A smallish snippet of fiction, written for a friend's birthday.
Warnings: none beyond mild suggestiveness, really, although someone is kind of a prick
Giada was already there waiting for him, standing at the top of the conservatory steps hugging her thin arms about herself. Despite it only being October, and not a particularly nippy October at that, she was already wearing that damned scarf of hers: precious throat mummy-wrapped from chin to shoulders in soft blue-gray wool, loose ends tucked painstakingly into her high collar. Voice students were utterly mad, Raffaelo decided, not for the first time. Of course, he was already wearing fingerless gloves in deference to the season, but it was different for violinists. Obviously. Raffaelo took the steps in huge liquid leaps, two and three at a time, right arm held stiffly out and away from his body to avoid jostling his violin case too much. "Gia~da!"
"Raffi," she said, the gleam in her eyes betraying the coolness in her voice. Her fingers strayed to the scarf about her throat, making sure (probably for the ninth or tenth time) that no chink existed in her armor. "I don't need to tell you how late you are, I'm certain."
"God, Raf, if you must," Raffaelo groaned, gaining the landing and dropping perfunctory kisses on her cheeks. "I was forced to stay after and listen to His Holiness Mazzari lecture us again"
"On what, this time?"
"Who knows? I wasn't listening." Raffaelo laughed and tweaked the scarf around her neck, making Giada grab for it. "I suppose we'd better get you inside before the arctic winds rob you of your future career once and for all?"
"Tease all you like," Giada said primly, tucking the folds together again, "but I won't take chances. Signora Posa started wearing hers at us in September, and I've told you how she can beand you've already got gloves on in any case."
"It's different," Raffaelo said, tilting his head into the air, the better to look down his nose at her. "And you'd understand that if you played a stringed instrument"
Someone blew out of the building's front doors and brushed past Raffaelo, so close that their shoulders touched and Raffaelo was forced to snatch his violin case out of the way. Turning, off-balance, Raffaelo had a momentary perception of windblown black hair and a profile like a sullen angel's"Pardon me," the fellow said, his tone of voice at once both distracted and peremptory. Before Raffaelo could protest (or, in fact, say anything) the stranger was gone, loping down the steps, his own white scarf snapping out behind him like a pennant.
"How rude." Giada sighed. "Still, I suppose you couldn't expect any betterRaffi?"
"Eh?" Raffaelo said, still watching the mystery man's impressive retreat.
"Are you listening to me?"
Raffaelo gestured after the dwindling shape. "Who was that?" he said, fascinated. "Is he a first-year? Can I have him?"
Giada frowned. "What do you mean? You don't recognize him? Raffi, that was Fujimoto."
Raffaelo froze. By this point the infamous Tonio Fujimoto was a slim black-clad figure striding across the center of the square, his white scarf a slash of light in the gray afternoon; Raffaelo wet his lips with his tongue. "I see he's stopped bleaching his hair that awful piss-yellow color," he said, his voice faint.
"Where have you been?" Giada said, irritated. "He stopped doing that for his end-of-year recital last May. Not that anyone cares what that self-centered ass doesdid I ever tell you what he said to the signora our very first week in classes?"
"Mm-hmm," said Raffaelo, watching until Tonio turned off down a side path and vanished from sight.
Tonio Fujimoto was, among many other things, a third-year voice student with a poor reputation amongst other voice students. An enormous flashing danger sign if Raffaelo had ever seen one. But that faceit stayed with him. It fascinated him. And, truth be told, it irritated him that he'd overlooked it for so long; Raffaelo prided himself on his excellent taste, after all. Raffaelo found himself dancing increasingly vigilant attendance upon an increasingly sour-faced Giada, racing up the steps to the opera hall two and three times a day, keeping one sharp eye out at all times, just in case.
"He's always at the caffe Sant'Angelo this time of day," Giada finally said, exasperated. "Which is why most of us go to the Lottelita."
Raffaelo feigned innocence. "What? Who?"
"God, Raffi, don't play dumb."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Raffaelo protested, but the next afternoon saw him carefully dressed and heading south, towards the Sant'Angelo.
