Disclaimer: The Big O does not belong to me. It belongs to Sotsu Agency, Sunrise, etc. However, this story and the characters (or versions of the characters, as it may be) belong to ME. Don't plagiarize or I'll send the Big O after you!

Note: "Pianissimo" is a term used in music meaning that this part of the piece should be played "very softly."

Pianissimo
by Fushigi Kismet

The keys were ivory and shining.

Her fingers ran along the length of them, feeling their smoothness against her skin. She wondered if their notes still sounded as clear as she remembered, tuned daily to an impersonal precise perfection.

She struck a high C and listened for a moment, her eyes shut, to the sound of the note filling the air around her and felt the answering vibration in her bones.

'Pianissimo,' she reminded herself as she struck another note, aware that the rest of the house was sleeping and that she wanted to keep this moment for herself alone.

She played mechanically for a bit, wandering through bits of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Pachelbel, Tchiakowsky with all the accuracy and feeling of a brilliantly gifted machine built to surpass all the musical skill of anything living, but lacking, still, the emotions that made any music radiantly alive. Then, suddenly, abruptly, her playing changed, mellowed . . . twisted and fell, rose up and was reformed, remolded, like liquid metal being shaped into something beautiful, like blown glass as fragile and beautiful as a soap bubble shimmering with rainbows and about to burst . . . as she herself underwent a transfiguration from mechanical being to human being, and what before might have been mistaken as cleverly concealed metal and wire suddenly softened into the fluidity and reality of flesh and bone.

The notes now blossoming beneath the touch of her fingertips were not anyone's but her own . . . a reflection of her soul and self, drawn out and expressed with the magnitude and intimacy of music for the pleasure of oneself, of being able to glorify oneself in that instant of release from reality when there is nothing but fingers pressed to flashing white and black keys, sound rising up in response to one's desire . . . one's much-touted and valued skill, but with no one to please but oneself as the music washes over and over and away like the tide or the insistent lap of a playful wave until it draws one into the water, deeper and deeper, until the bottom vanishes and then comes the falling and the sinking into the beautiful black depths of the water of one's soul where there is peace, and quiet, and the motion of the sea with the sparkle of the sun on the surface of the water above . . . and then there is the breaking through, the meeting of water and sky, of dark and light, and then the first, precious breath.

The last note echoed for a long instant before fading and she opened her eyes to see the piano before her and her fingers resting limply on the keys. She ran one finger along the top of the shining keys in silent reverence, acknowledging the instrument's ability to release the shadows of her soul, to unlock the doors within her heart, to bring her, once again, to herself.

"That was very nice."

Her head turned to look at the source of the laughing voice that had interrupted her reverie, that had broached her solitude, that had been present at the moment of her personal homecoming.

The unwanted intrusion upon her self-imposed isolation.

Her dark brown eyes met a pair of laughing blue ones, and she glimpsed them in a blurred instant along with light gold hair, and the amused smile of a man leaning against the side of the instrument as she stood and violently whirled from the grand piano in a sharply awkward motion full of anger and confusion.

"Hey, now." The laughter had fled from the voice and had been replaced by something more solemn and disturbing to her for its touch of concern.

"Please remove your hand," she bit out.

He looked down and saw the hand holding fast to her arm. "No," he replied steadily, "I don't think so. Not yet."

"Release me. Now."

"Not until you listen to what I have to say," he said firmly, exerting enough pressure on his grip on her arm that she had to sit down on the bench and stare resolutely and unseeing at the piano. He remained standing, looking down at her. "Look, Miss, I'm sorry if I've disturbed you tonight or invaded your privacy or simply intruded. I simply heard your playing and my curiosity simply prompted me to come and see who it was. I didn't mean to upset you."

"Fine," she snapped, "will you let me go now?"

He opened his hand and took a step back. "My apologies."

She rubbed at her arm for a moment where the skin was slightly reddening and continued staring at the piano. When her fingers had ceased to move against her flesh, something in her seemed to give way, and the hardness in her form and features imperceptibly softened. "It's all right. I'm sorry for being overly harsh with you. I just didn't expect anyone to still be up."

"Nor did I," he admitted. "I couldn't sleep and was wandering around rather aimlessly, I must admit. Oh, by the way, I'm-"

"Rodney Smith," she finished for him, finally turning to face him. "Oh, don't look like that," she said to his startled expression. "Your reputation proceeds you, and despite not having been properly introduced, I have seen you before, and I ought to know who's staying in my own home, after all."

"Then you're . . . ?"

"Dorothy Wayneright," she affirmed with a laugh that sounded remarkably cheerful. "Surprised, are you?"

"A little, yes."

"Not what you expected, I suppose." She turned her attention back to the piano, her hands lightly resting once more on the keys. "Well, schooling abroad doesn't alter one as much as people expect. I really don't think it changed me at all."

"I wouldn't say that," he said to her surprise. "From what I hear you were quite the tomboy when you were younger. I remember seeing a picture of you in the paper once, taken, oh, eight or nine years back."

"What was I doing?" she asked softly.

"Climbing a tree."

