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Joo Won 주원 - Finished Drama: Alice


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5 hours ago, airplanegirl said:

I'm definitely excited about Alice since it's a project he chose and not what his company chose for him. 

 

Thanks for that tip! I'd suspected that was the case, given how long it took to confirm, but it's great to know for sure :) 

 

By the way, does anyone know who's in charge of editing the forum name? I think it's about time we included "Alice" in there. Thanks!

 

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13 minutes ago, kittyna said:

 

Thanks for that tip! I'd suspected that was the case, given how long it took to confirm, but it's great to know for sure :) 

 

By the way, does anyone know who's in charge of editing the forum name? I think it's about time we included "Alice" in there. Thanks!

 

I'll request the MOD to change it once we have a premiere date. 

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A couple of goodies/announcements for you guys:

 

First of all - now that "Alice" seems to be making some decent progress, I'm finally making the commitment to watch "My Sassy Girl" in full! :star: 

 

Yeah, I know...took me a while :P But, in my defence, I didn't want to be stuck with the feeling of having watched all of JW's dramas without something to look forward to - since that's not the case anymore, I should at least finish off all of his pre-enlistment dramas and start with a clean slate ;) 

 

Some of you may have been around when I watched "Yong Pal". If so, you'll remember that I wrote here periodically with my impressions of the drama, its characters and plot, etc. And so I'll do the same with "My Sassy Girl" this time around. Again, it's unrealistic for me to comment on every single episode - so this will be a case of me dipping in whenever the mood strikes and time allows. :) 

 

To be honest, I am a bit apprehensive about this. Unlike with "Yong Pal", "My Sassy Girl" is the sort of drama where...well, if JW wasn't playing the lead in it, I wouldn't have been interested in it much at all. In other words: the initial premise (i.e. that it's a sageuk adaptation of a super-famous Korean rom-com movie) simply wasn't something that would draw me in at all. I have seen enough from this forum and the drama's actual forum to know that there's a lot more depth to it than just rom-com shenanigans or slapstick humour, so right now, I think what I'm really hoping to see would be that JW gets a chance to give Gyun Woo the depth that I want to see.

 

Second item - Preview 2 of my upcoming Seolleim in Salzburg fic! This time, just a sweet (emotionally) intimate moment between Yoo Jin and Nae Il:

 

Spoiler

For a long moment, a deep silence hangs over us, Nae Il probably still processing everything I’ve just told her. Then, gently, she leans in closer, tilting her head to rest it on my shoulder.

 

I give her a sideways glance. “Wae?”

 

“If they” – she nods at the Graf piano in front of us – “if the Schumanns could hear us, what might they be thinking right now?”

 

My mouth curls into a joking smirk. “What are you talking about, Seollebal? They wouldn’t even understand Korean!”

 

“Aish....” Nae Il lifts her head from my shoulder, just enough to shoot me a mock-reproachful sneer. “You’re not even trying.”

 

“Well, then,” I retort smartly, “what about you? What do you think?”

 

She lets out a soft whine, nudging me with a pout. “I asked you.”

 

Fine. If that’s how she wants it….

 

“I think,” I answer slowly as she once again rests her head on my shoulder, “they would understand. Not in the exact same way, of course – Clara, not Robert, was the one with the perfectionist disciplinarian for a father.”

 

Nae Il rears up again with a hiss. “Call it like it was, Orabang. Friedrich Wieck was an abusive narcissist who cared more about what his daughter could do for his own image than for her happiness.” She rounds on me, eyes blazing. “You know he threatened to kill Robert when he found out they liked each other, right? Kill him and destroy her career – one his student, the other his own daughter – simply because they wanted a life beyond what he’d planned for them!”

 

Her sudden ferocity sends me scooting away from her. “Alright, alright – whatever you say!” I raise both hands in surrender. “Aish, Seollebal; remind me never to get on your bad side.”

 

She shoots me a pointed look: simultaneously daring me to cross her and doubtful that that could ever actually happen. Only when I throw in a small sheepish smile, an extra “I mean it,” does she calm down. Her face gradually softens, until, at last, I feel it is safe to pick up where I’d left off.

 

“But what I meant, Nae Il-ah, was that Clara would know what it’s like to both disappoint and be disappointed by her father: love and hate and admiration all rolled into one. Whereas Robert, although he was older, was the innocent one” – I glance wistfully up at the painting on the wall – “the child in a man’s body, with his head up in the clouds.” I turn back to face her. “He was the first person in Clara’s life who let her just be herself: pursuing music not for anyone else’s gain, but simply out of her own love for it.”

 

“Oh….” Nae Il nods knowingly. “Like us, then, but in reverse.”

 

“Mm,” I answer with a shrug. “Perhaps.”

 

One more preview will be released next week, and then - the full fic :) 

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Ooh...loving that look on him, @tokkimoon - thanks for sharing!

 

But that's not what I'm actually here for today. Instead, since I've just watched the first two episodes (or the first episode, if you count them as two halves of one hour-long affair as I do) of "My Sassy Girl", I should stop by with my first impression.

 

Okay, not quite first impression, since I was already active here on the forum at the time it aired and so I already know what happens. But you get my drift.

 

First of all, it's a good thing that Episode 2 does a good job establishing Gyun Woo's fundamentally goodhearted nature, because the cockier know-it-all attitude we see in Episode 1...really got old after a while. For me, anyway. Like, I get it: he's smart, and he's worldly, and he knows it, but this is where I have to fall back on something that the writers on Dramabeans once said (about Cha Yoo Jin, incidentally) - that trying to look cool actually makes you look uncool (with the implication that Yoo Jin actually attained that perfect point of coolness). I honestly could have gone without some of Gyun Woo's bragging - especially when it's at other people's expense - but I will admit to cracking up when he describes his time in China simply as "a success" as though it should go without saying. 

 

So by the time we do see Gyun Woo getting taken down a peg or two, I was seriously starting to think he needed it. Maybe not under those exact circumstances - since he's getting in trouble the one time he's actually trying to do the right thing :P - but I do hope that it'll turn into the humbling experience that he needs. Right now, I like to think that he's searching around for Princess Hye Myung at the end of Episode 2 in order to return her ring - and thus make at least some amends - but it's too early in the game for me to know if that's actually what he's doing. And, well, given what we've seen of Gyun Woo so far...I doubt the learning curve will be quite so easy for him :P

 

Now, don't get me wrong: so far, I am genuinely enjoying watching Gyun Woo as a character. I can already see that underneath that breezy exterior, he's someone who cares deeply for his friends and dotes on his family. His relationship with his kid sister (I could be wrong, but she does come across as way younger than him) is definitely on point: they bicker and tease each other, but in that easy "only because we're siblings" sort of way. It's the same sort of dynamic that I've gotten used to seeing from JW in, say, "Yong Pal" - although the vibe I get in "My Sassy Girl" is a lot more lighthearted by comparison. I also get a sense that Gyun Woo's gonna be a bit of a papa's boy - his mom might want to spoil him to bits, but it looks like his father has far more of an influence on him. 

 

Yeah...not much on our main pairing at this point, since we've really just started on the rom-com "hate each other on first sight" phase of the relationship. But I know that that's going to change soon enough, and I'll say more on it when that time comes ;) 

 

One last not-so-JW-related thing before I call it for now: while fusion (read: anachronistic) sageuk isn't always my thing, can I just say that I'm actually loving the witty, biting social commentary that's woven throughout "My Sassy Girl"? The part when Gyun Woo was in China was an absolutely hilarious parody of Hallyu: the screaming fangirls, the merch (So. Much. Merch.)...too bad Gyun Woo didn't have 21st-century security with him, because he really could have used it :P I also think that the whole paparazzi+netizen culture is hinted at quite nicely with the tabloid pamphlets being circulated around about the royal family - the show doesn't even hold back its punches when it shows right off the bat (with the deposed Queen) how rumours like that could have serious real-life consequences.

 

Considering that Huayi Brothers produced this drama with one of their biggest artists as the star...it's a bold move to make "My Sassy Girl" such a blatant satire on Korea's celebrity culture. But it does manage to keep me on my toes and give me things to think about - and I love it when a drama does that. :) 

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Thanks for those pics! I found this one too, which is really just the first shot from a different angle:

 

 

But seriously: can we talk about this pic for a moment, though? Because it honestly took me a moment to even realize that was JW there, he looked so baby-faced. :w00t:

 

Don't believe me? Here's the closeup:

 

Spoiler

 

 

Actually, come to think of it, it's more the innocence in JW's expression rather than his actual facial features that makes him look so young there. It's like looking at a wide-eyed curious child..who somehow inhabits a 30-something-year-old's body :P 

 

But anyway, since I'm already here for the pics, let me give yet another quick update on where I am in "My Sassy Girl".

 

I've just finished Episode 6 - which, for those of you who need a refresher, ends right at that rather awesome fan-fighting scene. :glasses: I'd seen that bit as a snippet before, so I knew what to expect prior to watching the drama, but it's still awesome and never gets old. Seeing it in context and not as an isolated clip, though, I'm intrigued by how the show seems to head towards Kang Joon Young doing the rescue (since he's the one who finds Hye Myung's shoe), making Gyun Woo's reveal a surprise. 

 

I am glad to say that both leads have grown on me quite a bit since I last posted. Mostly it's because of context - I get to see more of what goes on behind the characters' actions, so I can now finally start thinking of them as more than caricatures. So, for instance, I can see that although Gyun Woo does his own fair share of scolding Hye Myung for her reckless behaviour, he does feel a twinge of guilt when he hears all the nasty rumours about "the Princess" from his friends. He knows those rumours are false (they're either major over-exaggerations or entirely baseless), but is also aware not only of how the small kernel of truth that there is has become spun completely out of proportion, but also how, by scolding her or griping about her to his friends, he's adding to the gossip even if he means well. 

 

So I really like the direction that the whole "find the ring" subplot went in in this show. Hye Myung does have a heart for the people, which I saw right from the start, but at the end of the day, she is still a princess: despite her near-nightly escapes from the palace, she is still someone who grew up in a bubble. Like Gyun Woo, she knows the letter of the law (i.e. that usury - lending money with high interest - theft and smuggling are illegal), but it's only when she sees the gangsters' ledger that what that lawlessness actually looks like sinks in. So, kudos to Hye Myung for having the audacity to swipe and destroy that ledger: as she puts it afterwards, even though she didn't find the ring, she still managed to do something good.

 

(By the way: Gyun Woo's - or should I say JW's - various "okay, we're doomed" expressions throughout that scene were great, too.)

 

I'm also proud of Gyun Woo for trying so hard to help get the ring back once he does find out what happened to it. Mind you, it's that more honourable side of his nature that makes Jung Da Yeon attracted to him - and she's not an easy girl to shake off, by any means - but although he started with his own need to defend his honour as his primary motivation at first, I also see underneath the surface a general desire to do what's right. So although it's wounded pride that stops him from giving the ring back right away, I do like that he thinks better on it and backtracks to the fair to make amends.

 

Also, compared to the first pair of episodes, I think the comedy is executed better at this point in the show. I personally like watching JW when he's doing "straight man" humour - i.e. when he's funny because he's the level-headed guy who ends up constantly outwitted by the sillier characters around him. We see plenty of that in this show, especially when Hye Myung takes it upon herself to just be an annoying little troll by his side (e.g. messing up the prince's Chinese lesson just to throw him off, the whole "king game" bit at the festival/fair, the absolutely hilarious chicken feet scene where he actually winds up trolling himself, etc.). I'm liking this more than the super-exaggerated slapstick humour of the first two episodes - which, in hindsight, I surmise to be a nod to the original film before this show's producers deviate into their own storyline. Am I right on that, guys? I've never watched the original movie, so help me out here.

 

Finally, while the leads are growing on me, the supporting characters are...a bit more patchy. I'm liking Kang Joon Young as the second male lead so far - I'm especially hoping he and Gyun Woo end up friends - but...yeah, I'm not quite sure what to make of Gyun Woo's family just yet. Gyun Woo seems to have inherited his level-headedness from his father's side of the family, since his mother and sister...not so much. Mind you, the vibe I'm getting from his sister right now is that she's still a kid who desperately wants to fit in with the older girls she's been looking up to all her life - like, she's finally old enough to possibly make it as one of the "cool girls" in Da Yeon's circle, but only just. I sure hope she takes some lessons from her brother, though; because right now, girl's in way over her head....

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6 hours ago, airplanegirl said:

Since there is a tentative release date for his new drama, do you all want to update the title or just leave it until the release date is properly confirmed?

 

I want to wait until it's confirmed - the tentative release date that I saw at least (i.e. June 30) doesn't sound all that realistic to me....

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First things first: here's the third - and final - Preview of my upcoming fic, the full version of which will be going up sometime next week.

 

Spoiler

We linger in the Café a bit longer than we should; by the time we reach the Musikverein, there is already an enormous crowd of people streaming inside. We jog hand-in-hand to take our places at the end of the line, inching closer and closer to the building until, at last, we finally step inside.

 

An usher checks our tickets, nodding to us in greeting. As Nae Il turns this way and that to look around in silent awe, he quietly gives me the directions to our table in the Grosser Saal.

 

“When you get to the balcony, there’s a staircase in the back. Just go up there and you’ll be in the Gallery.” He cracks a warm smile at me. “You’ve got a good eye, Herr Cha; that’s my favourite view in the house.”

 

I return his smile with a knowing nod. The Gallery is a small balcony, nestled in an alcove above the portion of the Grosser Saal’s main balcony that lines the back wall. Tucked right up against the windows that ring the auditorium, decorated by a simple line of moulding covered with gold leaf, it’s so unobtrusive in comparison to the grandeur and opulence of the rest of the room as to be practically unnoticed.

 

Here, then, is a place where we could see, but not be seen.

 

I thank the usher for his help, giving our intertwined hands a little shake to signal Nae Il to do the same. Then, after a hurried stop at the coat check, at which point I pass her my scarf to wear over her shoulders like a shawl, we set off.

 

Somehow, by some miracle, we’re the first ones to arrive at our table, giving us our pick of the six seats available. Naturally, Nae Il goes straight for the front, right at the edge of the balcony, moving so fast that I don’t even have the chance to pull out her chair.

 

“Ya,” I chide her jokingly as I take the spot across from her, “I know you’re Seollebal and all – but try at least to hold yourself together.”

 

Nae Il smugly ignores me, choosing instead to peer over the railing at the rest of the auditorium below. Resting my arm on top of the railing, I do the same.

 

The Grosser Saal, already grand and luxurious to begin with, has been completely transformed. The rows of wooden chairs where the audience would sit during a concert have been cleared away to reveal an enormous dance floor, save for one small spot right at the foot of the stage where several rows of chairs and music stands have been set up. Several players from the Vienna Philharmonic have already assumed their places, their attempts to tune and warm up their instruments drowned out by the crowds mingling in the two rows of boxes lining the perimeter: one on the main level, the other the balconies below us. Upon the stage, where normally the orchestra would sit, there are now several tiers of chairs upholstered in plush red velvet. Those, I quietly point out to Nae Il, will be for tonight’s VIPs: Austrian politicians, dignitaries, major celebrities in the classical music world, the ilk.

 

“Jeongmal?” she asks, her words hushed in shock and awe. “They’d really be up there, for everyone to see?”

 

“Geu rae.” I open the hand that is resting on the banister between us, inviting her to place hers on top. “Personally, Nae Il-ah,” I finish, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze, “I prefer this up here.”

 

Nae Il flashes me a fond smile, knowing full well my aversion to any sort of media attention.  She opens her mouth to say something, but doesn’t get the chance to when we are approached by a waiter, who asks if we would like a drink to start.

 

I follow Nae Il in ordering a champagne, its golden tint and dancing bubbles a perfect match for the atmosphere. Once we are left alone with our drinks, she holds her glass out in invitation.

 

“Konbei!”

 

We take our first sip together, after which point I admonish Nae Il to pace herself. “You want to be able to last the night.”

 

“Ara, ara,” she quips back. “Like you need to tell me!”

 

Slowly, the Gallery has been filling up, people finally starting to trickle in after, most likely, meandering about the entire Musikverein, taking photos all the way. Knowing that we’ll likely only have a few moments to spare before we are joined by our own companions, then, we quickly pass around Nae Il’s phone, taking quick shots of each other.

 

“I wonder who it’s gonna be,” Nae Il says, slipping her phone back in her clutch. “Our table companions, I mean.” She turns her head, scanning over the rest of the balcony. “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that there are two-person tables but ours seats six?”

 

I answer with a casual shrug. “Not necessarily. Think about it this way: what are the chances that people would book tickets in a perfect party of six?” One corner of my mouth twitches up into a humoured smirk. “I daresay there would be more couples here, don’t you?”

 

She gives me a nod before we resume our vigil of the scene below. By now, the boxes are more crowded than ever before: people who hadn’t reserved seats squeezing in anywhere there is room to stand, the sound of their combined chatter ringing throughout the space as a dull roar.

