The set is beautiful—a nighttime backdrop, city rising in the distance, with a paper moon hanging benevolently over it all—but Tay can only think of one thing and one thing only: in less than five hours, he’s going to have to go on stage and perform his end of term composition for a room full of students and faculty. Most nerve-wracking, however, is the knowledge that his father is going to be there, too.
Tay knows he’s talented. There’s no other way to get into UAA. Money, prestige—it counted for little here. All that really mattered was how good you were at your chosen art form, and he is very good at his. Just like Tobi and Jem were amazing at dancing and singing; just like August is an amazing producer and composer; just like Emery with his painting and photography; Damian was talented in the kitchen (he could sing, too, though he was more shy of this fact), and Donny could write novels and short stories like you wouldn’t believe. Both of them had graduated from UAA with high honors a couple years prior. Each of them has gifts—and Tay knows he isn’t the odd one out in this. So really, he shouldn’t be so nervous.
He’d been playing saxophone since he was four years old. His grandfather had played in his youth and he’d been all too excited to pass his love of the saxophone and jazz music in general to his only grandson. Tay had taken to it like a fish to water, and by the time he was six, he was being called things like “prodigy.” When he’d finally gotten to audition for UAA, he’d been accepted almost immediately—not like Emery, who, despite his incredible talent, had still been put on a waiting list and had to work twice as hard as any of them to keep his place in the school since his parents refused to send him money and he was on a competitive scholarship.
Logically, Tay knows all of this. So why is it that he suddenly fears his talent will leave him now that his father is coming to see him perform for the first time since he’d started school here?
It doesn’t help his nerves at all that it’s his first original composition. He may have mastered playing the saxophone at a young age, but writing music is still all new to him and he’d had to get August’s help on so many parts that it was almost unrecognizable from what it had been when he’d started the project earlier that year.
With exams all done, he’s been practicing nonstop for this performance, hardly breaking for food or water. He’s had to be dragged out of the practice rooms by Jem more times than he can count in the last week, and yet he still isn’t sure he’s ready for this. What if he messes up? What if he doesn’t and his father still hates it? What if his father doesn’t even show up?
Snagging his bottom lip between his teeth, Tay tries to busy himself by examining the decorations again, but he’s pulled out of his musings when a hand suddenly claps him on the back of his shoulder. “You’re a little early, aren’t you?” Emery says. “August and I were just wondering if maybe you wanted to stop by Damian’s before the show and get some food. I think he’s making your favorite.”
“Green curry soup?” Tay asks, perking up at the mention of it.
Emery smiles and nods. “So you’re in?”
Tay is almost ready to agree when his stomach flips uncertainly, sending a wave of nausea through him. “I dunno,” he mutters. “I don’t want to puke all over the stage.”
Emery’s eyebrows knit in concern. “Why? What’s the matter? Are you sick?”
Tay shakes his head. “Not really. It’s just…this performance, and dad’s going to be there…”
Emery stills at the mention of Tay’s father, an angry expression crossing his features. “The hell is he coming here for?”
Tay shrugs helplessly. “Says he wants to make sure the money he puts into me is worth it.”
“That bastard…” Emery says and any other time, Tay would find it cute that Emery is angry on his behalf, but right now, he’s too nervous to feel anything else.
“I…I know he’s a jerk, but is it strange that I want him to come?”
Emery chews on his cheek, as if considering this. Then, he shrugs. “You know I’m bad at feelings. Who am I to say what’s strange and what isn’t? But I do know this—whether he comes or not, you’re going to do great.”
“How do you know?” Tay challenges.
“Because Damian is going to fill you with green curry soup, which always puts you in a fighting mood, and the rest of us will cheer you on in the front row. Come on, let’s go eat!”
Tay allows Emery to pull him out of the staging area feeling a little less nervous than he did before.
Four hours later sees them returning from Damian’s in a massive group, Tay’s stomach pleasantly full and a grin on his face. He has an hour to get ready, so he says goodbye to his friends at the door before slipping backstage and dawning his costume. For some reason, he feels as if he’s gearing up for war.
The nerves are already creeping back up, though, now that he isn’t surrounded by friendly face. Out there, waiting in the audience, is his father. Or maybe not. He isn’t sure which scenario makes him more upset.
