting up from where he’d wound up slouched in his chair, not even the cushions most of them had brought able to make those chairs comfortable for hours on end.
“So.” Shen purposefully didn’t turn Xander’s way, knowing that if he did, he’d never get the score back in order before he left.
“I give it another rehearsal at the most, so the way I see it, we should go out for dinner tonight, get some of those get-to-know-you questions out of the way now.”
“Oh? That confident, are you?” He made a note on the page he was on, on the system the flautist had brought to his attention, to make sure the tempo didn’t lag so that the winds could make it through.
“You aren’t? After that rehearsal?” The note of hurt in Xander’s voice made Shen look up sharply, but when he did, Xander’s eyes were dancing wickedly, a smile playing about his lips. Damnit.
Shen sighed. “We’re ahead of where I thought we’d be for sure, but I had always planned to have a full run-through rehearsal after next. So we’re right on track.” Two could play that game.
Xander stared at him for a beat, before breaking out into laughter. “Man, you really are full of surprises.” He pick up his bag and slung it over one shoulder before picking up his violin case. “All the more reason you should go out to dinner with me. So I can surprise you myself.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Shen muttered, but he knew it hadn’t been low enough for Xander not to catch by the grin that widened across his face.
“Great. Give me your comms address and I’ll send you the restaurant. My treat tonight, since next time will be on you.” He winked, as if Shen had forgotten their deal. As if every time he’d walked through the door of his apartment since then, he’d imagined Xander walking in behind him, or better yet, being dragged in with him, kissing furiously.
It was especially vivid in his mind as he returned that evening—Xander still hadn’t sent him the address, so he had no idea what to wear. Not for the first time, he bemoaned having set their deal and being unable to order delivery to his apartment for the two of them, to be able to eat on his couch, sprawled across from Xander and watching the lights of Senchin from his windows.
He’d just decided on simple slacks, loose in the Ganymedean style, the flowing split tunic over it one that Talia swore set off his eyes when the ping on his comms caught his attention. Heart racing, he picked up his data pad, lips already quirked up in a grin to see what restaurant Xander had picked, when he saw that it was an incoming call from his parents.
“Hello.” He picked up the call tonelessly, hoping his usual reluctance at their calls would mask his current disappointment.
“Shen, how are you?” His mother leaned forward on the screen, the light catching the medals on her uniform. Freshly pressed, he noticed—hopefully that meant they were going out and wouldn’t mind if he kept this call short.
“I’m fine, Baba.” As if he would ever admit to being anything else.
“And how is the choir coming?”
“It’s an orchestra,” Shen said, for what felt like the thirtieth time, but not knowing how to describe the feeling of having everything he wanted and knowing he’d have to walk away from it.
Anu waved their hand on the screen, dismissing the difference and taking Diana’s place in the center of the screen. They were dressed in their Court dress, with the sash of their station draped over one shoulder in a splash of color against grey robes. “At any rate, you’re coming back to Feing in seven days, yes?”
Shen tried not to sigh, his hands clenching behind him, out of sight of the screen, to stabilize himself. “Yes. In fourteen days time for me, seven for you both.” In typical Court fashion, Anu always prioritized Ganymedean lengths of time over any other in the Empire, despite the fact that the Court there was purely a figurehead, so long as a regent was on the throne.
“And what have you learned in Senchin?” Diana was back in the middle, though Anu stayed close by, watching Shen’s reactions.
That I’m a good conductor. That music makes me feel more alive than any diplomatic plot ever has. That I might shatter to finally have Xander Legaspi in my bed. “I’ve only been here for a week, Baba. Most of that’s been spent with the ensemble.”
Anu rolled their eyes on the screen. “Musicians are hardly deaf, quite the opposite, from what I’ve been told. Surely some of them have some sort of political opinion.”
“Most of them seem unconcerned with all of it. No one’s mentioned the Regent, nor Hera, nor the empty throne. Life moves faster here—they don’t cling to things like we do; they’ve already accepted this situation as the way it is, from what I can see.”
“And this is why politics is better off staying on Ganymede. Give them a shorter day and they think time actually moves faster.” Shen gritted his teeth, willing himself not to respond.
“Anyway, I’m going out tonight, so I’ll keep an ear out for discussions of politics and report back if I hear anything.” His other parent gave that the derisive snort it deserved, and with perfect timing, Xander’s message with the coordinates of the restaurant tonight came in. “That’s my instructions now. I’ll talk to you both later.” With a sigh as the connection was closed, Shen sank down onto the couch. What was he going to do in two weeks, when he had to go back to that life?
Forcing all of that to the back of his mind, he pulled up the message from Xander, only to realize that the coordinates and the time he’d sent left Shen with only a couple of minutes to leave if he meant to make it in time. The place was clear across Senchin, and as Shen learned on the shuttle ride over, served “modern Europan cuisine” and “specialized in slow food”, which meant he had no idea what to expect.
Xander was already waiting for him outside the restaurant, his hands shoved into the pockets at the side of his robe, looking somehow smaller without his violin case slung over his shoulder. The robe he wore was tight across the shoulders and chest, buttoned in a double-breasted fashion that cut off at his waist to flow out to the back and sides in a train that reached down to the ground in a way that suited him, though the wide sleeves told Shen everything he needed to know about why he hadn’t worn them to rehearsal or any time previously. The cut of the coat also accentuated the fact that the pants he wore were tighter than anything he’d worn to rehearsal, and Shen swallowed, watching the shift of Xander’s hips as he walked to greet him.
“Shall we?” Xander extended one hand, and automatically, the motion ingrained in him from the moment he was old enough to be presented at Court, Shen laid his hand atop it, and swept them both through the door.
The interior of the restaurant was surprisingly Ganymedean in decor, with the wave motifs in the wallpaper and lush greenery in the artscreens on the walls that he associated with the popular salons of Feing, rather than the bright lights and architectural marvels he expected of Senchin.
“Is this what they mean by ‘slow food’?” he teased Xander as they walked to a table whose privacy screen lowered as they approached. “Do you Europans really think of us as so slow as to be an entire movement?”
“I mean, can you blame us? We have an extra day to you, so of course we’re going to live at a little higher pace. Less time to get more done. It’s nice to kick back every once in a while.” He kicked at Shen’s foot lightly as they sat, the grin on his face echoing the one Shen could feel across his own.
“Then I reserve judgement until I see what this ‘traditional Europan food’ is.” He propped his menu up, scanning it for anything he remembered from his childhood or recognized from the week and a half he’d been bouncing around his neighborhood.
As it turned out, the food didn’t differ all that much from Ganymedean food, aside from a marked preference for sauces that were more like soups and a heavy hand with the spices that left Shen gulping down water and Xander laughing as he pressed the button on their table to alert a server they needed help.
“I’d like to see you go for eighteen years without anything spicier than a gobo pepper and not be gulping down water after this.” Shen glared across the table at Xander, who was admirably trying to hide his smile behind his hand, but nothing could disguise the way his eyes glittered and danced.
He tried though, and the laughter only half made it to his tone as he asked, “so that’s how long you’ve been on Ganymede? You didn’t have so long here, then.”
“Long enough,” Shen replied, swatting Xander’s hand away from his plate and the last of his rice, the last non-spicy thing he had left. “My parents moved a lot, and we all eventually decided it was easier if I just stayed on Alexandria.” He took another gulp of water, hoping his change of topic wouldn’t feel so abrupt after it. “So you’ve lived here all your life?”
“Born and raised.”
“And you’ve never been off Europa?”
“Never saw the point. Everything I wanted was in Senchin, and even when I went elsewhere on Europa, I always wanted to come back here. The thought of going to Ganymede and being stranded on one of those islands gives me the shivers, if you really want to know.”
“It’s not so bad.” Shen stirred the curry, watching the bright orange oil drip off the spoon as if taunting his tongue. “You get used to it, really—it feels like being able to take a breath after something’s climbed off your chest, going back and being able to see nothing but water on the horizon, to know that you have space to spread out. On Alexandria, anyway. I figure it’s all politics all the time on Ran, and you’re never able to breathe for someone telling someone else you’re breathing wrong.” That skirted a little too near topics he wanted to avoid, and to stop himself, he took a bite of the curry, trying to make it look like an absent-minded accident.
