"Tonio?" Francis peers down at his fellow teacher assistant. He furrows his eyebrows and tucks his blonde hair in a tiny ponytail, noticing the everlasting dark circles rimming his friend's eyes. "No sleep again?"
Antonio smiles apologetically and shakes his head, wringing his left hand as an explanation. This time, Francis shoots the Spaniard a pitiful smile. Besides his family and friends back in Spain, only a handful of people know about Antonio's carpal tunnel syndrome—an irritation to his median nerve that causes the tingling and numbing sensation of his left thumb, index and middle fingers. Unfortunately, because he has let this go on for years, the only way to cure it now is surgery.
And God knows that he isn't rich enough for that.
As a teacher assistant, they only make about twenty-four thousand dollars each year, more or less. And the average cost for carpal surgery and therapy is about twenty-nine thousand. Where the hell, excuse his language, will he get that money? He's already living in a cheap apartment, carpools with Francis to the high school, and still he doesn't have enough money. After all, he pays for his food and lodging and other necessities—so he truly doesn't have enough to save.
He stares at his left hand, a longing growing stronger in his chest, and Antonio sighs. Curl carefully, bend at the wrist. Count to five. Four. Three. Tw—Antonio sucks in a sharp breath when the familiar tingling shoots through his hand before numbing his fingers momentarily.
"Here," Francis hands him a blue ice pack that he piously carries each day for Antonio, although Antonio had repeatedly told him not to bother. The Frenchman would always place the ice pack in the freezer of the lounge, where he would rush to get it whenever the Spaniard needs it.
"Gracias," Antonio sings with a bright smile on his face. He's the perfect picture of happiness, but it's evident in Francis' eyes that his friend is struggling, continuously losing himself to the misery that the carpal tunnel syndrome has imposed upon him.
"So, how's the new apartment?" the Frenchman asks, sitting back down across from Antonio. He crosses his legs and rubs at his beard, "No problems?"
"None at the moment," the Spaniard tells him. He doesn't want to tell him how useless his left hand could sometimes be, what with the dropping of cups or abrupt weakness and numbing or jagged pain when he sleeps at night. But he does tell him of his mysterious neighbor. "My neighbor's a musician!"
"Oh?" asks Francis, raising his eyebrows in sincere amusement. They greet the other teachers and teacher assistants that file into the room for lunch. "What kind? A singer? Guitarist?"
"Pianist," Antonio answers eagerly. His eyes finally seem bright after what feels like forever, and Francis urges him to continue. "He plays a lot of great pieces! I only recognize some, like Beethoven's Sonata… uh, M-Moonlight Sonata," Antonio stammers while he racks his brain for the pieces he recognized, "and more sonatas. But he usually plays grave and slow pieces. They're all beautiful."
"Interesting," Francis comments. "Although he sounds… well, kind of creepy. Judging from the stuff he plays. Mysterious and creepy."
"He's probably just a genius," sighs Antonio while he stares at the top of the ice pack, down to his fingers. "And lonely. Geniuses are always lonely."
Francis hums, watching Antonio with sad eyes. Twenty-five minutes later, the bell signals the end of their planning period, and Francis places the ice pack back inside the freezer.
"That's the tenth one, right?" Gilbert laughs.
Lovino scowls at the other owner of the bar-and-liquor store. They may be friends, they may be co-owners of the same damn shop, they may be future in-laws, but that does not mean that Gilbert Beilschmidt isn't an annoying piece of shit. "Shut up."
"Damn, Vargas, hahaha," he continues to laugh and beat his fist against the bar counter, and the Italian glares and tightens his jaw. "Aw, don't look like that! You might scare away your new neighbor!"
"Shut up." It may have worked, but Gilbert covers his mouth and laughs behind his hand. Lovino moves so that his fist makes the German lose his breath—just for a little while. "Yes," he admits through gritted teeth, "it's the tenth one."
Gilbert begins to organize the liquor into their designated spots, still chuckling underneath his breath. "Same reason?"
"Why else would they move?"
"Well, for one," the older male starts and he glances at Lovino's audacious gaze. He rolls his eyes, "You're kinda rude."
"You swear a lot, too."
"As if you don't!"
"Well, princess," Gilbert laughs again, "why don't you help this awesome guy with organizing these alcohols, eh?"
"Don't call me princess." But the smaller male sets to work anyway, playing with the idea of his tenth neighbor likely moving out within the month. He heard that his new neighbor is a teacher's assistant—which would mean that his neighbor might want to have some peace and quiet at night, trying to grade papers or some shit like that.
Oh well, they can always move out if they get fed up with his performances.
The sound echoes in his silent apartment, and Antonio stares helplessly at the third mug he ruined. He wonders why he even uses his left hand at all, since it normally brings him more harm than good—but he can't help the feeling of wanting to use it, wanting to make it useful and normal. Back to its pristine condition. Back to when he could play his guitar.
He leaves the pieces on the floor with a tear-filled gaze, and he grabs his pack of cigarettes before heading out to his balcony to smoke. He doesn't smoke often—but, shit, that's the only stress reliever he can think of. That's the only stress reliever he can do. He isn't allowed to use his old outlet, guitar-playing, and—
"Haaa," Antonio exhales loudly, planting himself on the edge of his balcony and attempting to put his legs through the spaces between the balcony railings. He can't. Pressing his forehead on the cold palings instead, he slowly lights up a stick and takes a long puff.
God, this is so—! He doesn't know what to do with himself! Who is Antonio Fernandez-Carriedo without his guitar? What is he without his guitar, his passion, his heart, his life? Fucking damn it! That's the one thing he actually fell in love with, and he can't even do anything about it; not without the surgery.
Antonio loosens his left fist and notes how weak it feels. He takes another puff. Why did he ignore the signs? The stupid symptoms? Maybe he could've prevented it years ago, maybe he could've saved his hand, maybe he could've been playing his guitar. But now; he's facing the possibility of atrophying his left hand's muscles, of destroying his hand forever.