But the second he opens the case of his instrument, sees her beautiful brass body sitting pretty on a cushion of blue velvet, he feels something loosen inside of him. He thinks of August, who helped him write this song when he knew next to nothing about composing; of Donny, who told him with words what the song made him feel and brought tears to Tay’s eyes; of Tobi, who’d begun to dance freestyle to the notes he was playing even before he’d had the kinks worked out; of Jem, who constantly looked after him and made sure he was taken care of so that he could keep working, keep fighting, and who he’d heard humming along on more than one occasion; of Damian, who’s kind and thoughtful support (as well as his superb cooking) had helped him to forget for a little bit that he was nervous; and finally, of Emery, who may not know a damn thing about feelings but who somehow helped Tay feel better without even trying.
Yeah, his father might be out there. But his friends? He knew they were, and they’d be right there cheering him on, just like Emery had promised.
So when he stepped out onto the stage to a smattering of applause, he held onto these thoughts. He didn’t scan the crowd for his father, didn’t think of him at all. Instead, he found his friends’ faces, heard them shouting his name raucously and getting shushed by one of their teachers for it…and then he played for them.
He was dimly aware of clicking and flashes—no doubt Emery’s camera—but he didn’t focus on that. He simply focused on letting his emotions be carried on his breath and into the instrument; focused on his fingers finding all the right places on the brass body of his baby; focused on sending the music soaring high into the rafters and echoing around the room, taking them all to a different place, a different time—to a world where the city rose in the background, a paper moon dangled above them, and music was everywhere.
Tay kept his eyes closed for the majority of the performance. It was easier to transport himself that way, to concentrate on the music. And when he was finally finished, when he finally opened his eyes…only then did he seek out his father.
He was standing against the wall, arms folded across his chest and eyes glinting in the darkness. Tay felt himself swallow, but he forced his gaze not to waver. He made sure to meet his father’s eyes and to hold them. He didn’t even blink.
His father regarded him for a moment and then, against all expectation, against all hope, he began to clap.
The room followed soon after, the applause reaching a crescendo so loud that he was sure his ear drums would burst. Tay’s mouth fell open slightly, still staring dumbfounded at his father. But already, the man was turning to leave, heading out the door, and suddenly there were arms around him, hands clapping him on the back and ruffling his hair, and he realized that his friends have rushed the stage to congratulate him, telling him that it was the best performance they’d ever seen.
Eventually, even his teacher comes up, giving him a small smile. “That’s one of the best sophomore performances I’ve ever witnessed, Taylor,” he says. “Keep up the good work—your grandfather would be proud.”
And Tay’s grin grows even wider if that’s even possible. Emery snaps a photo of his expression, snapping Tay briefly out of it as he tries to snatch at the camera and see the damage. “Oh, man, you look so dopey,” Emery jokes.
Damian gently shoves the younger before placing an arm across Tay’s shoulders. “Don’t tease your elders, Emery,” he chides, squeezing Tay briefly. “Tay did amazing today and he should be proud.”
“Thank god that’s over,” Jem says, wrapping his sweater-clad arms around himself as if he’s cold. “Maybe now I won’t have to literally drag you away from the practice rooms when I want attention.”
Tay laughs. “My attention is all yours, Jemmie,” he says. “Until next year’s performances, anyway.”
“Maybe you’ll even write your own song next year—rather than me practically doing it for you,” August says, giving him a gummy smile that makes him look kind of like an old lady.
Tobi wipes a possibly-fake tear from his eye. “Our Tay, all grown up. Should have known he’d outshine us all one day.”
“You did good, Tay,” Donny says, nodding in approval.
And Tay feels so good, so warm at all the praise that he doesn’t know what else to do. So naturally, what he ends up doing is jumping up and snatching the paper moon from the string and holding it to his chest. It’s the perfect keepsake, he thinks, to remember the night that he impressed his father with the help of his friends. He knows it won’t last forever; he knows that his father will no doubt go back to his habits by the end of the week, that his pain is far from over despite this small victory, but none of that matters because now everything is good. For once, Tay is truly and unequivocally happy.
He hopes he never forgets what this moment feels like.