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Rondo

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Her piano at home had started as functional, though she'd mostly known it as a decorative hulk in the middle of the far living room wall. Her mother didn't really play anymore. But too many memories had been pressed into the keys for her parents to get rid of it, and Zoe pretended she could feel them when she sat at the bench and plunked out whatever handful of notes came to mind at the time. The pedals were sticky, but Zoe could only just reach them and didn't know what to do with them anyway. The five or so out of tune strings bothered her much more. She'd always had a keen ear for harmony, so she skipped those ones when she dragged her hands along the scales.

"Too mechanical."

Zoe frowned. "Well I can't reach any further."

"You can."

The old man waved her hands away to demonstrate. His fingers crawled like spiders across the keys, each note the delicate plucking of a silken string. Even when he was finished, the music hung so thick in the air that Zoe felt as though she could breathe it in as easily as incense. It was nothing like what she'd been able to do, and even less like her piano at home.

"It needs to flow, like water. You see?"

"No," she said stubbornly. "Your fingers are so much longer."

"Then you'll need to work that much harder. Again."

Zoe huffed and set her fingers to the keys. This time she tried to mimic the exaggerated lifts and falls of his wrists, the dramatic hesitations, the way he leaned back as though the notes were washing over him. She'd meant it as a joke, but when she looked to him for a reaction he was nodding.

"Better. Again."

She repeated the phrase, and when he said nothing more, did it twice more for good measure. On the third try a breeze swept over her skin, lifting the hair on her arms. She snatched her hands back in surprise and looked to Le Vieux, but he was staring into the mists beyond.

"No." He rose from the bench in a bizarre unfolding of limbs. "Again. Don't stop."

Zoe squinted in the same direction but saw nothing. It wasn't the first time something invisible had caught his attention, and she'd seen enough of this world and others to be unbothered by it. Le Vieux's steps kicked up gentle splashes as he strode past the grand piano, a lilting complement to her music as she resumed. Like water, she thought determinedly.

She tried again and the breeze lifted once more. This time she was certain she wasn't imagining the scent of incense. She tugged on the notes like ebbing waves on a shore, determined to keep them slow and even despite her rising excitement. Zoe knew this feeling. Electric anticipation, an empty space waiting to be filled, something new hidden behind the most delicate veil. She looked up for Le Vieux, a half-formed question at the edge of her breath.

He was further away than she expected, but he was so easy to read at a distance: a great gesture of his arms told her he meant for her to continue. She obliged and music poured from the piano, drawn by her hands with the rolling certainty of a great tide. It lifted something in her, and she let out a laugh of delighted disbelief. It had been so long. How had she forgotten?

When Zoe looked up again, the mists had cleared just enough for her to see Le Vieux standing before a vast scarlet curtain. Tears dripped onto the keys before Zoe even realized she'd begun to cry. She played through it, smiling, grateful, relieved. She knew better than most what a red curtain must mean to him.

Just as her refrain reached its end, the curtain began to rise.