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The Sombre Season

Chapter Text

The first Tom knew about the bonfire was when Seb appeared in his room, begging for fuel. Tom was struggling through a Beethoven cello sonata, and he ducked his head over his cello and kept playing until Seb started poking around in Tom's sheet music.

"Stop that," Tom said, holding his bow above the strings and the note he'd been playing suspended in his mind.

Seb was a sturdy kid, with clutching fingers and an ingratiating smile. "It's bad luck not to give something to be burned," he said eagerly, as if he were doing Tom a favor, looking out for him. "Do you want to come cut wood with me?"

Tom willed those clutching fingers to let loose of his Brahms. "I've got better things to do," he said shortly. "Bonfires are childish."

For a second, Tom thought Seb looked entirely crushed, and he felt a stab of regret that he was never nicer to poor Seb. It wasn't the kid's fault he was the only kid in a large household of adults. Tom was the nearest to him in age, and Tom was almost ready to leave school. There really was no comparison with an eight year old.

"Your cello would burn nicely," the brat said, and all thoughts of niceness evaporated. Tom rose up wrathfully to throw him out. Seb dashed out before Tom could get to him, and Tom followed to shut the door. "Go ask your father," he called down the hallway, meaning it as a peace gesture. Seb scampered away even faster.

"Morton is with Laurel on this," someone said from the other direction. Ana, Seb's mother, approaching with a tray full of some kind of goodies. Ana was always cooking the most delectable treats, and she had the most energetic disposition Tom had ever known. "Would you like something?"

"Laurel?" Tom asked with sudden interest. "She's going to be at the bonfire?" It was hard to imagine beautiful, sophisticated Laurel attending a rustic bonfire, but that just made the picture more appealing.

"No, it was my idea," Ana said. She pushed the tray closer to Tom and he automatically took a frosted cake shaped like a stylized boy. Head, torso, arms, legs, and a good deal of icing for the hair and clothing. It looked delectable. "Laurel doesn't approve of celebrations that weren't her idea."

"What are we celebrating?" Tom asked agreeably.

"Elimination of baleful influences," Ana said, so cheerfully that Tom just nodded along. "It's an old tradition. You should come. I've been watching you -- all work and no play, except for that cello of yours. You need more pure fun in your life. There will be dancing, and music, and joy and laughter. I promise if you come you'll enjoy yourself, and people like us need every moment of joy we can manage, don't you think?"

Tom nodded and opened his mouth to say something, balanced between easy agreement and vague confusion: people like us? Tom often felt like the odd one out, the orphan among the rich and powerful, but Laurel told him not to mind that. "You can't possibly think you don't belong here if I tell you differently," she said.

It was almost like magic that Laurel appeared as he was thinking about her, a cloud of sleek, colorless hair and a pained smile. "I don't think we have a lot in common, you and I," he said to Ana, his eyes on Laurel. Her nod of approval was all the reward he needed.

She moved past Ana and took the cake out of his hand. Tom felt a faint pang of regret, but he was sure Laurel was right to do it. "My dear Ana," Laurel said, twirling gracefully to face her adversary. "It's of no earthly use trying to pry Tom away from his cello. Especially to round out your your little Seb's party." By this Tom could tell that Laurel not only didn't want him at the bonfire, she hated the very idea of the bonfire, and he felt guilty for ever even thinking about agreeing to go.

"We're being very indulgent of dear Ana," Laurel told Tom, forgiving him. Ana, though--

Laurel crumbled the cake in her hand and brushed the crumbs onto Ana's tray. "Ana, I must ask," she said, her eyes catching Ana up like the hypnotic eyes of a snake. Her voice was no less terrible for its silky sweetness.

Tom ducked his head and slipped away, closing the door of his room softly behind him. Laurel didn't need his support, and he had Beethoven to work on.

He was often glad that Laurel approved of Beethoven.

 

Tom had dinner with Laurel that evening, just the two of them, served at the tiny table in Laurel's private parlor. Soft candlelight and piquant sauces and a dozen tiny courses. The very opposite of rustic.

Laurel asked Tom about his music, and Tom tried to explain, but he couldn't quite put into words the quest for the true meaning of the sonata. "Every time I play it, it's like...a different journey," he tried. "It's like...an invocation, but I don't know what the music is yearning for."

