“What’s next?” Emma says, with a glance at the plywooded window.
“I grab what I can of that missing Locatelli–” Dance says, and Drin braces the little notebook with one hand, while Dance’s tail fumbles with the pen. “–and I need Barret’s opinion on the thing. I think–” Dance strains around and looks up at Barret, and beckons him to come closer. The tail makes agitated coils. Dance points at Barret, and he says, “I think this missing piece is not written in the modern temperament. I think it must be written in one of your odd tunings, that you record in. I think it must use old-style meantone tuning!”
Barret grins. “Yeah?”
Dance says firmly, “Locatelli’s history.”
Barret blinks. “He was during that transitional period, wasn’t he? Changing out of old-style meantone into the even-tone we use now, right?”
“The lifespan dates overlap.” Emma nods, rubbing her lower back.
Barret points at the notebook. “You remember all that stuff about Bach pushing our hotsy-totsy new even-interval method, so you can make key changes that sound better across the board–”
Dance nods. “But the tuning, that must drive me crazy. You know, I am this rigid, I am too used to conventional temperament in every orchestra. Not enough practice on our meantone guitar that Drin just got me. Such a beautiful thing, you would like it.”
“Drin got you one that’s built for meantone? Which kind?” Barret says, delighted. “Cool gift.”
Drin makes a face. “C’mon, it’s the least I could do.”
The tail twists awkwardly round the pen like a little kid learning to write, and Dance scowls desperately at the pages.
“You’re doing it left-handed,” Barret says, kindly. “Try tipping the page at a slant, over that way.”
“God, trying to– how can I play it if I can’t even write to this page–” he coughs.
“You can tell me, I can write it out for you,” Barret offers.
Dance looks up at Barret. “It’s so slow if I dictate. I can’t sing it–”
“Dance,” Emma says. “It’s in your underpants. You just gotta reach down and scratch.”
Barret throws back his head and laughs, and it helps.
He breathes. Right. Don’t try to sort out the muscles, that never works. You’re having sex and it just does what it wants and– Oh. Oh. He blinks. Drin strokes his tail, gently, and kisses the tip, and looks at him with a smile.
“I told you he was pretty damn rude,” Emma says to Barret, who just laughs.
“Sorry,” Dance says, closing his eyes. Get those printed staves in your mind. They’re small, in this notebook. What is it, three staves to that page? Dimly he knows where they are, there’s the lines, don’t stop. There’s the cleff, there’s the time, there’s the key signature, there’s the notation: lento. The first bar. The next. The second line.
“There,” Dance says, with his eyes shut. “I need the second-to-last quarter-note in meantone.”
“I’m thinking F-sharp,” Barret says. “It’s in the form of a round, it’s gonna repeat and modulate, so it’s shifting to the key of the next exercise, right?”
“Yes,” Dance says, frowning hard. He’s also transposing to the lower-bodied voice of the viola, just as writing for alto voice differs from soprano, but of course Barret knows that too.
“Try muscle memory,” Barret says then, and pulls up a chair. “Run through the next piece in the Art of the Violin, and we’ll get what this new note should have been all of these years, played in meantone.”
“When I tried that new guitar–” Dance says then, frowning.
“You liiiiked it,” Barret says, laughing, and reaches out and touches his arm, gently. “You did!”
“Oh yeah,” Dance says, blinking into space. “Yeah. Sweet, like honey, these major thirds. But real. So different as cane sugar from corn syrup. Equal temperament is not even on any same golf course.”
“Satan scores!” Barret says. “You’re mine now, you bad boy, bwahahaa! You’ll never go back to– well, of course you will, Concertmaster, but you’ll bitch about it.”
Dance looks at him soberly, and says, in a broad Dixie accent, “Satan? Satan, I ask you? Now, look here, my man, I be the snake in dis garden. No playin’ with my nekkie humans–”
Barret grins at him. “Feel better?”
“Yes. Thank you.” And his tail goes back to meekly writing down notes.
Barret looks around when Emma starts laughing. “What? I fixed him. What’s wrong with that? He gets stuck, I give him a kick in the pants–erm, well, in the somewhere–and he–”
Emma’s laughing a lot.
