Why do you keep pretending?
The notes of the piano sounded strong and firm, though they were soon swallowed by the well insulated walls of the small practice room. There were many of these small rooms in the music school, giving students a place to practice without having to worry about playing over each other. Even after hours they were open to students to use, the Dean feeling strongly that the students schedules should be made a top priority.
The rooms were not generally claustrophobic, but two adults and a piano did make it feel a bit crowded. Even more so when one of the adults was as large as Michael Shaw.
Vaughan sat at the piano, fingers playing across the keys.
“You see how my fingers are moving? Try to make each one a singular motion, and follow through until the note comes the way you want it.”
The young man was also perched on the bench in front of the piano, looking far too large for it. Despite his greater size he was nearly hanging off the edge of it, and shifted regularly to try and keep his seat. It would have been comical if he hadn’t had such a gentle demeanor. Vaughan found it sweet, in a way, though he wished the young man had more confidence in himself.
“Come now, Mr. Shaw,” he said, fingers hovering just over the keys. “All that shuffling around is distracting. I’m not going to bite you, so scoot yourself over and sit properly. Posture and positioning are just as important, and you can’t play well if you’re about to fall on the floor.”
“Oh! S-sorry, I just- I didn’t want to impose.”
“I’m here to teach you, it is not an imposition. Besides,” his look softened a bit, taking pity on the young man, “if I was bothered I would tell you. You shouldn’t always feel the need to apologize for everything. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Michael’s cheeks took on a slight colored tinge, but he nodded. After a few moments, perhaps needed to steel himself, he shifted over so he was more center on the bench.
“There we are.” Vaughan smiled, and went back to playing, though he kept it soft, so they could keep speaking.
“It’s a bit like typing on a keyboard. If each keystroke isn’t firm you end up with a jumble of letters.”
“I’m not very good at typing either, I’m afraid.”
“Then perhaps you should also practice that. Don’t fret, no one starts out perfectly. The key is to keep trying, and practice as often as you can. Now, let’s go on.”
He played a short ditty, exaggerating his fingers a bit to show off the motions. Micheal was staring intently at his hands now. Though he’d agreed to meet him for this extra lesson he couldn’t help but be unusually aware of the weight of his gaze. The young man didn’t look at him with contempt, like many of his other students, nor with the pity he sometimes caught in the eyes of his fellows.
It was relaxing, in a way. He was so used to sussing out the intent behind how people looked at him, but Micheal was so open and earnest, it was impossible not to know what he was thinking. Part of him worried for someone so young, who wore their heart so on their sleeve.
Another part of him worried he was getting a bit too used to having Michael Shaw around.
The notes died away. Drawing himself up, he forced a smile.
“And there you have it. When you practice, try it slowly at first, until you get the proper motions down. You’ve got the talent, now you’ve just got to refine the skill.”
“I’ll try my very best.” Michael turned those gentle brown eyes of his on him and it was hard to draw his gaze away.
Michael looked like he had something else to say. It took him a moment, but when he went on the words rushed out of him as if a dam inside had broken, leaving Vaughan to pick out what he’d been trying to say.
“Sir, would you play one of the Bluemenfield pieces you were telling me about?”
He blinked. That was bold for the young man, but before Michael could try to backpedal he smiled at him.
“For you, I don’t see the harm.”
Michael smiled, and for just a moment he couldn’t help but stare. It was brilliant, and seemed far too rare for his liking. He laid his hands on the keys, and once again began to play. He felt at ease there, with Michael sitting beside him, and more relaxed than he’d felt in a long time.
The light bloomed into music in his mind, and flowed down his arms into his hands. For a few moments his fingers danced. For a few moments the old days were there, bright and shining.
The music came to a sudden, jarring stop as pain lanced through his hands. He drew them close against his chest as the muscles and joints cramped, desperate to hide them as his fingers curled in like the legs of a dead spider. He drew in a sharp breath as the spasms took him and quickly turned away.
“T-that’s enough for today.”
He could still feel Michael behind him, the young man hovering close.
“Are you all right, Professor Williams?”
The young man sounded concerned, but it was hard not to hear it as pitying.
“They’re just-” He swallowed his words, along with a lump of desperation clawing its way up his throat. “Hand cramps, that’s all. I can’t play anymore right now.”
“I understand. Thank you for playing for me. It’s always wonderful to hear you.”
There was nothing but honesty in the young man’s voice, but it was like a kick in the gut. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and his expression twisted. He turned back, eyes cold.
Michael’s smile faded to a look of confusion.
Vaughan was sure he was red in the face. Everything inside was boiling over. “Why do you keep pretending you’re interested in me?”
“What?” Michael looked startled, as if he’d been struck.
“All this! Wanting to know about my favorite music. Asking for these extra lessons. Is it just so you can make fun of me?” It was irrational, and part of him knew it deep down. Michael wasn’t like that. The young man didn’t have a mean bone in his body.
“N-no, sir, I…” Michael looked like he felt trapped, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights. Vaughan hated himself for causing him to look that way. Every time a spasm came he felt worse and worse, as if his body were trying to admonish him.
Then, suddenly, Michael’s expression shifted. Instead of the wide eyed panic that had been there, a gentle calm seemed to settle over him.
“I would never pretend with you, professor.” His deep voice was soothing, taking the edge off his madness.
“You’ve always been kind to me, and you’ve been the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
Surely that couldn’t be. Vaughan didn’t feel like he was kind, and he’d never felt like much of a teacher. Teaching was for those that couldn’t do. It was the only thing he was fit for. But, looking up into Michael Shaw’s eyes, he couldn’t find that self-loathing or that hatred. If this young man could believe in him, maybe he wasn’t quite as wretched as he felt.
“I believe you.”
For the moment, it felt like enough.