“It’s those runs in the Stravinsky. I’ve been hacking at them for weeks and you just make– ”
“Make them look easy?” Helen guesses, pity coloring the tip of her tongue, and Vanya regrets speaking in the first place. But–
Helen is still studying her, and for some reason, this moment of hesitation strikes Vanya as strangely defining– like a die is being tossed up in the air and reality is shattering in six. “What’s your name again?”
“Okay, Vanya,” she says and the timeline settles around them in their one-sixth of the lot. Vanya shivers as if feeling the ripples. “Let me see it.”
“What?” Vanya blinks uncomprehending, several copies of her do the same in the mirrors.
“Play it for me,” Helen spells it out, sounding irritated for having to do so. Her eyebrow twitches. “Go on, I don’t have all day.”
“Oh. But here?” A roll of the eyes. The stop wasting my time kind. “Ah. Alright, then, sorry.”
The violin case is set in the counter and Vanya breathes in relief to see her fingers aren’t shaking. She takes a deep breath. Music fills the bathroom, quietly smooth, the notes shrinking in themselves but playing out obediently on their way up, and Vanya nearly stutters in the same place she always does.
Helen purses her lips, raises a hand to stop her. “Your wrist,” she moves to circle it with her slender fingers, perfect red nails digging lightly on the skin, and her touch burns a little. “It’s too stiff, you need to loosen up,” her thumb brushes circles on the underside of Vanya’s wrists.
It works, to a degree, even if everywhere else in Vanya tenses up. “That’s better,” she says, “try again.”
Vanya tries again.
And this time she doesn’t stutter so much as deliberately visualizes the words before speaking as Diego does.
“Not yet,” Helen clicks her tongue, eyeing critically her bow. “I need to hear the rest. Come on.”
“You wanted my help, didn’t you?” She raises one eyebrow, bags in hand and door propped open. “The stage is clear for the next hour. Or do you have something better to do?”
Again, Vanya has the feeling this a deciding choice, like two roads are branching out right under her feet. The side that’s been itching to reach for her meds is urging her to slip out the door and leave Helen behind without a second thought.
Her other half, though, the one that had her speak up earlier, it whispers a trembling why not?
Somehow, against all odds, Vanya chooses to listen to that tiny little voice. It did work out kind of well so far, after all.
She follows Helen out the door.
It’s an hour and a half later when the click-clack of heels interrupt them and Helen sets her bow down, the melody easing to a stop.
“Allison?” Vanya frowns. A hundred scenarios flicker through her mind, terrible doomsday play-throughs, and she should probably have taken her meds half an hour ago, but Allison isn’t looking like a disaster just befell their family.
If anything, she looks a little dazed.
“Hey, that was beautiful,” she smiles, stopping at the edge of the stage, not climbing up. “Sorry for the interruption,” her sentence ends with a sort of a question, eyes darting from Vanya to Helen and back.
“It’s fine, uh, thanks. This is Helen,” Vanya introduces with an awkward smile, unsure how to properly introduce her, “she’s first chair here in the orchestra. Helen, this is my sister, Allison.”
“Nice to meet you,” Helen nods politely, finishing to close up her bags, violin nowhere to be seen. She tucks her hair behind her ear, head held high as she stares Allison down with the same critical eyes she had turned at Vanya earlier in the bathroom. It’s strangely comforting.
“Nice to meet you too,” Allison echoes, sounding slightly taken aback by the lack of fawning over. Vanya nearly snorts, unable to picture Helen, so poised and prim, fawning over anything. “Sorry,” she turns her attention back to Vanya, “it’s– can you come back to the house? We’re having a family meeting.”
“And you guys want me there?” Vanya can’t help shooting back, bitterness and skepticism slipping along the tail end of the words.
“Of course,” Allison says, reassuringly, like they hadn’t all made it very clear the Academy is not her home anymore. Although, to be fair, had it ever been, really? For any of them?
But Allison is throwing curious glances at Helen, and Helen has already climbed down the stage stairs, pausing beside her to look up at Vanya. “Practicing won’t help if you don’t stop hiding,” she tells her in lieu of goodbye. To Allison, she gives another polite nod and a tight smile.
Vanya watches her leave all the way to the exit door, sunlight spilling pale in the theater floor.
“She’s… interesting,” Allison finally settles on, frowning mildly, “a friend of yours?”