It sounds good. It reminds Dance to add that little silly trill that he knows would be there, and there–
“Look at this guy. He’s a brute. A miserable, horrible composer,” Barret says. “Who’s going to play this? Who’s going to survive those triplets? God?”
Dance grins, humming a bar of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, while he’s writing down completely different Locatelli notes, just to see the grimacing face that Barret makes at him.
“You thought Mozart was tough, baby,” Emma says, amused.
“He is tough!” Barret exclaims.
Dance points where the transition starts to the fragment from the next Etude, and he murmurs the note, and Barret chuckles, “Of course, yes, that makes sense, see–”
Dance hums it, hoarsely, and he blinks. Something comes free in Dance’s chest. Opens up. God, it feels good. It’s like his upper ribs have been taped down. Now the tape has come loose, and they can open up wide, he can breathe.
Dance feels his hands stir in his lap. Something shifts in his back, it loosens, and he brings up his arms with a sigh. He can hear it now. He’s been playing it just a little bit wrong, all these years, no wonder he was fighting that transition so hard, it didn’t sound right to his ear. “Yes,” he says, with his fingers on strings that aren’t there, and the tail scribbles on of its own free will.
“That son of an Italian bitch,” Barret says. “Is that as tough as it looks?”
“Yes. That’s his show-off student in a good day. But not if he steps off wrong on the last bar. Sixthteenths, yes? Then thirty-second notes. Get your breath right on the timing, ta-da umpty-da–”
“I think that’d be a B-flat, then?”
Dance takes a breath, drops his arms. He’s going so slow, there’s more–so much more–
“Don’t panic, you’ve moving just fine, we’ll get it,” Barret says, leaning close, pushing his surety into Dance, the calm solid knowledge of years of ensemble playing there in the eyes.
“Yeah. It’s a B-flat,” Dance says, and marks the end of the bar. That’s the first motif done. It may be leisurely in this opening section, but the structure is jumping from one technique to the next with that calm economy of movement. It’s brutal. If you haven’t mastered the method in each case, you simply can’t make the shift without blatting out the mistake to the Master. He’s a fiend, damn his unbending standards.
He opens his eyes, and blinks. “Got it?”
“It’s good,” Barret says, and his eyes are intent. “It’s simple, remember. For his students. An exercise for his major pupils to test on. Not for a real pro like himself. Or like you. Simple, right?”
Dance blinks at him. “I bet he wrote another one. To audition people on. Tougher, but parallel to this. Maybe another yet, for the Maestro. Could be played with this one, even. A trio.”
Barret stares into his eyes. “I bet he did.”
Dance meets the gaze. “After. I’ll write that part down for you after. And then the third one, his own.”
“Promise?” Barret says, and that’s when Dance learns the big soft eyes can be fierce, too.
“He’s still an SOB.” Barret sits back, with a sigh.
Dance hears himself give a weak chuckle. “Oh, he is.”
Barret’s muttering. Drin pulls out some pages from the back of the notebook, hands them across. Barret takes the pen. “Thanks, man. Don’t want to forget how I saw the piano transposition. And the sampling it needs–”
“Barret,” Drin shifts, and speaks up unexpectedly. After a moment of Barret’s frantic scribbles, he says it again. Drin’s voice is a jolt, after the intense focus with just two of them speaking. Drin sighs, and lifts Dance’s shoulders into his lap, and he strokes back Dance’s hair, down his neck, across his chest, while the tail sags tiredly in Drin’s other hand. Drin says, “Don’t get lost in it, right?”
“How many motifs?” Barret says, almost panting, like he’s been running a brisk mile.
“Five,” Dance says.
“Oh crap,” Barret says, holding out the pen. “Don’t mind me freaking. I’m just OCD boy here. Okay. Next motif. Etude. Whatever. Same order, through the exercises?”
Dance nods a little in Drin’s lap, and takes the pen with his tail. Drin lifts the notebook, puts it in Dance’s right hand, and with the left, Dance plays more strings that aren’t there. “Got another meantone shift for you, maybe,” he says, and they talk it through, like the first one. Dance frowns. “I fight this too much.”