 

The noise makes me clench my jaw despite myself. The Grosser Saal is famous for its incredible acoustics, but already, I’m yearning for the music to start.

 

But just then, rather than the orchestra, it’s a man’s voice coming from behind that catches my ear:

 

“I believe, my dear, that this is where we’re supposed to be.”

 

I reach over and tap Nae Il on the shoulder, gesturing for her to turn around. She’s quicker to stand up than I am, already offering a polite greeting and a handshake by the time I finally get out of my seat, my own hand at the ready.

 

My rehearsed greeting dies on my lips, however, when I see just who exactly is standing behind me.

 

Okay, obviously I already know the answer to this (I wrote the dang thing after all!), but I'm curious: who do you guys think Yoo Jin just saw? There aren't any prizes for winning, but anyone who wants to guess is welcome to until the fic is posted :) 

 

Secondly, I'm now another four (or two, depending on how you count them) episodes into "My Sassy Girl" and there are a couple of things I want to unpack here with everyone.

 

It might not be entirely fair for me to say this, but I'm actually getting similar vibes between the Gyun Woo/Hye Myung pairing as I did with Yoo Jin/Nae Il back then. They're not identical, by any means - each couple has its own quirks - but I'm definitely seeing some similarities in the dynamic, and I'm loving it :) 

 

So, for instance, I love all those times that we see Gyun Woo going out of his way to help Hye Myung (e.g. getting his hands on her favourite food - despite hating it himself - or desperately searching for her in the crowd when he hears about the penalty for secretly meeting Min Yoo Hwan). But even more than that, I love that Gyun Woo, as of this moment, is not acting this way because he's in love. Okay, so it is a running gag by this point that just about everyone who has ever seen him and Hye Myung together is convinced he has feelings for her (e.g. his friends, Jung Da Yeon, the little Prince - who I think is seriously going to start playing matchmaker if he could get away with it - Hye Myung's staff, the innkeeper...list goes on), but he's not prepared to actually describe his feelings as "love" just yet. So I'll take his word for it: it's not love, in the romantic sense. But if it's not love, then what is it? The only real option left, once you strip back all the trappings of love and romance (and, let's be frank, sexual lust), is that Gyun Woo is acting out of a genuine heartfelt care for Hye Myung - a desire to protect her health/safety/reputation/etc.

 

By the way, I also love how there's no real romantic rivalry between Gyun Woo and Kang Joon Young - they're officially a tag-team now, and even in instances where they aren't, it's great seeing how they both incidentally end up working together to help Hye Myung in their own separate ways (e.g. Gyun Woo freeing Hye Myung while Joon Young apprehends the gangsters; Joon Young fighting the assassin while Gyun Woo hides Hye Myung, etc.). I wanna see more of this tag-team at work, regardless of whether it grows into a full-blown friendship.

 

Hye Myung also deserves some love here, especially now that we see what's lurking underneath the surface. She's the sort of person who acts out not to get attention, but to mask her true feelings about the situation at court. With this most recent set of episodes (9/10), I'm also starting to notice that Choon Poong is the same: both he and Hye Myung have this tendency to act completely loose and carefree, but the moment they catch wind of something serious, they both actually somber up for a moment before reverting back to their libertine personas lest anyone notice the change. It's fascinating to watch Choon Poong at it, but when Hye Myung does it, it's also really poignant and sad - especially since she doesn't find it safe to confide in her own father. We know from the start that the King still deeply loves the deposed Queen - and Hye Myung knows it, too. So to see how the toxic gossip-laden environment at court prevents either of them from supporting each other when they miss the Queen...that's heartbreaking. :bawling:

 

(Come on, Gyun Woo - pull your act together so Hye Myung could look to you, at least!)

 

One last thing before I go for today: personally, I'm not a fan of that weird dream that Gyun Woo has, where he sees Hye Myung trying to force herself on him. I'd seen it as a snippet before, and at the time, watching the scene in isolation, I felt that it was really inappropriate. Not because of anything in particular that's being shown - they do still keep it PG - but because...well, if it's not right to make a rape joke about a girl, then it shouldn't be right to make one about a guy either. Seriously, if you sit down and think about that scene long enough, that's what's going on. So, no, I didn't laugh - not even out of secondhand embarrassment. Seeing it in context is a bit better - since both Gyun Woo and we as viewers already know that Hye Myung's not that sort of a girl - but I still find it to be a joke done in bad taste. Especially in the midst of things like MeToo, the K-pop scandal from last year (even though "My Sassy Girl" does predate that incident, I'm still watching it after the fact), etc.

 

If there is one point of humour that I could draw from that scene - since I do understand that it was meant to be funny or silly - it's that Gyun Woo had that dream after reading the erotic book about "the princess" despite knowing that he shouldn't. In other words: this is what happens, Gyun Woo, when you read/watch porn. *wags finger*

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9 hours ago, kittyna said:

Thanks for the pics, @tokkimoon!

 

By the way, does anyone know what production - if any - these hyungs were from? I'm thinking back to JW's musical days, but I'm not sure... 


The guy to the left of Joo Won is in the fashion world and the guy to the right of him is in TV but I think... he's like a TV host for some stuff, I'm not sure what exactly but I know for sure, him and Joo Won golf together also with that one girl that Joo Won is still friends with that he met through his ex, Boa. The guy on the right, I have no idea. Lol. That's all I know. I've done my fair job of snooping. :P

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On 1/18/2020 at 7:15 PM, kittyna said:

Thanks for the pics, @tokkimoon!

 

By the way, does anyone know what production - if any - these hyungs were from? I'm thinking back to JW's musical days, but I'm not sure... 

 

I'm not sure where I saw it(.. but these people sent support to Alice filming site as JW's golf buddies. As @tokkimoon  is sure that one of them plays golf with him, so most probably they all are in same golf circle.

 

On 1/15/2020 at 1:28 PM, airplanegirl said:

Since there is a tentative release date for his new drama, do you all want to update the title or just leave it until the release date is properly confirmed?

 

How about we wait for one or two more trailers before changing the title with Alice? July is still very far. 

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And now, here's the next installment of my Seolleim in Salzburg series!

 

(At the time of my writing this, I'm right at the halfway point in watching "My Sassy Girl" - i.e. the whole bit with the Chinese prince. That's been a lot of fun to watch; I can see why he's a fan favourite despite his short time on the show. I'll say a bit more on that later, but for now - on with the fic!)

 

Spoiler

Title: The True Viennese Waltz

Drama: "Nae Il's Cantabile"

Characters: Cha Yoo Jin, Seol Nae Il, Sebastian Viera (hello!)

Premise: Finally, after months of preparation, it's here: Cha Yoo Jin and Seol Nae Il's first time at the Vienna Philharmonic Ball. Things get interesting, however, when a chance encounter with Viera forces Yoo Jin to come to terms with some baggage from his past. 

Warnings: Some drinking and mild drunkenness; Discussions of emotional abuse by a parent (no more than what's already shown in the drama, though - if you got through that, you can get through this)

 

Note: this story is part of the set of sequel stories I've written for "Nae Il's Cantabile", which I am calling "Seolleim in Salzburg". Thus, in order to fully understand this story, I strongly advise you to read its predecessors first:

 

"The Sound of Christmas"

"Angel of Music, Come Down from Above"

"In Mozart's Name"

"Seollal, Seollebal, Seolleim"

"A Little Baroque, A Little Romantic"

"Rhapsody in Red"

"From Darkness into Light"

"For the Love of Music"

"If Music Be the Food of Love"

"Carmen, Micaela, Don José"

"Let Nothing You Dismay"

 

Notes on Language: While most of the Korean in this fic should be pretty self-explanatory (if not, sound it out - chances are you'll recognize it that way), I do work in some German here and there. So for those who don't know the language, here's a quick glossary:

 

Frack - Tailcoat

Herr - Mr.

Liebling - Dear (as in, "My dear")

Was? - What?

Ja - Yes

Alles Walzer! - The traditional signal at an Austrian ball for everyone to join the waltz (Lit. "Everything is waltz!")

Bitte - Please

 

Finally, before we begin: Once again, please do not re-post any content from this fic on any other website. If you want to share it, just post a link back to this site. Thanks!

 

Spoiler

The True Viennese Waltz

 

We end the piece with a soft chord: fingers splayed, our heads hovering just inches over the keys. In perfect unison, we press down just an increment deeper, cementing the chord one last time before, still together, we release, letting the sound fade away around us.

 

Slowly, letting out the breath I had been holding for the chord’s duration, I open my eyes. I had turned my ear toward the keyboard in order to better hear the music, and now I see that Nae Il has done the same, her posture mirroring mine.

 

Her rapturous expression makes me chuckle as we both straighten back up. “Wae? Was it that good?”

 

“Ne, Orabang,” she murmurs, her eyes still closed as if the music is still echoing somewhere in her head. “It’s so, so good.” She opens them with a contented sigh. “Just think: soon, we’ll be playing this. In front of everyone.”

 

“Geu rae.” Nae Il’s left hand is still resting idly on the keyboard; giving her a fond smile, I place my right hand gently overtop of it, loosely wrapping my fingers around hers. “I take it that means we’re including this one in our programme?”

 

“Of course!” Her hand worms its way free, but only so she could wag an emphatic schoolteacher’s finger at me. “Other pieces, we can fiddle around with – but this one, Schubert’s Fantasie? It’s staying. No matter what, Orabang, we’re playing this one.”

 

“Arasseo.” I start counting out the pieces we’ve picked so far on my fingers. “So that makes two Mozarts – Magic Flute and Orgelstück – Rachmaninoff’s Italian Polka, and this.”

 

Nae Il nods readily, but my brow furrows in thought. “When did you say we needed to send this in by, Seollebal?”

 

She shrugs. “Yoon Hoo-sunbae didn’t say. He just said that the sooner we get it in, the sooner he and Rising Star could get promotions started.” The smile melts from her face. “Wae? Is something wrong?”

 

“Ani,” I answer hastily, shaking my head to reassure her. “It’s just that we’re still not at one hour yet.”

 

That’s how much time we’ve been allotted for this concert, courtesy of some careful planning on Lee Yoon Hoo’s part. Nae Il and I received the formal invitation just after Christmas: an offer to include a full-scale four-handed piano performance to our schedule in February.

 

“I know it’s not much time to plan,” he had confessed sheepishly during the video chat when he’d brought this up. “But you two are Haneum’s best pianists by a long shot, and that one little Schubert piece you did last summer really drummed up a lot of interest.”

 

Now, as usual, Nae Il is quick on the uptake. “You want to add one more?”

 

“Or a couple.” Quickly, I do the calculations in my head. “We still have about twenty minutes to fill….” I turn to face her. “You wouldn’t happen to have any ideas already, do you?”

 

“Do you?”

 

I shake my head.

 

“Well, then,” Nae Il says, slapping her hands on her thighs before standing up. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

 

She goes to the bookshelf where we keep our collection of piano scores, humming some nonsense ditty to herself as she hovers a finger over the spine of each book. Finally, after a moment’s searching, she makes her choice, snatching it off the shelf with a flourish.

 

“Here, Orabang.” She passes the thin paper-bound volume to me. “What about this one?”

 

I glance down at the title. “Bilder aus Osten?” Chuckling softly, I wave the book in her direction. “Trust you to pick a Schumann, Seollebal.”

 

“Of course!” She shoots me a pointed look, her hands now resting loosely on her hips. “I can’t help it. I just keep thinking: if it weren’t for his injury, Robert Schumann would have composed a ton of these,” she adds, just a hint of wistfulness in her voice.

 

“Geu rae,” I concede. “That’s true enough.”

 

It’s that same age-old question that Nae Il and I have kept asking ourselves ever since we first started seriously looking at Clara and Robert Schumann and their music: what if? What if Robert had been just as good a pianist as Clara was? What if they could have played together as we do now? What if their marriage, happy as it was despite all their troubles, had not been cut so tragically short?

 

All those lost opportunities for beautiful music, now placed into our hands.

 

“So…” Nae Il drawls hopefully, noting my long silence, “what do you think?”

 

“Alright, then,” I agree with a nod. “Schumann it is.” Holding the book firmly by the spine with one hand, I flip quickly through the pages with the other. “It’s been a while since we’ve played this, but if I recall correctly, the whole set is just under twenty minutes, so it works just fine.”

 

Nae Il beams, bouncing on the balls of her feet and clapping her hands in excitement. “Komawoyo, Orabang – you’re the best!”

 

“Well, that’s settled, then.” Heading over to my desk in the centre of the room, I jot down the titles we have decided upon in my notebook. Just as I’m on the verge of writing down the Schubert, however, I pause. “By the way, Nae Il-ah – where do you want Bilder to go?”

 

“After the Rachmaninoff,” she answers promptly. “I want the Schubert to be the finale.”

 

“Geu rae,” I say in response, making a note of that. “Arasseo.” Once I’m done, I tap the page once with my pen to finalize our choice before tearing it briskly out of the book. “Here.” I hold out the paper to her. “That’s our programme. Do you want to pass it on to Lee Yoon Hoo, or should I?”

 

Without a moment’s hesitation, she snatches it out of my hand with a word of thanks. A second later, though, she tilts her head coyly at me. “Are you sure, Orabang? You’re actually letting me be the one in charge of this? With Yoon Hoo-sunbae?”

 

As if I needed any other reminder.

 

I draw myself up to my full height. “Like it or not, Seollebal,” I say drily, “we do have him to thank for this opportunity. And besides,” I add more softly, “it’s good practice for you.”

 

She blinks up at me. “Is it?”

 

“Mm.” As she looks down at the paper in her hand, I explain. “You’ll be having your graduation recital this spring, followed by what I expect will be the beginning of your own solo career. It’ll be good for you to learn how to do all the logistics now, instead of waiting until the stakes are higher.”

 

“Ah….” Throwing her head back slightly, Nae Il nods. “I see.”

 

“And now,” I say, closing my notebook with a satisfying clap and putting it away, “it’s time for your cake.”

 

“My cake?” Nae Il’s eyes widen into her most innocent-looking expression. “What cake?”

 

“‘What cake’?” I laugh. “Ya, Seollebal – don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your own birthday! Especially since” – I raise a wry eyebrow – “you picked out the cake yourself.”

 

“Of course I remember, Orabang!” she quips back, flashing me a mischievous grin. “But can’t I at least act surprised for once? It’s not my fault I was born too close to New Year’s for there to ever be a decent celebration.”

 

“And you think being born just after Valentine’s is any better?”

 

“Point,” Nae Il agrees with a helpless shrug. “But of course,” she adds thoughtfully a second later, “in the future, when we’re married, that might mean some really awesome birthday s–”

 

“Ya!”

 

“Alright, Orabang,” she laughs, leaving the rest of her devilish thought unsaid at the sight of my mortified expression, “you win this round.”

 

“Well, then” – calming myself back down with a cough, I extend my hand in invitation – “shall we?”

 

She takes it eagerly and together, we head over to the kitchen. Nae Il busies herself with the plates and cutlery, carrying them off into the living room next door. That leaves me in charge of the cake.

 

In reality, it is not an entire cake. Since there are just two of us here, neither of us sees any point in getting something that is meant to feed a crowd. Instead, ever since we moved here to Salzburg, we’ve had our own birthday tradition: two slices of cake – the flavour the birthday person’s choice – from Fürst.

 

This time, as expected, Nae Il has chosen her personal favourite: the Mozarttorte, a chocolate layer cake, each slice topped with half a Mozartkugel. Carefully, I take both slices out of the box and place them together on a plate, sticking a candle in one of them before carrying the whole lot to the dining table.

 

Nae Il divides the slices between our two plates, arranging everything artfully on the table, while I duck back into the kitchen for a lighter. Then, after singing the birthday song to her – only because she insisted, though – she passes me her phone so that I could capture the moment right when she gears up to blow out the candle, leaning in so close that her face is illuminated by its warm glow. As I put the extinguished candle off to one side, saving it for my own birthday a month from now, Nae Il claims her piece of cake, not even waiting for me before heartily digging in.

 

Unable to resist, I snap a quick photo on her phone before sliding it back across the table to her. As soon as she lays eyes on it, she bursts out laughing.

 

“Ya, Orabang!”

 

Startled, I glance up at her. “Wae?”

 

“If you’re gonna take a picture like this,” she quips, snatching up her phone, “at least do it right.” She fiddles with it for a moment, pressing several times with her finger, before passing it back to me. “Here. Try it like this.”

 

I do as I’m told, angling the phone at her as she scoops up a forkful of cake. When she looks up at me, fork held at the ready, the image on the screen changes: a floral garland appears on her head, and a healthy flush blooms on her cheeks as she tilts her head slightly to the side, holding out the fork in invitation.

 

“Aish…” I mutter softly to myself as I take the picture. “Trust you to do something like that, Seollebal.”

 

“Why not?” she retorts as, once again, I return the phone to her. “Don’t you think it’s cute?”

 

“On you, it is.” One corner of my mouth twitches up in a fond smile as I finally start on my own slice of cake. “But don’t you even think about trying a filter like that on me.”