He'd never actually been there, although he knew where it was. A tiny, rundown, dark caffe with hardly any tablesno one that Raffaelo knew went there. There was no place to sit with your friends and converse, nothing to see, no one to see you. He couldn't understand the attraction.
There must have been one, however, and now there was another. Tonio Fujimoto sat at one of the three tiny outdoor tables, folded neatly into his chair, a magazine in front of him and an espresso demitasse abandoned to one side. Raffaelo studied him from a safe distance. Like Giada, Tonio wore a scarf around his throat; unlike Giada, he wore the scarf with something approaching savoir-faire, the gleaming white wool looped casually about his neck, its long ends falling just so past his chest to brush against his hips.
He didn't look up from his magazine as Raffaelo dropped into the chair opposite him. "Go away," Tonio said, almost pleasantly.
"... hello to you too," Raffaelo said, stung. His intention to open with a suave so, you came very close to owing me a new violin, Fujimoto was forgotten.
"Hello," Tonio said. "Go away."
"You didn't even look up to see who I was first," said Raffaelo. "I could have been anyoneI could have been one of your friends! Don't you have any friends?"
"That's none of your business, and in any case, I didn't need to look up." The weirdly pleasant note was still present in Tonio's voice. "I knew who you were before you ever sat down."
"Oh," Raffaelo said, now completely off-balance but oddly, secretly flattered. "Really?"
Tonio sighed sharply and finally looked up, pinning Raffaelo with a long-suffering stare. A subtle gleam of gold winked arrestingly from one ear. "You're Raffaelo Orsini," Tonio said. "You're a third-year student of the violinwith which you're more than passable but less than geniusyou're a friend of that awful prig Giada, and last year you slept with no fewer than twenty-one of our fellow students, thirteen of whom were male."
Ears burning, Raffaelo blinked, holding up both hands as if to ward off a sudden swarm of wasps. "Passable" he stammered.
"More than passable," Tonio said shortly. "Take it as a compliment."
Raffaelo spluttered. No hope of being suave any more; instead he grabbed for the first point of attack he could find. "You seem awfully informed about my private life, Fujimoto"
"Private!" Tonio snorted a disdainful laugh. "I had the room above yours last year. I really could not care less whom you have sex with, but it would be nice if you'd learn how to close the window before taking off your pants. If I had a five-cent coin for every time that I heard" Tonio broke off there, eyes narrowing, and finished the sentence with as dead-on a mockery of Raffaelo's broken orgasmic moan as Raffaelo had ever hoped never to hear. Coming from Tonio's lips like that, it pinned Raffaelo to his chair; it crossed his eyes; it stole his breath; and, unfortunately, it left him as hard as a rock. "At least what I heard of your playing was adequate," Tonio said, as if nothing had just happened, and Raffaelo fought to make his eyes focus again. "You might almost do Bartók justice, some day."
"Thank you," Raffaelo said weakly, groping for something else to say.
Tonio ruffled the pages of his magazine impatiently. "I'm not interested in having sex with you, Orsini. I assume, given the evidence, that that's what this is about."
For a long moment Raffaelo could only gape at him. A vague memory bubbled to the surface of his mind"You know," Raffaelo said, his voice queerly breathless, "you came damned close to owing me a new violin the other day."
"Did I," Tonio said, manifestly disinterested. "That would have been a shame. Yours has a lovely voice."
"It does," said Raffaelo. "And"
"I suppose it would have taught you not to stand directly in front of the doors, though," Tonio said. "Go away."
Numbly, Raffaelo scraped his chair back and stood up. "Can I ask you a question?" he said, the words tumbling out without any conscious input.
Tonio sighed. "What is it?"
"Why do you come here?" Raffaelo waved a hand at the dilapidated storefront. "Why don't you go to the Lottelita with the others?"
"The coffee is good," said Tonio. "And it's quiet. I don't find myself bothered by idiots. Usually."
"Ah," Raffaelo said, and gathering the tatters of his dignity around him, he made his escape.