“Not really,” Vanya shrugs, hopping down the stage to carry on this conversation less awkwardly. Her ankle protests, but she bites her lips and doesn’t flinch. “Just an acquaintance. You were saying?”
It feels kinda good to leave Allison confused and for once in their lives, outside the loop, even if it’s on something so insignificant as orchestra rehearsals. “Right. It’s about Mom. But look, about yesterday–”
Allison launches into an apology that sounds surprisingly sincere, and Vanya sighs, resigning herself to forgive and forget.
Later on, after Vanya leaves the Academy bloody and bruised and with a familiar ache in her ribs, the one that she’s carried around for about as long as the Academy stood, she wanders the streets aimlessly.
Adrenaline is running off his bloodstream and her hands are shaking, but somehow her feet bring her to the theater and the janitor had given her the keys to the front door last week when she had accidentally stayed practicing long after closing hours again.
It’s dark inside but she doesn’t bother turning on the lights.
Vanya lifts her violin and plays Stravinsky until the pad of her fingers and burning and strangely, all the dust has fallen off the ceiling.
This is how Helen finds her the next day: sitting blankly in the front row with her violin beside her.
“Jesus Christ, what happened to you?” She sounds almost worried, more worried than Vanya has ever heard her and that’s counting the time a spotlight fell off in the back during rehearsal. She must be looking exceptionally terrible, then. “Did you get mugged?”
“No– sorry, I–”
“You’re bleeding and you look awful,” Helen clicks her tongue in disapproval, and Vanya kinda wants to laugh at the situation. Not even when she’s looking this pitiful, Helen is willing to cut her some slack. “I can’t think of why you should be apologizing to me.”
Vanya huffs a snort, quiet and barely there, and rubs her eyes with the heel of her hands. “It’s been a long night.”
“I can see tha– did you stay here all night?”
“Maybe,” Vanya admits, steeling herself for the torrent of insults that are sure to come. This is pathetic even to her standards, so she can only assume what other, less screwed up people, would say. “It seemed better than my apartment.”
“Jesus, you’re a mess,” Helen murmurs, but her fingers gently trace the edges of Vanya’s bruise, turn her head from one side to the other as if taking stock of her injuries. “It doesn’t look too bad. I’m guessing you didn’t sleep, so I won’t worry about concussions. Come on, we need to get this cleaned up.”
Vanya’s eyebrows furrow. “Why are you being nice?”
“Because you look like shit,” she says plainly and it’s the first time Vanya heard Helen say something that doesn’t sound like it could come out of some queen’s mouth. “And you’ll slow rehearsal down like this. Come on, chop-chop, kitten.”
With little else to do and not really in the mood to cause a scene, Vanya follows Helen into the nearest bathroom, standing stock still near the sink as she folds a paper towel in four and dabs under the faucet. “So. What happened to you?” Helen asks, face a mask of cool concentration while cleaning dried blood from Vanya’s forehead and brow.
“Some people broke into my house– well, my family’s house– last night,” she corrects herself, recounting the events of the night with the dispassion of someone still half in shock. “They were looking for my brother, I think.”
Helen’s fingers misstep in their slow conquest of clean skin. “And what did the police say?”
Vanya is pretty sure no one called the police.
“You didn’t call the police?”
“We– my siblings fought them off,” she shrugs, careful not to jostle either of them too much. “And I doubt the police would have much to say. The people that try to hurt us tend to be a little too much to the police.”
“Right,” Helen snorts, throwing the now reddish paper towel in the garbage and picking up another. “The Umbrella Academy.”
“So, you, uh, did hear about them,” Vanya tries not to sound as disappointed as she feels. Even if Helen isn’t her friend, or even all that nice to her, it had been, well, nice to have someone finally not starry-eyed over her family.
“Of course I did. I didn’t grow up in a cave,” she rolls her eyes, huffing almost imperceptively. “I just don’t generally care as a whole about foolish things. Like wannabe superheroes from the 90s. It was never my thing, anyway. I had better things to do with my time.”
“Like learn violin?” Vanya asks, once again equally relieved and grateful. A bit guilty, too. Most people aren’t glad to have their family dismissed like this.
“Like learn violin,” Helen agrees, lips twitching in a ghost of a smile. Then, surprisingly, she glances down, hands faltering. She looks chagrined. “I’m sorry, that was probably rude of me. Insulting one’s family after they’ve just been attacked is crossing a line even for me.”