She laughed and again he found himself surprised by the liveliness of her laughter. "Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you but I still climb them on occasion. Any changes you may have noticed are purely superficial and probably have more to do with the passage of time than anything else. Well, except for the shorn hair. My boarding school rules at the time were rather strict," she said, wrinkling her nose in remembered distaste.

He looked at her long auburn hair pinned halfway up and arranged artfully about her shoulders, and reached out a hand to stroke one soft curl. "I see."

She flinched and inched away from him along the length of the bench.

"You're just back from University, right?" he asked, pretending not to notice her movement as he leaned once more against the piano, one arm draped over it in the manner of a close friend.

She eyed the arm. "Yes. I just graduated last week."

"Top of the class? With honors?"

"Naturally."

"Of course, I was forgetting all that I've heard about Miss Dorothy Wayneright."

"Which is?"

"That she is an exceedingly beautiful, accomplished woman."

She laughed. "About half of that is accurate."

"Ah, but I think you're accomplished as well." He smiled.

"Don't," she said, accompanying the statement with a frown.

"Hm?"

"I've heard a great deal about you, too," she replied. "Rodney Smith, rich playboy extraordinaire. Not a woman in the city he can't seduce. Well, I'm afraid you've just found one. I'm not about to succumb to your charms."

"Of course not," he said easily. "Dorothy Wayneright is our fair city's most renowned vestal virgin . . . something to aspire to but never to attain."

She turned away. "Is that what you've heard?"

He looked at her in amusement. "What? Isn't it accurate, Miss Wayneright?"

"That's none of your business!"

"A little too accurate, I see."

Her head whipped back around. "I SAID-"

"Quiet," he murmured, suddenly seated next to her on the bench, his arm draped around her shoulders. "We wouldn't want to wake the rest of the house, now, would we?"

"If you would kindly distance yourself-"

"No." His blue eyes looked down at her in thinly veiled amusement.

"What?"

"No, I don't want to. Does that make it more clear?"

She looked away from him. "You're insufferable."

"Quite. Now, how about you play that piece of yours again?"

"What for?"

He arched an eyebrow. "It is yours, isn't it, Miss Wayneright?"

"Yes."

"And have you written it down?"

"No."

"Well, then, I shall." He smiled at the question in her eyes. "It's quite extraordinary, like yourself, and I should think that you wouldn't object to having a written copy."

"You can write music?" she asked cautiously with a faint glimmer of interest.

"I'm not just a rich playboy, you know." He winked. "One would like to perceive a little depth in oneself. I find that it's easier for me in the medium of music. I am afraid that I'm serious about few things. Not women, as you seem to think. Certainly not business. No, I prefer to stick to notes and chords, myself."

She burst into laughter. "Rodney Smith? Struggling musician? Now I've heard everything!"

He gave her an affronted look of hurt, which she couldn't decipher as either genuine or mocking. "Really, Miss Wayneright, is it so impossible?"

"Play something then," she demanded, uncertain whether to be sorry or annoyed. "Show me." She moved over on the bench to give him more room and he lifted the arm about her shoulders, resting his hands lightly on the keys.

There was a pause and she entertained the notion that he really didn't know how to play at all, but then his fingers pressed down on the keys and her eyes turned to him in unfeigned surprise.

The song was something foreign and haunting, a loneliness crystallized in the pristine notes of music, something that she feared would shatter if she were to breathe too deeply. It came tenuously to her, notes threading about a melody too poignant for her to bear. She shut her eyes against it, closed her mind and heart to it, and, suddenly, it stopped.

She opened her eyes to find her hand pressed against Rodney Smith's shoulder, her fingers twisted about the cloth of his shirt, and she realized that she had been whispering, "Stop."

The look he turned to her was searching. "A happier tune then, Miss Wayneright?"

"Can you play one?" she asked, and there was a note in her voice that sounded like a plea.

He glanced at her a moment longer before looking away. "I can pretend."

"Then don't play anything!" she said, forcing herself to let go of his shirt.

He gave her a nod, a hint of mockery in his smile. "As you please. Then I shall expect you to play," he said, lifting her hands and placing them on the keys as he shifted to give her more space. "Play, Miss Wayneright, and erase these last few minutes."

"Was that it?" she asked him, not moving, her eyes fixed on his face. "Was that yourself?"

"Yes. I suppose you can say it was."

"Then I shall never be able to erase that song."

"Then transform it," he urged her. "You may have the talent to ease it into something a bit more cheerful."

"I haven't the talent."

"No." His eyes were sharp. "It isn't the talent you lack. If anything, it's the will."

"Yes, and if I lack the will?"

"Then you have nothing."

A note split the silence; a clear high "C."

Their eyes met. He smiled without smiling, and, turning her face away from him, she went on.

-

He listened to her for several minutes, his eyes closed, and she tried valiantly to ignore his presence but the feeling of his body near hers was disconcerting. She wanted to hide but there was nowhere to hide when she was laying bare her soul. It was disconcerting.

There was no way to transform his music, so she focused on her own instead and found, to her dismay, that it had altered in the instant between then and now. Still, it was recognizably her own self and she let it take her where it would, forgetting about time and Rodney and anything but her music.

She did not hear the scratch of the pen against a piece of paper and she did not see the way his eyes were looking at her.

