|Pianos are Made for Falling
Author: fishwrites PM
Nodame Cantabile fusion: Arthur is a world-class violinist, trapped in Sydney by his fear of flying. Merlin plays the piano by ear, how he pleases, when he pleases - and really just wants to be a kindergarten teacher. There are certain inevitabilities.Rated: Fiction M - English - Drama/Friendship - Arthur & Merlin - Chapters: 2 - Words: 15,347 - Reviews: 57 - Favs: 101 - Follows: 143 - Updated: 08-29-11 - Published: 09-09-10 - id: 6310538
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
P I A N O S
are made for
F A L L I N G
written by fishwrites
For lunchy_munchy & nachte.
Don't play what's there, play what's not there.
- Miles Davis
Outskirts of Sydney, Australia. 6 months ago.
There was a man sleeping on Merlin's doorstep.
Merlin hefted a heavy bag of confectionary and ginger-nuit biscuits more securely in his arms before crouching down for a better look. His knees protested with a creaky-sound as be crouched down, stiff from the cold late night dash to the groceries. He really just wanted to get back into his flat, back to his little space heater and back to his piano. But this man was in the way.
He looked to be about the same age as Merlin, had hair that glowed gold in the spluttering lamplight. He had pulled his tie low – they were evil things which Merlin had banned from life in general. His top buttons were undone, revealing a stretch of skin. He had a starch white shirt on, which he wore beneath a soft and warm-looking jersey.
The man was half lying on the concrete steps. His back was bent so that his chin rested on his chest and it nodded slightly as he breathed. Despite the faint whiff of the alcohol that probably knocked him out, Merlin thought this man was the third most beautiful thing he had ever seen (the first being his piano and the second being Liszt whom Merlin would marry in an instant had he not been dead and a ladies' man). It wouldn't do to leave him out here.
Merlin poked him carefully with one gloved finger. Well, actually, it was his actual finger doing the poking, as the black wool of his gloves was so worn through they had holes. Even so, the man's cheek was cool to the touch, despite dark overcoat he wore. Merlin poked him some more. No reaction.
Huffing, Merlin put his bag of rations by the doorway and tried to lift the man by hooking both hands beneath his arms, dragging limp legs along the steps. His shoes bumped rhythmically as Merlin heaved him up the hoped there wouldn't be too many bruises as he pulled his cargo along by the shoulders towards the lift on the first floor. Thankfully, the lift was working today, or Aesthetically Pleasing was going to be very unhappy when he woke up.
"You're really heavy, y'know," he said to the unconscious body. Merlin hit the up button for the lift with his fist, putting the man to the ground to retrieve his bag. There was a metallic rattle before the doors of the small lift dinged open and Merlin proceeded to haul the man inside, the candy and biscuits riding on his chest. It was a bit of a mission trying to get the man's (long!) legs to fit inside the small lift before the doors chomped down on them. But Merlin managed with the skill of someone who had been in these situations before and had to save cups of tea from being crushed by falling piano lids.
Merlin pushed the button for the top floor and leant against the wall of the lift with a sigh as it began its rattling journey upwards. A green digital clock above the door told Merlin that it was just a little past midnight. Once the orange flashing numbers finally settled on 12, the doors opened. Merlin grabbed the man by the armpits and proceeded to drag him out into the narrow corridor.
There weren't many apartments in Merlin's block of flats, and there were only two doors on the top floor, one reading 36 and one reading 3. The number 7 had long since fallen off and Merlin was too lazy to bother replacing it. Instead, he had drawn a little quaver note drawn beside the brass "3" in black sharpie. From the other side of the door came a series of high-pitched chirps.
Merlin smiled to himself as he fumbled for the keys in his coat pocket. He stuffed the right one into the keyhole clumsily and turned it back and forth several times before it clicked and the door swung open. Merlin turned back to the man and pulled him inside by one arm, his bag of candy still balanced on his chest. Kicking the door shut behind them, Merlin dragged the heavy body into the middle of the room, where a mattress lay buried beneath a veritable nest of blankets, clothes and stuffed animals.
"It's because I'm nice," said Merlin, a little out of breath from all the dragging, "And you're aesthetically pleasing."
Taking the bag of confectionary, Merlin put it on the table by the bathroom door for safekeeping. He took off the man's coat and shoes, then he arranged him under some blankets. Aesthetically Pleasing didn't wake up. Merlin wondered just how drunk he was and whether he should be doing something like calling 911 and arranging a stomach pump. That made him panic because maybe he should have rung 911, like, ten minutes ago. But then Amazingly Beautiful snuffled in his sleep, and Merlin forgot what he was thinking about.
A few minutes passed before Merlin realised he was simply staring at the man sleeping.
Behind him, Mozart gave a disapproving sort of chirrup. Merlin pulled himself away, standing with a stretch and a yawn.
"I know. I know," he said to the budgie, "That was creepy. But I couldn't very well leave him outside, could I?"