 

“Ne, arasseo.” Nae Il takes her next bite in silence, simply savouring the taste of rich chocolate in her mouth, but once she has swallowed, she lets out a wistful sigh.

 

I blink at her in surprise. “Wae?”

 

“Too bad we won’t be able to do this for your birthday this year, Orabang.”

 

“Gwenchana,” I answer with a shrug. “I’ve never been one for big celebrations anyway. And besides” – I point down at the table with my fork – “don’t forget where we’ll be when the time comes.”

 

Slowly, a light grows in her eyes. “In Seoul.”

 

“Not only that,” I remind her, “but it’s the exact same day as our duet concert. In all honesty, Nae Il-ah, I’d much rather be spending my birthday doing that than this.”

 

She smiles warmly at me. “Geu rae. That’s true enough.”

 

We both keep on eating our cake in companionable silence, but soon, Nae Il speaks up again. “By the way, Orabang – what should we use for our name?”

 

Startled, I stare across the table at her. “Mwo?”

 

“You know – for our duet.”

 

As comprehension sinks in, I let out a soft chuckle, ruefully shaking my head. “Honestly, Seollebal, do we need that?”

 

“We do,” she insists, “if you want this to be more than just a one-off thing.”

 

“And I suppose,” I retort dryly, “that you already have an idea for that.” When she gives me her most innocent-looking face, I laugh a second time. “Ya, Seollebal, don’t look at me like that. Remember: I know you; you wouldn’t be bringing this up at all unless you’ve already made up your mind about it.”

 

“Ne!” She leans forward in her seat, propping both elbows on the table, her hands woven together in the middle. “Personally, Orabang, I was thinking of ‘RaRo’.”

 

“‘RaRo’?” It takes me a moment to register the meaning behind the name. “You mean, like in ‘Meister Raro’?”

 

Nae Il nods, a smugly satisfied smile on her face.

 

“Ya, Seollebal – you’re obsessed!” I laugh. Then, after a brief pause, I give her a fond smile. “But at least, unlike The Sound of Music, this is one obsession I can actually get behind.”

 

I punctuate my statement with a wink, which makes her burst into gleeful giggles.

 

“So, can we, Orabang?”

 

“But wouldn’t it sound just a bit silly, though?” I ask, still trying to figure this out. “Think about it: ‘RaRo Duo’…’RaRo Duet’….”

 

“Aniya – I don’t mean it like that!” Nae Il blurts out, wagging her fork in place of a scolding finger. “Of course that sounds silly – especially ‘RaRo Duo’. I mean just ‘RaRo’. Plain and simple.” She leans back in her seat, crossing her arms in front of her chest in smug pride. “Those who know the history – that it’s a combined version of both Clara and Robert Schumann’s names – will get it. And those who don’t…well,” she adds pragmatically, “at least they won’t murder the pronunciation.”

 

I mull it over a moment longer, silently mouthing the name to myself, trying to imagine how it would sound in both Korean and German. “‘RaRo’…’Ra…Ro’.” Finally, I concede with a nod. “You’re right, Nae Il-ah; it does have a nice ring to it.”

 

“See?” she chirps. “What did I tell you?” Beaming, she deftly scoops up the half-Mozartkugel – all that is left of her cake – onto her fork, then holds it out to me. “To RaRo?”

 

It takes me a moment to grasp her intention, but once I do, I copy her gesture, touching my fork lightly to hers.

 

“To RaRo.”

 

~~~~~

 

Just moments after the timer on the rice cooker goes off, I hear the front door opening and closing behind me, followed by the sound of a pair of shoes being kicked off to tumble carelessly down to the floor.

 

“Ah, Nae Il-ah – perfect timing.”

 

Busy as I am spooning out the rice into our respective bowls, I don’t see that Nae Il has come up behind me until I feel something icy cold slipping up under my sweater to rest on my stomach….

 

“Ya, Seollebal!” I twist out of her embrace, darting back towards the sink. “Your hands are freezing!”

 

“I know, right?” Giggling, she closes the gap between us, reaching up with both hands, as though wanting to cup my face with them. “It’s cold,” she chants, “it’s cold, it’s so, so cold!”

 

I fend her off with the rice paddle in my hand. “Well, then: the sooner you settle down, the sooner you’ll warm up.” I dart my eyes over her shoulder at the stove; as expected, she turns her head to follow. “Dinner’s ready.”

 

Nae Il dashes over to the simmering pot, opening the lid just a crack to peer inside. “Kimchi-jjigae?” she gasps. “And with tuna as well? How’d you know that was my favourite?”

 

I bite back a laugh at her antics. “Everything’s your favourite, Seollebal.”

 

“What can I say? I just like everything that you make.” Setting the lid down on the counter, she rounds on me with a thumbs-up. “Orabang – you’re the best!”

 

“Geu rae, geu rae - arasseo,” I answer, waving her hand back down. “If you like it so much, then come help me.”

 

Nae Il eagerly obeys, taking the two bowls of rice from me and sprinting off to our dining table, then scrambling back and doing the same with the small dishes of banchan I’d prepared. Only after she has finished setting the table do I follow, carefully holding the bubbling pot with both hands. No sooner have I set it down on the potholder between our places, though, does she grab the ladle, pouring a large scoop of the red broth over her rice.

 

We both start eating: she wolfing down her food while I go at a calmer pace. For several minutes, the only comment she makes is to, once again, compliment me on my cooking – especially the foresight of choosing something so comfortably warming on a cold January evening like this. But then, as even she is finally full enough to start slowing down, I take my chance to speak.

 

“So, Nae Il-ah: how did it go? Did you find a dress you liked?”

 

She glances up at me with a nod.

 

“You remembered the guidelines, right?”

 

“Of course, Orabang!” she quips back matter-of-factly at me. “It’s gotta be long, and it can’t be white.” Noting the amused look I send her, she makes a face. “Well, it’s not like it can’t be white, but if I did pick a white dress, I’d end up looking like one of the debutantes, and that’d just be confusing.”

 

I cross my arms together on the table and lean in conspiratorially. “So what does it look like?”

 

Nae Il’s eyes dance with mischief. “You’ll see.”

 

I raise an eyebrow. “A surprise?”

 

“Ne.” Then, a moment later, she lets out a wistful sigh. “I can’t believe that the ball’s actually next week. It’d seemed so far off in the future when you first invited me, but now it’s happening. It’s really, actually happening.”

 

I let out a soft laugh. “Are you that excited?”

 

“Of course!” She shoots me a pointed look across the table. “Aren’t you?”

 

“Mm.”

 

Nae Il pouts at me. “You don’t sound like it.”

 

“I am!” I burst out. “Of course I am. Just because I’m not the type to get as worked up as you – aish, Seollebal, would I have invited you if I didn’t like the idea to start with?”

 

“Ara,” she answers promptly. “I’m just teasing you, that’s all.” A pause. “Your pick-up lines still suck, by the way.”

 

Now it’s my turn to pout at her. “Ya, Seol Nae Il….”

 

“Have you heard back from the tailor yet?”

 

Her sudden change of subject – evidence that she knows my discomfiture is her fault – catches me off guard, and it takes a few seconds’ blinking at her in surprise before I could answer. “I have. They said they’ll have it shipped in to Salzburg and ready for alterations by Friday.”

 

A coy smile tugs at the corner of her lip. “I still don’t get why you need a new tailcoat though, Orabang. Your old one looked perfectly fine.”

 

“In Seoul, maybe,” I retort, standing up to start clearing the table now that we’re both finished. “But it won’t pass muster in Vienna.”

 

Nae Il joins in, snatching up our bowls and cutlery as I take charge of the pot. As we head into the kitchen together, she picks up the conversation where we’d left off: “Wae?”

 

“Ya, Seollebal” – I set the pot down on the counter and reach up to open the cupboard overhead – “you do realize that this is the Vienna Philharmonic Ball we’re talking about.”

 

“Geu rae – arayo,” she answers, plopping her pile of dishes down into the sink with a clatter. “So?”

 

“So,” I continue, pitching my voice so I could be heard over the sound of running water as she starts to wash the dishes, “we’re talking about the cream of the crop of the classical music scene here. Never mind what they say about the Opera Ball. That might be more glamourous with all the Hollywood celebrities – but in terms of class? And especially for music? It’s the Vienna Philharmonic that counts. Everyone who is anyone will be there, and all of them would know a properly-fitting tailcoat when they see one. And the one I’ve got right now? Well, it isn’t.”

 

There were, after all, few occasions – if any – in which someone would need to wear tails in Seoul, and the abrupt start to my own conducting career meant that I hadn’t had time to shop around. The tailcoat I have now, I had purchased in haste, just barely in time for the Grieg concerto. Not only was it poorly proportioned compared to the better ones available here in Austria, but – as if I needed any further reminder of my own freakishly narrow torso for my height – because I’d had to grab the only one off the rack that actually fit me across the shoulders, it’s wound up too short just about everywhere else.

 

In Seoul, with Haneum and the Rising Star Orchestra, no-one would have known the difference. But even here in Salzburg, it would raise eyebrows – and this is Vienna we’re talking about!

 

All this I explain to Nae Il as I spoon out what’s left of the kimchi-jjigae and rice into two separate glass containers, which I place in the refrigerator, ready to be reheated for tomorrow night.

 

“So, in short,” I finish, setting the dirty pot on the counter within her reach, “even if you think my current tailcoat looks fine, it’s not doing me any favours. Like you, I, too, want to dress to impress. And besides: if it looks too small – and it is – then what do you think it feels like to move in it?”

 

Nae Il giggles, rolling her shoulders and squirming about as though trying to imagine for herself what wearing such a constrictive garment would feel like. “Alright, Orabang,” she concedes, pulling a strange face, “I see what you mean.” Then, moving on to wash the pot, she adds, “Is that why you decided to order one in from Vienna?”

 

“Geu rae. Compared to the shops here in Salzburg, Viennese tailors will always have more experience with frack,” I explain, switching to the German term. “But what really made me choose this shop, Nae Il-ah, is that it’s got a design  specifically for musicians.” I roll my own shoulders in something of a shrug. “I don’t know the mechanics of it, but the point is–”

 

“The point is,” she finishes for me, “they know how to make a tailcoat you can actually move around in.”

 

“Exactly.” Although her back is turned, I flash a reassuring smile in her direction. “Trust me, Nae Il-ah: once it’s ready, you’ll be wondering why I hadn’t done this sooner.”

 

She nods, then peers at me over her shoulder. “But what’ll you do with the old one, then?”

 

“Sell it, maybe, or donate it to a thrift store.” I shrug at her in resignation. “It’s bound to fit someone.”

 

~~~~~

 

Good thing I’d thought ahead and put on my shoes first.

 

As I carefully do up my shirt, working from top to bottom to give myself more room to manoeuvre each stud into place, I feel it closing in around me. The thick stiffened front panel, plain save for a subtle woven texture, lies snugly flat, pressing tightly against my chest like a piece of armour.

 

And armour it is. Dress shirts like this are designed this way for a purpose: to force their wearer to stand up completely straight and erect, head held up high with the help of a similar stiffened collar. Then – and only then, it is said – can the tailcoat’s elegant silhouette be achieved.

 

Eyes flicking up to my own reflection in the hotel room mirror, I mull over it for a moment before shaking my head.

I have to admit that it does look good – but I’ll be damned before I ever wear this up on the podium. I’m neither the first nor the last conductor to feel this way: more than once, I’ve seen them cheat during a performance, pairing their tailcoats with a thinner, looser-fitting shirt, and I have always done the same.

 

Fortunately, the next few items on tonight’s outfit come more easily. A pair of white cufflinks – Nae Il’s most recent Christmas present for me – each one decorated with a subtle treble and bass clef respectively. Braces, followed by my white waistcoat, attached to both my shirt and trousers by a series of hidden buttons and tabs.

 

“Orabang!”

 

I call out over my shoulder to the bathroom door behind me. “Wae?”

 

“Could you” – a soft grunt of effort – “could you lace me up, juesyo?”

 

My jaw drops. “Mwo?”

 

“My dress, Orabang – I can’t do it up by myself.”

 

Ah. So that’s what this is about.

 

Eyes dancing in knowing mischief, I bite back the urge to laugh. “Do you want to come out, then, Nae Il-ah, or should I come in?”

 

In the mirror, I see the bathroom door click open, Nae Il just barely visible in the crack. One of her hands is hidden from view, but the other is pressed firmly to her chest, holding her dress in place so it doesn’t fall.

 

As my eyes flicker over her reflection, she sheepishly worries her bottom lip. “I – I think it’s better if you come in, Orabang,” she murmurs. “I’m afraid I might just trip over this thing if I try to move now.”

 

Finally, I turn around to face her. “Geu rae. Arasseo.” With a wave of my hand, she shuffles back several paces as I step inside the bathroom with her.

 

It may only be half-on at this point, but this is my first real look at the dress she has chosen for tonight’s ball. It spills down all the way to the floor, its reddish-purple hue as dark and rich as wine. The bodice is embroidered with red flowers on white tendrils, but the dress is otherwise completely plain, Nae Il’s own fair uncovered arms and shoulders, skimmed gently by a wide neckline, forming the main point of contrast.

 

All this I take in in just an instant before my gaze shifts to the long ribbon, dyed the same colour as the dress, coiled up on the counter. “Is that it?”

 

“Ne, Orabang,” Nae Il answers with a nod. Her eyes cast demurely down at my feet. “That’s the one.”

 

Snatching up the ribbon, I move to stand behind her, both of us shifting so that, together, we’re reflected in profile on the bathroom mirror. Following her instructions, I thread it through the top pair of loops set in the back of her dress.

 

Nae Il guides me through the first few turns – pull one end of the ribbon across the back, thread it through the loop, do the same with the other end so the strands cross in the middle, repeat – and soon I have developed a steady rhythm. The gap in the back of her dress stretches down in a deep V; I am forced to crouch down as it goes lower and lower….

 

“Waeyo?” Nae Il calls out when, slowly, my hands come to a stop. “Is something wrong?”

 

Squatting down on the floor like this, I know that she can’t see my face from where she is. But I still find myself looking down to hide the blush that has risen burning hot to my cheeks.

 

“Seol-Seollebal,” I stammer out, “you – you do realize that this goes all the way down to your….?”

 

“What?” she quips back. “My butt?” Turning back around to look straight ahead, she gives me a single pointed nod. “Ara.”

 

I startle back, dropping the ends of the ribbon as though they have burned my fingers.

 

“What’s the matter, Orabang?”

 

“Seollebal, you…you pervert.” I glare up at her in mock reproach. “You planned this all along, didn’t you.”

 

She answers with a casual shrug. “I’d said it before,” she replies breezily, “and I’ll say it again: the sooner you propose, the easier this will be.”

 

I snatch up the ties again, giving them a slight shake in exasperation. “Ara, ara,” I mutter as I resume my task. “You don’t have to rub it in.”

 

Knowing that Nae Il doesn’t mind gives me the impetus I need to finish up, albeit with fumbling fingers in my haste. She then has me go down a second time, pulling on each of the crossed laces to tighten them. Slowly, the dress moulds itself around her: cinching in at her waist before flaring out just slightly at the hips in a pleasantly feminine curve.

 

When I am finished, I tie the dangling ends of the ribbon – quite a good deal, considering Nae Il’s slight girlish figure – into a simple knot and tuck them in under the skirt. “There,” I say at last, smoothing my work with both hands. “You’re all ready now.”

 

I sense rather than see Nae Il’s smile. “Komawoyo, Orabang.”

 

Still down on one knee behind her, I feel a sudden impish temptation growing in the back of my mind….

 

Quickly, before she could step away, I reach out and place my hands firmly at her waist. Then slowly, reverently, I lean forward and plant my lips on the small of her back.

 

For once, just once, I’ve gained the upper hand. Caught by surprise, Nae Il tenses up at first, but as, tentatively, I kiss her again and again, I hear her gasp softly in contented pleasure. My hands still on her waist, I feel a slight tremor: desire tingling up and down her spine.

 

I stand up now, leaning in closer so I could wrap my arms around her in a proper backhug. Together, we turn to face the mirror; Nae Il looks straight ahead at our reflection, but I avert my eyes, choosing instead to look down as, this time, I kiss her tenderly on the crook of her neck, right where it meets her left shoulder. She relaxes against me, letting out a contented sigh.

 

Finally, I pull away, straightening back up. In the mirror, I see Nae Il’s eyes fluttering open – she must have closed them when I’d kissed her – her lips parted just slightly like a breath has caught in her throat. I’d been careful not to go so far as to leave a mark, so the only high colour we see now is the rosy flush that has come to her cheeks.

 

Time comes to a complete stop, neither of us wanting this moment to end. But, at long last, Nae Il speaks up:

 

“Or-Orabang….”

 

I smile fondly at her. “Wae?”

 

“I…I didn’t know you had it in you to…to do something like that.”

 

“Did you like it?”

