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The Artist

Chapter Text

It didn’t feel like home, but opening the window helped.

It felt eternally warm in this new, strange land. Back home he would have had to bundle up in an electric blanket, even with the heating on, wiggling his toes next to the coils beneath the soft fleece so that the warmth could seep into his bones. He would have to leave behind the comfort in order to play, of course, but that had always been part of the challenge. He would brave the chilly air long enough to get through a song, then dart back under the waiting covers to reinvigorate his limbs. It had helped him become efficient in his song selection over the years, if nothing else.

Here, though? It was the late, grasping end of fall, but it felt like summer to him. His apartment was probably drafty by local standards, but it still felt cramped and stifling, a barren oven in which he had piled his things. So, he threw open the window, letting the autumn wind usher the homesickness out of the sparse rooms. He wouldn’t be able to do so anymore when Mishka arrived, as he would fret far too much about her jumping from the ledge, but for now he could indulge.

He walked across the room, his bare feet slapping across the hardwood floors as he made his way to the piano. It took up more space than his couch, but he didn’t mind. It wasn’t as though he had anyone to entertain, so the lack of seating was hardly a concern. His mother had tried to talk him into a larger place, with grander furnishings, but he cared little for such things. Music was what he required, and music was what he pursued. He had moved half-way around the world chasing that dream, and so why would he covet empty furniture that could no more further his dreams than it could entice friends to occupy it?

He sat at the bench in front of the elegant instrument, sliding his fingers along the keys. He was thousands of miles away from what he was used to, but this still felt like home. He played a note, letting it hang in the air, delicate and sonorous. It was part of him, the only part of himself that had never brought him grief, and he never failed to cherish it in return. Loving music was as simple and natural to him as breathing, which was why he had let his mother convince him to pursue it with relentless dedication. He had forgone expanding every other part of his life to practice his craft. Friends, social life, romance, political advancements. His mother participated in those things, but Aleks merely played. He rose from bed in the morning and sought his piano, he went to sleep at night with his fingers still thrumming from the feel of the keys. It was his everything.

Not that a gay man who had grown up in Russia would have had many opportunities to make friends, or a social life, or romance, or any semblance of political advancement. He had made some companions, over time, but they had burned bright and faded quickly. Lovers were brief and in secret, kept from the roving eyes of the public because it was impossible to tell whom it would offend. It was dissatisfying to him. The lies, the ambiguity of a relationship that could never be claimed because it could get them ostracized, or worse. Eventually his desire for affection had dwindled, and he had given up on its pursuit. What was the point if it would never go anywhere? What was the purpose of a love that must hang in limbo, constantly in the wavering middle between beginning and end? It was better to abandon such things. It was better to play music.

His hands began to move, pressing the keys and coaxing a song from them. A breeze rushed through the window, stirring his curtains and running rings around the room. He closed his eyes, losing himself to the tune, imagining that the wind carried the notes that he played out into the world beyond. He played a song that matched his mood, the poetry of melancholy both abstract and tangible. It was sad, and whispered of hints of frost and sorrow, his heart bleeding into the melody as he wished for cold winters and warmer hearts. Could a sonata reach the sky and churn the clouds until they drizzled snow? Could a crescendo summon what it was that he dreamed of? He broke his own heart with the questions, but he could not erase the sentiment, and so he embraced it, letting it flow through him and trickle from the tips of his hands. It was inescapably honest, and that made it cathartic. Let the notes of winter reveal his soul to the world. Let the wind carry his fickle hopes to the skies, filling the clouds with frigid loneliness, with wistfulness for a home that did not want him, with longing for a home that would. Let it hang there, until the day had ended and the night stretched across the world like banks of velvet. Let the stars hold his grief for him, so that when it overtook him on days like this it would not be too much to bear. Let them keep it, let them hide it, so that he might ignore it as he played.

Pust ’  tol’ko polnoch’ znayu, moye serdtse. Let only the midnight know my heart.