It was only when startled her into stopping by saying, "Yes," and touching her shoulder with the barest brush of his fingertips that she noticed the paper covered with note-markings. "I should very much like to transcribe your music."

She looked at him, ready to argue again that she had no use for him and any type of offer he was making her when they both heard the heavy tread of footsteps from down the hall.

They stared at each other in mutual dismay for it was a common rule in the house that one was not to wander outside of one's room in the middle of the night. It was something everyone who stayed in the house had to agree to obey. On this rule Dorothy's father was adamant and no one, least of all Dorothy herself, was excluded.

Dorothy shut off the piano lamp with haste and glanced about in alarm. Rodney ducked behind the couch and, snagging her wrist, pulled her down with him. She landed ungracefully next to him and they held very still as the housekeeper entered, circled the floor in the middle of the room, glanced suspiciously at the piano, then walked over to the sliding glass door and shut it firmly, locking it. The floor creaked from the heavy tread of her feet. The couch caught her attention for an instant, but as she advanced towards it, her ankle let out a sharp crack and she stopped, wincing. There was no use checking behind the couch in a deserted room after all. Looking highly disgruntled and a bit nervous, she left the room, shutting the solid wooden door behind her.

Dorothy and Rodney waited a good five minutes hardly daring to breathe before they were sure she had gone. Dorothy broke the silence with a laugh that Rodney quickly supplemented with his own until they were shaking with laughter. It was due, one would suppose, to a case of nerves rather than anything amusing about their own situation.

When their laughter had died down, she turned to him, ready to thank him for his quick thinking, but the touch of his lips on hers forestalled the escape of any words she might have said. Her eyes widened, but she didn't pull away, caught in the strange web of attraction and fascination he had somehow managed to weave about her. She felt herself responding to his kiss, and when he finally pulled away it was not without regret that she let him go.

"Now, Miss Wayneright," he said, blue eyes strangely dark, "that wasn't so bad, was it?"

The flush spreading across her cheeks was enough of an answer for him as she quickly rose to her feet, muttering a jumble of thanks and excuses. "Thanks, it was lovely. I mean the music was . . . and I really have to go to bed now . . . by myself! Oh look, it's quite late! I've no time to be kis - wasting!"

"I'll see you tomorrow night then?" he asked, with an arched eyebrow.

She paused in her litany to look at him. "No!"

"Same time, same place?"

She turned and ran out of the room, a whispered, "No," lingering in the air behind her.

He smiled.

-

She stepped into the room, her eyes alighting on the dark and solitary piano. Everything was quiet and dark, and she let out an indrawn breath as she stretched her hand out to turn on the lamp resting atop the instrument.

She felt a hand reach out and cover hers and the light went on with a flick of her wrist which he immediately turned over and pressed a gentle kiss to, smiling at her.

"Hello, Dorothy."

In the golden pool of light that the lamp cast amidst the drifting shadows of the room, she gazed steadily back at him, frozen like an animal in a predator's gaze with nowhere left to hide or run but straight into the predator's waiting jaws. "Rodney."

"Well," he said easily, "let's get to that music, shall we?" He moved away from her and she silently asked herself where he had sprung from in the stillness of the room, where in the darkness he had been sitting, patiently waiting for her entrance. She wondered anew why she had come again, this night of all nights, venturing forth to this one lonely corner of the house. But the piano drew her, and he, too, drew her with some subtle magic all his own.

Had she fallen, then, so easily into his spell?

She seated herself at the piano, he beside her, and she noted that he had transcribed the previous night's hasty notation onto actual music sheets, and that he had prepared by bringing several more blank sheets with him and what looked like a well-sharpened crayon but in reality was a mere stub of a disfigured pencil. Yes, he was a musician.

"Why aren't you happy, Rodney?" she demanded quietly, looking at him.

"Such a prying question. Are you always so forthright?"

She made no answer, her eyes resting on him. She had never made it a habit to insist on anything. Waiting for what she wanted to come to her was far more satisfying.

She did not have long to wait as he fiddled with the pencil, his eyes looking into some inner darkness. "Why do people have to be happy? What is this human obsession with happiness?"

"People strive to banish pain from their lives."

An upward quirk of the lips which she realized now was an expression of profound pain. "Must happiness and pain exist separately then?"

"Yes."

"Then," he said, "I have never been happy."

She began to play.

-

"Stop, stop!" he said, a few stanzas into the song. "Again from the top, if you will."

"Whatever for?"

There was something harsh beneath his equanimity. "I don't settle for anything less than perfection. You must always be true to yourself, darling. If you cannot achieve perfection, you must at least strive towards some higher plane. There is nothing pleasing in mediocrity."

"And if one were to achieve perfection?"

"Ah, but that is, my dear Miss Wayneright, quite impossible. We live only to attain those moments of higher exultation. If we were ever once perfect, there would be no point to living. If you please, from the beginning. Let's start again."

She didn't know whether to be bemused or offended or merely politely indifferent. Indeed, she knew not what to make of him.

So, seeing as there was nothing else to do, she played.

They went on for a while, Rodney stopping her every so often and checking his notations for himself by playing the passages himself.

It was strange for her to hear her expression of herself coming from someone else. It was strange as well to watch him playing and realize that she liked his hands. They were strong and long-fingered and she liked them. They were piano-playing hands.