He sighs again when he realizes that he doesn't even own an ashtray.
Antonio looks down at the streets of Baltimore, watching the silhouettes move past the apartment complex. Life seems monotonous without music. Black, grey, white. Hushed. Impassive, that's what it is.
But suddenly, he hears something.
The music notes.
At first, the notes hide behind the faint sounds of the busy city, but then it grows in volume, flowing like the waves of the ocean—filled with so many sensations. Smooth but hard, gentle but fierce; it's astonishing how they all just blended nicely. Antonio closes his eyes and taps the head of his cigarette stick on the surface he's sitting on. He's a third of the way done. He takes another drag.
His neighbor plays really well. What's he playing now? Perhaps a piece he composed himself?
And since when did Antonio decided to think his neighbor is a he? For all he knows, his neighbor may have been a woman—an unmarried, middle-aged woman who plays amazingly but inconveniently.
Although, he isn't complaining. Man or woman, middle-aged or elderly, he's glad for the delightful company at nights when he can't sleep.
Too many people.
Look to the right, look to the left.
Look up, breathe.
Look straight ahead, BREATHE.
They're looking at me, shit, BREATHE Lovino.
His fingers won't move. His lips are trembling. He wants to laugh.
BREATHE—move your fingers, just focus on your—BREATHE—you're shaking—
Lovino snaps his eyes open in alarm, heart beating rapidly in his chest. His breaths are short and fast, as if he's having the panic attack from his dream. When he reaches up to rub his eyes, his hands are cold and clammy and he suddenly gets the urge to puke.
He runs to the bathroom, bare feet hitting the bitter floor, and heaves as soon as he thrusts the tip of his chin into the opening of his toilet bowl. Lovino stays like that for a few moments before he lets go and wipes at the corners of his mouth.
"Fucking hell," he swears. There are tears in his eyes. "Fucking hell." His pulse is up, and he breathes. Breathe. Pulling his knees to his chest, he presses his forehead on his knees and wraps his arms around his legs. You're okay. I'm okay.
What the hell is wrong with him? There aren't any people in the room—it's just him.
"There isn't anything scary," Lovino chastises himself with scorn. His voice is gentle, but his tone is hard. "Why the fuck are you so anxious all the time, eh?"
He lets go of his legs and stretches them in front of him, patting his cheeks with his dank hands and hoping that his heartbeat would slow the hell down.
Carefully pushing himself up from the tiled-floor, Lovino heads to his kitchen. Bit by bit, his chest feels lighter and he can breathe easier, but his mind returned to its apprehensive state and Lovino wonders if he can truly handle this alone.
But he can. He knows he can.
This performance anxiety is just another type of phobia. Whether phobias are cured depends on the individual, in his opinion. And Lovino will overcome this fear one day. It isn't like he hasn't tried before. He tried to perform in front of his family, in front of his friends, in front of a known audience. Yet so far, his efforts are futile, only rearing more panic attacks and anxious thoughts.
He'll overcome it though. He just needs more practice.
But he needs wine right now.
"You've been drinking."
"I'm not drunk, if that's what you're implying," Lovino shoots back in plain irritation. He fixes the buttons of his black dress shirt, tucking his shirt to make himself look classy and rolling up his sleeves to his elbows to make himself look even classier. "You know I'm not a lightweight."
Gilbert rolls his eyes, though he agrees. The Italian has a high tolerance for alcohol in comparison to a lot of drinkers, and it may be because the kid drinks a glass (or two or three) of wine each day. Although it's always obvious to Gilbert whenever Lovino drinks. The brat becomes more vocal, more loose, dare he say it. "Just treat the customers properly. Don't be rude."
"No worries," Lovino waves him off. He grabs a cloth from underneath the bar counter and wipes its surface. "I know how to handle people," he says, but the German chuckles under his breath. He gestures for Gilbert to fix the stools by the bar, "Make them look presentable."
"Yeah, yeah." Gilbert slides onto a stool and checks his watch. "I'll be leaving soon to pick up Liz. You sure you can handle this stuff 'till evening?"
"Shut up, Gilbert. I can handle this until evening."
"Just makin' sure. You get weird when you're drunk."
"I'm not drunk."
"Tipsy then," Gilbert pauses and slides off the stool. He doesn't look at the younger male. "And Lovino?"
"If… there's anything that bothers your psycho-genius mind, you can let me know, alright?"
Gilbert leaves before Lovino could say thank you, but they both know he wouldn't have said it anyway.
And that's okay.
Antonio sits by the railings again that night, but he doesn't hear any music.
It's strange not hearing the mellifluous notes dancing in the air. It's strange being left alone with his own thoughts. It's strange that this silence is so deafening.
So he sings.
But his voice sounds strange. Maybe it's because he hasn't sung in a while. Maybe it's because he's smoking at the same time.
He sighs; without the charmingly grim lullabies from his next-door neighbor, he doesn't think he'll be able to sleep tonight.
That doesn't sound right, it sounds terrible, it sounds like shit. It is shit. Angrily fisting his hands in his hair, Lovino slams his elbows on the keys and glares wholeheartedly at the damned composition.
So many wrong notes, wrong accidentals, wrong wrong wrong.
It sounds so wrong.
Disgusting—they call him a fucking prodigy? He can't even make any decent pieces! He isn't up to par with geniuses like Mozart and Debussy and fucking Chopin. They made great movements with their talents; masterpieces around the same age as he is!
They call Lovino a prodigy, but he can't even play in front of anyone.
This time, he roughly thumps his hands on the piano keys, grimacing when he realizes that he might have hit it too hard and might have to check if the notes are still tuned.
"Sorry," Lovino mumbles, staring at the piano.
I'm so sorry.
He picks up the unfinished music and crumples it in his hands, sighing heavily before tossing it to his trash can.
Sometimes Antonio plays the guitar. He tries to mimic the pieces that his neighbor plays, simply because he likes to practice how well he can hear and identify the notes and their pitches—but his left hand is becoming weaker each time he holds his instrument and it's almost hard to wrap his hand around the neck again.
