After Gilbert had been living there for two months, he decided that he was going to do something. On a day when he didn't have work the next day, he stayed up late reading one of the old books from the bookshelf. Eventually, Roderich-the-cat appeared and curled up on the opposite end of the couch. Gilbert skimmed a couple more pages to make it look casual, but he wasn't really reading the words. Finally, without looking up from his book, he said, "You know, if it would stop you moping around all the time, I could help you fix your piano. I don't know anything about pianos, but I could buy whatever you needed." The cat had lifted its head. Gilbert looked over at it and attempted a grin. "Because your moping is damn annoying and driving me crazy."
Suddenly the cat had jumped down and Roderich was standing in front of him. "You'd do that?" Roderich asked quietly.
Gilbert shrugged. "It's no trouble to me. It's a pity you can't work to earn your keep around here, but I can spare a little money on a silly piano."
Roderich took no offense at it being called a "silly piano" because they both knew none was intended. "I'd appreciate it," he said. Then he was a cat again and leaving the room.
"Hey, where are you going?" Gilbert called after him, but there was no answer.
A moment later, a cat bounded back down the stairs, a piece of paper in its mouth. Roderich strode towards him and handed him the piece of paper. "I made this a long time ago," he said. "It has all the parts I'll need. There's a shop on–" He bit his lip. "There used to be a shop–"
"I'll find somewhere," Gilbert said. He took the piece of paper. A neat list of things he didn't understand – wires with measurements and musical notation written next to them, bolts of some kind, things he couldn't guess at – had been written on the scrap of paper in neat, elegant calligraphy with a ballpoint pen. "I'll go tomorrow."
Roderich nodded. "Thank you," he said quietly, as if it were too good to be true.
The next day, Gilbert returned to find the cat waiting impatiently by the door. The moment Gilbert closed the door behind him, Roderich was walking towards him, asking, "Did you find everything?"
"Yeah, yeah, I just handed the list to the guy at the shop and he found everything." Gilbert held up a bag. "It's all here."
Roderich looked at the bag longingly, but he didn't take it from him. "There's only one more thing."
"What now?" Gilbert asked impatiently.
Roderich met his eyes. His pale skin looked soft in the early afternoon light. "I need your help."
"With what?" Gilbert asked, almost as surprised at Roderich saying the statement as the statement itself. "Fixing it?"
"But I'm not a cat," Gilbert drawled. "And I can't walk through walls, either."
"There are some construction tools in the hall outside the upstairs part of the apartment left over from when they boarded up the wall." There was a strange glint in his eye, and Gilbert could tell from how quickly he was talking that he had had this planned for a long time. "I can see them through a hole in the wall. One of them's a sledgehammer."
Gilbert groaned and dumped the bag of piano parts on the couch. "I'll go get it, your highness." But by the time Gilbert returned with the hammer in hand, he didn't even bother trying to hide his enthusiasm, and Roderich didn't either. He was going to break down the wall that had separated the two parts of the apartment for so long. And most important of all, he was doing it for Roderich.
"Stand back," he warned. Roderich dutifully (for once) stood at the foot of the stairs and watched as Gilbert took the first swing. Gilbert grunted; the cinderblocks were much harder to break than he had anticipated. He swung again and a cloud of plaster covered his face. He coughed a little and swung again. A small chip came off and he swung harder.
By the time there was some kind of hole in the wall, Gilbert was sweaty, his shirt was sticking to him, and he was covered in dust. He took a break under the pretense of looking through the hole into the mysterious other part of the apartment. He couldn't see much through the haze of powdered plaster, but he could make out the grand piano in the center of the main room. He assumed there were doors leading off of it, but he couldn't be sure.
"How is it going?" Roderich asked with some concern.
"Fine," Gilbert called down. He took another swing, and this time a large chunk fell out of the doorway almost easily.
Finally, the hole was big enough for a person to duck through. Gilbert leaned against the wall, catching his breath, and grinned down at cat-Roderich. "You didn't doubt that the awesome me could do it, did you?" he asked.