Surprising herself, Vanya lets out a small laugh, shaking her head. “No, no, it’s fine. I, uh. We’ve never been exactly close,” she bites her lips, wincing at the cut she had forgotten was there, “let’s just say I was also learning violin while they were being superheroes.”
“Very well, then,” she steps back, discarding the last of the towels, and examines her work. Vanya takes the opportunity to check herself in the mirror. The blood is all gone, revealing what must have been a small cut to the side of her head that has been covered with a bandaid, and the bruising is almost imperceptible. Her busted lip looks like it’s already healing. “All done. No one will call the police if they see you now.”
“You didn’t,” Vanya points out, tentatively touching her bruised eye.
“I’m not as inclined to help or go into hysterics as the general population.”
“Thanks,” she grins hesitantly, and Helen waves her off, fixing her lipstick in the mirror like she hasn’t spent the last fifteen minutes helping Vanya look less like a shell of a person.
After rehearsal ends, Vanya doesn’t mean to linger, it’s just that the zipper of her case is being stubborn and everyone else is always so eager to leave as soon as the conductor dismisses them, so yeah.
To an outside observer, it might look like she’s lingering.
“Why are you packing up?” Helen frowns in her irritated tone of always, her own violin still tucked neatly in her shoulder. “The concert is in less than a week.”
“Oh,” Vanya drops the strap of her bag. Something is bubbling on her chest but there’s no time for her to study it too close, not when Helen is motioning for her to hurry up already. It’s not disappointment, though, or annoyance, far from it. It’s warm and light and better left alone. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” she chides, huffing, “you do it too much. Words lose meaning if you say them too many times. Now, come on, let’s work on this compass, you’re losing tempo here and it’s messing up my rhythm.”
They meet up at her place the next day and Vanya cancels all of her afternoon classes.
The new student, Leonard, calls over and over and leaves many voicemails she doesn’t listen.
It’s kind of creepy, and when Vanya tells Helen she’s thinking of dropping him, she agrees that might be for the best.
It feels almost like a routine at this point.
“So,” Allison says when they’re out for coffee, grinning mischievously, “how’s your acquaintance?”
“Who? Helen?” Vanya shrugs, sipping her coffee. Her cheeks feel warm and her stomach flutters, but she chalks it up to the coffee. “She’s uh, fine. She’s been helping me with rehearsal.”
“Hm, that’s nice of her,” she points out, an eyebrow raising in that way that means she thinks a few words other than nice would perhaps work better there. “And she didn’t strike me as particularly nice the other day.”
Her stomach does a strange flip and her lungs seem to forget how to properly work for a second there. For some unfathomable reason, Vanya finds herself flushing. “Yeah, nice is not exactly her thing,” she smiles sheepishly, unsure of what else to say, “but I guess? It’s– I don’t know.”
Allison softens, giving her a gentle look. “Hey, you do know that it’s okay, right? We don’t care– whoever you love, that doesn’t change anything.”
Vanya knows her eyes must be as wide as saucers but there’s little she could do about it because what the hell. “Where did that come from?”
Allison blinks, taken aback.
“Not that I don’t, uh, appreciate it,” she backtracks, taking another sip of her coffee and tasting none of it, “but I just don’t get it why to bring it up now.”
“Well, I only meant,” Allison frowns a bit, like she’s working on a particularly hard puzzle, “it looks like you and this woman are hitting it off, sort of, so you don’t have to worry about us.”
Apart from the time-traveling assassins, Five’s apocalypse, and their general existence, Vanya adds dryly in her head. “That’s. I mean, thanks, but we– Helen and I, we’re barely even friends.”
Now, the look Allison gives her is equal parts amused and pitying. “Of course,” she says, and lets Vanya change the subject.
Yay, sisters indeed, she supposes.
If Vanya stays up all night thinking it over, well.
It doesn’t have to mean anything.
“Do you like playing?” Helen asks her one afternoon, eyes stern and lips pursed. She has her violin on Vanya’s couch, and she’s been listening to Vanya go over their piece over and over. “Because it doesn’t sound like it.”
“Of course I do,” she feels the need to defend herself, her frown tethering at the edge of a glare. After five days, her awkward stage has mostly faded away and it’s easier to snark right back at Helen. Sometimes, she even manages to bring out a surprised smile out of her with it. “It’s all I've ever known.”
It’s what makes me special, she doesn’t say but something about the way Helen shifts in her chair, head tilting to the side, tells her she heard it anyway.