That doesn't stop Antonio from using his left hand though. Even though he hardly puts stress on it, Antonio tries his best to keep it well. He doesn't want his muscles to waste away. Not now, not ever.
Once he has enough money to pay for his surgery and therapy, he'll make sure to play as soon as he recovers. He'll play his favorite pieces and he'll sing a lot and he'll tell his family and friends and play for them too.
He just… his left hand weakens, and Antonio places his forehead on the side of his guitar, back bending down as if to hug it.
The Spaniard sighs shakily.
He worked so hard to master the guitar. He isn't like those prodigies or geniuses who can easily pick up anything and master them in a short amount of time. He played and studied the guitar dutifully, twenty years (though the past few months were kind of terrible because of the diagnosis), every single day for at least a few hours because he enjoys it so much. He fell in love with the guitar, its sounds, its shape, its everything.
The mere idea of performing again—in front of all those people—makes his chest swell with yearning and eagerness to play.
All he needs to do is earn the money for the surgery and the therapy, and he'll be okay.
He clutches the neck of the guitar with his left hand, takes a deep breath, and starts Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
There are times when Lovino can hear some notes echoing his, and there are times when it is clear that the notes he hears are not coming from his fingers.
He hears it from his new neighbor, a being he hasn't seen since the poor soul moved next to him. It's been a little over a month, and still, Lovino and the peculiar individual haven't met face to face. Perhaps they've met through music—Lovino hears him sing sometimes, and he's quite certain that his performances wake him up many times a week.
But that's—is he playing some kind of… tarantella?
Wait, what the fuck, is his neighbor an Italian too? Or Spanish? Lovino can't really pinpoint which language his neighbor uses when he sings…
And what time is it? 1:08 in the morning? Doesn't he have to go to school tomorrow for his shitty teaching job?
Lovino doesn't play until the music suddenly stops and he's taken out of his daze. For a moment, he wonders if his neighbor stops because he's frustrated. And so he continues to play, just to fill the unnatural silence in their apartments.
He doesn't know why he feels okay to play, why he isn't getting panicky, even when he knows that his neighbor might be listening.
Antonio decides to take on a part-time job at a local music store in Baltimore two weeks later. It's easily accessible, because of the efficient, though a little crowded, public transportation. Luckily, there's a position open for a part-time worker—which he'll be applying to soon.
For now, he wants to check out the shop's guitars.
The shop is a nice fit; not too big, but not too small. Wide. Guitars on the right, pianos next to the guitars, drums and a few selections of band instruments to the left. The violins are showcased by the counter, and Antonio imagines the cellos being stored in the back, past the tiny practice rooms. The shop is a little empty—only a few customers, browsing through the music books and other accessories.
He inhales deeply. Exhale.
There's always a scent to new things: new books, new clothes, new shoes. New guitars aren't so different. They're all industrialized, but it's really up to the owner to personalize his properties. Or, well, according to Francis. He walks down the guitar-slash-piano aisle, sends each guitar adoring looks and examines the material, the color.
Following his urge to play, Antonio picks up the fourth guitar down the row, a pretty acoustic guitar with a shiny body. He's delighted when he finds a stool at the very end of the aisle, and the musician sits on it, placing the bottom of the guitar on his lap and his left hand around the neck.
He runs his fingers down the neck, eyes bright with excitement. It's always so nice to play with a new instrument! A new guitar! One that smells of raw wood yet has the smoothest, shiniest surface.
What shall he play? Just one song, since he still has to apply for his job, and what if someone is already applying to it? Antonio thinks it's okay though, because he gets to play with this guitar for free, and his hand feels normal—gracias a Dios—and he can play.
What does he play? Oh, there's a lot! He can play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata again, or he can play his original songs, or he can play the stuff his neighbor plays! Or or or—he can—well, no, he'd rather not sing, because it has been a while since he sung wonderfully, and he'd rather just let these other people listen to lovely music than his odd singing voice.
So he adjusts the strings of the guitar to play something easy and fun, Lecuona's Malagueña, and hopes to God that his hand wouldn't go numb today.
When he's finished, the customers and the employees applaud, and he hears a soft slam of the door before he can even leave the stool.
Lovino puts his hands in his pockets with tight lips. His green eyes glare at the bright lights of the streets.
It was supposed to be a normal evening. But he got the stupid phone call telling him about the arrival of his ordered musical pieces and he just had to go to the damn music shop, where he was greeted by a damned musician performing in front of the people.
Not only was the bastard performing, but he was also really fucking good, and—like, what the fuck, he was playing Lecuona! In front of people!
That's probably what made Lovino stop and stare and listen. He only saw the back of the performer's head, but that's really enough to make Lovino stop. Anyone who performs is always better than him; because they can actually sit there and play.
But, hell, it makes Lovino so envious of them. He wants to be like them too; he wants to perform in front of people too; he wants to play and make people happy too; he wants to hear appreciative applauses instead of worried whispers too!
He swallows thickly and takes the music sheets from under his arm before heading home.
One day, he'll perform without any fear and anxiety and negative emotions.
"But what about your T.A. job?" asks Francis when Antonio tells him about his other part-time job. They're heading to Antonio's apartment, to grade papers and all those teacher junk they have to do, and maybe have a little drink.
Antonio's smile falters a little, "I'm not letting it go… I just need a little more income."
"For the surgery?"
"What else?" Antonio laughs, and he wrings his left hand gently. "It's fun though, the part-time job."
"What do you do, anyway?"
The Spaniard smiles brighter again, and he looks out of the window, at the blurry surroundings. His future looks like that, he muses, blurry. He chooses not to tell Francis about playing the guitar more regularly now, because the Frenchman will surely tell him off. "I just help people out with what they need. It's really fun, especially when they ask for recommendations of pieces they should buy!"
"You're such a music nerd," Francis teases, rolling his blue eyes. "How's your hand doing?"
