His name is not Ha Neol Ahn. Not any more.
It rattles her. That name came out of the research she did before their prizewinner showed up, when she was trying to get some grip on where their first chair might take the Metro Symphony. From what she’s heard so far, it’ll be somewhere a lot more crisp and professional and technical.
Amalia’s email last night commented that Walstadt simply doesn’t hear the subtle problems. He rushes through when he is there. He’s busy feathering for his next nest. Naturally, says Amalia, he was perplexed and annoyed by the things that Dance of Knives recited carefully to him from scribbled notes, after their very first break. But the other first chairs were muttering a lot. The good ones were nodding, triumphant.
The email devolved into all caps with exclamations to say that Dance was absolutely right. It mentioned that he didn’t forget anything she warned him about. As an exercise in pure memory, Amalia said, he stunned half the orchestra into submission right there. She wrote that she was going to be happy as a clam to work with him.
“So how do you feel about work so far?” Emma asks.
“We are sorry to miss talking Metro Symphony with Amalia at night,” Dance says, tugging out paper napkins with careful precision, the way he does everything. “Sharp wit, yes? Advise us. We are being–” he takes a breath, smiles, “I am– grateful for so much generosity. Amalia is helping members of sections who struggle in this repertoire. She wants change for accommodation. Metro must train younger musicians.”
“We were lucky Walstadt brought in some funding to hire them at all,” Emma says.
Dance looks at her solemnly over the plate full of sticky bear claw. “Walnuts?” he ask, holding up some of it.
“Yes, these are a bit old, but–”
“Can we be telling if these are Persian walnuts or black English walnuts?” He says it with a distinct rhythm, articulating with care. “We– I– read these two trees look different. Black walnuts grow sticky husk?”
Emma pauses and blinks. “Yeah, they do. Can’t tell in pastries, but we can try to find something that does show the taste.”
“We will be liking that. Liking plants too,” he says. His eyes catch the light, turning a warm light brown. “We never live long enough with one place for planting trees.”
Emma grins. “Well, then you’ll go nuts–sorry!–you’ll go crazy over my weeds. I know what most of the weeds probably are, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bend over and dig the darn things out.”
“Can we give you digging help? Good, helps thinking. Good like jogging.”
“Oh, you do whatever you like out there, it can only improve things.”
“What is Miss Emma liking cooked in satay?” Dance asks then, and licks sticky cinnamon sugar glaze off his fingertips, wasting none of it. That reminds her of cats. Not a fluffy and sweet-tempered cat like her own, but something a lot more powerful. Perhaps with spots or stripes hidden in that sleek black coat. Feral as hell.
It’s just not on, she tells herself crossly, to project such patronizing nonsense onto somebody she barely knows. But the whole orchestra saw Dance being gently evasive. Walstadt likes to grab people, push them about, turn them to face new directions, when he gets aggressive or excited or carried away. Dance doesn’t accommodate that. He is too quick on his feet. Right now, he’s watching the gears grinding slowly in her head. He’s used to waiting for people to catch up.
“Oh, use anything in the fridge, whatever’s in there. I think there’s onions. I’ve got no idea if I have any of the spices or whatnot that you might want to use.”
He smiles then. “We ask if our third and fourth thing be good to our first two things, yes? When we have one thing only, we use. Pickles. Eggs. Odd things.”
Emma wipes sugar off her mouth, and his eyes follow the sugary napkin. Oh yes, that boy’s been hungry.
He does that head-tilt again. “Is Miss Emma liking carrots and celery with peanut butter?”
“No, but that’s what I can stand to snack on in a hurry, when my tum is all riled up and tossing round.” She pats herself.
“Is tum all tossing now? Is Miss Emma’s job giving upset?”
Emma whooshes out a breath. “No worries, I’m all right now. You made me settle down and eat something and laugh! But don’t get me started whingeing about work, we’ll sit here all night!”
“And that is bad?” he says, with a little quizzical smile. He waves his hand at the crowded little donut shop. “Yes, sit here in a warm place, eating sugar bombs with beautiful woman who has such wonderful laugh?”
“Oh, lord luv a duck, did you say pretty things like that to Amalia?”
“Oh, Amalia is pretty, but also such jammin’ awesome musician. But Miss Emma, yes! Miss Emma is jawdropper steaming hot, I know this before. Our section says this. They can’t say it to Miss Emma, all straight boys, no, no. But we are queer, so we can say whatever if we like. Right? So straight boys kid us. We say it, Miss Emma punch us out, we must go to rehearsal all black-eye, and Maestro Walstadt asks who hit us, and they all laugh at us a lot.”
Emma finds herself cracking up and laughing very hard. When she winds down, she reaches across the tiny table and gives him a little push on the shoulder. “Flattery!”
He smiles. He’s letting her push him, too. “That is, flattery is to say pretty things?”
“Yes! Silly things that you only say to make somebody happy!”
“But is not just silly,” Dance says. He puts out his two hands, and takes hers, and grips them gently. “Miss Emma impresses people, lots smartness, so quick, Miss Emma does not stop to visit a mirror who says Miss Emma is the fairest of all, yes?”
She grins. “Why? Do I need to brush my hair or something?”
He lets go of her hands, reaches up, and plucks a tangle of little twigs from the curls tousled by her right ear. “As we say, no worries, please. Leaves fall on the head coming in. Do not wish to surprise Miss Emma.” He frowns, smoothing the disordered curls above her ear.
“Oh damnitall,” Emma growls, looking ruefully at the twigs. She puts up a hand and adopts a silly dramatic pose. “Oh, I shall just have to play as if I’m really a wood nymph or water fairy or something terribly Shakespearean.”
He gets up, laughing, and puts the twigs in the can along with their paper trash. He’s still chuckling as he sits down. “Ha! Amalia tells stories on Miss Emma. Miss Emma plays Puck with tricks.”
“How do you– oh, of course! You’ve learned the music for plays and ballets, right?”
“Yes, we read translations to understand…how do we say… mood. Correct phrasing, style of bowing. But that old man Falstaff, that is nasty in Korean. Older village people don’t like actors yell those words where child might hear. Very sad. Old sad clown.” He touches her coat sleeve just enough that she can feel it. He’s so used to being cautious, it makes her want to reach out and arm wrestle him, teach how to do silly fingersnaps, or just maul him about while quoting silly movie lines, and hear him laughing some more. Of course she won’t do that, which is a shame.
He smiles, as if he read the thought anyway.
Emma taps his arm. He permits this, too. “We should get you a proper haircut. I’ve a buddy who wants new clients who won’t mind being experimented on.”
He pushes his untidy mop into a rooster comb like a bad mohawk, and makes a silly face. “Oh, sad again, not enough tats and earrings.”
“Amalia didn’t warn me I’d be laughing all night!”
He leans in close, opening his eyes very wide. “Amalia tires, we don’t joke at her all night. But Miss Emma! So glad Miss Emma is Miss Amalia’s friend!” He grins, with very white teeth.
“So am I,” Emma says, and gives him another mild push on the shoulder, which only makes the grin widen. He pats her arm, too. Emma is beginning to think that only a damn fool would chase Dance round the house. She’s certain that he’ll be underfoot all the time, alongside her cat.
written from a challenge on bjd_30minfic with the prompt of “stairwell”