 

“Ne.” She nods, eyes still wide in wonder. “Now I know – now I know what it feels like to be worshipped.” After a moment’s pause, she smiles warmly, reaching up to pat my cheek with one hand. “You’d better go and finish up, Orabang – I’ve kept you long enough.”

 

“Geu rae. Arasseo.” I tighten my arms around her, affirming my embrace for just a second longer, before finally letting go entirely and slipping past her back outside. The bathroom opens out into a small vestibule, the only other feature the mirror I’d been using before; as I move on to the main part of our hotel room, I give my reflection a quick backward glance.

 

Startled, I stumble to a halt, drawn inexorably to the face that stares back at me. I’ve never had a chance before to see for myself what I look like immediately after getting intimate with Nae Il. Some things are to be expected: the flushed cheeks, the slightly swollen lips. But what’s caught me completely by surprise are my eyes – how, for the split second before I’d focused on my reflection and it had gone away, there had been a look of such utter vulnerability there. It was as though, in those fleeting moments with Nae Il, my soul had been thrown completely open, revealing more than even I have ever seen.

Aish. Now I’m starting to sound like Yoo Il Rak – or even Ma Su Min.

 

Shaking my head slightly to dispel the thought from my mind, I march over to my one of the two twin beds in the room, where earlier I had lain out my newly completed and fitted tailcoat. Briskly, I shake it loose and pull it on, giving the lapels a sharp tug with both hands so that the whole garment falls easily into place.

 

It fits wonderfully.

 

I already realized this yesterday, when I picked up the tailcoat from the tailor in Salzburg I’d taken it to for alterations. But after so many times of close-but-not-quite, of feeling like something was just ever so slightly off, it still amazes me just how well this new coat works. Unlike my old tailcoat, whose front was about an inch or two too short, this one ends at the same point as my waistcoat: just a sliver past my waist, nipping in to make its narrowness an asset rather than a flaw. The tails, too, are better: whereas my old coat had made do with a simple straight-cut flap, this one is a soft curve, tapering smoothly down to the back of my knees.

 

But more importantly than all of that, this tailcoat moves. When I roll my shoulders or raise my arms in the proper conducting stance – as, still unable to resist the childish urge, I do right now – only the sleeves move with me. No longer do I feel the resistance that, in the past few years, I have become accustomed to: my own coat either reining me in or riding up ridiculously high.

 

Trust the Viennese to know what is most comfortable for musicians – and conductors.

 

As I straighten the coat once again, I catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of the bathroom door clicking open. Nae Il steps out, having just finished styling her hair. She’d taken a curling iron to her entire head before, making a loose wave, but now the front and top strands are braided back, held in place by one of her favourite clips: a flower-shaped barrette she’d made herself out of old sheet music.

 

Eagerly, she scurries towards me, moving as quickly as her floor-length skirt would allow – but no sooner has she crossed over into the main part of our room than she stops, eyes wide and jaw dropping open in awe.

 

“Or-Orabang,” she gasps as I beckon her closer with one hand. “I…I thought you’d looked good before, but you’re…you’re so hot right now.”

 

She gestures for me to turn around. I take it faster than I normally would, twirling on one foot like a dancer. When I finish, coming to a stop right in front of her with a smart click of my heels, she bursts out laughing, both hands flying up to her mouth in devilish glee.

 

“See, Seollebal?” I ask coyly. I grab my white tie from the bed and step past her to the mirror. “What’d I tell you?”

 

Nae Il steps closer as I deftly tie it into a neat bow, reaching out to rub the fabric of my tailcoat between her fingers in silent admiration. When I am done, I order her to stay put, going over to her luggage to grab the little box that holds the necklace I’d given her. She helpfully lifts up her hair with one hand as I clasp it around her neck, but no sooner am I done than she whips out a small gift-wrapped box from behind her back with her free hand.

 

“Ya,” I laugh as she presses it firmly into my hand, “what’s all this?”

 

When she simply tells me to open it, I move to obey. Inside, nestled on a bed of fabric, is a boutonniere. Not a normal boutonniere, though; this one is in the form of a rose, made of sheet music like the flower in her hair.

 

“What do you think, Orabang?” Nae Il asks hopefully. “Do you like it?”

 

I smile fondly at her in response. “Of course. Komawo, Nae Il-ah.”

 

“I’m glad you do,” she says, fishing the boutonniere out of the box and tucking it neatly into my lapel. “I made it myself; I figured we should have at least something that matches.”

 

“Besides the clefs, you mean?” I ask, flashing her my shirt cuff so she could see the cuff links she’d given me: a perfect match to the pendant on her necklace.

 

“Ne,” she answers. “The more the merrier.”

 

Suddenly, without another word, she rises up on her tiptoes, reaching for my forehead.

 

“Ya, Seollebal!” I stumble back, swatting her hand away. “What are you doing?”

 

“Trust me, Orabang,” she quips, “you look better this way.” She gestures at the mirror. “If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.”

 

I do as she says, turning my head to glance at my reflection.

 

Unusually for a Korean, Abeoji has naturally curly hair – and although mine is a good deal straighter, I seem to have inherited some of that from him. It hadn’t been as noticeable during my childhood, when I’d mostly worn my hair short; but now that I’ve taken a liking to growing it out longer, there is definitely a slight messy wave to it.

 

Normally, on formal occasions like this, I try my best to tame it: combing it straight and slicking it back with a bit of product. But Nae Il, the little minx, has just loosened some curls at the front, leaving them dangling freely over my forehead in that same dishevelled way they inevitably end up after a performance.

 

“I like it when you leave at least some of your hair natural like this,” Nae Il says from beside me. “It’s so…so ravishingly rakish.”

 

I bite back what would have been a sardonic laugh as I turn to face her. “Jeongmal?”

 

“Face it, Orabang,” she says matter-of-factly, “you may be a straight-laced ‘A’ on the outside, but there’s a wild and passionate ‘S’ somewhere in there, just waiting for the chance to burst out.” One finger darts forward to prod at my chest. “You already show it in your music, so you might as well look the part, too.”

 

Seeing her point, I concede with a nod. “Arasseo.”

 

“Komawoyo, Orabang.”

 

Then, before I have the chance to dodge, she latches onto my shoulders with both hands, bouncing up on tiptoe to give me a kiss.