The cat turned smoothly into a human. "Of course not," Roderich muttered. He walked up the stairs, stepping over the pieces of plaster, and brushed past Gilbert into the room beyond. After a moment, Gilbert followed him.
For a moment, Gilbert could almost believe that the apartment hadn't changed in over a hundred years. The carpet beneath the piano was faded but spotless, and it was clear it had once been fine and thick. It had faded to a pinkish-tan color, but at a glance it was believable that it had retained its dye. The piano was polished to a shine, and it reflected the windows at the opposite end. Delicate white lace curtains covered them, and the holes created by years of moths almost seemed part of the lace itself. Two polished oak doors led into what Gilbert assumed were the master bedroom and a bathroom. Only the wall across from them, which had a gaping hole in it covered up from the outside by plywood, and the doorway they were standing in ruined the effect.
Roderich had opened the piano and was looking intently inside. "I'll need the wrench you got," he said. With a sigh, Gilbert obediently went back down the stairs and grabbed the bag of parts. This was going to be a long day.
Gilbert complained the entire time, but Roderich did a suitably good job of either ignoring him or returning his complaints with biting remarks, so they survived. Gilbert kept saying, "I'd kill for a shower right now," and Roderich would reply, "Why don't you go take one, then?" and Gilbert would sort of mumble in response, but Gilbert never left. Sometimes Roderich would have to turn into a cat and watch Gilbert's work with suspicious eyes. Finally they were finished, and Roderich set about tuning the piano.
Now that his work was done, Gilbert leaned against a nearby wall. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't mind that he was hot and sweaty and dusty. He brushed some hair out of his eyes – he needed a haircut – and watched Roderich fiddle with the keys and the wires. There was something graceful about the Austrian, there was no denying that. His fine musician's hands with their neatly trimmed nails, the carefully combed hair, the way he reached out firmly to tighten that wire, there; it was evident in every aspect of him. There was something else, too, something too tightly wound inside of him that Gilbert would have liked to be the one to unwind.
Roderich let out a little sigh and straightened. He was done. He sat down on the bench, with its ancient embroidered cushion, and looked at the keys for a moment. He raised his hands and they hovered for an instant above the keys. He closed his eyes and began to play.
Gilbert had never been particularly fond of classical music. He had been forced into piano lessons once, but he had since forgotten everything he had learned (mostly on purpose). He did not know the name of the piece Roderich was playing, or who had composed it, or what era it was from. He did not know what key it was in, either, and he could not even have hazarded a guess. But he knew that it was beautiful, and all he could hear was pure joy.
Roderich's hands danced across the keys as easily as if they were breathing. The notes rang out clearly in the room, but they flowed together as if they were one thing. Roderich, who for so long had seemed to Gilbert to be out of place, finally seemed to be exactly where he should be. And though Gilbert did now know it, when he heard those first notes he fell in love.
Roderich played for a long time. Eventually, Gilbert could see the strain in his jaw and the tightness of his arms. His eyes opened and he seemed to have trouble breathing, but he forced himself to finish the last note before his curse forced him once again to turn into a cat.
The cat sat on the bench and looked at the keys as if there were nothing else there. After a long moment of silence, Gilbert pushed himself off of the wall and stretched. He forced a laugh. "Well, I'm going to go take that shower now." He picked his way across the rubble and through the doorway with only one glance back at the cat.
Though Gilbert had said he was going to take a shower, before he had gotten to the bottom of the stairs he knew there was one more thing he needed to do first. Pieces of cinderblocks and plaster covered the stairs. He fetched some trash bags and hauled as much of the rubble into them as he could. He didn't sweep up the dust, but he knew that Roderich would anyway, so there was no point. He threw out the trash and then took one of the longest showers of his life. When he came out, drying his hair with a towel, he could hear the notes of a piano drifting down from above. He smiled.
