There’s an E flat in measure twenty-six that his fingers miss entirely.
Chase has played this piece a thousand times, could do it with his eyes closed, half asleep. He’s never missed that note before. It’s circled in light pencil just in case, like he does with all of the other accidentals, and it’s not usually a problem. He doesn’t know what happened.
He doesn’t know what went wrong. Except. Except maybe that he’s been at this for almost four hours now. Except maybe that his father is sitting on the couch a few feet behind him, his gaze like a rod of frozen metal that someone has pressed against Chase’s spine and maybe that’s what made his brain short-circuit, made his hands stumble over the keys. Natural instead of flat. White instead of black. It’s jarring and wrong, wrong, wrong. His hands twitch. He wants to go back now, five, six measures later, fix his mistake. Start over.
He doesn’t. He keeps playing. He doesn’t stop until he reaches the fermata at the end, foot pressed against the gold pedal as the sound slowly, softly fades out. He pauses, hands poised over the keys for a moment, and then pulls back.
Chase’s gaze snaps away from the piano to meet his father’s cold, cold stare. He hates that look. It’s the kind that brims with disdain and makes him want to crawl under the bench, sink beneath the floorboards, and it’s the kind that is becoming semi-permanent on his father’s face. So maybe he should be used to it by now. He’s not.
“I’ve been playing for hours,” he states clinically, trying not to sound like he’s arguing or complaining, neither of which his father will appreciate. It’s hard, though; he’s tired, and his hands hurt, and he doesn’t even like this piece very much.
“You missed a flat,” his father replies, as though he doesn’t know this, and Chase has to bite back his tongue to stop himself from interrupting, “and you’ll continue to play until you no longer sound like a joke.”
Chase bristles. “I sounded fine.” His tone is sharp, too sharp, just like the note he missed, but oh, he’s eleven years old and he hasn’t learned when to stop yet. “I did everything else right, and I’ve never missed that note before and I won’t miss it again—”
“You think fine is good enough?” Victor’s voice rises dangerously, teeters into mezzo-forte and then just forte. He’s standing now, and there’s a small instinct in the back of Chase’s mind that tells him to go, run, leave— but a much deeper fear keeps him tied to the piano bench, nails digging into the leather seat. “I’m asking you to do one thing, just one thing right , and that’s too much for you? Useless— play it until it’s perfect .”
His father lifts a hand. Chase flinches violently, heart thudding against his chest; 1-and- 2-and-3-and-4-and, heavy and succinct, like a metronome. “Okay,” he says, suddenly very small. “Okay.” He bites his tongue, turns the page. Starts the piece again.
His left wrist is wrapped in a jet-black brace.
Officially, this happened at lacrosse practice: someone checked him too hard, he landed on his hand wrong. It was an accident.
Unofficially, though. Unofficially, it was a consequence. He’d gotten cocky. Run his mouth too long, fought back, and he knows how this always goes but maybe he’d forgotten or maybe he’d just been stuck in one of those self-destructive places where he suddenly stops caring.
Whichever way. It’s not like it matters now. His wrist is broken, and he’s lost something vital: without his hands he can’t build anything, can’t play lacrosse or piano. Without those things, he can’t breathe.
He thinks maybe Victor did this knowingly. It seems calculated, purposeful; his father likes to do this, likes to strip him of his parts like he is a broken machine, pull him apart and leave him scrambling to put the pieces back together. Chase wonders, sometimes. Wonders if it is really because he cares, or if it makes him feel powerful. If it is just in Victor’s nature to be angry all of the time. If he has ever really loved Chase the way that Chase loves him.
He doesn’t know what to do with all of these questions that will always burn in the back of his throat, never asked or answered. So he just sits at the piano bench and plays, one-handed, half-hearted.
It’s not nearly loud enough.