“Haven’t you learned by now?” Xander laughed as he pushed his own water across the table to Shen, who had all but started fanning his tongue. “I get what you’re saying, but at this point, I’ve been living a Europan pace for too long. Sometimes I feel like if I stop going, I’ll forget how to. Or that it’ll all pass me by and I’ll have missed my chance to do anything, to make anyone else feel something.” He shrugged, a little self-consciously, and Shen wished the table were narrower, or that he didn’t risk dragging his tunic through curry that would definitely never come out if he leant across it to put his hand on Xander’s shoulder.
“For what it’s worth, you absolutely made me feel something,” Shen offered, intending it to be a shy truth, until he watched the lascivious grin spread across Xander’s face.
“Yeah? I thought you said we had to hold off on that until the ensemble did a full run-through?”
It was childish to ball up and throw a napkin, but a kick under the table seemed to do just as well by Shen. “Oaf. I meant your playing. From the first moment I walked through those auditorium doors, I was breathless.”
Instead of the joking return he expected, Xander ducked his head a little, blushing for what felt like the first time that Shen had ever seen across his cheeks. It made him seem younger, more tangible, instead of the electric musician Shen had gotten to know over the past week. Then, he leant back in his chair, tilting his head up to stare at the ceiling so that he didn’t have to meet Shen’s eyes. “All I ever wanted was to be able to play music, to be able to try and translate those feelings inside me into something someone else could feel.”
“I know that feeling. It’s why I wanted to conduct. The only instrument I ever learned was the keyboard, but it’s not the same feeling as when every instrument comes together and sweeps you off your feet.”
“Will you play something for me?” Xander had tilted back down now, eyes boring into Shen’s like it was the most important question he’d asked all night, and Shen’s heart caught in his throat at the intensity of it.
“I-I mean, I haven’t played anything other than picking out various parts for a while now.”
“Come on, there has to be something you liked to play best of all.”
Shen thought about it, then, as he felt the blush rising to his cheeks again and the boldness that seemed to come when he was around Xander, and said, “I’ll play for you. At my place. After a full run-through.”
Shen sputtered. “What? No. Have you ever tried sitting down on one of those benches on your bare ass? No way, not even for you.”
“So there are things you’d do just for me?” Xander wriggled his eyebrows, which should absolutely not have made Shen’s heart melt a little, and yet.
“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?” He tapped his foot against Xander’s underneath the table, sitting back and grinning as they waited for the dessert course.
True to his word, Xander covered the bill, even after Shen had tried to track down their check in the system under the guise of slipping out to the bathroom, only to find that Xander had put in a payment before they’d even entered the restaurant. He knew the ensemble was on the small side and likely paid accordingly, and while the restaurant hadn’t been upscale, it also had been nicer than the places Shen had been ducking quickly into to around his apartment for a bite to eat. Perhaps this also was more to Xander than just a fling. The thought made Shen’s heart jump to double time, even as his stomach clenched at the thought that now he’d have to be the one to make it finite.
That fear made him reach for Xander’s hand as they waited outside the restaurant for lifts back. For now, at least, he had this, had Xander’s thumb absently tapping out a 5/8 rhythm against the back of his hand as Xander pecked at his data pad to call a shuttle.
“Seven minutes,” he said as he slid the pad back into the voluminous pocket of his robe and turning to grin up at Shen, his tawny eyes catching the different lights of the signs around them. He looked ethereal, and Shen was helpless to do anything other than wind a hand around the back of Xander’s neck and reel him in for a kiss.
He’d meant it to be light, trying to pour his relief at finding someone who wanted, needed music the way he did, his gratitude for all that Xander had done so far. He tried to keep it slow, a long, simple connection between the two of them, but as Xander’s mouth opened under his, his lips still tasting of that damned curry, he found something else he wanted to communicate instead.
Turning them both so that his back was to the wall, Shen could then pull Xander flush against him. As during that first night at the Wandering Daughter, Xander was more than pliable, molding to fit against Shen, hip against hip and thigh to thigh, legs slipping between to press even closer. Both of their clothes tended towards the voluminous side, but the fabrics were thin enough that Shen could feel Xander against him, his body warm under his hands and his cock making its presence known against Shen’s hip. Shen’s hands instantly went to Xander’s ass under the train of his robe, pulling him closer and hitching him up against him, dragging a low groan from Xander’s throat.
Shen went immediately for the corner he’d noticed the last time they’d kissed, that slight patch of roughness that let him know just how much Xander had been rehearsing recently and nipping it. It was one more point of contact between them that went further than the physical, and Shen had every intention of hoarding the memory of as many as he could for when this would be over. He’d remember Xander panting in his arms, his own feet planted on the sidewalk so that he could support Xander’s writhing. Any desire to take control of pace was swept aside by the exuberance with which Xander was moving, and as he was about to suggest that they slow down, or at least move into a more secluded area, Shen felt something vibrate under his hand.
Slowly, dazedly, Xander pulled back, and it took all of Shen’s restraint not to chase after him. His lips were even more bitten, red and puffy, and his hips kept making small movements against Shen even as he shifted to put both feet back down on the ground and pull out the data pad that had buzzed.
“Your ride is here.”
“Come home with me,” Shen whispered, his forehead falling forward to press lightly against Xander’s.
“But we haven’t fulfilled the terms of the agreement.” Xander’s head pressed back against his, following for a moment as Shen pulled back to look at him. Xander’s eyes were dark, watching his own, but Shen didn’t know what he was searching for there.
“You.” It was the wrong thing to say, from the way Xander pulled back further, all the way out of Shen’s arms and brushed off his robes and shifted to adjust his pants. The problem was Shen didn’t know why it was wrong, especially as Xander came back to press a small kiss on the corner of Shen’s mouth.
“Think of something to play for me. Good night, Shen.” And then he was gone, slipping into one of the shuttles waiting, the other of which had started to flash its lights impatiently when it didn’t sense its passenger inside.
Shen sighed and ran a hand through his hair, pulling himself as best he could, even though he knew it wasn’t as if the shuttle bot would care.
Technically, the next time he saw Xander was at the next rehearsal, but now that Xander had his comms address, Shen felt like his data pad was constantly pinging. Xander sent him pictures from around his neighborhood (Shen had sent back a snap of a particularly nice box of flowers), from the back of section rehearsal (to which Shen had sent back a long line of inquiry as to why Xander was in the back), and most frustratingly, a picture of him in bed.
It hadn’t been anything revealing, which made it all the worse for how badly Shen wanted to commit it to memory. It had been a particularly well-crafted angle, taken so that most of the picture was of an empty portion of what had to be Xander’s bed, with just a sliver of his body visible. Mostly his shoulder and back, both bare above the sheets, and just enough of his head to see tousled hair spread out on the pillow. But it was the posture, of Xander curled up as if still asleep, the creases pressed into his skin as if he had just rolled over into someone’s embrace, that made Shen’s heart feel like it was about to beat through his chest.
If he were braver, Shen thought, he would make it his background. Only ever to be replaced by a picture of his own view of the same thing.
Instead, he simply saved it, folders within folders deep, but not so deep he couldn’t easily pull it up to stare at it over and over again.
By the time rehearsal did roll around, Shen felt like he was near vibrating out of his skin at the nearness of Xander, the tension between them resonating with Xander’s playing.
The third movement was Shen’s least favorite—if he’d had to pick—a complicated tapestry of solo and duet features above a rumbling background, rotating around the different parts and so numerous that almost everyone in the ensemble had one. Most of them were short, thankfully, as many of the duets made use of tritones and dissonance, an effect that left everyone on edge until they were resolved. The last one was a violin solo, a pale, haunting coda of the first of the movement, and of course, as first chair, Xander took both. Shen had the sense that Xander was holding something back in playing it, but something about the set of his shoulders and the way his eyes never closed like he did sometimes, despite it being a comparatively simple line, kept Shen from saying anything. He’d let Anais and Nadine make a comment about it if it persisted for their visit.