Roderich began spending an immense amount of time upstairs, simply playing. Gilbert felt like he was intruding if he went up there, and it made him feel weird that he didn't want to intrude (being inappropriate was one of Gilbert's biggest trademarks, as his younger brother could easily attest), so he avoided the room altogether. He was almost annoyed that Roderich was abandoning him so much more now (though when had it become "abandoning"?), but hearing him play was relaxing and reassured him that he was still there, so he didn't mind so much. Weeks stretched by, and Gilbert began to think.
It had been oddly satisfying to break down the boarded up doorway. Partially, that had probably been because it involved swinging a sledgehammer, but it had also felt as if he were making something wrong right again. He hammered out all of the remaining plaster so that the doorway was a doorway again, but he found that he still couldn't stop thinking about that other hole in the wall, the one that had been made when the wall had rotted away. It didn't belong in the same room as Roderich and his grand piano. It needed to be fixed. So one day, Gilbert came back with some wood and hammer and nails. He tore out the rest of the rotted wall and rebuilt it while Roderich was catnapping. Roderich didn't say anything, but Gilbert knew that he was grateful. Suddenly, Gilbert was seeing all kinds of things about the place that needed to be fixed. That cupboard door was off its hinges; that dresser needed a new foot. The walls upstairs needed to be re-wallpapered, the floorboards needed new nails. So everyday, Gilbert would come home from work, eat, and then do a little fixing. He didn't ask himself why he felt the need to do this. In fact, he actively avoided the question altogether. It was, however, inevitable that it would come up eventually.
It was his day off, and Gilbert was wallpapering the last section of the main room upstairs. He had found something that looked kind of like the original (close enough for him, at any rate; he wasn't some pussy who liked to decorate) and was gluing it up in what was approximately straight up and down. He didn't even notice when Roderich walked into the room. Roderich watched him struggling with the wallpaper for a long moment. "Why are you doing this?" he finally asked. His voice was strangely low.
Gilbert turned around and nearly fell off the step-stool. He grinned. "Don't let me stop you from playing your pretty tunes. I won't make much noise, I promise."
Roderich crossed his arms. "Why are you doing this? Are you fixing up the apartment so you can sell it?"
Gilbert stared at him, open-mouthed. There was something almost like fear in Roderich's eyes, but Gilbert must have been mistaken. "Sell it?" He laughed. "I don't think some pretty wallpaper is going to make up for this place's very own ghost."
"I'm not a ghost."
"You're immortal, you can basically walk through walls and become invisible . . ." Gilbert ticked the items off on one hand. "I'd say you're a ghost."
"Why are you doing this, then?" Roderich demanded. He breathed out sharply through his nose.
"No need to get so worked up about it," Gilbert said with a frown. He thought of something and smirked a little at Roderich. "Look at it this way. I doubt I'm going to be your 'True Love' or whatever, seeing as you had that wife you're apparently not over or whatever."
"That's not how it is," Roderich said with a frown. "It was an arranged marriage. We were both from powerful families. I grew fond of her, yes, but that's over now."
Gilbert shrugged. "Whatever. The point is, the awesome me is just fixing this place up nice so when I leave you won't have to feel so crumby all the time." He snapped his mouth shut and his eyes went wide; that had not been what he had intended to say at all. He hurriedly turned back to the wallpaper, which was slowly peeling itself off the wall. "Not that I care how you feel."
Roderich made a strange choking sound. Gilbert glanced over his shoulder with a frown, but before he could ask if Roderich was, what, dying or something? he had already left, the tail of his blue coat disappearing through the doorway. Gilbert shook his head and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. However, he couldn't deny the guilt that was welling up inside him.
Gilbert didn't see Roderich again until that evening when he was about to make himself some dinner. As he walked into the kitchen, Roderich walked out with a piece of bread in his hand. "I thought you don't need food," Gilbert said.
"Doesn't mean I don't like it," Roderich snapped. He swept past Gilbert. Gilbert didn't seem again that night.