"Okay," Antonio replies. There are some nights when the pain shoots up in his arm and keeps him awake until his alarm goes off. But his neighbor's music soothes him, puts him in a peaceful mood despite the lack of sleeping relief. "I still wake up here and there."
Francis is silent. The musician thinks that he can sleep before they reach his apartment complex, but then his friend tells him, "You'll get your surgery soon."
And Antonio merely hums, eyes already closed.
There's a new worker at the music shop.
Lovino knows because he frequents this joint, and he's back the following week to receive another set of new music scores he ordered.
The new worker looks up from a piece he's studying, and his wide smile almost blinds Lovino. Usually, he earns himself timid smiles, or gentle smiles, not this type of damn… smile. "Good evening! How may I help you?"
His heart beats fast, because that's his usual reaction to strangers, to people in general, and his palms grow sweaty. "Vargas," he starts and tries to keep his face nonchalant. "Lovino Vargas—I'm—I ordered something. Four music scores?"
"Ah, yes," his eyes are bright, focused on him. And Lovino feels like he's breathing too much, breathing too heavy. The man moves away from the counter. "One moment, señor." He wants to tell the bastard that no he is not Spanish, just because his last name is Vargas, and that no please no Spanish because he speaks Italian. But, most of all, he just wants to breathe normally.
He fiddles with his hands, taps his foot on the ground, tries to distract himself to prevent another oncoming panic attack—because he really can't take any more panic attacks and he doesn't have time for therapists and really why does he need to see a doctor anyway? It isn't like he can't handle his anxiety.
Eyes wandering aimlessly, they land on the piece that the worker was observing. Chopin's Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op.9 No. 2. Huh, not a bad choice.
"Yiruma," says the worker. Lovino then shifts his eyes down to the pinned plastic nametag on the chest. If he's to work here, the Italian might as well know his name.
Hmm, Antonio. Spanish.
"Thanks." He's about to take the scores when they drop suddenly on the counter, and his eyes widen in surprise. Lovino looks up at Antonio, and he stares back weakly.
"Sorry about that," he laughs, quickly pulling his hand back and hiding it behind his back. "Slipped, I'm really sorry."
"It's fine," Lovino tells him. He forces a polite quirk of his lips. "Thanks."
He leaves with a lighter feeling, since he'll be able to play a couple of new pieces tonight.
It's weird that Antonio still hasn't met his neighbor. It has already been two months, and with his neighbor's apartment located at the very end of the hallway, he thought that they would have a few encounters when he could introduce himself, comment on how great his neighbor's skills are, and get to know his neighbor better.
At least, he can safely refer to his neighbor as a he because Antonio would sometimes see clothes left to dry outside in his neighbor's balcony.
Anyway, with his extra income, he's able to save a little bit more for his surgery and therapy. The thought alone makes him smile, and he stares at his left hand.
A tap on his head gets Antonio to stop daydreaming, and he looks up at Francis.
"Have you eaten yet? You look like you've lost weight," Francis tells him. "I made croissants for my third period and for the teachers in this lounge. You should try it."
Which certainly means that he should eat it.
"Okay," Antonio accepts the golden croissant offered to him, and thinks back to the past night. His neighbor's playing new pieces. More modern, he should say. Although, he doesn't recognize the composer—unless he made it himself! How wonderful!
"How does it taste?" Francis probes him, placing the lid back on the tupperware. "I made sure that I put a lot of that really creamy cheese in them, because everyone seems to enjoy that cheese."
"They're delicious! Muy delicioso," Antonio tells him happily. It is! It's very creamy inside and soft and chewy outside, and it's really great! Maybe a little fatty, but very good!
"Do you want the recipe? I know you cook and bake sometimes," the Frenchman says.
Antonio laughs, "I only make paella and churros."
His friend rolls his eyes. "Oh please, you're a great cook."
"I'll take the recipe if you're offering."
"Good. Maybe it'll make you a little fat."
"Your neighbor is still there?"
"I know," Lovino deadpans, and Gilbert laughs loudly, "I can't believe it either."
"The ninth tenant moved within three weeks, and the fifth within a week! The longest was, what, three months?" Gilbert asks. "And they can't make you move out, because you give the owners free alcohol—and they like your music."
"They're nice people," the Italian comments. "Easy to bribe and please."
Gilbert agrees and tosses a cleaning cloth to Lovino. "Wipe the tables."
The radio stops the silence, faint but upbeat, Lovino wiping the tables clean and the German arranging the alcohol selections once again. It's a comfortable silence, and there aren't a lot of customers yet because the sun hasn't set, and the people here find it more fun to drink when the sun's out.
"I haven't met my neighbor yet," the Italian remarks. He straightens and stretches his arms over his head. "I leave and come back before he does, so I never really see him. Seems like a busy guy."
"Maybe he's too busy to pack up and leave," jokes Gilbert. "How do you even know he's a guy?"
"A lucky guess," Lovino shrugs.
But it's because he can hear him sing sometimes. Silky and melodious, something Lovino wouldn't mind listening to every day. And he can't help but think that his voice sounds familiar.
"Lovi, welcome back!"
"It's Lovino," Lovino replies.
Aw, he looks so cute in his brown jacket and red scarf! How Italian! "New scores?"
"What else would I be here for," he states, and Antonio notices the restless fidgeting appearing with his red cheeks.
He smiles to ease one of his regular clients—one of his favorite clients. "Maybe visiting your favorite worker, because I know I'm you're favorite!"
"Shut up," frowns Lovino, but he just continues to turn redder. Antonio smiles and pulls the pieces out for Lovino, handing it to him.
"You should let me hear you play," Antonio tells him.
The answer is short and brisk, accompanying his tone and features, and Antonio decides to drop the subject. Lovino is glaring at him. "I feel like you'd know my neighbor. He plays piano too, and he's really good."
"Probably not. I'm not good." He's closing in on himself, crossing his arms over his chest with the new pieces trapped between them.
"I'm sure you're amazing," Antonio tells him with a gentle smile. Lovino steps back.
"See you next time!"
Lovino enters the shop a few days later.