 

~~~~~

 

Location, as always, was our top priority in finding accommodations here in Vienna. This time, we’d taken out a room in a small family-run establishment that occupies a few floors of a historic building a stone’s throw away from the famous Opera House, the Sacher Hotel….

 

And, of course, the Musikverein.

 

Remembering the pleasant experience the last time we were there, we return to the Café Mozart for tonight’s dinner. Nae Il was apprehensive at first about looking overdressed, but she need not have been; many of the other patrons are also formally dressed, most likely on the way to a ball or the Opera themselves. Still, I can’t fault her for deciding to keep her long overcoat on, draping it carefully closed over her dress as she takes cautious bites of her food, if for no other reason than so she doesn’t accidentally get sauce on her finery.

 

We finish with plenty of time to spare – the ball starts at 10:00, so doors won’t open until 9:00 at least – so I leap at the chance to order an after-dinner coffee, urging Nae Il to do the same. “Trust me; you’re going to be needing this, Seollebal,” I say as the suit-clad waiter sets down a steaming mug in front of her. “It’s about to be a long night.”

 

We linger in the Café a bit longer than we should; by the time we reach the Musikverein, there is already an enormous crowd of people streaming inside. We jog hand-in-hand to take our places at the end of the line, inching closer and closer to the building until, at last, we finally step inside.

 

As one usher hands Nae Il our party favours for tonight, another checks over our tickets and quietly gives me the directions to our table in the Grosser Saal.

 

“When you get to the balcony, there’s a staircase in the back. Just go up there and you’ll be in the Gallery.” He cracks a warm smile at me. “You’ve got a good eye, Herr Cha; that’s my favourite view in the house.”

 

I return his smile with a knowing nod. The Gallery is a small balcony, nestled in an alcove above the portion of the Grosser Saal’s main balcony that lines the back wall. Tucked right up against the windows that ring the auditorium, decorated by a simple line of moulding covered with gold leaf, it’s so unobtrusive in comparison to the grandeur and opulence of the rest of the room as to be practically unnoticed.

 

Here, then, is a place where we could see, but not be seen.

 

I thank the usher for his help, giving our intertwined hands a little shake to signal Nae Il to do the same. Then, after a hurried stop at the coat check, at which point I pass her my scarf to wear over her shoulders like a shawl, we head upstairs.

 

Somehow, by some miracle, we’re the first ones to arrive at our table, giving us our pick of the six seats available. Naturally, Nae Il goes straight for a spot right by the railing at the front, moving so fast that I don’t even have the chance to pull out her chair for her.

 

“Ya,” I chide her jokingly as I take the spot across from her, “I know you’re Seollebal and all – but try at least to hold yourself together.”

 

Nae Il smugly ignores me, choosing instead to peer over the railing at the rest of the auditorium below. Resting my arm on top of the railing, I do the same.

 

The Grosser Saal, already grand and luxurious to begin with, has been completely transformed. The rows of wooden chairs where the audience would sit during a concert have been cleared away to reveal an enormous dance floor, save for one small spot right at the foot of the stage where several rows of chairs and music stands have been set up. Several players from the Vienna Philharmonic have already assumed their places, their attempts to tune and warm up their instruments drowned out by the crowds mingling in the two rows of boxes lining the perimeter: one on the main level, the other the balconies below us. Upon the stage, where normally the orchestra would sit, there are now several tiers of plush red velvet chairs. Those, I quietly point out to Nae Il, will be for tonight’s VIPs: Austrian politicians, dignitaries, major celebrities in the classical music world, the ilk.

 

“Jeongmal?” she asks, her words hushed in shock and awe. “They’d really be up there, for everyone to see?”

 

“Geu rae.” I open the hand that is resting on the banister between us, inviting her to place hers on top. “Personally, Nae Il-ah,” I finish, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze, “I prefer this up here.”

 

Nae Il flashes me a fond smile, knowing full well my aversion to any sort of media attention.  She opens her mouth to say something, but doesn’t get the chance to when we are approached by a waiter, who asks if we would like a drink to start.

 

I follow Nae Il in ordering a champagne, its golden tint and dancing bubbles a perfect match for the atmosphere. Once we are left alone with our drinks, she holds her glass out in invitation.

 

“Konbei!”

 

We take our first sip together, after which point I admonish Nae Il to pace herself. “You want to be able to last the night.”

 

“Ara, ara,” she quips back. “Like you need to tell me!”

 

Slowly, the Gallery has been filling up, people finally starting to trickle in after, most likely, meandering about the entire Musikverein, taking photos all the way. Knowing that we’ll likely only have a few moments to spare before we are joined by our own companions, then, we quickly pass around Nae Il’s phone, taking quick shots of each other.

 

“I wonder who it’s gonna be,” Nae Il says, slipping her phone back in her clutch. “Our table companions, I mean.” She turns her head, scanning over the rest of the balcony. “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that there are two-person tables but ours seats six?”

 

I answer with a casual shrug. “Not necessarily. Think about it this way: what are the chances that people would book tickets in a perfect party of six?” One corner of my mouth twitches up into a humoured smirk. “I daresay there would be more couples here, don’t you?”

 

She gives me a nod before we resume our vigil of the scene below. By now, the boxes are more crowded than ever before: people who hadn’t reserved seats squeezing in anywhere there is room to stand, the sound of their combined chatter ringing throughout the space as a dull roar.

 

The noise makes me clench my jaw despite myself. The Grosser Saal is famous for its incredible acoustics, but already, I’m yearning for the music to start.

 

Just then, a man’s voice coming from behind catches my ear:

 

“I believe, Liebling, that this is where we’re supposed to be.”

 

I reach over and tap Nae Il on the shoulder, gesturing for her to turn around. She’s quicker to stand up than I am, already offering a polite greeting and a handshake by the time I finally get out of my seat, my own hand at the ready.

 

My rehearsed greeting dies on my lips, however, when I see just who exactly is standing behind me.

 

“M-Maestro Viera?”

 

Nae Il’s jaw drops. Viera, for his part, simply gawks at me in silence, but then, a split second later, recognition lights up in his eyes.

 

“Good God – why, if it isn’t Cha Yoo Jin!”

 

He takes my offered hand, yanking me almost off of my feet when, instead of a handshake, he pulls me in for a hearty slap on the back instead. “Welcome – welcome to Vienna!”

 

After a rapid flurry of introductions all around, we take our seats: Viera beside me and his wife – an elegant white-haired lady, shapelessly plump in that way matrons get but still regal in her simple dark blue evening gown – with Nae Il. Quick and observant as ever, the waiter from before sidles up to our table, filling Maestro and Frau Viera’s glasses with champagne.

 

We share a toast: to music, and to the strange patterns of fate that have brought us back together again after fifteen years. And although I know it’s rude, I can’t resist the urge to stare at Maestro Viera over the rim of my glass as I raise it to my lips.

 

He looks a lot older than what I remember – no wonder, as he must be in his mid-sixties by now, at least. His hair, already going prematurely grey back then, is even greyer now; his face more wizened; his shoulders slightly stooped with age. But the hand that had clapped me on the back is just as large, its weight just as reassuringly firm, as I’ve always remembered it; and his eyes, twinkling and sparkling with some hidden youthful spirit, are still bright and kind and warm.

 

So focused am I on this study of the Maestro that it takes an awkward moment’s mutual staring before I realize that he is looking at me the same way. Tearing my eyes away, I set my glass hastily down on the table as a wave of heat rushes up to my face.

 

Finally, after clearing my throat with a subtle cough, I will myself to face him once more.

 

“Par-pardon me for asking: we haven’t seen each other since I was a kid, so how did you know it was me before I’d even said anything?”

 

He gives me an enigmatic smile. “I have my ways,” he answers. “For one: I’d heard through the grapevine that you were continuing your studies in Salzburg. But even were it not for that” – his eyes flicker up and down, glancing over me from head to toe – “you look so much like your father did as a young man that anyone who knew him back then would notice the resemblance. Of course,” he corrects himself hastily, “there is something of your mother as well: a certain debonair quality that you could only have gotten from her.”

 

I peer over at Nae Il just in time to see her gesture up at her forehead, mouthing a silent “I told you so” as she mimes what she’d done with my hair earlier today. Her gesture goes unnoticed – or at least not understood – by the others, but I hurriedly press my lips together to smother a laugh.

 

“But enough about that,” Viera says. “Tell me, Yoo Jin: how is Stresemann treating you?”

 

I startle at the sudden change in subject. “Was?”

 

“Don’t look so surprised,” he reassures me. “Franz told me himself: calling me to boast that he’d managed to ‘poach’ – his word, not mine – one of my own pupils.”

 

Suddenly sheepish, I glance down at my lap. Of course; knowing the Professor, I should have guessed.

 

“He put you through quite the boot camp, didn’t he: having you run random errands that seemed to have nothing to do with music at all?”

 

“H-how did you know?”

 

Viera idly picks up his glass, swirling the wine inside. “Have you ever wondered why he’s taken so few pupils over the years? Such a successful conductor as Franz von Stresemann?”

 

Nae Il shoots me a penetrating look across the table, but I simply return it, shaking my head. To be fair, I’ve definitely seen and heard more than my fair share of astonished reactions when it’s brought up that I’m Professor Stresemann’s apprentice; even Lee Yoon Hoo, strangely enough, cannot officially claim that title, despite multiple attempts at convincing the Professor otherwise. However, in all this time, it’s never crossed my mind as to why.

 

Seeing the blank look on my face, Viera answers his own question. “It’s not for lack of applicants – why, he probably gets as many requests from aspiring conductors as I do. But only a handful ever pass his test, and he absolutely won’t take anyone who fails.”

 

“I see.”

 

“And did he then just – out of nowhere – push you straight into working with an actual ensemble?”

 

I answer with a wistful nod. “Ja.”

 

“Which means you made it through his second round, too.” He reaches over and gives me a firm clap on the shoulder. “Well done, Yoo Jin. Dear old Franz might be an eccentric fool, but underneath all that he is also an excellent judge of character.”

 

Nae Il, who’d been listening politely this whole time, now looks at Viera, her brows knitted together in a frown. “‘Dear old Franz’?” she asks. “I thought you and Milch – sorry, I mean Professor Stresemann – didn’t get along well.”

 

Viera chuckles softly. “Only on his part, my dear; only on his part.” He gives us a casual shrug. “At most, I would say we’re rivals as two conductors based in Berlin, but I have nothing against him. Still,” he concedes, “we do try to stay out of each other’s way if we can. I have a deal with that rather dour young manager of his: she tells me Stresemann’s itinerary, and I do my best to avoid it.”

 

Nae Il nods in understanding. “So that means he won’t be here tonight?”

 

Viera and I surprise ourselves by answering at the same time: “Exactly.”

 

“Besides,” he goes on after our laughter subsides, “Stresemann’s always been more one for the Opera Ball.”

 

We could have gone farther, but we are now joined by the last two people at our table: a couple – native Viennese, going by their accents – who look to be somewhere in their thirties. In the flurry of introductions and drink orders that follow, we quickly change seats: Maestro Viera and I both giving up our spots across from Nae Il and his wife so that the newcomers could sit together. Frau Viera, on her part, graciously offers me her place so that, some awkward squeezing past each other later, I’m seated beside Nae Il, Viera next to me and his wife across from him.

 

By now, it’s almost ten, at which point the ball’s opening ceremony will start. The Gallery grows more and more cramped by the minute, everyone who is standing now forced to shuffle closer and closer to the front as more continue to stream in. Someone tries to get in right behind me; I hurry to oblige, pulling in my chair so abruptly that I end up pressed uncomfortably close to the table, its edge digging in under my ribs.

 

Sensing my predicament, Nae Il steals a peek over her shoulder. “Gwenchanayo?”

 

Gripping onto the seat to keep the chair still, I try to shift into a more comfortable position, but to no avail. “Mm.”

 

“Aish….” Nae Il clucks softly to herself in dismay, clearly not convinced by my lie. But then, after looking me once over, she offers a reassuring smile. “Looks like there’s some good in being so skinny after all.”

 

My jaw drops. “Ya, Seollebal!” I hiss, “I’m not–”

 

“You’re the one who complains about that, Orabang – not me.”

 

“Ya, jinjja….” Scandalized, I shoot a glare in Maestro Viera’s direction in a desperate plea for help. He is, after all, the only one here who would have a strong enough command of Korean to understand our hushed conversation. But any hope I’d had for sympathy fades away when I see the twinkling mirth in his eyes, the way his lips quiver in attempts to hold back a laugh.

 

I settle back in my seat with the best indignant huff I could manage, powerless to do anything save simply waiting this out. Fortunately, just moments later, we hear it: a brass fanfare echoing out from somewhere in front.

 

The crowd stirs, the dull roar of hundreds of chattering voices dying away as the music overtakes us. Nae Il grabs hold of my hand in excitement, her free hand pointing towards the organ loft at the front of the room.

 

“Look, Orabang – over there!”

 

There, wedged into a small corner beside the Grosser Saal’s massive pipe organ, is a small cluster of brass instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic, their welcoming fanfare echoing up to the rafters and down to the crowded boxes below.

 

Nae Il lets out yet another gasp, this time pulling me closer as she points eagerly down to the dance floor as, hand in hand, two by two, a large group of young couples makes their way in. Seated behind her and unable to make a full turn, I can’t make them out until they’ve made at least some progress into the room; but even so, I know who these are.

 

“The debutantes.”

 

She nods to acknowledge my whispered reminder, staring starry-eyed at all the women, jewels sparkling in their hair, in their long white gowns, each on the arm of her tailcoat-clad partner. They sail smoothly into the room, under the careful watch of an elderly gentleman standing by the stage. Slowly, in perfectly choreographed harmony, the couples fan out, lining up on either side of the room to leave a broad aisle in the centre stretching all the way to the terraced stage up at the front.

 

The fanfare ends just in time, silence once again reigning in the Grosser Saal as the debutantes assume their proper places. Now, stepping out from somewhere in the front, his path brightly illuminated by a spotlight, a man in old-fashioned-looking livery comes forward, crossing all the way to the back of the auditorium, a plush velvet cushion bearing a silver rose in his hands.

 

Maestro Viera, who must have been to countless Vienna Philharmonic Balls over the years, catches my attention with a light tap on the shoulder. “Tell her,” he murmurs, clearly meaning Nae Il, “to keep an eye on that rose.”

 

I pass the message on, leading Nae Il to nearly bend herself over the edge in attempts to peer straight down. She describes what she sees right back at me: how another gentleman meets the page – for lack of a better word – to take the rose before raising it up in the air.

 

It’s a signal. Immediately, the brass players start up again with a stately and regal melody, filled with steady trumpet blasts and a rumbling timpani beat.

 

“That,” I point out to Nae Il, “is the Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare.”

 

I sense rather than hear her astonished gasp. “They…they’ve got their own fanfare?”

 

“Why not?”

 

As the music swells out of its introduction into a triumphant march, more people stream into the auditorium: tonight’s VIPs. Although I cannot make out any faces from where I am, Nae Il does her best to keep me entertained. Grabbing my hand under the table, she pulls me closer so that, with my head hovering over her shoulder, I can just manage to make out the constant stream of hushed commentary she feeds back to me. It’s all imaginative nonsense, of course, yet so cheekily irreverent – how that gentleman over there with the medals “must have been a war hero, but would that also make him a Nazi?”; or how a certain lady must be an opera star because “only a prima donna would wear a fur stole like that!” – that I’m forced to feign nonchalantly rubbing my chin with one hand to smother a laugh.

 

“And just what on earth is so funny?”

 

Startled, I spring back away from Nae Il and round on Maestro Viera. “N-nothing.”

 

He, however, is unconvinced. His lips curl up in just the faintest hint of an indulgent smile, making me turn away abruptly, coughing in embarrassment at being so easily caught.

 

Unlike with the debutantes from before, the timing in this procession is a little bit off. By the time the fanfare comes to its final cadence, only half of the guests have made their way onto the stage. However, rather than the awkward silence that such a mishap would have caused with the S Orchestra or even Rising Star, these musicians simply launch into a repeat of the fanfare without so much as skipping a beat.

 

I perk up in interest, straightening up as much as the cramped space would allow in order to get a better view of the organ loft. Viera must have noticed my reaction; the next thing I know, he lightly taps me on the shoulder.

 

“Interesting to see the inner workings of a professional orchestra, isn’t it?”

 

I do my best to turn and face the Maestro. “Ja.” After a split second’s pause, I gesture down at the procession still continuing below. “Shouldn’t you be over there with them?”

 

One of Viera’s eyebrows quirks up mischievously. “Shouldn’t you?”

 

Smiling sheepishly, I shake my head. “I’m not there yet.”

 

“And I’ve been up there enough times to know I’d much rather be back here,” he retorts, sounding so surprisingly smug that I’m forced to bite back yet another laugh.

 

“By the way,” he adds a moment later, “you probably wouldn’t know this, but your father used to be among that number, too. The VIPS, I mean.”

 

I hadn’t known – not entirely – but I had guessed as much. During those years we’d lived in Salzburg, my parents had made sure to bring me along all those countless times they’d gone to Vienna, save for when it was time for the Philharmonic Ball: children, no matter how well-behaved, were simply not allowed in. So although I was no stranger to the Musikverein back then, Eomma and Abeoji would go on their own, leaving me back in Salzburg under the careful watch of our next-door neighbours with the promise of a treat from our favourite café if I was good.

 

What sort of reception Abeoji received back then is no secret. After all, even I hadn’t escaped from it. One of my own earliest memories of this very place is of myself at the reception after one of his concerts – barely knee-high, but already precocious beyond my years, chattering away into a friendly female reporter’s microphone about my own lessons, about my then-childish dream of following in his footsteps.

 

Abeoji had always relished applause; back then, when I’d been too little to understand, I had, too. But what had once been a reward comes to me now as a burden – and, going by Maestro Viera’s response to my question, I suspect it’s the same for him.

 

A nudge in the side from Nae Il brings me out from my thoughts. She points down toward the stage where, at last, all of the VIPs have assumed their places. Quickly – so as to make up for lost time – but still poised and elegant, two more lines of paired debutantes step in, filling in the centre aisle. Those who had come in earlier now close ranks on either side, a veritable sea of black- and white-clad couples all holding hands.

 

Now, at long last, tonight’s conductor makes his appearance, stepping out in front of the orchestra to the sound of our thunderous applause. As, slowly, the clapping subsides, I feel myself yanked forward once again.

 

“Wae?” I murmur into Nae Il’s ear, darting her a quick sideways glance. “What’ve you got this time?”

 

“Orabang,” she whispers back, cocking her head towards me with a mischievous look of her own. “I – I know it’s all supposed to be really romantic, and – and I kind of feel awful for saying this, but – but doesn’t this remind you of a mass wedding of Moonies?”

 

I’d been doing quite well for myself so far, but this time, a loud undignified snort of laughter bursts out despite my attempts to hold it back. Startled, the couple seated across from us round on us, identical appalled looks on their faces; flushing, still trying to bring myself back under control, I wave a hand at them in apology before giving Nae Il a subtle reproachful kick under the table.

 

“Ya, Seollebal – behave!”

 

Fortunately, the musical performance that follows brings me back to my senses. With Nae Il’s talk earlier about marriages and mass weddings, I nearly lose it again once I recognize the lively and spirited piece to be the overture from Otto Nicolai’s Singspiel The Merry Wives of Windsor, but a hidden clenched fist helps me regain control.

 

And then, it’s Nae Il, all Nae Il.

 

She’s on the edge of her seat, resting her forearm across the railing and leaning over as far as she can as she watches the orchestra in wide-eyed awe. So absorbed is she in the music that she doesn’t even notice when one hand, forefinger and thumb loosely pinched together in a circle, starts to flick in time with the beat.

 

She’s conducting. What more can I possibly say to that?

 

The piece ends with a burst of exuberant applause, several people even getting up from their seats in a standing ovation. Neither Nae Il nor I have the space to move, wedged in as we are right up against the table, but we, along with many others up with us in the Gallery, make up the difference by adding our voices, cheering as we wave down at the orchestra below, who rises to respond in kind.

 

As our clapping subsides, several ushers appear, making their way through the aisles to a spot on the floor directly in front of the orchestra. Within seconds, Nae Il sits up bolt upright, seizing my hand.

 

“Omo, omo, omo – what’s that?!”

 

I look down over her shoulder to see what all the fuss is about. Where moments before there had been wooden floorboards, there is now a large square hole, courtesy of a hidden trapdoor; one by one, the orchestra members pass first their instruments and then their music stands down into the opening, each item grabbed by a pair of waiting hands before disappearing into the darkness.

 

“What, you didn’t know?” I chide her teasingly. “We’re not here to dance to the Vienna Philharmonic, Seollebal – we’re here to dance with them.”

 

Slowly, understanding lights up in her eyes, followed shortly by a growing sense of wonder. “Oh….”

 

“So, you see that band over there?” I point over her shoulder all the way to the back of the stage. “Those are the hired players for tonight; they’ll be taking over from here.”

 

Under the watchful eye of the dancemaster – the gentleman who had led them in – the debutantes perform two exquisitely choreographed routines: first a gently swaying waltz, then a sprightly polka. This second is a crowd favourite; set to Strauss’s Tik-Tak Polka, the dancers prance about the floor, a light spring in their steps, as all of us in the audience sing-song the childishly playful “Tik-Tak, Tik-Tak, Tik-Tak” chant in time with the music.

 

As with the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra just moments before, we now end the performance with a burst of applause. Lined up in their rows, the dancers take their bows: the boys bending at the waist while the girls dip all the way down to the floor.

 

Then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the dancemaster’s famous call:

 

“Alles Walzer!”

 

The auditorium erupts into a loud bustle of conversation as people scramble out onto the dance floor. Those seated on the lowest level have the advantage, but even up here in the Gallery, there is a general commotion as those who were standing start to leave.

 

Nae Il, too, leaps at the chance; no sooner have those who’d wedged us in from behind left does she spring out of her seat with a clatter, one hand extended in invitation.

 

“Come on, Orabang – let’s go!”

 

I cast a furtive glance back at Maestro Viera and his wife; although the couple across from us has already left, they’re still in their seats. Noting my questioning look, the Maestro offers a reassuring smile, raising his glass in a salute.

 

“You go and have your fun.” He gestures for Nae Il to leave her belongings on the table. “We’ll hold the fort here.”

 

That’s all the invitation Nae Il needs. She seizes my hand, pulling me scrambling behind her as she worms her way through the maze of haphazardly-pushed-back chairs littering the Gallery, then down the crowded flights of stairs all the way down to the main level.

 

Hampered as we are by the masses of like-minded partygoers, we miss the whole first half of the starting waltz. By the time we burst out from the stampede onto the dance floor, the place is jam-packed, about as many people mingling around in casual conversation as there are whirling about. Usually, in a Viennese waltz, couples would go around the room in a large oval, but the Grosser Saal is filled with so many people that anything next to dancing in place is well nigh impossible – and that is what most are doing right now.

 

I stop just short of the entrance, gaping at the sight; but Nae Il, completely unfazed, drags me all the way to a little open space in the corner.

 

“What do you think, Orabang?” she gushes excitedly, finally letting go of my hand. “Is this a good spot?”

 

Pivoting about on one heel, I scan my eyes over the rest of the ballroom. We are clear on the other side of the room from the orchestra, and the chatter of hundreds of voices swells up into a distinct humming roar. But still, thanks to the Musikverein’s excellent acoustics, we can still hear the music from here – so, after a moment’s hesitation, I answer Nae Il with a nod.

 

“Geu rae; let’s stay here.” I offer her my left hand. “Shall we?”

 

“Ne!”

 

Knowing just how many people would be here, we’d made sure to properly practice the waltz at home first. So now, without any guidance from me, Nae Il knows exactly what to do: sailing over in a single gliding step to place her right hand on top of my left. My own right hand travels down to the small of her back. Abruptly, with only a single devilish smirk for warning, I pull her in with a jerk.

 

She stumbles forward with a gasp, wide eyes darting up to meet mine.

 

“Gwenchana?”

 

“N-ne.” Casting her eyes down at the floor beside me, she now places her left hand on my shoulder. “You…you surprised me, that’s all.”

 

I’m tempted to keep playing with her like this, but instead, I give her a reassuring smile as, with a subtle nudge on her back, I bring her closer still – so close, in fact, that our bodies now touch each other completely. She tenses up a second time, swallowing nervously as her eyes flicker down to the floor.

 

“Are you ready, Nae Il-ah?”

 

She looks back up at me. This time, her nod is stronger as I feel her starting to relax into my touch. “Ne.”

 

I’ve already started counting time for this waltz in my head, but just when I’m about to make the first move, I stop with a short laugh.

 

“Ya, Seollebal!”

 

Nae Il, who had turned her face rather pointedly to the left, rounds on me with a jolt. “Ne?”

 

“Aren’t you even going to look at me?”

 

Her mouth opens as though to respond, but after a moment’s awkward silence, she peers bashfully down at the floor instead.

“I – I want to. I really do. But…but in a waltz, aren’t we supposed to–”

 

“Who do you think we are? Performers? Competitive dancers?” I shake my head, adding a fond smile when she looks back at me. “We’re a couple, Nae Il-ah - where else should we look?” After a moment’s pause, I add, “Just go with whatever feels natural, arasseo?”

 

“Geu rae,” she concedes. “You’re right.” Shaking her head with a sigh as though trying to clear it, she resumes her position. She’s still looking over my shoulder, but this time, her face is turned straight enough that she could cast quick glances at me if she wants to.

 

“Kaja?”

 

Finally, Nae Il is able to give me a relaxed, genuine smile.

 

“Ne, Orabang. Kaja.”

 

~~~~~

 

We return to the Gallery just long enough to retrieve Nae Il’s scarf, with the plan to drop it off at the coat check so we could leave our table unattended. Then, after hurriedly agreeing to meet Maestro Viera again at midnight, we set off to explore.

 

Last time, when we were here for the New Year’s Eve concert with Yoo Il Rak and Jung Si Won, we hadn’t had a chance to walk around and really appreciate the Musikverein as a whole. So now, tonight, we seize our chance.

 

Every single space in the Musikverein, it seems, is being used for something. In the Brahms Saal, the Musikverein’s other major concert hall, we dance yet another waltz on its smaller, more intimate, dance floor. In a darkened basement salon, its walls hung with massive draperies made to look like larger-than-life Baroque-style paintings, we share a drink as we watch a performance by a contrabass quartet – Nae Il, of course, taking a short video to send to Choi Min Hee later on. Close by, yet another room has been transformed into a disco; Nae Il starts bopping to the music’s heavy beat as soon as we step over the threshold, but I could only look on in stupefied silence before, finally having enough of the thick smoke and flashing multicoloured lights, I grab her by the hand and usher her back out. Even the orchestra’s green room hasn’t been spared;  with the addition of quite-literally-green trellis panneling, flowers, and twinkling ceiling lights, the space is now an indoor wine garden. Here, we stop for yet another drink, watching couples dance to traditional Austrian folk tunes until, energized by the music and the friendly atmosphere, we join in ourselves with our own simple version of a Ländler.

 

We make it back with only minutes to spare. Spotting us at the Grosser Saal’s entrance, Maestro and Frau Viera wave as they beckon us over; then, with the Maestro grabbing my hand and Frau Viera grabbing Nae Il’s, we’re dragged along with the rushing crowd out onto the dance floor.

 

Quickly, we scramble to join the hundreds of other couples already forming up in neat rows all along the length of the massive hall. For a moment, the four of us huddle in a flurry of confusion, but we eventually settle on each of us standing across from our respective partner.

 

As we wait for everyone else to settle in, I turn my head to the side, acknowledging Frau Viera with a gracious nod before directing my attention back to Nae Il in the front.