He finished the song, letting the notes hang for a moment as the wind brushed through his hair. He opened his eyes, looking out the window, expecting to see nothing but the quiet street, heedless of his music and therefore heedless of his heart.

Instead he saw midnight, standing there in a coat and staring at him.

The man was tall, dressed in dark attire that spoke of mourning. His hair was black, his eyes charcoal, everything about him forbidding in its somberness, except the scarf around his neck, a soft blue that was like a feathered bird sailing across the night sky. His gaze was intense as he looked back at Aleks through the window, though he was too far away to have its emotion discerned. The wind whipped his hair around his cheeks, but he himself remained still, an elegant statue come to serve as his solitary audience. Aleks had no breath in his lungs, no beat to his heart. All he had were eyes full of beauty that he could not turn away from.

The man noticed his regard, and startled before he hunched his shoulders and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He turned and walked away, his every movement brisk and purposeful. Even in motion he seemed a statue, carved out of marble by a master craftsman, every curve and angle a thing of poetry and reverence. Aleks stood and walked to the window, gripping the frame so that he could lean out enough to watch him go. He stared until he turned the corner, disappearing from view, disappearing form his life like the ebb of a tide that would never return.

Aleks had been attracted to men before. He had seen and been with men who made women swoon, who had faces that could charm crowds, or bodies capable of stirring heat in anyone’s loins. Aleks was not an inexperienced boy with dawning sexuality, and was not easily distracted by things of that ilk. He had been in this world long enough that his heart had stopped racing over such things. He had resigned himself to loneliness, and so the barren hope of more was not a whim that he chased.

But he had never seen a man that looked like music before, and that was dangerous.

That made him think of things that had long since been forgotten. It made him stand in the window for some time after the midnight man had disappeared, out of sight but never out of mind. It made him bite his lip as he fought with warring wishes, the air in his lungs too warm and the thrum of his heart too fast. Should he go after him? Should he try to catch up and ask if he had been listening to him play?

No. That was folly. That was arrogance that he knew only led to bitterness and regret. It was better to keep this man as a fond memory. As an impetus to inspire his art, something that he could reach for when the notes fell flat or the melodies ceased to sound. Love was for the brave, but music was something he could obtain.

He turned, marching back to his piano with his chin held high in the air, as though the bare walls of his apartment should be forced to witness his stubborn pride. He sat on the bench and opened the drawer above the keys, pulling out sheets of blank paper with empty music staffs measured across them. He had to rifle through the drawer a bit deeper before he located his pencil, but he finally found it and pulled it free. He tucked it between his teeth as he settled the pages where he needed them.

Then he sat and stared, wondering what it was that was stirring in his chest, marveling at the feelings that yearned to be sounds but as yet were too abstract to name. The papers seemed to stare back at him, defiant in their silence, no notes for him to play, no instructions for him to follow. It was his canvas, his slate with which to carve meaning onto the world, and it was judging him for his delay. Every second that he waited was an offense to the page, to the potential of what it could be.

He closed his eyes, and he did not have to call for the image of the man in the coat, because it flooded through his mind immediately. Clear, crystalline and hallow. The lines of his shoulders well defined beneath the jacket, the way the scarf had brushed against his cheek when he had shrugged beneath the cold. The way his face had looked, in the precious moment before he knew that he was being observed. He had been a statue, but his eyes had been full of life, a secret burning in his gaze that he wished to shutter and hide from the world. Aleks wanted to see the statue be free, he wanted to see him dance to the wild rhythms of the stars, midnight come alive while no one watched, so that no observer could steal its beauty.

He took the pencil out of his mouth, scribbling furiously before he lost it, before the memory of the man started to fade and the inspiration would disappear forever. He worked to compose the piece that would serve as the sorrowful reminder that there was someone in this world that had moved him to awe, and Aleks had stood and watched him walk away.

***

It had been five days.

Five days since his world had started slipping into madness because the man that Aleks had let walk away had continued to come back.

