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Chapter Nineteen

“You’ll do great,” Al heard Leo say as a hand clamped over his shoulder. He let out a low breath he didn’t know he’d been holding before. Nodding, he tried to stay focused.

Al could hear the movement of people bustling from place to place. It was both exciting and intimidating. He was sitting on a stool behind a practice piano backstage, and he could hear Leo, who’d wandered away talking with Kenneth in the background.

“We’ll be up in ten minutes,” Kenneth said. They were in the town hall where the contest was taking place, plus being next in line to perform and were presently waiting backstage. Al could hear the players who were presently performing. Their performance was good, but they seemed to have a problem with following each other’s pace. Al smiled, noting that he and Kenneth had overcome that problem during their practices.

A round of applause soon echoed throughout the hall as the players ended the composition. The sound made Alejandro nervous because it meant it was his turn and Kenneth’s to perform.

“Come on, I’ll help you get to your piano,” Kenneth’s approaching voice said from across Al. Al soon felt a hand on his shoulder, and he was helped to get up from his stool before following Kenneth. He was soon helped onto another stool, and he let his fingers reach out to touch the piano’s keys in front of him lightly. It was a little intimidating — the keys felt new — barely used, and probably weren’t used the abuse if being used like Al’s personal piano, or the pianos at his college.

The applause for the previous players had faded away, and Al could only guess the spectators were waiting for him and Kenneth to begin, but he had to wait — Kenneth was taking the lead this evening.

Al soon heard Kenneth playing the composition at the pace they’d practiced in — steady yet siren. The last trace of noise from the crowd faded away, giving way to the music that filled the room in its place. Al too that as a cue to join in, matching Kenneth’s pace and going through what they’d practiced.

The lights from the hall made a red-orange sheet of color behind Al’s lens. The intensity of the light gave him problems, but he let his lids close and tried to focus on the music, matching his partner’s pace, and adjusting to the sharp jumps they’d both agreed to add to the piece to make it more dramatic in execution.

To take his mind off the judges who Al knew were doing what they were supposed to, he let his mind wander to Leo, who he knew was watching from behind the stage. Leo with the wonderful voice, well-mannered personality, and overwhelming talent.

The Leo he loved.

The Leo he wasn’t sure he was allowed to love.

The act of trying to take his mind off the judges seemed to be producing mixed results. His emotions were now heightened, and they seemed to spill into the rehearsed piece he was now playing.

The composition came to an end soon after, and Al could stop his now shaking fingers from moving as the sound of applause from the audience overwhelmed his senses. He sat still, only getting up when he heard Kenneth came over to help him up. They left the stage, and Alejandro soon felt himself being enclosed in a hug.

“You did great,” he heard Leo’s voice say behind his ear as the feeling of soft hair brushed against his right cheek as hands with a firm grip squeezed him around the torso.

Al smiled a bit, humming into the hug.

“What about me, I did great too...” Kenneth’s voice came off as playful with a hint of mockery in it. Al felt Leo pull away from him as he laughed, his voice joining the others in the noisy room.

“Sure Ken, you did great,” Leo said, playing into the joke. Al continued to hold on to Leo’s arm, wondering when he’d be lead to a seat. He was okay with moving about by himself in a familiar place, but backstage was rowdy and unfamiliar — it stressed and hindered him.

“We have to wait for the others to perform then the judges can make a decision on the people going forward in the contest,” Kenneth’s voice said in the midst of the noise in the room.

“Come on,” Al heard Leo’s voice say as he was pulled gently until being made to take a seat on a stool at a far corner of the room. Al could hear the sound of a seat being pulled, and his suspicions were confirmed when he heard Leo’s voice on the same level as his face — he was probably sitting down beside him.

Applause after applause came from the crowd when pair after pair played continued throughout the evening unit it eventually stopped — everyone had played, and it seemed like the judges had exited the room due to the now prominent noise coming from the crowd.

“So, we wait,” Al heard Kenneth sigh, the sound of a table’s legs sliding against the wooden floor told Alejandro that Kenneth was probably resting on one.