The one good thing about the third movement was that it was fairly quick to get through once it was clear that everyone had a good handle on their features, and Shen sent up a quick thanks to Nadine for composing a piece that flowed so easily even through its disjointed nature. They didn’t make it entirely through the fourth movement, but far enough to make it clear that the next rehearsal would be it. It put them on track to have the entire symphony complete for Anais and Nadine’s visit so that they could incorporate notes on it as a whole before the concert, and Shen finished rehearsal on what felt like a good note, answering more questions and making sure everyone had notations before going back to pack up his things.
But as he did, he realized the chair to the left was empty.
Xander had left.
Shen tried not to think anything of it—there were a number of reasons why Xander might have had to leave early, none of them having to do with avoiding Shen, especially as nothing during rehearsal had given him the impression that things between them had taken a turn.
Still, it was a weight off of his shoulders to see a ping from Xander later: it was a group shot with Lial, Jaime, Kailash, and Rin, in front of what seemed like a large crowd and next to a data screen on the wall. Shen squinted at it, trying to make out what looked scrawled there, but needed Xander’s next ping to make any sense of it.
>Next open mic night at Rings, 15-8, Strains and Unusual is in!
>Does this mean I have to somehow get into Rings now?
>I might be able to get you in backstage ;)
>I’ll be there
The response was so automatic, the relief at his earlier worry being for nothing in the face of good news, that it took a moment for the date to click in Shen’s brain. 15-8 was after the concert, the next day, in fact.
The day Shen’s shuttle left for Ganymede.
Shen stared down at the data pad in his hands, at Xander’s beaming face in the picture, the strains of the first piece Strains and Unusual had played at the Wandering Daughter echoing in his mind, the look on Xander’s face as he’d locked eyes with Shen right then.
Replying back immediately that he couldn’t go after all would be bad. He hadn’t told Xander yet that he had to leave right after the concert finished, that it was unlikely he’d be back to Senchin, that this was why he needed the performance to go well so badly. Not showing up at Rings would be worse.
But by then, he’d be gone, halfway to Ganymede they’d be able to make a clean break. Even if Xander wouldn’t forgive him, he’d be able to move on. Their passion would have run it course.
At least that’s what he told himself as he flipped the data pad over to be face-down on the table and went into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of baiju.
If Xander noticed any difference in Shen’s messages after that, he didn’t say. Then again, it was easier to hide tone over messages, which usually Shen hated, but right now the exaggeration of emoticons and extra exclamation points was a welcome one.
So it was for multiple reasons that Shen’s stomach was in knots as he walked up to the auditorium for their penultimate rehearsal. They’d get through the entire symphony today, Anais and Nadine would come in for the second half, and afterwards, he would have Xander. It was everything he’d dreamed of.
“Relax. Deep breath in, deep breath out, Shen. You already know Anais, and Nadine will love you.” Xander bumped his shoulder against Shen’s as he came up to him in the atrium.
Shen forced his shoulders down and back, the warm pressure of Xander’s hand at the top of his back making it that much easier. He knew the smile he forced onto his face was tight, but it seemed to reassure Xander even that much. “You’re right. You guys are ready. We’re ready. There’s just...there’s a lot riding on this, you know?”
Instead of the snort of laughter he expected at that, Xander tilted his head. “There’s always something riding on every performance, but all we can do is our best, and if it’s not good, work harder at the next one.” He reached up to brush a hand across Shen’s brow, his touch light, almost ticklish. It made Shen think of benedictions, the way his skin tingled in the wake of Xander’s fingers, and he felt his shoulders ease. “Like you said, we’re ready. You’ve got me, and I’ve got the orchestra, and we’ll all pull through together.”
With that, he pulled away, leaving Shen to think about the aftermath of all of his decisions.
The rest of the fourth movement was simple, a celebration in coming together after the melancholy dissonance of the solo features in the previous movement, and it was clear the ensemble enjoyed it as much as Shen did. By this point, he had a feel for how they liked to play and they had a sense for what sort of dynamics he liked to stress, and he had a brief moment to wonder if he would ever click so easily with another orchestra, before remembering that that point was moot. He swallowed the bitterness down—he had this for now, and he would revel in it alongside these musicians.
They were able to do a run-through of the entire symphony before Nadine walked in, Anais on her heels, and any terror at being faced with the composer of a piece he was in charge of debuting was chased away at the relief of seeing his old mentor again. She’d been the reason he’d first defied his parents and stuck with the music track at Matoung, and even though she’d left the university and Ganymede as a whole, years ago, he still owed her everything. It took more restraint than he’d thought to not jump off the podium and run up the aisle to her, his hand twitching slightly at his side instead as he held back.
He was especially jealous of Xander, who got up out of his chair and embraced Anais and Nadine in turn, but then Anais was on the stage as well, pulling Shen into a fierce hug and for a moment, inhaling the familiar scent of her tightly-curled hair, everything was fine.
“Good to see you again, child.” Anais had always been taller than him, and scowling up at her felt so familiar Shen couldn’t help but laugh.
“You do know I’m turning 30 soon.”
“Hush. Don’t remind me. Besides, you’re among the rest of my children—I won’t give you special treatment, even now.” She winked at him as she held him at arm’s length, inspecting him. “Now, you haven’t met Nadine yet, but you already know she’s brilliant, and she puts up with me, so I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.”
As Shen had seen in the pictures Anais had sent, Nadine was smiling warmly as she stepped up to give Shen a hug as well, her willowy frame somehow even more supportive than Anais’ sturdy one. “I feel like I know you from everything Anais has said. I’m so glad you’ll be conducting my work.”
Shen bowed when she stepped back, the only thing he could do in the face of the praise. “I only hope my interpretation of it matches up to your expectations.” He waved a hand at the musicians in front of them. “They’ve made it easy, and we’re all very eager to show you what we’ve got so far.”
As Nadine and Anais took their seats at the front, Shen turned to the orchestra. “Alright. You all ready? First real run-through, in front of the composer. No pressure, I mean it.” They all laughed, with a lack of tension that spoke more to how deep the road of trust went between the orchestra and Anais than Shen could ever express, so he simply tapped his baton and raised it to start.
Shen tried not to react at the frisson of shock that jolted through him as Nadine met his eyes. How much could she tell? How much did she know? But then she continued, “you and Xander complement each other—Anais had told me how serious you were about your studies, and while it’s natural to worry about things going well, life moves on and we try again if it doesn’t.” She stood up to follow Anais, who had found Xander where he’d been waiting at the bar and slung an arm around his shoulders, leaving Shen to turn her words over in his mind. His head reeled with the thoughts racing around it, about expectations and disappointments, about just what he was willing to give up, at how much longer he could keep everything secret and separate.
Nadine and Anais’s farewell barely registered, his body going through the rote motions as he saw them off. It even took Xander’s hand waving in front of his face for Shen to realize he’d been trying to get his attention.
“You okay?” As he pulled himself together, he realized that Xander’s hand was moving in small circles at the top of his back. Just how wrecked did he look?
Shen shook his head lightly, clearing out all the lingering worries. He’d put off so many other things up until now, he could set all of this aside too. Tonight was for him and Xander. “Fine. Just got caught up in the realization the concert’s only a week away now.”
“Well,” Xander started, clearly fighting to keep the corner of his mouth from twitching upwards. “If you wanted to be all serious and go home to your score…”
“No.” The quickness of his reply surprised even Shen, especially the near-growl tone of his voice. Xander, though, seemed delighted—his hand stopped its comforting circles and his fingers began deliberately tracing the lines of Shen’s shoulder blades through his shirt.
“Then I believe you promised to play something for me. Among other things,” Xander added, his voice low as he moved solidly into Shen’s space. Instinctively, Shen checked around them for who might be watching, but as with the first time they’d come to the Wandering Daughter, no one was paying them any attention. Emboldened by Xander’s nearness, Shen wound his hand around Xander’s waist before leading them to the door.
The shuttle ride back to his apartment was nothing short of excruciating. They’d separated to be able to file into the small space of the pod, but neither of them had moved to reconnect. Having Xander close enough to touch but knowing that the ride would be over in a short while meant that his fingers clutched at nothing, at air, at the shuttle seat between them, at anything but Xander himself, because Shen knew he wouldn’t last if they started now.