The bird squawked. Beside Mozart, Wolfgang woke up from all the noise, yawned a tiny birdy yawn and pecked Mozart vindictively. More squawking.
"Look what you've done," Merlin scolded, "Now he'll never shut up."
Mozart flapped his wings indignantly, and Merlin sighed. His pets had just as irregular sleeping patterns as their owner, due to his late nights, late mornings and compulsive piano playing. Filling a glass of water from the tap in the bathroom, Merlin methodically downed his daily dose of vitamins. The bottles stared back at him from their row on the bathroom shelf, marked words he couldn't quite pronounce. He was meant to take these in the morning. But Merlin often forgot. He winced at the taste, and set the empty glass by the sink. He closed the bathroom door with a soft snick, and opening a bag of fruit gummy bears, Merlin took the packet with him to the piano. Merlin shifted a pile of papers from the piano stool and sat down with a happy noise, facing the keyboard and open packet of sweets. Glancing over at Aesthetically Pleasing, who was now drooling on Merlin's pillow, Merlin took off his gloves and placed his hands on the keys.
Mozart said something rude in budgie-English.
Merlin began to play.
Arthur woke from a nightmare, wherein he had been abducted and forced to listen to Beethoven being butchered, phrasing and sustained notes chopped into pieces in front of him. Then his father chased him off the stage with a fruit knife, after the disaster that was last night's concert.
Arthur sat bolt upright, eyes flying open. The sight that greeted him made him wonder if he was actually awake or trapped in another nightmare. A very messy nightmare.
He had no idea where he was.
For one, Arthur couldn't see the floor. There was…stuff, piled over every inch of space, with a narrow winding path to the front door and to what Arthur presumed was the bathroom. Large, fluffy, multi-coloured animals were arranged along one wall, and Arthur rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand, trying to focus. Where was he? Arthur wondered just how drunk he had been last night, to wipe out any memory of the girl he obviously went home with. Giving himself a cursory once-over, Arthur noted that all his clothes were still on, his shoes sitting neatly at the end of the…nest he was lying in, and his jacket folded beside his head. He turned around, and came face to face with a white-felt unicorn.
Arthur didn't leap backwards.
His head hurt.
"What in the world…?"
Arthur threw back the blankets (it was colorfully checkered with bears in the squares). Then he scrambled off the springy mattress, pulling on his jacket as he went. Maybe he could leave before the girl came back and things got awkward. Or something. Trying to stuff his feet into his dress shoes, Arthur tripped over something on the floor, failed to find anything to grab onto and landed hard on his backside.
Something chattered back at him, and Arthur looked up to see a birdcage near the window. Two brightly coloured birds, one blue and one yellow, were sitting inside it. The blue one puffed out its chest feathers, swung back and forth on its swing in a manic kind of way. Arthur stared. Not only did this girl live in a hovel, she also kept crazy birds. Figures.
"….shu'up, Mozzie," came a drowsy voice and Arthur spun around.
At first, he couldn't see who had spoken, eyes skirting over the pile of laundry over flowing in a basket, a bag of food on a side table and books piled in little forts along the walls. Then what Arthur had thought to be a curtain moved and a shock of dark hair appeared over the edge of – Oh! That's what it was- the piano. And this was definitely not a girl. Blue eyes blinked owlishly above cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass, and the first thing Arthur said was:
Magnificent Ears rubbed his eyes and yawned so widely Arthur could see all the way to the back of this throat.
"Good morning to you too," he said, pushing his stool back. There was a dark red line on his face where he had fallen asleep on the keyboard, and Arthur could slowly make out the outline of a grand piano, buried beneath all sorts of junk and soft toys and candy wrappers. A bag of half eaten lollies rested on the lid right now.
The budgies chattered animatedly in the background. Arthur edged slowly towards the door.
Magnificent Ears gave him a smile that caught Arthur off guard. It was wide, genuine and a little idiotic and confirmed Arthur's first impression of a mad hermit. A young mad hermit. A young mad hermit who apparently played the piano and whose bed Arthur slept in.
"Do you need painkillers?" asked Magnificent Ears as he picked his way clumsily across the room, "I've got some aspirin, if you think that would help. You were pretty drunk last night. I think you were drunk anyway… you're not a druggie, are you?"
By the time he had finished talking, Arthur was already gone.
"…and then he just ran away!" Merlin finished, dropping his face into his hands. Will gave him a sympathetic thump on the shoulder.
"Well," said Merlin's best friend, "You're kinda scary looking when you just wake up. Maybe it was a bit of a shock."
"Thanks," said Merlin, dryly.
"You're not going to start pining are you?" asked Will, narrowing his eyes. At Merlin's forlorn expression, he rolled them.
"No," said Merlin, "I don't pine."
"I think that says otherwise," said Will and pointed at the half-made, Arthur plushie in Merlin's hands. Merlin ignored him and went back to sewing.
Darling Point, Sydney, Australia. Present day.