The house has gone quiet, and maybe that is why. Maybe it’s because she catches him staring at it, thinking about how the keys will gather dust and slip out of tune now that there is no one left to play them, trying to summon the picture of Amy sitting there in front of it with her eyes closed and her hands dancing. Whatever the reason, Tina, her makeup spotless and her black dress unwrinkled, catches his eye and gestures to the piano.
“Play something for us,” she says quietly.
It is not a question, because Tina Minoru does not ask questions. It’s not an order either, though—Chase looks at her, at the softness exposed in her ever-hard eyes, at her knuckles white around her glass, and thinks it might be a request.
He stammers. Suddenly the room is too warm and his suit is too tight and he thinks if he tries his hands will seize up and he will break right there on the piano bench. “I—I couldn’t.”
Tina’s lips purse and Chase’s gaze meets Nico’s. Slowly, and so subtly it’s almost imperceptible, she nods at him. Her makeup is splotched where it has run and there’s a thread loose in her dress that she keeps tugging at, and there is something written over her face. It is not a plea, because Nico Minoru does not beg for anything. But he looks at her and thinks it might be a request.
“Okay,” he says finally, and takes a seat in front of the piano for Nico and for Tina and most of all, for Amy.
He wonders how many hours she spent here, how many memories of her linger in the air around him. He does not need to wonder what to play; he knows instantly, as though something within him has been preparing for this moment. The first note is too loud, too hard. But then his fingers go soft with muscle memory and he slides into the simple, elegant melody of Yiruma’s Letter with the ease of someone who has played it a million times before, and then there is music in every corner of the room.
Under different circumstances, his father would chastise him for this choice. But Chase is clinging to the memory of Amy beside him on the bench as they flowed through the piece in sync, letting their own harmonies bleed into it and joking about how their parents would react to them choosing a modern composer over someone like Dvořák or Mendelsson. It was their own act of quiet rebellion. This, this song, these keys—this was theirs.
Now it is splayed out in the open for everyone.
When he’s finished, there’s soft, gentle applause and a few whispered words of praise, and Chase sort of tucks his chin against his chest by way of a bow.
“That was beautiful,” Molly says quietly, fingers brushing against his arm.
He doesn’t really look at her, eyes on Nico, across the room and looking at him with her eyes glittering. “Thank you,” he forces himself to reply, his voice suddenly trapped in his throat. “But it was missing something.”
At home, Chase’s piano gathers dust in time with Amy’s.
He shouldn’t be here.
He’s supposed to be in class. He’s supposed to be scribbling down notes as Mr. Edelman lectures about the Cold War and his teammates draw dicks on each others’ desks. He’s supposed to be playing the model student, keeping up his grades and his pristine attendance record and he is not supposed to be here, cutting class for, god , for this—
Oh, but then. The theater doors had been open. The instrument had been sitting, glossy black and exposed, on the empty stage, begging him to come to it. A siren song in its own right. And Chase, foolish and yearning, had listened.
So now he’s here, in the middle of an empty auditorium, in front of a piano that doesn’t belong to him. His hands are shaking. Aching to play and yet hovering, apprehensive, over the keys, as if they are worried about what might happen if he does. After all, he hasn’t played since—
His heart thumps against his ribs, off-rhythm. He should leave. He should go back to class, apologize for being late, say he was in the bathroom or held up by another teacher and go back to being Chase the lacrosse player, Chase the perfect jock, Chase the asshole. He doesn’t need this, this reminder of everything he’s lost. He shouldn’t be here. He can’t—
Oh, but then.
His fingers move on their own, unbidden.
1-and-2-and 1-and-2-and the notes spill from him suddenly, desperately, as though they have been brimming and brimming and have finally overflown. The stiffness of his unpracticed hands yields easily to the familiarity of the motions; he plays the first movement of Moonlight Sonata as if he were born just for this, as though it is something his soul knows more than his head.