Al wasn’t sure how much time passed by, but it had been enough to make him restless on his seat. He busied himself to humming to one of the compositions he’d practiced with Leo previously that week during a class as he picked at the loose thread on his trouser. The number of people backstage made the place stuffy and hot, making the hair around Al’s temples to seem gelled down with sweat.

Eventually, there was an announcement that the judges had come to a decision, and it was followed by applause from the audience. The announcer started to call out names in pairs. Kenneth had stopped bickering in the background, and the audience, as well as the people backstage, were now maintaining a pin drop silence. Sometimes people would let out sighs of relief or words of joy.

Al was starting to worry, but the weight was lifted off his shoulders when he heard the next pair of names, “Kenneth and Alejandro...”

He didn’t hear the rest of it because Kenneth — unlike the rest, had yelled instead of whispered, and his voice, as well as the announcer’s voice, was soon drowned by the automatic clap of the audience. Al got up with the help of Kenneth, and the voices from the audience became more prominent as they walked from backstage and out into the main stage.

The announcer called a handful of other names in pairs before stating that he was done. After a short talk, everyone went back. Al and Kenneth did and were met with Leonardo.

“Awesome, can we leave now?” Leo asked, but didn’t receive an answer from Kenneth who was now talking to someone on the phone. Al laughed, noticing what happened. He was sitting on a stool he’d been helped to settle down on. A smile was plastered across his lips as a mixture of happiness and relief filled him.

“I think I can drop you off now,” he said, making Al nod. They’d come together, and Kenneth had taken public transport.

“We’re leaving,” Leo said to Kenneth who went on to ignore him. Al chuckled, feeling Leo’s distress as he listened to the man cuss just loud enough for him to hear.

“He’ll figure out that we left later, so let’s go,” Leonardo said as Al felt a hand rest on his shoulder. He got up, lacing his arm around Leo’s so that he could be lead out of the building. They got to Leo’s car in the parking lot soon after, and Al took the passenger seat up front. The way the seat felt made Al guess that the care was barely used — which made sense, considering Leo barely came to school in it.

The car soon started moving, and Al let himself doze off as Leo drove. An hour or so later he was shaken awake by the shoulder.

“Come on, we’re at your place,” Leo said as Al heard doors being opened, and Leo was soon helping him out of the car. When he was fully awake and standing straight, Leo went ahead to lock the car doors before accompanying him to his apartment.

Al let go of Leo’s hold when they got into the apartment complex. He knew the place well and didn’t need much help getting around. He walked up the stairs, stopping at the floor the apartment he shared with his sister, Esterphina. He waited for Leo who’d lagged behind him.

“Should I knock and wait for Ester or are you good on your own from here?” Leo asked.

“I’m good on my own — wait,” Al added immediately after when he heard Leo walking away.

“Thanks for tagging along this evening,” he muttered, piercing the odd cloud of silence that had taken over the small hallway space.

“It was my pleasure,” he heard Leo say as footsteps made their way towards him. Al soon felt his face being held on to by soft slender fingers – Leo’s fingers.

“it was a great performance – you guys did great.”

They stayed like that after Leo’s sentence, and Al could feel his heart beat against his ribcage as the silence drowned them. Al began to wonder if Leo was teasing him, and he thought that if that was the case it was cruel of him. He panicked, even more, when he felt the base of the man’s thumb run over his lips, and the next thing that happened was sudden — so sudden that Al wasn’t even sure it happened, but then it happened again, and it was softer — more intense.

Leo was kissing him.

Alejandro could feel himself shiver against Leo’s hold as tingles moved from his lips to the tip of his toes. He made to return the kiss — slowly — unsure, but willing to learn how to return the form of affection.

Leo broke the kiss after a while, making Al react with a sudden gasp.

“Good night,” Al heard Leo say, but his voice seemed shaky — unstable. Al didn’t have much time to think over it because soon the sound of Leo leaving echoed through the small hallway. The period between his footsteps telling Al that he must have been jogging, or even running down the stairs.

When the sound of Leo’s footsteps faded away Al brought a few fingers to his lips that still felt like they were buzzing. He wasn’t sure why Leo had done what he’d done, but it had felt good — it still felt good.

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