The elevator ride up to his floor was even worse, that much closer but still so far from being able to press Xander up to the wall of his apartment like he'd wanted to for a week now.
Xander, for his part, was more restrained than Shen had ever thought he'd seen him, rigidly still apart from his hand also fidgeting at his side, fingers tapping a fast rhythm against his leg, and not looking at Shen, even though Shen watched him, saw each time he almost turned his head. Then, they were down the hall, through the doors of Shen's apartment, kicking off shoes in the direction of the rack by the side, and suddenly all that stored movement burst forth as Xander all but tackled him to the wall in a surprisingly fluid motion. Shen had planned to make the first move but was more than willing to go along with anything Xander wanted as long as they were working towards the same goal, so simply pulled Xander closer to him still, ignoring the way his head banged against the wall as Xander all but climbed him, his hips rocking against the thigh that Xander had thrust between his own.
“Xan, please,” Shen panted against Xander's neck, burying his head in the curve there and breathing as deeply as he could while feeling like he’d run a marathon. His hands gravitated towards Xander's ass, pulling him flush against him and leaning back to let the wall take their weight. Xander only writhed against him, the friction of it making Shen gasp, just as he had that night outside the restaurant, seeming to pick up just where they’d left off.
Shen had been semi-hard at least since they’d left the Wandering Daughter, but now with Xander in his arms, he was back to fully hard and grateful for the room his loose pants gave him. He could feel Xander, just as hard, against him, rutting against his hip, and that feeling, that Xander wanted him as desperately has he did, made him groan and clutch at Xander more tightly. As he did, a small noise escaped Xander, almost a whimper. Intrigued, Shen did it again, kneading the muscle of Xander’s ass for good measure, and was rewarded with another of those sweet noises, somewhere between a whine and a gasp and utterly music to Shen’s ears. It made Shen want to find all of the spots that drove that noise from Xander as well as what other noises he would make with Shen’s hands on him.
But that meant exploration, a feat which Shen was starting to think was a rather large overestimation of both of their stamina at this point. Ever since that night at the restaurant, Shen’s nerves had thrummed whenever he was around Xander, and now each kiss felt like being shocked, his cock jumping at each touch of lips to skin, regardless of whose. The likelihood of making it to last to any other activity, and the even more daunting task of pulling away from Xander, even for a moment, to move them to a more comfortable location, was becoming increasingly impossible with each twitch of Xander’s hips. Especially now that he had found an angle that he liked, one that rocked his length against Shen’s stomach, his leg rubbing against Shen’s cock on the downslide, the friction of it all driving him higher.
“Mmmnph.” Xander made a sound that might have been a mangled word but trailed off to a low gasp when Shen shifted his feet to plant himself better, which had the delicious side effect of shifting his leg higher against Xander’s crotch. Now Xander was the one panting into Shen’s neck, his teeth worrying lightly at Shen’s ear, sucking kisses into the tender skin there. Shen had never really thought about that being a sensitive area before—certainly he’d had lovers press kisses there but—there was something about the way Xander did it, or perhaps the fact that it was Xander himself doing it that made it feel like everywhere Xander’s mouth touched had a direct line to his cock.
Unable to take anymore, Shen shifted so that only one hand was supporting Xander’s ass, and while Xander made a noise at the loss, Shen knew that where he was moving next would likely have his full support. He pushed down the front of his pants, wriggling slightly so that they would fall enough for him to get a hand inside, then fumbled for the ties on Xander’s. His pants were tighter, a struggle to do one-handed, especially with Xander hardly pausing in his movements above him. But eventually he also dropped a hand to help out, and soon enough pants were shoved out of the way to both of their satisfactions.
“I’m not going to last long,” Shen warned as he reached for both of them, spitting into his hand with a slight grimace but knowing that trying to move to where there’d be lube at this point would be worse.
“‘s fine,” Xander ground out, more into Shen’s collarbone than anywhere else. “I won’t either. C’mon, Shen, please,” he breathed. He leaned away to give Shen room, his head falling back all the way as Shen’s hand wrapped around both of them as best as he could manage, stroking up, gathering precome at the top to try and help on the way back down. The line of Xander’s throat was all but begging him to lean in and kiss it, but Shen knew they’d likely overbalance if he tried, so he simply drank in the view, watching the way Xander’s throat worked, the way his head tipped back and forth with each jerk of his cock into Shen’s hand, and most of all, the way his eyes, though lidded, stayed locked on Shen’s face.
“Fast—ah, Shen,” was all the warning Shen got before Xander was coming, his body rocking into Shen’s, his release spilling over Shen’s hand and splashing slightly up his stomach. The sight of Xander’s face as he came tipped Shen over the edge, his own hand working himself at a furious pace as Xander slumped over onto him. The additional weight was too much under the bonelessness of the aftermath of his own orgasm, and Shen sank them both down to the ground as smoothly as he could when all he could think about was the way Xander had sounded when he came.
Shen wouldn’t have said that piled on the floor with Xander’s body draped over him, keeping him mostly pinned to the wall was a comfortable position before this, but he was oddly content with it. Xander’s entire body was still heaving slightly as he tried to catch his breath, his face still buried in Shen’s shoulder, and as Shen focused he thought he could feel Xander’s mouth moving there. He wondered, with what thought processes were trickling back in, if they were words at all or half-attempts at kissing Shen’s skin through the fabric they hadn’t pushed all the way off. Shen let his hand run up and down Xander’s back, drifting and settling as Xander’s breathing fell into a more regular rhythm, simply letting himself enjoy the feeling of Xander here in his arms.
Eventually, though, the floor did get cold and hard and Shen’s back started to protest. With a groan, he dislodged Xander with a small nudge, getting him to leave off where he’d picked up kissing along the column of Shen’s neck again in earnest. He stood up, extending a hand down to Xander and intending to lead him into the bedroom where they could at least recover for round two in comfort, but to his surprise, Xander tugged at their linked hands in the opposite direction.
“You said you’d play something for me.” His head jerked in the direction of the keyboard set up in the corner. It was a folding model, intended to be able to fit even in cramped skyship quarters, and had been the last thing Shen had bought before leaving Ganymede, one last indulgence, one final link. He looked at Xander now, at the soft smile playing about his lips, at his hair, sticking up in every which direction from Shen’s hands running through it. At first he’d intended to play a piece that showed off his skill, wanting to prove that he could be a match for Xander and the way his playing always took Shen’s breath away and yet looked so effortless. Shen wasn’t anywhere near that level, could never hope to be, but with his pulse beating a rhythm that echoed back from Xander’s hand, clutched tightly in his, he thought he knew what would be right to play.
He’d set the keyboard facing the window so that he could look out over the view of Senchin as he went over parts, hoping the view would inspire him. Now, the lights of the city gleamed in the night, their multi-colored signs and advertisements running up along the lengths of the buildings an ever-moving canvas that was reflected on the surface of the keyboard and that limned the edge of Xander’s clothes as he moved to stand in front of it. Shen swallowed hard, his heart beating fast enough he was sure Xander could hear it. Nothing about this should have been as nerve-wracking as it was; he had no reason to think Xander wouldn’t take this in stride and with the same zeal and consideration with which he seemed to take the rest of his life and anything Shen revealed to him. And yet.
And yet he still placed his hands on the keys as easily as he’d placed his heart in Xander’s hands.
The piece was a simple enough melody—it had originally meant to be a round, able to be played by any number of instruments or players in an ever-circling harmony—but tonight Shen wove it into something complex. He started with letting each hand be a canon before building off of that, letting the melody flow and dance the way his heart always did when he was around Xander.
It could have gone on forever; he could have let himself loop the melody back in on itself like it was meant to, trap them both in this bubble of perfect time, but eventually, reluctantly, Shen let it trail off, winding back down to a resolution as he lifted his eyes up to meet Xander’s, giant in his face and boring into Shen’s soul.