It is. It is too many things for him to explain. Love and longing and grief and home like he hasn’t had in so, so long. It is painful and healing all together and Chase plays and plays and thinks maybe he will never stop, thinks the world could end here and his fingers would still stay on these keys. There is music in every corner of the room and he is flying. He had forgotten what that felt like.
By the time it is over he is breathless. He feels raw and exposed and fragile, like the hardness he has been steadily building for months has been stripped away in an instant, but in so many ways it is freeing. The final chord rings and fades in the still air, and the music ends and the auditorium is empty again. Except—
There is a soft exhale from the front of the room. Chase’s eyes tear away from the keys and widen when they land on Gert, who is standing near the doorway and looking equal parts shell-shocked and in awe.
“What are you doing here?” he says, and it comes out perhaps more accussatory than he means it to but suddenly he is very vulnerable up there on the stage, unsure of how long she’s been sitting there and watching him pour his heart out.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice is shaken, hasty, “I just. I was, um, I have lunch, so I was going to the library and I heard music. The door was cracked, so I...” she trails, waving a hand vaguely, and then bites her lip. “I didn’t know you still played.”
Chase wants to laugh, strangely; he feels hot all over, flushed with the exhilaration of playing and now, this. He tries to take a breath, wills his heartbeat to come down from allegro to andante. “Honestly? Neither did I,” he shrugs, tucking his hands into his lap and turning towards her, sort of hoping she will take this as an invitation to stay. He does not know why he wants this. Perhaps the piano has filled him with nostalgia and longing, ignoring his attempts to push those feelings away for as long as possible. Perhaps it is the way Gert is looking at him, eyes huge and soft and admiring behind her glasses, the kind of expression that she keeps locked in a drawer only for special occasions. Perhaps it is because he is just so very tired of being alone.
But maybe she is too, because despite everything between them, she follows his lead. She makes her way towards the stage until she is right in front of it, propping her elbows up and looking at him with a strange mixture of caution and curiosity. “I figured,” she begins, “that if you were ditching class, it would be to go vape in the parking lot with your lacrosse buddies.”
“Vaping is gross,” he states. “And, I don’t know. I passed by the room and the piano was just sitting here and I felt like. Like I was supposed to play it, or something.” He hesitates. “That sounds so stupid.”
“It does,” Gert says, smirking at him a little, and then her eyes go soft again. “But your playing...that sounded amazing.” When Gert gives compliments, she is always genuine; he has never known her to say anything she doesn’t mean.
“I’m out of practice,” he tells her.
She rolls her eyes. “Like it matters, Chase. You’ve always been incredible at that. I’m pretty sure your hands are magical or something.”
“In more ways than one.” Chase waggles his eyebrows at her, grins.
“God, you’re disgusting,” she sputters, but then she’s laughing in that way that makes the bridge of her nose scrunch up, in that way that he hasn’t heard in far too long and he thinks fleetingly that the sound is like Moonlight Sonata in that one, it is beautiful, and two, his soul has known it forever. He’s missed being the reason for it, wants suddenly to reclaim that position.
“Do you remember when we were kids, when we used to put on those stupid little shows for our stuffed animals?” he asks her, already smiling fondly at the memory.
A grin spreads slowly across her face, hesitant but true. “When you would play and I would sing? God, yeah. We probably sounded terrible.” She laughs again, shaking her head as she does, and her purple curls dance and Chase is mesmerized.
“I don’t know,” he says, shrugs, “I think we made a pretty good duet.”
Something flickers across her face then, something pained or angry or wistful; it’s hard to place. Her eyes flit to the side. She looks. Lost. Sad in a way that he has only seen her look a handful of times before. “Yeah,” she breathes, so quietly he almost misses it. “We did.”
There’s a beat of silence, a quarter rest, and then he says, “We’re still kids, you know.”
He’s not sure what this is. A request? An attempt to make things right? An offering, an olive branch extended just far enough for her to take hold of if she reaches for it? He’s not even sure what he wants it to be. He just knows he wants to be the one to make her laugh again.