When she began playing again her mind was thinking of hands and she could not help but notice Rodney now when before she had attempted to ignore him.

And so, the music faltered and died.

She played the last chord over, staring at the piano in frustration. "It's never happened before. I don't know what comes next."

"Bad piano! Bad piano!" Rodney chided it, smacking it lightly with his hand.

"Rodney!" Dorothy exclaimed, grabbing his hand away. "Stop it! You shouldn't abuse the piano. It's not to bla . . ." Her words trailed away upon seeing the expression in his eyes. There held no amusement.

"Well then," he murmured, removing his hand from hers and cupping her face in it, and pulling it closer to his, "I ought to be punishing you then, oughtn't I? Bad Dorothy. Bad."

There was the brief pressure of his lips against hers and she felt her eyes closing as he kissed her lightly, once. Twice. Then he bent his head and captured her lips against his, more forcefully, and, unable to resist, she submitted readily to the pressure of his mouth. There was the click of the light turning off, and his voice said in the darkness, his lips pressing against her closed eyelids, "That's enough work for tonight."

His lips traveled from her eyelids back down to her mouth, and they spent a good long time with her mouth before she flicked the light back on. "That's enough play," she said sweetly, standing. "You may be Rodney Smith, playboy, but you've been underestimating this vestal virgin."

The grin didn't leave his lips. "Ah, but you haven't been fighting very hard, Miss Wayneright, if at all. And I'm the kind that will take what he's given and make the most of it."

"I'm not giving myself to you," she shot back, slightly flustered. His eyes were a cool shade of blue as he replied, "But I'm taking you anyway."

-

The nights followed one after another in rapid, ceaseless procession, like scenes ripped from unfinished romances, endless and forever unconcluded, build-up that veered too far from conclusion, tantalising unrealized promises and intimations in the dark, seduction without the ability to seduce, words and intent without meaning, confined passion and rampant virtue . . . .

It was Heaven and Hell in a flimsy masquerade.

-

Dorothy lived in the night and wandered in a daze through the day, associating with no one but her father and on rare occasions stumbling across some other guest in an unexpected twist of the mansion's deserted hallways. Sometimes that person was even Rodney, but she would disregard him as carelessly as though he were an ill- placed stone gargoyle that had wandered aimlessly inside from its quite proper perch on the roof. He would smile quite politely, like a stranger, and they would pass each other without a second's glance.

They were not living in the day. Only at night would they acknowledge one another and dare to tackle the knife-edge that separated both them and their world from everyone else and each other. Along it they would run screaming. It cut them impartially and their feet left marks of blood behind them.

But still, they played together like children.

Of all illusions, naivete is the most dangerous.

Of this, Rodney was only too aware.

-

She was driving him mad, or as near to madness as a man can come and still retain a reasonable semblance of control over himself. Nightly, he felt his control slipping. Daily, he slipped into a type of intelligent stupor in which he would think of things other than Dorothy's polite evasions and the pleasant taste of her lips. It was not that he did not have things to occupy his mind. He was much more than the rampant playboy and casual musician Dorothy thought him to be, but his work held not the tantalizing promise of pleasure for him, he was sure, that Miss Wayneright's flushed face and chaste conduct did.

Indeed, it did not.

-

He came later than usual one night and saw her sitting on the piano bench, her hands folded primly in her lap, staring at the keys. He wondered what it was she was waiting for and when she turned her head towards him, he knew.

She stood as he entered and made as though to walk past him. She thought she was angry with him but he knew better.

"I shan't come late again, darling," he said, trapping her against the wall with his arms.

"I don't care if you don't come at all," she replied icily but he knew it was a lie.

Her lips were soft and yielding.

"Don't give me that," he told her, kissing her again and pushing his fingers through her hair.

"Why . . . not?"

"Don't say anything if you don't mean it."

She was sinking against the wall as though her ability to stand had evaporated, and he was sinking with her.

His lips found her throat and her arms tightened about him as he kissed his way down to the low neck of her dress.

"You want me, don't you, Dorothy?" he murmured, his teeth nipping at her skin.

She made a small noise of protest but her body strained towards him prompting the appearance of his devilishly pleased grin. "Don't you?"

There was a brief scuffle between them as she tried to pull away and he trapped her against the floor, his weight pressing her down. "Don't be a child," he chastised her, nibbling at one of her ears.

"I don't want you," she protested, helplessly.

"Don't lie."

"I DON'T - Mmphf!"

He pulled away from her slowly, his mouth lingering on hers for an instant, savoring the taste of her.

He could feel her heart beating frantically and he wondered if he were to pierce her chest with his fingers if he could catch it before it fluttered away. Her eyes were half-shut, her lips still slightly parted, her hair spread out over the ground, and her dress exposing one pale shoulder.

The perfect image of a wanton.

-That pure image of yours. I'll shatter it.-

He ran a finger lazily down the side of her face. "Your words say one thing, but your body is telling me something quite different. I've always held that the body and the mind are one complete entity, not separate halves acting on their own . . . So, you tell me, Dorothy, what is it that you want?"

Her eyes closed fully. "I don't know."

"Yes, I think you do. You just don't want to open your eyes to see. Shall I awaken your sleeping self?"