Barret sings on key, bless his soul.
“Ahh, that helps,” Dance says, and another two bars come flying out, effortless, perfect, little intricate dance steps for angels, because nothing human could keep up with a pace quite that stiff.
“That’s no fucking gavotte to, like, dance to,” Barret says. “Unless you’re a primo at your prime, with glutes like a bull.”
“They had dancers like that,” Dance says. “I don’t recall what time, there, the nasty things at Louie’s court.”
Barret laughs. “You want something to show off a nice leg for your sugar daddy? Have this, you showy SOB, show us how good your footwork is. Somebody was either real happy, or pissed off, or both.”
Emma stirs, but is silent, poised. Oh, she knows.
“It’s like looking at somebody else’s workmanship,” Drin says.
“It is,” Dance says, and blinks up at him. The tail drops the pen on his middle, and reaches up and touches his husband’s face, lightly, with the scales gone a pale tint that’s more crystalline than color, all scintillating reflections, and then he sighs, and it all turns a sleek, glossy black, and it grabs up the pen and scratches out four more bars, at speed, like it’s angry.
Barret arches a brow. “Got a mind all its own.”
“It does,” Drin says, smiling.
The tail fiddles the pen around, and turns muddy colors, and then settles to blue. Dance closes his eyes, frowning, with his left hand doing fingerings.
It’s Emma who looks at him and smiles, and hums a few notes, badly.
Dance blinks at her. “I’ve been doing it wrong! If you remember practices like that–“
“You read the music like that. I’ve seen you practice,” Emma says calmly.
“But it doesn’t fit!”
“And I’ve heard you bitch about it at least two dozen times,” Emma says.
“It was printed wrong, happens all the time,” Barret says easily. “Do it right. You know the SOB. He wouldn’t do that.”
“You can hear it,” Dance says.
“Oh yeah. Here.” Barret leaps up and fetches his keyboard. His fingers move across the keys with only little clicks of his nails tapping. They still have no power. It doesn’t matter. “See, meantone would be different, but not much–”
“Right,” Dance says, making a face. The tail is faster than writing by hand on a good day. He’s got it. “The ink is going dry,” he says then, blinking.
“You ate my good pen?” Barret says. “Your tail ate my pen!”
“Always something,” Emma says.
“Got more,” Barret says, and he rummages. “Purple do you? Pencil?”
“Pencil,” Dance says. He knows at a glance the purple will be sloppier, tend to blot, and there isn’t time or space. The pencil is dull. He holds the end in his hand and winds a thicker keeled section of his tail around it and pulls at it, so there’s a whirring sound from shavings taken off by slide-coat scales with keels. He squint at the pencil, and does it again. Then he starts writing, sometimes looking at the staves on the page, and sometimes squinting into space with his hand doing fingerings in the air. “What, Barret?” he says, not looking up.
“Nothing, man, don’t mind me,” Barret says. “I just liked the sound.”
“We can sample that for you later,” Dance says absently. “No cartoon slidings on it like a rope, it takes your skin off.”
“Gloves are good too,” Drin says then, and there’s laughter gurgling under the suspiciously calm surface of his voice. Dance knows that tone. “Kevlar, maybe.”
“I might need one of those silicon hot mitten things too, just to play this!” Barret says.
“Ice, maybe,” Dance says, absently. “Afterward.”
“Christ,” Drin says.
“Yeah,” Barret says. “What he said.”
“Please try these four bars on your keyboard. Is it too fancy?” Dance asks then, the tail pointing with the tip of the pencil.
Barret nods his head in time to his fingers across the silent keys. “I’m not sure about that last bunch of triplets. I don’t know strings like you do.”
“Well, the show-off hits again.”
“That bloody boy,” Emma says, with a smile. “You know you want to beat him up after school.”
“Hell, I was the annoying child, and so were you, Barret,” Dance says. Dance’s tail erases it, puts in a simpler version. “But easier, it is not so good with the next motif.”
“It’s a student piece,” Barret says. “Your perfectionist streak is showing again. Put your hand up and say, ‘Hi, my name is Dance, I have Obsessive-Compusive Disorder, you can tell because I play classical music–‘”
Dance cracks up, and the tail makes a knot and thumps Barret on the arm. “Thanks, OCD Boy.”