When Gilbert woke up for work the next morning, he went through his normal routine and then stepped out into the living room. He stopped, and if he had been holding anything, he likely would have dropped it. Lying on the couch, flat on his back with his head buried in the pillow, was Roderich. He had taken off his coat and draped it over his legs like a blanket. Underneath, he was wearing a white collared shirt that was now mussed from sleep. His ascot was partially untied and fluttered gently with his breathing. He was beautiful.
Gilbert regained control of himself and poked Roderich with his toe. "Get up," he said. "I thought you were dignified. Dignified people don't sleep on the couch."
Roderich opened his eyes and they widened in surprise. He sat up and the coat fell off of him. He snatched it back up, stood up, and quickly threw it back on. He began to do up his buttons. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "I don't know what came over me."
"I thought you prefer to sleep as a cat, anyhow," Gilbert said. "Cuz of the time limit and everything."
"I must have not realized I fell asleep." Roderich still refused to meet his eyes, and there was a faint dusting of pink on his cheeks.
Gilbert frowned. "Whatever, dude. I'm making pancakes. Want some?"
Roderich looked up at that. "Yes, please."
Gilbert gave him one last doubtful look, and then headed to the kitchen.
Roderich ate two entire pancakes, which was more than Gilbert had seen him eat before put together. Gilbert threw the dishes in the sink. "Well, I'm off," he said.
"Alright," Roderich said, and he sounded almost sad about it.
Gilbert gave him a weird look, but he didn't say anything. "See you tonight." The door clicked shut behind him.
When Gilbert got home, Roderich was waiting for him. Theoretically he was reading a book, but Gilbert could tell that his eyes weren't moving. Gilbert went to the kitchen. He was half-way through cooking when he thought to poke his head outside and ask, "Do you want some of this?"
"No thank you," Roderich replied. Gilbert half expected him to say, I already ate; there was more food missing from the fridge than Gilbert remembered eating. Gilbert sat down next to Roderich and ate. When he was done, he picked up the book he had been reading and picked up where he had left off. An hour later, Gilbert realized that he hadn't seen cat-Roderich in a very, very long time.
Gilbert slowly lowered his book. Roderich still didn't seem to be reading. He was frowning determinedly at the pages in front of him, but his gaze was unfocused. "Roddy," Gilbert said quietly.
Roderich jumped and looked at him. "Yes?"
"You've been acting really weird lately."
It was hard to tell in the lamplight, but he was fairly certain that Roderich's face went paler than usual. "Really?"
"Yeah." Gilbert looked at the mantlepiece and sighed a little. Roderich had polished it recently. "Did you . . . find that 'True Love' of yours?"
Roderich made a strange stifled sound. There was long, tense moment of silence. Gilbert didn't look at him. He was surprised to hear how calm and steady Roderich's voice was when he spoke. "Yes."
Gilbert looked at him and smiled a little, showing off his teeth. "Not exactly what you were looking for?"
Roderich glanced at him, and then away. His cheeks turned pink. "Not what I was expecting, no."
"Better?" Gilbert teased.
"Stop it," Roderich snapped. He had been slowly turning red, but it now seemed to be from anger rather than than embarrassment. "The curse has been lifted, so I am now free to leave. I used to think that this place was mine, but I now understand that it isn't. If you will allow me some time to get my bearings, I will understand perfectly if you want me to leave."
Gilbert chuckled a little. "Nah, you're right. This is more your home than mine. You can stay if you like. There's space."
Roderich looked at his hands. "Alright," he said finally. He stood, the movement stiff but elegant. "I'll be upstairs." He turned and left the room.
Gilbert watched as he disappeared up the wooden stairs. It was only then that Gilbert allowed himself to throw his head back against the couch and let out a stifled groan. "Why is life so hard?"he complained to the ceiling.
The next morning, Roderich came down late specifically so that he wouldn't see Gilbert before he left for work. He was therefore surprised to see Gilbert sitting on the couch, eating the remains of his breakfast and reading a newspaper. Gilbert turned around and grinned just as he reached the last step. "Good morning, sunshine."
"Good morning," Roderich said stiffly. He hesitated, unsure of whether he should retreat back up the stairs or not.