Laurel joined into it as a game. Laurel was far more articulate than Tom; everything Laurel suggested sounded good -- but it wasn't quite right either. Not "motion evoking emotion" (though there was something in that). Definitely not "imposition of the emotional truth to be found in musical symmetry" (he wasn't entirely sure what that would mean, but he was sure that imposition was too hard a word). But each suggestion sparked more discussion, and Tom liked the feeling of being at the center of Laurel's attention.

Even if he did suspect she was only trying to distract herself from the spectre of the bonfire.

When he returned to his own room, Tom found that he was too restless to practice the same sonata again. He tried, but he kept getting distracted from the total awareness that the music required. His thoughts got tangled, repeating words and phrases that would make Laurel understand each instant in time, and then the instant was gone, and all the instants that followed -- it was hopeless.

He went to the window and leaned against the frame. The sun was setting over the ocean, and the thick Cornish hills were shadows of rock and vegetation. Laurel owned many houses, and she and her entire household travelled between them in patterns that Tom only vaguely understood; this Cornish cottage was popular in the spring and summer, Tom had noticed over the years. The sound of the ocean appealed to Tom when he was feeling restless.

After a while, Tom noticed that the glow from the lower windows was disappearing, darkness moving across the gardens until the last light was coming from Tom's own window. Self-consciously, he extinguished his light and returned to the window. A crowd moved up the road away from the house. Tom could only see one curve of the road, but that gave him one glimpse of each person, some bent under loads of fuel, some dancing lightly along as if the music had already started. When the crackle of the fire and the music of a simple flute drifted along on the evening air, Tom couldn't resist any longer.

He wouldn't go to the bonfire, but he knew where he could get a better view.

He'd discovered the way out the window and across the roof when he was younger, but it took long limbs and a good head for heights to step into the branches of the oak tree, past the broad trunk and onto another thick branch that led to the roof of the stable. The stone building had once been the main house; the roof was steeply pitched but not too difficult to climb. From the peak of the roof, Tom could see the bonfire.

He climbed onto the other side of the roof and lay down, the roof tilting his head at the perfect angle.

As he watched the shadows of dancers and revellers pass across the flame, Tom wondered what kind of baleful influences the fire was meant to combat. He didn't think it was meant to combat discouragement, but he did feel a little heartened, watching the fire reaching toward the sky. And when the dancers started throwing disks of fire into the air, dark and light in a wild pattern like a giant juggling, he felt his lips stretch into an unexpected smile.

"I can't believe she'd dare!" Laurel's voice came from so close that Tom startled, but then he realized that she was standing in the stable yard just below him. He couldn't see her, not without moving, and she wouldn't be able to see him lying on the roof as long as he stayed still.

Tom stayed very still.

"Why can't you just put a stop to it, if you don't like it?" That was Morton Leroy, Ana's husband. He was Laurel's ally more often than not. Ana deserved better, Tom thought -- and then repressed the thought almost as soon as he thought it.

"She's entitled to her perks," Laurel said. "But if she goes much further, I will have to act. I have my own interests, and I have the right to act if she impinges on my work of transformation with her paltry fire. Daft woman, she can't possibly know what she's doing, twisting things this way."

"I'll go talk to her," Morton said.

"Tell her--" Laurel broke off, and on the roof Tom stared at what she was surely staring at. Something had been added to the fire, something large and shadowy and when it burst into flames Tom had to squint against the brightness.

"Tell her it's too late, if you can get there before I do," Laurel said grimly. She rushed into the stable and Tom could hear her shouting for the stable boy. Morton cursed and sprinted -- surprisingly fast for a heavy man -- up the road toward the hilltop.

Tom waited, not sure what was going on, not even daring to move. The bonfire was shaped like a human figure. A woman, if he squinted and used his imagination. Was it Laurel? Was that why she was so upset? He was frozen by dread, and by the knowledge that there was nothing he could do. Morton was already running to tell Ana--

A horse left the stable at a gallop, Laurel on its back, moving with it, urging it on. Even in the dark of night, the horse glowed golden: Laurel's darling, Laurel's pride and joy, unmistakable eager head and flowing tail. In sunlight, the colt was the color of honey; in the darkness, its light color faded in and out, sometimes shadowed, sometimes catching the light of the fire. As it neared the fire, it stood out from the shadows like a spirit of vengeance, darker than sunlight, lighter than death.

The dancers dodged away from the assault, all except one. Laurel's colt headed toward the fire, swerving around the insufficient obstacle of a single human body. The fire itself was a bigger obstacle; the colt gathered itself and leapt, and on its back Laurel swung as if she were playing polo, and the fiery figure fell over.

