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The Sombre Season

Chapter Text

Tom arrived at the audition hall with the racket of a day spent on trains still buzzing in his ears. The hall had once been a chapel; only stained glass knights and angels populated the cool heights of stone. The wood pews were empty.

"Hello?" Tom called, dragging his cello in its bulky case up the center aisle. On the stage fitted in between two thick stone columns he found some folding chairs and music stands and signs directing auditioners to an area of the pews to sit and wait their turn. Everything was ready, but there was no one there.

He tried the doors at either side of the stage, but they were both locked. With a shrug, Tom sat down in the waiting area.

Silence seeped into him, blessed relief after trains and taxis.

"Here's another one!" The exasperated shout came from behind him. Tom turned and saw a grim-faced woman advancing on him like one of the grim angels in the stained glass. She was only missing the flaming sword. He put on the same apologetic air he often used with Laurel and asked what had happened; the woman remained gruff in the face of his sympathy.

"Power outage," she said. "Most of the day. We've rescheduled what we could, luckily we can put up people overnight at the college, but we're full up. Can you stay here while I figure out what to do with you? You're the only one left."

Tom assured her that he could wait.

"You're an angel," she said. "If you want to practice, the practice rooms are--" The woman hesitated. "Oh hell. If you want to practice, just practice here. And if you need anything else..."

She unlocked the door to the hallway with the bathrooms and left Tom with the promise that she'd be right back as soon as she had a place to put him.

Laurel had warned him, Tom thought as he washed the grime of travel off his hands and splashed water on his face. She hadn't actually put it in words, but he'd been quite aware of her opinions of this orchestra.

"This is your home," she'd said the night before. "You know that I'll always be here for you, don't you, Tom? Remember that if they make you an offer. You don't have to sell your talent like a laborer, you'll always be appreciated right here."

"I'm very grateful," Tom said.

"Are you, Tom dear?"

Tom pretended that he didn't know what she was talking about, but something shivered deep down inside of him. The hints had been getting broader. The nudges, the efforts to leave him and Laurel alone in the rose garden. The gifts.

Tom knew that a marriage announcement was expected any day.

Thomas and Lorelei Perry Lynn. Of course it was ardor that moved through him at that thought. A life with Laurel was everything he could ever dream of. And the only reason he was here, at this audition that Laurel laughed lightly about, was to prove himself worthy of her.

Like a knight, he thought, returning to the hall and getting out his cello. The knights in the stained glass above him were vigilant and worshipful.

Scales, exercises, and then the audition pieces, fingers moving faster as he warmed up. The windows glowed like a revelation as he followed the familiar path. Motion. Emotion. Music pouring from him like a fountain.

Laurel didn't think he was good enough, that's why she laughed, and told him to come home. Laurel didn't think this orchestra was good enough either.

In Laurel's sphere of influence, nothing ever went wrong. The power stayed on, the show went on, the music never stopped. And Laurel might laugh, but he knew that Laurel was generous. If he became part of this orchestra, he would show her its virtues. With Laurel as their patroness, they would find that everything went right for them.

And Tom would have the best of both worlds. Laurel, and music. Everything that he longed for when he was playing the cello alone in a succession of houses belonging to Laurel.

He threw the notes from his cello into the still air like a challenge to all comers.

 

When he returned in the morning, the hall was completely different. String players from violin to bass were warming up all along the aisles and the big schedule tacked up in the front seemed to guarantee a full day for the audition judges. Tom tracked down his name in the first group of auditioners, and then had to search to find a free perch on the edge of a pew where his cello had space in the aisle.

He rosined his bow and played a few scales, joining his notes to the cacophony. He could barely hear his own playing, and he was part way through the audition piece before he heard the echo. Everyone was playing the same audition music, but one of the cellists somewhere in the room was just a few beats behind him. He slowed down, they sped up, but they couldn't quite put it together, though Tom was sure that the other musician was trying too.

Glancing around, Tom identified an older woman with gray hair and an intent expression. She raised an eyebrow when she saw he'd identified her, and picked up the tempo.