"My name is Lo-vi-no."
The Spaniard only laughs. "But Lovi's cute, right?"
It's automatic: how Antonio's heart would jump each time the door opens and signals a new customer (is it Lovi?), how Antonio would feel deflated if the Italian didn't come and visit him (aw, where's Lovi?), how Antonio would feel extremely delighted if the musician did come and visit him (Lovi~!).
It's cold today, and Lovino didn't visit. Lovino never visits after seven in the evening. He usually picks his music up around five or six o'clock—and, anyway, Antonio didn't get any orders for new scores this week. Yet. It seems like Lovino is upping his music library or something because he's buying new pieces more regularly—according to his co-worker.
"Loverboy ain't here today," laughs Keisha, a thirty-something African-American woman with a nice big afro on her head. She pulls back her lips to show her white teeth, and her dark eyes are glinting with mischief. "Missin' him already?"
Antonio laughs to hide his embarrassment, but he should know that whatever he says won't change Keisha's mind anyway. "What are you talking about?"
"Boy," she starts, rolling her eyes, "I know attraction when I see it. And you," Keisha gives him a look, "Like. Him."
"Well, yeah, I mean." Antonio shrugs. The door opens and his pulse speeds up. "He's nice."
It isn't Lovino.
"No, like, like-like," Keisha states. She turns to the customer, same bright smile on her face except without the mischief, and proceeds to help out the elderly client.
Antonio breathes a sigh of relief. He doesn't know what to say to that.
It's ridiculous, really, how the Italian orders new music scores every week now. And the music he orders? He's already played them at one point (or a couple) in his life, and he honestly doesn't know why he continues to order new music when he can listen to the music on Youtube and figure out the notes himself. Doing that is easier, more fun, and definitely cheaper.
So why does he come back to the shop every week? And the weather is getting colder, for god's sake!
The musician doesn't precisely know, and perhaps he does know but he just pretends he doesn't.
Thank you for your purchase!
Lovino slumps in his chair and sighs heavily.
There goes another order.
Antonio watches as Lovino nods once, fingers twisting together. Either the Italian can't wait to play or he's simply jittery, but Antonio can't tell, and he doesn't want to ask because Lovi might leave a minute too early—and the Spaniard definitely does not want that.
"So how are you?"
It pauses the fiddling, and Lovino actually gives him a tiny, a very, very tiny smile. "Fine." He leaves a few moments later, just when Antonio was preparing to ask another question.
"Hm?" Antonio slides the new pieces across the counter, watching the Italian.
"How are you?" Lovino asks slowly. He takes the scores with cold hands. "You asked, and I said I'm good, a-and you—how are you?"
The Spaniard laughs, because god he's so cute, and Lovino blushes some more. "I'm great, thank you."
"You—nevermind. I'm leaving, damn it," the Italian grumbles, and Antonio wonders if he said something wrong when Lovi almost runs out of the shop.
Antonio drops another fork on the kitchen floor.
He likes Yiruma's pieces, although… he can't fully classify his compositions in the classical category. It's more of the contemporary classical type, or the new classical. A mix of the old and modern. Or something like that. It's quite refreshing to play his pieces. Kiss the Rain, It's Your Day, Poem And Like A Poem…
The patterns and repetitions are prominent, but Lovino finds them endearing as if Yiruma is weaving different stories and perspectives from one idea, one theme, into a single work. It's quite lovely, and he… he wants to perform this… in front of someone. Perhaps, Feliciana… or Antonio—though why he thinks of Antonio is beyond him.
He probably got sucked into Antonio's charms, like all the other customers and people he meets. Stupid Antonio.
Staring at a blank piece of music composition paper, he absentmindedly plays a tune with his hands with a pencil between his teeth to create and match notes. He's inspired to write music, to arrange one, but he doesn't know what he wants to write about. He doesn't know who to write this for. Feliciana, for being such a good sister? He writes about her too much. Nonno? The Beilshcmidt brothers? He doesn't particularly like nor hate them.
His ears feel warm, and then his face heats up, and he stops playing the melody he made up. Maybe he should play some Debussy for now. Or Bach or Bartók. Ever since Antonio—ever since he played Yiruma, he's been feeling a little flimsy and clumsy. He daydreams about different things, not about his typical grand performances, and it's just—no, no.
It isn't like he's going to play for Antonio anyway! So what's the point in making a song for the bastard?
Although the thought of playing for Antonio doesn't seem as scary anymore
…which scares him a little bit.
It's frustrating. So, so frustrating. Sleepless nights in his lonely apartment, and his guitar can't seem to bring the happiness it used to bring him. Each time the Spaniard picks the instrument up, he worries of the numbing and uselessness of his left hand, the abrupt stops of the music, the cliffhanger of the notes.
It's so frustrating how he can't seem to easily earn the money he needs without working himself to the bone.
And there's no music tonight. Not from him and not from his neighbor.
He's alone tonight.
Bending his tan wrist, he grits his teeth and awaits the discomfort. It doesn't come until a moment later, and he exhales shakily when he finishes counting to five.
The Italian dreams of performing again, and he wakes up with dry tears on his cheeks and a fast heartbeat.
Sharp, the broken glass slices into his thumb and Antonio doesn't notice until he sees a drop of blood trickles down his slender finger.
And his left hand is still numb.
There's some tranquility around Lovino that feels infinite when he plays, but when he stops or finishes, the Italian feels his heart go rampant in his chest, and he doesn't know why he
SLAM! "Fuck." SLAM SLAM SLAM! The notes go haywire while he slams his fists again and again on his piano. "Fuck," Lovino cries while he covers his face with his trembling hands.
Why can't I breathe?
When Francis comes back with a box of pizza from Domino's, he's alarmed to see Antonio crying.
Events like these are rare, always rare, because Antonio doesn't like crying. Antonio doesn't like anything negative. So when he cries, Francis knows that something, somehow, broke through the Spaniard's nearly steel-like walls.
Francis places the pizza box in the backseat and when he gently asks what's wrong, Antonio cries harder.