Afternoon sun streamed into the studio from the skylights on the ceiling, warm and golden. The studio itself was open and spacious, white walls and lacquered wood floor panels. In one corner of the room stood a polished black piano, a music stand, a shelf sunk into the walls full of music and CDs. There was a coat slung over the back of a chair, and a glass jug of orange juice on side table. The place smelt of rosin and wood.
A framed picture of a woman sitting at a piano, blond and smiling, stood on a glass shelf. It was the only photograph in the room.
Arthur turned the page on his music stand, chewing his bottom lip in frustration. He held his violin and bow in one hand, the other tapping out a complicated rhythm on the edge of the stand. He glared at the offending passage on the page, its semi-quavers and harmonics mocking him with their stems and rough tone. It sounded horrendous; Arthur had the urge to stab something.
There was less than a month until his concert, and he was still wrestling with this. He could recall the words of the critic, see the black type on the white page, taunting him: without flair…dry…and …technical ability not compensating for the butchering of Brahms. It made something inside Arthur's gut shrivel with indignation and hurt – though not as much as the expression on his father's face.
The doorbell rang.
Setting his violin down in the open case and loosening the bow, Arthur crossed the room to the door.
"Still practicing I see," said Morgana in greeting as she swept past Arthur into his the studio. Taking off her white-rimmed sunglasses, she tucked them into her pocket and surveyed the room. Her gaze took in the solitary music stand in the middle of the floor, surrounded by music on the floor. (Arthur had tossed them there in irritation.)
"You're late," said Arthur pointedly as Morgana dropped her bag on the piano stool and helped herself to Arthur's orange juice. Ice clinked against the glass merrily, throwing water patterns onto the floor as they caught the sun.
"Looks like I should come back tomorrow," Morgana threw back, "It still sounds like you're slaughtering those F sharps." She poured another glass of juice and set it down atop the piano, which always made Arthur glower.
"You're going to spill that," said Arthur, sulkily. There were going to be water circles on his piano, "And that bit is fine, I'll have you know. There's nothing wrong with it. I'm just…polishing."
Morgana made a non-committal noise, lifting the cover off the keyboard and running a quick scale up and down. The notes bounced off the walls, sparkling like the ice in the jug. Curling and uncurling his fingers, Arthur picked up his violin again and walked over to the piano.
"You know Uther's going to want to listen to this soon," said Morgana as she flipped through the music to the right page. Arthur shrugged, hiding a wince at the very thought.
"Well. He never approves of anything I do. Doesn't like my style."
"No," said Morgana, "You don't have style. You need to relax or you'll never get this part, no matter how many times you call me in to rehearse."
Arthur gaped at her, indignant.
"I do so have a-"
"You play everything like it's a battle, Arthur. You can't even smile whilst playing, or you stop from shock. It's not fencing, you know. You're not trying to break your strings."
Morgana thumped out a few descending sequences in the bass, reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera to emphasize her point. Arthur pulled a face, wiping his hand on a white cloth he kept on the piano. He had been practicing since seven that morning; and there were deep grooves in his fingertips on his left hand. Rolling back his shoulders, Arthur settled the violin under his chin, re-tuning it quickly with a few deft twists of the wrist.
Morgana found folded the edge of her music back, smoothing the spine over with one bejeweled hand. Arthur never quite understood how she managed to play the piano whilst wearing so many rings.
He raised an eyebrow – both in mock question and a signal.
2 hours later.
"I am not doing this one more time."
"We need to make sure it's-"
"Arthur," snapped Morgana, stuffing the music into her bag, "I am your accompanist. Not your slave – I refuse to cater to your anal retentive complexes- Don't you point your bow at me!"
Arthur lowered the bow. He glanced at the music, still open on the stand, and turned back to Morgana.
"D. Let's start from figure D on page twenty seven, then."
"WE'VE PLAYED IT THROUGH SIX TIMES," said Morgana, standing up abruptly. At the expression on Arthur's face, however, she stopped, her own expression softening at the edges.
"Look, you're fine," she said, "Note perfect."
"Because that's all that matters here," said Arthur sarcastically. But he put down the violin all the same, carefully wiping the fingerboard with the cloth before sweat could damage the strings. A half opened cake of rosin lay next to the violin, amber and glowing in sunset. Arthur occupied himself by putting it back into its box, cloth corners folded down in neat, practiced squares.
"Honestly though," said Morgana, swiping the last of the orange juice. The ice had all melted by now. "You need to stop practicing before you fall over." Arthur could feel her eyeing him critically, "Did you eat lunch?"
Arthur waved a hand, irritably. "Yes, 'course."
Morgana being nice always unnerved him somewhat. When she deigned to be nice to him, it either meant that Arthur was being incredibly amazing (unlikely) or he was so appalling even she couldn't bear to tell him. Arthur thought that, under the circumstances, it was probably the latter.
As if reading his mind, Morgana whacked him across the chest with the back of her hand.
"Whatever you're thinking, stop it."
Arthur passed a hand over his face, feeling an ache at the base of his spine from standing too long.
"I just hate… you know," he shrugged, "All this."