Tom followed her lead, his fingers nimble through the difficult passage. They were only two in a hall of dozens of musicians; even doubled, they didn't stand out, but to Tom, it was as if everyone else fell away into the background, and all he could hear were the notes that he played and the notes that she played.

Her notes were an invitation; his notes tried to respond, but he was missing something. He could almost hear it. Phrasing? Technique? He couldn't tell what he needed to do to match her, he only knew that she was playing the piece with effortless musicality and he was not.

She gave him a smile when they finished, and moved on to playing what must be her solo, which Tom was sure he would recognize if only he didn't feel so shaken.

He went back to the beginning and played the audition piece through again. And then again. And then again, his fingers deft and his heart sinking. He wasn't even sure what he was listening for, but he had the uneasy feeling that he was imposing something on the music. If he could just get out of his own way, he would be able to hear it.

All I need to do... he thought.

The sound of tapping brought his thoughts to an abrupt halt. With the rest of the musicians, Tom turned to face the front, but as the conductor explained the audition process, Tom was frantically pulling apart the spaces between the notes that sounded in his mind.

"It's not your kind of music," Laurel whispered in his memory. That's what she'd said about the music this orchestra played. He should have asked her why, but he'd just ignored her, certain he could make anything into his kind of music.

Like Laurel, who could make anything become hers. But he wasn't Laurel. He didn't want to be like Laurel. He didn't -- he realized with terrifying clarity -- want to be Laurel's.

"You're nothing special, you're not that good, you might catch her fancy, she looks at you like she wants to devour you." That had been his brother Charles, the last fight they ever had before Charles disappeared forever. It had been a messy fight, circling around jealousy and concern and several different brands of rebellion. Tom still wasn't sure what they'd been fighting about, deep down, but he'd known the answer to that accusation.

"Well, let her," Tom had said. He'd remembered life before Laurel. It had the character of a bad dream. Gray. Distorted. Pouring rain and impatience and tugs on his arm and pushes when he wasn't fast enough and only Charles...

"Without Laurel, I'd have no music at all. I'd be nothing. Whatever she wants, it's better than that," he'd said.

He wondered miserably if that was still the truth.

 

When his turn came, he was calm. He walked onto the stage and settled himself and his cello, put his music on the music stand and waited for instructions.

"Play the concerto, then the other excerpts, then your solo." Tom squinted at the judges and saw his grim-faced woman from the day before, still looking grim. He looked away quickly; his music needed to be put in order. Then he took a deep breath and set his bow on the string and began, trying not to think. He knew how to do this, he just needed to do what he'd done before.

The first piece wasn't difficult; just something to weed out the totally hopeless and let the rest show a bit of individual style. Tom had played it several times for Laurel, or for the rest of the household, and that memory steadied him. The same notes he'd played before, the confidence that he'd thought he'd lost returning. Laurel approved of the way he'd played this, and Laurel knew music. Tom set his sights on Laurel's approval and navigated the music by the same course he'd found many times.

He'd played better, but it was good enough.

Tom flipped to the next sheet of music, a photocopied excerpt. This was the hardest section of a difficult cello part -- all pyrotechnics. His favorite. He imagined the first phrase, the dance of his bow and the movement of his fingers. Motion, he thought. Music is all about motion. And that's why music demands a response from the listener. Hadn't Laurel said that once?

He played it, a little too fast, but that just made it more impressive that he'd pulled it off at that tempo. Two down. He risked a glance at the judges, but their faces didn't tell him anything.

Before this morning, he'd thought that his biggest challenge would be his solo; it was a technical extravaganza intended to force anyone who heard it to admire his skill. Now, Tom looked at the excerpt he'd been playing in tandem with the other cellist this morning, and knew that if he got through this, everything else would be easy.

The excerpt started off with a simple melodic line. Tom usually breezed through it. Today, he listened. And for just a second, he heard the same thing he'd heard earlier. Accident or unconscious mimicry, he was playing it...

And then as the theme expanded into the part he usually preferred, the complex development of the simple theme, he lost it. His fingers played the version he was used to playing, and the part of his mind that was listening came up short of what it wanted to hear.