Again and again, Laurel pointed the colt at the fire, until the figure in the flames was broken up and the colt was swaying so that even Tom, so far away, could see its exhaustion.

But Laurel put it at the flame again, urging it into yet another leap.

The colt mistimed its steps, stumbled, and fell.

For a moment, Tom couldn't believe it. Then he let himself down from the roof into the courtyard and from there he ran, ignoring the road, straight up the hill. His only thought was for Laurel.

 

When Tom reached the top of the hill, he was panting almost as hard as the colt. It was standing wearily, head hung low, one hind foot held off of the ground. Burns crossed its flank and stretched along its hind leg, blistered flesh leaking fluid in places, darker than its hide. Laurel, unharmed, was holding its head up with her arms.

"A damn shame," Morton Leroy said from somewhere in the crowd ringing this tableau. "But you can't blame Ana for this. You'll have to put him down, Laurel."

"I will not," Laurel said. "Send for the vet, Morton, and the rest of you, put out the remains of that cursed fire. I'll make sure he's ready to be treated when the vet arrives."

Then her eyes fell on Tom and she smiled, a soft, vulnerable smile. "Tom will help me," she said. "Won't you, Tom?"

Tom felt a lump in this throat under Laurel's soft gaze. "I don't know what I can do," he stammered.

"I'll tell you what to do," Laurel said persuasively. "You only need to listen to me and do what I say. Can you do that for me, Tom?"

Tom nodded, hoping that he could.

"Come over here," Laurel said. "Don't touch him where he's injured, pat his head, get to know him. You're going to be giving him a gift, you need to know him and he needs to know you."

Tom had always left the horses to Laurel; he approached nervously. The horse shuffled and then its head came up with teeth bared, nostrils flaring. But Laurel had control of the reins and she pulled him just enough to get his attention, and released him and rubbed him on the forehead until his head drooped again.

"He's not bad, he's frightened and in pain, just frightened," she said in a low, calm voice.

Tom admired her so much.

"Do you remember what I was saying at dinner about music and life?" Laurel said. Tom couldn't remember her mentioning that exact combination, but he nodded anyway. Close enough. "Music calls to life," Laurel said. "Call to him. Don't let him go."

And someone handed Tom his cello and someone brought him a chair -- one of the Louis XVI dining chairs, delicate legs set down on the dirt. And all of the household gathered round, tall shadows taller than they ought to be, until there wasn't a hint of light except the glint of starlight on metal strings and the ghostly glow of the rosin marking the horsehair of the bow.

Motion and emotion, Tom thought. Two signs of life. Does life call to life? He didn't think what Laurel was asking was possible, but the horse moved uncomfortably nearby and he thought that he would try.

Laurel touched him on the shoulder, and with the light touch of her fingertips he could feel that Laurel was vibrating with tension. Intensity.

"Think of the sun," she said, and Tom began. In the darkness, the music seemed stark and unadorned, and in the open air, every note disappeared almost as soon as it sounded. Thin, pale, and unprofitable, Tom thought. He could do better than that.

"Think of energy and growth," Laurel whispered, closer than he expected. Tom turned his head and her hair brushed against his cheek. He tilted his head back and she leaned forward and Tom felt it like a shock, his eyes meeting hers in the darkness, like a streak of light sizzling between him and her. When he looked into her eyes, he saw the world, dancing, spinning, light and dark in stately movement, drawing him in and promising him everything.

Tom began again, ponderously, as if he were moving that whole world of Laurel's eyes with his bow.

Laurel moved in time with the music; he couldn't see her any more, but he could feel her moving, and it helped. Resonance, symmetry, he thought. And the feel of Laurel pressing against him, and moving away, only to return, like a impish flirt, like the sun in the springtime, always returning after the rain.

Motion, Tom thought, and the weight of the world lessened. He played faster and faster. He didn't want to stop. He played until his bow was hot in his hand and the friction of the bow against the strings seemed like it must create sparks. He felt breathless.

Like anything could happen.

And then his bow burst into flame, and Laurel snatched it away from him and as he stared after her he realized that he had nothing left.

 

He woke up with the morning sunlight on his face, a diffused golden glow, soft where his dreams had all been harsh and fiery. But that memory faded as he stretched.