Five minutes later, once he'd put some distance between them and managed to make his ears stop burning, Raffaelo's mind and his mouth were full of all the snappy, cutting rejoinders he should have blistered Tonio with. For a mad moment he considered going back and unloading them, then huffed, hunched his shoulders, and went back to campus.
"What an ass," he told Giada, at dinner.
"Who?" she asked archly, scraping the melted cheese off the top of her chicken parmigiana, her face twisted up in disgust. "I thought you had no idea what I was talking about."
"Giada," Raffaelo groaned.
"Hmph. In any case, I could have told you he was an ass, if you'd asked." Having ensured that no dairy products would come in contact with her precious throat, Giada picked up her knife and started daintily rendering the chicken into shreds.
"Isn't he Japanese or something? I thought the Japanese were supposed to be polite," Raffaelo said, stabbing a stray shred of parmesan with his fork. Not having the qualms of a crazy voice student had its perks. "You know, as a people."
Giada nibbled at a bit of chicken. "I suppose he didn't get the handout, then."
"Anyway, if he's going to be such an immense prick about it, I'm not interested." Raffaelo nodded his head sharply, once.
"I don't understand why you were interested in the first place. I mean, it's Fujimoto." Giada fixed him with a disbelieving stare.
"It's just..." Raffaelo picked at the remains of his penne. "Back when he had that awful bleached hair, it was all I could see. He was just this blinding mop of piss-colored hair."
Giada shuddered daintily. "That's disgusting."
Raffaelo pointed his fork at her. "But true."
"But true," she agreed.
"And so... now that his hair isn't blinding me, I can see his face, and he's pretty," Raffaelo added. "That's all."
"If you say so," Giada said, frowning.
Raffaelo sighed. "Unfortunately, yes, I do. But pretty isn't enough to make up for that horrible personality. So to hell with him." Admitting to himself that he was done with his dinner, he scraped his chair back and stood up. "I'm going to go grab a practice room while everyone else is still eating," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," Giada said, "and you're coming to my fall-quarter recital on Friday."
Raffaelo paused. "I am?"
"Yes, you are." Giada looked pleased with herself. "Because otherwise I will never forgive you."
"Giada, no one goes to those things unless they're first-years or townies"
"and yet, you're coming," Giada said, much of the pleasure falling from her face. "I need a friendly face in the audience, even if I can't see it."
Raffaelo threw up his hands in surrender. "I'll come, I'll come."
"Oh, good." Cheered, Giada nibbled on another tiny shred of chicken. "It's at nine."
"Nine," Raffaelo repeated. "Ciao, Giada." Picking up his violin case, he left.
The door blew open just as Raffaelo reached for the handle, forcing him to once again snatch his violin (and his fingers) out of the way. "Excuse me," he snapped, his temper worn thin.
"You're excused, Orsini," Tonio said, brushing past him.
The pounding on his door jerked Raffaelo from his impromptu nap. Blinking, he lifted his head from his crossed arms. "Raffi," Giada said through the wood, in that weird trilling undervoice that she used instead of shouting.
Raffaelo groaned. He was so stiffhe forced himself out of his desk chair and answered the door. "Giada," he said, his own voice a sleep-clogged rasp.
"Where have you been?" she demanded to know, putting her hands on her hips. "I haven't seen you in days! Am I suddenly not good enough to eat with? Is that it?"
"What? No! Gia, that's notoh, God, come in," Raffaelo said, catching her upper arm and drawing her into his room. The two of them took up nearly all the available space; certain sacrifices had to be made to secure a private room, and floor space was one of them. Raffaelo looked over his shoulder, checking to make sure (for the hundredth time) that his window was conscientiously closed against the night and prying ears alike. It was. He closed the door behind Giada and locked it.
Giada's eyebrows rose. "Did you just lock me in?"
"Yes," Raffaelo admitted. "It's not... I mean... I..."
Giada sighed, caught his face in both hands, and gave him a bracing little shake. "Raffi, snap out of it."