“Any time. Us compulsives gotta stick together. You’re doing it again, aren’t you, with the triplets again. Is that what I think it is?”
“I dunno. Do you think?” Dance frowns. “I dunno, these cosmic questions.”
Barret makes the frog face again. “That show-off student has a horrible Yiddische mouth on him too.”
“Best to believe it,” Dance says absently. “What was the modulation on that next to last Mozart Quartet? Right. So this has to–”
Barret says, “Yeah. Good. You know I’m gonna have to turn the pages for this when you play this, if you’re doing it now, I mean today?”
“Yes, please,” Dance says. Then he pauses and blinks up at the other musician. “I think I just asked you to do something dangerous. I have no business to be dragging you into–”
“Dangerous how?” Emma says then.
“I don’t know,” Dance says. “I just– I don’t know.”
“Okay,” Barret says.
“Write your music,” Barret says, and touches him on the arm again. “It’s okay. I’m cool with page-turning. I am. I wanna hear it.”
The tail flashes back and then pale and then disappears, evaporating like the Cheshire cat, until the pen appears to be floating in space.
Barret looks at the pen sternly. “Hello, Dance tail, don’t be shy, it’s okay, come back and play, we got cool stuff to hear, and after all of this work, a very cool instrument to do it on, if I guess right. You oughta like hearing that.”
Barret is sitting there, mouth open, when the tail sneaks into a very pale blue and the pen lowers to the notebook in an embarrassingly furtive way, and starts scribbling a little bit.
Dance winces and looks at the ceiling, squinting, and tries not to think about anything except the fingerings in his head. The tail scribbles a bit more. There, that’s the fourth motif finished.
“Wow,” Emberley says. “It’s like having your dick on public display, isn’t it?”
“It’s like having your retarded cousin stapled to your back,” Emma says.
Dance clicks his teeth irritably and the tail drops the pen and heads straight for Drin’s lap and curls up there along Drin’s belly, with rapid blurred colors flickering along its back. Of course Drin lifts his hand and pets it, and the colors begin to slow down, and then to fade to a more uniform pale blue. It curls up under Drin’s hands, like a kid sulking.
Emma says, “It gets tired, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dance write with it before. That was impressive.”
“It was,” Barret agrees gravely.
Dance draws in a deep breath. “Okay,” he says, and flexes his hands, and braces the notebook, and begins writing notes slowly, in a perfectly conventional way. He goes back into his musical trance, squinting through the end of the thing, the wrapup. He doesn’t think about it when he finds the pencil dull again, he just braces it out, and the tail zips off more shavings to sharpen it.
“Cool sound,” Barret says loudly, over noises that are far more unpleasant. Tumblings and rattlings, as of things being tossed around again.
Dance blinks, glancing up, to realize that he’s hearing things move somewhere in the far distance. The wind is rising again.
He hurries. “There,” he says at last, and thrusts it out. “See that last key change?”
“Yeah, looks good to me,” Barret nods. Then he looks up at Drin. “Can you copy all that? Get a camera or something and take pictures of it? Stash the copies or the camera somewhere safe. Maybe the root cellar?”
Barret sighs. “I’ll go get Pen, while I’m at it. We need Pen’s help, I think, for opening the viola case. Auren’s friend seemed to think we might.”
Drin beckons, and Emma brings over her coat, and they prop Dance’s head on that, just off the floor. “I’ll bring up more water, too.”
Barret gets up, stretches. “I want to check on things before that eyewall hits, this time. Talk to Pen, see how they’re doing. Estelle wasn’t looking too good, last I saw her.”
There’s something strange about how Drin looks at him. As if he knows that they need Barret’s support to get help from this other guy, Pen, whoever he is. As if they both know Pen won’t come help them on Drin’s word alone. “Thanks, man,” Drin says then. “For everything.”
Barret gives a little shrug, and smiles. “My pleasure, working with Dance. Your Concertmaster is such a kick. We are going to do some fun things with that Locatelli, I swear it. We are.”
Drin smiles broadly. “It’s a date, man. I insist.”