 

She tilts her head slightly, a coy smile on her face. “Are you ready?” she mouths at me.

 

I give her a helpless shrug. “Are you?”

 

Nae Il’s eyes dart down pointedly at Frau Viera’s feet – a reassurance I acknowledge with a wink as she peers back up at me.

And then, at a signal from the dancemaster, we’re off.

 

Had it just been Nae Il and I here tonight, I would not have suggested that we join in the ball’s traditional midnight quadrille – the thought of prancing about the floor, bowing and exchanging partners with total strangers makes me nauseous. However, with the addition of Viera and his wife, we now have a perfect group of four, Nae Il and I taking our cues from them.

 

The quadrille consists of several sets, each one with its own distinct pattern and steps. In the brief intervals between sets, as any remaining stragglers regroup back in their lines, daring couples attempt the galop: joining hands in the centre before rapidly side-stepping together to one end of the line, the goal being to make it there and back in time for the next set.

 

At first, uncertain as I am about the steps, I am content to hang back as others race by us. But the music – Strauss’s Fledermaus Quadrille – is catchy and the quadrille itself not too hard. I catch myself idly tapping my foot during the intervals, the beat from each preceding set still lingering in my head – a quick glance at Nae Il tells me that she is doing the same.

 

So it’s no surprise when, at the end of the fifth set, she jumps out into the aisle, arms outstretched.

 

“Come on, Orabang – let’s do this!”

 

We burst out at a rapid pace, only to be brought stumbling to a halt when another pair, who’d hesitated just a second longer, steps out right into our path. Shrieks of laughter break out around us as, after a mumbled round of apologies, we all set off again, onlookers clapping time in encouragement.

 

As we, panting and flushed from exhilaration, return to our places, I catch the Maestro’s eye. He dips his head in a slight bow, adding in a mischievous wink on the way back up.

 

“There you go, Cha Yoo Jin,” he calls out, his voice just barely audible over the din. “I knew you still had it in you!”

 

The sixth set that follows should be the final round of the quadrille – but the tradition is to repeat it several times, each go faster than the last. In a matter of seconds, any semblance of order completely falls apart: lines tangling and dancers colliding with each other in their frantic attempts to keep up. Even Nae Il and I, agile musicians though we are, fare no better: our own personal quadrille ends with her tripping right into me at the end, nearly knocking both of us off balance onto the floor.

 

~~~~~

 

“That was amazing – wasn’t it, Orabang?”

 

I shoot Nae Il a sideways glance, the two of us arm-in-arm as we step back out from the Grosser Saal. “Geu rae – but forgive me if I say that just once is enough.”

 

For a moment, she peers up at me, lips pressed firmly together as though about to make some sort of retort. But then, she seems to change her mind, shaking off whatever it was with a shrug.

 

“Ara,” she says at length, patting me on the inside of the elbow with one hand. “You can only be in large crowds for so long before you start going crazy.”

 

Her understanding fills me with a rush of relief. The truth is, I had enjoyed myself. Quite a lot. The quadrille had been quickly followed by a mass galop, everyone prancing in circles around the ballroom, going left or right at the dancemaster’s prompts until, once again, we had once again degenerated into a jumbled mass. But now, as the thrill of the dance wears off, I feel exhaustion pouring in to take its place – along with a strong desire to be alone.

 

“So let’s take a break now, Orabang,” she finishes, gently guiding me through the throngs milling about the doorway toward the corridor. “We can always come back later.”

 

I can never say that Nae Il has faulted me for this tendency of mine, but there have been times in the past when she would have gone on her own merry way, completely oblivious to my growing discomfort. The fact that she is so understanding now, then, makes me look down at her with a grateful smile.

 

“Komawo, Nae Il-ah.” 

 

“No problem,” she quips back, the two of us idly making our way down the hall. “You’re always sticking it through for me, Orabang, so it’s only fair.”

 

Our wanderings take us back up to the relative privacy of our table in the Gallery where, along with yet another glass of champagne, we partake in one of the traditional midnight snacks offered at the ball: sausages served with bread, hot mustard, and sauerkraut.

 

“It seems weird, doesn’t it,” Nae Il confides, leaning in close beside me as soon as the waiter has stepped out of earshot. “You’d think that a ball would, you know, have something fancier – not a choice between goulash and sausages.”

 

I give her a questioning sideways glance. “Wae? Is something wrong with that?”

 

“Ani,” she answers, shaking her head as she dips her sausage in the mustard. “I’m just saying.”

 

We continue in comfortable silence, the music ringing up at us from the orchestra taking the place of conversation. Classical, as it turns out, is not the only genre on offer – not even here. Interspersed with the expected waltzes and polkas, we hear swing, jazz…even lively pop numbers. Still, this is Vienna; people here will literally try to waltz to anything that is in triple meter – and, from our hidden vantage point, we watch numerous couples doing exactly that.

 

I don’t know just how long we stay up here, chatting about various nothings after we have both finished our snacks and our plates have been surreptitiously swept away by the ever-watchful staff. All I know is that we nurse our separate drinks – non-alcoholic at my insistence – as we go over our plans for February, the crowd steadily ebbing and flowing beneath us.

 

Sooner or later, though, we have to be on our way. Once again, the dance floor starts filling up, this time for the second quadrille at 2:30. It’s only a matter of time before onlookers start surging up into the Gallery; if we don’t want to be blocked in by the crowd, we’ll have to go now.

 

So without further ado, I stand up, one hand held out in invitation. “Come on, Nae Il-ah – let’s go.”

 

Head tilted in curiosity, she takes my hand, following along silently as I guide her back down the stairs and out into the corridor, both of us squeezing carefully by those just starting to climb up. Once we are back outside, though, I turn to face her.

 

“Is there any place here you want to go?” I ask, letting go of her hand. When she opens her mouth to respond, I hastily add, “Not the disco, though.”

 

“Aish….” Nae Il scoffs, tossing her head as she nudges me in the side with her hip. “You’re no fun.”

 

“Seollebal….”

 

“Gwenchanayo, Orabang,” she says brightly, her cheerful tone stopping my retort in its tracks. “I wasn’t going to ask for that anyway.”

 

Biting back a sigh of relief, I try again. “So, is there?”

 

“Mm!” she answers with a nod. “The stairs.”

 

“‘The stairs’?” I ask, raising an eyebrow in surprise. “What on earth do you mean by–”

 

And then it hits me.

 

“Ah….” I say at last, nodding slowly as her reason becomes clear to me. “You want to see her, is that it?”

 

Just as predicted, Nae Il responds with a vigorous nod.

 

“Geu rae. Arasseo.” Draping one arm loosely over her shoulders, I pull her close as I sidestep away from the door, making room for more people to pass by us inside. “We’ll go there in a bit. But first,” I add, steering her down a different set of stairs, “there’s something else I want to show you.”

 

Even as she scampers along obediently beside me, Nae Il looks confused. “Eh?”

 

“If it’s paying homage you want,” I explain as we step out into the Musikverein’s main lobby, “we can’t ignore the others, now can we?”

 

Understanding finally lighting up in her eyes, she follows me through the lobby until we come to a single long corridor on one side. Compared to places like the Grosser Saal, it is spartan in its decoration: white stone walls topped with crown molding, the only elaborate feature being its gilded ceiling. Several light boxes run down one side, featuring posters advertising upcoming events and concerts – but it’s what’s on the other side, facing the boxes, that I’ve come here for:

A series of large alcoves set in the wall, each one home to a single carved bust.

 

We start off together, I just a step behind Nae Il; but I soon come to a stop, watching her as she jogs on ahead, one hand holding up the hem of her skirt so she wouldn’t trip. Oblivious to my actions, she flits from one bust to the next – Liszt, Bruckner, Mahler, on and on – greeting each one with the same cheery hello that she still, to this day, offers the statue in the Mozartplatz back home every time we pass it. There are only a few witnesses to her strange antics, this corridor actually leading to one of the exits – but as Nae Il progresses from greeting the sculptures to chatting with them outright, they start to trickle out, some shaking their heads in bemused disapproval.

 

I tense up, drawing myself up to my full height as I meet their sympathetic pitying glances with a level challenging stare. As if I would want Seol Nae Il any other way! But as she, still unaware, slows from a childish jog to a more stately sashaying step, I allow myself a subtle sigh of relief.

 

It’s only a matter of time before this hallway fills up again, but for now, just for this moment, we are alone.

 

With her back still towards me, I reach carefully into my trouser pocket and pull out my phone. Then, once I have unlocked it and opened up the music player, I look back up.

 

“Seol Nae Il.”

 

She rounds on me. “Ne?”

 

I flash her a mischievous smirk. Holding up my phone so that the screen is facing her, I press “Play” with my thumb.

Nae Il’s ecstatic gasp, to my ears, nearly eclipses the soft melody – the opening of her favourite waltz, the one from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker – that spills out into the hall. By the time I have approached her, tucking my phone back inside my pocket for safekeeping, she has secreted her bag away at the base of the nearest sculpture and is staring up at me with brightly shining eyes, her hands clasped together in rapture.

 

“Or-Orabang….”

 

“So what do you say, Nae Il-ah?” I offer my hand. “Will you dance with me?”

 

“Of course!”

 

Most classical waltzes begin like this, with a long slow introduction to give couples time to seek one another out and find their place on the floor. We, then, also take part in the ritual, stepping together hand-in-hand to a spot along the wall before assuming our position.

 

There is still some time; we can hear it in the music. Shifting slightly in attempts to relax, Nae Il lets her eyes flicker up past my shoulder.

 

“Are you sure you don’t mind, Orabang?”

 

I swallow nervously; I know exactly what she means. Somewhere behind me, they’re there: those people who’d left us before have now come back, drawn by curiosity at the sound. Five, six, no more than ten – but the pairs of eyes boring into my back, sending a shudder shooting up and down my spine, feel like so many dozens more.

 

“I – I know,” Nae Il stammers, “that you’re doing this for me, because you know I’d like it. But – but if it bothers you, then–”

 

“Gwenchana.” I roll my shoulders back, shrugging off my nerves as I smile fondly down at her. “I can’t let you go home without a proper waltz.”

 

It’s slow going at first, both because of the music and, owing to our sudden realization that we’re not alone, because it takes us several rotations to really find our stride. For once, we actually have enough space to move around the floor: no longer are we hemmed in by other couples, forced to limit ourselves to a small imagined box. Yet, just like in the Grosser Saal before, we keep our steps small, our turns tight, taking our cue from the gently swaying melody of the first segment of the dance.

 

But not for long.

 

The music starts to build. I glance down at Nae Il, one corner of my mouth twitching up into a smirk.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

Her eyes widen just a fraction in alarm. “Ready for what?”

 

“Just trust me.”

 

She doesn’t get another word in before I set off with a burst of strength, turning my steps out nearly into a straight line right as the music soars. Nae Il, caught by surprise, stumbles to keep up; but I, my hand pressed firmly to the small of her back, guide her steadily along until she is able to match her feet with mine.

 

Our tempo stays the same; our steps follow the same triple meter as always. But just by sweeping out further, pushing out straighter, we move faster than ever before along my projected path: down one side of the corridor, nearly all the way to the exit door, then back along the other side.

 

Around and around, gliding at an almost dizzying pace – this is the true Viennese waltz.

 

We settle into a steady rhythm: three turns one way, a single measure’s transition, then three turns the other way. Every now and again, in the short slower segments in the middle of the piece, we change things up, incorporating some of the promenade steps from the Ländler before – of one accord, drawing inspiration from the music itself – we resume with the waltz.

 

By now, Nae Il is finally accustomed to our pace; she starts to relax, focusing more on smiling up at me than on her own feet. Maybe, then, that’s why she notices it first: how the group of onlookers has grown; the phones that they now have trained on us, capturing every single move of our dance. Softly, in a voice just barely louder than a whisper, she points it out to me, asking once again whether I mind.

 

“Well,” I whisper back, quirking one eyebrow up at her, “if they’re going to stare, let’s at least give them something to look at.”

 

The music swells, bursting into its triumphant climax. We tighten our steps, picking up the pace as our circles grow smaller and smaller until, at last, we are turning in place in the centre of our dance floor.

 

Faster and faster, around and around…all else melting away except for the two of us.

 

The final cadence is coming. Our eyes meet; Nae Il gives me a slight nod.

 

We move as one. Her hands slide up to my shoulders at the same time that mine clasp firmly on either side of her waist. Then, at just the right moment, with her pushing down upon me for support, I give her a boost, lifting her straight up into the air in time with the last triumphant chord.

 

The crowd loves it. They burst into cheers and applause as Nae Il, eyes sparkling, beams down at me.

 

“We did it! Orabang – you were amazing!”

 

I return her smile with one of my own before carefully lowering her back down. No sooner have her feet touched the floor than she wrap her arms around me, pulling me into a tight embrace. She knows better than to try to kiss me – there are far too many others this time around – but it doesn’t matter. Through the fabric of her dress, I could feel her heart pounding in exhilaration; it beats in perfect time with mine.

 

~~~~~

 

“I believe, Nae Il-ah, that we’ve just found your favourite spot in the entire Musikverein.”

 

Nae Il pauses, her small wooden spoon of vanilla ice cream hovering just inches from her lips. She answers with a silent nod then promptly sticks it into her mouth, leaving it there for a moment to savour the flavour before pulling it back out.

 

“Of course!” she says once she has swallowed. She jerks her head slightly towards the calmly serene bust of Clara Schumann beside her on its pedestal. “You do know she played the Brahms Saal’s inaugural concert, right?”

 

I chuckle softly. “Geu rae – if you say so. You’re the expert now, Seollebal, not me.”

 

We’re currently tucked back in a corner on the landing of one of the two grand stone staircases that leads from the foyer to the main auditoriums. We’d come up here shortly after our solo waltz, only stopping at one of the Musikverein’s snack bars along the way when Nae Il, insatiable as ever, had begged me to buy her one of the small single-serving tubs of ice cream they had on offer. She scoops up yet another small spoonful now, but instead of eating it right away, she holds it out to me.

 

“Orabang….”

 

I turn my face away abruptly, shaking my head. “Shiro.”

 

She pouts at me, undeterred. “Come on – it’s not like anyone’s looking.”

 

“That’s not it,” I retort, waving my hand dismissively at her spoon. “I’m just not hungry.”

 

Nodding slowly, clearly unconvinced by my answer, she pulls back nonetheless, waiting until, once again, the ice cream is just a hair’s breadth from her lips before adding, “Are you sure?”

 

“I’m sure.”

 

That’s all the prompting Nae Il needs. She eats this bite with as much enjoyment as the last one, then casts me a pointed sideways glance. “You really should start eating more, Orabang.”

 

Startled at the change of subject, I round on her. “Mwo?”

 

“That’s what Eomeonim says.”

 

I shake my head ruefully. “Just because I’m not a glutton like you–”

 

“Think about it, Orabang,” she continues, speaking right over me. “You’re how much taller than me again? And yet, somehow, I eat more than you do – how on earth does that make sense?”

 

“Ya, Seollebal….”

 

Nae Il opens her mouth to respond, but then abruptly turns, bowing in the direction of the top of the stairs.

 

“Have you been enjoying yourself, Maestro?”

 

I hasten to follow as Maestro Viera, arm-in-arm with his wife, descends toward us. Chuckling softly, he waves for us to rise.

 

“Bitte – there’s no need for that,” he chides us, his voice tinged with good humour. “I know that’s how you Korean kids were brought up, but there’s no hierarchy here.”

 

I smother a laugh at his comment, but Nae Il, without skipping a beat, simply repeats her question from before.

 

“Indeed we have,” Viera answers, glancing down affectionately at his wife. “We’ve just come from watching yet another group of young’uns like you at the second Quadrille. Not to mention” – he pats his rather ample middle with a wink – “partaking in some of the Musikverein’s goulash. Nothing to write home about, but it serves its purpose.”

 

Whether out of shyness or a natural deference to her husband, Frau Viera has spoken little to us all evening. However, she now directs the next question to Nae Il: “Do you two plan on staying the entire night?”

 

Nae Il and I exchange glances.

 

“Perhaps,” I answer at length. “We haven’t thought that far ahead, to be honest.”

 

“You should,” Viera barks out with a laugh. “Do it now, while you’re still young; once you get to my age, you’ll find that you cannot push yourself so far even if you want to.”

 

Nae Il, as always, is quick on the uptake. “So does that mean you will be heading off soon, Maestro?”

 

“Indeed it does, young lady,” he replies with a knowing wink. “But before then, I was thinking” – he nods at me – “would you care to join me for a drink? Just the two of us: man to man.”

 

I, of course, agree easily. We leave Nae Il and Frau Viera at the foot of her idol – promising to touch base later on the phone so they may wander at will – and make for the salon upstairs that’s been transformed into the ball’s main bar. On the way there, in response to the Maestro’s inquiry, I explain Nae Il’s special liking for Clara Schumann: how it started with her debut recital last year; how she’s taken Clara’s strength and steadfast devotion to heart; how her interest is so strong that Clara’s pianism has formed the basis for the honours paper she must complete for her upcoming graduation.