"How do you feel?" someone asked, and for a moment, squinting into the sunlight streaming through the window, Tom hoped it was Laurel, but it was Ana instead, with a tray holding a silver-covered platter of bacon and eggs. The smell when she removed the silver lid was glorious.

"Hungry," Tom said. He also felt strangely drained, muscles limp and unresponsive, but he managed to sit up enough to eat.

"What happened to my cello?" he asked abruptly, half way through his breakfast. "My bow? Is it..."

But it was in the corner, where it always was, and the bow was unsinged, as if nothing had happened. "The colt?" Tom asked.

"Laurel's horse survived the night," Ana said. "No thanks to Laurel. She pushed him too hard." Her scorn was as harsh as fire.

Tom thought of the colt, thought about fire, and the possibility of getting burned. "She expects the best," he said slowly.

Ana looked at him, and after a moment in which nothing made sense, Tom identified her expression as pity. He thought about Laurel, about what he'd seen in her eyes, a world of promises, and laughed, full and free, because that pity was the least appropriate thing he'd ever seen.

"Where's my cello?" Tom said. "I need to play."

If Ana was waiting for something, that was not it. "I'll be back for the tray," she said, and left him alone.

Once Tom was up and dressed and seated with his cello between his knees, nerves set in. His muscles were sore. His brain buzzed. How could anything match the memory of the music he'd played the night before?

But as soon as he started playing, it was like his fingers had learned a lesson he could barely remember, like his mind had found the path it had been looking for, the one the music hinted at. The bow felt lighter in his hand. His fingers flew across the strings.

Laurel peeked in and he playfully interposed the music of Laurel dancing into the midst of the movement; she raised an eyebrow, but she was smiling. He saluted her with his bow and kept on playing as she walked lightly, gravely down the hall is time with the music he gave her.

In good time, he set his cello down on its side and ate the rest of his breakfast. When Ana returned for the tray, he was ready to return to the music.

"It is beautiful," Ana said. Tom turned to her eagerly. "I only wish my Seb had the ability to take the good like you do," she said. "But do you realize how dangerous it is?"

"Dangerous?" Tom asked. "Let me play for you, I've never played better than I've played this morning. How can that be dangerous?"

"Did she tell you that?" Ana pulsed with animosity. She raised her hand and pointed one finger at Tom, melodramatically. "Laurel thinks she knows everything, she thinks she's all powerful, but she has her limits and I know what they are. And she has no idea what I can know, or what I can do to save myself."

"You tried to hurt Laurel last night," Tom said. "You did this."

There was a bandage on the palm of Ana's hand; she twitched it aside. The burn was red and ugly, darker around the edges. She seemed a little proud, a little matter-of-fact. This is what happens when you play with fire, her casual posture conveyed, until she closed her fingers over the evidence.

"They want the fire for themselves. They don't want to be burned, but they don't care who else gets burned," Ana said.

The burn on Ana's hand wasn't as bad as the burn on the colt last night, but in the light of day it looked uglier. More raw. "What happened?" Tom asked.

"Laurel," Ana said.

Tom opened his mouth to protest, but the memory of Laurel running down one of the figures around the bonfire last night stopped him. Ana's expression softened. "I'm not your enemy, whatever Laurel might tell you. But I've been in this household for a long time, and I know how similar Morton and Laurel are. If you give, they will take. And if you let them lead you, they will take you in one direction only."

Tom only understood that she was arguing against his musical breakthrough. "It's mine," he said. "But music belongs to everyone. I don't mind sharing my music."

Ana shook her head. "You don't understand," she said. She looked at Tom closely, and then seemed to decide that she'd said enough already. Her open expression turned inward. "I have plans," she said. "Laurel knows that much. Morton too. But they don't know everything. You should remember that, if you ever decide that you need to have plans too."

"I'll remember," Tom said. It seemed the easiest way.

After Ana had left, Tom tried to play again, but thoughts of what Ana had said troubled his mind and distracted him from the moment and the notes he was playing.

Could Ana be right? Tom thought. But Ana hated Laurel, and that might explain what she said. It might just be the blindness of whatever rivalry Ana and Laurel were involved in. There were two sides to every story, and Tom hadn't heard Laurel's.

He shuddered at the thought of asking Laurel about it. That wasn't a good idea at all.

But deep in his heart, Tom believed that there was another side to Laurel's story. There was a reason for her actions, a good reason. He didn't have to know what it was. He just had to believe that it was there.