"All this as in Bach or all this as in you have a full house next concert and you have to please the critics and your father? Because let me tell you, the latter is not going to happen no matter how good you are."
Arthur snorted, giving her a reluctant smile.
"You're welcome," said Morgana, flicking strand of hair over her shoulder. Then she glanced at her watch. "…and now you've made me late. If I get a speeding ticket, you're paying."
Arthur rolled his eyes, and walked her to the studio door. The city outside was a light-scape now; a rim of red disappearing over the horizon. It looked like the curve of an blinking eye, the arch of a pause just before the cadence sank home. Arthur flicked on the gallery lights, bathing the ceiling in a soft glow.
"Ta," said Morgana, donning on her sunglasses and sweeping out the door.
Merlin wrinkled his nose in distaste, the smell of a hundred bottled horrors hitting him full in the face as the he opened the glass door. He hated pharmacies: mostly because he'd spent half his life in one.
A bell tinkled above him as he stepped into the shop, the air conditioning making him shiver as he made a beeline between the metal shelves and towards the counter. At the sight of Merlin, the girl behind the counter perked up and sat a little straighter on her stool. Before Merlin even opened his mouth, she slid a clear bag over the countertop with a smile.
Merlin made a face.
"Hi Gwen," he said, taking the bag and passing over the prescription, sandwiched between two ten dollar bills. It was a routine they had fallen into almost as soon as they had met, four years ago when Merlin moved to Sydney to study music. The tablets rattled in their small bottles.
Gwen scanned the slip of paper. "Atrovent?" she asked, putting the money into the till and disappearing behind a shelf.
"Yeah," said Merlin, "Ran out."
Gwen reappeared with a small green-white box, which she handed to Merlin with a sympathetic sort of look that always caught Merlin off guard. It was one of the reasons he never told people; he knew he wouldn't be able to stand the pity and assumptions. He took the inhaler from its package, digging a fingernail beneath the plastic seal. It said "Rip Here." Merlin did.
"How's life as the starving artist?" asked Gwen, spinning a blue pen between her fingers.
Merlin gave a snort of laughter, tucking the inhaler in its usual zipped pocket in his bag. A thought struck him and he rummaged in his pockets for a moment before pulling out a packet of nearly-depleted gummy bears.
"I'm hardly starving," he said, grinning as he dropped a handful of colourful sweets into Gwen's hand. She gave him a mock glare, but accepted the bears. It was a sign of deepest trust and friendship that Merlin shared his supply of sweets with Gwen. The giving of sweets was a sacred line you only crossed for the closest of friends (as far as Merlin was concerned).
"Living on sugar doesn't count," she said, trying to look stern. The grin on her face ruined it, however.
"Sugar is a very important part of human diet," said Merlin knowledgably, "And-"
"- and something you don't need any more of," interrupted Gwen, brushing her mane of hair over his Remember who is studying medicine and who is studying how to make noise, thank you Merlin."
Merlin bit off the head of a red bear, stuffing the now empty packet into his pocket again.
"Does this mean you're buying me lunch?" he asked hopefully.
"No," said Gwen.
There was a pause.
When Merlin arrived at the performing arts campus, it was only ten in the morning. A few students wandered about the green lawns, white ear buds trailing, noses buried in music. Merlin blinked a few times as he emerged from shadow of C block, and had to think for a few long minutes before he remembered where he was supposed to be at this particular time on this particular day. He started in the direction of the practice rooms, a row on the second floor. If he was right in thinking today was Monday, then Will should be practicing in B26. And if Will was practicing in B26, then Merlin had another hour before he was due to see Gaius. Which, depressingly, also meant that he would have to wait yet another hour before he could have lunch.
As Merlin slowly made his way up the stairs, he was nearly bowled over by someone dashing down the stairs with his violin at arm's length. Pages of manuscript flew everywhere as the bow whacked Merlin on the nose.
"Sorry! Sorry I'm kinda in a-"
"Lance?" said Merlin, rubbing the bridge of his nose as the other man scrambled to gather his music. They were handwritten, Merlin noted as he bent to help pick some loose pages up and saw the smudges of pencil at the bar-lines.
"Where's the fire?" asked Merlin, handing over a pile of music.
Lance combed his hair back hastily with his fingers, looking a harried – which was unusual for Lance, who usually looked calm and full of zen no matter what was going on around him. In fact, Lance had more or less saved Merlin's life three months ago. He had calmly located Merlin's inhaler and water bottle whilst Merlin lay almost passed out on the floor, chest seizing from running after stupid idiots who had taken off with his iPod. At that point, Merlin could barely conquer the next intake of breath, let alone the zipper of his bag. As it were, Lancelot had retrieved the iPod and cemented their friendship from thereon in. He also had the whole tall, dark, handsome thing going for him – and was straight as a violin bow. Merlin sighed.
Lancelot straightened the files of music into their appropriate order, still looking a little harassed.
"Audition with Monmouth," he said as way of explanation.
"Christ," said Merlin, eyes widening, "Good luck! Not that you'll need it."