Gilbert patted the spot next to him enthusiastically. "Sit. I made extra breakfast."
Roderich carefully sat down on the opposite end of the couch and took the plate of food that was offered to him. He took a careful bite and looked at Gilbert. "Don't you have work?"
Gilbert shrugged. "I deserve an extra day off. Besides, I can always tell them I was sick or something."
Roderich said nothing further until he was done eating. He took Gilbert's plate and did the dishes, though not without a lot of frowning and looking significantly in Gilbert's direction, who still hadn't done the dishes from the night before. Gilbert innocently continued to read the paper.
"Alright," Gilbert said the moment Roderich turned off the water, "We're going out."
"Excuse me?" Roderich asked after a pause.
"You don't think you can get away with those clothes in the real world, do you?" Gilbert asked, waving at Roderich's outfit in general. "You can probably keep the shirt, but everything else has to go."
Roderich turned a little pink. "I'll have you know these are very fashionable."
"Were. Now come on, I'll lend you some of my stuff for now." Gilbert went and fetched a pair of almost-nice pants and a leather jacket for Roderich to try. He looked at them distastefully, but disappeared into the bathroom. He reappeared a moment later dressed in a strange mixture of old and new clothing that made Gilbert grin, though Roderich's glare was enough to keep him from laughing. The pants were too long and a bit too wide in the waist, but it wasn't anything a belt and rolled cuffs wouldn't fix. The shoes were a real problem, but Gilbert decided they were acceptable as long as he kept the pants long enough to mostly cover them.
Finally, Gilbert deemed them ready. He grabbed his keys, opened the door, and stepped out. He looked back to find Roderich still at the doorway, staring at the division between the apartment and the hallway outside as if it were an insurmountable barrier. For a moment, Gilbert felt something in him soften. "Come on," he said, and grabbed Roderich's hand. Roderich looked up in surprise, and before he knew it Gilbert had tugged him over the doorjamb. Gilbert smiled and let go of Roderich's hand. He locked the door behind them and set out. Roderich glanced back at the apartment once more, and then he followed Gilbert outside.
Gilbert could see that Roderich was a little chilly, but he knew the best thing for that was to get him some real clothing. After a few minutes of walking, Roderich began asking questions which Gilbert was only too happy to "awesomely" answer. Roderich knew a surprising amount about the outside world for having been cooped up for so long, but there was still a very large difference between hearing about something and seeing it. Cars were surprisingly easy for him to accept. "I would have expected technology to have come farther since then, actually," Roderich said in his snooty way, which made Gilbert grind his teeth. However, it wasn't long before Roderich was occupied with trying on clothes. By the time they were done, Roderich had a full wardrobe (including underwear and socks, of course; Gilbert had especially had lots of fun insisting on picking out those) and a much better understanding of what he called "new" Vienna. They picked up some food and headed back to the apartment.
As soon as they were back, Roderich made to disappear upstairs under the pretense of changing into some of his new clothes. Gilbert, however, knew that if he went upstairs he wasn't going to reappear for hours. Gilbert caught his sleeve and said, "Wait." Roderich stopped and glared at him. Gilbert smiled. "Why don't you try them on in the bathroom down here?" Roderich opened his mouth to protest, but Gilbert cut him off. "You don't think the awesome me is going to let you put everything on backwards, do you? I'll wait."
"Fine," Roderich said, and Gilbert released his sleeve. "But I'm not incompetent." He took his new clothes and stormed off to the bathroom.
When he reappeared a few minutes later, he was wearing dark slacks and a pressed white shirt. He looked uncomfortable in the unfamiliar clothing, but the clothes also happened to fit him very well. Gilbert let out a wolf-whistle, which made Roderich jump and glare at him. Gilbert grinned. "See, you fit right in here. Maybe in a few weeks we'll have you wearing a t-shirt and jeans."
Roderich sighed. "Gilbert, when are you leaving?"
Gilbert had not been expecting that question. "What?"