"You can try."

His fingers undid the top two buttons of her shirt before her eyes could snap open and his mouth began kissing the curve of her breasts as his fingers undid two more buttons.

"No."

He felt her stiffen beneath him.

Blue eyes looked to brown. "Are you waking?"

She struck him hard, high on his left cheek beneath the eye. "Let me alone."

"God!" He sat upright and pulled away, the slap leaving reddening skin behind. "The vestal virgin strikes again!"

She looked up at him and pulled away, drawing tightly closed her open shirt, auburn hair serving as a further shield. Her cheeks were flushed red.

"Shall I play you a song?" he asked her.

"Stop it!" she hissed. "I hate you when you're like that! I hate you when you treat everything like it doesn't matter!"

"Then does it matter? Are there times when you don't hate me?"

Her eyes were startled, her words falling over themselves in confusion. "I don't . . . I don't hate you . . . all the time." "I don't hate you all the time either," he said and she could not tell if the light tone in his voice was faked or not.

"Then do you hate me sometimes?" she asked.

"Sometimes. Yes. When you deny me."

"I always deny you!"

"No." He tipped her chin up so he could look into her face. "You rarely deny me. And even when you do . . . you don't want to."

"Do you . . . Do you still think I want you?" she asked haltingly, a note of bitterness lingering in the words.

"Yes. Otherwise, you wouldn't fight so hard. You want me . . . almost as much as I want you when you deny me."

"And if you get me? What then?"

"I don't know."

"Are all your conquests that way? You pursue until you get what you want, and then you don't want it anymore?"

"More or less. If you wanted to escape, you would have given in by now."

"I don't want to give in to you."

A smile. "Only because you want to so desperately. That's why you're fighting it."

"I won't let you have me."

"Feeling as you do, I won't force you to submit. I never force an issue. I shall wait for you to come to me."

"There's only way that would ever happen. I would have to be willing to be nothing more than one of your soon-to-be-forgotten conquests."

"A brief and fleeting dream? But a beautiful one."

"That's all I'll ever be to you. Just that. Nothing more."

"I suppose that no more work is going to be accomplished tonight," he mused, glancing over at the last half-filled sheet.

"No," she said firmly. "Good night."

"Good night."

-

She woke in the dark.

It was an abrupt awakening and she could not fathom why her sleep had been so suddenly and completely disrupted.

Her body burned from where he had kissed her that night. Her chest felt strangely tight.

She wanted to . . . she wanted to . . .

She didn't know what she wanted.

Pressing a hand to her lips, she bit back a sob.

"It was a fleeting dream."

Turning over, she shut her eyes. And tried to sleep.

-

Still, unreasonably, inexorably, she was drawn to the music room, night after night. She tried not to think of reasons. In this matter logic would trouble her more than her apparent lack of it. But the music soothed her despite Rodney's presence, she would think, ignoring the fact that Rodney himself did anything but soothe her. Her arguments convinced no one, certainly not herself. If she had mentioned them to Rodney, he would have surely laughed.

Work was slowly progressing on the music, since it was impossible to accomplish much at all on a nightly basis. It was difficult for her to play amidst all the distractions Rodney managed to provide, even as he diligently copied down the notes of music while doing so.

She almost wondered if he would still be copying down music notes if they were to make love, but that thought was something she struck quickly from her mind lest she dwell too long on that unsavory prospect.

But she could not deny that her heart beat faster when she saw him framed against the doorway or seated amidst the glow of the piano lamp waiting for her.

So she went, unable to deny herself that secret pleasure.

-

Sometimes it was not so unpleasant. Most times it was not.

She wondered if she was in love with him.

She was too afraid of the answer to want to know.

-

That night he was seated next to her on the bench, his arms around her, his lips kissing her neck in the manner he had that would send shivers up and down her body.

"Don't you have any secrets, Dorothy?" he murmured against her throat, pencil numbering the fresh sheet of paper he held in his hand.

"No," she said immediately, playing a selection of Mozart with blinding speed to work out the stiffness in her fingers and hoping to hit him with her elbows.

"Surely you must have some."

"And if I did, must I tell you?"

"And why not?"

"I haven't asked you what your secrets are."

He pulled away, eyeing her suddenly. "What makes you think I have any? Haven't I been perfectly aboveboard?"

She did not look at him but the corner of her lips twitched in what might have been a suppressed smile. "My father told me something when I was very young. I have never forgotten it because I was never allowed to forget it. He said, 'This house is not like other people's homes. No one ever comes into this house without a reason. Ask no questions and seek no answers . . . don't even attempt it. The consequences will not be pleasant.'"

"Surely, he was joking."

Dorothy noted that he had not quite recovered his equilibrium. His comment had been strained; his eyes looked a little wild.

"Don't fret," she said, reassuring him for no reason she could fathom. "I won't ever ask. I don't care about whatever your business with my father and the other people staying in this house is. This house holds its secrets well and even I am not privy to them nor do I wish to be. That world is one I have never sought to be part of."

"Dorothy, I . . ."

She leaned towards him and kissed him once, very briefly, on the lips. "You what?"

He pulled her towards him as she began pulling away and their lips met again. "I don't give a damn about my business with your father right now. All I can see before me is you."