“Come here.” Xander’s voice was thick as he stood with his back to the window, pressed against it, one hand extended for Shen to take, the lights of the city a halo around him and making his expression hard to make out. Even so, Shen could tell his eyes were dark, but the shape of them was softer than Shen had ever seen them, and sure enough, when Xander pulled him up off the bench and in for a kiss, it was gentle, exploring, promising time and trust and a future Shen could never have.
“Take me to bed,” he said when he pulled back, whispering it into the tender spot under Xander’s ear instead of the million things he wanted to, knowing that if he let himself indulge in this liminal space of lights and music and Xander’s thumb rubbing small circles into the skin over his hip, he might never break from it.
Or it would hurt all the more when it was broken for him.
There was a question in Xander’s eyes, but Shen simply leaned in to kiss him again instead of shaking his head and confirming any suspicion Xander might have had that there was something to question. But when Shen stepped back, leading them towards the bedroom, Xander followed him without breaking their kiss, following him and the trust there squeezed at Shen’s heart.
They stripped off the remainder of their clothes in short order, Xander’s fingers nimble in navigating the complex ties of the top of his jacket that Shen had not been looking forward to, had he been honest, but in short order, the long coat was pooled on the ground at his feet. Then they were standing there, bare in nothing but the lights outside. Shen’s apartment was high enough that he’d never worried about getting blinds and was grateful for it now, taking in the way the colors shifted, playing over his sheets as he pushed Xander back onto them and letting him see the way Xander’s eyes went dark as he reached for Shen.
Xander’s mouth opened for him easily, though every time Shen tried to pick up his pace, Xander pulled back, keeping the kiss languid. He turned the kiss exploratory, mapping Shen’s mouth with slow licks that seemed to steal the very breath from within him. Each time he pulled back, drawing Shen with him, he would seem to dive back even deeper, his entire body moving with the motion until they were rocking slowly together, hips and mouth moving to the same undulating rhythm.
The slide of Xander’s skin against him was intoxicating, and if Shen had thought having Xander’s cock in his hand was good, it was nothing compared to the way his blood simmered under his skin at the feeling of Xander rubbing against his hips, nothing in the way, every inch of skin a contact point. It wasn’t the all-consuming feeling from the hallway, but it made him all the dizzier with its intensity, the way it built slowly and pulled him under, rather than the sharp peak of desperation. When he’d let himself imagine what he’d do when he finally had Xander in his bed, he’d always imagined it as the latter: that Xander would be as electric in bed as he was on the stage, a tempest of desire and crashing through Shen, burning everything clean in his wake. He hadn’t let himself imagine this, this sticky-slow sinking into each other, the echo of each touch lingering, hadn’t imagined wanting, but now that he had Xander moving under him, languid and arching, everything else felt shallow.
“What do you want?” Xander asked when he pulled back. Shen’s heart stuttered for a second watching him, his lips so, so swollen, shiny and slick, and entranced, he braced himself on one arm to trace Xander’s lower lip with the thumb of the other hand. He watched it as it sunk in slightly and let himself think about Xander’s question. A shudder ran through him imagining those lips around his cock, better yet as he sucked Xander off at the same time. Or he could eat Xander out, see how many of those noises from earlier Shen could wring from him.
“Everything,” he murmured, tracking the way Xander’s eyes hooded slightly as Shen’s thumb pushed a bit into his mouth.
Xander let Shen’s thumb in, let his lips wrap around it and letting Shen know exactly what he would look like sucking his cock, before pulling away slightly and grinning. “You have to pick something, there’s only so many hours in the night, and we both have places to be in the morning.” His hand trailed down between them and he wriggled in a way that made Shen forget the problem with that entirely, especially when he felt Xander’s hand on his cock. “In the meantime, though, I can make a few suggestions…”
With sudden clarity, Shen knew. “Fuck me,” he blurted out, his head falling forward as Xander twisted his wrist slightly, his thumb rubbing along the slit.
“I am rather good with my hands.” He could hear the grin in Xander’s voice, but Shen shook his head slightly before pulling back to stare at Xander.
“No, I mean, I want you to fuck me.” Xander’s hand on him stilled, and it took a rather lot of willpower for Shen to still his own hips to keep from thrusting up to chase that feeling of Xander’s hand moving on him. He was staring at Shen, mouth still slightly open and Shen knew what he needed. “I want to feel you in me—I want to feel it tomorrow; I want to remember.” He wouldn’t let himself hope for more than tonight, but he wanted to be able to have this while he could.
Xander stilled entirely at that, his eyes searching, and Shen willed him not to ask. That wasn’t a conversation for the dark, between sheets, when they were a breath away and their pulses drowned out rational thought and he was likely to make whatever decision would make both of them happiest rather than one that made sense. Xander seemed to come to a decision, and Shen’s stomach dropped as he braced himself to answer whatever question was on his lips.
Instead of asking, though, Xander surged forward, rolling them over and pinning Shen to the mattress. All the breath was knocked out of Shen’s body with the shock of being blindsided, and before he could gasp in, Xander’s mouth was there, kissing him within an inch of his life.
When Xander pulled away, Shen was breathless, dizzy with the sudden intensity of Xander’s kiss after the slow motions from before. Before Xander could pull even further back, Shen dragged him down for another.
“Are you going to follow your conductor’s instructions or not?” he teased, expecting Xander to nip his lip or nudge him playfully, but instead Xander’s lips fell open, a slow grin spreading across his face.
“Watch me,” he growled, before he started kissing his way down Shen’s body.
Xander’s hands trailed down Shen’s sides, freeing his hands, but Shen was pinned all the same every time Xander’s gaze flicked back up to him, those tawny eyes catching the light as he moved. He sucked a wandering trail into Shen’s skin, never predictable in his path or how much suction, some of the harder kisses making Shen gasp and writhe. Shen imagined those ones blossoming into marks, a score of notes legible only to him and Xander and lasting, perhaps even beyond when he had to leave.
“Harder, please.” He could hear the note of desperation in his voice, but when Xander looked up at him, he could only nod, urging him on. A strangled cry broke from him as Xander sucked a particularly vicious mark onto the crest of his hip, close enough that when Shen’s hips jerked in reflex, he could feel Xander’s hair trail along the side of his cock, the fleeting touch doing almost as much to drive him out of his mind as Xander’s lips.
“You like that?”
“Anything that marks me as yours.” Shen didn’t know where the honesty was spilling from, knew that he was giving too much away, that Xander might put together the pieces, but right now, he didn’t care, so long as Xander kept marking into the delicate skin along the inner crease of his thigh.
Xander looked almost as wrecked as Shen felt when he looked up again, looking at Shen as his thumb traced the marks reddening on Shen’s skin. “I’m going to make you feel this, I promise you, but I don’t think feeling it without lube is what either of us want.”
Shen’s skin felt cold where Xander’s hands and lips had been as he scrambled up to his hands and knees to lean over to the bedside table, rummaging in the drawer for the tube of lube he’d been keeping there and tossing it back to Xander.
“Haven’t you only been here a month?” Behind him, he could hear Xander popping the cap, realizing the tube was half full.
Blushing hard, Shen didn’t turn around as he responded, “well, I had a lot of things to imagine on my own.”
At the noise Xander made at that, Shen made to turn back to face him, before being stopped by a hand on his shoulder, guiding him down to the mattress to lie on his stomach.
“Shen.” Xander’s voice sounded strangled, and Shen almost turned around purely in alarm before he continued. “You’re going to kill me, I swear.” Then there was a kiss pressed to the top of his spine, reassuring, and Shen let himself sink into it before the touch of Xander’s fingers at his entrance made him tense up slightly.
He rocked back quickly enough, wanting this, wanting Xander deeper. Xander had started with one, intending to be kind, Shen knew, but kindness would shatter him at this rate.
“More,” he panted, wriggling his ass back and shifting to be more on his knees, to give himself better leverage. He knew he could take it, had been working himself open to thoughts of Xander almost every night since the restaurant, and he knew Xander could feel the lack of resistance from the way his breath hitched.
“Gods, you’re greedy,” he heard from behind him, but there was another click of the cap, and soon there were two fingers, driving and twisting into him, and Shen could hear himself keening, but it still wasn't enough, wasn't what he needed.