"Cheers." Lance flashed him a nervous smile, before turning and hurrying down the flight of stairs without another word. He was nearly at the bottom before Merlin remembered something.
"Isn't your audition this Friday?" he called out.
Lance didn't even pause, and his voice echoed back around the corner.
"It is Friday, Merlin!"
Merlin frowned at the empty space where Lance had just stood, before glancing up at the clock on the wall.
Needless to say, Will wasn't in room 26. And Merlin very late for-
"Sorry!" Merlin cried, bursting into one of the classrooms. He wasn't out of breath because he had learnt his lesson about running long ago: namely, not to do it. He still felt a little dizzy though, a familiar pulsing at his temple giving him a headache. He itched to take the new inhaler from his bag, but it would only make the headache worse, so he left it where it was. The man sitting on of the grand pianos made a disapproving sound at the back of his throat as his eyebrows rapidly disappeared into his hairline.
Merlin dropped his bag by the door.
"What's the excuse this time?" asked the Maestro, standing up.
"I forgot it was Friday?" Merlin tried, widening his eyes in an expression that usually scored him free sushi with Gwen. Gaius propped up the music stand and Merlin gulped.
"If you did not have the talent you do, my boy, I would have refused to teach you a long time ago. Forgot it was Friday indeed," said Gaius, eyebrows still suitably menacing. "What are you still doing? Sit!"
"I want to hear this again," said Gaius, smoothing down the spine of the Urtext so the pages would stay flat. The sheet music was unmarred by pencil notation or scribbles, as smooth and clean as the day Merlin first bought it. "Starting from adagio."
"But what about-"
"And I mean adagio, Merlin."
Merlin took a deep breath, felt it go all the way to his toes and past the recently digested gummy bears in his stomach. Running his index finger down the length of B flat, Merlin began to play. He liked Mozart (so much so he named his budgie after the composer). He liked the way nothing could be hidden between the notes, the way each one must be clear and precise, linked together like pearls on a necklace. It always reminded him of tea and saucers and polished wooden floors in the flat he would like to own someday. The cadences were gentle, the mordents were polite, and Merlin thought it was all rather charming. It spoke of phrases like "drawing rooms" and words like "sunshine" and maybe fields of wildflowers. It wasn't really his fault for getting carried away.
Gaius's voice shook him out of his playing and his hands faltered. Everything was dark.
Merlin opened his eyes.
"What?" he asked, blinking his vision into focus.
Gaius was giving him a disapproving sort of look, one eyebrow raised high, then other frighteningly low. He tapped the edge of Merlin's music, and Merlin glanced back at it guiltily.
"You didn't turn the page. Not once."
"I was too busy playing…?" Merlin tried.
"Your eyes were closed," said Gaius, "and your tempo was terrible! Did you look at this at all since yesterday?"
"I practiced!" protested Merlin.
"With the music?"
Merlin looked down at his hands.
"I don't need the music," said Merlin, sulkily, "I can't make myself stare at the notes. My eyes go funny."
"Until you can reign in your excessive improvisations, I want you to practice with the music. Am I making myself clear?"
"It's interpretation, Gaius!" Merlin complained, letting his forehead fall onto the piano with a thud, "I can play this already, can't we move on?"
"Your mother sent you to me to learn to play the piano. Not to learn to play. Stop being so lazy."
"I'm not being-"
"Mozart is turning in his grave," Gaius intoned gravely, "You need to learn control, my boy."
Merlin groaned. His breath misted the surface of the piano lid. He drew a quick angry face in the condensation with his fingertip before turning back to the music. The tail of the quavers seem to string hands, until everything was a blur.
"Mozart changed things too," Merlin muttered under his breath, placing his fingers back onto the polished keys. Beside him, Gaius sat down in his chair.
"Yes. But unlike Mozart, you are neither accomplished nor dead, so I would get on with it."
Staring resolutely at the book in front of his face, Merlin picked up where he left off.
Half way through the second movement of Bach's Partita, Arthur's phone rang; buzzing on the polished side table as it flashed in silence. Judging by the orange alert screen, it had been buzzing for some time now – Arthur hadn't noticed. Annoyed, he stubbornly finished the phrase he was playing before setting his violin down on top of the piano with a huff of irritation.
He hated interruptions. He also hated phones in general, but they were (or his was) a necessary evil.
Necessary Evil buzzed again, more violently, and Arthur picked it up, flicking it open in the same movement.
"Is this Mr. Pendragon?" came an unfamiliar voice. Faintly, Arthur could hear clatters and a babble of voices in the background. He frowned.
"Who is this?"
"Mr. Pendragon, you have been listed as Miss Morgana le Fay's emergency contact? You're required at the hospital."
Arthur was glad he wasn't holding still holding his violin. As it was, he nearly dropped his cellphone.
Merlin had always wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.