"Come on, the crowd will love you," urges Gilbert. He takes Lovino's hand in his, begging with his dark red eyes. He knows about Lovino's stage fright—is one of the only ones who know about it—but he never mentions it. However, like tonight, he attempts to help the musician overcome it. Just a little. Even by a hair.
"I know they will," Lovino says, but his eyes are unfocused and his hand is clammy and his voice is weak. The German knows he's anxious, knows he's scared, but right now he simply wants to bash his head against Lovino's and yell why are you so scared. But he doesn't and he never will, so Gilbert merely tries again.
"I'm fucking trying, okay?" His eyes are bright. Gilbert sees the quiver in Lovino's lips and he drops his hand, biting the inside of his cheek.
"I'm fucking trying," Lovino says after a moment of silence, voice soft and choked. "I'm really fucking trying."
"Lovino, it's o—"
"But it isn't working." It's only meant to be a breath, just to breathe, but Lovino cries and shakes all over, sobs into his hand because he doesn't know why he can't move when he's in front of an audience, why he can't can't can't can't. "It isn't," Lovino cries harder, tries his best to stop sobbing, "i-it isn't working."
Antonio drops his cup on the ground. Some students in the hallway glance at him, and he smiles bashfully.
Thankfully, it's plastic and the container is empty. But that's enough to send him to the faculty bathroom to compose himself.
The exercises he does help reduce the frequency of his symptoms, keeps them at bay, but that doesn't guarantee that he'll be able to cure them. The physician who diagnosed him had mentioned that he may be on his way to severe carpal tunnel syndrome and why did you let this go on?
As soon as he was diagnosed, he decided to hold off his initial plan of becoming a pro-musician to figure out how the hell he's going to get money for surgery. His doctor had told him that he could try exercises that may or may not cure him, and may or may not prevent a trip into the surgery room. His doctor also told him to come by any time Antonio feels something unconventional in his wrist and hand—but Antonio can't pay for all of those checkups. Maybe if he feels like there's something terribly wrong, then he'd get a checkup. (Though that'll be like repeating his mistake from years ago.)
Luckily, by getting his teaching assistant job, the school will be able to pay for some of the cost. Although it helps, it doesn't help him a lot, what with all his loans to pay and shit like that. But still, the school helps—he just needs to earn a little more.
He leaves the restroom when the bell rings, and forgets to grab his things from the lounge.
The night is cold and the rain is potent, but Antonio can't sleep and he can't hear any music coming from his neighbor. So he smokes outside and sings a song his mother composed for him, sings it with the falling drops of the rain since he thinks there's something amiss in his voice—that maybe it's his smoking that's affecting it.
Antonio takes another drag. Once his hand is fixed and he's recovered, he'll go back to his old smoking habits, or quit it altogether. He sighs. There's a bunch of papers he didn't feel like grading sitting on his dining table, and he might get in trouble if he doesn't grade those by Friday. He pushes his left hand in his red fleece jacket, gaze moving to the balcony on his left, the balcony of his mysterious neighbor of four months.
The clothes left out to dry are soaked with rain, and he wonders how his neighbor would react. Upset? Weary?
But then, the door slams open and his mysterious neighbor turns out to be not mysterious at all.
Lovino glances over his shoulder, turns back, stops, and looks over his shoulder again. Disbelief dances over his unguarded expression, and he grabs all of his soaking clothes before completely turning towards Antonio. In his cute tomato pajamas, he moves to the edge nearest to Antonio, and the Spaniard does the same with a large smile.
They spoke at the same time:
"You're my fucking neighbor?"
"I didn't know we were neighbors!"
Lovino stares at him, and Antonio smiles, until Lovi says, "You smoke."
The Spaniard looks at his right hand and laughs a little. Everything is much brighter tonight for some reason. "I do."
"Didn't peg you to be a smoker."
"It's not really my thing."
They stare at each other; Lovino's heart is beating fast—but Antonio will never know. Likewise, Lovino will never know that Antonio is more than elated to see him.
"You play well."
The smaller man purses his lips, but slowly thanks his neighbor. He knots his eyebrows. "Don't you have work tomorrow?"
"At the store? Yeah. Afternoon," Antonio answers. "Stopping by?" He leans his elbows on the railings, watching as Lovino slightly moves closer to the edge, closer to him. His eyes can't stop smiling. The rain is pouring even more now, but it receded into the backs of their minds—despite Lovino's wet laundry and the wet platforms underneath their bare feet. There's a thin wall of falling rain in between them as well, making some of their features blur together.
"What about your other job?"
"Oh, you mean the teaching job? Yeah, I have that, too."
They stare again, yet there isn't any uneasiness between them; it's effortless to stare at each other in a rainy night like this, when the world is quiet and everything feels calm and they're alone together. Lovino is the one who steps back first, mumbling something about sleep and job, and then he says good night and shuts the door with sodden feet.
It's later that night when Antonio realizes that he never mentioned his teaching job to Lovi.
"My neighbor's the bastard Antonio."
"Ve, you mean the Antonio you talk about?"
"Is there anyone else?"
Feliciana giggles from the other end of the line. Lovino scowls, heat rising to his cheeks. He eats his lunch and checks his watch to see how long he has left before his break ends. "Oh, Lovi—"
"Whatever you're thinking, no."
"…Can I visit you, at least?" The pout is clear in her voice, and she knows that her older brother can't resist her no matter how he tries.
"If you even dare try to get Antonio to hang out with us, I am going to piss on your fucking wedding cake."
"I warned you."
"My neighbor?" starts Antonio excitedly as he slides into Francis' red Honda civic, "Lovino."
"You mean your customer?" Francis asks. He laughs when Antonio nods. "Mon Dieu!"
"I know!" Antonio laughs as well, rubbing at the side of his face. He pulls down the sun visor mirror in front of him, grimaces a little at his unruly hair, and uselessly runs his fingers through them. "I couldn't sleep last night because I was so—I don't know, happy I guess!"