Their lips met and parted with the easy familiarity that comes with the act of breathing. He pushed her back against the piano and her elbow banged the keys. The jangle of notes introduced discordance in their harmony and she pulled away quickly, turning to stare at the piano. She was short of breath.

"A nice little interlude, that," he commented lazily, reaching out a hand to finger a lock of her brilliant red hair.

She stood swiftly, the hair sliding between his fingers like water. "I think that's it for tonight. Good evening." She was halfway across the room when he caught her, having taken an instant to pull the piano lamp's cord and leaving the room in darkness. He kissed the back of her neck, turned her in his arms and kissed her mouth once more.

"Won't you, darling?" he whispered in her ear.

"No, I don't think I will."

He opened his arms and she slipped effortlessly from both his arms and the room.

He didn't watch her go. Instead, he sat down on the bench and fingered the keys in the darkness.

"Brahms, then," he murmured quietly. "A lullaby."

-

He had been waiting for her for a very long time. That night the clock had ticked past two and three and four. He had sat in the darkness and played quietly, fingers touching the keys as though they were made of paper-thin glass. His mood was colored with melancholy. The music was heart breaking but somehow still an octave away from sadness all the same.

His fingers flowed over the keys and something in the music seemed to splash and fall, having cascaded from someplace far . . . but it was falling in reverse without rising. He did not know whether to laugh or weep at the change the music reflected. So he played, sound rising about him like invisible pillars that unraveled and bled together until he was safely encased in a nexus of sound. And yet, it was still quiet.

She was not coming, he thought desolately. She had finally decided that enough was enough and would never grace his presence again. It was to be expected, he supposed. It was stupid to think otherwise, that she might have fallen, after all, for his charms. Tonight she had gone to the opera with her father. She had returned alone four hours ago and retreated to her room. They typically met in the hour after midnight.

She had not appeared.

It was to be expected.

He knew enough of the workings of this house to expect it. He should have known as much long ago and given in to futility.

He should not have allowed himself to get caught in his own snare.

Of all his failings, that was the worst.

-

He stopped playing mid-note and stared at the white and black keys. He turned on the lamp. Taking a deep breath, he cleared his mind and focused only on the glossy contrast of the keys in the dim puddle of light. Trying not to think he pressed his fingers to the keys.

The first note was different.

It rang out clearly, in its own voice, but as the rest of the notes followed, he realized, belatedly, that the music had gotten away from him after all. It was speaking his mind for him and he hated it and loved it for it.

The keys glowed.

The music rippled and faded, grew and rose and fell like breathing. It made his heart ache because it spoke to him in her voice and he played through the nights of her evasion, of her pursuit, of the brief moments of understanding that passed between them . . . .

It hurt him to do it.

Somehow, he was evoking her in the music. The passage that gentled the motion of his fingers was her name and he took the time to caress it, drawing the notes closely about him.

Then, because there was no escape from it, he took her music and threaded it through his own. There, he made love to her, and the trembling of the music was that of her body, and the notes flowed quickly and lightly like careless kisses.

And as the music had promised, he could feel her. She was leaning against the doorway behind him, thin and bright like a shaft of moonlight. He closed his eyes.

-

He shouldn't have let himself get caught.

-

He felt arms wrap around his shoulders from behind, felt the smoothness of her cheek pressed against his, felt, against his back, the steady beating of her heart. Felt, too, her tears.

-

He played.

She didn't want to listen. Didn't want to hear. Couldn't help hearing. Couldn't help wanting to hear. Wasn't this what she had been waiting for all this time?

Why? Her mind was a-whirl. There was nothing to hope for anymore. There was no more reason to pretend. Not when her fate had been so neatly signed and sealed.

So why did she still hope for things that could never come to pass? Why did she still persist in deluding herself?

The things she wanted were unattainable.

And still the music was calling.

-

She reached out and covered his hand, stilling it. Silence fell like a curtain dropped across the room.

There was no sense of time or motion but somehow her body was in his embrace, her lips were on his lips, and there was nothing else - not the pretense of work or the presence of music - there was nothing but the two of them in all the world.

-

Rodney knew there were to be no more evasions. Dorothy knew it too. She made no objection as Rodney gathered her in his arms and rose from the piano bench, as he roughly deposited her on the couch. His eyes were hungry and faintly luminous. He crouched beside her and opened the jeweled clasps in her hair, allowing it to fall freely about her shoulders. His fingers undid the fastenings of her necklace; it fell into her outstretched hand in a tangled heap of glittering gold.

His lips met the nape of her neck; she shivered a little and turned to face him, lips parting in what might have been his name. He took those lips, took them as he would take her that night, and she did responded without hesitation and he found that her need went even deeper than his own. He had never before known this side of her; she had kept him from her with outstretched hands.

Those hands were now wandering as they had never seen fit to wander before, and he found that he was savagely glad that he had not been alone in the flames of his desire but that she, too, had suffered. That she would now show any sort of need meant that somehow, something had changed between them. It was not just he who had been altered by those interminable nights alone.

Rodney Smith was tired of playing.

"I want you, Dorothy," he breathed into her hair. "God, I want you more than I've ever wanted any woman. You, just you."