Eventually the worries faded into the past, as he bent over his cello and the music pulled him into a world that had been the same for centuries. Constant movement, phrase by phrase, every line new when he played it, but also the same as the day Beethoven wrote it. If the music could stay the same, then...

The music was what mattered, Tom thought. Not the musician. Laurel approved of Beethoven, he remembered with relief. That was what mattered.

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.

Chapter Text

Laurel wasn't beautiful when she slept. Tom had only discovered this after they were married, and there had been so many other adjustments he'd had to make to married life that the discovery seemed inconsequential at first. He'd moved in with Laurel just like a husband should, sleeping warm and safe in Laurel's pretty beds, in Laurel's elegant houses all over the country, every night as passionate as a honeymoon.

He'd taken up book collecting, and spent a lot of time gardening. Laurel taught him to ride, and Morton Leroy grudgingly taught him to play golf. He still played the cello, but not as seriously as he once had.

He didn't regret the choice he'd made. It was a sweet life.

The only reminder that everything wasn't perfect was Laurel's face when she was asleep, in the morning when the sun crept in through a crack in the curtains. As soon as she woke up, the image of youth returned, but before that, in the clear dawn light, her face sagged and wrinkles crackled across her skin, at least a century's worth of trouble.

Tom wondered if she knew that he watched her in the morning, but if she did, she'd never acknowledged it. And Tom couldn't imagine that she would let him see her like that, if she knew. If her eyes opened to find him watching, he would fall into Laurel's bubble, where nothing was allowed to be anything less than perfect, especially her.

So he never watched for very long; he got up and lingered at the breakfast table until Laurel joined him, always with the same question. "Is there anything I can give you, my dear? You know how I delight in fulfilling your whims." In Tom's mind, that question came to define their marriage.

And then one day she didn't ask.

A few days later it happened again. Soon, the question had all but disappeared. And when Tom studied her face in the mornings it was not just a century that marked it, it was surely two, or three, or even a dozen.

He did his best to pretend like he hadn't noticed anything; he acted as if life were still frivolous and sweet. He didn't want Laurel to blame him.

 

"Is there anything I can give you, my dear?" Laurel asked one morning at breakfast. Her eggs and black pudding were exactly as she liked them, but they were barely touched. Her eyelids drooped with uncontrollable exhaustion.

"No, nothing," Tom said with a slight shrug from behind the morning paper.

"Please, Tom, don't be stubborn," Laurel said crossly. Tom folded down a corner of the paper so that she could see him looking at her blankly. She sighed. "What are you going to do today?"

"I was going to go riding." Just another day doing what the lord of the manor does, not too close to the lady of the manor.

"Take Flare," Laurel said.

Tom stared. Flare: now a four year old, still Laurel's pride and joy. He'd recovered from the burns he'd received several years ago; only Laurel was allowed to ride him.

"You should have him. I want to give him to you," Laurel said. "Please, Tom."

Tom nodded uncertainly.

"Good," Laurel said, her eyes brightening. "You see how I love you?" She scooped an entire poached egg into her mouth and swallowed it whole. Then a second.

"There's only one thing," Laurel said, far too casually. "You must be back before sunset."

 

They were spending September in Scotland, near the coast. Tom rode through the gorse-covered hills, along a cold white beach fringed with thick grass, up along one of side a stream and then down again on the other. He spent a good hour watching the tide uncover a clump of rocks, eating his packed lunch while Flare wandered nearby.

Flare was like a dream. Amiable, responsive, powerful. He could leap the rushing stream like it was a puddle. Fences were no obstacle to him.

If Tom hadn't decided to take a shortcut across the hills he would have been back before sunset, just as Laurel had told him, but after mistaking a landmark and going in the wrong direction for half an hour, Tom and Flare ran into the road and Tom recognized that they were further away from the house than when they'd started back.

A glance at the sun confirmed that they weren't likely to get back before sunset unless they galloped the whole way. If he stuck to the side of the road, the footing on the packed earth would allow a good gallop, but he didn't think Laurel would appreciate him bringing back her horse sweating and exhausted. He didn't think Flare would appreciate being asked to go all out after a full day's ramble either.

He was sure that Laurel had been serious about sunset; all of Laurel's commands were meant to be obeyed. But since he was in for a bout of Laurel's disappointment either way, he decided to be kind to Flare and take him home at an easy pace.