A kindergarten music teacher, to be precise: with an old upright piano (brown) that wasn't quite in tune in the bass (it had been knocked about when transported), and peeling stickers on the chipped keys (middle C!). It would be a piano that had seen more solitary days, perhaps in a drawing room or in the living room as a shelf or as the reluctant companion of a girl with a doll and ringlets to match. But it would be a nice piano, friendly, free. It wouldn't care if Merlin changed Brahms here and there, wouldn't frown like the Steinways did when he pulled back too much or let go and ran full tilt down a sequence of semi-tones. It would be a nice piano that didn't mind fingerprints and coffee stains, that had a broken hinge (which meant Merlin couldn't put music on it – and that was a good thing). He would get to teach four year olds how to sing- farajaka, farajaka – and the piano wouldn't care if they were out of tune – dor may vu, dor may vu!
Will accused Merlin of not knowing what he wanted. He did this often, usually when drunk or when Merlin elaborated in detail the kind of house he would like to live in when he was a kindergarten teacher (wooden with high ceilings, window-boxes and an apple tree in the back yard). His teachers complained too. One after another, they lamented his "lack of ambition."
"You lack discipline," Gaius would say, sighing. "Your talent will come to nothing if you continue like this."
Children wouldn't complain about an extra mordent or two.
Merlin bit into his pear, eyeing Will's packet of sushi. He had finished his own ten minutes ago, after Gwen had dropped them on the table and gone racing off to find Lance.
"Monmouth is an annoying bastard," said Will, "He'll probably pull out some convention out of his arse and give Lance a 2.0."
Three down. Seven more sushi pieces to go. Will dunked a piece of salmon into far too much soy sauce, and Merlin wondered if it was too early to try the "look, what's that?" trick. He chewed on his pear thoughtfully, foot tapping out a rhythm on the linoleum of the cafeteria. Will's hair resembled a porcupine today, carefully gelled into chaotic spikes which bobbed as he ate. They didn't really have a direction – just gravitated outwards from Will's head. Merlin didn't have the heart to tell Will that it didn't make him look like a crazy, musical genius. It just made him look crazy.
"If anyone can withdraw a scholarship, it will be that dude."
"Lance is amazing with Bach," said Merlin stoutly, "And Monmouth is a sucker for anything Baroque. I think the repertoire will be fine."
"Ba- God, don't even-" Will stopped to take another bite of sushi, "-talk to me about that fucker. Who the hell stops someone from a vibrato on double stopping, huh? I mean, he makes me feel like I have a fucking stick up my fucking-"
"Will!" Merlin interrupted the stream of profanity.
"I'm telling the truth. I refuse to play something written by a bible basher."
Merlin dropped his face into his hands, distressed by both Will's utter lack of respect and the fast disappearing sushi in front of him.
"I cannot believe you just called J.S Bach, father of all music everywhere, a bible basher."
The cafeteria was a huge, square room on the third floor. There were large, floor-to-ceiling windows making up one wall of the room and overlooking the entrance and courtyard below. Merlin got an idea. Standing up on his chair, he interrupted Will's spiel by pointing out the window and exclaiming:
"Holy crap! Look! It's a double bass walking by itself!"
Will spun around in his chair.
"What the hell?"
"Look! It's walking!" said Merlin, gesturing enthusiastically before dropping from his chair and swiping Will's unfinished sushi and stuffing them into his mouth as fast as he could. To be fair, it was really Freya carrying her instrument. But she was so small, and the double bass so big, that from above it did look like a walking cello (in Merlin's defense). The most important point was that by the time Will turned back towards the table, Merlin was licking soy sauce from his fingers.
"You little shit!" shouted Will, so loudly that half the cafeteria stopped to stare, "You stole my food! Again!"
Merlin gave him an angelic smile.
"You're always saying I should eat more."
"But not my food," said Will. He eyed the empty plastic packet with distaste, but sunk further into his chair in defeat. Merlin almost felt a tiny bit guilty. Almost. Will tugged out his battered cellphone from his pocket, flipping it open while Merlin returned to chomping on his half-eaten pear.
"You better run if you don't want to be late to class," he said, kicking Merlin under the table with his foot.
"If I'm on time, the Prof might have a heart attack. I might have a heart attack."
Will gave him a glare in between the spikes of hair.
"Fine. Don't run. Drop out. See if I care – at least then I'll be able to eat my lunch in peace."
Merlin finished off the last of his pear.
"Have you taken your Aquasols then?" Will asked, gruffly.
Merlin pushed back his chair with a metallic screech, groping for the strap of his bag from where it had gotten tangled with one of the chair legs. He rolled his eyes.
The Grande échelle was a pretty French restaurant tucked away just out of Darling Point. It catered to those who could afford three digit entrees and wanted their meal served on a billion plates per dish. More importantly, however, it had a lovely Kawai grand that needed a pianist.
"I'm here!" Merlin called out, swinging his messenger bag off his shoulder. Making his way through the back door and into a veritable mist of something sweet smelling, he dumped it on one of the hooks in the employee's restroom. He was meant to go straight into the main room of the restaurant and begin warming up – after all, it was barely half an hour before opening. But as usual, Merlin poked his head around the door of the kitchen hopefully.