"Do you?" The question was almost a sob. "Do you really? I'm not just another one of your conquests?"

Incredulous, he laughed. "You're not just another anything. I've never spent this much time pursuing any woman. None of them were worth it. I've never wanted anyone this badly. But, I will have you, before this night is through, won't I, darling?"

He did not wait for her answer, but her arms tightened around him as he kissed her again.

He had been waiting for her for so long.

-

She was afraid. She knew it as fear. She tasted it and felt it flowing through her body. Before tonight she might have been safe, hiding behind pretenses and denying everything, but after tonight she would not have that false security again. After tonight she could not afford these ill spent evenings.

That had been made absolutely clear to her.

It wasn't enough to want it, she thought, desperately. It wasn't enough. Not when you would be forced to make it disappear with your own hands. Not when your actions were predetermined to hurt you. To hurt him.

Not when it was living inside nothing more than a dream.

-

She pulled away.

"I can't!"

There was a hard set to his eyes and mouth but the look he gave her was a mild one. "Can't, darling? You mustn't use words that don't carry the correct meaning."

"Won't, then," she snapped, trying not to look at him. "I won't!"

"Much better."

"I don't see why it's such a surprise to you," she said, shaking. "I mean, I'm the vestal virgin, after all, aren't I? Isn't that what you called me when we first met? You knew all about me then . . . what made you think that you could change me!"

"Yes," there was a note of wry wistful wonder in his voice, "what made me think it? It isn't much of a surprise after all, now, is it? I knew you were an engaged woman since before I laid eyes on you."

The color fled from her face and her eyes went wide in something akin to terror. "How did you . . . ?"

"Oh, word gets around," he said lightly. "He's had his eye on you for years. And naturally I've seen how he looks at you. Besides, your father owes him quite a lot of money, doesn't he? Among many other things. He owes him so much that the only way he can even think to repay him is with his only daughter. It's a good thing you're beautiful, Dorothy."

She flinched as though it had been a physical blow. "I had no choice. I only just found out myself."

"Yes, of course." His gaze was genuinely pitying. "My poor little Dorothy. Nothing but a pawn to be used and discarded on the playing field. I know you haven't any choice in the matter. Not if you love your father, and you do, don't you?"

Her eyes held a mute appeal to stop.

"Am I hurting you?" His mouth twisted in a motion of agony. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to . . . I never meant to. God, who knew that I would learn to love you? I didn't at first . . . I've never loved any woman, and yes, you were right, there's never been a woman I couldn't have. So I thought it would be a pleasant diversion to tease myself with an unattainable woman and see if even that could be overcome. And dammit all if I can't have you after all! When you're the only one I want."

He laughed, but the sound as it met both their ears was something tortured and tormented. A muffled scream. "I'm sorry, darling. I'm sorry that I did this to us."

He reached out a hand and pulled her into his arms. His lips met hers bruisingly for an instant as he crushed her against him. "This was mine, Dorothy. For a short time, anyway. But you, my darling, it seems you never were." His fingers trailed along her face for an instant more before he turned and, releasing her, stalked through the door.

She stood, her shaking fingers finding the edge of a table for support as her body shuddered and her legs threatened to collapse beneath her. She unsteadily made her way to the piano and sitting before it, touched the keys with fingers grown suddenly weak and limp. They reached up to touch the music, but as they did so, gained sudden strength, and curling in on themselves, she lashed out, striking the music from the stand.

The pages softly fluttered to the ground like birds alighting from a short, frenzied flight.

She did not move for a long time, her eyes staring, unseeing. When she finally gained the ability to move, she stood, and bending down, gathered the scattered sheets of music, tapped them together, and laid them gently back against the stand. Only then did she permit herself to touch stiff fingers to the silver streaking her cheeks.

-

A pale wraith haunted the corridors of the Wayneright manor. Something with no more substance than a will-o-the-wisp and could barely be distinguished from the long shadows that clung to the edges and the corners of the building if not for the brief gleam of moonlight on ivory skin from a solitary window.

It paused before a door, and a shiver seemed to go through it, like the wind through the trees. She raised slim fingers that curled in on themselves, then knocked, once, softly against the wood of the door.

One heartbeat. Two.

The door opened and he looked at her, trembling before him. The door opened wider and he stepped to one side, inclining his head, as his hand made a sweeping motion to usher her inside. She stepped in and he swung the door back.

It made a clicking sound as it closed firmly behind her. He looked at her for an instant, taking in the insubstantial gossamer negligee that clung to her body but did nothing to conceal it, took in the sight of that thinly veiled body, and perceived the paleness of her face, before asking quietly, "Why are you here?" "I don't know. I-" She faltered and feel silent.

"There's only one reason for you to be here, and that one is impossible."

"That I want to be here?" Her voice was quiet.

He let out a breath, his eyes resting on her. "Yes."

She looked away. "I don't know what I want anymore."

"You should leave." The words were harsh and unrelenting.

She turned and walked silently past him towards the door, but he grabbed her wrist and she turned to him, eyes wide and tortured, as he pulled her into his arms. "You should know better than to walk into the lion's lair, my darling. There's very little chance you'll walk back out again."