 

We reach the bar by this point, claiming two spots on one end. Flagging down a bartender,we place our orders – Viera smiling at me in approval when I join him in choosing whisky – before clinking glasses and taking the first sip together.

 

Given that the last time I’d seen the Maestro prior to tonight had been when I was nine, there is something strange and surreal about this moment: standing with him at a bar, running a finger idly around the rim of my glass as he takes slow sips from his. A catch grows in my throat, and I find myself turning away, choosing to look instead at the small band playing in the corner, their music wafting out all over the room.

 

Fortunately, Viera knows me well enough by this point that, rather than make an awkward attempt at conversation, he waits for me to make the first move. Which I do after, still avoiding eye contact, I down all that’s left in my glass:

 

“My apologies.”

 

“Whatever for?”

 

“My apologies,” I say more firmly, “for keeping you waiting for so long.”

 

A long silence reigns over us. “There’s no need for that,” he says at length, waving the bartender to refill my drink and put it on his tab. “You had your reasons.”

 

He would have said that regardless, for etiquette’s sake. But there is such sincerity in Viera’s tone that I can’t help but turn back towards him. “Was?”

 

“Surviving something like that,” he says wistfully, “at such a young age….” He pauses, shaking his head, then downs his own glass before adding, “Had you decided never to set foot on a plane again, I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

 

I allow myself a small, sardonic smile. “You’re more understanding than Abeoji was, then.”

 

A strangely stricken look flashes up in his eyes. “Do you have no idea, then, what it was like for Cha Dong Woo that night?”

 

I shake my head; Abeoji had never said, and I’d never asked. “Do you?”

 

“Ja,” Viera answers, his voice haunted. “Because remember: I was there.”

 

Something deep inside of me turns cold.

 

“Your father” – he stops, clears his throat, then tries again – “your father and I had a performance together in Berlin the night before you were set to arrive. The plan, I’m sure you remember, was for us to then head to the airport together in the morning to meet you and your mother.”

 

I nod, acknowledging the memory. “Except that never happened.”

 

Viera answers with his own firm nod, his lips pressed into a thin line. “We were going over last minute details – you know the sort – in your father’s green room when we got the call.”

 

What started as a chill now turns into a veritable block of ice. It seizes me, clenching around my heart the same way my hand now tightens on my glass.

 

I remember that call that Eomma made, shortly after we’d finally been rescued and rushed to a hospital in Seoul. The doctor who’d checked on me had tried to downplay things, of course: telling me that I was fine, that the worst was over, that I just needed to stay there for a few days for observation’s sake.

 

But even then, lying in that hospital bed, I had known the truth, as only someone living it could:

 

Traumatic head injury, drowning, hypothermia…any one of those could have easily killed me – let alone all three at once.

 

“Your mother, understandably, was beside herself,” Viera continues. “Even though she knew it was unrealistic to ask us to cancel the performance, it’s only natural that she wanted – nein, needed – someone to talk to in that moment.”

 

He sighs heavily, now nursing his drink the same way I am. “That call came at the worst possible time; even while we were still on the phone, we received notice to go up on stage. I was going to ask the usher for more time, but your father…Cha Dong Woo always believed that no matter what, the show must go on.

 

“Surely, I thought, we could make an exception, just this once. Your mother and I, we both tried to plead with him, but he wasn’t having it. And that’s when it came out.”

 

“‘I can’t’,” I murmur, finishing Viera’s words for him.

 

I can’t.

 

That single utterance doomed us all.

 

Eomma, already exhausted and frantic with worry, had become hysterical, crying and screaming, her words almost ripped right out of her:

 

He’s your son! Your own son! What kind of man – what kind of father are you?!

 

Her voice, trapped inside my mind, grows now into a piercing shriek – pounding, reverberating inside my head until it feels like it’s about to burst.

 

I can’t breathe.

 

I stagger sideways, sagging against the counter for support. I close my eyes, shaking my head to try to break myself free from those words. When that doesn’t work, I drown them instead: snatching up my glass with a trembling hand, liquid fire pouring down my throat as I gulp down its entire contents in one go.

 

A hand – large and broad and strong – claps onto my shoulder. It tightens, just for an instant, before moving to my back, rubbing a spot just below my neck until, after a choking cough and several tense shuddering breaths, I feel myself starting to return.

 

“Forgive me, Yoo Jin,” Viera says, his hand still on my back as he takes my glass with the other, setting it off to one side. “I know this is upsetting for you. But,” he adds, his voice soft and placating as a diplomat’s, “I’m only telling you about this because there is something you need to know. About your father.”

 

I glance blearily at him – a gesture he takes for my tacit consent.

 

“The performance went on without a hitch,” Viera confesses. “Nothing – not even the slightest mistake – happened that would suggest anything was amiss.” Something twitches at the corner of his mouth; it would have been a fond smile were it not for the slightest sardonic edge. “You would already know this: Cha Dong Woo could power through anything by sheer force of will.”

 

I answer with a grim nod. That, at least, is a trait that I’m proud to say we share.

 

“But then we came to the encore, and that’s the only time his feelings slipped out.” He shoots me a pointed look. “Schubert-Liszt’s Erlkönig – you understand now, do you?”

 

Against my better judgment, I feel myself stiffen: jaw clenched, eyes narrowed, muscles tensed and ready to spring.

 

That piece, a virtuosic showstopper like no other, depicts an age-old scene from Germanic folklore: a father, his son held tight in his arms, fleeing on horseback from the shadowy spectral being who wishes to snatch the child into the netherworld. It is a tale, ultimately, of man’s futility in the face of the unknown: the pair overtaken, the child screaming in agony as he is mercilessly slaughtered, even in the shelter of his father’s embrace.

 

“Ja,” I reply shortly. “I understand.” A sarcastic bark of laughter bursts out before I could force it back. “How appropriate.”

 

Whatever response Viera was expecting from me, this wasn’t it. “Yoo Jin–”

 

“‘It’s nothing. It’s just the wind. You’re just seeing things,’” I growl out through gritted teeth. “That’s what the Father said to his Son, wasn’t it. Over and over again until it was too late.”

 

“That’s not true. You’ve never been a father; how would you know what it’s like?” He sighs heavily. “If the Father said that to the Son, it was only to reassure him.”

 

“Reassure his child – or himself?”

 

I lunge for my glass, still empty beside him, but he waves me back, setting it even further out of reach. “Not now, Yoo Jin,” he says, his voice soft and soothing. “Not like this.”

 

“The boy,” I cut in, my voice clipped and terse in my attempt to stay calm, “was terrified. There was no denying what he’d seen out there that night in the woods. What, then, do you think he wanted to hear?” My voice starts to rise despite my efforts. “What do you think he needed the most?”

 

“Yoo–”

 

“Bitte, Seonsaengnim – enough, please, I beg you!”

 

It bursts out louder than I intended, that last desperate plea. Although the rest of our discussion had been soft enough not to warrant any attention, this cry rings out over the room, causing several of the other patrons at the bar to turn and stare in alarm, even the band stumbling to a halt.

 

For a long moment, I could only stand there, rooted to the floor in humiliation. But then, as the music finally resumes, I break off, scrambling away from the bar and out of the salon as quickly as my shattered dignity would allow.

 

Viera, as expected, follows behind, tarrying just long enough to settle the bill before joining me out in the corridor. He finds me standing a short ways from the door, hands clenched into fists at my sides, my throat squeezed tight, my eyes, burning with unshed tears, cast blindly up at the ceiling.

 

In for four, out for four…hana, dul, set, net; hana, dul, set, net….

 

Slowly, I return to myself; my raging pulse starts to calm down, ceasing to pound incessantly in my head. As, finally, I take one last deep shuddering breath, I spot the Maestro coming up beside me.

 

"'Gwenchana.'" 

 

It comes out as a whisper, but Viera catches it all the same. In an instant, understanding flickers in his eyes.

 

“Yoo Jin.”

 

“‘Gwenchana,’” I say again. “‘Ara. I’m still here. I’ve got you.’ That’s what he would have wanted to hear. Whatever the Father’s intentions, a dismissal of his Son’s fears amounts to a dismissal of the Son himself.”

 

For a long moment, Viera doesn’t say anything. But then, finally sensing that it’s safe, he claps one warm hand on my shoulder.

 

“Forgive me, Cha Yoo Jin. It’s been so long – I had not realized that wound was still so raw.”

 

I shrug him off, turning to face him with a long look. It was not one wound, but many: accumulated over the years, each one worse than the last. Maestro Viera might know about the night of the accident, but he wouldn’t know – couldn’t know – about what happened afterwards, the events that unfolded after Abeoji finally relented, cancelling the rest of his tour to fly back to Seoul.

 

Something in my expression must have given me away, because he then concedes, giving me a slight smile as he rolls his shoulders back in a shrug.

 

“Alright. Have it your way. Let’s not speak of that anymore.” His smile grows fonder. “When do you plan to return to Salzburg?”

 

I, too, smile in relief at the change in subject.

 

“Saturday,” I answer. “There’s no point trying to rush back tomorrow.”

 

“Well, then, with a day’s free time for sightseeing ahead of you, I suggest you take Nae Il to the Neue Burg if you haven’t done so already. The musical instruments collection there is quite extensive.”

 

I let out a teasing scoff. “Seol Nae Il doesn’t like to just look at instruments without being able to play them.”

 

“Does she now?” Viera asks with a laugh. “Well, I know for a fact that there will be at least some that, given her passion, she should still be interested in. Who knows? She could very well surprise you yet.

 

“And, whilst we’re on the subject, if you two ever have a chance to come to Berlin, a side trip to Leipzig is also in order.” He reaches into his pocket and hands me his card. “Ring me up if that happens; I’ll make the arrangements.”