"Happy?" hums Francis with a shrewd smile, and Antonio gives him a look.
"What's with that smile?"
"Nothing," Francis slides his sunglasses from his nose up to the top of his head when they enter the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. "I think you like him."
"I've never liked anyone…er, like that. I don't remember, anyway."
"I know, but," Francis shrugs. He glances at his friend. "A first time for everything, right?"
"…right," he agrees slowly.
The next time they see each other is when Lovino stops by at the store to pick up another set of scores. Yiruma again, Antonio notes.
"So all those pieces these past weeks," begins Antonio while Lovino shyly glances at his eyes. Lovi rubs at the corner of his mouth with his right hand, nervous, anxious—but why, the Spaniard wonders faintly. "Yiruma?"
"Not all," he replies. "But most." He's stepping back and back and back. Antonio wants to reach out; he doesn't know why he wants to keep Lovino here. Protect him or something.
"You play beautifully."
"…I'm not going to play for you."
"So you play the guitar," Lovino muses when they meet again at the balcony. It's almost frequent now, how they meet at night—around midnight or one o'clock in the morning. "I'm glad your other neighbor hasn't moved out yet."
Antonio laughs, because he understands why he jokes about it—so many tenants before him have moved because of the Italian's ill-timed practices. "Yes, I play the guitar. And I'm not sure if my other neighbor moved out or not."
At that, Lovino smiles. But he stares ahead, into the dark sky of the city. They're sitting at the edge of their railings, the edges closest to one another so that they can talk and mumble all they want, without bothering the other residents, without leaving the tiny world they unconsciously created.
"I hear you sometimes," Lovino bites his lower lip and shifts his legs closer to his chest. Damn, it's cold. The snow is falling from the sky now, just as the weather forecast predicted, and clouds of warmth leave their parted lips.
"Do you like it?"
"It isn't bad."
Antonio chuckles again. "But it isn't good?"
"I didn't say that." A pout suddenly appears on Lovi's lips, and Antonio can't help the weird fluttering in his stomach because Lovino is so cute.
"I want to play for you."
His eyes widen and he opens his mouth to object. But no words leave and, instead, he nods. Antonio smiles brightly and moves back inside his apartment to grab his guitar. It's then that he remembers his difficulty in playing, what with the progressing weakness in his left hand, and he thinks that maybe he should postpone it—but Lovino is outside and waiting, and surely he'd like to listen to the fluency of his skills? Because he sure as heck loves listening to Lovino play the piano.
Something easy, something easy, is what his brain tells him—but his emotions are all over the place. He wants to impress Lovino with his techniques, his smooth transitions, his calm shifting, his voice that once sounded like honey. He wants to impress Lovino with everything he's got—though it appears to be impossible with his deteriorating hand muscles and his affected vocal cords.
He exits into his balcony with his guitar in his right hand and sits down facing the other musician. He moves the guitar to his lap and adjusts the strings. "I think you may like this."
Lovino smiles all the same; the Spaniard doesn't know how or why Lovino became a little more animated, but he is and Antonio's happy. If he's the cause, then he'll keep doing whatever he's doing.
There is no rain tonight. Just the lights in the city, the stars bashfully shining in the dark night sky, the faint buzz of traffic in the background. It's perfect: an empty slate to put the notes on.
Antonio looks at Lovino, suddenly conscious of what he's doing, of how bright Lovino's eyes and smile are, of how hard and fast his heart is beating, of how nervous and excited he's feeling. He begins to play without any warning, and Lovino listens. Antonio shifts his gaze between the neck of the guitar and the other male's expression.
Surprise, doubt, more surprise, and finally… adoration?
When Antonio finishes, Lovino claps subconsciously, eyes warm. "I knew you were playing some tarantella a few months ago."
Sometimes Antonio stops playing in the middle of a song. Lovino has a suspicion as to why, but he asks anyway.
"I get really into it sometimes and stop playing," the Spanish musician explains with an airy laugh. He doesn't look at Lovino.
It's ridiculous; they both know that's ridiculous. But he tells Antonio that he's just being stupid.
His fingers slipped and dropped and went limp.
Lovino's eyes light up whenever Antonio tells him that he's going to play the guitar for him. They're bright and oh so green, and his smile is soft and sweet and eager and Antonio just wants—
Antonio just wants… wants…
…he doesn't know.
But Lovi's smile is just so nice and Antonio likes to see it there. All the time.
Is this how it feels like to have someone want to play for you? Is this how it feels like to have music dedicated for you? Lovino wonders that when Antonio tells him he's going to play a song, a piece, anything for him.
He doesn't, he can't, he won't stop the smile present on his lips.
And Antonio smiles back.
"It's really cold," Antonio mentions, biting his trembling lip and glancing at Lovino. It is a week before Christmas, a week before winter break, and a day filled with snow. They flutter gracefully down from the dark sky, landing softly on the edges of their balconies, on top of their railings. Like a white blanket, the snow covers the city and nearly makes it silent.
"I know," mutters Lovino. He glances back, shyly, and opens his mouth to—sneeze?
There's this strong urge to jump across the balcony and wrap Lovino in his arms, but instead he asks, "Should we go inside?"
Lovino looks away and shrugs. "I guess." He sighs and begins to stand up, gaze still turned away while he fixes the blanket around his shoulders. "Good n—"
"My place?" Antonio swallows, because he doesn't know what made him do that and he doesn't even know what they'll do. All he knows is that he's wanted to invite Lovino over multiple of times now but he chickens out at the very last moment. Every. Time.
The Italian—not Spanish, Antonio learned a week after they met at the store—blushes and stares between his socked feet. He's thinking, Antonio knows thanks to the slight pout of his lips, and the Spaniard wonders if he's pressuring Lovino by asking such a… such a question.
"If you want to," he quickly adds, hoping to catch Lovino's eyes—they're green, a different green from his—before they really have to bid good night.
"I—yeah, that would… be nice," Lovino finally manages to say. His cheeks are red, and he keeps fumbling with the edges of the blanket. "N-not that I like talking to you or anything! I just…"
His heart is thudding in his ears. Antonio can't stop smiling.