Raffaelo closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Yes. Sorry."
"This had best not have anything to do with Fujimoto," said Giada, scowling.
"Oh, God," Raffaelo moaned, dropping back into his desk chair. Suddenly he was unable to tear his eyes away from the floor.
"It is Fujimoto, isn't it? That's disgusting."
"Yes! But it's not what you think!"
"Of course you're not sleeping with him," Giada said dismissively, sitting on Raffaelo's bed. Her fingers ticked over her scarf again. "I know what you're like when you're sleeping with someone, and this isn't it. What did he do, hit you?"
Raffaelo looked up at that, confused and blinking. "What?"
"What do you mean, what?" Giada stopped fussing with her scarf and started fussing with her skirt instead. "You're avoiding me, you won't come near the opera hall, you're locked away in your room on a Friday night with the window shutobviously you're hiding from something. And you can tell just by looking at him that Fujimoto is an angry little man. I'm sure he'd hit someone if he was pushed far enough."
"Of course he hasn't hit me," Raffaelo said, summoning as much dignity as he could. "It's just... Giada, I swear to you, he's haunting me."
Giada stared at him. "What," she said, her voice flat.
"No, I'm serious!" Raffaelo flailed both arms. "Ever since that day, everywhere I go, there he is! I see him everywhere! Bitching out one of the accompanists behind the rehearsal hall, crossing the plaza, going into one of the practice rooms, at dinner, at lunch, at breakfastI even saw him having a screaming fight with Signor Ugolino on the steps, I swear they were nearly spitting in each other's faces, I've never seen anything like it"
"Oh, God, I heard about that," Giada said, fascinated and repelled. "So he's following you?"
"No! No, I don't think so, it isn't like that... he barely notices me most times, he doesn't even look in my direction, and when he does he just sort of... looks through me... oh, God, maybe I'm haunting him instead? No, that's stupid." Raffaelo buried his face in both hands and rubbed his eyes, the wool of his gloves scratchy against his cheeks. "I just can't get away from him," he muttered.
Giada pursed her lips. "That would seem to be true," she said. "Remember, you promised to come to the fall-quarter recital tonight?"
"Oh, God, that's tonight?"
"Yes," Giada said impatiently. "And you promised you'd come."
"He's going to be there, isn't he," Raffaelo said, not bothering to make it a question.
"Of course he's going to be there, Raffi! It's the third-year voice students' recital, why wouldn't he be there?"
Raffaelo closed his eyes in despair. "And you're still going to make me go?"
"Raffi, snap out of it," Giada said, her voice severe. "You're coming. You can sit in the back. He won't be able to see you with the stage lights on, and you can leave right after I'm done, while he's still backstage."
"Giada," Raffaelo said, then stopped. There was no use arguing with her about it. "All right," he said. "But you're killing me. You realize that."
"Stop being such a dramatic baby," Giada declared, standing up and once again checking the hang of her scarf. "It's just Fujimoto. The worst he can possibly do is be nasty to you."
"That's bad enough, Gia!"
The recital was exactly as dull as Raffaelo had been expecting it to be. Only a certain basic fear of Giada's rage kept him huddled in his seat, as far to the back as he could get, the collar of his coat raised both against the October chill and the possibility of being recognized.
Voice students flowed on and off stage in an endless, unimpressive, nerved-up cascade. The Milan Conservatory might admit only the best, but when everyone was the best, half of their number still had to be below average. It wasn't a comforting thought. Raffaelo tried to push it away. And, for whatever reason, the third-year voice students were either worse as a class or someone with a great deal of pity but not much tact had arranged them from worst to best, to avoid unfortunate comparisons to someone who had performed earlier in the evening. Most of them were eminently forgettable. A couple of them had actually cracked on the high notes, which made Raffaelo wince and shift in his seat. The rest of the sparse, scattered audience was equally restless. If it went on like this, there would be catcalls soon.