“Xan, Xander,” he tried not to whine, clinging to what control he had left by digging his hands into the sheets. As Xander crooked his fingers, he groaned into the pillow, feeling his cock drip precome onto the sheets, but he was too far gone to really care, focused solely on the way he could feel the callouses on Xander's fingers rubbing against his rim in a way his imagination had never filled in and a way he knew it would fixate on later as he watched those fingers fly across the neck of his violin and even later when he was alone again.
Then Xander pulled back entirely, save for a steadying hand on Shen's hip, rubbing small circles.
“Just need a sec.” He could hear Xander breathing quickly, sounding like through clenched teeth. “If we want this to last, anyway.”
The lid clicked once again, then Xander's thumb was holding Shen open, the other guiding his cock in. The blunt pressure of it made Shen's vision waver as he panted through it, then white out as his body accepted Xander in.
It had maybe been too quick, he'd been too needy, but the burn as Xander started thrusting, short staccato strokes that drove Shen's breath from his body each time, was perfect. The sounds that fell from Shen's lips were more noise than words at this point, while Xander kept up a litany of Shen's name interspersed with curses, and Shen floated on the rhythm of it.
Then Xander shifted, grabbing at Shen's hips to tilt them up, then he was driving back in, deeper at this new angle as he splayed himself over Shen's back, one hand scrabbling to twist and grab at Shen's in the sheets, the other going underneath Shen's ribs to support them. Surrounded like this, Shen barely knew where he ended and Xander began; all he knew was the beat of Xander's heart at his back, the rhythm of his hips, and the music of his moans in his ears.
It only took Xander's hand drifting down to his cock, dripping wet, for Shen to shatter completely, clenching down around Xander with a loud cry. He relished the reverent “oh fuck” he heard from behind him, the way Xander's rhythm started to falter and fall apart, and the way he never stopped clutching Shen through it.
Instead of falling on top of him like Shen expected, Xander rolled them to their sides, hugging Shen close. He buried his face in the crook of Shen's neck, breathing deeply, a slow pace that Shen mirrored as he let himself sink into the comfort of Xander's arms, only wincing slightly as Xander pulled out. Shen ignored his apologetic murmur, trying to memorize each ache along with the way Xander continued pressing kissed to the back of his neck.
“Stay,” he whispered, afraid to say it louder in the fear that Xander would leave anyway. He knew they'd have to separate soon, even if only to clean themselves off and climb under the covers, but for now he wanted to keep this for as long as possible and was thankful when Xander's only reply was to wrap his arm more tightly around Shen's hip to pull him closer. For now, he was content.
“Morning,” he said, leaning in to brush a kiss over Xander’s lips and revelling in the feel of soft, sleep-warm skin under his hands. Xander arched into his touch, more of a stretch than anything frantic like the night before, but Shen was curious what he could do to change that.
Before he could get too far, though, there was a rapid beeping from the nightstand—a priority ping.
“I should take this,” Shen said, his stomach sinking as he saw that it was from Anu. Unlikely to be anything good at this hour, but he also knew that if he didn’t pick up the ping, they’d keep trying until he did. He slipped out of bed, grabbing one of his wraps to tie around his hips and a short jacket to pull on before heading out to the main room.
“Good, you’re awake,” was the only greeting he got, and Shen was too freshly awake to properly filter his expression. “Shen Markash, don’t roll your eyes at me. I simply wanted to make sure you were awake before I sent over the dossier for your first assignment.”
“My first what?” Shen truly wasn’t awake enough for this.
“Your first assignment. There’s been a change of plans—Lord Song has been accused of treason against the Storm Throne, the entire Court is in an uproar, so instead of coming back to Ganymede, you’ll be going straight to the outpost on Titan. There’s been word of unrest there, and with Lord Song calling the integrity of the Court and the stability of the Storm Throne into question, we cannot abide that.”
Anu kept talking, but all sound turned into a dull roar in Shen’s ears as his stomach dropped what felt like ten stories. This was really it, then. He wouldn’t even get to go back to Ganymede one last time, say goodbye to his friends on Alexandria, Talia—oh Fates, he thought. Talia, whose father was Lord Song. Whose title he had borrowed for a stupid, silly bet. Who now was dead, and with him, any hope that Shen might have had for extending the beginning of his service.
“Shen. Shen.” That voice wasn’t Anu’s, was too close, too low to be Anu’s, wasn’t coming through a datapad.
Shen looked up, eyes wild, to find Xander crouched in front of him, worry creasing his brow as he looked between Shen and the datapad, where Anu had at least switched from lecturing him to trying to get his attention back.
“Shen, who is that there with you? What is their clearance?” At that, Xander’s eyes widened, something falling into place for him, and that was all Shen could take.
“Anu, I’ll call you back,” he somehow croaked out, his hand shaking as he moved to cut the connection.
“It had better be secure when you do,” Anu huffed before letting Shen close their connection, another reveal that made him afraid to meet Xander’s eyes.
“Shen.” There were a thousand questions packed into his name, the answers to which Xander deserved and Shen loathed to give. He hadn’t done anything to deserve Shen lying to him, but Shen desperately wished he could, that all of this could be swept under the rug. Five days. That’s all he needed. Five more days of as much of this as he could get. But no matter what he did, he needed to meet Xander’s eyes.
Xander, whose eyes were a swirling mix of concern and apprehension, his hand light on Shen’s shoulder like he might have to pull away at any moment, and Shen knew he had to choose his words carefully. He’d been trained for it, but it was the last thing he wanted to do. He wanted to blurt out the whole messy truth of it, to trust Xander with his raw, beating heart and see if this thing between them could survive it. Because he never seemed able to leave anything with a bridge he could cross back to it.
“Lord Song is being accused of treason. I’m being sent to Titan,” he started, because he might as well start with the easiest, the pieces he himself was still processing. Maybe Xander would put it together himself and just leave, sparing Shen the pain of making him leave.
“Lord Song? But wasn’t that...you...it wasn’t a lie? Oh gods, Shen, are you going into hiding?”
“What? No...I...no. That one was a lie. But my friend’s father is Lord Song, and we have close ties to the Court.”
“Then why—why are you going to Titan?”
Shen sighed, wanting so badly to take Xander’s hand, to have that comfort, but knew that if it was ripped from him, he’d crumble. He didn’t deserve it anyway. “The rest of the title wasn’t a lie. Well, mostly. My mother is the Admiral, so the Commodore is a bought commission—she never thought of playing music as a viable career path for me. My other parent, Anu, whom you...met, is First Ambassador to the Court. Nepotism at its finest. I was always meant to combine both, to bridge the gap between the Court and the military that has been widening ever since the Throne was left empty. Lord Song’s plot is just...hastening it.”
Xander hadn’t moved, so neither did Shen, afraid to shatter this, and even more afraid to hope things would be okay.
“When do you leave?” Xander finally asked, his voice barely louder than a breath, and Shen’s heart broke to hear it.
“In five days.”
“But that’s so soon, that’s just after the concert, that’s— ,” he stopped, realizing.
Shen nodded. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to see you play at Rings.”
“It can’t be changed?”
“It’s already booked.” Shen shook his head, the reply automatic, but Xander’s hand lifted from his shoulder.
“Already? But you just got — you didn’t even finish…” He looked up at Shen, his eyes cool, but his voice still soft, fragile in a way that made Shen feel like his heart was in a vice. “How long have you known you were leaving in five days?”
Shen’s eyes dropped to the couch, but he forced himself to lift them back. He owed Xander this, at the very least. “Since I came,” he whispered.
“So you were, what? Going to just jilt me at Rings? Leave me standing there waiting, scanning for you in the crowd, thinking something had happened to you? What the fuck, Shen?”
“I didn’t think, okay? I didn’t think you’d care, or I’d care, I thought it would be easier to make a clean break, I don’t know what I was thinking, except that you were happy and that made me happy and I didn’t want to make you unhappy and it all just. Got away from me. I didn’t think it would hurt this much.” He stopped, panting after the rush of words, his relief at finally having everything in the open swallowed up by the yawning void of realization that Xander likely wouldn’t forgive him. “I’m sorry,” he said, knowing it wasn’t enough, wasn’t likely to change anything.