He kept playing.

Every moment of practice showed in his playing, and not in the way that a musician always hoped, making it seem effortless. Every different interpretation he'd ever tried out clustered in his mind and confused his fingers.

He pushed himself harder, to play something beyond the notes, and the part of him that was still listening heard -- Laurel. The imposition of Laurel's taste, Laurel's approval and Laurel's disapproval, atop the music Tom would have played. Laurel, as sharp as flint, as implacable as fate.

He kept playing, but something inside of him stopped, and listened from afar, and didn't like what it heard. It felt like he'd died, sometime in the past, sometime in the hundreds of times he'd played this piece. He'd died and he'd never noticed it.

He noticed it now, but he kept playing.

When he reached the end of the piece, he turned the page and started playing his solo. He wasn't listening to himself any more. He already knew everything that he needed to know.

And when he came to the end of his solo, he looked up from his music and saw complete disinterest in the faces of the judges. They didn't know him. They didn't know that he'd played less than his best. They didn't know what that meant.

"Thank you, Mr. Lynn."

The grim-faced woman added, surprisingly, "Please do come back next year." Tom didn't read too much into that.

High above, the angels and knights with their flaming swords protected the integrity of the orchestra.

 

Morton Leroy tracked Tom down in a London hotel five days later.

Tom refused to talk to him. Laurel showed up the next day, ludicrously out of place in her evening gown in the battered hotel that had been all Tom could afford, and only because he'd pawned the extravagant cello case and accessories that Laurel had given him. Tom burned with embarrassment to see Laurel standing just inside the door, as perfect as always.

"Oh Tom," Laurel said with a sigh.

Tom stared at her mutinously.

"It doesn't have to be like this," Laurel said, advancing a single step toward Tom, between the sagging bed and the chipped dresser. She held out her hand. "Let me give you what you want."

"You can't," Tom said flatly.

"You don't know that, dear," Laurel said. "Won't you please try me? It pains me to see you in a place like this. It isn't where you belong."

Tom flung himself away from Laurel, onto the bed. "I don't belong anywhere," he declared.

Laurel settled down next to him and smoothed his hair. "I think you do," she said. "I think you belong with me."

Tom didn't want to talk to Laurel, but her sympathy was difficult to resist. And there was no where else to go, unless he retreated into the bathroom. "I don't know what to do," he said. He told her about the audition, about his memories of Charles, about the piece that he couldn't play. He still couldn't play it.

"But you play that so well," Laurel said. It was exactly what Tom wanted to hear.

"No, I don't," Tom said, but he wasn't as sure as he tried to sound. He'd played that piece so many times by now that he couldn't hear it at all when he played it one more time. It wasn't music, it was just notes. And listening to notes, Tom had come to doubt the insight of the audition, even before Laurel appeared.

It was better to play the kind of motion and emotion that Laurel liked, than to play notes like they were nothing. He was tired of empty rooms and no future and playing music like it was nothing.

As Laurel gently stroked his hair, Tom told her how difficult it was to be away from her. He even told her about his daydream of her taking the orchestra under her wing.

"Is that what you really want?" Laurel asked.

"I don't know what I want," Tom burst out. "I don't know how to find out."

"You need safety and security," Laurel said persuasively. "Let me take care of you, Tom. You can work everything else out once you're home with me."

Was he ready to come home?

"Why?" Tom said angrily. "I told you, I'm no good."

"Let me be the judge of that," Laurel said. "Do you really want to leave when I want you so much? There's no one else in the world who wants you like I do."

It was true. Painful, but true.

"You've got no future without me," Laurel said. "With me, you can have everything that you want."

"If I'd never met you," Tom said. "If I'd never gone to Wilton College?"

"Every choice has consequences," Laurel said. "But you and I, my dear, that was fate."

She turned his head gently with the pressure of one finger, until their eyes met with a sudden shock. It was so intense Tom had to look away, but Laurel pulled him back again, and again.

And in the end, Tom had to agree.