As the sun fell toward the horizon, Flare turned restive and snappish, and Tom wondered if he'd made the right decision. Laurel knew her horse and his idiosyncrasies. He nudged Flare into a faster walk, and then into an easy lope alternating with a walk.

The sun glittered on the water to the left, down the steep hill from the road. Flare walked delicately and snorted at nothing. A few cars and one lorry passed them. The wind blew the sound of a horn from behind them; Flare put back his ears.

Tom glanced back to see a van with a scrawl on the side advertising a bakery in the distance, laboring up the hill. It passed out of sight behind a curve in the landscape before Tom could read the name. Moments later, the van rounded the curve and passed Tom and Flare, not really very close at all, but Flare pinned his ears back and kicked out as if he was being attacked.

Tom threw his weight back the way Laurel had taught him; he pulled at the reins and cursed the horse in an even tone. It doesn't matter what you say as long as you stay calm, Laurel said.

Flare tossed his head and then ducked when Tom thought he was going to buck. Tom slid forward onto Flare's neck, losing one stirrup and one of the reins. Flare twisted sideways, and Tom slid slowly off center, clinging with his knees to no avail. He flung himself free before he fell under the horse's hooves.

He landed in the ditch and stayed there, winded and disbelieving, listening to the sound of hooves fading into the distance. He'd thought the horse was just like any of Laurel's gifts: fundamentally well behaved. Fundamentally, it existed for him to ride. It wasn't going to break that contract.

Blood rose to Tom's cheeks as he disentangled his shirt from a thorny bush and scrambled out of the weeds. He looked down the road, but the horse was gone; into the gorse, into the trees, up over the rocks, it didn't matter, Flare was gone.

Tom couldn't remember the last time something had gone this wrong.

He brushed himself off and started down the road. Each step he took was a step outside of Laurel's bubble. At first he resented it, but then the novelty of it captured his attention. In Laurel's world, I'd get a ride with another van, he thought. But the road stayed empty as the sun fell, the glitter of its reflection on the ocean dimming as it dropped entirely below the horizon, and then the sky started to darken.

 

When he heard loud noises and the wild angry sound of a horse screaming, curiosity and dread made Tom plunge off the road into the gorse, pushing through up the hill and then down into a valley with a long, thin building with a sheet metal roof. The bakery van was parked near the building, and a horse was trying to kick it down.

He didn't have the sense to be afraid; he ran forward -- and the horse went at him with its teeth bared.

Tom staggered back. His glasses were cracked and he was bleeding from a gash in his head.

"In here," someone called, and he stumbled toward the shattered outline of the open door. He was pulled inside and the door slammed on the horse. A few seconds later, bell-like pounding noises resumed from outside.

Tom adjusted his glasses ineffectually and wiped his face on his sleeve.

"Are you okay?"

He recognized that voice. "Ana?" he said. "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing, but I think I know," Ana said. "You're here because of the horse. It's like a bloodhound, it just followed me all the way here."

Here was a bakery; if the van hadn't given him a clue, Tom would have been able to tell by the delectable smell of fresh bread that filled the dark corridor. The cracked lens in his glasses was causing him to see double; he removed them, folding them up and holding them carefully by the nose bridge.

"It's my horse," Tom said.

"No, it's Laurel's horse," Ana corrected. She sighed. "Are you going to tell Laurel?"

"Tell Laurel what?" Tom asked. His thoughts were sluggish as the adrenaline drained away. "Why is Flare attacking your van? Why do you have a van? Why do you have a bakery?"

"Laurel would never allow it," Ana finished for him, ironically. "Tom, have you really never figured out what's going on in Laurel's household? You're not stupid."

"I can't talk about it," Tom said flatly.

"You mean you don't want to bring up the fact that we're both going to die? Wake up. She sends you out riding a horse of the sun that's capable of carrying you all the way to the land of the dead, it's outside destroying my van right now, and you don't want to talk about it?"

Tom shook his head. "I mean... I literally can't talk about it. How is it that you can?"

Ana grabbed Tom by the arm and pulled him deeper into the building. Tom concentrated on placing his feet; the tiles underfoot were crooked and the floor sloped.

They emerged into a large room, shiny with chrome ovens and white counters and filled with an even stronger smell of baking. There were racks full of bread and pastries passed on either side, clean waxed boxes for shipping treats, and a few women still working, though it was obvious that when the full shift was here, there would be more.