Roderich moved a little closer to him and crossed his arms. "Be honest. This is all only temporary for you, isn't it? Taking care of me?" Roderich's cheeks turned a little pink, but he ignored it. "When are you leaving?"
"Why would you think I was leaving?"
"You were talking earlier about why you were fixing up the house," Roderich said as if Gilbert needed things to be explained to him slowly. "You said–"
"I'm not leaving!" There was a pink flush on Gilbert's cheeks, but it was from anger. "I was talking about when I died, four-eyes! But you're not immortal anymore, are you? So we don't have to worry about that."
"Oh," Roderich said quietly.
Gilbert stepped closer to him. "When did you figure out this whole 'True Love' thing, anyway? I don't remember kissing Sleeping Beauty. Did some fairy come and write my name in pink sparkles on the wall?" Gilbert was frustrated. "How come I don't have someone telling me who my 'True Love' is?"
Roderich had become tense and stiff again. He crossed his arms across his chest. "I noticed when you said you were leaving. All I had to do was realize I–" His voice stuttered a little. "I was in love with you. No one told me anything!"
"Fine," Gilbert growled. He covered the two steps between them in an instant. He set one hand on Roderich's waist, held his head in the other, and kissed him.
He felt Roderich melt into him. Something simply relaxed and he automatically leaned into the kiss. Gilbert felt a jolt that traveled all the way down to his fingertips. There was something more than that, though, something simply perfect that floated in the air between them, something that Gilbert couldn't grasp. That was when Gilbert knew. He had wondered and a part of him had suspected, but until then he had not known that he was in love with Roderich Edelstein. He never wanted to leave, and so he wasn't going to. It was as simple as that.
When they separated, Gilbert didn't let go. "Isn't part of someone being your True Love that they love you back?" he whispered with a grin into the soft skin of Roderich's cheek.
"I wouldn't know," Roderich breathed back.
Gilbert chuckled, low and deep. "This witch of yours didn't tell you jack shit, did she?"
Roderich smiled. "We weren't exactly on the best of terms, as you may recall."
"Well, I kind of wish this Elizabeta were still around so that I could thank her for making sure you got the most awesome, perfect True Love in the world."
"I suppose she might have had the right idea," Roderich conceded. "I do believe her reasoning was something along the lines of, 'You deserve to be happy, but I bet that no one exists now or in a hundred years who can make you happy.'" Roderich pecked Gilbert on the lips. "I'm glad to have proven her wrong."
"Well then," Gilbert growled into Roderich's neck, "I guess I had better get to showing you just how happy I can make you." He pushed Roderich back against the couch until his knees gave way. Roderich flopped back against the cushions with a smile.
"Yes, why don't you."
It took some convincing on Gilbert's part, but Roderich eventually allowed him to buy him a suit, complete with coattails, and arrange for him to audition for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Roderich kept protesting, but Gilbert demanded that he give the orchestra one honest song and see if they didn't all fall over themselves to try to hire him. Roderich gave him a disbelieving look, but he let Gilbert rent a taxi and take him there. When Roderich got out, incredibly nervous but not about to show it, Gilbert poked his head out the door after him. "I'd like to see you show them how it's down," Gilbert said with a grin, "But I have stuff to do. I'll wait for you at home."
They both knew that "I have stuff to do" really meant, "I'm not allowed inside." Roderich nodded and gave him a slight smile. "Of course. Until then."
Gilbert retreated back inside the taxi reluctantly and watched Roderich out the window for as long as he could. He knew, even if Roderich didn't want to accept it, that Roderich was special.
Roderich came home later that day with a sort of dazed glow about him. He had gotten the job; he could – no, had – to play the piano every day. Gilbert grinned and laughed with him. "Soon," Gilbert teased, "You'll be able to buy this whole building and fix it up like it used to be."
Five years later, that was exactly what Roderich did. The same week, Gilbert had saved up enough to buy the diamond ring he had always known Roderich deserved. It was ancient, from the 1800s, even. It appeared delicate and elegant, but there was a strength to it, and not even the years could have dulled its shine.
It was no surprise to either of them that Roderich said yes.