The girl currently on stage was far too slight and shy to be wearing the expensive dress that hung stiffly about her. Her alto was pleasant but, again, nothing spectacular; Raffaelo only came out of his funk to applaud perfunctorily once she had finished. She slunk offstage, looking for all the world like her overdone dress was carrying her. God, Raffaelo couldn't help but think, what if I'm also this mediocre and no one is kind enough to tell me so?
He banished the thought and settled back in his seat, hunching his shoulders. Maybe Giada would be the next to perform and then he could leaveTonio Fujimoto burst into the spotlight like a beautifully-dressed apparition, scowling, and Raffaelo froze.
Tonio strode to the center of the spotlight, head up, shoulders back, eyes scanning an audience that surely he could not see. Arrogance poured off him in waves; Raffaelo could feel it from here. For a moment Tonio was silent, staring out at the audience like it personally disappointed himhis eyes flicked across Raffaelo and Raffaelo shivered despite himselfthen Tonio lifted his upper lip in the ghost of a sneer, a tiny flash of fang glinting in the spotlight, and gestured peremptorily at the accompanist. The piano thumped out its opening notes; Tonio touched two fingers to his bow tie, the movement oddly like a benediction, then let his hand drop.
All right, Raffaelo had to admit, a few stunned seconds later. It wasn't arrogance. It wasn't arrogance at all.
A few thousand years later, all too soon, Tonio bowed to the audience and strode back offstage. Raffaelo only managed to pry his fingers loose from the armrests in time to clap twice, and then the next voice student made his diffident way onstage and the audience consented to settle again.
Raffaelo took absolutely no notice of the unfortunate fellow who followed Tonioif pressed, he would have guessed that the boy was a baritoneand could barely bring himself to attend to Giada, who sang afterwards. She sounded fine, Raffaelo was sure, better than most of the people who had preceded her, but for the first time he found himself coldly aware that Giada would never go on to sing for the Milan Opera. La Scala was not in her future. Some smaller company, perhaps, or a company overseas where they knew little about opera, and maybe she would even be happy with thatalthough Raffaelo doubted itbut she would never be good enough. The best, maybe, but never the best of the best. And if she were not good enough...
Giada left the stage and Raffaelo slipped out of his seat, heading for the doors and freedom. No more of this. He couldn't take it.
The October night was bracing, a few stars shining bravely in the sky despite the lights of Milan doing their best to drown them out. Behind him Raffaelo could hear the faint hum of the recital, but that was all; the relative silence was a balm to his shattered nerves. He paused there to take a handful of deep breaths. He'd done as he promised, and he thought he could even talk intelligently about Giada's performance, when she quizzed him about it, as she was bound to do...
"You're hopeless, I hope you realize that," Tonio Fujimoto snapped, from somewhere around the corner. Raffaelo couldn't help it: he jumped, squeaking out a terrified mousy sound, before he realized that Tonio wasn't speaking to him. Light shone from the open stage door and spilled down the alleyway, silhouetting two figures against the cobblestones, and despite himself Raffaelo paused to listen: the other person protested, a stream of words that Raffaelo couldn't quite make out. "Nervous?" Tonio said disdainfully. "My God. If you're afraid to perform in front of twenty people, how will you ever perform in front of two thousand? How will you carry on in the face of blatant disinterest or disrespect? Real audiences are not nearly so kind. If you cannot performif you're here only to learn to sing to yourself, quietly, when you're sure you're alonethen you should have dropped out years ago and let someone more deserving have your spot. Study under a private tutor, instead. I'm sure there are hundreds who'd be grateful for the money."
The other voice protested again, a good deal more choked now, like its owner was holding back tears. Raffaelo, repulsed and fascinated, crept another step closer. "I can't blame you for not having any confidence in your voice, frankly, but at least learn to fake it," Tonio said, disgusted. "None of us will ever be any good, but we can, at least, try to be better."
Silence, broken only by sobbing. "I don't know why I bother," Tonio said; Raffaelo, by now deeply uncomfortable, slipped away.