"I'm here!" he called again, in case they hadn't heard him the first time. He ventured into the room. It was all stainless steel and polished surfaces. The floor was spotlessly white, and already there was steam rising out of a large, cylinder pot in a poof of deliciousness. Merlin sniffed appreciatively. He took a few steps towards the pot, eyeing the large silver ladle hanging on the hook above it.
Instantly, the sous-chef materialised in front of Merlin, and he squawked with surprise, almost falling backwards onto a newly-prepared dish of Gougère.
"Don't even think about it!" said Morgause, brandishing a very large fillet knife.
"I wasn't!" said Merlin, waving his arms, nearly upending someone who was passing with a stack of glasses.
"Stop moving!" Morgause commanded, still holding knife, and Merlin froze in mid flail.
The woman sighed, one hand on her hip as she eyed Merlin up and down, taking in the scuffed shoes and jeans.
"Go get changed, then come back," she said curtly, turning away. Merlin beamed and rushed out of the room, stumbling into the doorframe in his haste. When the sous-chef Morgause said 'come back' in their little routine, it meant Merlin got to sample something tasty that she made. Sometimes several somethings before he had to go out and play the piano for the rest of the night. The incentive made Merlin's mouth water and he quickly pulled the cheap suit from his locker and was changed in record time. There was a reason he loved this job so much.
Merlin barrelled back into the kitchen.
One of the younger cooks gave him a very disapproving look as he chopped spring onions by the sink. Merlin didn't mind: he thought he might actually cry if someone else got to eat food whilst he had to chop onions. Well, he would probably be crying anyway, because of the onions, but that was besides the point.
Morgause set a plate down in front of Merlin.
Merlin stared. It looked like some sort of pastry, tips glazed with sugar and there were a ring of candied almonds around the base.
"What is it?"
"Croquembouche," said Morgause, who was already returning to a plate of something that looked very complicated, "Without the caramel glaze. I don't want you breaking your jaw and the dessert is for tomorrow anyway. Eat it!"
Merlin picked the little pastry up. He chewed slowly, tasting the sugar melting on the roof of his mouth.
"I love it!" he beamed. Morgause's expression didn't change, but remained as dead pan as ever. Still Merlin though the corner of her lips might have twitched a little. Maybe.
"Like that's a surprise," she said, "Now go play. You can have dinner before you leave."
"Alright," said Merlin happily, chasing the last pastry crumbs on his lips and making his way out of the kitchen.
The restaurant itself was lit by the soft, pleasant glow of chandeliers and not the stark white of fluorescent. There were faux-frescoes on the ceiling, and the dark wooden panelling on the walls meant lovely acoustics. The grand piano, polished and black, stood slightly off-centre. Merlin could see the warped reflection of all the cutlery in its curved side. He pulled the piano stool out and lifted the lid of the piano and folded up the cloth covering the keys. Then he set the lid up on the first stand, propping it up so the notes could float out of the piano like the scent of sugar cooking, teasing and sweet. Merlin thought he got more exercise than the average person; lifting piano lids every day required a lot of muscles.
Settling himself down comfortably in front of the keys, all of which were perfect and adorable and grinning at him, he ran a quick scale up and down the piano just to warm up his fingers. Then he guiltily wiped them with the cuff of his sleeve as bits of pastry sugar made sticky imprints on the ivory. Oops.
"What shall we have today, mm?" he asked the piano, tickling a few mordents out of the treble like children laughing. He played Chopin the last time he'd worked – you could never go wrong with Chopin in a restaurant – so this time… perhaps… Debussy? Debussy was lovely because he was all impressions and pastel colours. Merlin played a few chords tentatively, modulating the keys so it matched a painting by Chagall he had once seen somewhere…
There came an ominous crash from the kitchen, muffled by the insulated walls. Oh. Morgause didn't like Debussy. Merlin quickly switched the fourths for perfect cadences, tidy as curtseys and twice as polite. Morgause was prone to withhold food from Merlin every time he played something too French (despite this being a French restaurant) and withholding food was something terrible Merlin never wanted to think about. In the end, he settled for typical restaurant sounds, elevator music, letting the chords settle on their own into the lazy twirl of jazz as the first customers began to trickle in.
/EMBED DAY AND NIGHT
This was definitely on his top three dream occupations, thought Merlin as he improvised a request (Chopin) that he had heard but never seen, playing piano for a group of happily-eating people. He thought he would be perfectly content to come in every night and play the piano at La Grande échelle for the rest of his life, sneaking in film music here and there, watching the semiquavers sink sneakily into cream puffs and soup like extra seasoning. It was hard work, but he enjoyed it and he mentally rearranged his career choices.