 

~~~~~

 

Starting to feel tipsy from the two rather full glasses of whisky I’d downed in rapid succession, I decided to call it a night. One look at my condition was enough to persuade Nae Il, and we joined the steady, while still not yet large, stream of partygoers stepping out of the Musikverein into the rain.

 

Tired – and, in my case, drunk – as we were, we still forced ourselves to stumble through the motions of washing up and properly packing away our formalwear. In the end, it was almost five by the time we collapsed, exhausted, into our beds: sleeping all the way through to mid-morning when the sun finally managed to creep between the clouds and in through the curtains.

 

The freezing rain had left the stone-paved roads outside slick and slippery, but we still decide to venture outside: first to a café for brunch, then through the Burggarten to the Hofburg.

 

The Hofburg, one of Vienna’s past royal residences, is a vast complex of palatial buildings: many now converted into art galleries and museums, as well as acting as the current seat of the Austrian government. Out of these, we head straight for the Neue Burg, making our way up the stairs and through a collection of weapons and armour to the instruments.

 

A long column of rooms, one leading into the next in single file, opens up before us, stretching as far as the eye could see. Slowly, each of us armed with one of the museum’s audio guides, we make our way through the collection, taking in early keyboard instruments, string and wind instruments of all sorts, rooms devoted specifically to Haydn or Mozart or Schubert.

 

Every now and again, as we walk along, I glance surreptitiously at Nae Il. Courtesy of the recordings of many of the instruments included on the audio guide, she is entirely absorbed, reduced to open-mouthed awe by the music ringing in her head.

 

Viera was right. Clearly, the chance to listen to the instruments has made up for her desire to play them herself.

 

I’m content to leave her like this, focusing on the recordings myself instead of attempting any conversation. But when, at last, we come to the piano room, I give her a careful tap on the shoulder.

 

“Seol Nae Il.”

 

Hurriedly, she pauses whatever she’s listening to, pulling her headphones down around her neck. “Ne?”

 

“Come with me,” I say, holding out one hand. “There’s something I want to show you.”

 

We’d already seen a good number of keyboard instruments before reaching this room, but this space has the greatest concentration of them all: some six grand pianos, with one more upright at the end, lined up along the length of the long narrow gallery beneath three massive oil paintings. Fortunately, Viera had told me last night exactly what to look for, so it’s with complete confidence that I guide Nae Il to the centre of the row, where a marble bust of Brahms sits keeping watch.

 

“You’d said yesterday, Nae Il-ah, that Clara Schumann played the Brahms Saal’s inaugural concert at the Musikverein. Well,” I say, gesturing at the piano directly right of the bust, “that’s the one.”

 

Nae Il’s jaw drops, unable to hold back a loud gasp. She stares, wide-eyed, between me and the instrument several times before, finally unable to resist its pull, she steps closer, stopping only when she pushes right up against the thick rope cordoning it off.

 

Slowly, she stretches out one hand towards it, the keyboard and the elaborately carved scrolling lyre on the music rack tantalizingly out of reach. But rather than complaining about the distance, she only whispers, “It’s beautiful.”

 

Nodding and humming in agreement, I gesture to her audio guide. “Is this one on there?”

 

It is. Fingers fumbling in her excitement, Nae Il replaces her headphones, leaving me to follow along more slowly as she hurries to press play.

 

Never let it be said that the Viennese do things by halves when it comes to music: not only have they thought to put this piano beside Brahms, one of Clara Schumann’s dearest friends, but the piece on the recording is one of hers as well.

 

As the music comes to its end, Nae Il brings her headphones back down again with a contented sigh. “Komawoyo, Orabang.”

 

“Don’t thank me just yet,” I answer. “It gets even better.”

 

Draping one arm over her shoulder, I steer Nae Il to the left side of the bust to a second, visibly older, piano. As with most of the other instruments, there is a small white placard on top with a descriptive caption, but I keep us several paces back, turning the words into indecipherable black marks.

 

“What do you think about this one?”

 

Compared to the one we’d just been looking at, this piano is unassumingly plain: unembellished brown wood, the rack a simple rectangular frame supported by crossed beams. Understandably, then, for just a fleeting moment, disappointment flickers across her features, but she soon schools herself into a more neutral expression.

 

“I’m not sure, Orabang,” she says at last. “I mean, I like that it’s so homey – it looks like something you’d find in someone’s house instead of in a concert hall. I can imagine, then, that this piano was well-loved and well-used, but….”

 

“Geu rae,” I answer, giving her shoulder an affirming squeeze. “Just stay with that thought – because it’s hers.”

 

Nae Il rounds on me in surprise. “Mwo?”

 

“This piano here,” I say again, nodding towards it, “is the one Clara Schumann actually used. It was gifted to her by the manufacturer, Conrad Graf, after a concert tour here in Vienna; she fought her father for rights to it, and took it with her to her new home after she married. She had other pianos before and since, but this one stayed with her throughout her marriage, so Robert must have played it, too.”

 

“Oh…” Nae Il says, now nodding in understanding. Once again, she steps closer; and, once again, she is held back by the cordon. When she reaches it, though, her face falls.

 

Immediately, I step up beside her. “Wae?”

 

She points at the card. “There’s no audio.”

 

I look over myself. Sure enough, while the logo for the descriptive audio guide is there, the music note – the mark for instruments with recorded music – is not.

 

Beside me, Nae Il lets out a huffing sigh, nudging the floor glumly with one foot. “That sucks, Orabang. You came all this way to show me this, and it’s not working.”

 

All is not lost, though; thank goodness for free Wifi.

 

Fishing out my phone, I go online and open up YouTube. There’s no guarantee that I’ll find what I want, but sure enough, after a quick search, it’s there.

 

By this point, Nae Il’s brightened at the sight of what I’m doing; she leans in close, glancing at my screen. “Is that it?”

 

“Close enough,” I answer. “It’s not this instrument, but it is a Graf from around the same time – and in Salzburg, at that.” I glance at her. “Pass me your headphones.”

 

She moves to take the ones from around her neck, but I stop her with a laugh.

 

“Aish, Seollebal – not those ones! Your own!”

 

Laughing, Nae Il sets down the headphones from the audio guide and reaches into her purse. “These,” she says, yanking them out and shaking them for emphasis, “are earbuds, Orabang – our headphones are at home.”

 

“Same thing.” Taking them from her, I plug them into my phone’s audio jack, then pass the whole apparatus back, the video I’d found already poised to start. “Just press play.”

 

Nae Il hesitates, peering up questioningly at me before handing me one of the two buds.

 

I wave it away. “Gwenchana,” I assure her. “You can have it.”

 

“But what about you?”

 

“I’ll catch up later. It’s more important that you get the full experience right now.”

 

Even though I can’t hear the music – Clara’s Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann – I can see from Nae Il’s reactions how much it moves her. She sinks down, sitting cross-legged on the floor like a child on a school excursion, all but her feet and ankles covered by her long plaid woolen skirt. Her eyes flutter shut, her head bobs along with the familiar melody; her hands start off cupped over her ears, but soon drift down to her lap, the fingers playing along of their own accord.

 

She, however, doesn’t wait for the piece to finish before coming out of her reverie. Going by the time that has passed, she’s just come to the music’s darkest and stormiest variation when she stops, opening her eyes and turning off the music.

 

“Wae?” I ask when, without a word, she disconnects the earbuds and returns my phone.

 

“I didn’t ask you about it, because I knew you wouldn’t want to talk about it,” she begins, fumbling to put the earbuds back in her purse, “but…something happened last night, didn’t it.”

 

I look down at her. “How did you guess?”

 

She shoots a knowing gaze up at me. “You were drunk – not badly, but not for lack of trying either.” Her shoulders tense up into a resigned shrug. “That’s what you do, Orabang, when you’re upset.” She pouts sullenly at me. “I hate it when you do that, but at least it lets me know when you need someone to lean on.”

 

For a long moment, I stay rooted there in place, but then, relenting with a sigh, I join her down on the floor, my knees drawn up to my chest.

 

Fortunately, this museum collection is not a big tourist destination, so no-one is there to see us. Nae Il is usually the one to talk about communing with musicians from the past, but now, seated beside her in front of the Schumanns’ piano, I start to feel it, too: a slight niggling in the back of my mind, a sympathetic presence in the room.

 

“Maestro Viera,” I say at length, “wanted to talk to me. About the accident.”

 

Slowly, gently, I tell her what had happened: how Viera’s recollections had, inadvertently, opened up old wounds.

 

“I get what he was trying to do,” I confess at last. “Viera, for better or worse, wanted me to know just how much Abeoji had cared that night. But” – I take in a seething breath through my teeth, my chest constricting in response – “that’s all he knows. He doesn’t know the rest.”

 

Nae Il’s hand reaches up to my shoulder. “Orabang….”

 

“That may have been what it was like at first; despite Eomma’s anger at his initial response, I do think we grew stronger and closer for a while. But as the panic attacks started, as it became clear that I had changed….” I sigh heavily, shaking my head. “He had no room for that.

 

“All my life, Abeoji has said that I’m too sensitive; the times he scolded me the hardest were the times I’d cried – whether from fear, sadness…even guilt. Just to please him, to make him proud of me, I learned to rein myself in. But there was no stopping what was happening to me after the accident – and that, I think, is when he started to despise me.

 

“Since then, nothing I said or did was good enough for him – not even piano, not even when I won first place in one competition in Korea after another.” I let out a disdainful scoff. “What good was it, after all, if I couldn’t even go abroad? If I was reduced to a crying, snivelling coward every single time we went to the airport?”

 

Nae Il nods sagely, the hand on my shoulder giving me a firm squeeze. “Except you’re not a coward.”

 

“Don’t you think,” I burst out, half to her and half to the empty air, “I would have done it if I could? In a single night, I lost my home – not my literal house, of course, but here. Austria.I would have done anything to be able to come back.

 

“But Abeoji didn’t see that. Instead, he just said I was stupid. Weak. Crazy. Then, one day, just before I started middle school, he told me that rather than Europe, where I really belonged was in an asylum.”

 

Beside me, Nae Il gasps in horror. “Mwo?”

 

“It was just a slip of the tongue, something said in a burst of temper – Abeoji never apologized to me, but I do recall him telling Eomma that at least when she confronted him. But once turned into twice, then three times, then….” I shake my head. “We tried to make it work – I really think we did – but then Eomma found the papers, hidden in his desk.”

 

Nae Il’s response is soft, hesitant. “Is that why…is that why your parents – I mean, is that why Eomeonim filed for divorce?”

 

“Geu rae,” I answer with a nod. “Exactly.”

 

For a long moment, a deep silence hangs over us, Nae Il probably still processing everything I’ve just told her. Then, gently, she leans in closer, tilting her head to rest it on my shoulder.

 

I give her a sideways glance. “Wae?”

 

“If they” – she nods at the Graf piano in front of us – “if the Schumanns could hear us, what might they be thinking right now?”

 

My mouth curls into a joking smirk. “What are you talking about, Seollebal? They wouldn’t even understand Korean!”

 

“Aish....” Nae Il lifts her head from my shoulder, just enough to shoot me a mock-reproachful sneer. “You’re not even trying.”

 

“Well, then,” I retort smartly, “what about you? What do you think?”

 

She lets out a soft whine, nudging me with a pout. “I asked you.

 

Fine. If that’s how she wants it….

 

“I think,” I answer slowly as she once again rests her head on my shoulder, “they would understand. Not in the exact same way, of course – Clara, not Robert, was the one with the perfectionist disciplinarian for a father.”

 

Nae Il rears up again with a hiss. “Call it like it was, Orabang. Friedrich Wieck was an abusive narcissist who cared more about what his daughter could do for his own image than for her happiness.” She rounds on me, eyes blazing. “You know he threatened to kill Robert when he found out they liked each other, right? Kill him and destroy her career – one his student, the other his own daughter – simply because they wanted a life beyond what he’d planned for them!”

 

Her sudden ferocity sends me scooting away from her. “Alright, alright – whatever you say!” I raise both hands in surrender. “Aish, Seollebal; remind me never to get on your bad side.”

 

She shoots me a pointed look: simultaneously daring me to cross her and doubtful that that could ever actually happen. Only when I throw in a small sheepish smile, an extra “I mean it,” does she calm down. Her face gradually softens, until, at last, I feel it is safe to pick up where I’d left off.

 

“But what I meant, Nae Il-ah, was that Clara would know what it’s like to both disappoint and be disappointed by her father: love and hate, fear and admiration all rolled into one. Whereas Robert, although he was older, was the innocent one” – I glance wistfully up at the painting on the wall – “the child in a man’s body, with his head up in the clouds.” I turn back to face her. “He was the first person in Clara’s life who let her just be herself: pursuing music not for anyone else’s gain, but simply out of her own love for it.”

 

“Oh….” Nae Il nods knowingly. “Like us, then, but in reverse.”

 

“Mm,” I answer with a shrug. “Perhaps.”

 

Contented with my response, Nae Il sighs happily, once more leaning in against me. We stay seated together like this in blissful silence for several moments before, as always, she speaks up again.

 

“Where did you say the piano was again, Orabang? You know – the one from the recording.”

 

“In Salzburg, at the Mozarteum,” I answer, darting my eyes sideways at her. “Wae?”

 

A starry faraway look grows in her eyes. “Well…I was just thinking….”

 

“Ya, Seollebal!” I nudge her off with my elbow. “I’m not a miracle worker, you know!”

 

“So you said about bringing me to a ball, and look what happened.” She pouts up stubbornly at me. “Someone else was allowed to play it, so clearly it’s fine.”

 

I return her steady look with one of my own, but she doesn’t waver. Clearly, there’s going to be no getting through to her at this rate. “Aish, Seollebal….” I shake my head in mock-exasperation. “When will you learn to just quit while you’re ahead?”

 

Nae Il’s mouth twitches into a satisfied smirk. “Komawoyo.”

 

Author's Notes (in "Hidden Contents" because of spoilers)

 

Spoiler

First of all, I want to say that this was a really fun installment to write: there's something so fantastical - almost surreal - about the ball season in Vienna that I knew right off the bat that I just had to make it happen in this series. Somehow. Even though, for me as a writer, this is the first installment in the Seolleim in Salzburg series where I was really going into foreign territory.

 

See, I've never been to a ball before - and one thing I realized very early on in this process is that there's really only so much Instagram is ever going to reveal (selfies are great, but they don't tell me anything about, say, the Musikverein's layout or how the opening ceremony works). So this time around, I'm using more artistic and creative license than I usually do - if anyone does catch any mistakes on how this all works, please forgive me.

 

That being said, there are some aspects - as always - that I want to give you guys a special behind-the-scenes look at.

 

1. The Characters' Looks

 

Just very quickly - before I move over to the male side of things - here's the dress that formed the inspiration for Nae Il's ball gown (click the picture for a larger version):

 

68acf1bfad388d65668e3aa2fc4335b1.jpg

 

But really, most of the work this time around was on Cha Yoo Jin's style - and oh my God, was it complicated. :blink: See, the prescribed dress code for the Vienna Philharmonic Ball is for the men to wear white tie: so, a tailcoat with matching black trousers, white waistcoat and bow tie...you get the idea. And while we do see Yoo Jin dressed like that in "Nae Il's Cantabile" already, there's still so much more work to be done before he could pass muster at a Viennese ball.

 

Don't get me wrong - from what I can tell, JW as Cha Yoo Jin literally has the perfect physique for a tailcoat. Since the coat is supposed to fit close to the sides of the body while still remaining open, it really looks best on someone with a slim waist (since a more, shall we say, rotund gentleman would just have a straight vertical line if that were the case). And you wouldn't necessarily want to have proportionately super-broad shoulders either - because, again, one would just look really big.


But where Yoo Jin's tailcoat in the drama goes wrong is, as stated in the fic, its fit. In terms of length - whether of the sleeves, the body, or even the tails - the whole thing is just way too short, with the biggest giveaway being how much of the white waistcoat shows underneath. So, for instance, here's a shot of Yoo Jin from the drama, followed by a shot (albeit on a mannequin) of a properly fitting tailcoat+waistcoat ensemble made by a Viennese tailor:

 

a18009f52c9e1d2821dd07055f4b752a.jpg

 

b77926691e3da726f8cebc7064200552.jpg

 

Personally, I don't think the drama look is so much a fashion faux pas, but a case of wasted potential - JW as Yoo Jin already looked really good as it was, but with truer tailoring, I think he would have become absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. And I'm not about to let the chance to get him there slip by me ;) 

 

As for movement and comfort, Yoo Jin's drama tailcoat is noticeably uncomfortable. You can see in the Rachmaninoff performance in particular how much the shoulders bunch up when he's forced to resort to using his entire arm to conduct rather than just the baton. Yoo Jin himself doesn't know the mechanics of it in this fic, but what's happening is that the arm holes are cut too big - most likely to accommodate standard sizing (which is usually the case with off-the-rack formalwear) as opposed to the wearer's specific body. So moving his arms will end up pulling on the sides of his tailcoat, which makes the whole thing ride up almost to chest level. 

 

For most people, especially those who just rent tailcoats for super-formal occasions, that isn't a big deal. But for a conductor? That's tough. So, based on my research, it's not unusual for professional musicians - especially conductors - to eventually have a tailcoat custom-made with a smaller, more fitted armhole to minimize this pulling effect. And, as far as any tailcoat tailoring is concerned, the Viennese are among the best in the business ;) 

 

If you're really big on fashion, note that there are two different kinds of custom-made menswear: made-to-measure, and bespoke. Made-to-measure is where a standardized pattern or design is modified to fit the wearer's measurements, whereas bespoke is when the entire garment, from start to finish, is made exactly to the wearer's specifications. Bespoke will obviously fit better by comparison, but is a) way more expensive, and b) way more of a time commitment due to its process of a private consultation followed by multiple fittings. So, for our intents and purposes: Yoo Jin will most likely invest in a bespoke tailcoat at some point in his life, but he simply doesn't have the time to schlep back and forth between Salzburg and Vienna right now. So made-to-measure (with a specific request re: the arm holes) it is.

 

And I think I've gone on enough here, so for anyone who wants to read more on a white tie dress code, here's the site I used: White Tie Guide - Gentleman's Gazette. It's one of the more restrictive style guides out there - a number of commenters on the posts here say that there's actually a bit more leeway in real life (especially about allowing just a tiny sliver of waistcoat to show), but knowing Yoo Jin, he'd want to stick as much to the rules as he could. Except for the boutonniere - Nae Il's feelings matter more than etiquette, after all. ;) 

 

2. The Vienna Philharmonic Ball

 

While the Vienna Opera Ball is the one that everyone talks about as being the big gala of the year, a number of online comments I've read actually rate the Vienna Philharmonic Ball as the better of the two. It's seen as being classier - less Hollywood/celebrity glamour, more old-school culture and taste - and definitely places a lot of its focus on the classical music scene.

 

Most of what I managed to figure out about the 2017 Vienna Philharmonic Ball actually came from this clip of official video highlights. I do want to point out, though, that the music is dubbed over and so what you hear is not necessarily what would have been heard in the actual moment (some pieces in the video, for example, were not part of the opening ceremony - which I'll get to soon).

 

 

You'll also find that just about everything I said about the other rooms in the Musikverein also came from this video: the contrabass quartet, the folk music, the disco, etc.

 

So what music was actually played during the opening ceremony? While there was one piece - the one when the debutantes make their entrance in the beginning - that eluded me, here are the rest. This time, since it is the Vienna Philharmonic Ball, after all, I made a point to make sure they were the ones playing throughout:

 

1. Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare by Richard Strauss

 

 

2. "Overture" from The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai:

 

 

3. Die Schönbrunner Walzer by Joseph Lanner:

 

4. Tik Tak Polka by Johann Strauss II:

 

 

As for the midnight Quadrille, the music and dance for that are actually standardized: a series of steps set to Johann Strauss II's Fledermaus Quadrille. In this video, you can see the whole dance as it's supposed to look (i.e. an actual performance with plenty of practice beforehand)

 

 

And in this video, an actual clip of the final sped-up version from the 2017 Vienna Philharmonic Ball itself - which, given the camera angle, looks to have been shot from the Gallery where Yoo Jin and Nae Il were sitting:

 

 

Yeah, it's a mess :P - but dang it, does it look fun.

 

Finally, just to end this section off really quickly, this is what the Gallery looks like all set up (I did use some artistic license to have Yoo Jin and Nae Il sharing a table of six with others - chances are, I think the Musikverein would actually put out as many two-person tables as they had couples buying tickets, but 2 and 6 were the actual categories available in this section of the Grosser Saal):

 

Golden view Galerie #philharmonikerball

 

And this is how crazy crowded it gets during the Opening Ceremony:

 

f994382a05d498dcd77cbc8745069c9e.jpg

 

Cha You Jin, you have my sympathies *salute*

 

3. Yoo Jin and Nae Il's Night

 

Two main things I want to point out here. First of all, this is the corridor I envisioned their semi-private waltz taking place:

 

9b73c6cb6d285169a2a63821f71810ac.jpg

 

Now, realistically, this wouldn't have happened - the Musikverein would simply have been too crowded for Yoo Jin and Nae Il to incidentally come across an empty space. But hey, let me have my romance. Just this once.

 

As for the music, that's a classic: "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker:

 

 

 

And the second thing I wanted to point out would be the bust of Clara Schumann on one of the two grand staircases in the Musikverein. You don't want to know just how many Instagram photos I needed to visualize the layout, and I'm still fuzzy, to be honest - like, where do you go to get to the Grosser Saal once you get to the top of those stairs? I'm still not sure - somebody help me....

 

0e78f3d822f4444caef1495f04995544.jpg

 

4. Yoo Jin's past - and Erlkönig

 

I don't want to dwell too, too much on the actual details behind Yoo Jin's childhood memories - since we see for ourselves in the drama just how much of a force of nature Cha Dong Woo can be. However, through Viera, I wanted to offer a possible different perspective to events, because while it makes sense for Cha Dong Woo to be a really stern father who expects his son to conform to a rather narrowly rigid definition of masculinity (i.e. to be a man is to be tough; showing feelings is weakness unbefitting of a man, etc.), the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there was simply no way he could just not care.

 

Kids learn really early on whether there's any worth in trying to please a parent, and the fact that Yoo Jin (as revealed in flashback) keeps trying again and again even into his preteen years tells me that he must have, in some way or another, received affection from his father. So if we go with that hypothesis - that Cha Dong Woo did, at some point, genuinely love Yoo Jin - then surely, he couldn't have just taken the accident like nothing happened.

 

Hence Viera - and hence Erlkönig.

 

So, for our purposes, I'll show you the piece twice. First as the original song by Schubert, including an animation of the story (turn on captions for English subs).

 

 

And secondly, the piano transcription/arrangement that was composed by Liszt - which is what I think Cha Dong Woo would have performed as his encore that night:

 

 

After all that, here's my question for you to think about: was Cha Yoo Jin right in his interpretation of Erlkönig's story - or his impression of his father?

 

5. Vienna's Collection of Old Musical Instruments

 

This is where Yoo Jin and Nae Il go the day after the ball, and thus also where they start wrestling with the questions that Viera's story has raised in Yoo Jin's mind. You can look up the rest of the space on your own, but this is the piano room where the scene takes place:

 

Sammlung alter Musikinstrumente (Collection of Early Musical Instruments) (Vienna) - Schumann's Graz piano and JB Streicher piano on either side of Brahms's bust

 

And here, in order of appearance in the scene, are the two pianos used by Clara Schumann:

 

JB Streicher piano played by Clara Schumann for the inaugural concert of the Brahms Saal in the Musikverein

 

#claraschumann のピアノ

 

Finally, the music. While it was artistic license on my part for the audio guide recording linked to the first piano to be a piece of Clara Schumann's music (mostly because of its history and the fact that an album of her works using this exact instrument was made by the museum's staff), the YouTube video featuring her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann is actually real:

 

 

 

 

Yeah, this one was a long one - so if you got through it all, you have my thanks! 

 

Once again, if you want to read any more of my Hallyu fanfics, a master list can be found under the "About Me" tab on my profile. Thanks once again - and enjoy reading!

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