"At first I just tried burning up all the gifts that were trying to tie me to Morton," Ana said. "But Laurel figured that out too quickly, and the horse was a match for my bonfire. So then I came up with the idea of giving it all away. It's working, too."

"But--" Tom had so many objections he couldn't think of what to say first. "I remember the fire. You weren't trying to hurt Laurel?"

Ana laughed. "Me? Hurt Laurel? I'm not going gentle, and I've got her where I want her right now, drained and careless, but I can't take her on from the front." She looked directly at Tom, very serious. "That's why we need to figure out how we're going to keep this a secret. I can help you too, but only if Morton and Laurel don't know."

Ana's story was a lot to take in, but one thing was clear. If Laurel ever found out about this bakery, sending her gifts all around the countryside by van, and probably all around the country by mail, Ana would be doomed. Tom had made his choice with Laurel; he knew that Ana must have made a choice at some point too. He hadn't realized that there might be ways out.

Every choice had consequences, every choice was a bargain with fate, he knew that already. Now he considered a new thought: every fate has wiggle room. Maybe even a way out. Fate can change.

"Then... I need to get the horse back," Tom said slowly. He put his glasses back on. Double vision was better than no vision.

Ana led him back through the bakery to outer door. "Be careful," she said. "I wish I could help, but that horse -- Laurel did something to it the night of the bonfire, made some connection, and it's hated me ever since. If I don't stay away, you'll never get it calmed down.

"And once you get the horse away, just take him home. Meet me here tomorrow." Ana's voice was very dry. "You should probably walk."

Tom took a deep breath. "Wish me luck," he said.

"We who are about to die salute you," Ana said, earning a puff of amusement from Tom.

He stepped out into the driveway and waited until the horse saw him. He remembered that flash of motion, that crash of teeth against his forehead. But Flare seemed to have put that behind him. He stepped toward Tom, not as amiable as he'd been at the start of the day; there was power there that wasn't restrained, but Tom felt that Flare recognized him and liked him.

"It's okay," Tom said softly. "There's nothing to be afraid of here, nothing to be angry about."

Gravel crunched in the distance, another car approaching, headlights piercing the darkness as the car advanced to illuminate the silhouette of a rearing horse.

Tom cursed. He was trying to decide how dangerous it would be to try to stop Flare before he attacked this new car, when events started moving more quickly than he could follow. He saw the driver's side door open and Laurel get out, he saw her notice him over by the door to the bakery, her eyes dark and disappointed.

Flare whirled and Laurel turned to meet him. When Tom looked at her through his cracked glasses, he almost got lost in the layers, as if Laurel were a doll with another doll inside, or as if her face were a mask concealing another identical face. She looked old, scarred and eroded, something fearful showing through the cracks. Her face was very white.

Tom remembered Flare that night at the bonfire; golden, brilliant, warm. Tonight, against Laurel, he seemed dark and wild. Rolling eyes caught the light. Square teeth. Fear and the smell of burning. He wasn't the same horse when the sun was down. He wasn't Laurel's horse--

But she caught him all the same, neatly as a fisherman. Tom couldn't see it all, just her facing the horse, murmuring something -- promises -- in a low voice. Her touch on his shoulder, her hands on the reins, snapped short at some point, but still long enough for her to hold.

Laurel led Flare over to Tom and wrapped the reins around his arm. "Didn't I tell you to be home by sunset?" she asked.

Tom blinked at her, rebellion rising up to this throat and struggling to get out, but the habit of obedience was still strong.

"I'll talk to you later," Laurel said, and brushed past him and into the bakery.

 

She never did, though. Later, Tom would think that part of Laurel's power lay in silence, but at the time, he was just relieved not to have to put anything into words. No defenses, no protestations of loyalty. No lies. Maybe Laurel felt the same way about it. She surely knew the truth. Only lies needed words.

The truth just lay between them like a knife, sharp enough to cut a limb off before one even noticed. But even a sharp knife won't cut when it has dozens of morning newspapers piled on top of it, and breakfast dishes, and new carpet and clean sheets.

Ana disappeared. Tom heard weeks later that she'd been made the housekeeper for one of Laurel's least favorite houses. He didn't expect to see her again. She'd made her play, and her fate had caught up with her.

Tom went down to the bakery on the last day in September, the day before the household moved on to another of Laurel's houses. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but he found Seb, hunched into a corner, mangling a stale piece of bread.

"What's that?" Tom asked, feeling like he had to say something -- he felt painfully sorry for Seb -- but totally bewildered by the situation.