1. Kindergarten music teacher.
2. The pianist at La Grande Echelle.
3. Official food taster at La Grande Echelle.
The Maestro would probably scold him for having no ambition or something along those lines, but Merlin couldn't comprehend why he should have so much ambition if he was happy with this, happy with music. The patrons here never told him off if he put a little too much rubato into Mozart like a cook experimenting with herbs and salt. And if he liked to improvise, it was only because the mordents looked ever so sparkly, hanging onto the chandeliers like that. Merlin played a few more, just to see them float up towards the ceiling like champagne bubbles.
And nearly fell off his chair when he leaned too far back.
He thought of all the pieces waiting to be pulled apart, sitting, pages unturned. He thought of the notes taken down in scrawled handwriting, corners wrinkled like a well-hummed tune in his bag along with empty wrappers and his keys. And in a surge of whim, Merlin slurred everything over, phrases melting into each other like the best kind of golden syrup, and he almost laughed out loud at what Mozart might have said about it.
Arthur nearly killed seven pedestrians, two bikers and a dog getting to the hospital. When he had arrived, it was to find that there were no parking vacancies in the hospital car-park. Swearing very loudly, he double parked with a screech of rubber and dashed up the stone steps into the brightly lit hospital foyer.
"Morgana Le Fay," he snapped to the receptionist, who took one look at his face and began clicking through whatever was on her computer screen.
"Third floor, room twenty six of the- sir!"
Arthur was already half way across the hall, jabbing his thumb impatiently at the "up" button on the elevator. He felt disorientated, a sick, squeezing sensation in his stomach He barely registered the plastic words – ambulatory care- before he was flinging open a door to reveal-
"- what do you mean I can't play for the next three months?" Morgana was yelling at the doctor. Arthur's breath rushed out of him in a giant exhale. Morgana was alive. And well enough to be throwing a fit, apparently. A nurse hovered by her patient, and at the sight of Arthur, she said,
"Excuse me, sir, but you can't-"
"She's my sister," said Arthur, without looking at her and strode into the room. Morgana was propped up on a narrow hospital bed, looking terrible with an ugly bruise on her temple and her hand set in a white cast. Her face was chalk-pale aside from the two spots of colour high on her cheeks as she continued to rage at her poor doctor.
"That's bullshit, it was a fucking-"
"Morgana!" said Arthur, taking hold of her free hand so she would look at him, "What the hell happened? Are you alright?"
"It was a fucking taxi driver, Arthur-" Morgana started, but the doctor cut across her.
"Miss le Fay has broken her wrist."
Arthur glanced at the cast, then back at the doctor. His hands felt cold.
"And her index finger is badly fractured. The cast will need to stay on for at the very least six weeks-"
"I want a second opinion-"
"And then I recommend therapy for the muscles after the cast comes off."
Morgana pulled her hand out of her brother's with a jerk.
"For heavens sake-"
"How long until she can use her hand?"
The doctor consulted his clipboard in a way that suggested he wanted to be anywhere but here right now. Arthur thought this was understandable since Morgana was directing her full fury at him. She was glaring so coldly that Arthur would have found it hilarious had the circumstances been different.
"Oh Jesus," cursed Arthur, mouth suddenly dry.
"We don't have three months, Arthur! The recital is in three fucking weeks!"
Arthur turned to her at last, trying to stamp down on the panic curling in his gut. Gods. Why did this have to happen now?
"I am aware of that, Morgana-"
"I'm your accompanist! Now I'm your ex-accompanist! You're screwed! Or are you suffering from concussion as well?" spat Morgana while she poked him hard in the chest.
"Ma'am you need to rest-" the doctor started and then quailed under Morgana's glare.
"Arthur, what part of not being able to play the piano don't you-"
"I wasn't exactly thinking about my fucking recital when I got the call from the hospital, alright Morgana?" shouted Arthur, feeling his chest constrict and expand in the space of a heartbeat. The relief from barely five minutes ago had faded, and he was breathless in the face of this new catastrophe.
Morgana's expression softened slightly.
"Arthur, I just-"
"I can find another accompanist. It'll be alright." It didn't sound very convincing, even to himself.
"Arthur, I don't know anyone who can learn three concertos, two Rachs and an original transcription in less than four weeks. Oh God, I've ruined everything. Shit. Shit! SHIT!" She flopped dramatically back onto her pillows, hair fanning out.
Arthur passed a hand over his face and took a few deep breaths. Impulsively, he dug into his jacket pocket for his cellphone. Morgana's eyes widened as she saw him scrolling through the address book.
"Oh, fuck no. No! You are not ringing Uther."
"I'm not ringing father," Arthur lied uneasily with his thumb hovering over the call button.
"All he's going to do is confiscate my car and then we'll ALL be screwed."
"I hate to be practical here, but as you've so calmly pointed out, I am already 'screwed'. My father knows more people than I do, perhaps he can find someone in time for the concert."
Morgana made a frustrated noise at the back of her throat, and smacked her fist into the bed with a dull thud. The doctor looked worriedly from Morgana to Arthur than back again, clutching his clipboard. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Arthur pushed the call button, feeling as if his whole world was crashing down about his ears.
In a little French restaurant by the port, Merlin gleefully butchered Mozart into pieces.