“Then play like it. Right now, you’re playing like a scared 13 years old girl,” she says, her tone kinder than her words. Helen is a firm believer in tough love, Vanya has accepted this fact by now. Still, she gives up pretending her words don’t sting a little, they’re too on the nose, after all. “Look. Do you want to be third chair forever? Because at this rate I will have to tolerate Miranda as second chair for far too long.”
“Miranda’s good,” Vanya chooses to say instead of focusing on anything more confusing in her sentence.
“Yes, she is. And she always skips the last note in the second compass because she can’t change positions fast enough and thinks no one will notice it. She also doesn’t love music half as much as you. To her, this is little more than a hobby that went above expectations.”
Vanya doesn’t mean to stare, but she thinks Helen in complementing her and her heart is doing a thing where it beats too fast, too offbeat, and she doesn’t know how to keep up with it. “Oh,” she mumbles for lack of better words.
“You can do better, is all I’m saying,” she continues, and Vanya could swear her cheeks are tinted red, but that’s probably the sunlight coming from the window and washing everything in orange-ish reds. “But you have to play like it. I can tell your passionate about music, so stop running from it and let it flow through you instead.”
“I don’t know how,” Vanya confesses. It just slips from her lips while she’s too busy watching the light reflect off Helen’s hair, framing her against the sunset outside.
Helen softens. It’s almost unperceptible– a tick of a twitch and her brow smoothes out, lips easing into a slight smile. You see, Helen’s bark is loud and spiky, but it’s on her silences that she says the most truths and with the experience of someone who’s been outside looking in for all her life, Vanya is getting good at reading them.
“Close your eyes,” Helen says, and Vanya obeys. “Now play for me.”
Wordlessly, Vanya does.
In her eyelids, the image of Helen smiling on her couch, her legs tucked under her and a cup of tea in her hands, stays burned sharp into focus, and if his Helen was half as beautiful, Vanya understands why Paris would let Troy burn for her.
“Find your passion,” Helen tells her before the concert, and in a rare show of affection, squeezes her hand. “And play it like a declaration.”
The lights dim into darkness and the spotlights blind her to the audience, but Vanya watches Helen unabashedly– it’s all she sees, really. Her heart is bursting into fireworks and her ribcage is decorated with fairy lights.
Oh, she thinks, and plays it, indeed, like a declaration.
Later, after it’s all said and done, and even the audience has filed out, scattered in the block around the theater, Vanya lingers purposefully at the exit.
There’s a litany of texts from her siblings, but Vanya leaves it unread for the time being.
What she has to say is more important than whatever trouble they have found themselves in, and besides, if it were truly pressing, one of them would have deigned to call.
“You’re still here,” is the first thing Helen says as she steps out the door and catches sight of Vanya leaning against the wall, violin case at her feet. Then, “you were great tonight.”
It makes Vanya grin, ducking her head for a moment before she remembers the decision she made during the concert. “Thanks,” she mimicks Helen’s voice from what feels like so long ago in that bathroom, dismissal and all.
“Okay, I deserved that,” Helen laughs, and she must still be high on the applause and the lights and the thrill of the performance because she sounds breathless. “But seriously. Miranda’s got nothing on you.”
“It was all thanks to you,” she reminds her, hands itching to reach for warm skin and the moonlight is caught impossibly on her hair.
“Don’t sell yourself short, kitten,” Helen clicks her tongue, setting her case down beside Vanya’s, and stops in front of her, close enough that Vanya could count her eyelashes if she wanted. “If you go on like this, I might have some competition next audition.”
“Should I apologize here?” Vanya raises her eyebrow, feeling bold for no reason other than the breathlessness that hasn’t left Helen’s voice yet.
“No, I like competition,” she says easily, and kisses her.
Vanya tastes the champagne that the crew had opened right after curtain call, and the apple she knows Helen always carries with her when she knows they’ll be running late, and she tastes all the hard runs in Stravinsky and all the high notes she has to strain to reach.
It’s every love song she ever played and it’s every note she ever got right.
Her hands have found their way to Helen’s hair and waist and Helen is clutching Vanya’s suit with white-knuckles when they pull back. Vanya draws her closer. “Hey,” she bites her lip, half-afraid this will shatter if she looks away.
But Helen seems to be just as dazed, kissing the corner of her mouth, and then closer to her lips, swallowing the next what now that tries to slip past. “Now,” Helen echoes, fingers trailing down to rest on Vanya’s hips, “everything.”