"I just… like to hear you play."
It's getting easier to play around Antonio, although he would never do it when Antonio is in his apartment. No. Never.
Antonio is using his kitchen on Christmas Eve when he hears a clatter of utensils dropping and thumping against the sink, against the floor. Lovino jumps up from the couch and runs, eyes darting worriedly around the room to check the damages. He sees the knife on the ground, along with a shattered bowl and splattered tomato juice, some other stuff in the sink and Antonio staring at his left hand feebly.
"Hey," Lovino's voice is tender and his steps are cautious, though Antonio jumps all the same. A hollow laugh escapes him, and his green eyes dart from side to side, to and from Lovino's face. "Are you—"
"Not okay." He shakes his head, laughs a little to himself. "Definitely not okay."
"Okay," a pause, "alright. So it slipped?" Lovino is willing to let the situation go if Antonio doesn't want to talk about it.
"Sure. It slipped."
Antonio doesn't want to talk about it.
It's difficult when he likes a music prodigy. It's difficult because he doesn't know how to impress geniuses like Lovino. It's difficult because he doesn't know how to make geniuses like Lovino happy.
He knows Lovino is sad. It shows in his music; he mostly plays pieces in minor key signatures. The emotions are so tangible in his playing, Antonio can feel the music as if the notes are hugging his body, caressing his face and—there are many times when he listens without Lovino knowing, and he finds himself crying without a reason.
Honestly, he's been crying a lot lately, and he figures that perhaps it's because of his hand, his money, his debts, his guitar—maybe the gloomy weather, maybe Lovino.
Although really, will a prodigy like Lovino ever feel the same emotions he's experiencing right now? Will a prodigy like Lovino ever want to play for a meager musician like Antonio? Will a prodigy like Lovino ever ever ever be amazed and impressed by someone like Antonio?
It's difficult when he likes a genius and forlorn prodigy like Lovino.
Sometimes Lovino plays a little longer into the night. Sometimes he doesn't even come out into the balcony.
But Antonio is always outside, waiting. For something. For anything.
Many times, the Spaniard can't sleep because of the pain that shoots up his arm. But he's close, kind of, to reaching the amount for his surgery and therapy. Just a few more… couple of thousands of dollars. And he's close, kind of, to Lovino.
So he's waiting.
Lovino knows he won't meet with Antonio outside their balconies tonight because he has to cover for the bastard Gilbert and he feels bad because—because, w-well, stupid Antonio is probably going to wait outside all night like he usually does. And then wake up with dark circles or something ugly like that.
But he sees Antonio in his bar-slash-liquor-store and his heart may have done a weird twisty thing while his stomach made that… whatever that was.
He wants to hide but show off, and his breaths are faster because Antonio's companion is looking at him with a gross smile and really, what the fuck is going on? He isn't performing but he can feel a panic attack coming, so he runs to the bathroom and remains there for a good ten minutes.
Shaking hands, trembling lips, stuffy head, constricted throat. His knees are wobbling and it's taking him a great deal of strength not to collapse on the floor. He turns the faucet on and washes his face with cold, cold water, and—
Lovino swallows loudly and he turns the faucet off. He takes a couple of tissue papers from the dispenser and wipes his face slowly. His hands are still shaking and his knees are still weak. "Antonio," he almost whispers and he clears his throat, dropping the towels to the trash can. "Hi."
"You okay?" Antonio, in his loosened tie and messy teacher-attire, steps closer while Lovino steps back, right knee almost buckling. He hits the back of his hip against the sink.
"Fine," the Italian laughs. No, he's definitely not fine. He laughs a lot when he's nervous, has an urge to do so because of the nerves compelling his body to do the shittiest things like faint or shake or laugh at everything. "How about you?"
He wants to get out. He wants to be alone. Why can't he be alone? But Antonio steps closer and closer and closer, and Lovino can't move out of the way anyway because he's already trapped by the stupid sink, and Antonio places a hand against his cool forehead. His hand is warm. Calloused. He moves his face closer to examine Lovino.
"You don't have a fever," Antonio says after a moment.
The Spaniard purses his lips in thought. He lets his hand fall down to his side and he leans back on his heels to give his neighbor some space. After a moment, "What's wrong?"
"I'm fine, Antonio." He is. Just a little. Maybe Antonio being here actually helped reduce his level of anxiety—but maybe Antonio's also the cause of his high level of anxiety. Or his friend with the weird smile.
The Spaniard wants to ask something, he's moving his lips to form a couple of words, but in the end, Antonio doesn't ask anything and they merely stare at each other.
The air surrounding them is different yet the same as it usually is as if they're up in their balconies watching the city. This time, however, Antonio is truly seeing the cracks he has imagined in Lovino's personality. Yet he doesn't know if they're of loneliness, or something else, or a combination of everything. It's true that he can't accurately read people, but he can usually get away with just a halfway understanding of a person's character.
"So," Lovino starts, and the shaking of his hands and knees are almost invisible. His green eyes are trying to erase the traces of the events from earlier. "What do you like to drink?"
Antonio goes along with the subject change, because he remembers every time Lovino lets him slip whenever his hand goes weak. "Beer. It's cheap."
The Italian rolls his eyes and moves past the taller male. "Alright."
"Wait," Antonio grabs his wrist before Lovino can leave the restroom.
God, he wants to let Lovino know that he can tell him anything, anything, that's bothering him. But he thinks that the musician will close himself back in, hide the cracks like the expert that he is. "You work here?"
"Yes." His eyes are almost amused. Almost.
"So, is that why sometimes you're not out in the balcony?"
Antonio lets go of his wrist and follows Lovino out of the bathroom, the loud music fighting against the loud thumping of his heart in his ears.
A/N: I hope you guys enjoy this! I've already finished the story (finally), but I had to cut it into two parts so it wouldn't be too long! Constructive criticism is very much appreciated! Thank you sosososo much! :*