Xander’s face had set at that, the raw openness he’d had during Shen’s outburst closing over, and Shen felt his body go cold as Xander stood up. “Yeah, me too,” he said softly, more kindly than Shen felt he deserved, and moved to go back into the bedroom, taking all the warmth in the room with him.
When he came out, he was fully dressed, and Shen hadn’t moved from his place on the couch. He tried to arrange his face into any expression other than lost, especially as Xander crossed over to him.
“I’ll see you at rehearsal.” Xander had set his shoulders, wrapping the mantle of professionalism he wore as concertmaster around him once more, and Shen felt like his heart was breaking all over again to realize that he wouldn’t get to see Xander without it again, to see him happy and relaxed and more alive than anyone Shen had ever known. But he had done this, and now he had to live with the consequences.
“See you at rehearsal,” Shen could only reply. Xander didn’t respond, only nodded. Then the door, opening and closing, leaving Shen alone in his apartment. He stared at his datapad, sighed as he pulled it towards him. He sent a message to Talia, as neutrally worded a show of support and condolence as he could manage, and hoped that all of them would survive the machinations of their parents before he went to the kitchen to just grab the entire bottle of baiju before calling Anu back.
Shen made a point at the end to pack up as slowly as he could, to make sure he caught everyone who still had any questions, just so that he could be sure that everyone would be gone and cleared out by the time he made to go home. He didn’t think he could field any questions about what had happened, even if he had spotted Lial trying to hang back and catch his attention. Maybe it was the coward’s way out, but he’d only been bold around Xander, so now he could go back to being cautious and simply watching from the outside. He was used to that. It would be fine.
The morning of the concert, he packed. He’d put it off for as long as he could, hoping blindly that maybe, through some miracle of chance, his skyship would be cancelled, the voyage run into trouble on some other leg of it, that Lord Song would be found not guilty and the immediate rush over, that he’d have the courage to tell his parents he didn’t want the life they’d set for him.
With a sigh, he closed his suitcase, pulling out one of the last two pieces from the small closet. Of all of the traditions that had continued about orchestras, he’d always been fond of concert dress. The tailored suits, with more flow to them than the precision of military tailoring and the long tails of the coats, had always appealed to him, and it had been the way the tails of her coat had fluttered as she moved that had driven Shen to ask Anais if she would be his mentor that first year at Matoung. As he put it on and looked in the mirror, smoothing down the lapels of the coat and tweaking his shirt cuffs to perfection, he tried not to think that this might be the last time he wore it.
On his way out of the bedroom, he closed the closet door—as much as it pained him to think of not hanging up his tailcoat properly, the thought of having to see his commodore’s uniform again before tomorrow was more than he could stand.
He’d imagined the night of a concert before, more times than he’d really care to admit to, but there was nothing like seeing the ensemble—his musicians, at least through tonight, he could let himself have that—trickle in, garment bags and instrument cases slung over their shoulders, the ever-growing crowd of concert blacks mingling backstage of the auditorium.
And then, there was Xander. Shen had always thought that Xander would look good in the tailed coat, but the reality of it was devastating. The material shone slightly under the lights, the same as it shone off of Xander’s hair, slicked back slightly into a stiff style that Shen’s fingers twitched with the desire to run through and muss into something more natural. Yet another thing he’d lost. He wanted to go up to Xander, to take him in his arms, whisper how handsome he looked, how well he would do tonight, and know that later, he could peel those clothes off of his body.
Instead, he stood there, still only by virtue of the training his mother had drilled into him, the military backbone he had instead of a spine. He held out a hand for Xander to shake and tried not to cling at the feeling of Xander’s skin against his once again. Professional. He would make tonight the best he could, because tonight would be all he would get.
Taking the stage was somehow easier than everything else that had come before. He’d built it up to be this big thing in his mind, but in the end, the ensemble was already there, the music was in his head, his heart, and his hands, and he knew they were ready.
They had nothing to live up to, the audience had no idea what to expect, so Shen let the orchestra free, let the music carry them all. Before this, the thought of performing the entire symphony had had a “one foot in front of the other” sense to it, in that while it was all one journey, there was always the sense of acknowledging each page turn, each system and measure passed. Performing it for an audience was nothing like that. The music carried them from one moment to the next, the adrenaline of everything finally coming together erasing any separation the parts had or any sense of one part being more troublesome than the rest. It was all one, it was all the story they were weaving through the air. Shen had only faced the audience in the beginning, but had the sense of the weight of them at his back, then, suddenly, the sense of them as part of the music too. They breathed with it, and in the performing, each movement took on new life.
Then came the third movement. Given the changing nature of the features as they moved through the different instruments, Shen had worked with the light programmers so that each feature had a spot, the rest of the lights going dim. The effect reminded him of one of the marsh fields when he’d first moved to Ganymede, back when he’d lived on Ran with his parents. Before he’d run to Alexandria and the universities there. The fields had erupted into light at dusk; the insects that had been cultivated to have bioluminescence tended to love those areas and the entire field glittered with their glow, blinking back and forth, ever-changing. He wondered if Nadine had ever seen it with Anais. Finally, it was the last solo, returning back to Xander, and Shen held his breath along with what felt like the entire auditorium.
The line had always been plaintive, but Xander gave it a depth it hadn’t had in rehearsals, the long phrases vibrating under his fingers as he drew them out, the soft melancholy of it somehow drowning out even the rest of the orchestra under him. It was the breath at the end of a long bout of crying, the fragile hope that life could be put back together, even if everything behind them was broken. Shen could feel the tear rolling down his cheek, but he couldn’t have stopped conducting if his life had depended on it at this point. And they had the fourth movement to get to, after all.
After Xander’s solo, the contrast with the fourth movement felt even more stark, and Shen had the feeling his wouldn’t be the only tear shed. The music swelled into a grand crescendo, carrying with it all of the emotions it had built, sweeping through each section until there was nowhere else it could go except a final resolution, that last final chord. Shen held his arms up for longer than he had before, wanting to live in the resonance they had produced, but from the utter stillness behind him, he didn’t think anyone in the audience minded basking in it for a while longer.
Then, shockingly, it was over. He bowed, they all bowed, then he was shaking hand in a daze in the atrium, congratulating musicians and audience members alike as they streamed out through the doors. Finally, he was alone, having passed on offers to go celebrate from those who were still riding the adrenaline of a successful concert, and making one final pass through the auditorium, taking it in for one last time. He sat down, staring up at the ceiling and wondering what it must have been like to watch, wondering if anyone had been inspired like he’d been all those years ago. Maybe their life would let them go further than he did, maybe they’d actually make something of themselves.
A creak to his left got his attention, and he turned his head sharply to find Xander sitting at the other end of the row he was seated in.
“I didn’t know if I’d see you,” Shen blurted out, into the silence, in the last space—maybe the only place—that had been theirs.
“I didn’t know if I’d be here.” Xander’s voice wasn’t loud, but it was a testament to the acoustics of the auditorium that Shen heard it clearly anyway, perhaps cruel in how well he could hear every tone in it.
“You were amazing, truly.”
“The same could be said of you. Not many people could’ve clicked with an entirely new composition and a new ensemble as quickly as you did. You’ve got a gift, Shen.”
“Yeah…” That was skirting too close to things he didn’t want to talk about, couldn’t talk about without being unable to leave, so Shen fell silent, just letting himself sit with Xander one last time.
“Well. Good luck, Shen Markash.” Xander stood then, not making any move to come closer to Shen, and with a pang, Shen realized the last time he’d been able to touch Xander was their handshake at the end of the concert.
“And to you, Xander.”
Except the beeping didn’t stop. Finally, it registered as the comm connected to his door alert, which was even stranger. No one but Xander or delivery people had ever been to his apartment, and he couldn’t think of anyone who would want to at this point. So it was with great surprise that he answered the comms call to see Anais on the other side.
“Don’t look so surprised, child, you submitted this information when you took the job,” she said as she barrelled her way past him when he opened the door.
“Good morning to you too, Anais.”