This late at night, the hallways were dim and quiet, and the marble tile of the floor was cold against Raffaelo's backside. He wasn't sure why he was here; twice he'd nearly heaved himself to his feet and left, and twice he hadn't gone through with it. Instead he sat outside the door and nervously scrubbed his hands together, the soft wool of his gloves making little scratchy sounds. The stone-floored hallway caught even those tiny sounds and echoed and amplified them, but Raffaelo couldn't stop fidgeting.
He saw Tonio long before he heard him, despite the hallway's propensity to echo. The silence of Tonio's approach was, frankly, a little eerie, like Tonio really was the ghost that Raffaelo had half-accused him of being. He still wore the tuxedo he'd sung in, although he'd tossed a topcoat over it and wrapped his throat in the everpresent white scarf; it was a real touch, a human touch, and it made Raffaelo feel a little better even as he scrambled to his feet.
"Orsini," Tonio said, irritated. "What do you want?"
"I saw you sing," Raffaelo said. "Tonight." He hadn't meant to blurt it out like that, but still, there it was.
"Good for you." Tonio fetched his keys from the topcoat's pocket and unlocked his door.
"So..." Raffaelo scratched the back of his head. "I just came to tell you that you were amazing. That's all."
Tonio paused, his door half-open, and favored Raffaelo with a long, cool, measuring look. "No, I wasn't," he said. "I was passable, only. You only think I was amazing because the rest of my class is awful, with one or two exceptions."
"Passable," Raffaelo repeated, dumbly aware of a sudden, rising serenity within his soul.
"Passable," Tonio confirmed. "Perhaps in ten years' time, with constant practice, I'll be better than that. But... not yet." Without bothering to dismiss Raffaelo he stepped into the darkness of his room and flicked on the lights; Raffaelo caught the door before it could close and followed him in. Tonio rolled his eyes but didn't bother to protest.
"I still thought it was beautiful," Raffaelo said. "I know I wasn't the only one."
"And you know so much about opera," Tonio said, shrugging out of his topcoat and hanging it in the closet. His scarf he unwound and dropped over the back of his desk chair. His room was even smaller than Raffaelo's, if such a thing were possible; the two of them were a crowd all by themselves, and Raffaelo had to lean back against the closed door to stay out of Tonio's way.
"Maybe you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the reaction of the audience," Raffaelo said.
Tonio's fingers paused on his half-undone bow tie. "Hmph," he said after a moment, tugging the knot free. "The audience may think what it likes. It always will. I, however, know."
"How much better I could be." Tonio shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket. The shirt underneath was obviously expensive, its starched front still pristine but the rest of it wrinkled and damp with sweatthe flaw in Tonio's facade, however tiny, made Raffaelo's heart thump hard, once. "The more I learn, the more I realize how much farther I have to go. If you haven't realized that for yourself, then your education here is being wasted on you."
"No," Raffaelo said, trying not to be obvious about watching Tonio undress. "I mean, I understand that. I know what you mean."
"Do you," Tonio said, disinterested. "Good. Then perhaps some day you also will be more than just passable."
"Are you this hard on everyone?"
"Yes," said Tonio. He dropped his tuxedo jacket into the basket on the closet floor, then stripped off his waistcoat. "Always. Everyone. We're not here to have our egos stroked, Orsini. Or, at least, we shouldn't be."
"All right, then," Raffaelo said. He didn't say anything else. Maybe here in a moment, when he got the strength back in his legs, he'd excuse himself and go.
Tonio frowned at him for a moment before going back to the laborious process of peeling himself out of his tuxedo. Raffaelo watched him do it, too tired to be subtle about it any more. Tonio picked the studs out of his shirtfront, one at a time, dropping them into the little wooden box on his desk, and Raffaelo watched Tonio's shirt gape open farther and farther, until only the waistband of his tuxedo pants held it shut at all
"Oh, for God's sake, Orsini," Tonio said, wholly exasperated, and catching a handful of Raffaelo's shirt he dragged them both to the floor.
This piece is a counterpart to a story written by a friend of mine: Beijing 2008. Why these stories form a diptych will have to remain unconfirmed, at least for a little while.