She looks up at him, and her eyes are glittering in the stage lights. Her mouth opens, as though she is going to say something, but then his phone buzzes on top of the piano at the same time that the bell rings. Eiffel is texting him and class is over. Whatever spell had fallen over them has broken.
“I should go,” Gert says abruptly, slings her bag over her shoulder. She is halfway to the door already.
Stay, he almost says, but the word dies in his throat. He lowers the piano cover back down over the keys. “I’ll see you around, Gert,” he replies, and then she is gone, and he exhales one last time before he goes back to holding his breath.
He finds it by accident.
Maybe it is some version of fate or luck or maybe something inside of him was drawn to it. Most likely it is a coincidence, but that doesn’t really matter. Not while he’s here, in this room—otherwise empty save for a small table with a dusty lamp and a stack of books, but housing what he thinks might be the best thing he’s found so far. Well. In competition with the Rolls.
Chase pulls the tarp away, sending up a cloud of dust, and takes in the sight of the piano, old and worn and brushed with gold from the sunlight that streams in from the cracked skylight above. It must’ve been shiny and elegant once, but now the paint is peeling off and the wood is cracked and caving in some parts. He taps a key with one finger, and it’s drastically out of tune.
Still. Still, he feels whatever melody his soul is playing crescendo, feels this cascading wave of excitement and joy and fondness swell inside of him. Whatever he was doing before fades into background noise; he sets to work on tuning the instrument, fingers working with care and precision like he is wiring one of his inventions. It’s all the same, in many ways. Just him and his hands and something he knows, something he loves.
Karolina finds him there over an hour later, still hunched over the open top of the instrument and tugging gently at the strings. “I found him!” she calls over her shoulder, and Chase looks up to her staring at him with her arms crossed. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
He smiles sheepishly, tugs a hand through his hair. “Sorry. I got a little distracted.”
“I can see that,” she says lightly, one eyebrow raised and her head tilted curiously. “Does it work?”
He pauses, surveying the cleaned and tightened strings. “I guess we’ll find out.” With a steady breath, he lowers the top back down, taking a seat at the piano bench. It wobbles a little beneath him. His fingers pluck through a single-octave C major scale, and the sound rings through the air, simple and clear. When he looks back up, Karolina is smiling.
“You found a piano?” comes Molly’s voice, and then both she and Gert are standing in the doorway.
Gert’s gaze travels from him to the keys and back again. “First a Rolls and now this? It’s like this place was made for you,” she says dryly, grinning just a little and more with her eyes than her mouth.
“For us ,” Chase corrects, and her whole expression softens. There is pink dusting her cheeks as she makes a show of fixing her glasses; she is blushing. He feels suddenly warm inside.
“You should play something for us,” Karolina suggests, and god, it has been a long, long time since anyone asked him to do that. He hadn’t realized how much he missed it, which seems to be a common theme lately. His fingers linger above the keys for a moment, and then he looks at Gert and places a hand on the bench beside him, a silent question, a quiet request. An olive branch.
She reaches for it.
“What song?” she asks quietly as she takes a seat.
“ Golden Slumbers? ” he replies, and she nods, the corner of her mouth lifting in a soft smile. This one is theirs.
Alex and Nico are here now, too. Chase watches as Karolina threads her fingers through Nico’s and thinks of the nights they would all spend together in the clubhouse, curled against each other as he and Gert sat side by side in front of the piano and hummed through quiet lullabies, just like this. He starts to play.
“ Once there was a way, ” her voice fills the air, soft and fluid, “ to get back homeward,”
There is still something missing. There are notes that they will never get back, a thousand rests they have played over but oh, his hands dance over the opening chords and he thinks that this is the most home he has felt in years. He plays and plays and plays. There is music in every inch of the room, in every piece of his soul. This time, it is loud enough.
And here, now, with Gert beside him and his friends watching them together, he thinks that the melody might finally be complete.