“There’s no need to sass me, I’m here for your own good. Besides, it’s afternoon now.” Startled, Shen looked at the clock. It certainly was. He supposed all but crying himself to sleep would do that for his exhaustion.
“Hello Anais and thank you for gracing my apartment with your lovely presence. Would you like something to drink?”
“Still sass, but better. Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair soon. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t do too good a job of ruining your own life.”
“What?” Shen paused where he’d been pouring them both glasses of water. “What do you mean?”
She sighed and moved to sit down, patting the space on the couch next to her. Thankfully, Shen noted, not the spot where he’d been sitting with Xander. “Did I ever tell you why I left Ganymede?”
Shen shrugged. “I always assumed it was for a job. Or that you met Nadine and she wanted to stay on Europa.” It had been early in his studies, before he’d really had a handle on the pulse of things on Alexandria, or even at Matoung, and he hadn’t thought much of it. People came and went, in his experience.
“That was part of it, certainly. But more than that, Nadine made me realize that I’d never truly be happy there.”
“What did she say?”
“It wasn’t anything she said. She’s from a family of political dissidents, which is why she took my name when we got married. But even on Alexandria, she would’ve been shunned for her connections, no matter how often she renounced them. Everything’s political, no matter where you are on Ganymede. You might think you’ve escaped,” she paused, her eyes boring into his, and Shen squirmed a bit to feel so exposed. “At least for now, but you know that the minute you go back, it’ll suck you back in and swallow you whole. Some people were made for that, revel in the game. But others, like me, and if I’m right, like you? We’ll put up with it until we realize it doesn’t have to be that way forever, if we ever do. It just took Nadine for me to realize I did have a choice after all.”
“But my parents,” Shen whispered, clutching his water glass as if it could ground him.
Anais nudged his knee with her own. “Who’s the one telling me he’s almost 30? There’s nothing wrong with following the path your parents worked to give you, so long as that’s what you want. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be a great ambassador. All I know is you looked alive up on the stage last night, regardless of how broken-hearted you looked before you took it.”
“Wh—what?” Shen spluttered.
“The two of you were staring like lovesick puppies at each other, and then like puppies who had been denied not only dinner but a bed to sleep in. A blind bat could have seen it. But like I said, only you can decide what is right for you to do.” Anais stood, took a sip of her water, then walked the glass back to the kitchen.
“Anyway, that’s what I came to say, and to wish you good luck.”
“Thanks, Anais. For everything.” Shen threw his arms around her, which she returned warmly, holding him tight before pulling back to pat him on the shoulder.
“Any time. Thanks for the water, and you know you’re to let me know if you’re ever in Senchin again.”
“I will. Thank you again.”
As the door closed behind her, Shen turned to look at his apartment. What did he want? He only knew some things, but would that be enough for the future? That, he didn’t know, but he knew with the same certainty the things that held no future for him, and in the end, maybe that would be enough.
Picking up his data pad, he sent a few quick pings, and then with one final movement, turned it off and left it on the counter.
“Performer’s door?” Shen asked her, only to get a thumbed direction and be immediately ignored afterward, but Shen figured she had more than enough else to worry about.
The bouncer at the performer’s door was also looking a little harried, but less so, thanks to the data pad he clutched like a lifeline. Shen gulped. If this didn’t work, he didn’t have a backup plan other than just staying here for the rest of the night, hoping to catch any member of Strains and Unusual as they came out.
“Shen Markash, here with Strains and Unusual,” he said, fingers crossed tightly.
There was a beat of silence as the bouncer scanned his list, flipping a page back and forth on his pad before nodding and waving Shen through. Legs shaking slightly, Shen stepped into the venue. He’d made it this far now, but more importantly, Xander hadn’t taken his name off of the list. Maybe it had merely been administrative, that it was more work than it was worth, or maybe some part of him had hoped that Shen would show up after all.
Shen had to hope for the latter. He had no idea where in the lineup Strains was, or even where in the lineup the night was, but he wandered the backstage area anyway, looking for anyone he recognized. Luckily, he ran into Lial first, coming around a corner. First it was the normal shock of almost walking into another person, but then that morphed into something deeper as they realized that Shen was here. Xander must have told them, Shen thought, which they confirmed in short order as they grabbed his hand and dragged him down the hall.
“Thank the fucking Fates you came to your senses and that you came just in the nick of time. Talk to him, otherwise we’re kicking him out of the group and then we’re definitely never getting an open mic spot here ever again, but it might be worth it not to hear him sighing so much.”
With absolutely zero introduction, Lial all but flung Shen into the small dressing room which held Xander, Jaime, and Rin. Lial jerked their thumb backwards out of the room, and Jaime and Rin followed as if the Furies were on their heels, closing the door behind them.
“So...,” Shen started. “Um. Hi?”
“Hi?” Xander sounded like he’d been punched, all his air gone. “That’s all you’ve got?”
“I already said I was sorry,” Shen said, a little defensively.
“How are you here? I am assuming you’re actually here, seeing as how Lial all but threw you in here.”
“I, um. Missed my shuttle.”
“Missed it? Like you’ll be on one tomorrow?”
Shen shook his head, unsure if he should try and close the distance between them or stay standing where he was and let Xander make that decision. “No. As in, I’m not going. I sent pings to my parents telling them I was staying on Europa, in Senchin. And then, I might’ve deleted my data pad entirely. Not that you were talking to me anymore or would’ve pinged me, but.”
Xander was still staring at him like he’d grown two heads, so Shen just kept talking in the hopes that maybe something he’d say would help. “I don’t really have a plan, I just knew that I didn’t want to be a diplomat, never knowing what people were really feeling. I didn’t want to not have music anymore, to have my musical knowledge be limited to what they played at balls, or whatever songs were popular at Court. After standing up on that stage with you, I realized it would be like cutting off a limb, and then Anais came and basically said the same thing I’d been thinking and made me realize I did have that choice, that it was my decision. I don’t know what my parents are going to do, except that it won’t be public and for all I know, I’ve just given them the opportunity to adopt someone to be a proper heir so they can actually see me, and I can stop being a disappointment. I didn’t really come here with the intent of telling you I was staying so that you’d take me back or we could start over again or anything like that, but...well. Maybe? I just know that I feel alive when I hear your music, or when I hold your hand or when you smile at me, and even if I have to do that from the sidelines, I wanted you to know that I’m choosing, and I’m choosing the music.” Shen panted a bit, the outburst taking more out of him than he’d expected, more truth flowing out of him than he’d thought he had, but Xander was still watching him, so he just stood there, waiting.
“Shen Markash,” Xander finally said, slowly unfolding himself to stand from the stool he’d been sitting on. “Did you just ditch your parents so you could come backstage of a concert?”
Shen blushed. “I mean, when you put it like that…”
“Because that is the best thing I’ve ever heard. Come here.” And then Xander’s hand was outstretched and Shen was being pulled towards him and into his arms, and then Xander’s mouth was on his, and more than anything, more than feeling like the first breath in a long time, like re-learning how to breathe, kissing Xander felt like home. It felt like the freedom Ganymede had once held for him, the freedom Shen was beginning to realize was tied to making decisions with his own interests and heart, rather than any one place.
Whistles from behind him broke them apart, and when Shen turned, the rest of the group was there, crowded around the door.
“I hate to break you two up, but Xander, we’re on deck. Grab your violin and get your ass up here. You too, Shen—you can watch from the wings.” Lial made shooing motions with their hands, coming into the dressing room and scooting them out.
When they got to the stage, just as the stage manager was waving Strains forward so they’d be ready, Shen reeled Xander back towards him.
“For luck,” he murmured, before pressing a sweet kiss to Xander’s lips, nipping his favorite corner, still slightly chapped, as he pulled away.
“Be here when I get off stage?” Xander asked, and even though his tone was joking, there was a more serious glint to his eyes that made Shen nod.
“Always.” And as Xander stepped out into the lights, Shen realized he would fight for that to be true, to be here. He would be part of the music Xander would make, and Xander a part of his music, a looping canon eventually coming together to resonate.
On stage, Xander raised his bow, the lights glinting off his violin, the rest of his group members at the ready. And with a move as quick as a flash of lightning, he brought down his bow and began.