"I don't care." Her lips trembled. "Even if it's self- immolation. As long as you still want me, despite everything. Even if it's for only one night. For me, always . . . there was only you."

There were no more words as their lips met, as her fingers undid the buttons of his shirt, as his hands tore at the thin cloth covering her, as skin touched skin and body met body.

Then she was sinking against the bed, and he was pressed against her, and she felt his fingers gliding over her body, felt them running over her with the skill born of practice, felt sound rising from herself in response to his promptings, felt the music being drawn from her, a melody she hadn't known before tonight rising and falling, a tortured exquisite song as she sang like an instrument alive beneath a master musician's hands.

She was saying something but she couldn't hear the words, couldn't comprehend what she was saying, couldn't do anything but feel, and love, and let herself be loved as he guided her body into a rhythm more ancient than man, into a rhapsody of motion and sensation, their bodies melding in harmony, the beat the primal pounding of her heart.

-

She was hot and she was rising as though she were a bird who had flown too close to the sun and she wondered if the wax on her wings was melting . . . if she could continue to fly, or if she would falter and fall . . .

-

And she was falling through the black depth of water . . .

God, it felt good to sink for a while with nothing but the coolness of the water against the burning of her body. With nothing but the still and quiet of the water without to calm the turmoil and maddening tumult within. To float in oblivion for a moment and wonder at existence . . . and why one had to exist, could not simply let go and allow oneself to descend forever through the water.

But then there was pain, and she found that she couldn't breathe . . . that she was going to die, was going to die, here, now, because of the pain of her body of the breath she couldn't take, of the pounding explosion of her heart . . . Then she was rising, rising, bursting through the shining surface of the water, surrounding by nothing but the water and the sky and the sun beating of her face as she took a life-giving breath and the pain went, swept away by pleasure. The pleasure of being alive, of breathing, of returning . . . returning to herself.

-

"It's all right, Dorothy," she distantly heard his voice saying. "It's all right now. You're all right."

She discovered that she was clinging to him, clinging as a drowning person will cling to any bit of flotsam floating past, desperate to survive, to find some way of escaping . . . of living.

"You're all right," he repeated, as the last vestiges of pleasure washed over her and left her like the fast receding tide.

She was trembling. Her whole body was shaking with the memory of a joy too profound to be expressed in mere speech. She looked up at him, at the face of the man who had brought her to this, who had done what nothing but music had been able to do before . . . who had brought her to pain and pleasure, to the brink of death and the birth of life, and returned her to herself.

She wondered how she could have ever been anything but all right in the whole of her life when it had all led to this one complete moment, to this miraculous discovery of self and purpose . . . to the will and desire to live.

"Rodney."

He ran a finger lightly down the side of her face and she shivered at the intimacy of his touch, at the remembered earlier caresses of those hands. "Dorothy." His voice was heavy with emotion, and she could see that he, too, was trembling. She thought, wonderingly, that she had brought him to this . . . that she had returned him to himself as no other woman had been able to. That she had brought him to happiness.

His lips met hers softly, almost hesitantly, and the way he kissed her now was different than before, less demanding. But the desire was still there and she was glad that his hunger had been lessened but not sated. He pulled away and rolled onto his back, looking up at the ceiling.

She reached over and took his hand in hers, and they continued to look up at the ceiling, not speaking, content with their silence, knowing that more had been imparted to the other silently than could ever be through words.

After a while, she turned to him, the smile on her lips matching the one in her eyes. "It seems I've learned the melody."

He pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her, their lips meeting. He traced a delicate pattern on her body with his fingertips, looking at her face as he did so. Bending forward, he pressed a kiss to each of her fluttering eyelids. Pushing a fallen lock of hair gently behind one of her ears, he proceeded to nibble on the exposed flesh. His breath was warm against her ear and she shivered pleasantly. He murmured chidingly, "From the beginning, my darling. Let's start again."

-

For the remainder of that time of peace, that silent, serene time before the coming of the end and the destruction of all happiness, all memories, all joys . . . they loved each other in the only way they knew how, completely, with pain and joy, knowing that each night could be their last . . . each touch, kiss, caress, might never come again.

-

Then came the day when the memory of those times was washed away with the abruptness and absoluteness of footprints in the wet sand.

He sat in front of the piano in the ruins of the house, his hands resting lightly on the keys. He felt the touch of the breeze against his face and it was as though a hand were ruffling his hair, and she was peering over his shoulder at the half-written composition that still rested on the piano.

He wished he could remember her face . . . or her name . . . or anything but the half-formed memories that clung to him like partially dissolved shadows and held no more meaning than the dirt that clung to the soles of his shoes.

His hair was silvering along the temples, the blue in his eyes had faded to a melancholy grey, and the smile had fled with the boyish enthusiasm, but there was still something within him that seemed to call out to those days . . . to invoke the memory of them to return.

But like this house, ancient and rotting, falling apart timber by timber with the years, encroached upon by weeds and moss and dust, the memory was nearly gone . . . Nothing remained except for his body's memory of pleasure and his mind's memory of words whispered in the still of the night, when darkness was all about them and he could not even see her face, only feel her heart beating in the body beneath his, feel the trembling of her arms and the brush of her lips against his skin,

"Pianissimo."