"It's a piece of bread my mum won't have to eat," Seb said. "I found it under the sink in the back room."

"Seb..." Tom said. "Laurel isn't going to starve Ana."

"Of course she's not." Seb rolled his eyes. "She's going to make her eat every bit of bread she ever made. And cake. And biscuits. And anything she makes from now on too, because she's not allowed to give it away. She's going to be eating bread and sweets for years."

Tom felt like he'd been kicked by a horse. He'd allowed himself to live in Laurel's bubble, but this was the cost of it. It made sense. It was horrible. He imagined all that bread, stacked in a storeroom getting stale, waiting for Ana to eat it. He imagined Ana looking at that room, and seeing the concrete representation of her sentence. How quickly could one woman eat a bakery's worth of bread?

And worse, when she'd always loved giving away treats she made.

Gifts, they called it, and then they forced it down your throat.

"She'll manage," Tom said. "Your mother is a very determined woman."

Seb began to cry, his face contorting and big tears running down his cheeks. "She would have kept me safe," Seb choked out. "Now she's gone and no one cares."

Tom couldn't think of anything to say.

 

"Is there anything I can give you, my dear?" Laurel said, one morning just like any other morning. They were in the Lake District, but that didn't make very much difference to Tom. Laurel was beautiful, but that didn't matter to him either.

Tom set down his newspaper and leaned across the table. "You can give me the gift of never asking that again," he said. So sharp you could cut yourself, a part of himself thought. Tom stopped breathing, waiting for Laurel's answer.

"Of course, dear," Laurel said, and by that Tom could see that it would make no difference. She wouldn't ask, but the gifts wouldn't stop. They couldn't stop, unless Tom figured out something, like Ana had.

"Is there anything wrong?" Laurel asked.

"I can't say," Tom said. Then he laughed, cutting it off half way through, not because Laurel disapproved, but because he suddenly realized that he didn't care if she did. What could she do to him? Take away his toys? But then he wouldn't be hers any more, Ana had proved that.

"I'm going to play my cello today," he told Laurel.

Sitting with the cello between his knees, he was afraid of what he would hear. Out of practice, nothing but notes, and the only thing he was sure of was that he had to face that blankness. He had to find the music that was his.

Don't play what you remember, just play the music, he thought.

He flipped open a random book to a piece he'd never particularly loved, and played through the piece, fingers fumbling, repeating phrases when he didn't get them the first time. The music has survived bad musicians before, it could survive whatever butchery he did to it.

The next time he played, it was exactly the same. No sense of motion, no excitement. Nothing. But he could play the notes, and he did that every moment he could. His fingertips ached from the unaccustomed action on the strings. His bow hand cramped. He pressed through it all.

Laurel grumbled, suggested diversions, complained about which pieces he played, and then finally came to listen.

As she settled into the chair in front of him, Tom looked anywhere but her. At the music. At the place where his bow met the strings.

"What are you going to play for me?" Laurel asked sweetly.

Tom ignored her. Even knowing everything he knew, letting go of her regard hurt.

When he was finished, Laurel's polite smile was strained. "I think you can do better than that, dear," she said. She leaned forward like she was imparting a great secret. "Think of motion and energy. Put something real into the music."

Tom just kept playing. Note after note, moment after moment, day after day, week after week. Not every moment, Laurel's bubble still enclosed him and moments were hard to find, but making every moment he could steal away count. He let go of the past and the future and lived in the sustained note of the cello, intent on each note to the exclusion of everything else. In a single moment, a single note, that was where he could find himself. Not who he feared he was, or who he wanted to be. Not going anywhere. Not afraid.

Motion, Tom thinks to himself, somewhere in the impossible space between the notes, a thought that shouldn't exist. Motion, not from one note to the next, but moving into another way of being, where each note lasts an infinite fraction of forever in a perfectly timed beat.

And when he finds that, Laurel can't follow. She can't tempt him with promises, or threaten him with his past, when he spends his time in the eternal present.

Every moment is a blank terrifying nothing. Worse than Laurel, in its way. But every moment passes too quickly for even Laurel to capture it, for exactly as long as he can face nothing unmoved.

And one day, maybe--

Is this any good?

How will I know I'm ready to leave?

Can I really do this?

Maybe someday, he'll have to face Laurel again, and see if he can pry another choice out of her. Someday, maybe--

But now, he doesn't think about it. He plays.