That was not in his plans. His great future of loneliness and self-sacrifice for his art had found itself threatened. He could not function like this. He stared at the ceiling above his bed, the clock on the side of the wall leering at him, demanding that he sleep even though it knew damn well that would not be possible around his bundled nerves. He could not think, he could not unpack, the boxes stacked in his room remaining stubbornly taped. All he could do was think about tomorrow, when he would walk by his window, endlessly pacing as he waited to see if the pattern would repeat, if he would once again return and stand there, defiant in the face of the fate that Aleks had resigned himself to. He was supposed to have disappeared into the threads of time, a lone man on a single day, an anomaly that had left an impression on him but would nonetheless never repeat.

Instead, he came like clockwork at the same time that he had arrived before, standing beneath his windowsill to listen to him play.

That was the truly egregious part. Not that he returned, but that it was the music that had lured him. How was that fair? How was he supposed to resist the temptation of this elegant creature, who appeared to adore the very thing that Aleks held most dear? Aleks played, and the man listened. Each day that this cycle continued made the urge to seek him out that much stronger.

He wished that he could see him, to see what he looked like as he heard the songs. Aleks could only get the barest sense of his reaction, because he was too far away. Surely the music made him happy. Surely he would not return if he was not pleased with what he heard. That was the only sensible conclusion he could draw, wasn’t it? The logic of it was not enough, however. Aleks wanted to study his face, to see if he could discern why he would bother walking down the same street every day just to hear someone play piano in their apartment. It was ludicrous. It was absurd.

It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him.

He had to talk to him, and he knew this. He had to go out an meet this person who had dedicated so much time to him, if only to thank him. To thank him for the motivation to play, for the motivation to get out of bed every day in this unfamiliar place, the motivation to be thrilled by something that was not imaginary, was not a wistful dream. He wanted to march down the stairs and sweep him in his arms, to imbue his gratitude directly onto his lips, to say something suave and charming that would steal his attention in the same way that he had stolen Aleks’.

This was, of course, impossible. Aleks was not a bold man, and just the thought of speaking to the impromptu listener sent uncontrollable shivers up and down his spine. He could not simply waltz up to him and say hello. He was incapable of such things. Still, he knew that he could not avoid it forever. His need to meet him, to know his name and hear his voice, was overwhelming and all-consuming. He could have no rest until they had been introduced, but for that he needed a plan.

He had been toying with ideas since yesterday, when he had realized that he would not be content to allow this companionship to move forward at a distance. He needed a gesture, a reason to go speak to him. He needed something to do, to present him with, to keep his awkwardness hidden beneath layers of purpose while he waded his way through a first impression. He had considered a half dozen terrible plans before he had thought of offering him coffee. It was simple, it was friendly. It was nonthreatening and easily declined, should it happen to make him uncomfortable. Coffee was the perfect solution.

But what would he say?

Hello, I think you are incredibly attractive.

Hello, yes, you seem to like music, and I also like music, and so I thought that we could like music together, or in a closer proximity to one another than we had already been participating in...

I play piano, and you appear to enjoy that. Shall we date?

You are the most captivating man I have ever met, and I need to know your name.

Please don ’t run away screaming, but I would like to hold your hand please.

He was, as he well knew, not very good at introductions. He tended to do better when he was in the moment, speech coming much easier to him when faced with an actual person rather than the idea of a person, but that would not stop him from over thinking things and imagining every possible outcome that he could conceive. Unless he willed himself to stop before he fell into a pit of despair at his own idiocy.

He sighed, rolling over on his bed and burying his face in his pillow. He knew nothing about this man, and so imaging what it would be like to meet him was nigh impossible. As much as it scared him, he would be going in blind no matter how much he prepared, and so he should attempt to stop his fretting so that he could get some rest. He would have to quiet his whirring mind, halt the ceaseless thoughts that ran in destructive circles. He would have to push forward, and hope that his nerves would not destroy his one chance to reach for something that he hadn’t hoped for in ages.

If only he could work up the courage to do so.